Peace without perfection: The intersections of realist and pacifist thought

Published date01 March 2018
Date01 March 2018
Subject MatterArticles
Cooperation and Conflict
2018, Vol. 53(1) 42 –60
© The Author(s) 2017
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DOI: 10.1177/0010836717728539
Peace without perfection:
The intersections of realist
and pacifist thought
Jeremy Moses
It is common in international relations thought to view realism and pacifism as lying at opposite
ends of a spectrum on the permissibility of war. Pacifism, from this point of view, is necessarily
antithetically opposed to and incompatible with realist thinking on the use of force. This article
aims to counter this view and raise some critical questions concerning the incompatibilities
of realism and pacifism through an examination of some points at which they may be seen to
intersect. In pursuing these intersections, the first part of the article sets out the foundations of
classical realist thought, focusing on the inherently conflictual depiction of human nature as the
basis for a theory that insists upon the inescapable possibility of political violence. It then departs
from the conventional narrative by setting out the intersections of pacifist and realist thought
concerning the illogical and dangerous attempts to moralise war-fighting through the application
of just war theory. Finally, it is proposed that a synthesis of some elements of pacifist and realist
thought could lead to the development of new theories and strategies attuned to the promotion
of non-violence in an inherently unstable and conflict-prone world.
International relations theory, just war theory, pacifism, realism
It is generally argued that realist political thought is the polar opposite of pacifism on
questions of war and peace, with pacifism imposing a strict moral rejection of all war and
realism freeing war of moral limitation entirely. Between these poles lies the via media
of just war theory, which aims at the limitation of war through the development of moral
and legal principles that can help us to determine when and how the waging of war may
be considered just (Reichberg, 2008: 12–16). In constructing his ‘moral continuum’ from
Corresponding author:
Jeremy Moses, Department of Political Science and International Relations, University of Canterbury,
Private Bag 4800, Christchurch 8140, New Zealand.
728539CAC0010.1177/0010836717728539Cooperation and ConflictMoses
Moses 43
‘warism to pacifism’, Duane Cady, for example, places ‘war realism’, the view that ‘war
itself is not an appropriate object of moral consideration’, at the ‘most extreme’ end of
his spectrum. Realist views on war, therefore, are seen as being more distant from and
irreconcilable with pacifist thinking than the via media of ‘just-warism’ (Cady, 1989:
21–23). Just war theory, in this sense, appears in the attempt to reconcile the pacifist
desire for peace with the reality of the ongoing threat of war. Such a positioning identi-
fies pacifists, on the one hand, as being excessively moral, to the extent that they are out
of touch with reality. Hence, in debates over the justifiability of violence in response to
physical threats to ourselves or to others, pacifists will generally be confronted with
‘realistic’ analogies of personal self-defence against an assailant or to what are seen as
the most obvious and compelling examples of ‘just wars’ from human history. Thus, as
Cady puts it, ‘[e]ntertaining pacifist thoughts means being prepared repeatedly to face
questions about reacting to a mugger and confronting Hitler as well as being realistic,
self-righteous, and self-sacrificial’ (Cady, 1989: 95; see also Holmes, 1989: 275–279).
Those who fall at the other end of the conventional spectrum of thinking about morality
on war, on the other hand, run the risk of being identified with the ‘cynical realism’ of the
Machiavellian focus on ‘naked “reason of state”’ at the expense of universal moral prin-
ciple (Yoder, 1996: 34).
In an attempt to destabilise and reconfigure this conventional spectrum of views on
the morality of war, this paper will propose that the realist view ‘that it is wrong or
impossible to think morally about war’ potentially has much in common with a pacifist
position, ‘which accepts no war as morally permissible’ (Yoder, 1996: 1). The broader
purpose of making such an argument is to advance the development of what Dustin
Howes (2009) refers to as a ‘credible pacifism’ and what I will here call a ‘pacifist
ethos’.1 For if it is the moral universalism or absolutism of pacifism that renders it un-
credible from a political point of view, then perhaps we can draw upon the more polit-
ically-focused ethics of realism in developing new ways of thinking about and
promoting a consistently anti-war position without drifting toward the conventional
via media of just war theory? If such an argument can be established with any credibil-
ity, it might then serve to dislodge just war theory from its comfortable middle ground
between realism and pacifism, in turn making it more difficult to advance moral ration-
ales for war that may at times serve to enable rather than limit the possibilities for
states to justify their wars.
The orientation for this article, in this context, is to consider the possibility of devel-
oping a pacifist ethos that maintains an absolute rejection of the morality or legitimacy
of war as a tool of statecraft by engaging in what Brett Steele (Steele, 2007) has termed
a ‘reflexive realist’ approach to the problem. ‘Reflexive realism’, which is associated
with the work of Michael Williams (Williams, 2005, 2007), Ned Lebow (Lebow, 2003),
William Scheuerman (Scheuerman, 2007, 2011), and Vibeke Schou Tjalve (Tjalve,
2008; Tjalve and Williams, 2015), amongst others (Cozette, 2008a, 2008b; Molloy,
2006, 2010), is particularly valuable in this context, as it emerges out of sustained reflec-
tion on the interplay of ethics and politics that aims ‘to restore classical realist principles
of agency, prudence and the recognition of limitations as part of an attempt to provide a
practical-ethical view of international politics’ (Steele, 2007: 273). Classical realist eth-
ics, as Felix Rösch argues, can in this context be deployed ‘for a revival of a democratic

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