Morgenthau's "Realpolitik" and the war in Yugoslavia

Bernard Baruch coined the Cold War in 1947, the same year that Hans Morgenthau published his classic Politics Among Nations, which defines foreign affairs, national interest, national security, deterrence, balance of power and other key notions of international relations that deeply influenced American thinking.

Morgenthau observed that nations have interests which are furthered through the use of power to accumulate more power (military, economic and political alliances) to further new interests (regionalization, globalization). The world system constantly faces the threat of an imbalance of power, with some nations trying to maintain the status quo, and others trying to alter it. Morgenthau defined national policies that aim at changing the status quo as imperialistic - a meaning very different from Lenin's. Morgenthau wrote: "The balance of power and policies aiming at its preservation are not only inevitable, but are an essential stabilizing factor in a society of sovereign nations.''

Extending Machiavellian principles on politics to international relations, Morgenthau rejected that foreign policy could ever be based solely on moral principles or idealism. Realpolitik is the game in international relations. While this notion is well accepted in the US foreign policy establishment, the American public still requires American policy to be based on the enhancement of American values before they give it their full support. This is particularly true when issues of war and the risks of American lives are involved.

From Acheson to Dulles to Kissinger to now Albright, Morgenthau's realpolitik has generated a fairly consistent foreign policy to support US national interests, while it survived several changes in the identity of the enemies of American values by alternatively demonizing and resurrecting them.

Morgenthau saw clearly that mass communication is an essential element of foreign policy for a democracy or even a totalitarian state. He wrote: "One might almost be tempted to say that there are no longer any purely domestic affairs, for whatever a nation does or does not do is held for or against it as a reflection of its political philosophy, system of government, and way of life.'' "The statesman must take the long view, proceeding slowly and by detours, paying with small losses for great advantage. ... The popular mind wants quick results; it will sacrifice tomorrow's real benefit for today's apparent advantage.'' ``A government may have a correct understanding of the requirements of foreign policy and of the domestic politics to support them, but if it fails in marshaling public opinion behind these policies, its labors will be in vain.''

Despite the advocacy for realpolitik, it can be argued that Morgenthau's theory of international politics is fundamentally concerned with a normative morality, and that his moral theory is rooted in the Judeo-Christian tradition. Morgenthau adopts an Augustinian moral framework: that the Church's authority is the guarantee of the Christian faith (or a nation's authority is the guarantee of its values), rather than Hobbesian Machiavellian, in which fear of violent death propels men to create a state by contrating to surrender their natural rights and to submit to the absolute authority of a sovereign. Morgenthau reconciled universal principles (human rights) with a recalcitrant reality (national sovereignty) by representing their relationship as a dialectical tension. He developed a practical morality which emphasizes the continued application of moral imperatives to action, mitigated by a consequentialist orientation which demands that they be applied cautiously and always adapted to circumstances. This generates a political morality which reconciles the imperatives of morality and national survival by asserting that, while the national interest must be protected, it must always be subjected to strict moral limitations. The same goes for its corollary: while universal principles (human rights) must be respected, its protection can only be effective by respecting a recalcitrant reality (national sovereignty), since national sovereignty remains the basic building block of international relations.

I submit that NATO's attack on Yugoslavia lacks the political morality that Morgenthau stipulated as necessary for a sound foreign policy for its member nations in that not only does it violates the principle of national sovereignty upon which the NATO alliance itself derive its legitimacy, but also, in attempting to prevent changes in the post Cold War status quo, the attack actually will accelerate those changes, and that the domestic stability in member nations will be threatened by the NATO action rather than enhanced by it. And by violating the sanctity of national sovereignty, it weakens the international system in which the protection of universal human rights can only be effectuated through national authority.

Operationally, when a strong force attacks a weak one, an extended duration of the conflict works against the stronger side - classic military doctrine. If NATO has not won by now after on month, the game is essentially over. All involved are now frantically seek political ways out. Further attacks are now fulfilling only bargaining chip functions in anticipation of a political settlement. If NATO had play a war game on Kosovo, this outcome would have been predictable, without the tragic loss of innocent lives. NATO, having been conceived 5 decades ago as a defensive alliance against invasion in a political crisis in a bi-polar world, is predictably revealing its limitations as an offensive force in a premeditated action in a multi-polar global scenario. The political structure of the alliance presents a serious misfit to its new mission.

Thus we have in Kosovo a situation in which: the moral imperative is controversial and unbalanced, the geopolitical objective are unfocused, the mismatch of a problem that requires a political solution with a military approach, the military tool does not fit the tactical needs of the mission, and the sure prospect of a protracted engagement in which the passage of time dilutes the prospect for victory.

On the broader front, NATO's Kosovo intervention has reshaped the geo-political framework and discouraged post-Cold War disarmament or pacification arguments in all government deliberations. It has in fact become a foreign policy abyss.

Henry C.K. Liu