Power, gravity and the state of nature

Realism requires the use of power in the service of ethics.

August 12, 2008 20:26
4 minute read.
Power, gravity and the state of nature

russian troops 224.88. (photo credit: AP)


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The speed with which the Russian army crushed Georgia is a stark reminder of the fundamental role of raw military power. Power in politics is the equivalent of gravity in physics - an immutable natural law that can be avoided temporarily, but eventually reasserts its dominance. There has been no change in what political philosopher Thomas Hobbes described as the immutable "state of nature war," in which survival requires the ability to defend vital interests. History did not end with the fall of communism, and international law is often abused to justify the brutality of major powers. From the beginning, Georgia was hopelessly overpowered by Russia, and President Mikheil Saakashvili's strategy, which relied on wide international support for an embattled democracy and quick intervention by NATO, was never realistic. Vladimir Putin's resurgent Russia has been steadily eating into Georgian territory by supporting breakaway movements, and Saakashvili sought to reverse this process and gain international sympathy. He thought Georgia could make its move during the Beijing Olympics, when Putin would not want to be seen as a ruthless attacker. This was a foolish and costly mistake - Putin had no interest in protecting his image. At the same time, Washington is focused on nuclear threats from Iran and the ongoing war in Iraq. Both require some cooperation from Moscow, and the Americans have no interest in a confrontation in the Caucasus. IN PARALLEL, European envoys shuttled uselessly among various capitals, wringing their hands and talking about diplomatic solutions as Russia's armored columns rolled across the border and its air force bombed targets in Tbilisi. In the "old Europe," following the catastrophe of two world wars and the Holocaust, military power is ridiculed (and confused with militarism), Hobbes and political "realism" are disdained or not even discussed, and nothing has been learned from the failed deterrence that led to war in Serbia and Kosovo. Europeans cling to the myth they can always buy the oil to maintain their economies, whether from the Arabs or from Russia, and so there is no need to defend vital interests with an army. Similarly, the much heralded use of "soft power" as a modern globalized substitute for military and economic force was shown again to be irrelevant, particularly where democracy and liberal norms are absent. The two international human rights superpowers said to embody the soft power of international norms - Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch - issued a few limp and carefully phrased press statements which "called on all sides to respect the absolute ban against targeting civilians or carrying out attacks that indiscriminately harm civilians." Although four days of fighting in Georgia have reportedly resulted in more casualties than the six-week Lebanon War in 2006, these self-proclaimed moral watchdogs were far more active in the latter, mostly in repeating false reports from Hizbullah operatives and condemning Israel for "disproportionate response" and "war crimes." For the officials that control the agendas of Amnesty and HRW, Israel- and America-bashing are far more lucrative in money and in promoting their own power and influencethan taking on Putin's Russia. The centrality of power (real, not soft) in the UN Security Council was also apparent. Russia, a nuclear power and permanent member of the council, has vetoed all resolutions that hinted at criticism of its aggression in Georgia. Here as well, it is far easier to get a consensus to condemn Israel and appease the Islamic powers and oil producers that can devastate the European and Asian economies, regardless of the issue at hand. In the UN and other international institutions that use the façade of morality and international law, such as the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, and where Russia can prevent any action, it is old-fashioned Hobbesian power that counts. HOWEVER, THIS realistic analysis, albeit quite bleak, should not be taken to mean that there is no role for ethical principles such as democracy and human rights. Instead, to go beyond empty slogans and the manipulation of NGO officials, realism requires the use of power in the service of these principles. In the past, America has been able to use its dominance and power to defeat totalitarian regimes and advance democracy and human rights. These were also the main goals behind the intervention in Iraq, but these were undermined by America's weakness in implementing a simplistic policy as well as an economic crisis. These developments also encouraged Russian and Chinese resurgence. For Israel, the speed and brutality of the Russian attack on Georgia are another reminder that our survival in the Middle Eastern "state of nature" requires a realistic assessment of the power balance in the region. In Lebanon and Gaza, the hope that European and UN forces will prevent Hizbullah and Hamas from acquiring and using weapons is dangerously naive. In the case of Iran's nuclear program, America may still act effectively to insure its own interests, but Israel's own power and ability to defend against and deter attacks remain the most effective forms of insurance. The writer is executive director of NGO Monitor and chairman of the Political Studies Department of Bar-Ilan University.

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