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It is kind to be cruel: the humanity of American Realism

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  26 June 2003


‘No one loves a political realist’, Robert Gilpin once lamented. A major reason for this hostility towards realism is its sceptical view of the role of ethical norms (principled beliefs about state action) in international relations. Some critics dislike realism because they think it leads to an immoral international order. Thucydides' famous adage that the ‘strong do what they can and the weak suffer what they must’ is widely interpreted as evidence that one of realism's founding fathers was an advocate of an immoral approach to statecraft. Niccoló Machiavelli's well-known advice to his Prince that it is politics that determines ethics, not vice versa, reinforces these widely-held views of realism's amorality. The fact that modern realism has been influenced by unsavoury individuals like the German theorist Carl Schmitt, whose indisputable intellectual brilliance was tainted by his overly close association with the Third Reich, leads many to see a continuing link between realpolitik and evil in the international system. Thus, Richard Ashley spoke for many when he concluded that

Research Article
© 2003 British International Studies Association

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