Realism and Its Discontents


POLITICS AMONG NA TIONS: The Struggle for Power and Peace by Hans J. Morgenthau and Kenneth W. Thompson.

Alfred A. Knopf, $37.95.

HANS MORGENTHAU, who died in the summer of 1980, at the age of seventy-six, has justly been called the pope of realism in foreign policy. Morgenthau was a refugee from Nazi Germany. The fact that he had studied, practiced, and taught law in Europe made his influential textbook Politics Among Nations (originally published in 1948 and now available in a new edition prepared bv his former student Kenneth W. Thompson) even more remarkable. For it was a declaration of war on the legalistic and moralistic tradition that had prevailed in American foreign policy. What Morgenthau offered as an alternative was “realism"—a highly ambitious effort both at theory and at policy advice, summed up in the very first pages of the book, where he listed “six principles of political realism.”

The tradition Morgenthau attacked was that of Woodrow Wilson—in a sense, the culmination of the liberal approach to foreign affairs. This tradition brought together two main historical strands: Immanuel Kant, with his plan for perpetual peace through a confederation of states endowed with representative governments, and the British nineteenth-century liberals, with their vision of a world of nations linked through trade and ruled by the power of enlightened public opinion. It was a visionary conception insofar as it looked forward to, even predicted, the end of war as a means for resolving conflicts, the subordination of conflict to the common interests of mankind, and the sheathing of naked power in domestic restraints and international agreements for reducing armaments and submitting disputes to impartial third parties. Out of that tradition the modern international organization had emerged—first the League of Nations, then the United Nations— with its ambitious attempt to outlaw aggression and to provide for collective security against it. The goal was nothing less than the drastic curbing of state sovereignty—the legal notion of the state as the only source of law within its territorv and, by extension, the political notion of the state’s power to act abroad as it pleases, subject only to those legal restraints it has freely accepted. Instead, there would be a strong, comprehensive system of international legal rules, enforced by international agencies—indeed, ideally or ultimately, by a world state.
Not only was this conception visionary, it was also radical, in that it presupposed a drastic change in the behavior of states. It was moralistic, in that the legal rules that it would make supreme embodied either the Kantian ethics of unconditional and universal categorical imperatives (for instance, no aggression and no violation of treaties) or the utilitarian ethics of the greatest good of the greatest number. It was based on an optimistic reading of human nature—or at least on a belief in its perfectibility and in the power of the “right” institutions to bring out the best in man. It was also based on a distrust not only of unilateral uses of state power but also, to some extent, of power altogether, for although it approved common exercises of power (such as collective security), it reserved them for exceptionally grave cases or submitted them to strict conditions. It clearly preferred persuasion and prevention to sanctions and coercion.
Hans Morgenthau’s principles of political realism dismissed this approach and went back to a conception represented by the very writers whom liberals had tried to refute: those writers who argued that human nature does not change, that international politics is a struggle for power, and that the restraints of law, morality, and opinion arcfragile and limited. Where the liberals hailed a march to community, the realists saw only a kind of barely tempered anarchy, a contest among sovereign contenders with no allegiance to any power higher than their own. This was the tradition of Thucydides, analyzing the Peloponnesian War, between Athens and Sparta; of Machiavelli, listing rules of survival for the princes of Italian citystates; of Hobbes, starkly describing the state of nature—indeed, of war—in which states live, unlike individuals secure under the power of a state. In such a world international agencies can perform only modest services; they certainly can’t enforce peace. The only morality is one of prudence—in Morgenthau’s terms, “the weighing of the consequences of alternative political actions,”rather than “conformity with the moral law.” And change can come “only through the workmanlike manipulation of the perennial forces that have shaped the past as they will the future”: there is, in world affairs, no room for a grand solution like putting an end to war.
THE ENORMOUS INFLUENCE of a doctrine that was anything but original is easy to explain in terms of the place and the moment. The United States, insulated from world politics—except for the very unhappy experience of 19171919—and indeed founded in repudiation of European politics, had been the champion par excellence of the liberal, internationalist, radical approach. Even after refusing to join Wilson’s brainchild, the League of Nations, isolationist America had continued to deprecate or to depreciate power, as in its toothless policy of “non-recognition” of Japanese conquests in the 1930s and in its neutrality legislation, America’s own contribution to the appeasement of the dictators. Even though Franklin D. Roosevelt soon proved to be an enthusiastic player of power politics, the national tradition was so strong that much attention was focused in 1943-1945 on the birth of the United Nations rather than on the ominous power conflicts among the “Big Three" — the United States, Britain, and the USSR. FDR himself, after Yalta, told Congress that the agreements reached there meant the end of traditional power games. By 1948, however, the liberal approach was broke: the l N was paralyzed by the Cold War, no collective-security machinery could be set up, and the world, instead of being ruled by law, was split into two camps. An observer of the behavior of the two superpowers could not fail to be struck by the similarity to Athens and Sparta and their conflict, twenty-four centuries earlier.
Morgenthau’s text thus provided an explanation and a road map. The liberal dream had gone wrong because it was based on a misreading of the nature of world politics. Understanding this nature required thinking in terms of power. Thinking about power meant that policy ought to seek a balance of power, not a utopia of peace—or, rather, peace had a chance of being preserved by such a balance but no chance of emerging from legalistic schemes or wishful thinking about world opinion or disarmament. This was a tough message. It was just what the elites of a disconcerted yet most powerful nation wanted to hear. Morgenthau’s ambition was to be the teacher of realism in the New World, bringing out Old World wisdom to the continent of Utopia. Thirty years later a man who had (briefly) studied with Morgenthau and become his friend, Henry Kissinger, described in almost the same terms his own ambition as a statesman: to teach “unsentimental” power politics to a nation lacking a “geopolitical” tradition but having an idealistic one, a legalistic one, and a merely pragmatic one (“problem-solving”). Obviously, if in the 1970s another German refugee had to teach “realism” all over again, and if he too did not fully succeed (as the return to idealism under Carter showed), Morgenthau’s message must have fallen on deaf ears, despite its early popularity. What had, in fact, happened?
IT is A STORY full of paradoxes. To begin with, we must separate the two universes that Morgenthau wanted to unite—the world of theory and that of policy. Scholars working on the theory of world politics remain divided into two groups—realists and Utopians. The latter continue to seek a drastic transformation of the world—out of anarchy, toward peace. But they are, in the United States, at least, not in the mainstream of political science. In the mainstream we are all “realists” now. However, it is not a realism that Morgenthau would approve, or even recognize. He wrote extensively and vehemently against socalled scientific approaches to the study of politics—the use of quantitative methods, the development of formal models, the search for abstract general laws—arguing that they squeeze the political out of politics. And yet one vast body of theory is now concerned with strategic questions—the study of nuclear deterrence and strategy, in which technological considerations often prevail over political ones, and the quest for certainty and precision often brushes aside all the psychological and bureaucratic irrationalities that make the idea of a “science” of war absurd. Also, Morgenthau paid rather little attention to international economics: he looked at the economy mainly as an ingredient of state power. Today some of the most innovative theoretical work in international politics deals with the ways in which states pool their power and collaborate in order to achieve, jointly, economic goals that they could not meet by unilateral or hostile action. This research rehabilitates those international agencies whose significance Morgenthau deemed dubious. Moreover, “security” realists, who focus on conflict, and “political economy” realists, intrigued by cooperation, rarely communicate.
In the world of policy we find another paradox. Generations of students were taught by Morgenthau himself, at the University of Chicago and later at the City College of the City University of New York, and by his disciples. Many foreign-service officers acknowledge his intellectual influence. His main message—no foreign policy without power—has been absorbed by every policymaker and every member of the “informed public.”Yet on the whole Morgenthau has been misunderstood (just as another realist, George F. Kennan, complains that he, too, has been). Why? We must look at the sum of his (very abundant) writings on foreign affairs. We find three main themes. One—the most misleading—was understood. The other two were not.
WHAT MOST READERS of Politics Among Nations remember is “the main signpost” of political realism: “the concept of interest defined in terms of power.” States pursue (and ought to pursue) their national interests; in politics, interest is analyzed in terms of power, just as in economics, interest is defined in terms of wealth. Now, this idea was, of course, tremendously appealing to the leaders of a country that had emerged from the biggest war in history with more power—economic and military (the nuclear monopoly)—than any nation had ever had. Postwar America was disturbed about the insecurity that vast power brings, especially in a global contest against an empire seen as mysterious and deeply alien. But it was also exhilarated about the possibilities of power, which its statesmen explored and applied exuberantly: alliances, economic and military aid, bases abroad, weapons development, covert action, interventions, propaganda, and so forth. Morgenthau’s celebration of power as the yardstick of foreign policy was thus received as an intellectual blessing. It put the seal of legitimacy on America’s global activism. For if power is the substance of the national interest, huge power justifies a very extensive definition of that interest and the commitments entailed by it.
There were, however, two enormous problems with this view. One came from flaws in Morgenthau’s theory. Power ought to be seen, above all, as a complex means toward ends. This implies that one ought to start with a definition of those ends and then calculate the amount of power needed to reach them, distinguish among the very different sorts of power appropriate to different ends, and decide, if necessary, how to increase one’s power of the kinds required for the absolutely indispensable ends. One must also be prepared to delete those ends for which power is missing, or those ends that simply cannot be reached, either with the power that one is able to produce or with the power at one’s disposal that is actually usable— for, in the nuclear age especially, not all power is rationally usable. Morgenthau put the cart (power) before the horse (the selection of goals). And, as many critics immediately pointed out, defining “interest” in terms of power did not succeed in investing the concept of the national interest with the clarity, objectivity, and durability Morgenthau sought and claimed. Especially in a democracy the definition of the national interest is likely to be a matter of debate and to result at least as much from clashing partisan views as from the permanent necessities of geopolitical position or the unavoidable requirements of external conflicts.
The second problem was the failure of so many policy-makers to catch Morgenthau’s second theme: the need for moderation and prudence. He was no apostle of conflict; indeed, his textbook ends with chapters on “peace through accommodation” and with a plea for the revival of diplomacy. Readers marked by the searing experience of democratic weakness in the 1930s saw in his book only the condemnation of appeasement as a method for coping with imperialistic powers. They failed to realize that Morgenthau’s thought, unlike Dean Acheson’s or Harry Truman’s, was not obsessed by the “Munich analogy.” Something strange happened to Morgenthau’s realism on the way to Washington: there the celebration of power blended with, instead of replacing, the old American idealism and crusading spirit. Those in Washington who read Morgenthau used his concept of the national interest to justify a definition of America’s interests that was practically limitless and made compromise difficult. That is, they advocated resisting the expansion of communism in all its forms (as Norman Podhoretz often still advocates) or at least the expansion, direct or indirect, of Soviet power anywhere in the world. This definition is not shaped by American priorities but is driven by fears about Soviet behavior. Like Kennan, Morgenthau pointed to the Soviet challenge, but he never embraced the sort of realism that is found so often on the right—the one according to which we are locked in a struggle to the finish with the Soviet Union, are justified in using, in behalf of our interests, every weapon or trick that the Soviets use in behalf of theirs, and must prevail because there is no room for both philosophies of power and sets of values in this world.
Morgenthau, like another great realist, De Gaulle, analyzed the Soviet Union as an expansionist power rather than as an ideology on the march. He was critical of the sufferings to which any “nationalistic universalism”—that is, any crusading nationalism that claims a universal mandate—dooms humanity: the U.S. as well as the Soviet one, the democratic as well as the Communist one. Nevertheless, American policymakers put Morgenthau’s plea for power at the service of the old ideals of collective security, international law, and resistance to aggression, now interpreted as the cause of the free world against the Soviet Union. The United States would provide the secular arm for this vision, and its national interest was thus described as identical with the interest of the world community (one finds such ideology in the speeches of Dean Rusk and of Eugene Rostow)—a form of nationalistic universalism if ever there was one.
Just as Kennan protested the “militarization of containment,” Morgenthau vigorously objected to the policy excesses that resulted from this blend of the old and the new, and particularly to the Vietnam War. He deplored the inflexibility and high risks of the new, bipolar balance of power to which American “pactomania”—covering the world with alliances centered in Washingtoncontributed. The restraining effects of the old eighteenthand nineteenth-century balance, he pointed out, had come from flexible alignments among half a dozen major players. At the first national teach-in about the Vietnam War, in Washington in May of 1965, the father of “political realism” was the chief prosecutor against Lyndon Johnson’s policy, which was defended by men who had blended realism and universalism, or turned realism into an anti-communism ram, such as Zbigniew Brzezinski and Walt Rostow. Today Vietnam revisionism is popular, and it focuses on the undeniable horrors of the Communist regimes in Vietnam and Cambodia. But it conveniently forgets that the United States lost the war because its goals were simply unreachable at a price that either the world at large or the American conscience and political system could tolerate. Morgenthau, who never had any illusions about communism, never lost sight of the essentials: the limits on the effectiveness and usability of America’s huge power, and the distortion of the national interest imposed for so many years by the obsession with Vietnam.
MORGENTHAU’S preoccupation with America’s most disastrous war reflected not only his concern for restraint and accommodation but also the third theme of his work—one that, unlike the second, he never fully succeeded in integrating with the first. National power in a world of competing states was compatible with a quest for moderation or detente. But the realist view of the world as a system of sovereign contenders was being undermined by two forces, as Morgenthau was perceptive enough to recognize fully. On the one hand there was the force of revolutionary movements: those that had destroyed the colonial empires and those in many countries, especially the developing nations, that challenged the often unjust and repressive status quo. Attempts to deal with these movements by such traditional methods of statecraft as military interventions, or forcibly to preserve the status quo out of fear of communism or in order to support local leaders allied with the United States, he deemed futile and dangerous. This meant, in effect, that states were no longer the only competitors in the arena and that the national interest could not be defined without taking into account sweeping movements operating across borders and the domestic realities within many shaky states. This kind of realism was, in fact, far more fluid, less dogmatic, than his state-centered principles suggested, and it led him to be very critical of Kissinger’s statecraft in Vietnam, Chile, and Bangladesh.
On the other hand there was the nuclear revolution. Along with Bernard Brodie and Raymond Aron, Morgenthau grasped almost at once the radical potential of the new weapons. Nuclear war could not be an instrument of politics. No power was capable of ensuring its security anymore—for there is no adequate defense, and deterrence rests on a suicidal threat. Sovereignty could no longer aspire to invulnerability. Dying for one’s country had lost its meaning if it also meant the end of mankind. Morgenthau was at his best when he analyzed the many dilemmas of deterrence with which statesmen have been struggling for forty years. He was among the first to denounce the meaninglessness of nuclear superiority (once each side has the means to devastate the other even after being attacked) and to criticize those strategists who try to negate the nuclear revolution by thinking of ways to use nuclear weapons as if they were conventional ones—for the purpose of fighting or winning wars. Thus he saw clearly the contradiction between the organization of humanity into states claiming sovereignty and the imperative of preventing nuclear weapons from destroying the world. To cope with such a peril, ordinary diplomatic processes risked being too slow, arms control too limited, international agencies too weak, prudence too fragile, in crises requiring instant decisions about military moves that could all too easily get out of control. And yet the very structure of the world, its division into states, the superpowers’ contest, continued to relegate to the realm of utopia disarmament and world government—the idealists’ fantasies he had so scathingly denounced but whose intellectual appeal rests on their case against state sovereignty, a case whose strength he himself recognized.
It is this contradiction that has kept utopianism alive, not only among a faction of the academic writers on world affairs (the pioneers of “peace research,” for instance) but also in parts of the public—the members of peace movements, here and abroad. To these men and women even Morgenthau’s moderate brand of realism is far too complacent: if the game of states is to be saved from its own bent toward self-destruction, it will have to be not merely played wisely but superseded altogether. Instead American statesmen have usually opted for the kind of Cold War realism that Morgenthau deplored (both in its idealistic disguises, as in the fifties and sixties and in some of the rhetoric of the Reagan Administration, and in its cool but manipulative and conservative variety, as under Kissinger). Occasionally, as under Carter, American statesmen have reverted to the kinds of utopianism Morganthau wrote against. The golden mean—a limited definition of interests, a sophisticated approach to power—has eluded them.
Today utopianism remains the twin of wishful thinking. But realism, even of the kind Morgenthau advocated, remains unsatisfactory in a world where, in Churchill’s unforgettable words, safety is the sturdy child of terror, and survival the twin brother of annihilation. What is needed, both among intellectuals and in statecraft, is a quest for a new realism, one that acknowledges the stark realities of a divided world, yet tries—through cooperation and collective action in a variety of fields—to change the game sufficiently to prevent revolutionary hurricanes and nuclear explosions from destroying it, and us, altogether. A realism of “the struggle for power” is not enough. A realism of struggle and world order has yet to emerge. □