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David Brooks Flunks International Relations Theory 101

By Daniel Warner | NYTX | February 10, 2013

David Brooks’ op-ed piece in the February 9 International Herald Tribune – the global edition of the New York Times – is an insult to any serious student of international relations and political theory as well as to Yale University. As part of a course at Yale on Grand Strategy that he is “taking part in” – Brooks does not say if he is a student in the course or teaching the course – the editorialist wheels out the 16th century Florentine political philosopher Niccolo Machiavelli’s The Prince  to justify the use of drones. Citing passages often used by Realists to justify whatever action fits their aims above and beyond moral considerations, Brooks says that “in the real world, a great leader is called upon to create a civilized order for the city he serves. To create that order, to defeat the forces of anarchy and savagery, the virtuous leader is compelled to do hard things, to take, as it were, the sins of the situation upon himself…Sometimes bad acts produce good outcomes. Sometimes a leader has to love his country more than his soul.”

Brooks’ caricature of Machiavelli allows him to pose a dilemma that has appeared regularly in Realist literature as a binary division between idealism and realistic power politics that is now couched in terms of using drones. “Do I have to be brutal to protect the people I serve? Do I have to use drones, which sometimes kill innocent children, in order to thwart terror and save the lives of my own?” Brooks asks. The political theorist Michael Walzer wrote about this dilemma as “The Problem of Dirty Hands”.

If I were grading Brooks as a student, I would begin by noting in the margins of his paper that his understanding of Machiavelli is terribly superficial. Machiavelli’s advice to the Prince must be understood in the context of the time and place, as R.B.J. Walker has brilliantly shown in “The Prince and ‘the pauper’”. Renaissance life, as sophisticated as it was culturally, was centuries before the codification of public international law, the Geneva Conventions on international humanitarian law, the Genocide Convention, etc. The limited world of the Italian city-states in no way resembles today’s global society. To compare advising the ruler of a small city-state in 16th century Italy with advising President Obama today on the use of drones (or whatever else Brooks can imagine would be justified) is like comparing apples and oranges. Although Brooks praises the fact that “we’ve inherited an international order that restrains conflict,” he cannot go beyond that statement to see that the international order that he praises also restrains the killing of non-combattants by drones, just as it restrains torture. The very basis of that order, and what distinguishes the civilized from the barbaric, is adherence to international law, not the projection of naked power.

David Brooks’ use of Machiavelli is not deserving of a serious first year college student (Will he next be quoting Thucydides’ Melian Dialogue to justify nuking a country when negotiations fail?). Yale’s political science department has long been a leader in the field. By quoting Machiavelli as he does, and then to add legitimacy to the quotations by citing his presence at Yale, Brooks disqualifies himself as a competent student and no more than a simplistic power politics Realist who has no right to whisper in the ear of the Prince, let alone be an editorialist for an institution that considers itself the paper of record.

Mr. Brooks, I do hope you will do better on your next paper. This one is not up to serious standards. You fail.

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Daniel Warner is a political scientist living in Geneva, Switzerland, and the author of “An Ethic of Responsibility in International Relations”. Daniel is a contributing writer to NYTX’sGeneva Dateline” column.

February 10, 2013 Posted by | Mainstream Media, Warmongering, Subjugation - Torture, Timeless or most popular, Wars for Israel | , , , , , , , | Leave a comment