The Conceptual Foundations of International Politics: Commentary and Critique of the Columbia University lecture series at Lecture Two Richard Betts

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This second lecture by Richard Betts follows the classification system of political theories advanced in the first lecture by Lisa Anderson. Anderson claimed in her lecture that the political theories of democratic regimes must either be realist, liberal or constructivist but as we pointed out in our commentary the descriptions of these three positions do not appear to exhaust the possible political theories that have been proposed in the past and adhering to this framework will of course seriously limit the type of theory that can be proposed in the future. The major reason lying behind the limitations of this classification system is the absence of recognition for the role of the normative principle regulating the actions of the individual or the collective. A subsidiary reason relates to the arbitrary exclusion of that political position most associated with Globalisation, namely the Cosmopolitanism flowing from the ethical and political works of Kant. Another secondary reason lying behind the limitations of Anderson’s classifications system is that the basic units of states, individuals and corporations exclude arbitrarily intermediary political collectives on the road to Cosmopolitanism, namely, the United Nations and the European Union. These Unions as we know are idealistic so-called “liberal” project that refuses to confine itself to economics and its game theory.
Betts opens his lecture in pseudo-Churchillian manner with the following comment:

“Realism is the worst theory of International Relations except for all the others.”

He then proceeds to define Realism:

“Realism is an attitude toward the human condition and a general theory about how the world usually works, held, for example by thinkers like Thucydides, Machiavelli, and Hobbes. This type of political thinker emphasizes flaws in Human Nature and the natural conflicts of interests that occur between states. There is involved in such positions domination of material interests over legal and moral norms in the determination of the actions of political units like nation states. Robert Guildford pointed to three assumptions of Realism:
1.The conflictual nature of International affairs.
2.That the essence of social reality is the group and not the individual(which is the liberal unit of political action)
3.The primacy in all political life of power and security.

Following Plato’s distinction in “The Republic” between assumptions that work through to a conclusion without attempting to establish the validity of the assumption in terms of the principle embodied in it and assumptions that embody a valid principle, it would seem that accepting this distinction requires us to question the above three assumptions of Realist theories. We can begin by asking why the theory appears a-historical, i.e. why it seems to assume that the political realm is an unchanging realm of natural international conflict involving flawed individuals in communities fighting for power and security. Why one may wonder, can one not, for example, claim that politics aims to end international conflict through individuals striving for the good which may minimally involve power and security but so much more. Why, that is, can we not begin our political reflections at the beginning of reflection on political issues, namely with Plato and Aristotle. For reasons that are obscure, we are invited instead to begin our reflections on political theory in the middle with the assumptions of Hobbes and Machiavelli. Aristotle’s theory of change obviously would seem best equipped to deal with processes of transformation typical of political processes. The state for Aristotle was less the ship of state from earlier Greek politics and more like a living organism transforming itself on a curve of development culminating in a telos or of self-sufficiency characterized by Eudaimonia (good-spiritedness). This developmental process is obviously characterized by both state descriptive is-statements and teleologically oriented normative ought-statements and primacy(in the Aristotelian system of ethical and political statements) falls on those normative judgments of what the organism is-to-be, i.e. descriptions of states of the organism are teleological. Man may never actualize his potential to become fully rational but because that is his telos, rationality is the primary term in the definition of man : rational animal capable of discourse.

According to Realist theory, nation-states are not fully rational and are therefore less concerned with International peace and more concerned with the power and security of the nation-state even to the extent of disobeying international law. In this theory, there is a steadfast refusal to use the organismic model of Aristotelian hylomorphic theory which would have no difficulty in incorporating the hopes and ideal of International Peace into a definition of Justice in the realm of the political. According to Aristotelian hylomorphic political theory, which was actualized in Kantian Political Philosophy, Peace is the telos of the International Political Process and every event of the international political process should be judged accordingly. For realism, such reasoning is naïve and even dangerously idealistic. On this view of realism, it almost seems as if realism and idealism are if not contradictories, at least contraries and this is not the case in Aristotelian and Kantian political theory. On these latter theories, the appearance of contradiction or contrariness only appears if one does not understand hylomorphic assumptions that a moral or political entity coming to be is part of its essence and thus an important part of the essence-specifying-definition of that entity. In other words the telos and idea of a things essence is just as real as any stage of that thing ‘s development. Stages of development are obviously necessary for a thing to pass from its origin to its telos. The tadpole stage description then has the same reality as the frog-telos normative description. The need for security and the use of power are the tadpole stage of a nation-state and it is in fact only instrumentally essential to its final form which is embodied in the Kantian vision of Cosmopolitanism. Just as the tadpole structures are largely dissolved by the frog-like structure the nation-state as a structure may even disappear as a so called “basic unit”. If the fundamental essence and telos of the political process is Peace and Peace is achieved there is no contradiction in hylomorphic theory in the initial phase being transformed and transcended by its essence and telos. The basic political unit for Aristotle may well be, in spite of the contention of communitarian theory, the uniqueness of the individual’s life. Aristotle’s claim that man is necessarily a social animal is a formal characteristic which certainly transforms and transcends this individual life, but I would argue that this is done without the dissolution of this condition. Indeed respecting this individual life is what Aristotle refers to in his pluralism thesis. Political judgments must respect individual lives unconditionally even when these lives are being incorporated into the larger political units of the family, the village, the tribe, and the city-state. The individual is certainly the fundamental political unit of Kantian political Philosophy because politics is determined by ethics, and ethics is determined by the individual responding to the world universally in his actions. So, Cosmopolitanism does not make the Globe or the World the basic unit of politics. Respect for the individual life will be a major component of this New World Order. Aristotle, of course, is not a spokesman for Cosmopolitanism for a number of reasons. Firstly he could not see how representative democracy could govern numbers of citizens exceeding 100,000 citizens. He also, secondly, could not see a mechanism for installing a greater degree of rationality in the citizen body. Kant could see this mechanism, namely education, even if it would need a span of 100,000 years to do its work. We should remember in this context that although education was beginning to become important in Platonic and Aristotelian times there was at that time no existent educational mechanisms for achieving the aims of education, apart from conversations in the agora, handwritten books and performed dialogues. Schools were an invention of the philosophers and the Academy and the Lyceum were prototypes of later institutions of education which invented the lecture as a medium for the communication of ideas. The projected intention for later Schools and Universities(institutions of universal education) was to use lectures to teach ideas idealistically to future citizens. Hopefully amongst these ideas will be the idea of peace. Aristotle’s teleological narrative of the origin and development of the polis, of course, involves the idea of the Good that all human activities strive for but it also postulates a natural history in which individuals have their uniqueness respected whilst simultaneously being embedded in the social units of the family, the village, the tribe, and the city-state.For Aristotle, there is a pluralism of forms of life that must be respected by any and every just political system. He refrains from theorizing about the state but he insists that the state must be just and that justice simply consists in one person or a few people or the many ruling in the interests of the common good. The Common Good or justice on the above Realist account is simply the need for security and security related power. It is indeed an open question given the presence of Machiavelli on the list of spokesmen for Realism, whether the exercise of power has to be just or whether the laws of the polis have to be just. Security for “the common good” appears to be operating according to the lowest common denominator principle and be something which ensures one’s survival or the safety of one’s life.The quality of life seems to have been reduced to the bare fact of living. Also, according to Hobbes, the arch-Realist, the above safety principle should also ensure the safety of one’s property. In a society where many own property but a significant proportion of the population do not we can readily see how a ruler could naturally reinforce a division in a society which might lead to civil disturbance and even war or at the very least continual regime change.

What we do know, according to Betts is that Realist theory is a theory of why wars occur between states in spite of the presence of an International Legal System and the United Nations. According to the Realist, theorist anarchy prevails in International Relations and one cannot rely on the UN to come to a member country’s aid if they find themselves attacked and invaded and even if the UN does sanction military action, this action may do more harm than good.

Betts follows this discussion up by referring back to Anderson’s initial political classification system:

“Realists, then, are more focussed on issues of war and peace whilst liberals are more focussed on normative and economic interests.”

War, for a liberal, is evil and only sometimes, and very rarely is it a necessary evil. Sometimes, that is, the survival of the state is at issue but most of the time war is a futile attempt to solve problems which really require dialogue and diplomatic solutions where the issue of “The Good” or “The Common International Good” is the intended telos of negotiations. War for reasons other than the will to survive is anathema. Wars are unjust because justified violence is by its nature intended to stop someone doing something. Wars conducted with the intention to inflict punishment on a country because of what they have done are for a  Greek liberal like Socrates unjust, simply because they are inherently evil and evil in their consequences: one can never make a bad man better by doing something bad to him. According to the liberal, punishment is only justified after due legal process has established guilt beyond a reasonable doubt. This is a normative law-based international liberalism. The Conservative Realist argument against this position is bewildering and relates to our descriptivism versus prescriptivism argument in our commentary upon lecture one. The argument is that just because a few countries, in fact, do not recognize International Law as an International regulator of action the community as a whole ought not to use International Law as a regulator! That is, a description of the unlawful behaviour of a few countries somehow justifies discarding the prescriptive judgment: ”The law ought to be obeyed”!

Betts clearly manifests how Realist theory is a creation of skeptics and cynics when he says:

“War can easily occur because of misunderstandings and miscalculations. Security dilemmas occur for example when two states, neither of whom want war with each other are nevertheless suspicious of each others intentions”

Betts refers to this as a “cycle of increasing tension” and claims that this cycle lay behind the occurrence of the first world war. He then asks the question:

“But why do political disputes produce war rather than litigation? Because litigation only works if both parties are prepared to accept the verdict of a third party or if some form of law enforcement can enforce judgments. So litigation against the USA would only have worked in the Nicaragua case(the mining of its coastline) if the international community possessed an executive arm with authority. This is the situation Realism calls “Anarchy”. Some International actors hoped that the USA would be that executive authority which enforced International Law but the UN is not a world government. The real unmasking of the UN came in 1995 in Srebnizka. The UN proclaimed a safe area for the Bosnian Muslims which was to be protected from attacks by the Serbs. The proclamation could not be enforced. The one Dutch Battalion, when faced by the Serbian army, melted away. Seven thousand Bosnian Muslims were rounded up and murdered.”

We should remember it was the social contract theorist Locke who claimed that we contract to leave our natural state or state of nature for protection under a Law proceeding in accordance with due process in the spirit of justice. This, of course, was a retreat from the categorical position that Socrates took in relation to the Law. For Socrates, the law could not be unjust and even if the law led to unjust consequences such as his death sentence, it was at all costs to be protected and obeyed. If one had no respect for the law the only course of action was to continue obeying it until one left the country or perhaps campaign in the agora for change: for people to think more philosophically about the law. The business man’s holy grail, the contract, would have seemed to Socrates and the ancient Greeks an expression of uncertainty and fear that people were no longer to be trusted to do the right thing at the right time and in the right way. That generally no one could be trusted to keep their word or their promises unless everything was put in writing. The argument we see in the above quote is an old argument used by Thrasymachus. Its logical form was understood by Socrates: you cannot argue from one premise or a number of premises describing what people or governments do to the conclusion of what they ought to do. Later philosophers would formalize this Socratic response and name the logical error the naturalistic fallacy. We are told that no one came to arrest President Bush for the crime against Nicaragua and the Peacekeeping corps of the UN did not do what they ought to have done. These states of affairs are regrettable but they are not reasons for abandoning value-laden institutions such as the UN and International Law. Rather these events are one more reason for using a Socratic approach with the disbelievers and informing them of the value of such institutions via elenchus and dialectic. This is a reason, in other words for convincing those of little faith of the logic of prescriptive judgments.

Betts naturalistically jumps to the conclusion that these events prove that”Power trumps law” and thus reducing a situation which calls for a categorical value and ethically laden judgment to a situation judged instrumentally with the words of a gambler, i.e. “Power trumps law”.
Betts puts the interesting question:

“Is Realism Immoral? In one sense this is true. If ethics is shaped and limited by the survival imperative then there is a difference between what is and what ought to be—the desirable and the possible. Trying to do what is desirable may be at best futile at worst counter-productive. For the Realist, thinking dominates wishing. Those for whom the opposite is true and wishing dominates their thinking, the realists call idealists.”

In book 9 of the Republic Plato argues via Socrates that where the logical space of judgment is divided into three alternatives, call them the top, the middle and the bottom, a bi-polar tendency(Something is either x or not-x) often leads us to misjudgments because of the failure to include all three alternatives or possibilities in our act of judgment. Socrates argues concretely in terms of living in a world where there is a top a middle and a bottom and claims that if one lives in the middle region of this world and all that one relates to is the bottom of the world one might misdescribe one’s situation in that world by claiming that one lives in the top region of the world. Applying this “logic” to the above quote, the three abstract alternatives confronting us would be wishful thinking(of a “pathological” kind) instrumental thinking(like that used by a gambler) and categorical ethical thinking. Betts, in the spirit of the pragmatic instrumental sentiment “This is how the world works” looks at a few moments in the history of the world, where, at those particular moments International Law and the UN are not working in accordance with their intentions. Betts did not, however, widen his horizon of thought and take into account the possibility that at some future time these failures of intent and breaches of International law might be addressed as they were in the case of the ethnic cleansing crimes committed by the Serbs in Bosnia. Many of those responsible have now been brought to justice and sentenced for their crimes. Failing to take these instrumental acts inspired by categorical ethical thinking into account, Betts calls the ethical idealist pattern of responding “wishful thinking”. This, it is not to be denied, is a very modern approach to our very modern problems which would have been met with disdain and incredulity by Greek and Enlightenment philosophers like Kant. The Greeks and Kant know where the modern road is leading and would not have been surprised at the totalitarian anarchy of the twentieth century. What might have been incomprehensible for these philosophers would have been that half a century after these events and after an Arendtian analysis of them, “modern political philosophy” is still lacking a correct analysis of what is real and what is not.

Kant witnessed the modern equivalents of Thrasymachus in the thoughts and political philosophies of Machiavelli and Hobbes. Betts, reaches back into history to use Machiavellian thoughts to justify his position:

“Machiavelli, for example, argues that the Prince sometimes has to do evil in order to do good. The ends must sometimes justify the means if you believe in waging war for any purpose—because a decision to wage war, including for the reason of self-defence involves a decision which will kill a large number of people. The war against Hitler was a war of this sort.”

Believing that the war against Hitler was merely in accordance with the survival imperative would be a very primitive analysis and leave the response of the world especially Great Britain to Hitlers totalitarian motivations completely out of the equation of the analysis. Indeed, Totalitarian governments are realists in the sense being propagated here. They proclaim their instrumental aims to be categorically good and they reserve the right to use every means, however unethical, to make sure their gambles pay off. Hitler and Stalin would have claimed that they were realists in accordance with the definitions provided here and they too would have used the arguments of Thrasymachus, Machiavelli and Hobbes to justify their positions. “Power trumps law” would have been a slogan both of these tyrants would have claimed was true. It seems we moderns have still failed to learn that without an ethical idealist basis law paradoxically becomes what you wish it to be and Hitler and Stalin’s “wishful thinking” in this respect is well documented. Law becomes the Fuhrers law, Stalin’s law or Mao’s law. The law becomes an object of wishful thinking.

For the Ancient Greeks, ethical ideas are categorically real and form the foundation of Political Philosophy and Law. Betts believes that these ideas belong in the category of wishful thinking. He aligns himself with his team: Thrasymachus, Machiavelli and Hobbes, and his team are challenging the team of Socrates, Plato, Aristotle, and Kant. And the grounds for the challenge lies in the former team believing that the middle of a region is its top and that the slogan “Power trumps law” suffices as an academic argument.

The reference in the above quote to the survival imperative rings warning bells. Hannah Arendt in her work “The Origins of Totalitarianism” refers to the way in which totalitarian leaders like Hitler were using the law of natural selection in arguments relating to the superiority and inferiority of certain races. The natural law of selection had categorised the Jews as an inferior dying race and this in accordance with the naturalistic fallacy motivated the judgment that they ought to be killed to hasten their end: They were dying anyway at the hands of a law of nature in Hitler’s opinion. For Hitler, the law of natural selection “trumped” the Kantian Categorical Imperative. The above is an example of the naturalistic fallacy in full flower:”The Jews were a dying race therefore they ought to be killed”. This is a Realist argument.

Kant’s approach to war was to claim that on both instrumental and categorical grounds that they ought not to occur but for the Realist Betts:

“Realists believe that war is a natural phenomenon paralleling the law of natural selection”

Arendt points out in her work how the inevitability of this natural law motivated much of the otherwise incomprehensible behaviour we witnessed during “the terrible twentieth century”. Totalitarian leaders share the the above realist belief as they do the sentiments below:

“Wars are about how states will be formed, organised and controlled and states are the critical agents for a realist.”

Nation states came into existence after the time of Kant but Kant felt that wars were pathological. For him the essence and telos of political development was founded upon ethical categorical imperatives which would lead us to a Cosmopolitan world with Cosmopolitan citizens. In the eyes of Betts Kant would be classified as a liberal. It ought to be pointed out that Kant was not a believer in the power of wealth. He would not have aligned himself with those wealthy middle class liberals who led a Hobbesian life during the day and slept with their guns and their social contracts under their pillows.

There are admissions at the end of the lecture that Realism does not provide a theoretical framework for conceptualising the so called “clash of civilisations” and terroristic activities. This is a weakness because of the choice of the fundamental unit of the state for the analysis of all political phenomena but the greatest weakness of Realism is not in its attitude toward extreme phenomena but rather in its attitude toward the realm of the ethical. This is well borne out by the following claim:

“Realism is not meant to accomplish positive things, to make the world a better place, but it does help to suggest what is necessary in order to prevent negative developments that threaten the good.”

One can be forgiven for wondering why so much effort and time has been spent on the negative aspects of Political Philosophy and so little time on the positive essence and telos of Political phenomena, namely the ethical attitude which has as its sole purpose the aim of making the world a better place.