Bryn Mawr Classical Review

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2004.08.22

Richard Ned Lebow, The Tragic Vision of Politics. Ethics, Interests and Orders.   Cambridge:  Cambridge University Press, 2003.  Pp. 404.  ISBN 0-521-82753-1.  $75.00.  



Reviewed by Bert Roest, Basel-St. Bonaventure NY
Word count: 4422 words

We are experiencing a time of neo-realist political thinking, coupled, in the United States, with a neo-conservative agenda. In this tradition of political thought, notions of power and national self-interest hold pride of place. Insofar as politicians and policy makers appeal to notions of ethics and democracy, they, as well as the political thinkers that back them up, exploit them at best as useful foils for strategies that in reality have another rationale.

This is the starting point for and the basic motivational force behind this new book by Richard Ned Lebow, the James O. Freedman Presidential Professor of Government at Dartmouth College, and an acknowledged name in the study of international relations. Lebow finds fault with the neo-realist take on international affairs, which he evaluates as a dangerous impoverishment of the discourses of theoretical and applied politics in that it distorts the motives and complexities of international politics, and threatens the very stability of the international commonwealth of nations, which needs a basic notion of justice.

Lebow wants to challenge neo-realism on its own turf, by means of a close analysis of several key texts that for a long time have been central to the formation of discourses of political thinking, and in addition have functioned as reference points and sources of inspiration for central tenets of the neo-realist positions, namely Thucydides's account of the Peloponnesian war, Clausewitz's work on warfare, and the books and essays by Hans Morgenthau.

The book opens with a rather original exemplum or parable, entitled 'Nixon in Hell', depicting the bewilderment of the former president of the United States when, after his death, he discovers that he is condemned to eternal damnation. His entry into hell is an Auschwitz-style concentration camp with dirty barracks, watch towers and brutal Kapos, where Nixon and his fellow inmates are subjected to heavy labour and all kinds of physical abuse.

An old man in his barrack tells Nixon that he has arrived at a processing centre for mass murderers: those who were directly or indirectly responsible for the death of many people. The old man appears to be Pope Pius XII. He is in hell because he did nothing to save Jews during the Holocaust. The former pope explains to Nixon that many inmates of Hell, like Nixon himself, pride themselves on having been exemplary citizens and deny any wrongdoings. As the violence they committed was never first-hand, it seems so easy to deny responsibility. They rationalize their former decisions, actions or deliberate inaction, arguing that they were merely cogs in the wheel, or that their behaviour was dictated by reason of state.

In Hell, these people learn about first-hand violence. They are beaten and abused themselves. They are also forced to torture others, thereby getting the first-hand experience that they always could shield themselves from in life. Moreover, they are forced to read books that relentlessly remind them of their moral failings. Hence, Pius II has to read the Bible, whereas Nixon is handed a different book by one of the Kapos -- who happens to be Alger Hiss, one of the first political victims of Nixon during the latter's involvement with the House Committee on Un-American Activities -- namely William Shawcross's Sideshow: Kissinger, Nixon and the Destruction of Cambodia.

Chapter two, entitled "Tragedy and Politics," broadens the horizon with an analysis of the strands of realism that have provided the political discourses with which modern political leaders like Nixon rationalize and legitimise their decisions. Lebow explains that modern realism and its offshoot of neo-realism as a framework for political strategy and political thought derived from the works by E.H. Carr, Frederick Schumann, John Herz and Hans J. Morgenthau. Most of its adherents share a basic set of assumptions, notably the essentially anarchic character of the international world. In the survival game of the international arena, power is of primordial importance. Whereas in the domestic political sphere, moral and ethical arguments may have a role, in international Realpolitik adherence to ethics is only a burden (though ethical arguments may still be raised in a cosmetic or instrumental way).

This political language of modern realism, with its emphasis on power, only allows intelligent formulation of those political goals that are beneficial to short-term political or economic interests or directly related to threats of national security. According to Lebow, it is within this discourse that the current Bush administration, even against the coordinated efforts of many of its supposedly closest allies, has withdrawn from a number of international treaties and has broached the possibility of using nuclear weapons in future combat situations.

In this book, Lebow wants to put forward the idea that ethics are not only instrumentally important in foreign affairs (as a way to convince other players in the field and to garner support at home) but that, in the end, it is impossible to formulate genuine state interests in a coherent fashion outside of 'some language of justice.' To this purpose, Lebow re-reads three foundational texts of the realist tradition, namely the History of the Peloponnesian War by Thucydides, Carl von Clausewitz's On War and Hans J. Morgenthau's various works on international affairs, contending that, contrary to received opinion, these texts of 'classical' realism envisage a role for concepts of justice and ethical standards in international affairs.

For Lebow, all three texts exhibit an essentially tragic understanding of politics and international relations, emphasising the difficulty of maintaining an orderly conduct between nations, the uncertain consequences of human efforts to improve the state's physical and socio-political environment, and the likelihood that political ambitions are riddled with unrealistic visions of competence and strength, with disastrous consequences. The Nixon policies in Indochina are an illustrative case. Like the heroes of Greek tragedies, Nixon and his administration were tragic figures: overestimating the reach of their powers, they led their country to defeat.

By his new reading of the foundational texts by Thucydides, Clausewitz and Morgenthau, Lebow wants to 'recapture' the cautioning language of classical realism and the concepts it offers for the study of international relations and the conduct of foreign policy. Although each of these foundational texts is deeply influenced by their respective historical and intellectual contexts, the essential understanding of power and influence inherent in these texts has a more transcendental universal applicability. With this approach, Lebow plants himself in a hermeneutic tradition of textual scholarship which, on the one hand, acknowledges that the wealth of complex texts exceeds authorial intention as well as the bounds of historically and culturally determined signifiers of textual meaning yet on the other hand still believes it is valid to come to a conversation with the meaning horizon of the author and his work. Lebow wants to employ this Gadamerian model of an inclusive hermeneutic dialogue to arrive at convincing readings, which may not solve all interpretative problems but will deepen not only our understanding of the political project dealt with in these texts but also our understanding of the nature of the political problems under discussion.

This hermeneutic endeavour takes places in chapters three to six. The first two of these are devoted to Thucydides's History of the Peloponnesian War. Thucydides's description of the Peloponnesian war (and particularly the Melian Dialogue) have been hailed as evidence of his 'realism', which stripped away all moral pretences and exposed the calculations of power as the foundation stones of international politics. This, in turn, has tempted scholars to draw parallels between the bipolarity of late fifth-century Greece and that of the post-war world.

Lebow acknowledges the presence of 'realist' elements in Thucydides that allow for such an interpretation, especially in book I, where Thucydides remarks on the inevitability of the war due to the growth of the power of Athens and Sparta's fear of it. Yet there seems to be an apparent contradiction between such statements in Book I and the more complex arguments further on. Building on the insights of W. Robert Connor, Lebow reads Thucydides's history as 'a layered text', with deliberate omissions, repetitions and inconsistencies, all of which can act as catalysts to move readers to more complex understandings of the historical phenomena.

In short, Thucydides subscribes at surface level to a pragmatic realist agenda, putting state interests at the centre of his political evaluation. This is particularly the case in Thucydides's detailed description of the machinations of Corinth, Megara and Aegina to convince Sparta to declare war on Athens. At a more fundamental level, however, Thucydides seems to maintain that justice, security, interests and ethics could and should be reconciled and that, both substantively and instrumentally, rational interests cannot be pursued outside of the language of justice. In Lebow's vision, this 'lesson' transgresses the mere particular, and reveals the more universal features of human action that provide lasting insight about the human predicament -- in a way the same lesson as that conveyed in Greek tragedy (and unlike mere 'history' in the strict sense of the word, which, as Aristotle tells us, does not abstract from the particular).

Lebow contends that the wider narrative of Thucydides is concerned with the rise and fall of hegemons. A close analysis of the events that led to the Peloponnesian war shows an improbable series of bad judgments and faulty evaluations by the leaders of the powers involved. In essence, these bad judgments were contrary to polis interests and displayed an inaccurate understanding of the military and political realities. Lebow draws a comparison with the unlikely series of events that led to the First World War in 1914: in both cases, the various leaders had several opportunities to choose differently, so to evade war and its disastrous consequences. Yet blinded by an exaggerated view of their own strength, the passions of misplaced patriotism and the refusal to see the opponent's real strength, the leaders ended up in situations that they could no longer control.

Counter to the many modern realists and neo-realists who claim Thucydides as their ancestor and insist that they describe the world as it is, discounting any claim to international order other than that based on power or force, Lebow argues that Thucydides is in fact very sensitive to motives and causes that are not power-based. Thucydides continually draws attention to domestic idiosyncrasies (such as notions of honour and patriotic passion), the personality traits of leaders, and the impact of emotions in the field of politics in general. Hence, the 'realist' Thucydides is only the surface layer narrative. At deeper levels, Thucydides gives us a tragedy of the rise and fall of Athens, a philosophical analysis of the relationship between nomos (convention/custom/law) and phusis (nature) and its overall implications for the development and preservation of civilizations, and a meta-narrative on the rise and fall of Greek civilization as such, with as ultimate underlying message that the maintenance of secure and prosperous societies should be approached through logoi (argumentative engagement and the construction of shared meanings within and between societies) and not through the blunt exercise of power.

The speeches and debates presented in Thucydides's work explore how, at the outset of the war, terms and concepts of justification and political argument were meaningful and helped to shape the character of individuals, communities and Greek civilisation at large. In the course of the war, both language and the communities it was supposed to support broke down and deteriorated into incoherence. Eventually, only the naked language of power remained, which did not have a basis in the identity of the communities and did not allow any more for proper distinction between friends, allies, neutral powers and enemies, turning the whole world into a battleground.

Athenian imperialism was moderately successful as long as power was exercised in accord with the well-defined social conventions that governed Greek speech and behaviour. When this rhetorical culture was destroyed, the language of violence remained. In the long run, the language of violence was self-destructive, no matter how strong the power that wielded it. The maintenance of hegemonia needs both power and legitimacy. Pericles still understood this, his many mistakes at the outset of the war notwithstanding. Yet Pericles's successors, such as Cleon and Alcibiades, consistently chose power over principle, the pursuit of short-term advantage over long-term stability, alienating allies and ultimately undermining the basis for Athens's hegemonia.

The deeper levels of Thucydides's narrative deal with the social conventions and the language of intersubjective understandings that make intelligent action possible. Common action, and the construction of Greek civilisation, was rooted in common understandings. Due to the actions of war, the conventions that had made Greek civilisation possible began to break down, turning the main protagonists of the war into inarticulate (alogistos) and irrational actors unable to engage in fruitful communal deliberation. Hence, at these deeper levels, Thucydides "explored the relationship between words (logoi) and deeds (erga), and documented the double feedback loop between them. Shared meanings of words are the basis for conventions and civic cooperation. When words lose their meanings, or when their meanings are subverted, the conventions that depend on them lose their force, communication becomes difficult and civilization declines" (p. 161). Thucydides may have written his work as an antidote to this very development, as a 'logotherapy', to make readers wary of demagogues and politicians who advocated policies at odds with conventions of justice and justification that underscored domestic and international order.

In chapter five Lebow turns to Clausewitz and his work On War (Vom Kriege), which was an attempt at formulating a general theory of war. It was Clausewitz' reaction to the decades of warfare and the political developments during the revolutionary and Napoleonic period, and in particular to Prussia's ineffective political and military response to Napoleon's aggression.

Clausewitz had participated in most phases of these wars, working together with Gerhard Scharnhorst. They both understood that the astounding successes of the French revolutionary and Napoleonic armies against the professional forces of Prussia and Austria were a product of broader transformations within French society. Scharnhorst and Clausewitz thought that a proper reform of the army, ending its aristocratic nature, imposing universal conscription and opening the officer corps to qualified commoners, should go hand in hand with the abolition of serfdom and the building of a citizens' society (Staatsbürgergesellschaft), in which all people had a stake in the state's affairs. During the war years, the Prussian King was moderately supportive of some of these reforms. Yet, after Waterloo, the king rallied back to the reactionary Junkers. Clausewitz saw himself pushed to the sideline. This gave him both the impetus and the time to work on his general theory of warfare in modern society.

Generations of military people have approached On War as a mere operational manual on how to plan and conduct warfare. The principal lesson military men took away from it was the need to destroy an enemy's armed forces through an battle of destruction (Vernichtungsschlacht), made possible by an overwhelming superiority of power. Therewith, On War is turned into an amoral handbook of military realism.

On the whole, interpreters have been blind to the in-depth message of caution Clausewitz's text has to offer. Clausewitz understood the destructive nature of modern warfare and the difficulty of limiting and stopping wars once popular passions became engaged. Like Scharnhorst, he also understood the difference between general principles and theories of warfare (which at surface level are indeed very prominent in his text) and the chaotic reality of war with its surprises, setbacks, accidents and overwhelming emotions. Politicians and commanders have to be aware of the interplay between theory and practice in their formulations of decisions that can lead to warfare and that inform their military strategy. In fact, Clausewitz hoped to discover which aspects of warfare were amenable to theoretical description and which were not. He highlighted the special role of military geniuses (such as Gustavus Adolphus of Sweden and Napoleon) who grasped new military possibilities (thereby changing the nature of warfare), and succeeded in manipulating the moral of their troops. For Clausewitz, these motivational and strategic elements were as important as mere issues of (fire) power.

Like Thucydides's History of the Peloponnesian War, the text by Clausewitz' is incomplete. It consists of several reworked drafts conceived at different moments. It must be read on different levels and can easily be misunderstood by a two-dimensional reading. It might start out with parsimonious and abstract definitions of war and its purpose, yet it follows up with a mass of (often contradictory) historical details and comments that deconstruct the initial definitions. In the end, Clausewitz did not believe that his definitions of war were directly applicable. Rather, they were mental constructs to evaluate and analyse complex real-world situations.

Analyzing the nature and ferocity of the revolutionary and Napoleonic wars, Clausewitz saw that modern warfare had become an expression of entire societies, and that it was necessary to mobilize the emotions and the energy of the people. This made some popular participation in government essential. At the same time, Clausewitz worried that in more democratic modern societies of the nineteenth century warfare would be more destructive than ever before. More democratic states could be both very aggressive and more successful in mobilizing the state's physical and human resources to wage war, making it more difficult to keep armed conflicts from becoming all-consuming.

In chapter six, Lebow turns to the work of Hans Morgenthau, a German political thinker of Jewish descent, who moved to America in the wake of Hitler's rise to power. In America, Morgenthau succeeded in obtaining an academic position, teaching political science at various prestigious American universities. Morgenthau's personal experience of violent partisanship and anti-Semitism in the final years of the Weimar Republic undermined his belief in liberal democracy and convinced him that the struggle for power and self-aggrandizement formed the core of politics. This also meant a rejection of rationalism and scepticism about the possibility of creating well-regulated international relations.

Morgenthau put this sober analysis forward in one of his major early works, Scientific Man vs. Power Politics. This work was sceptical about the possibility of predicting international events with rational means and sociological models. It also put little trust in international law and multilateral attempts at collaboration and appeasement. The only secure road towards national safety in a world of aggressive nation states and competing ideologies was economic and military power, to deter and if need be coerce opponents and to reach a status of hegemony.

Scientific Man vs. Power Politics and related works from this period gave hard-core political realism a big boost in the field of international relations theory, ultimately providing fuel for the neo-realist ideologies within the USA in the post 1980 era. In these ideologies there is little room for supranational bodies that try to defuse power politics by means of negotiations and shared procedures.

Yet late in life, Morgenthau changed his opinions, becoming more hesitant about the benefits of power politics, and worried about its possible implications in a world of nuclear proliferation. He cautiously applauded Western European efforts to build a more peaceful continent "on the twin foundations of parliamentary democracy and supranational institutions" and re-affirmed his faith in the democratic political system, combining this with support for the American civil rights movements and a critique of American power politics in Indochina. So even Morgenthau saw the limited reach of extreme realism to talk intelligently about the means and ends of international politics.

In Chapter seven, Lebow tries to arrive at a comparative evaluation of the three authors in question to 'distil the core wisdom of classical realism', which, according to our author, is organised around the themes of order, justice and change. In the end, all three authors come to the conclusion that only principles of justice can inform viable international communities, through which it becomes feasible to envisage an enduring translation of power into influence. Failure to subordinate political and military goals to the requirements of justice and international order leads to self-defeating overexpansion.

The cultivation of communal bonds, cumbersome as this may be, creates a nomos that restrains political actors, whether they be individuals, city states or empires. When the language of order and justice gives way altogether to naked power, there is the risk of entering a vicious cycle of ever increasing violence and brutality which defeats all worthwhile political and military action.

Whatever their differences and their historical particularities, Thucydides, Clausewitz and Morgenthau agreed that the pursuit of justice in political discourse and in political intent, as well as the willingness to engage in fruitful collaboration, to strengthen the bonds of the international community and maintain the international balance of power, is more realistic and in the long term more successful than mere power politics.

Our three authors differed in this respect from contemporary realists, who tend to define political interest and gain in terms of power only and believe in the primacy of raw self-interest over moral principle, regarding considerations of justice as being dangerously inappropriate for international politics. Appeals to justice can at best serve to mask the state's self-interest. The actual policies should always be based on hard (economic and military) power.

In the view of our three classical realists the upkeep of an empire or hegemony is most successful when power is exercised in accord with social conventions and speech acts shared with the other players in the field. This idea was most strongly developed in the deeper layers of Thucydides's narrations on the Peloponnesian war. It also comes to the fore in the later works of Morgenthau, who maintained that a successful exercise of power required an understanding of the goals, strengths and weaknesses of allies, adversaries and third parties, but above all a psychological sensitivity to the self-image and self-esteem of others. In practice, this presupposed forms of political speech and action that cohered with the morality of the age, to steer and influence the understanding by and the reactions of others. Hence the international arena is a shared stage 'on which actors can intelligently construct interests.'

In modern times, the dawn of which informed the works of Clausewitz and the quick transformation of which in the post-war era triggered the reflections of Morgenthau, statesmen have to recognize the need for coexistence in a world riddled with opposing interests. This asks at least for a rudimentary principle of supra-national political collaboration, an international stage of politics, and bodies of international law that transcend the nation-state.

In chapter eight, Lebow uses the core insights of classical realism to challenge existing theories of international affairs, which depict states and their policymakers as egoistic and autonomous actors who respond in a two-dimensional way to the constraints and opportunities of their Realpolitik environment. Following up on arguments developed in an earlier work (We All Lost the Cold War, Princeton Studies in International History & Politics, Princeton, 1995), authored together with Janice Stein, Lebow is particularly critical of the neo-conservative political discourses in the United States, which focus solely on power and external threats. The unilateral foreign policies of several US administrations are damaging the principles on which American hegemonia had been established to begin with, antagonising allies and important third parties in the process. As a result, the US has to rely increasingly on bribes, threats, and the use of military power to get things done.

Classical realists understood that subordinate nations, even close allies, are never completely reconciled to their subordinate status and can be easily angered by the arrogance of the dominant power. If this anger escalates, these nations no longer see the dominant power as a hegemonia but as an arche. According to Lebow, this is exactly what is happening at present. The US is stuck in a triumphalist and self-congratulatory rhetoric, depicting itself as the world's leading nation, and identifying international justice with its own immediate self-interest, not willing to admit that the rest of the world increasingly perceives American power to be dangerous and out of control.

Chapter nine finally tries to build a more general vision of classical realism, seeking to show how it can be an appropriate foundation for a more inclusive discipline of political thinking that does not run away from the premise that the human condition is always defined by polarities and tensions that can not be overcome. The instability of personal and collective identities and the dynamism of societies ensure that all understanding of human and political behaviour is local and incomplete. This is a critique of radical realism but also of various kinds of political rationalism, and more in particular of those social sciences that want to reduce political action to narrowly defined laws of political behaviour.

The way Lebow has set up his book makes for the recurrent appearance of similar themes and arguments. Chapters two, seven and nine cover very much the same ground from slightly different angles. Their message could have been told with less recapitulation. That would have allowed Lebow to write a slimmer, and to some extent more coherent volume.

Chapters three to six, which deal with the works of Thucydides, Clausewitz and Morgenthau, suffer from an imbalance in detail and depth in textual analysis. Lebow apparently felt compelled to pay extra attention to Thucydides, not only because he is generally seen to be the founding father of realism but also because an analysis of a classical text in and of itself requires more introductory contextual information than materials from a more recent past.

As is, Lebow's text offers more detail in the chapters on Thucydides and (to a lesser extent) Clausewitz than in the space allotted to Morgenthau. Aside from the question of detail, Lebow's treatment of Thucydides and Clausewitz is also more convincing -- at least to a historian like myself (who is not a specialist in present-day international politics and its reflection). This is rather surprising, considering that Morgenthau's oeuvre falls within Lebow's primary field of expertise. It could well be that Lebow was not able to draw on established routines in his treatment of the older texts, with fresher and more acute results.

Lebow's book is both an exercise in scholarly hermeneutics and a work of engaged political reflection. In that respect he stands in a tradition brought to great fruition by thinkers such as Hannah Arendt. Like her, Lebow returns to important texts of our intellectual tradition to develop a meaningful dialogue with the past as well as a political stance in the current debates. The compository imbalances of his book notwithstanding, Lebow succeeds in this double project. The end result is both entertaining and revealing and might provide insights to political thinkers and politicians alike.

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