The World As It Is, As It Should Be By Joseph Bingham Opp
“‘But for what purpose was the world formed?’ asked Candide. ‘To drive us mad,’ replied Martin.”
- Voltaire, Candide ou L’Optimisme (1759)
Recently, in the declining hour of a delightful family gathering, I had occasion to debate with a similarly academic though dissimilarly minded cousin on the subject of international affairs. Discussing Ukraine and the Middle East, we expanded the scope of our argument broadly to theories of International Relations and world order, whereby I adopted my usual and comfortable Realist position. After some explanation of balance of power dynamics, Thomas Hobbes, and a squirming description of geostrategic moral ambivalence, I found myself resting (much to the joy of my interlocutor) on a crudely worded though sound empirical bedrock: “this is the world as it is, not as it should be.” With the confidence and wit of a talented new Marxist, he retorts: “Then what should it be? And why can’t it?” And with that, it was time to go, but the question lingered (though I greatly anticipate taking it up for an encore at Christmas). Allow me, then, a few words on the subject here.
The old spectre haunting our discussion would say, “The philosophers have only interpreted the world, in various ways. The point, however, is to change it,” and the disappointed idealist sulking within every Realist may even sympathise with Marx’s frame of mind, if not his methods or economics. The Realist, at first glance, appears the staunchest defender of the status quo, outraged supporter of the outrageously supported, a devil’s advocate at best and unimaginative at worst; I contend this is not the case and will prove Realism’s ability to facilitate positive change on the world’s stage by taking up (and taking apart) my cousin’s query.
To begin with first principles, what is the world as it is? In my view, the “world” can be broadly separated into two traditional categories of political analysis: domestic and international. The aim of domestic politics (the subject for another column in a differently themed publication) is the insurance of domestic tranquillity, economic prosperity, rule of law, and the general happiness and security of the citizenry. These aims must be achieved by good government, concerned with integrity, morality, legality, and matters of national honour and fairness. This is because domestic politics involves an agreed-upon authority: the state and its representatives, which act in the best interest of the people (and ought to be overturned and replaced when it ceases to function appropriately). In international politics, where there is no such overreaching authority, there are no such rules. The State, as distinct from the Citizen, is the individual actor in geopolitics and its fundamental goals are two-fold: to ensure the security and integrity of the State and its people and to survive. They do this by maximising their power and security with little concern for moral scruples except (as is the case in the West currently), where those principles are enforceable by the threat of sizable and meaningful international condemnation and retribution. This leaves considerable room for argument and, in Classical Realism’s denial of the fundamental usefulness of morality in international affairs, repulsion. With controversial claims comes great demand for evidence. Luckily, we have an abundance of it. An examination of international affairs broadly from the Westphalian Peace of 1648, which inaugurated the modern system of state sovereignty, to the present paints a distressing though contradictory portrait: wars and violence are commonplace, though decreasingly so; dictatorships and authoritarians are overwhelmingly successful in achieving their ends, though not since their abject defeat in the Second World War; morality is a secondary or tertiary concern to all states, though it appears that matters of this kind are more and more important in strategic decision making as time goes on. Promises are frequently broken, lies exchanged more rapidly than gunfire, and statesmen widely condemned as dishonest and malicious. Well, at least some things don’t change. Bloodshed and destruction are more commonplace than scenes of humanitarian unity, perfect peace, and even basic standards of cooperation. That is the world as it is, not as it should be: a chaotic, Hobbesian place where statesmen must captain their nations through terrible storms, uncomfortable truths, and the impenetrable fog of moral ambivalence. So, where do we go from here? Where can we go?
Any Realist worth their salt won’t stop at describing the chaos of the world and leaving it at that; they must answer the second question: what is the world as it should be? Putting aside any sort of extreme, pseudo-religious utopianism and limiting ourselves to Realism, we find few straightforward answers, but what we do find is more valuable: interesting contradictions. The world should be one where individuals are able to pursue their own interests without any impediment but the rights of their fellowmen, but what happens when those interests conflict? The world should have conflict, as this resolves necessary disputes, but this conflict should avoid altogether the deaths of individuals not directly involved in combat, then what to do about the bullets and bombs and even sharp words that misfire or stray and often strike deadly blows? The world should provide us with the capacity to make utilitarian moral decisions, but what to do when a decision must be made between the deaths of many civilians and the prolongation of war and bloodshed that may take just as many combatants, as in the case of Hiroshima and Nagasaki? The world should be a place where power dynamics are equal and egalitarian cooperation reigns over hierarchy, but how do we expect States and People fulfilling their own self-interest to limit their capacities (either by decreasing preexisting power or never progressing beyond an arbitrary cap) so that others may catch up; moreover, how can we trust others not to break their oaths, for even in a perfect world the lie still plagues human affairs? These conflicts lie at the heart, not just of policy, but of human nature. The world, in short, is a contradictory mess, and the Realist admits this with ease and some decent exasperation, but there are “better angels of our nature,” to quote President Lincoln, that are indulged less frequently, less powerfully, though often as importantly as our demons. The world should be a place where the baser instincts which drive States in international affairs: self-interest, the lie, the desire for conflict, dominion, security maximisation, and power are mitigated in favour of cooperative, moral, humanitarian ones. They must exist in tandem, but the closest we can achieve in view of Utopia is, and I say this at the risk of sounding sarcastic, shifting that balance of power.
The aforementioned task leads us to the third and final question, why can’t this be?, amended for the purposes of this column to Can This Be? which shall be swiftly answered with the word “no.” Perfect worlds do not and by definition cannot exist, the lack of an international authority that compels the good behaviour of States will forever incentivise amorality and duplicity in international affairs; such an authority is impossible to create because it involves subjugating the varied interests of all States under one legitimate power ostensibly independent from every nation on Earth, the world will always be chaotic and more than slightly distressing for this reason, and it shall always feel like global affairs risk burning the whole thing to the ground. But it hasn’t burned yet. And there is the beauty in Realism. The idealist offers abstractions about a world where humans are constantly good, where their institutions reflect this perfect goodness, and the Utopic status quo can fight off any challenger with the shining, pacifistic (and occasionally, as in the case of Leninism, shockingly violent) radiance of its example. The paradox is that the perfect world cannot be built without lacking challengers, and as all new ideas meet conservative backlash of varying intensity and no attack can be levied because a perfect world cannot indulge in the nasty and morally murky business of conquest, challenge, and victory. This world can’t be, but that doesn’t mean a better world cannot either. Realism offers better solutions, not perfect ones.
To make real change in an international system, to quote the great Realist Hans Morgenthau, “one must work with [the forces of human nature], not against them.” The Realist is capable of imagining a better world, limited by the baser impulses of human nature, structured around the urge towards survival and self-interest. It embraces contradiction and (within limits) conflict; it is not Pangloss insisting that this is the best of all possible worlds, but that our institutions must take the fires that drive humanity and, short of the Idealist impulse to stifle them, stoke them towards progress. Use national conflict to drive innovation (“we go to the Moon not because it is easy,” but because the Soviets sent a Yuri Gagarin to space), embrace the moral ambiguity of conflict when one fights for noble causes such as liberty, equality, and human rights, for these are causes worth some sacrifice. Ideals must be fought for by Realists willing to admit that the best principles often need cold defending. Recognize the limitations of State and Citizen, but work to stretch those limitations to their limits. Utilise the international system we’ve created to fight states which reject its legitimacy not with polite words but with unashamed force. The Realist must choose their ideals and recognise the imperfect human condition which is their stage, committed to using the tools at their disposal to advance their banner. A better world is possible; indeed, the Best of All Possible Worlds is by definition possible, but it must be fought for, and it won’t be perfect. To be a Realist is to study the means of making possibilities realities. Idealism imagines worlds but does not create them; Realism disappoints idealists but constructs the systems that make their imaginations possible. Realism has made the progress that makes barbarism barbaric, horror and death everpresent though reduced to a redolent counterexample to positive change instead of a brutal unceasing state of affairs. Realism changes the world where philosophers interpret it and idealists dream of it. What should the world be? Better. Who will take the first steps in making it that way? A Realist.