Realpolitik – politics or diplomacy based primarily on power and on practical and material factors and considerations, rather than ideological notions or moralistic or ethical premises.
Is there room for ethics and morality in international politics? I ask this question after re-reading three excellent articles by Rolling Stone Magazine on Afghanistan, one of which resulted in the retirement of the US commander there, General McCrystal, for insubordination in 2010; and one which publicised the pychopathic perversions of Staff Sgt. Calvin Gibbs and his squad, convicted for the murder of unarmed Afghans and the keeping of body parts as kill souvenirs.
Also the executions of suspected insurgents and their associated “collateral damage” by US drone attacks, now likely numbering over 3000 in Afghanistan and Pakistan. These drones are armed and fueled locally but operated via satelite from the US by ground controllers – a real life Playstation.
Given the New Zealand Prime Minister’s long unflinching support for unilateral US action in Iraq and Afghanistan, and indeed that of many previous governments for US intervention, I am curious as to the formula both the US government and our Prime Minister apply to these operations. Is there a golden ratio of innocents to insurgents that is acceptable and if so what is it? Is it 5:1, 10:1 or in the case of a high level target even 50 or 100:1? At what point would the “utility” of removing one person be outweighed by the death inflicted on bystanders?
In the case of Iraq, did removing a few hundred high ranking regime members including Saddam Hussein (and let’s face it, it was regime change they were there for) justify killing several hundred thousand other Iraqis?
In Errol Morris’s superb Academy Award winning documentary The Fog of War (2003) Robert McNamara, the analytical CEO turned Secretary of Defence during the Vietnam War vividly outlines the methodology he applied to air warfare and kill ratios, not just during Vietnam (where millions died from US air attacks) but also to the fire bombing of Japanese cities at the end of WW2 under the command of General Le May. Along with Korea and Iraq it raises the question whether terrorising the civilian population and destroying the civilian infrastructure of a nation from the air is a sane way of censuring that nation’s leadership.
Although foreign policy is not generally a top priority during election campaigns in this country, the ethics of our political leaders should be, because in our political system there is no impediment to the cabinet signing military or foreign policy declarations, or committing New Zealand to military action without consulting Parliament. Why should we not know the moral boundaries of our most senior politicians when it comes to foreign affairs? John Key may not wish to remember what he thought of the 1981 Springbok Tour but shouldn’t we know what his, David Shearer’s and Russel Norman’s core code of morality is when it comes to not just military action but also how far they would go in speaking out against the unjust actions of other nations, even powerful ones like the US, Britain, France, Russia and China.
The last few years have seen a concerted campaign by governments to turn both domestic violence and school yard bullying into public health issues. It’s not okay to hit your wife or kids. It’s not okay to see or hear domestic violence and say nothing or actively cover it up. If you or someone you know are the object of bullying at school you are encouraged to speak up. These are the messages our children now get and quite rightly so.
So what if your government either openly or tacitly supports military action against another nation, or a group within a nation, with no declaration of war, and as a result hundreds, thousands or even millions of civilians are killed as collateral damage. What if your leaders say nothing because either they think its okay or they are scared of the reaction. What does that say to our kids? Violence, bullying and state sanctioned murder are okay but only if it’s not inNew Zealand. That our “friends” are so thin skinned they can brook no criticism and we are so afraid they will lash out at us economically that we should keep quiet.
Martin Luther King sums up nicely this aversion to the amorality of Realpolitik.
“On some positions, Cowardice asks the question, “Is it safe?” Expediency asks the question, “Is it politic?” And Vanity comes along and asks the question, “Is it popular?” But Conscience asks the question “Is it right?” And there comes a time when one must take a position that is neither safe, nor politic, nor popular, but he must do it because Conscience tells him it is right.”
Wouldn’t you like to know where the conscience of your politicians lies?