By: Adham Bishr
Staff Writer

On April 30, the San Diego Independent Scholars (SDIS), a local affiliate of the National Coalition of Independent Scholars, sponsored an event called “Realism v. Moralism: Hans Morgenthau and the Modern Predicament” with speaker Professor Sanford “Sandy” Lakoff, UCSD Dickson Professor Emeritus, and founder of the UCSD Political Science Department. Realism means a foreign policy defined by the powers of other nations, without concern for other factors such as morality and humanitarian issues. This stands in stark contrast to Moralism: in which ethics and morals feature prominently into a nation’s decisions and dealings with others. Hans Morgenthau was one of the leading twentieth century figures in international politics and is considered one of the founding fathers of the realist school during the Cold War Era. Morgenthau believed that all political decisions should be made on a realistic, not moral basis to prevent nuclear apocalypse. Morgenthau also rejected universal human rights, stating that morals and ethics were largely subjective and would vary from nation to nation. Professor Lakoff discusses Morgenthau’s views on realism in international politics and their relevance today.

PROSPECT got to speak with Professor Lakoff after his speech and had the privilege of asking him some questions.

PROSPECT: With the inevitable clash of realism and moralism in dictating foreign policy, how can a nation strike the proper balance between its own interests and what is morally acceptable?

LAKOFF: That is a difficult issue, but you have to reject the dogmatic belief in realism in the way Morgenthau expressed it. You have to be prepared, in other words, to acknowledge one of the national interests you might have is an interest in universal standards of morality and human rights and you mustn’t simply toss them aside because peace is important and never deal with these issues. That’s why Obama, even though he started out as a realist, recognized in the case of Libya [that] he might be faced with another Rwanda, another slaughter. And even though, in the campaign he said, “Are we supposed to have 300,000 troops in the Congo?” But when he became president he learned he was going to have another Rwanda on his hands, he decided to act. How did he act? He acted very cautiously, he said, “We’re not going to put troops on the ground, we are going to get a UN resolution, we’re going to work with NATO and our Arab allies,” and he involved international institutions in other countries. Rather in the way, that the first George Bush did when we ousted Saddam from Kuwait, building an international coalition under UN auspices. I think that is a very important move away from the old realist doctrine that all you’re worried about [is] national interests and the balance of power. As Obama said, every case is different. For example, in the case of Bahrain, we aren’t doing a thing even though we know the regime has been oppressive because we need a base to station our fleet there. But if that gets out of hand and we get widespread slaughter, short-term wise I wouldn’t be surprised if we intervene even against the Saudi crown and I’m glad of it too.

PROSPECT: What do you believe should be the proper goal of international relations: mutual goals or each nation looking out for its own interests?

LAKOFF: Well, I think it’s obviously a combination. You know just as we have a system of pluralism and federalism in our own democracy, we want to see that in the world as a whole. I’m not in favor of a monolithic world government that controls everything. I would like to see us get more regimes, more international assistance whether it’s to deal with world trade like the WTO or arms control. So the more of those we have, the more we will have a peaceful society. Conflicts will be resolved through negotiation, diplomacy, and the like rather than resort to force. But that means that you have to be prepared when you’re dealing with countries like Iran and North Korea not to let the regimes get away with murder. Most problems require the understanding of the linkage between values and interests. We need international institutions, like those Morgenthau disparaged, such as the UN and treaties because you can’t rely simply on the balance of power.

PROSPECT: Between realism and moralism, which do you believe has had a stronger influence on the course of events today? Why?

LAKOFF: I suppose I would have to answer realism because if you look at the fact we had a genocide convention in 1948 that didn’t stop what amounted to genocide in Sudan, 2 million people killed or in Cambodia or Rwanda and so on. It did not really stop ethnic cleansing until Clinton decided to do something. Even the Europeans who had lived through the Holocaust did not realize that they had to get their act together and to intervene in what was going on. And I would say that generally speaking, realism has been very influential and it’s a kind of holdover from the Cold War. The Cold War was realism’s finest hour. After all Kennan was right, Morgenthau was right. By restraining ourselves, by practicing containment we avoided a nuclear war. But we came close during the Cuban Missile Crisis. Basically deterrence worked but after the Cold War, realism became much more dangerous.

PROSPECT: Can realism and moralism ever be one and the same? Why or Why not?

LAKOFF: No. But I believe that despite the different view taken on ethics and morals whether they are Kantian or Christian, we are moving towards the recognition of human values. Realism chooses to ignore these values in favor of maintaining peace. But the cost is too high when you end up sacrificing too many freedoms for security. It is important to recognize a nation that tyrannizes its own people would very likely be irresponsible on the world stage.

Photo Courtesy of Professor Sanford Lakoff

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