This is a column by John A. Tures, professor of political science at LaGrange College. He is a regular contributor to the Savannah Morning News.
Throughout the Russian invasion of Ukraine, I received several emails extolling either realism or a noted realist scholar. The sender usually adds a few words of enthusiasm about the theory. This is often because we hear little about the costs of going down this path of power politics, especially since this theory would treat Easter as a day of no particular significance to our lives.
Realism is one of the oldest theories in political science. Scholars often trace its origin to the Greek historian Thucydides and his account of the “Melian dialoguein his writings on the Peloponnesian War. As my students learn from reading the account, the small town of Melos insists that they be allowed to be neutral in the conflict, rather than submit to mighty Athens.
More from John Tures:The ‘Putinization’ of the Russian military shows us why autocracies end up losing
“War is hell, and you can’t refine it”
Faced with annihilation, the Melians appeal to their gods and to the injustice of the Athenian position. The Athenians ignore these arguments, with a “might does good” counter-argument, and claim that the gods either don’t care or will smile at them if they win. Athens ends up slaughtering the Melians, which the realists say proves their point.
In fact, any time a stronger side crushes a smaller side, some proponents of power politics consider it a victory for their theory. They seem to forget that Athens was shipwrecked in the Peloponnesian War, either showing that God took notice, or that others saw the cruelty of the Athenian actions and motivated them to fight harder, knowing what fate expected them otherwise.
Realistic theorists matter Machiavelli, Thomas Hobbes and von Clausewitz like their prophets. It’s an amoral theory, claiming that religious values simply don’t matter and shouldn’t be part of our foreign policy. Massacres are dismissed with quotes like those from General William T. Sherman, who said, “War is hell, and you can’t refine it.”
It allows some to wash their hands of the conflict and pretend not to be responsible when an innocent life faces torture and brutal execution. “It’s not my problem”, they can say. “The strong do what they want, and the weak suffer what they must,” Thucydides wrote of the Athenian position.
More from John Tures:Are GOP states more likely to reject absentee or absentee ballots?
Is death the end?
Certainly, the weak could form alliances to strengthen themselves and protect their lives; bonds have been formed around common political, economic and perhaps even moral values. These are countered by another realistic politician, Prime Minister Lord Palmerston, who once said, “England has no permanent friends or enemies, only permanent interests”. Perhaps no image could represent this better than Vladimir Putin at the end of a long table, powerful and alone.
There is no room for self-sacrifice, for helping the weak, or for advocating for anything other than gaining and using power.
Atonement? Forgiveness? These values are non-existent in realism. And in realism, power doesn’t really reflect anything spiritual. Only material and tangible assets, land, instruments of war or money would count for value, not soft power or anything divine.
It gives to Caesar what belongs to Caesar, so to speak, not to God what belongs to God.
In the same vein, the Romans were able to execute Jesus. Almost all the apostles and early disciples encountered some form of brutal martyrdom. “Lions 35, Christians 0,” a friend wrote on the chalkboard once at my Catholic high school, jokingly, of course. But who really won this conflict?
Like the Athenians, the Romans had their day in the sun, but it came and went, while Christianity remains, having adherents across the world, covering more territory than any Caesar could conquer. We can name more apostles, prophets, judges, disciples, and men and women of the Bible than we can name any Athenian ruler or Roman emperor. And that is the reality today.