The Archimedean Lever: Right in the Face of Might

Sari Nusseibeh, President, Al-Quds University

The human propensity to use violence as force or to threaten its use (whether explicitly or implicitly) for the achievement of ends is quite common. This propensity in the political sphere is so common that it has led many to believe, especially in the context of international relations theories, that force is necessary, in the sense of its being irreducible or inevitable. Typically force has been viewed, in Machiavellian fashion, as the midwife in the birth of political institutions or systems. More generally power, as a second-generation and a generic notion encompassing all of the state’s negotiating cards or assets, including, typically, that state’s military capacity (whether independent or indirect, through alliances and agreements), has been regarded, alongside self-interest, as the main determinant of relations between states. The political world map, it has been argued, is determined by power and interest. In short, states in this view, whether at birth or in the course of their existence, are not regarded as moral agents, but as power brokers. This can be observed at many levels, including, even in peacetime, typically, at the level of negotiating international trade or border treaties or agreements between them. Typically and in the first instance, states do not seek justice or fairness in the process of formulating such treaties or agreements, but the fulfillment of interest, the achievement of which is viewed as being a function of the power they possess (Albin, ).

Let us assume that this so-called realist view in international relations theories is correct, and that the building mortar with which states and political systems are constructed is power and interest. It would then only be logical to extrapolate from this that legal as well as moral norms associated with those systems—or constructed and adhered to by those systems—must in some basic manner be secondary to, if not wholly derivable from, the mortar with which these systems have been constructed. This observation is so simple but fundamental, that a fuller explanation of it is in order. If one were to view, in a unilateralist manner, human action and human forms of association brought about and reinforced by such action as being informed in the first instance by such considerations as power and self-interest, then one would be forced to concede that moral principles, as well as the legal norms that come to express them, are but secondary outgrowths or constructs or appendages whose origins are rooted in that power and self-interest. Furthermore, such principles and norms, unless specifically conceived to undermine the primary principle of self-interest—a matter which the realist view does not entertain as being consistent with its understanding of human nature—will by definition play the role of reinforcing that self-interest, and the political order or system that is built upon it. Indeed, even any formal action undertaken by such systems, whether an act of war or of charity, must necessarily come to be defined in its bare bones as being simply an act that reinforces an exclusively self-interest— and power-based human order.

Understandably, such an explicit formulation of policy would not sit well with unilateralist world powers, which would like to have their cake as well as eat it. For example, if they wished to carry out a war, they may like to present this as a just war, meaning both that it is a war that is aimed at achieving justice as an end, and that is being carried out justly. If they

The National Academies | 500 Fifth St. N.W. | Washington, D.C. 20001
Copyright © National Academy of Sciences. All rights reserved.
Terms of Use and Privacy Statement