Realism on the rack
A reader writes in from Colombia to suggest a topic: "what is a/the ‘realist perspective’ on waterboarding?" My answer: for starters, realism doesn’t take a normative or ethical position re waterboarding (or other morally questionable practices). Realism is a positive theory of international politics, not a normative theory, and it is essentially amoral. It explains ...
A reader writes in from Colombia to suggest a topic: "what is a/the 'realist perspective' on waterboarding?"
A reader writes in from Colombia to suggest a topic: "what is a/the ‘realist perspective’ on waterboarding?"
My answer: for starters, realism doesn’t take a normative or ethical position re waterboarding (or other morally questionable practices). Realism is a positive theory of international politics, not a normative theory, and it is essentially amoral. It explains why international politics is a competitive arena and why states act as they do, but it is mostly silent on whether this behavior is morally acceptable. Put differently, it doesn’t purport to tell national leaders the morally correct thing to do. This is not to say that realists do not have moral beliefs of their own (which could include a firm belief that waterboarding was morally wrong). But that’s not a conclusion that follows from the premises of realist theory.
Of course, realists aren’t surprised when states commit morally dubious acts, whether it is dropping bombs on civilians in wartime (see under Gaza), or torturing suspected terrorists. Realism depicts international politics as a rough business, and in the absence of a central authority that can enforce moral or legal constraints, realists expect most states will be willing to cross these lines on occasion. That’s why realists emphasize both the importance of power and the need for prudent statecraft: if you are weak or foolish, other states might do something pretty nasty to you. And a case can be made that following realist principles can also produce more moral outcomes as well.
That said, I think there is a fairly strong realist case against waterboarding. Realism emphasizes that foreign and defense policy should advance the national interest, and that one way to do that is to minimize the number of enemies one faces and maximize the amount of international support one can expect. Using waterboarding and other forms of torture undermines both goals, especially for a country as strong as the United States.
Other countries naturally worry about the concentration of power in American hands, and they will worry all the more if they think that power might be exercised arbitrarily or cruelly, even against suspected bad guys. Relying on waterboarding and other forms of torture also makes the United States look hypocritical; if we are willing to violate our professed principles in this realm, can others count on anything we say in other areas? Torturing people also gives our enemies a powerful rhetorical argument to use against us and makes us seem more like them, which in turn makes it harder for us to rally others to our side. And the real kicker is the likelihood that the information gained through torture is probably not as reliable as information gleaned through other methods, because someone being tortured is likely to say anything that will get the inquisitors to stop. A realist might accept waterboarding as a regrettable necessity if it provided information that was absolutely essential to protecting the country (which is why those who support the use of torture tend to rely on "ticking bomb" scenarios), but a number of experts on interrogation have cast serious doubts on that view.
Note that this last point is not a moral argument against waterboarding; it is the sort of pragmatic argument that flows from realist theory. One could make independent moral arguments against this practice as well.
For what it’s worth, I think waterboarding is a bad idea on both grounds.
Stephen M. Walt is a columnist at Foreign Policy and the Robert and Renée Belfer professor of international relations at Harvard University. Twitter: @stephenwalt
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