Legitimacy in Realist Thought

Political Theory 42 (3):314-337 (2014)
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What, if anything, can realism say about the normative conditions of political legitimacy? Must a realist political theory accept that the ability to successfully employ coercive power is equivalent to the right to rule, or can it incorporate normative criteria for legitimacy but without collapsing into a form of moralism? While several critics argue that realism fails to adequately differentiate itself from moralism or that it cannot coherently appeal to normative values so as to distinguish might from right, this article seeks to help develop a realist account of legitimacy by demonstrating how it can successfully and stably occupy this position between moralism and Realpolitik. Through this discussion, however, the article also argues that political rule necessitates the use of coercive power which is imperfectly legitimated, and that this blurs the distinction between politics and successful domination which lies at the heart of many recent accounts of political realism. In at least this sense, realism retains important and under-acknowledged affinities to Realpolitik.



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