September 25, 2002

Realism

Jane Albrechtsen has a piece in The Australian today in which attempts to lay the foundations for George Bush's actions as a classic piece of political realism.

In its traditional form, realism is a doctrine of international relations which claims the following things:

  • the highest legitimate source of international authority is the sovereign state

  • conflict should be resolved by those states concerned, by arms or other means

  • international institutions are either useless or harmful - anything which limits the sovereignty of a state is considered harmful.

What political realism does not claim is that it can enhance security. It's more about making sure you're carrying the right equipment, because it's a dangerous world. It doesn't become less dangerous through action, you just deal with the threats as you need to. The bit that Albrechtsen sails gracefully through is that realism doesn't care about making the world a safer place. It cares about making sure your nation isn't about to get pounded by an enemy state. Strictly speaking, in realism all states are rogue states - if one state threatens another's sovereignty, then you have grounds for a war. It doesn't matter which state, who is more powerful and who has the nastier weapons.

So the point is really that Bush wants it both ways and Albrechtsen, shill for unreflective conservatism that she is, has bought it. Make no mistake: any action against Iraq has no basis in Realism properly understood. George Bush does not want a realist world, and neither do you. Realism got the World Trade Center demolished. Realism is not a good doctrine for a world where the majority of serious security threats are non-state based, i.e. they come from international groups representing non-state political concerns. Given that one of the most frequently repeated claims from al-Q'aeda and its siblings is that the US has infringed upon Muslim sovereignty, I would have thought any sovereignty-based arguments are pretty weak. Look at it this way. If you want national sovereignty to be the sole basis for international relations, you are pro-IRA and pro-Palestine.

However, what we are being asked to accept is that one state is causing global security problems, and hence that state must be stopped. What you have to buy is that a war will promote international security. There are cases where this has been proven to be true. What's not proven in the slightest is that in this case a war will remove the biggest threat the world faces, which is non-state terrorist action.

So Jane, get real - if you're happy with a world where there are no formal international dispute-settling mechanisms, learn which end the bullet comes out of. You'll need to, because I'm not fighting your wars for you.

posted on September 25, 2002 at 09:57 PM by darren.