Analysis & Opinions - Foreign Policy

Why Realists Oppose the War in Gaza

| May 21, 2024

If you're surprised by the movement's position, you never really understood it.

At first glance, you might think that foreign-policy realists wouldn't care one way or the other about what Israel is doing in Gaza. Yes, it's a humanitarian disaster and possibly a genocide, but is brutal behavior all that rare in the conduct of international politics? Aren’t realists the first to point out that in a world with no central authority, governments are going to take the gloves off if they think they will benefit and that no one will stop them? Consider how the United States reacted after Pearl Harbor or after Sept. 11, how Russia is acting in Ukraine, or how the contending forces are behaving in Sudan, and you'll see what I mean.

Yet prominent foreign-policy realists—including Chas Freeman, John Mearsheimer, and yours truly—have been highly critical of Israel's conduct in Gaza and the Biden administration's support for it. Isn’t it odd that adherents of a hard-nosed and unsentimental approach to world politics are suddenly talking about morality? 

Nope.

Some of the confusion arises from a common misconception about realism; namely, that its proponents think ethical considerations should play little or no role in the conduct of foreign policy. This is a silly charge, as even a casual reading of the realist canon would reveal. Hans J. Morgenthau wrote a whole book exploring the tensions between political efficacy and moral principles, and he emphasized that "the moral issues [of politics] raise their voice and demand an answer." E. H. Carr was not a genuine realist, but he did write one classic realist work and made it clear that one could not exclude considerations of morality from political life. Virtually all of Kenneth Waltz's writings on international politics focus on the problem of peace and the conditions or policies that reinforce or undermine it, and he repeatedly criticized the tendency of powerful states to commit evil acts in the pursuit of idealistic objectives. And prominent realists like George Kennan, Walter Lippmann, Morgenthau, Waltz, and their intellectual descendants opposed many of America's recent wars of choice, on both strategic and moral grounds.

Like all human beings, those of us who think realism provides a useful way to think about world politics also have moral convictions and would like to live in a world where those principles were observed more consistently. Indeed, realists care about the moral dimensions of international politics precisely because they recognize how easy it is for states and other political groups to commit immoral acts. Realists are not surprised by what is happening in Gaza—as noted above, plenty of other states have done horrendous things when they felt their vital interests were at stake—but that hardly means that realists approve of what Israel and the United States are doing....

For more information on this publication: Belfer Communications Office
For Academic Citation: Walt, Stephen M.“Why Realists Oppose the War in Gaza.” Foreign Policy, May 21, 2024.

The Author

Stephen Walt