In the past, as realists have taught, countries have by and large pursued their own particular interests in international relations: their own independence, their own security, their own prosperity, and the like. Now science and technology have enlarged the scale on which things happen, so that many interests are shared by two or more countries in common, or by whole regions or the entire globe. Will the ambit of common interests continue to expand at the expense of the narrow and selfish national ones? In the longer-range future, will the teachings of realism become obsolete?
Roosevelt’s Vision: Values in International Relations: Past and Future
Writing my paper after September 11 while preparing a course on world history, I came to the fall of the Roman Empire, of Constantinople and the barbarians at the gate, which recalled something that we all know but often forget: in history nothing is inevitable. Globalization, trends towards higher levels of technology, and more sophisticated communication will probably continue into the future. My subject, foreign policy goals, is changing. The very ways we look at international relations may have to change.
International relations is an infant study. The first widely used textbook by Schumann came out in the thirties. In the forties and fifties, classes in international relations were offered, and now we have whole departments devoted to the study. Nevertheless it is still a relatively new subject. Quarrels that began at its origins between the two schools of idealists and realists, such as how states should act as opposed to how they in fact do act, have not been resolved or superseded.
Many realists claim international affairs make sense because states are motivated by the same considerations, principally by power. The idealist school, which takes its inspiration from Woodrow Wilson, argues that the actions of countries can be affected by debate, argumentation and, above all, public opinion. Robert Cecil, chief British protagonist for the League of Nations, told the House of Commons that the Covenant of the League was based on the ability of public opinion to affect the behavior of nations. He said if we’re wrong about that, we’re wrong about everything. Realists like myself have come to agree with him. He was wrong about everything.
Idealists believe that a public morality can be debated and that countries can be persuaded to accept it as a guide for conduct. Realists like Hans Morgenthau, on the other hand, believe that countries are intent on pursuing their own national interests as defined by power relationships. His analysis, by adhering to one standard, allows us to discuss international relations systematically. Idealists, on the other hand, argue that we make progress in international relations through teaching people that there are no real clashes of interest or irreconcilable differences between nations. Realists disagree and insist on the real motivational differences. For them, the answer involves the recognition of the integrity of one’s opponents’ interests, even though they differ from one’s own.
The international situation has been changed by a major new category of debate about interests that are common to all nations. The clearest relate to the environment and are bigger than those of any particular state. Pursuing such goals requires an internationalist, globalist outlook and the willingness to make decisions on a wider scale than existing state systems. The crucial distinction is no longer between national interests, but between them and larger, global, common interests. The great problem is how we are to deal with those problems without having a world state.
I question the adequacy of idealism for understanding international affairs. I also agree with Professor Fromkin’s warning that America is neither strong enough nor wise enough to provide political direction for people of other cultures. I would like to have heard him further discuss whether an ethical dimension can be linked to the realist paradigm.
For Roosevelt, the Common Interest was a future with certain goals like compulsory education, immunization against disease, and universal birth control. Now, fifty years later, we are witnessing a new emphasis on moral dimensions in international politics. This may result in a sense of shared values among the most powerful countries and a united effort to impose a peaceful settlement on unruly regions of the world, as was the case in Europe in the forty years that followed the Congress of Vienna. This agreement of purpose occurred even though the two most liberal powers, England and France, had serious ideological differences with the autocratic powers of Russia, Austria, and Prussia.
Could the US, working with the EU, Russia, and China, find the common ground needed to prevent conflict among nations, especially in instances where violence does not arise from the ambitions of an individual state but from terrorist activities that cross national borders? The eradication of terrorism could be viewed as part of the national interest of a wide range of powers. There are already treaties that support an international criminal court, a mechanism for cleaning up the environment, as well as those that forbid atomic testing or curb biological warfare. As long as countries remain independent, they will make their own decisions. The US has been foremost in insisting on its national sovereignty. Were we to link our national interest to common international interests, we might shape a different world in the twenty-first century. But unless this shift in attitude is formulated in a way that seems to support our national interests, it is unlikely to come into being.
The consensus after 1815 saw stability and moderation as consistent with national interests, but such an agreement also linked the balance of power to a moral consensus. Hamilton warned against “idle theories which have amused us with promises of an exception from the imperfection, weaknesses and evils incident to society of every shape.” He also reminded us that “we as well as the other inhabitants of the globe are yet remote from the happy empire of perfect wisdom and perfect virtue.”
Reply by David Fromkin
In most clashes with the common interest, the national interest tends to prevail. In an ideal world, where world community has its own form, that tendency might be overcome by what Professor Etzioni calls a hierarchy of loyalties. But we are a long way from that ideal. Our primary loyalty is presently to the US, not to the human race.
The possibility of all great powers working together is difficult to imagine because only a few countries share broad commonalities with us. Consequently their willingness to act with the US is quite limited. We probably will have to work with overlapping alliances rather than with one sort of grand alliance of the major powers.
The closest analogy to the problem of terrorism I can think of is the historical problem of piracy, which had almost universally been considered a crime against all nations. Nevertheless, piracy was exterminated almost always by one nation acting unilaterally rather than in an alliance. It would be wonderful if a broad alliance emerged out of our war against terrorism, but I doubt that it will happen.
This is a chapter from Changing and Unchanging Values in the World of the Future (Conference).
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