A Conversation on Realism

8 MINS READMar 13, 2013 | 18:35 GMT

Editor’s Note: Transcripts are generated using speech-recognition technology. Therefore, Stratfor cannot guarantee their complete accuracy.

Video Transcript:

Robert D. Kaplan: Realism as an idea may have actually began with Thucydides during the Peloponnesian Wars in classical antiquity. Thucydides characterized three motives of human behavior: fear (phobos), self-interest (kerdos) and honor (doxa). And these three things cannot be denied, they have to be worked with and manipulated in order to get a positive political result.

Realism really works on a sadder, more limited reality in foreign affairs than it does in domestic affairs. In domestic affairs we have laws and regulations so that we don't have to physically fight with each other. But in the international realm, given that there is no night watchman protecting nations, nations periodically fall into war and conflict, and that's where realism has more relevance. Realism is about interests over values, because although nation states may periodically operate from an idealistic point of view, from a point of view of humanism or love, the fact is most of the time they're concerned with their naked self-preservation.

So realism doesn't explain everything in the human political condition. People fall in love with people who are ugly and won't better their stations in life. People make a lot of decisions out of idealistic motives. But realism is a start. Realism also values order over freedom, because realism understands that without a semblance of order there can be no freedom in the first place. So again, realism is to start. It's not a complete description of the human condition.

George Friedman: Well, I think it's also an incomplete one and insufficient one. In foreign policy I find it very difficult to imagine an idealistic foreign policy without taking into account realism. What does it mean not to take realism into account? So if the regime is a moral one, it also has to survive. And the decision of how it survives is not always in the hands of those doing it. At the same time, if it's merely realist — if it has no moral project, it has no moral end — it's a form of barbarism.

We know in our own regime how our greatest presidents handled the question. Abraham Lincoln, who clearly had a moral project in mind — both the preservation of the union and the abolition of slavery (I mean, that was seriously something that was of concern to him) — at the same time he knew perfectly well that he couldn't achieve the ends without making deals with slave-holding states. There's an old saying, something he said, which was, "I hope God is on our side, but I must have Kentucky." So I mean here was a situation where he was prepared, for the preservation of an ideal, to dispense with it temporarily.

And I think a lot of people have problems understanding the idea that Franklin Roosevelt had to lie with Joseph Stalin, a homicidal maniac, in order to defeat another homicidal maniac, Adolf Hitler. Who was better morally, Hitler or Stalin? It's very difficult to decide that. What you can say, however, is that idealism, morality, have to be surrounded by a bodyguard of cynicism.

Kaplan: Yes. In fact there's a book written called The Hard Hand of War by an Ohio State University scholar Mark Grimsley, and what it's about is how Lincoln basically directed that the war (in the last year of the war) be brought against southern civilians. That he okayed Sherman's war against the civilian population in order to end the civil war faster and therefore save lives in the long run. So here's an example of Lincoln being hard, vicious, callous and being uber-realistic almost, but towards a moral result in the middle and long term. So you find that it's not so much a dichotomy, it's a blending; it's a blending of having a realistic core that is surrounded by a moral basis.

Friedman: I'd argue that a nation lives as an individual does. He has values if he's a decent man. He lives those things, and yet he understands that he will find himself in circumstances where he will have to make extremely difficult choices. Leaders, presidents have to make extremely difficult choices. They don't get to choose one or the other, they're living both at the same time. And I think many of the critics of presidents who take either a realistic or an idealistic line — Franklin D. Roosevelt was criticized for the idealism before World War II and criticized as well for the realism before and during World War II — that unless it's understood that a human being confronts these things and has to dirty his hands both ways, we've wound up in an unfortunate argument in American foreign policy between idealism and realism.

Kaplan: Yes. In fact, I would say part of the reason for this unfortunate argument is because of the very fact of American power, because American power is so overwhelming in certain aspects that you have a new class of humanists and idealists who urge the United States to intervene for humanitarian reasons in this matter, in that matter all over the world periodically. And they couldn't afford their opinions if there wasn't the fact of the excess of American power, which provides for even the possibility of a humanitarian option in the first place.

Friedman: I can't object to the idea of a humanitarian intervention. But it has to be understood that when you go to war, you will unintentionally kill innocents. You will commit horrors. What troubles me about the interventionists on moral grounds is they want the end (the relief of suffering), they demand the means (intervention), but they don't want to pay the price, which is the horror of war.

Kaplan: And there is another aspect of realism which is relevant to this, it's you only dance with who's on the floor, you only work, as Machiavelli said, with the material at hand. And many of these interventionists don't want to work with the material at hand in foreign places (i.e., foreign dictators who may provide more security than any situation of quasi-anarchy or full anarchy that would result after their toppling).

Friedman: At the same time, we have to understand that it is slippery slope. You start with "I am willing to work with Stalin," and then it becomes easier and easier to deal with viler and viler regimes. And at a certain point, realism becomes a form of pseudo-toughness: "I am prepared," the realist will say, "to deal with anyone that supports the national interest, whoever he is," and yet forgets that the national interest is somehow bound to a moral end. That, if you must (as Roosevelt had to deal with Josef Stalin), you do it. But you don't do it with pride. And more importantly, you don't do it frivolously.

Kaplan: Probably the best example of this, George, is Lord Palmerston, in the middle of the 19th century, who was beloved of the liberals, who believed in the liberal project, but sadly concluded that he had to support any tribal chieftain who would seek to impede Russia's thrust southward towards British India, and he would support any tribal chieftain who would push Britain's thrust northwestward towards Russia. And he did this while, as I said, supporting the liberal project. It wasn't pseudo-toughness; it was he was aware of the contradictions of policy.

Friedman: But at same time it could become pseudo-toughness. Having said that "We'll support anyone who impedes the Russians," you can now invoke the same principle in much more frivolous ways, to the extent that the United States supported Latin American military regimes. There's a serious question of whether this was necessary, desirable or praiseworthy. At a certain point, you decide that being realistic means being able to dance with the devil. And you keep dancing with the devil and asking it on dates. And I think this is one of the problems: Whereas on the whole I would support the realists, it also has to be remembered that an integral part of reality is the purpose of the regime is being protected. And the ability of being clever, being Machiavellian, to undermine that end is not an important thing.

Kaplan: I think clearly one thing we can both agree on is that realism is more an art than a science; it's more a sensibility.

Friedman: And I would say that it is a necessary action to take in the kind of world we live in. It's also a dangerous one. You can do the thing you must do without endangering your soul. And sometimes you do it because you don't have a soul. You have to be very careful how you do it.

Kaplan: I think on those wise words we'll have to conclude for now. Thank you George.


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