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Thursday 22 Feb 2018 | 09:52 | SYDNEY
Thursday 22 Feb 2018 | 09:52 | SYDNEY

Realism's 70th birthday



27 October 2009 08:48

As words are the bullets of international relations, so philosophical labels are the banners under which the wars are waged.

The importance of the label you can hang on your opponent is sometimes as significant as the ideology you profess. As an example, Kevin Rudd's essay on 'the demise of neo-liberalism' was an attempt to attach a smelly tar baby of a label to his political opponents. The politics of the essay could be rated as almost pure fun in a mess-with-their-minds sort of way. Rudd also understands the importance of the labels others hang on him. That explains why one of his first efforts as Labor leader in 2006 was to completely disavow any hint of socialism in his political thinking.

Rather than get back into the neo-lib debate, though, let's go to another part of the international relations jungle to mark the 70th anniversary of the birth of Realism. Here is a label which has shown great staying power.

I've been thinking about the significance of naming (and demonising) labels in the course of our recent discussion of Australia, Indonesia and East Timor. In one of those columns I tried to offer a Realist set of arguments for confronting Indonesia's military with its murderous past. I invoked various Realists from Lee Kuan Yew to Thucydides ('The weak bear what they must, the strong do what they will.') in support of the proposition that East Timor must bear what it bears, but Australia has other options.

Realist predictions have been so wrong for so many decades about outcomes in the Australia-Indonesia-East Timor dynamic, so perhaps the Realists could do with some help with their analytic tools. Principle-versus-pragmatism is a convenient dichotomy for those arguing distasteful immediate policy in support of the need for long-term relations with Indonesia. The dichotomy might help when making arguments, but not when making decisions; principle and pragmatism always argue but are seldom completely opposed. The one informs the other.

This brings us to the birthday moment — the 70th anniversary of the defining and naming of Realism by one of its modern fathers, EH Carr. As war broke out on 3 September 1939, Carr was going through the final page proofs of his book, 'The Twenty Years' Crisis 1919-1939: An introduction to the study of international relations.' On 30 September, Carr finished a short preface on Europe's 'second major war within twenty years and two months of the Versailles Treaty', and sent the proofs to be published.

The point of the book was Carr's analysis of the 'almost total neglect of the factor of power' in thinking about international relations in English-speaking countries in the two decades after Versailles. Carr's act of creation was to rescue Realism from its 19th Century European roots in Realpolitik. Realpolitik as a political brand had died in the carnage of the First War amid popular revulsion at the disaster wrought by secret diplomacy and balance of power militarism. Carr preformed a wonderful rebranding job with Realism, saving it from the unspeakable shadows where lurked Realpolitik and Machiavelli.

Not the least of Carr's skill was the antithesis he created for the policy Realist — the Utopian. Which label would any politician or bureaucrat choose — Realist or Utopian? Masterful branding. One important element in the rebranding was the utility of Realism as a label that could be adopted by US thinkers, who could not sail under an overtly European flag like Realpolitik.

Carr wrote about Realists as people who thought about power and its uses, a foundation for much that followed in the experience of World War 2 and the Cold War. Yet even as he gave Realpolitik its new identity he was excellent on the limits of Realism: 'The characteristic vice of the Utopian is naivety; of the Realist, sterility.' No leader wants to be naïve, but sterility doesn't sound much fun either. Consistent Realism, Carr wrote, excluded four things which are essential to all effective political thinking: a finite goal, an emotional appeal, a right of moral judgement and a ground for action.

Power is essential. But power alone is not enough. Values and pragmatic interests overlap and intertwine in the making and conduct of foreign policy; they are part of a whole. Or as James Fallows elegantly argues, you need some values to leaven your hypocrisy, or vice versa.

Photo is of the editor's battered old copy of The Twenty Years' Crisis.