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Realism is most influential amongst political scientists, as well as scholars and practitioners of international relations. While realism is a complex and often sophisticated doctrine, its core propositions express a strong suspicion about applying moral concepts, like justice, to the conduct of international affairs. Realists believe that moral concepts should be employed neither asdescriptions of, nor as prescriptions for, state behaviour on the international plane. Realists emphasize power and security issues, the need for a state to maximize its expected self-interest and, above all, their view of the international arena as a kind of anarchy, in which the will to power enjoys primacy.
Referring specifically to war, realists believe that it is an inevitable part of ananarchical world system; that it ought to be resorted to only if it makes sense in terms of national self-interest; and that, once war has begun, a state ought to do whatever it can to win. In other words, “all's fair in love and war.” During the grim circumstances of war, “anything goes.” So if adhering to the rules of just war theory, or international law, hinders a state during wartime, it shoulddisregard them and stick steadfastly to its fundamental interests in power, security and economic growth. Prominent classical realists include Thucydides, Machiavelli and Hobbes. Modern realists include Hans Morgenthau, George Kennan, Reinhold Niebuhr and Henry Kissinger, as well as so-called neo-realists, such as Kenneth Waltz.
It is important to distinguish between descriptive and prescriptiverealism. Descriptive realism is the claim that states, as a matter of fact, either do not (for reasons of motivation) or cannot (for reasons of competitive struggle) behave morally, and thus moral discourse surrounding interstate conflict is empty, the product of a category mistake. States are simply not animated in terms of morality and justice: it's all about power, security and national interestfor them. States are not like “big persons”: they are creations of an utterly different kind, and we cannot expect them to live by the same rules and principles we require of individual persons, especially those in peaceful, developed societies. Morality is a luxury states can't afford, for they inhabit a violent international arena, and they've got to be able to get in that game and win, if theyare to serve and protect their citizens in an effective way over time. Morality is simply not on the radar screen for states, given their defensive function and the brutal environment in which they subsist.
Walzer offers arguments against this kind of realism, contending that states are in fact responsive to moral concerns, even when they fail to live up to them. States, because they are thecreation of individual persons, want to act morally and justly: it could not be otherwise. Walzer goes so far as to say that any state which was motivated by nothing more than the struggle to survive and win power could not over time sustain the support from its own population, which demands a deeper sense of community and justice. He also argues that all the pretence regarding “the necessity” of stateconduct in terms of pursuing power is exaggerated and rhetorical, ignoring the clear reality of foreign policy choice enjoyed by states in the global arena. States are not frequently forced into some kind of dramatic, do-or-die struggle: the choice to go to war is a deliberate one, freely entered into and often hotly debated and agonized over before the decision is made. And this is leavingunspoken the argument regarding the defiant, Machiavellian amorality behind certain kinds of realism, and the moral calibre of the actions it might recommend on this basis. For example, if it's all about power and winning in the competitive struggle, does that make it alright to unleash weapons of mass destruction? Or to launch a mass rape campaign? Commit genocide and just get rid of those bastards?...
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