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How realists sacrificed their morality E.H. Carr was able to salvage the best of liberal idealism

(MENAHEM KAHANA/AFP via Getty Images)

(MENAHEM KAHANA/AFP via Getty Images)


January 22, 2024   8 mins

Last week, the Defence Secretary, Grant Shapps, warned that we are “moving from a post-war to a pre-war world” where, “in five years’ time, we could be looking at multiple theatres [of conflict] involving Russia, China, Iran, North Korea”. This can hardly be seen as the mere electoral ploy of a flailing government: there must, by this stage, remain very few voters who would entrust the Conservative Party with steering a globe-spanning conflict to a successful conclusion. Shapps’s warning was, unfortunately, merely a description of objective reality. We are on the brink of a conflict for which Britain is woefully unprepared. And, in navigating a path forward, I suggest it is worth reassessing the seminal 1939 masterwork of the great British International Relations (IR) theorist E.H. Carr. 

A Cambridge classicist turned diplomat, whose experience negotiating the 1919 Paris Peace Conferences disenchanted him with international politics, Carr laid out in The Twenty Years Crisis how the well-meaning illusions of liberal idealists had set Europe on the path to war. The “Utopians” had imported the precepts of Benthamite liberalism into the domain of International Relations, deluding themselves as to how the struggle between the world’s “haves” and have-nots” worked against a stable equilibrium. As Carr wrote, “The breakdown of the 1930s was too overwhelming to be explained merely in terms of individual action or inaction. Its downfall involved the bankruptcy of the postulates on which it was based” because “the principles themselves were false or inapplicable”. Then as now, “much comment on international affairs was rendered tedious and sterile by incessant girding at a reality which refused to conform to utopian prescriptions”. 

Both Britain in its moment of global hegemony and then its supplanter the United States had confused their own political and economic dominance with the good of all mankind, “clothing [their] own interest in the guise of a universal interest for the purpose of imposing it on the rest of the world”, yet “as soon as the attempt is made to apply these supposedly abstract principles to a concrete political situation, they are revealed as the transparent disguises of selfish vested interests”. Then, like the liberal dinosaurs who still dominate foreign policy discourse, “the utopian, faced by the collapse of standards whose interested character he has failed to penetrate, takes refuge in condemnation of a reality which refuses to conform to these standards”. 

There are two distinct, if overlapping, arguments here, both of which can rightly be made against our own Utopians. First, that the Idealists, for reasons inherent in Anglo-Saxon political culture, imposed the philosophically false precepts of 19th-century liberalism on the real world as it actually exists, and stood back in bewildered horror at the chaos that ensued. The second is that the idealist prescriptions of the Utopians masked naked self-interest, whether through cynicism or lack of self-awareness. In just the same way, there has always been a tension, in Realist critiques of US foreign policy, between criticising idealism for frittering away real-world power in pursuit of ideological delusions, and in deploying its stated values only cynically, shrouding its pursuit of naked power politics in a moral cloak.

As a result of his savage excoriation of liberal Utopianism, Carr has since been framed as one of the founding fathers of the Realist school of International Relations, which aims to deal with the world of foreign affairs as it is, and not as we may wish it to be. For as Carr lamented, “in contemporary British and American politics, the most powerful influence has been wielded by those more utopian statesmen who are sincerely convinced that policy is deduced from ethical principles, not ethical principles from policy. The Realist’s task, by contrast, “is to bring down the whole cardboard structure of utopian thought by exposing the hollowness of the material out of which it is built”. One of the first dedicated professors of the new discipline of International Relations, Carr, along with his American analogue Hans Morgenthau, has therefore since been framed as a central protagonist in the “first great debate” between Idealists and Realists, ever since the introductory fare of every IR undergraduate.

As American power surged following the Cold War, within the academy the intellectual pendulum swung away from the Realists towards Idealists who saw in the Pax Americana the opportunity to steer global politics towards an earthly paradise. Their ideas, in vulgarised form, have entranced our rulers ever since. As the great American Realist John J. Mearsheimer warned in his 2004 E.H. Carr memorial lecture: “Carr
 would be appalled by the almost complete absence of realists and the near total dominance of Idealists in the contemporary British academy. In fact, it is difficult to imagine any British university hiring a young scholar today who makes arguments like those found in The Twenty Years’ Crisis.” 

Similarly, in his excellent 2019 work The New Twenty Years Crisis, the British IR scholar Philip Cunliffe applies Carr’s merciless dissection of liberal idealism to the delusions of our own rulers. He observes that, in the United States “the hard task of clearing the liberal-utopian undergrowth has largely been undertaken by strong-armed American realists” like Mearsheimer “who have hacked away at the dense foliage of liberal idealism”, which inspired America’s Middle Eastern interventions . In Britain, however, the reason “the political science that Carr sought to establish — realism — has been allowed to wither”. Just as Britain’s political leaders now commit us to the last-ditch defence of an American global order in whose strategic thinking they have no say, so has the British IR academy, like the Utopian pundits of the Thirties, committed itself to providing intellectual cover for this doomed and delusional project.

Today, however, Carr’s work is undergoing a reassessment within the British IR academy in which he remained, for the duration of his life, a neglected prophet. There is something ironic in Carr’s centrality to IR theory: Carr himself had no great love for the discipline he helped found, declaring that the supposed “science of international relations” was merely an intellectual “rag-bag” and a “fiasco”, grumbling that: “Whatever my share in starting this business, I do not know that I am particularly proud of it.” Carr was, fundamentally, a historian whose understanding of international order came from the close, humane observation of human affairs that was, in earlier times, the natural product of a British Classical education. Yet his scepticism of IR’s intellectual value is, I would suggest, more than an amusing biographical quirk. For contained within The Thirty Years Crisis, largely neglected due to the blistering force of his intellectual demolition of liberal Idealism, is an underappreciated dissection of the failings of IR Realism, downplayed by those who claim his mantle for their own.

The failings of liberal idealism are, just as in the Thirties, clear to see: we inhabit the mess the Utopians have created, and are once again on the path to global war. Yet, at least in the vulgarised form IR Realism has adopted in policy discourse, the discipline has overcorrected away from the Utopians’ illusory dreams of global harmony towards a meek subjection to the claims of naked power, which often gives the sense of relishing its own amorality for pure shock value. Yet this is a tendency Carr himself both foresaw and warned against, the neglected half of his masterwork being what we could call a “Critique of Pure Realism”.

As Carr warned: “Where utopianism has become a hollow and intolerable sham
 the realist performs an indispensable service in unmasking it. But pure realism can offer nothing but a naked struggle for power which makes any kind of international society impossible.” Indeed, Carr observed “it is an unreal kind of realism which ignores the element of morality in any world order”, as “an international order cannot be based on power alone, for the simple reason that mankind will in the long run always revolt against naked power”. For Carr, the cold power-politics of the Realists is morally unsatisfying, and thus will ultimately fail to provide order, as the human spirit will naturally rebel against it. His value therefore lies in showing that pure Realism, by ignoring the moral considerations underpinning IR, was in a literal sense unrealistic, and no less illusory than the follies of the Idealists.

Yet popular understandings of IR veer between an amoral caricature of Realism indistinguishable from a fawning worship of brute power, and a hysterical, expeditionary Idealism increasingly unmoored from realpolitik — which in the current context means the hard reality of the West’s dwindling power. Just as the struggle for supremacy within the academy between Realists and Idealists obscures these tensions within Carr’s work, many prominent IR Realists today find themselves making moral judgments of their own as they cast their cold eye on world affairs. Realists who view Ukraine’s struggle against Russian domination as a delusional folly of an Idealist West cannot resist making moral claims where their own consciences intrude. For Cunliffe, Nato intervention in Yugoslavia and Libya, like the invasion of Iraq, was not just folly but morally wrong in itself, through violating the rights of small nations of which Carr himself was largely dismissive. Similarly, Mearsheimer observes that Israel’s war on Gaza is a “crime against humanity that serves no meaningful military purpose”, yet claims that even if it were effective, it would be hard to view it as anything other than an outrage. As Mearsheimer states, he wishes “to be on record so that when historians look back on this moral calamity, they will see that some Americans were on the right side of history.” 

Another prominent American Realist, the strategist Elbridge Colby, who has long warned against Washington’s bogging itself down in Ukraine and the Middle East as a distraction from the looming contest with China, takes the opposite position. Colby argues that the Gaza war requires US backing, and that America should be willing to “defer more to Israel’s judgment about how best to manage its security challenges”. This is a position he is most unwilling to take regarding Ukraine. Right or wrong as any of these particular stances may be, they are all moral value judgments, rather than the cold-eyed weighing of power balances which Carr’s Realist heirs profess to expound. Just as Idealists couch naked power politics in dubious moral claims, so do Realists, when it comes to it, find themselves taking moral stances informed by Idealist principles. 

This observation is not an attempted “gotcha”, or accusation of hypocrisy: both Mearsheimer and Cunliffe are alive, within their analysis of Carr’s work, to the moral factors that will always undercut pure Realism, even if they understate their importance. Instead, the observation is that in its circular transatlantic journey, Carr’s Realist tradition has over-emphasised the cold logic of power while underemphasising the natural sense of right and justice that still, despite it all, plays upon the affairs of man. The dispute within the academy has in a few short years been firmly won: the Idealists have led us to catastrophe, and we are soon to find ourselves humbled by the iron laws of power governing international affairs. Yet even still, now that the Realists have won the battle, we would do well not to throw out the ethical baby with the liberal-imperialist bathwater. 

There is a danger, as theory transmutes into policy, that IR realism becomes a more sophisticated version of the vulgar anti-Western self-hatred of the younger Left. Multipolarity, by itself, is no more likely to bring global harmony than European decolonisation brought what we now call the Global South peace and prosperity. One can believe that the invasions of Iraq and of Ukraine are both wrong for precisely the same reasons, just as one can condemn the grossly disproportionate conduct of the Gaza War while also condemning Hamas’s war crimes against Israeli civilians. Carr himself noted that British and American claims that their rule was more humane and driven by local consent than that of their German and Japanese rivals — though cynical and self-serving — were also true in an objective sense. Writing in 2019, Cunliffe was entirely correct to lambast the expeditionary liberalism that destabilised the world order, yet it is a marker of how swiftly the global order has changed that the focus of his polemic is a system that already seems of only historical interest. The US is no longer searching the world for new monsters to slay, but desperately trying to preserve the remnants of its order for those desirous to live under it. The de-escalatory meekness of its responsive use of military force is startling. Realists are in danger of tilting at windmills that have already fallen into ruin. 

The issue at hand is no longer to impose liberalism on other societies by force, but to preserve what was humane about it, in some form, for ourselves. It is fanciful that the Europe that will emerge from the trials ahead will be the world of oppressive liberal hegemony we rail against: critics of runaway liberalism, including myself, may have cause to dread the hard world whose dawning we have so long proclaimed. Is this liberal idealism sneaking in through the back door? In so far as Carr’s conception of the basis of international morality seems to echo liberalism, it is through liberalism’s own self-obscured Christian inheritance. In essence, our task is to rescue what liberalism best preserved of this — as Carr put it, to “ascertain what can be saved from the ruins”. Perhaps here again morality cloaks self-interest — now the West is weak, we throw ourselves back onto the better angels of human nature. 

Through his rejection of IR as a science, Carr is liberated from its sterile determinism. Things, he believes, can yet be better than they are. Whether or not this is true — and the failure of Carr’s chosen projects justly provokes scepticism here — his understanding that we believe this should be so, and that it is morally unsatisfactory to believe otherwise, is worth holding onto. For if the Idealist fallacy is that things are other than they are, the Realist fallacy is that things cannot be so. By not replicating their errors in turn, the Realists may still navigate a path out of the jungle. As Carr observes: “Political science is the science not only of what is, but of what ought to be.” 


Aris Roussinos is an UnHerd columnist and a former war reporter.

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Steve Murray
Steve Murray
6 months ago

Started with a promising idea: of contrasting realism with idealism in foreign affairs but then became over-intellectualised.

Matt Hindman
Matt Hindman
6 months ago
Reply to  Steve Murray

Only two brief mentions of Iraq, no mentions of Afghanistan, no mentions of Syria, and not a single mention of Kennan. Something stinks.

Andrew Fisher
Andrew Fisher
6 months ago
Reply to  Matt Hindman

Those examples are history now and in any way the US acted completely differently (and inconsistently) on the Syrian case.

“Stinks” seems a somewhat over the top accusation. Lack of clarity might be a better one!

Jim Veenbaas
Jim Veenbaas
6 months ago
Reply to  Steve Murray

IDK. I thought it was a good essay – other than being way too long. As with most things in life, the middle ground seems to be the most reasonable.

Victoria Cooper
Victoria Cooper
5 months ago
Reply to  Jim Veenbaas

Exactly. I am hoping we are outgrowing rampant polarisation. When each individual is aware enough to meld the oppositions in his own character, then society will have, too. Ideology and reason can co-exist.

J Bryant
J Bryant
6 months ago
Reply to  Steve Murray

This essay did take a more academic turn as it progressed, but I enjoyed it and, I think, mostly understood it. Some of Aris’s essays assume too much specialized knowledge on the part of the reader, imo. But this one introduced Carr and the distinction between realism and idealism in international relations, which apparently is a fundamental distinction in IR circles. From there I could follow the rest of his reasoning, and it certainly helps me better understand where Mearsheimer is coming from.
Strangely, despite all the fancy-sounding words, and years of scholarship by people like Carr, Aris’s basic thesis appears to be quite straightforward (in theory if not in practice): balance is required for international relations to work in the long term. Pure idealism and pure realism won’t work for the reasons provided by the author. Some degree of moral leavening is required in even a realist approach; some compromise between realism and idealism. As happens so often in modern discourse, the middle road appears to be a novel, indeed alien, concept, yet it’s not much more than common sense.

Ethniciodo Rodenydo
Ethniciodo Rodenydo
6 months ago
Reply to  Steve Murray

Not at all. I thought it was excellent and not particularly intellectual

Prashant Kotak
Prashant Kotak
6 months ago

Superb article, thank you.

Charles Stanhope
Charles Stanhope
6 months ago

E.L. Carr achieved a ‘double-first’ by managing to fall in love with both Hitler and Stalin almost at the same time.

He was a fine example of what used to be described as being “too clever by half”.

Charles Hedges
Charles Hedges
6 months ago

Carr was a communist, who admired the Soviet Union and was criticised by Orwell. Carr is a good example of the left wing middle class intellectual brought up in soft peaceful conditions who has never experienced being shoved up against a physical reality.Orwell’ various essays such as ” My country right or left ” , ” The lion and the unicorn “, ” Inside the whale ” Nationalism “etc explain very precisely the character of the left wing middle class intellectual and are very relevant for today.

Sayantani Gupta
Sayantani Gupta
6 months ago
Reply to  Charles Hedges

I agree. Carr was a Marxist in his historiography and a lot of Woke history owes its origins to the ” selection of historical fact” justification in ” What is History”.

Charles Hedges
Charles Hedges
6 months ago

Thank you for this comment. I never realised H E Carr was so influential on influencing the writing of history.

Sayantani Gupta
Sayantani Gupta
6 months ago
Reply to  Charles Hedges

Carr was the favourite of my Marxist college professors at University. They always justified their debasement of factual and narrative history with Carr’s ” What is History” selectivity tropes.
As a Rankean, I feel strongly about the normalising of selectivity of historical facts.

Charles Stanhope
Charles Stanhope
6 months ago
Reply to  Charles Hedges

Almost as bad as the wretched Hobsbawm, but not quite.

Charles Hedges
Charles Hedges
6 months ago

Difficult choice. At least Carr was classicist. Hobsbawm appears to consider history started in 1789.

Niall Cusack
Niall Cusack
6 months ago

Edward Hallet Carr wrote the most complete history of the Soviet Union we possess, neither eulogizing nor demonising Stalin, but rather explaining him, which is surely what a historian’s job is.
He left off when, as he said, “the only voice to be heard was Stalin’s” and consequently real history (Herodotus’ ‘historíē’) rendered impossible.
During the Second World War started by England he wrote leaders for the Times, undoubtedly drafted by British Intelligence.
There is an entertaining portrait of him in Ved Mehta’s ‘The Fly and the Fly bottle ‘ published in the early/mid 60s.
Orwell was a mildly entertaining journalist, a rotten novelist and a political nincompoop.

U

Charles Stanhope
Charles Stanhope
6 months ago
Reply to  Niall Cusack

Wasn’t he also a bit of contrarian? For example his rather unpopular view that the Versailles Treaty was unnecessarily harsh on Germany, and that the Poles were somewhat voracious in their demands.

Eton probably made the correct judgment over Orwell, unfit for Oxbridge but fine for the Burma Police.

Niall Cusack
Niall Cusack
6 months ago

Eton was right.

Charles Stanhope
Charles Stanhope
6 months ago
Reply to  Niall Cusack

I have tried to reply to your epistle on Marin McGuinness but the Censor won’t have it!

Niall Cusack
Niall Cusack
6 months ago

What indeed has happened to my epistle on Martin McGuinness?

Niall Cusack
Niall Cusack
5 months ago
Reply to  Niall Cusack

Somehow, I have set the cat among the pigeons, and I am doomed to remain Unheard.
I suppose it might have been my description of Mountbatten as an old paedophile, but that’s not really controversial nowadays (I should perhaps have said ‘minor attracted’).
More likely it was my praise of Martin McGuinness as a statesman, which he was.
It was thanks to him and Ian Paisley that we got more peace than I can remember since I was 16, and I am an old man now.

Andrew Fisher
Andrew Fisher
6 months ago
Reply to  Niall Cusack

As if Eton or indeed Oxford have some wonderful track record of political and foreign policy wisdom! Ernest Bevin for example had far more incisive wisdom and patriotism in his little finger.

Niall Cusack
Niall Cusack
5 months ago
Reply to  Andrew Fisher

I entirely agree with you about Ernest Bevin.

Niall Cusack
Niall Cusack
6 months ago

Eton was clearly right about Orwell.

Andrew Fisher
Andrew Fisher
6 months ago
Reply to  Niall Cusack

A comment of pure snobbery I’d say.

Niall Cusack
Niall Cusack
5 months ago
Reply to  Andrew Fisher

Just a statement of fact. Orwell fancied himself as an activist, not an academic.
By joining the Trotskyite POUM he revealed his incurable political naĂŻvety.
He could never forgive Stalin for being ruthlessly efficient.

Charles Hedges
Charles Hedges
6 months ago

Orwell did not need Oxbridge.He was a King’s Scholar who could read and write in seven languages and travelled widely. The Burma Police gave him paramilitary training which he used in the Spanish Civil War, which provided him with an understanding of street fighting/urban warfare. Along with Churchill and M Muggeridge, they realised Communism and Nazism were about the worship of power.
Orwell understood what was needed to fight Nazism was very critical of the Lefts changes of policy from the mid 1930s. One needs to read his collected essays- 4 volumes to understand him.

Andrew Fisher
Andrew Fisher
6 months ago
Reply to  Niall Cusack

I’ve heard of ridiculously loaded comments but “During the Second World War started by England” must take the biscuit. This means presumably the despairing final straw after Hitler had invaded successively Austria, the Sudetenland, the rest of Czechoslovakia and finally Poland. Not to mention that the world conflict had already stated in Asia with the Japanese assault on China.

Why was Orwell a “political nincompoop”? I’d have thought he was rather spot on in his denunciation of both totalitarian socialism, but also the large number of ever-so-clever and sophisticated left wing fellow travellers. (Of course there also right wing apologists for Hitler).

Niall Cusack
Niall Cusack
5 months ago
Reply to  Andrew Fisher

Between March and September 1939 there was a complete reversal, a volte-face in British foreign policy which has never to my knowledge been satisfactorily explained.
Throughout the 30s the British had connived in the rearmament of Germany in defiance of the Versailles Treaty and in full knowledge of the assistance being offered to Germany by Soviet Russia both in training and materiél.
Churchill went out of his way to praise Hitler in the
House of Commons:
“I hope that had this country been treated as Germany was treated at Versailles, we too should have found a leader such as Herr Hitler!”
Early in 1939 the English and the French offered Poland a military alliance which the Poles eagarly accepted.
Hitler’s demands at the time were eminently reasonable.
They related to Danzig and the Polish Corridor. Secure in their alliance with Britain and France, the Poles repudiated their Treaty with Germany, which now found itself surrounded by hostile states – and the Polish Army was very substantial indeed.
It was under these circumstances that Germany invaded Poland.
Britain and France did precisely nothing to honour their military commitment to assist the Poles.
What England did was to declare war on Germany.
I repeat, it was England that declared war on Germany and thereby started the Second World War.
Hope you think that takes the biscuit, Andrew.
It took millions of lives.

Gordon Arta
Gordon Arta
5 months ago
Reply to  Niall Cusack

In the 1920’s, in his various editions of Mein Kampf, Hitler set out, unambiguously and explicitly, his aims on taking power. By 1929, these were: revenge on those who had ‘stabbed Germany in the back’ and lost WW1- ie the Jews; bring all German speaking peoples, by whatever means was necessary, into Greater Germany; renounce the Versailles Treaty, and rearm to make Greater Germany the strongest state in Europe; destroy France, Germany’s only likely competitor, on the continent; conquer all the lands to the East; destroying the USSR and communism, as ‘lebensraum’ for a racially pure German people, using the Slavic inhabitants as slave labour; take France’s overseas possessions, and build a global empire to rival the UK’s. Hitler then went about doing exactly what he said he would do. ‘Idealists’ in the West refused to believe in the emerging reality; it only needed a dose of realism in facing Hitler down over the reoccupation of the Rhineland, or another of his early adventurist ‘occupations’, to burst his bubble.

Niall Cusack
Niall Cusack
5 months ago
Reply to  Gordon Arta

But England didn’t burst Hitler’s bubble, did it?
Having declared war on Germany in 1939, England sat on its collective arse until 1941.
It was Stalin who burst Hitler’s bubble at the cost of at least 20 million Soviet citizens.
It was also Stalin who saved at least 2 million Jews by moving them out of the front line to safety.
How many Jews did England save? Or the USA?
They had been accurately informed by very brave Polish soldiers of the details of the Holocaust. Neither London nor Washington was interested, and neither the RAF nor the USAF bombed any strategic railways to disrupt the cattle truck transports to Auschwitz and the other camps, despite having detailed intelligence.
I do agree that it’s worth reading ‘Mein Kampf’. One of the first things that strikes you is Hitler’s unqualified admiration for the British Empire. The last thing he wanted was to undermine it!
Why do you suppose that he allowed the Brits to escape from Dunkirk with their tails between their legs?
And do you seriously suppose that he contemplated an invasion of Britain?
And do you imagine that the so-called ‘Battle of Britain ‘ was
“a damned close run thing”?
The Luftwaffe was on a hiding to nothing and the RAF never even needed to use its reserves!
Bletchley and Enigma (another gift from the Poles) were all that were needed.
The Russians and the Yanks did the rest.

.

Chris Whybrow
Chris Whybrow
6 months ago

I tend to dismiss out of hand anything vaguely defensive of Realism, but this was a genuinely interesting and engaging article.

Peter Principle
Peter Principle
6 months ago

Good essay. (Note to Unherd: more like this, please!) Idealism vs. Realism can (I think) be seen in other aspects of foreign policy, for example foreign aid. When Lord Cameron was prime minister, he increased the foreign aid budget, so the UK handed over wads of cash with very few questions asked, including giving aid money to China! We were told that this enhanced that quintessentially Idealist notion, “Soft Power”. (“Soft Touch” would have been more descriptive.)
Contrast Cameronian Soft Power with China’s foreign aid. China project manages infrastructure projects and China ensures that there are some very sturdy strings attached to such aid, e.g. mineral extraction rights. This is naked Realism.

Alex Carnegie
Alex Carnegie
6 months ago

An alternative way of looking at the issue is to see the sillier western foreign adventures since 2001 as “luxury goods”. Because, for a while, it was a unipolar world, America could pursue whatever “idealistic” schemes it wished. If these often backfired in terms of the advertised goals, the consequences for the US appeared limited. It did not matter much – for the inhabitants of the West – if Blair talked Clinton into attacking Serbia or went along with the neocons’ desire to demolish Iraq. Outside the Army, there were few western victims – if plenty of local ones. Bush could talk of spreading democracy and Blair invent a novel doctrine of liberal intervention without significant penalty.

During the Cold War, the margin of safety was far smaller. Not only US interests but its survival was at stake. As a result, hard headed pragmatism or “realism” ruled and there seemed little room for “idealism”. To defend freedom, the West was willing to support dictators and deploy some distinctly illiberal tactics. The near future is going to be far more like the Cold War than the 1990-2015 period. Realism” will probably re-emerge as the dominant approach.

I suspect the litmus test will be America’s attitude to Middle East despots. Will it matter more that MBS is suspected of ordering the assassination of a journalist or that he rules a potentially important ally for either China and the US? Is the aim to remold the whole world in the American pattern or just defend freedom within the West with whatever allies are available? The more the West is seriously threatened the more “realism” will flourish. The “luxury goods” of idealism are no longer appropriate. Rhetorically there will be still be a need for fine sentiments but actions will be guided more by cold calculation.

Rasmus Fogh
Rasmus Fogh
6 months ago
Reply to  Alex Carnegie

Very good comment. But I’d argue that Serbia was actually a quite successful intervention. It finally stopped the fighting, and it avoided a worse outcome, which would be a Serbian empire grabbing Kosovo and Bosnia, and other would-be empires getting inspired to follow suit. The region may not be very peaceful now, but it would not have been very peaceful no matter what anyone had done.

The problem with idealism in foreign policy is not so much that it is too expensive, but that does not work very well. Driving MBS in the arms of China is not going to make Saudi Arabia any less dictatorial. Intervening for good or spreading democracy may be hopeless in most cases, but is not a reason not to try in the few cases where there is an actual chance to achieve something.

Sayantani Gupta
Sayantani Gupta
6 months ago
Reply to  Rasmus Fogh

As someone who worked in Kosovo during the period I would strongly disagree with your contention. It was a very foolish intervention and what followed was even worse. It also showed how poorly the Clinton administration read history in its “moral” interventions.
If it knew ( or chose to study)anything about the complex centuries of Serbia’s past since the 1389 Battle of Kosovo Polije, it wouldn’t have rushed in to add salt to several broken wounds.

Rasmus Fogh
Rasmus Fogh
6 months ago

OK, since you likely know more than I: How would the world have looked if the rest of the world had stood aside while Serbia conquered Bosnia and Kosovo? And why would that have been better – for anything except Serbian self-esteem?

JP Martin
JP Martin
6 months ago
Reply to  Rasmus Fogh

We are currently dealing with the consequences of the lessons that the Russians and the jihadists drew from Kosovo.

Sayantani Gupta
Sayantani Gupta
6 months ago
Reply to  Rasmus Fogh

It’s not as simple as that. Please recall that Kosovo is an integral part of the Serbian identity. Read Lampe’s excellent history of Yugoslavia too.
Don’t reduce history to a narrow time span. Understand longue duree style why the issue is complicated.

Rasmus Fogh
Rasmus Fogh
6 months ago

I would not deny that Serbs deply feel that Kosovo is Serb land. But AFAIK, the people who actually live there feel differently. That kind of problem seems to be quite common when multilingual nations and empires break up, and there surely is no problem-free solution. So, what do you say would have been the advantage of giving Kosovo and Bosnia to the Serbs, over the head of the local inhabitants?

Sayantani Gupta
Sayantani Gupta
6 months ago
Reply to  Rasmus Fogh

Kosovo is different from Bosnia. And regarding the Albanian Kosovars it’s a tortuous history of several centuries. They were collaborators with the Ottomans and were themselves interlopers of a kind to Kosovo- where they were brought in from Albania to change the ethno- religious composition of the area.
That’s why I said initially to take a nuanced approach to the issue.
Regarding the immediate reason for intervention in 1999- the backing of a militant organisation by the US of the KLA was grossly partisan.
Many accounts( including of the BBC) now acknowledge that the KLA claims were an exaggeration.
Germany played a dubious role too in the whole matter.
I will go off topic if I discuss more here, but do read more on the issue as suggested.

Andrew Fisher
Andrew Fisher
6 months ago

“Collaborators” with the Ottomans. Absolutely loaded language. Almost all the people of the Balkans could be described as such. The history is complicated for everyone, not just the Albanians. Serbian and other nationalisms were a phenomenon of the 19th century, hundreds of years after the Ottoman incursion.

Sayantani Gupta
Sayantani Gupta
6 months ago
Reply to  Andrew Fisher

If you want to take sides it’s your take.
I do suggest you read the factual history of how the Ottomans Islamized Kosovo in the 18th century.

Rasmus Fogh
Rasmus Fogh
6 months ago

What you say is surely true, but that really is the kind of thing that happens when empires break up. For another contemporary example, both Russians and Ukrainians have decent arguments for why Crimea Luhansk and Donetsk (*not* the rest of Ukraine) should belong to them. There are no clean solutions in this kind of case. The only thing you can do is to enshrine some kind of solution to stop the fighting, and accept that a lot of people will unavoidably be unhappy. But if you have to take sides (and you do) surely the obvious solution would be that the land should belong to the people who live there now. What is your argument that leaving it to Serbia would be *better*, as opposed to just a possible alternative?

Are you in general (as in: also in India) in favour of having the more powerful majority command over minorities? And if so, how far do you want to stretch that?

Sayantani Gupta
Sayantani Gupta
6 months ago
Reply to  Rasmus Fogh

I worked in Kosovo and believe me the NATO action led to far greater ethnic inflaming.
It also caused a terrible carnage against Serbs while it was under international control which has hardly been reported at all.
I wonder why you see the issue in a monochromatic and binary lens.
You seem to assume too often that there is a perpetual conflict between ” majority” and ” minority” in the power quotient?
Has it ever occurred to you that in real- time that is not true- groups shift, shape, re- form often in response to actual events?
And that most political actions are grounded in realpolitik and not the identitarian cleavages you assume?

Andrew Fisher
Andrew Fisher
6 months ago

For goodness sake! A medieval battle justifying a cynical Serbian nationalist attack on the other peoples if the region? They had a lot of form too! The people of Kosovo are overwhelmingly Albanians. If the West can’t oppose that, then we might as well just stand by let Russia conquer the Baltic States and whatever other Eastern European country it wishes.

Alex Lekas
Alex Lekas
6 months ago
Reply to  Alex Carnegie

Is the aim to remold the whole world in the American pattern or just defend freedom within the West with whatever allies are available?
If a choice must be made, and that’s not entirely certain, then the latter is far more palatable. Some parts of the world do not want to be molded in the American pattern and it’s not our job to convince them otherwise. Defending allies is another matter and even it carries caveats, starting with what does a successful defense look like? We get into things with no clear vision of the goal, which means no one can recognize it should it be reached. And there is the follow up question: what will the aftermath look like?

Jeff Dudgeon
Jeff Dudgeon
6 months ago

Sounds like an Idealist en route to becoming a Realist but stopping half way.

Niall Cusack
Niall Cusack
6 months ago
Reply to  Jeff Dudgeon

Really? I never knew he joined the Ulster Unionist Party!

Daniel Lee
Daniel Lee
6 months ago

Shorter: Despotism and tyranny is OK when quarantined in the Third World.
(Spoiler – It won’t stay there, because despots and tyrants have zero moral scruples about spreading their preferred paradigm as far as they can.)

Rasmus Fogh
Rasmus Fogh
6 months ago
Reply to  Daniel Lee

All well and good – I prefer the rule of law and democracy as well as you and am willing to champion policies to encourage them – but do you really see a way for the West to enforce democracy in Iraq, Afghanistan, or Zaire? And when you cannot find such way, is it not better to stay out and avoid making war, instead of getting a lot of people killed without making things better?

Alex Lekas
Alex Lekas
6 months ago

One can believe that the invasions of Iraq and of Ukraine are both wrong for precisely the same reasons, just as one can condemn the grossly disproportionate conduct of the Gaza War while also condemning Hamas’s war crimes against Israeli civilians. 
Perhaps one can but very few do. Each is painted as some existential binary affair. Iraq was a war of choice and Ukraine is one of the West’s making than Putin’s, which also does not require one to think Vlad is the man. The problem with the Middle East is the potential of other nations, Muslim nations, joining the fray. That’s why the Houthis are in, it’s why Erdogan is making noise, and it’s why Sisi may face a decision.

Andrew Fisher
Andrew Fisher
6 months ago
Reply to  Alex Lekas

I think exculpating the leader who actually decided on launching an invasion of his neighbour is stretching things a little.

Jon Hawksley
Jon Hawksley
6 months ago

An enlightening article but it leaves me puzzled. Idealism is an approach to choosing an objective and realism an approach to achieving it – they are not necessarily mutually exclusive.

로ëȄ튾
로ëȄ튾
6 months ago

Bravo! I found this essay helpful for finding the right frame for international relations and current conflicts.

Andrew Fisher
Andrew Fisher
6 months ago

Massively overblown essay as usual from Roussinos. He doesn’t in any way tell us how we navigate the correct path between foreign policy realism and idealism. This sentence “we inhabit the mess the Utopians have created, and are once again on the path to global war” seems also (as usual) to entirely ignore the actions of non western powers, such as irredentist Russia.

Meersheimer himself is anything but a consistent thinker. He argued a tough realism in the Russia-Ukraine conflict, a completely different position vis a vis Taiwan, and a third, almost grotesquely faux moralist (given the context) position railing against Israeli “war crimes” in a third.

Matthew Symington
Matthew Symington
6 months ago

Very good – particularly in pouring cold water over the international relations discipline, which is about as scientific as sociology. Carr was right to be sceptical of his creation. The study of history is always in danger of morphing into an over-reliance on historical parallels. IR institutionalises this practice by sanctifying historical example as a kind of science. The lesson that a close study of history really reveals is that it’s fiendishly difficult to derive timeless principles from it, every generation is on its own in navigating the crises of the world, and the viability of any diplomatic or military success is often quite short-lived.

Max West
Max West
6 months ago

From the river to the sea, if your enemy is genocidal, you must also be.

El Uro
El Uro
5 months ago

One can believe that the invasions of Iraq and of Ukraine are both wrong for precisely the same reason

Invasion of Ukraine? Do you mean that NATO invaded of Ukraine? Are you okay or do you urgently need a psychiatrist?

John Alderdice
John Alderdice
5 months ago

A thoughtful essay that points up some of the fundamental challenges faced by those who want to understand and practice international politics and maintain a humane concern for others.

Andrew Boughton
Andrew Boughton
5 months ago

Really beautiful and intriguing exploratory essay. But do we really need only to pit Realism against Idealism? Missing in all IR theory is the most powerful influence of all, beyond power, which is really represented as Aris suggests both by Idealist hegemony and Realism, and that is culture. Not the image of Kultur tainted by Nazism, but real culture. Genetic, almost. The kind of enduring culture I witnessed last night in taking my Serbo-Croatian wife to see an iconic band of musicians from Sarajevo who rose to fame in the Yugoslavia of the 1970s, abd who celebrate not just Balkan Islamic culture, but all Blakan culture. Beyond what that idiot Tony Lake saw as an outpost of Russia. Culture. The real force. Not mentioned in IR except as an interesting background note, like Kennan’s deep appreciation of Russian culture. Too much of that and your American FP career is dead. You’ve “gone native.”

Andrew Latham
Andrew Latham
5 months ago

My take, expressed in a somewhat simpler fashion, from a couple of years back: https://thehill.com/opinion/international/3478080-the-liberal-international-order-is-over-what-will-replace-it/
Enjoy!

Neal Attermann
Neal Attermann
5 months ago

Got it, balancing pragmatism (realism) and idealism is hard. Add to it a growing multi-power arena and significant technological innovation and sprinkle in resentments and hardening ideologies and one has a mess.

Towards the end of the essay the author gives us his perspectives on three “events”, his are very different from mine. We both, I assume, are knowledgeable and view ourselves as reasonable and fair minded. So while I agree the doctrinaire on either side are not helping matters, being in the middle doesn’t seem to get us much further ahead either. Hence, we’ll muddle along regardless.