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International 'realism' is a recipe for endless war and fear without limit

By Keith Suter - posted Friday, 11 July 2003

The problem with "realism" in foreign affairs is that in the long term it is often unrealistic. Foreign Minister Alexander Downer's controversial speech last week on "Security in an Unstable World" began by emphasising that the Howard government operates in the "real world" and that the government had a determination to advance the national interest in a pragmatic and hard-headed way.

Downer is tapping into one of the longest-running discussions in foreign policy-creation: the "realist versus idealist". The debate began after World War I. The "realist" school emerged as a reaction to Woodrow Wilson's "idealism" in the creation of the League of Nations. The "realists" argued that power made the world go round and countries should only act in their best short-term interests. This viewpoint underpins Downer's speech.

"Realism" can be ultimately self-defeating.


First, if every country acts in a "realist" way, then the world becomes even more of a jungle than it is already. "Do unto others as you would like to be done by" becomes "Do unto others before they get a chance to do it unto you". Therefore, if the United States, Britain and Australia invade Iraq without UN Security Council approval, why should not India attack Pakistan on the same grounds?

Second, in a global jungle Australia is even more insecure. Australia is the only country to have fought alongside the United States in every major conflict in which the United States was involved in the 20th century. This is part of Australia's defence insurance policy - the hope that the US will come to Australia's aid if Australia is ever attacked. But in a world of rugged individualism the US will only act in its own best self-interest.

Third, "realism" means that governments have a policy of selective indignation. There are some events they criticise (or even intervene against) and others they overlook. This lack of international consistency means that it is difficult to calculate how other countries will think in reaction to one's own activities. For example, Saddam Hussein attacked Iran in 1979 and the US had sympathy for Iraq (at the very least). In August 1990 Saddam Hussein attacked Kuwait and suddenly the Americans opposed the invasion.

Fourth, the international protection of human rights is relegated to the interests of power politics. For example, the American, British and Australian invasion of Iraq would have had more international support if all three countries had had a consistent record of opposing Saddam Hussein's appalling treatment of his citizens. But when he was an American ally against Iran, the Americans ignored the violations (such as the 1988 use of gas against the Kurds, the largest use of gas since World War I).

Fifth, "realism" is a recipe for war without end.

Downer's speech came two days after the 100th anniversary of George Orwell's birth. In 1984, Orwell described a world in which countries were permanently at war, but also permanently changing sides. This is the outcome of the "realist" approach to foreign affairs. Short-term alliances result in conflicts, fresh alliances, fresh transfers of weapons, fresh conflicts and so on. Thus, personnel get fired at by weapons supplied by the governments of those personnel on an earlier occasion.


Finally, underpinning Downer's talk there is a tone of annoyance: the Security Council "failed" to support the American initiative. On the contrary, the Security Council "worked" because a majority of countries, a majority of world opinion and a majority of Australians had doubts about the invasion. The French President was closer to mainstream Australian opinion than the Australian Prime Minister.

Given all the problems that the Americans and British have had since the formal end of the conflict (including the recent appalling loss of British life), the French President has gracefully avoided saying "I told you so". The Americans won the war and have not yet won the peace (nor have they found the weapons of mass destruction).

Australia needs a foreign policy that is positive, inspiring and visionary. We should live by our hopes and not by our fears.

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Article edited by Ian Spooner.
If you'd like to be a volunteer editor too, click here.

This article first appeared in The Canberra Times on 30 June 2003.

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About the Author

Dr Keith Suter is a futurist, thought leader and media personality in the areas of social policy and foreign affairs. He is a prolific and well-respected writer and social commentator appearing on radio and television most weeks.

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