On the Virtues of Realpolitik Over Just War Theory
By Timothy Jaeger
This essay discusses how when states adhere to realpolitik, it usually breeds peace and happiness, while when they adhere to ideas similar to the Just War Theory, the result is usually pain and suffering. Realpolitik, which prioritizes self-interest and practicality, narrows the focus of the state to anything that can better the position of said state, thus increasing the standards of living and general well-being of the people. In opposition to realpolitik is the Just War Theory, which tend to blur the lines between what is morally just and what is pragmatic, leading to policies that only serve to worsen the nation and the people. It is preferable to balance both self-interest and morality, but at the end of the day, self-interest, and thus realpolitik, can ensure a state’s survival.
In a world of competing interests, where a loyal ally today can be a mortal enemy tomorrow, it is of the utmost necessity to ensure that a strong state leads its citizens through the struggles of everyday life. Only through the strength of the state can a people be secure in their everyday lives. Without it, there will be no one to protect the people from their fellow man. The philosopher Thomas Hobbes spoke of this in his famed work Leviathan by saying that, “Hereby it is manifest that during the time men live without a common power to keep them in awe, they are in that condition which is called war; and such a war as is of every man against every man” (Hobbes 185). His “war…of every man against every man” is what mankind would find itself in if the power of the state did not sustain civilization. Without a leader capable of effective leadership, then the whole of man would descend in chaos, death, and suffering. With that knowledge, we can see the true necessity of the state, but what of the capabilities of its ruler? How should he rule? How should he use the power that his position bestows upon him? Knowing that if he falters and proves himself weak, his people will revolt and overthrow the government, catapulting man back into a war of man against man, a ruler must exert his authority in a merciless yet calculated manner as to not provoke the anger of his advisors or especially his constituents.
The brilliant father of Realpolitik, Niccoló Machiavelli, made a famous proclamation in his work, The Prince, that, “it is far better to be feared than to be loved if you cannot have both” (Machiavelli 54). Power is maintained through the use of fear. Only very rarely is that ubiquitous rule ever broken. The brief reign of Julius Caesar is the only one that comes to mind. Machiavelli further describes the apparent virtue of fear as opposed to love by stating that “love is secured by a bond of gratitude which men…break when it is to their advantage to do so” (Machiavelli 54) as compared to fear which, “is strengthened by a dread of punishment which is always effective” (Machiavelli 54). A leader cannot be bothered to deal with morality and love as politics is a loveless profession. Every time a leader caters to pleas of supposed morality, it ends up with the ruin of the leader and thus the state simply because of the inherent fact that promises, especially if they’re based on the principle of love, are absolutely meaningless and, as Machiavelli proclaimed, can be broken at any time that is to their advantage. In this instance, a leader should avoid making promises based on morality, because it only serves to undermine the authority of the leader and empower his enemies, and instead “he must not flinch from being blamed for vices which are necessary for safeguarding the state” (Machiavelli 51). He need not fear vice because if it is in the name of the safety and security of the state then the citizens will come to thank him later.
When dealing with matters relating to the affairs of foreign governments, the same policy that is used on the home front is to be utilized in the same fashion. As in the case of safeguarding the state, the self-interest of the nation is of the utmost priority. In this same fashion, a leader must not concern himself with morality in dealing with his enemies. A state in the context of international affairs cannot deal with issues of morality that do not directly affect the security and prosperity of the state, especially since multiple actors are involved, all armed with the same goals and agendas. Logically speaking, it is the safe assumption of a state that every other state, if given the opportunity, would erase you from the map. Looking at the world from any other perspective would be both dangerously naïve and foolish since, according to John J. Mearsheimer, looking “from the perspective of any one great power, all other great powers are potential enemies” (Mearsheimer 32). In an anarchic world, as Mearsheimer describes it, it is to the great benefit of the state to act selfishly and be fearful of other states and their intentions. Nevertheless, alliances between two or more states should not be deterred, but in fact be greatly encouraged if it is in the interest of the state to do so but should never be seen as a permanent ordeal. As for any dealings within the realm of international affairs, a sobering dose of realism should precede any and all decisions made, especially with regards with humanitarian issues as, “most states are rarely willing to expend blood and treasure to protect foreign populations from gross abuses, including genocide” (Mearsheimer 47). It would be illogical for a country to involve itself in the affairs of foreign nations if it did not seek to benefit from it somehow, either in physical loot or in international praise.
Within the Just War Theory, Jean Elshtain proclaims “that war may be resorted to in order to preserve or achieve peace” (Elshtain 57) but that alone cannot be the sole motive. The resulting peace must prove itself as a useful advantage to the state, otherwise what would be the point of achieving it? If not, then perhaps the violence is not worth the time and effort of the state for a state’s ambitions and subsequent actions reflect the underlying will to power and domination over all other states. Now, as according to Thomas Hobbes, peace is the ultimate goal of a society since it is in the interests of no one to be dragged back into the state of nature, and so any measure must be taken to be able to adequately support that peace when it comes under attack. Some of the time, that means, war is indeed necessary if that fragile peace that man has constructed is under assault by the forces of evil. However, that does not mean defensive wars are always waged. To assume so would be a sheer ignorance of history. In the past, it was in a state’s nature to expand and a major goal of states was to establish a form of government that was favorable to expansion. As Machiavelli states in his Discourses on Livy, “there is need to think of the more honorable part and to order it so that if indeed necessity brings it to expand, it can conserve what it has seized” (Machiavelli 23). The key word said throughout that passage is necessity. Necessity forces the hand of many great civilizations into decisions they normally would never commit, expansion being a possibility. However, if a state has an opportunity to expand to become an empire, should it? It would most obviously be in its self-interest not only to acquire more areas of influence but also to acquire the means to sustain it. And the ability to wage war in order to hold on to what a state has acquired is such a means. Now what Just War Theorists would possibly say is the following: imperialism such as this would create a system of never ending wars over territory and plunge man back to the state of nature, and this is a valid point. When it is said that states act in their own self-interest, war is not the only solution. Much of the time, peace and mercy is to a state’s advantage, especially in the modern, interconnected world, as it improves their image and reputation abroad which subsequently opens a state to new opportunities as cooperation improves. However, prudence must always be observed when dealing with foreign states. Cooperation may be to one’s benefit in the short-term but it is not within the nature of states to maintain cooperation when it is no longer in their interest.
As with relations with the outside world as well as within a state’s borders, political decisions cannot be excessively plagued, if at all, with issues of morality. This is the foundation to the political philosophy of realpolitik. There is, however as is briefly mentioned earlier, an alternative look at international affairs called the Just War Theory that bases its ideas on moral judgements and righteousness. An early proponent of this theory was the Christian theologian St. Thomas Aquinas who proposed three prerequisites for a declaration of war. They were: that war is declared by “the authority of the sovereign by whose command the war is to be waged”, it is declared for “a just cause”, and “the belligerents should have a rightful intention” (Aquinas). While the justifications Aquinas sets before us appear rather straight-forward and rational, their is considerable vagueness regarding exactly what constitutes just causes and rightful intentions. It is with this vagueness that exposes the cracks in his methodology and prompts malevolent interpretations, the most heinous recent example being Filipino President Rodrigo Duterte’s War on Drugs. It has all of the necessary and “just” requirements to be a “just war” in the definition of Aquinas: Duterte surely had the necessary authority, as his being President should explain. He has a just cause in the fact that he has the notion, with the utmost rigor, that drugs are an evil scourge on his country, and equates all who possess them on the same level Aquinas would think of the most egregious sinner, and thus need to be removed. In addition to the just cause, he has a most just cause: the eradication of a perceived evil in his country that threatens to tear it apart. He does not seek the destruction of his society. Instead he seeks peace in a Philippines that is free of drugs. Yet under his campaign, “More than 12,000 suspected drug users and dealers, mostly from poor families in urban centers across the country, are estimated to have died in the ‘drug war,’ including an estimated 4,000 during operations led by the police and the remainder by ‘unidentified gunmen.’” (Human Rights Watch) Most would consider that abhorrent and repulsive but in the eyes of Aquinas’ requirements for a just war, it touches on every major point. An encouragement of vigilante justice and arbitrary rule of law only seek to destroy the foundations of functioning society because once something like murder is justified in the name of the common good, then theoretically anything can.
Obviously, in this fallen world of ours, we feel a moral need to do good and promote justice wherever the reaches of our nation provide us. However, it is not always practical to achieve or even stride for what most would consider just or moral if the basic needs of the state are not met. If I was in the shoes of a leader, I would do my best to promote and inspire hope and justice but knowing full well that there will be times where I would have to compromise in order to keep the state and society afloat. That does not mean we cannot promote what we would want to be a reality, but we must stay vigilant to what is happening in the world around us because while we may dream of a better world, it does not mean that there aren’t forces out there that exist only to crush it.
Aquinas, Thomas. Summa Theologica. MobileReference.com, 2010.
Elshtain, Jean Bethke. Just War Theory. New York University Press, 2004.
Hobbes, Thomas, and C.B Macpherson. Leviathan. Penguin Group, 1985.
Machiavelli, Niccolo, and Harvey Claflin. Mansfield. Discourses on Livy. Univ. of Chicago Press, 1996.
Machiavelli, Niccolò. The Prince. Penguin Classics, 2003.
Mearsheimer, John J. The Tragedy of Great Power Politics. W.W. Norton & Company, 2014.
“Philippines: Duterte’s ‘Drug War’ Claims 12,000+ Lives.” Human Rights Watch, 18 Jan. 2018,