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“Humanistic Political Realism:” Power Politics Via Media
Review by James L. Abrahamson

bookcoverA Primer in Power Politics. By Stanley Michalak. (Wilmington, DE: Scholarly Resources, 2001. Pp. xx, 233. $60 cloth.)

The United States, writes Franklin & Marshall professor Stanley Michalak, has made three attempts to achieve global peace and justice through rejection of traditional balance-of-power politics. Despite noble intentions, all three—the League of Nations, the Kellogg-Briand Peace Pact of 1928, and the United Nations—failed to establish lasting peace. A Primer in Power Politics represents Michalak’s effort to help Americans—both undergraduates and the general public—account for that failure by gaining an understanding of why nations behave as they do, how they attempt to promote their interests, and what Americans might reasonably expect from international bodies.

Eschewing both isolationism and an unrestrained pursuit of power, Michalak advocates “humanistic political realism” in which morality, ethics, and world opinion influence, but do not determine, America’s diplomacy and its use of force. In five chapters he sets out his analysis of “what states probably will or will not do in the pursuit of peace, order, and justice in the international system” as well as the limits on the utility of force, reason, and “principles ungrounded in experience.”

Using case studies and examples, the author first acquaints readers with an important reality: “International politics is primarily about interests and order; it is only secondarily about justice and moral principles.” In a political system without a superior government, nations are sovereign. Though their leaders most often honor international law, fulfill treaty obligations, keep peace with their neighbors, and work in harmony with other states, war remains an option whenever diplomacy fails to serve the interests of a nation so powerful it need not acquiesce when injured or threatened by another.

In an excellent chapter on the power relations shaping international politics, Michalak next describes the subsurface of conflicts between states that wish to change the international order (revisionists) and those seeking to preserve the existing distribution of power and territory (status quo nations). With excellent case studies and examples, he reveals how revisionist leaders often conceal their true intent (perhaps even from themselves), tie status quo powers in moral knots because their territories were often gained from past aggression, and in the end most often fail by demanding too much and inevitably rousing resistance. When status quo powers underestimate the threat posed by a revisionist state, they invite aggression by offering weak responses to early demands and acting hesitantly when they should be drawing the line the revisionist state must not cross. The latter failing is especially typical of democratic states because of their many well-intentioned citizens who favor “giving peace a chance.”

Exploring three international strategies that lie between total war and acquiescence—limited war, deterrence, and coercive diplomacy—Michalak urges national leaders to “be wary of the itch to use military force.” Neither moralist nor pacifist, however, he recognizes that regarding “force as the last resort is not always the best resort.” Neither, he adds, does it necessarily produce the most moral outcome. Again making skillful use of case studies, he convincingly illustrates the advantages of limited war and sketches the criteria for successful use of deterrence and coercion. Often overlooked by great powers engaged in a contest of wills with a small state is that the balance of military power often matters less than the balance of interests, which favors the nation with the greater stake in the conflict’s outcome and the greater willingness to sacrifice to achieve or defend its interest.

In the chapter entitled “Maintaining Peace,” Michalak offers readers two long case studies and a set of guidelines—the promised primer—with which citizens of a status quo power might assess policy options when faced with a revisionist state posing a fundamental challenge to the international order. In such situations, good intentions, appeals to principle, reliance on reason, and other forms of wishful thinking, he advises readers, have consistently failed to maintain world peace. Distinguishing between physical defense of a state’s territory—national defense—and securing its broader interests, access to the world, and ability to promote world peace—national security—the author rejects isolationism as a strategy choice. Armed power and a long-term commitment to deterrence, however, can force a revisionist nation with hegemonic ambitions to conclude that expansion may be too risky. The strategy of status quo powers should be “resisting where resistance will work, imposing costs on [the revisionist power] even when resistance fails, rolling back some of the revisionist’s gains [when the opportunity arises], and seeking to divide [the revisionist] coalition.”

Michalak closes his primer with an assessment of the presumed alternatives to war—arbitration, conciliation commissions, courts, treaties limiting the use of force, arms control, disarmament, collective security agreements, and international organization. Though all have their uses when parties to a dispute are willing to compromise in the interest of peace, none have prevented states from “resorting to violence whenever they cannot get what they want peacefully.” Even international organizations and general collective security commitments, he observes, rarely cause nations to “sacrifice lives and treasure to defend another nation for the sake of principle alone.”

Although originally reluctant to review what is, in part, a textbook, I now regard A Primer in Power Politics as a provocative guide for anyone interested in international politics. It correctly analyzes the international behavior of individuals who lead nations, and it exposes leadership errors that can lead to pursuit of poor international strategies. Because democracies seem particularly vulnerable to manipulation by a clever opponent who threatens their interests, Michalak’s no-nonsense approach should prove particularly useful to Americans and their European allies. As he reminds readers in an epilogue, “nothing other than satiation, self-restraint, or fear keeps states from employing force [either] to change things they do not like or to keep things the way they are. . . . The problem of war exists because, in many situations, some things are just more important than peace—things like survival, dignity, honor, justice, and security.” When faced with an opponent demanding fundamental changes in the international order, changes harmful to US interests, Americans and their leaders would do well to consult Michalak’s thoughtful primer.

authorDr. James L. Abrahamson, a member of the board of directors of American Diplomacy Publishers, is a retired army colonel who previously taught history, government, and strategy at the U. S. Military Academy, the Army War College, and Campbell University. The author of works on military reform, the impact of war on society, and the coming of the Civil War, his most recent book is Vanguard of American Atomic Deterrence: The Sandia Pioneers, 1946-1949 (Praeger, 2002).

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