Duties Beyond the Borders: On the Limit, and Possibilities of Ethical International Politics. By Stanley Hoffmann. Syracuse University Press, $18.
October 7, 1981        

I once attended a talk by Stanley Hoffmann on something like “The Vocation of the Social Scientist.” A melancholy Hoffmann explained that the lot of the social scientist was impotence and despair; institutions in general and government bureaucracies in particular were complex and intractable; the most an individual could do was to maintain a civilized skepticism and tend the sacred flame of Reason in its academic precincts. Afterwards, from the audience, I asked callowly why more social scientists didn’t at least speak the truth to power, since some truths were plain and American power so malignant. Hoffmann regarded me wearily and replied, “The world is more complicated than that.”

On the evidence of Hoffmann’s latest book, the world may be too complicated for morality altogether. “Duties Beyond Borders” is a treatise on the ethics of international affairs, and more particularly on four current but perennial issues: the use of force, human rights, distributive justice, and world order. Typically, each issue is shown to admit of three possible formulations, two of them simplistic, and one faithful to the ineluctable complexity of things—Left, Right, and Hoffmann.

The Right believes that all’s fair in war, that national security comes before human rights, that rich nations have no moral obligations to poor ones, and that a world order transcending nation states is impossible, contrary to human nature, etc. Hoffmann is at his best refuting realpolitik of this sort.

The Left believes that force is only justified as collective self-defense against armed attack; that to secure human rights (including economic and social rights) is the highest purpose of national and international governments; that the vast disparity in levels of well-being between rich and poor nations is indefensible; and that something other than a collection of mutually suspicious and competitive nation states will more likely result in planetary cooperation (or at least survival). These are reasonable positions, and Hoffmann does not squarely disagree with them, but argues that their advocacy must be tempered by a proper appreciation of the “constraints” upon statesmen.

Here we encounter a leitmotiv of nearly all Hoffmann’s writings: the desire to suffuse discussion and policy with a sense of limits. During the Vietnam war, the burden of his commentary was the limits of American power, of our ability to achieve our war aims at an acceptable cost. During the Carter years, he emphasized the limits of American benevolence, of our ability to spread democratic ideals and respect for human rights to a disappointingly mistrustful and insecure second and third world. Against the moralistic or geopolitical crusades of left and right, Hoffmann has cultivated, and preached, a moderating skepticism. (Of course, skepticism, too, has its limits. Hoffmann recently wrote in “The New York Review of Books” that America’s purpose in Vietnam was to “protect a small country from aggression.” One must be as credulous as any Reaganite to believe this, the central tenet of government propaganda throughout the American invasion.)

What, then, are the limits of ethical international politics? They are derived from domestic public opinion (the source of the statesman’s own power) and, above all, from the requirements of the “national interest.” In a brief statement of what is perhaps the book’s central argument, Hoffmann writes: “The first duty of the statesman is to his own community; he is not at the helm to abolish the [‘game of states’], although it is proper to ask him to make it more moderate and sportslike. A policy that aims at protecting the nation’s interest while minimizing the risks for all others is morally preferable to a more ambitious attempt at transcending the game, which weakens the international order and leaves all nations less secure.”

This passage begs a number of questions. Why shouldn’t statesmen aspire to abolish international competition, the “game of states,” with its recurrently lethal results and its unthinkable possibilities? By whom is the “nation’s interest” defined? On any rational definition, isn’t the nation’s interest better served by mutual aid than by the game of states? What can be meant by “a more ambitious attempt at transcending the game, which weakens the international order and leaves all nations less secure”?

Hoffmann offers no examples of ambitious attempts to transcend international rivalry, so his intriguing prediction that this would leave all nations less secure cannot be verified. But many of the policy dilemmas he evokes are indeed excruciating—given the constraints he posits. Given a cold war, one cannot freely criticize the human rights violations of one’s allies (though one can at least, as Hoffmann notes, refrain from supplying the abundant training and equipment which make repression possible). Given a competitive world economy, trade sanctions or refusals to sell arms and nuclear technology may result only in loss of markets. Universalist ideals of distributive justice, entailing a radically new international economic order, are impractical because “that is not the way politics can work.” And so on. Unfortunately, except for a tantalizing but isolated reference to “injustices that are the patterned products of economic systems, social stratification, or ethnic biases,” Hoffmann, like most political scientists, takes interstate (and instrastate) conflict as a datum rather than a problem—the problem.

Near the end of his career, Hans Morgentbau wrote, “It should by now have become obvious that the great issues of our day—the militarization of American life, the Vietnam war, race conflicts, poverty, the decay of the cities, the destruction of the natural environment—are not susceptible to rational solutions within the existing system of power relations… Poverty on a large scale, like the decay of the cities and the ruination of the natural environment, is a result not of accidental misfortunes but of social and economic policies in whose continuation powerful social groups have a vested interest…In brief, the overriding single issue, of which all others are but specific manifestations, is the distribution of power within American society.” Mutatis mutandis, this is where Hoffmann’s inquiry ought to begin—far beyond the scholarly pale.

There is a cruel jibe at scholars in Nietzsche’s “The Use and Abuse of History”: “History itself always remains beautifully ‘objective’ to them, as men, in fact, who could never make history themselves.” Considering the history made by Hoffmann’s erstwhile associates in Harvard’s Government Department, Kissinger and Brzezinski, we should perhaps esteem his academic monasticism. Nor has he formulated apologetics for barbarism, like an other colleague, Samuel Huntington, inventor of the euphemism “forced-draft urbanization” for B-52 bombing. Nor, finally, has he become a clown, like yet another colleague, Daniel Patrick Moynihan. (Harvard’s contribution to contemporary politics is peerless.)

But to have kept one’s dignity is not enough. The exercise of American military and economic power in the 20th century merits some stronger response than expressions of fastidious skepticism as to its efficacy. Hoffmann refuses to “indulge in flings of moralism that assume . . . that traditional state behavior will be transformed by indignation and exhortation alone.” This is pique; I doubt anyone believes, or has ever believed, that indignation and exhortation alone will transform anything. And surely the behavior of states (most usefully one’s own) justifies an occasional fling of moralism.

Withal, anyone prominently attacked in “Commentary” must be, one supposes, fundamentally decent and honorable. Despite his shortcomings, Hoffmann is a force for, or at least a gesture toward, humane reasonableness. One might even counterpose his civilized moderation to Kissinger’s geopolitical Schwarmerei. Unlimited power provokes mystical self delusion; hence the ages of Dulles, the Brightest, and Kissinger. Limited power calls for chastened self-knowledge; hence, possibly, after the Reagan debacle (assuming there is an aftermath), the age of Hoffmann. It can’t be any worse.

But it won’t be inspiring. Another memory: in 1968, when Harvard’s SDS besieged and harassed a recruiter from Dow Chemical, Hoffmann interceded with the administration for the offending students. Next day, at lecture, he scolded them and the rest of us undergraduates for our impatience of politics, our arrogant idealism, our terrible simplifications. He is an impressive lecturer; tamely, we applauded our comeuppance. Now, I wouldn’t.