The second discursive trap, however, is to assign the term "humanitarian" to a policy of justice. Because in this way it acquires the positive aspect of moral magnanimity, but at the same time it becomes something to which one is obligated not inherently, but only in the sense of a praiseworthy act – if time and money allow. But fulfilling the responsibilities of justice – such as offering protection to persecuted persons, promoting human rights and putting an end to oppression and exploitation – is not a big-hearted or even a charitable act, but instead a duty. Pure and simple. The fact that this can also be a smart move is another, realistic consideration.
The two discursive traps of realpolitik and humanitarianism must be avoided. Thus the implicit thesis of Germany's chancellor regarding the refugee issue, namely that realism and humanitarianism coincide, is on the one hand a fundamental provocation. The reason is clear: It says that non-humanitarian realpolitik is unreal, that the tough guys are only dreaming, even if real blood flows through their dreams. But on the other hand, we must proceed further than to this sort of humanitarian-realistic attitude: The realism that is required is not only the one that recognizes the threat to the world order. In addition, it must not only orient itself toward existing law and human rights, but also conduct a merciless inventory of the many ways in which we maintain our western lifestyle at the expense of others who live in a global economy from which we always benefit more than they do, and in which they only profit to the extent that we allow. This recognition would also be incumbent upon a realistic realism, and uttering this truth requires progressive parties that have links to socially critical movements and avoid not only smug western complacency, but also the mistaking of a structure-altering global policy with sporadic "developmental aid."
Only genuinely progressive parties would be capable and willing to think through a global policy of that sort so that it doesn't cause suffering to those in western countries who in any case do not number among the winners in globalization. There are already such proposals as a global financial transaction tax, the closing of tax loopholes or a global capital gains tax; they simply have to be taken seriously and transformed into a transnational political program, so that at least structural funds become possible for fighting poverty. But this requires a political component: In international negotiations, poorer countries must not be pushed into the role of supplicants but must be treated as partners with equal rights.
The time has come for a particular type of realism, because policies promoting justice can just maybe work as realpolitik when they are no longer an optional choice, but when the influx and protest from the South confronts the West with a blunt alternative: solidarity or barbarism.
Rainer Forst is a professor of political theory and philosophy at the Goethe University of Frankfurt.
Translated by George-Frederick Takis