Ethics-free realism explains, but shouldn’t justify, Western responses to Gaza

How can Gaza be explained? The mass killing and displacement of innocent unarmed civilians in Gaza is an unambiguous and repugnant set of war crimes. The hesitancy of the Albanese government in Australia to condemn Israel is inexplicable without understanding the amoral realist doctrine to which it subscribes.

Since the Second World War the American realist project has been to construct by force a stable rules-based international system that it transcends and sits over. Australian governments have long submitted to this system. It is a system maintained by war – in Korea, Vietnam, Kuwait, Kosovo, Iraq, Syria, Libya, and Afghanistan.

Sitting above the rules-based order Jupiter-like, America has intervened when it chose to shape the behaviour of the system’s constituent states in order to ensure America’s security and prosperity; only America’s security and prosperity. Generations of the American political elites have been disciples of the pseudo-scientific theory of international realism that has justified and exculpated them for great moral outrages.

As Duncan Bell of Cambridge points out, realism “remains a substantial research program and a staple of pedagogy in the field”. As a consequence of the prominence of realism in international relations academic literature and national security courses, governments are populated by those educated and trained to see “a ‘tragic’ world in which war is an ever‐present possibility” and for whom “national security stands at the centre of government decision‐making”.

As Bell writes, it’s still mainly the case “that the academic study of international relations is a debate about realism”. In its most recent scholarly manifestation as structural realism, or neorealism, realism is now claimed to be more ‘scientific’ than earlier versions.

Countering what realists see as the deluded idealism or self-righteous moralism of others, these realists point to purported facts about human nature and the necessary structure of international relations, and draw dubious conclusions about operative laws of political behaviour.  Steve Force has observed “A cornerstone of [realist] theory is the principle that truly scientific investigation is value-free and indeed incapable of pronouncing on matters of ethics”.

Under the influence of realism political leaders assume that in the international state of anarchy all states have little real regard for international law and recognise no means of enforcing it, and are primarily set on maximisation of the power required for their own security.

Arthur Eckstein notes that realists assume “war, or the threat of war, is always present, and every state must be ready to defend its interests through violence”. Moreover, in certain circumstances they think of “war in terms of a system-level process whose outcome is inevitable”.

Therefore as Richard Haas argues, war can be a matter of choice or necessity depending on the circumstances. War is a tool. Haas maintains that “Wars of choice should be undertaken only with extreme care and consideration of the likely costs and benefit”. Wars of choice are a bit of an obsession for Americans. Not for righteous causes like the rescue and survival of tens of thousands of innocent civilians, but for narrower national interests.

The acceptance of scientific laws underlying international relations is nevertheless able to absolve politicians from any responsibilities and obligations that are based in justice and humanity, and to free them from blame. They can detach and distance themselves from the ethical considerations in Gaza under cover of Israel’s realist right to defend itself.

The murderous assault on the people of Gaza is perhaps brought most clearly adjacent to the academic debates about realism through the contest over the possibility of “a nonmoral political normativity”. The philosopher Bernard Williams was a prominent proponent of the idea that political normativity is a distinctive concept. Concomitant with the notion of political normativity is that political values and not moral values do, and should, guide political decision-making in international affairs where only power and interests matter.

What does that mean? Apparently it means there is something that democratic governments in North America, Europe, and Australia are more motivated by, something that is more important to them – a nonmoral political value – than the tens of thousands of Palestinian lives and the forcible displacement of millions. This is the practical result of the ‘shared values’ among democracies.

It might be protested by realists that this is a simplistic representation of realism, a theory which encompasses a wealth of sophisticated and detailed discourses and theorising, and which has numerous variants.

While the literature supports this view, political leaders are not known for subtle finessing of intellectual propositions and have generally only absorbed and reframed just a few simple points from the multitude of lofty scholarly studies. In particular that: in a anarchic international system the security and interests of the state are the highest priority; conflict and power are the ineradicable and central features of international politics; and, justice in international affairs attracts a lower priority than political order and stability.

Only a commitment to the precepts of realism can explain the procrastination and distancing by politicians from the slaughter and destruction in Gaza. Only the realist logic could see the flood of crocodile tears from governments for the poor Palestinians, without ever condemning America as the arsenal of Israel’s war on women and children. Only this logic can explain the weak remonstrations against Israel and the failure to see the crimes in Ukraine and the crimes in Gaza as indistinguishable.

We can take it for granted that the members of the Albanese government, as normal human beings, would decry their family members suffering the same fate as the Palestinians. Australian politicians would be the first to seek protection from international law if Australian citizens and infrastructure were subjected to the same disproportionate and indiscriminate military assault taking place in Gaza. In such circumstances the ethics-free realist doctrine would quickly become unpalatable.

The apparent inability of political leaders to appreciate the precedent they are setting by ignoring Gaza will further legitimise war as just another geopolitical tool, not better or worse than any other in an amoral world.   

Copyright Mike Scrafton. This article may be reproduced under a Creative Commons CC-BY-NC-ND 4.0 licence for non-commercial purposes, and providing that work is not altered, only redistributed, and the original author is credited. Please see the Cross-post and re-use policy for more information.

Also published in John Menadue’s Pearls and Irritations.