Should academics be policy-relevant realists or cosmopolitan idealists?


One of Oscar Wilde’s more memorable and inspiring aphorisms claimed that a map of the world without utopia on it is not worth looking at. While many might agree with the sentiment, the theory – let alone the practice – looks increasingly difficult and unlikely in the current international environment.

Optimists might argue that this makes creative thinking about the future of the world more imperative and necessary than ever. Sceptical realists and members of the policymaking community – often one and the same in practice – might counter that much of what comes out of academia has little relevance for the day-to-day business of running foreign policy and keeping the nation safe.

One might think that national defence might be treated as a pretty uncontroversial, foundational issue when considering foreign policy in particular. One might be wrong.

One of the big ideas to come out of the professional study of international relations over the last few years is that the way we define “security” is primarily a function of the conventional realist wisdom that often pays little heed to the needs and interests of individual human beings.

Too often, the argument goes, the interests of nations are put before the interests of people. There is no shortage of examples around the world that bear out this claim. The alternative could and should be a focus on “human security” that actually thinks about the lived experience of individual human beings and the factors that do or don’t keep them safe.

Policymakers would likely claim that without economic development, state capacity, and territorial integrity, all the noble sentiments about the rights of individuals are worthless. There are all-too-many examples of failed states around the world which support that argument, too. Better too much state than too little, perhaps.

Such pragmatism might seem both apt and justifiable at a time when some of the familiar foundations and apparent certainties of the international order seem to be fracturing before our eyes. For all its possible failings, the current international order has been very good for countries such as Australia, at least.

Surely we would want our policymakers and academics to be focusing on strategies to maintain our security and lifestyles in such troubled times?

Perhaps not. One of the other big ideas among at least some international relations scholars, philosophers, environmentalists and (yes) even some economists is that security is necessarily something that cannot be achieved by individual countries acting on their own. If genuine widespread security is actually possible, it will necessarily have to have a global dimension, a possibility highlighted by climate change above all else.

So what is to be done? According to some of the smartest exponents of contemporary international relations theory in Australia and elsewhere, what is needed is the development of “cosmopolitan ethical principles” that offer an alternative to the existing state-based model. Such principles should be predicated on the idea that we can collectively develop a global rather than a national frame of policy reference.

Given the centrality of the state – or some very powerful states, at least – in determining how the world is currently organised, this sounds like idealistic wishful thinking at best. It is hard to imagine the likes of Vladimir Putin, Bashar al-Assad, Xi Jinping or Recep Tayyip Erdoğan having an epiphany along these lines.

It is not even possible to imagine smart leaders like Barack Obama or Malcolm Turnbull doing so. Powerful domestic vested interests, an entrenched conventional wisdom about the primacy of the state, and the sheer difficulty of doing anything about complex international problems where no agreement exists help to explain why.

It is understandable why policymakers and the wider public might feel that the sort of ideas academics have about international problems are hopelessly out of touch with contemporary reality. In some ways they undoubtedly are. And yet it is also clear that the way the world is currently organised is unjust, unstable and unsustainable – whether one takes possible ethical obligations seriously or not.

It is important to remember the so-called “golden era” of postwar development, which was so beneficial to countries such as Australia, was anything but for many of the planet’s other inhabitants. We are now painfully conscious of this reality as it has the capacity to directly impinge on our formerly insulated and privileged existences – be it through climate change, economic crisis, terrorism or all the other dispiriting staples of modern life.

Alternatives to the current order – possibly radical or unlikely ones – are plainly needed. While I’m personally sceptical about the chances of cosmopolitan thinking being taken seriously, I admire and applaud those who at least try to conceive of alternatives.

Wilde also pointed out that while all of us live in the gutter, some are looking at the stars. Long may they continue to do so.