Arms and the Man: The Insanity of Realism

Arms and the Man: The Insanity of Realism

History has until now been kind to the school of political theorists who are known, to themselves as well as to others, as the “realists.” The ineptitude, Sunday. school moralism, and easy optimism of unskilled diplomats and politicians has served as an easy target for their critical treatises. By the time the Eisenhower years were drawing to a close, they had made sizable reputations for profundity and sagacity, frequently by doing no more than suggest that ambassadors learn the language of their country or the name of its prime minister. Quoting copiously from Churchill, they have developed a style which marked them as sober, solid, sophisticated students of the “immeasurably complex” problems of international affairs.

Just as these years of preparation seemed ready to pay off, with a new President sympathetic to their caveats and critiques, history played a trick on the Realists. It threw up on the world scene a problem unlike those which had bedeviled nations in past years. This problem, making suddenly irrelevant their accumulated lore, was disarmament.

The catch-phrases of the new literature on disarmament reveal the novelty of our present situation: War has ceased to be an instrument of policy; the weapons are a source, rather than a reflection, of tension; the unending revolution in technology makes all strategies immediately obsolete; we must all live together or die together.

Now the stock-in-trade of the “political realists” is the long view—backward. Secret diplomacy in the eighteenth century, power politics in the nineteenth century, and the British foreign service in any century, are their standards of excellence in the conduct of present-day affairs. Their favorite gambit is the weary but patient explanation, to some enthusiastic johnny-come-lately, that “a knowledge of the history of negotiations on that point will reveal the impossibility of any significant alteration in the present situation.” They like to imagine themselves surrounded by blithefully ignorant optimists who impute to the Russians (or the Germans or the Japanese) absurdly humane motives. Then they can lower their voices to an impressive rumble, fix the poor fool with an avuncular eye, and explain the facts of life. It helps to have a German accent.

But, unfortunately for the Realist, there is no history of nineteenth-century negotiations on nuclear weapons. Nor are there experts on the subject, unless we so classify the physicists and engineers who invented them. The hard-won maxims of generations of conference tables is worse than useless to the Realist—it is a liability. He has learned that “war is always with us, and must be used as an instrument of policy.” But the most hopeful prediction that he can wring from the scientists is the possibility that we might survive one more war—not even the Realists can bear to think about a war after that! He has lea...