Dueling Realisms


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“President Obama’s Nobel Peace Prize speech had hardly left his lips before it began to be closely examined through many lenses. Rarely has the tension between realism and idealism in practical statecraft been so accurately articulated in a speech by a powerful political leader.

Because the pull in both directions was so clear, referencing King and Gandhi alongside just war theory, some saw the speech as an occasion for disillusionment, others as a wise admission of the real conditions we face on the planet, and still others as a facile display of moral sophistry.

But it is surely also a tremendous opportunity for citizens of the United States to dialogue about competing visions for our own and the Earth’s future. Since we like to think of ourselves as compassionate but above all pragmatic and realistic, it is helpful to delve into the whole notion of realism and true self-interest….”

Author: Winslow Myers, author of “Living Beyond War: A Citizen’s Guide,” and serves on the board of Beyond War
Published in: Huntington News Network (home page: http://www.huntingtonnews.net/) in West Virginia, and at BuzzFlash.com (www.buzzflash.com)
Date: December 13 and 14, 2009

For the full article:
Dueling Realisms
(595 words)
by Winslow Myers

President Obama’s Nobel Peace Prize speech had hardly left his lips before it began to be closely examined through many lenses. Rarely has the tension between realism and idealism in practical statecraft been so accurately articulated in a speech by a powerful political leader.

Because the pull in both directions was so clear, referencing King and Gandhi alongside just war theory, some saw the speech as an occasion for disillusionment, others as a wise admission of the real conditions we face on the planet, and still others as a facile display of moral sophistry.

But it is surely also a tremendous opportunity for citizens of the United States to dialogue about competing visions for our own and the Earth’s future. Since we like to think of ourselves as compassionate but above all pragmatic and realistic, it is helpful to delve into the whole notion of realism and true self-interest.

Balance of power realism has informed the decisions of our leaders from the Monroe doctrine forward. In our own time examples abound, such as the pitiless realpolitik that put the U.S. on the side of Iraq in their 8-year war with Iran in order to keep either from becoming dominant.

As the nations of the world gather in Copenhagen, new definitions of power-balance are emerging. Which nations have the trees that are the lungs of the planet? Which have adequate water, the lifeblood of agriculture? Which have the most acres of arable soil? Who is in the best position to reduce their carbon footprint, in gestures that will affect the health of the whole? The primal resources of life are becoming the new metrics of power.

As terrorism has begun to render the strategy of massive deterrence irrelevant, might we question the realism of spending vast sums on the Cold War triad of submarines, bombers and missiles? As this “realism” of deterrence becomes obsolete, the realism of prevention asserts it viability—not least because it has the advantage of being orders of magnitude less expensive. Is it better to fight a trillion-dollar war for water, or build million-dollar desalinization plants? Is it better to spend a million dollars per soldier per year in an occupation, or spend a thousand dollars a year on a teacher? Is it more realistic to plan to fight wars over resources expected to become scarce, or to plan measures that directly head off scarcity? Is it realistic to maintain hundreds of bases on foreign soil in order to ensure the continuous—though diminishing—flow of oil? Or to build thousands of windmills in the Midwest that not only lessen our dependence upon oil from the Middle East but also lighten our own carbon footprint?

Finally, there is the realism of our political rhetoric. No one wants to be labeled an appeaser. Radio talk show hosts brook no other view than their own and mistake indignant grievance for a normal tone of voice. The realism of dialogue, by contrast, is pluralistic. It assumes the possibility that a higher truth, a more creative idea, a shared vision, might arise from two or more parties listening respectfully to each other.

There is your truth and there is my truth, your realism and mine. But your truth and my truth nest in the truth, a state of final clarity we may never reach but toward which we can aspire. The reality of nuclear weapons brought another brilliant young president, back in 1961, to one truth that is true for all: “man will put an end to war, or war will put an end to man.”

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Winslow Myers is the author of “Living Beyond War: A Citizen’s Guide,” published by Orbis Press, and serves on the board of Beyond War