The Dangerous Blinders of Realism

By circumstance, we were compelled to advance our dominion to what it is principally as a consequence of fear, then for the sake of honor, and finally for advantage.

—The Athenians, in Thucyides’ History of the Peloponnesian War

Seventy years ago, in 1948, a German Jewish emigre named Hans J. Morgenthau, recently arrived at the University of Chicago, published a weighty tome, entitled Politics Among Nations, that took the American academy by storm. In the first twenty years after its initial appearance, it went through four editions and was reprinted twenty-one times; and, though not revised since 1985, it remains in print and is still employed. For many years, it was the standard textbook for political science courses in international relations. To this day, it defines the field.

It is not difficult to see why Morgenthau’s magnum opus was so popular and had so great an impact. It is crisply written and provocative; it is replete with astute observations; and, when it first appeared, it must have seemed to Americans like a breath of fresh air. The United States had always been party to power politics, and, in the Americas in particular, it had never been averse to throwing its weight around. But prior to 1917, very few Americans, apart from the handful who determined the country’s foreign policy, had paid much attention to the rivalry between nations. What George Washington once termed America’s “distant and detached situation” had left the country’s citizens comparatively free from such concerns and inclined to suppose that they were, as Americans, above dirty business of that sort. In keeping with the naiveté that this attitude fostered, Americans were told upon the country’s entrance into the First World War that the struggle they were about to engage in was a moral crusade—“a war to end all wars.” When this slogan turned out to be a snare and a delusion, the citizens of the United States rallied in bitter disappointment behind those who insisted that they could and should return to the “distant and detached situation” they had abandoned in 1917.

Pearl Harbor put an end to the presumption that their North American redoubt still constituted a sheltered retreat, and the eruption of the Cold War shortly before the publication of Morgenthau’s book suggested that Americans might have to resign themselves to the crude power politics of the Old World. If students, graduate students, diplomats, and statesmen turned with relish to Morgenthau for guidance, it was because he promised to tell them the unvarnished truth about the world that they had been forced to enter.

Morgenthau was himself a product of the German Kaiserreich, and the doctrine of “realism” that he articulated in Politics Among Nations owed a great deal to the species of Realpolitik practiced with great aplomb by the architect of that polity, Otto von Bismarck. Morgenthau rightly regarded the turn to isolationism that took place in the United States in the wake of the First World War as an unmitigated disaster, and he wrote his book with an eye to schooling his new compatriots in the responsibility that had devolved on their country when it emerged as a great power. To this end, he sought to provide them with a framework within which to locate unfolding events. Above all, he sought to dispel the illusions that underpinned the moralism that, he thought, threatened to hobble American statesmanship. As he put it,

The main signpost that helps political realism to find its way through the landscape of international politics is the concept of interest defined in terms of power. This concept provides the link between reason trying to understand international politics and the facts to be understood. It sets politics as an autonomous sphere of action and understanding apart from other spheres, such as economics (understood in terms of interest defined as wealth), ethics, aesthetics, or religion. Without such a concept a theory of politics, international or domestic, would be altogether impossible, for without it we could not distinguish between political and nonpolitical facts, nor could we bring at least a measure of systematic order to the political sphere.

We assume that statesmen think and act in terms of interest defined as power, and the evidence of history bears that assumption out. That assumption allows us to retrace and anticipate, as it were, the steps a statesman—past, present, or future—has taken or will take on the political scene. We look over his shoulder when he writes his dispatches; we listen in on his conversation with other statesmen; we read and anticipate his very thoughts. Thinking in terms of interest defined as power, we think as he does, and as disinterested observers we understand his thoughts and actions perhaps better than he, the actor on the political scene, does himself.

The concept of interest defined as power imposes intellectual discipline upon the observer, infuses rational order into the subject matter of politics, and thus makes the theoretical understanding of politics possible. On the side of the actor, it provides for rational discipline in action and creates that astounding continuity in foreign policy which makes American, British, or Russian foreign policy appear as an intelligible, rational continuum, by and large consistent within itself, regardless of the different motives, preferences, and intellectual and moral qualities of successive statesmen.

Above all, Morgenthau hoped that his “realist theory of international politics” would “guard against two popular fallacies: the concern with motives and the concern with ideological preferences.” He readily acknowledged that “the contingent elements of personality, prejudice, and subjective preference, and of all the weaknesses of intellect and will which flesh is heir to, are bound to deflect foreign policies from their rational course.” Indeed, he thought it especially likely that “where foreign policy is conducted under the conditions of democratic control . . . the need to marshal popular emotions” in support of a program would “impair the rationality” of the policy pursued. He merely insisted that “a theory of foreign policy which aims at rationality must . . . abstract from these irrational elements and seek to paint a picture of foreign policy which presents the rational essence to be found in experience, without the contingent deviations from rationality which are also found in experience.”

As these remarks suggest, the “realism” recommended by Hans Morgenthau and his followers (including the so-called neo-realists and structural realists) is not what it pretends to be. It is not, in fact, meant as an accurate and dispassionate description of the world as it is, and it will not allow “us to retrace and anticipate, as it were, the steps a statesman—past, present, or future—has taken or will take on the political scene,” for it is subtly prescriptive, not descriptive, and it weeds out everything that is, in Morgenthau’s estimation, irrational.

In short, “realism” not only possesses what he calls “a normative element.” It is normative at its very core. The “rational theory” Morgenthau espouses is, as he proudly asserts, less like “a photo” than “a painted portrait.”

The photo shows everything that can be seen by the naked eye; the painted portrait does not show everything that can be seen by the naked eye, but it shows, or at least seeks to show, one thing that the naked eye cannot see: the human essence of the person portrayed.

There is, Morgenthau claims, a point to the exercise: “Political realism considers a rational foreign policy to be good foreign policy; for only a rational foreign policy minimizes risks and maximizes benefits and, hence, complies both with the moral precept of prudence and the political requirement of success.” Realism’s aim is to make “the photographic picture of the political world” conform “as much as possible” to “its painted portrait.” In other words, what presents itself as “realism” is unreal; it is a strange new form of idealism very thinly disguised.

There are many reasons to look kindly upon Morgenthau’s project. When he claims that “the lighthearted equation between a particular nationalism and the counsels of Providence is morally indefensible” and “politically pernicious,” he is surely right. All human beings, and not just “politicians,” display what he calls “an ineradicable tendency to deceive themselves about what they are doing” by justifying their actions in terms of “ethical and legal principles.” Furthermore, at one point Morgenthau asserts that “political realism does not require, nor does it condone, indifference to political ideals and moral principles, but it requires indeed a sharp distinction between the desirable and the possible—between what is desirable everywhere and at all times and what is possible under the concrete circumstances of time and place.” Indeed, if this were the essence of his position—that prudence must govern, restrain, and moderate the pursuit of political ideals and moral principles with an eye to the limits imposed by concrete circumstance on the statesman’s ability to work his will—it would be utterly unobjectionable and wholly admirable. But nowhere does Morgenthau show how “realism” can accommodate political ideals and moral principles. Instead, he treats them as matters which the realist, in his pursuit of “interest defined as power,” must assiduously ignore.

There is a kind of logic to Morgenthau’s posture. As Thomas Hobbes intimated in Leviathan long ago, jettisoning moral and religious concerns and focusing narrowly on material interest can produce in naturally quarrelsome beings a certain salutary sobriety. Among other things, Morgenthau observes, it enables us to step back and “judge other nations as we judge our own,” and thereby it renders us “capable of pursuing policies that respect the interests of other nations, while protecting and promoting those of our own.” At least some of the time, it really is true that “moderation in policy cannot fail to reflect” what Morgenthau terms “the moderation of moral judgment.”

Unfortunately, however, Morgenthau never shows us how moral judgment can be moderated without being entirely excluded from politics; and, as Thucydides’ description of the Athenian trajectory in the course of the Peloponnesian War is intended to teach us, the habit of relying solely on a cold calculation of interests, to which the Athenians aspired, and the systematic treatment of international relations as a sphere within which moral judgment can be simply set aside tend over time to erode and even destroy decency and moral restraint in a people’s conduct at home as well as abroad.

That is one defect attendant on the embrace of Realpolitik. There is another which is no less serious. The “portrait” of statesmanship “painted” by “realism” is supposed to enable us to see “the rational essence to be found in experience.” To this end, it abstracts from what Morgenthau acknowledges are “the ultimate goals of political action,” which is to say “those ultimate objectives for the realization of which political power is sought,” and these it is wont to dismiss with disdain as “the pretexts and false fronts behind which the element of power, inherent in all politics, is concealed.” As should be readily obvious, it is through this leap of logic that realism systematically distorts political reality. 

Morgenthau concedes that “a government whose foreign policy appeals to the intellectual convictions and moral valuations of its own people has gained an incalculable advantage over an opponent who has not succeeded in choosing goals that have such appeal or in making the chosen goals appear to have it.” He fails, however, to reflect on the implications of his insight. In his eagerness to weed out what he takes to be “irrational,” he deprives himself and the practitioners of “realism” of the capacity to see what is really happening and what is likely to follow.

Long ago, Charles-Louis de Secondat, baron de La Brède et de Montesquieu—whom Morgenthau is wont to quote with approbation—observed that “all states have the same object in general, which is to maintain themselves.” But he insisted as well that “each state has an object that is particular to it.”

Aggrandizement was the object of Rome; war, that of Lacedaemon; religion, that of the Jewish laws; commerce, that of Marseilles; public tranquillity, that of the laws of China; the carrying trade, that of the laws of the Rhodians; natural liberty was the object of public administration among the savages; in general, the delights of the prince was its object in despotic states; his glory and that of the state, its object in monarchies; the independence of each individual is the object of the laws of Poland, and what results from this is the oppression of all. There is also one nation in the world which has for the direct object of its constitution political liberty.

It is, I would submit, only if we pay close attention not just to the one objective the various polities have in common but also to the diverse objectives that distinguish them that we can have any hope of understanding why they conduct themselves in the manner they do and any chance at all of predicting what any one of them is likely to do next.

This point can be made in other terms. In politics, what Morgenthau calls “the ultimate goals” are not epiphenomenal. Indeed, they are the primary phenomena from which everything else follows. If all polities are similar and all pursue “interest defined as power,” it is because they are all dedicated to maintaining themselves, and they all recognize power as a means for pursuing this particular goal. But there is also an element of diversity in the mix, and it cannot be ignored if one wants to understand what is really going on. Cleomenes, Leonidas, and Pausanias the Regent at Sparta; Miltiades, Themistocles, Aristeides, and Xanthippus of Athens; Darius and Xerxes of Persia; the Cardinal de Richelieu and Louis XIV; the first duke of Marlborough; George Washington, Alexander Hamilton, and John Quincy Adams; Napoleon Bonaparte; the elder William Pitt; Otto von Bismarck; the Count of Cavour; Woodrow Wilson; Adolf Hitler and Joseph Stalin; Winston Churchill; Franklin Delano Roosevelt; and Charles de Gaulle; and Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan were all statesmen. None of them was indifferent to power; but their aims—and what they were likely to do in given circumstances—were by no means the same. If we wish to retrace or anticipate their steps, to look over their shoulders as they write their dispatches, to listen in on their conversations, to read and anticipate their very thoughts, we will have to attend not only to their focus on “interest defined as power” but also to the concerns that Morgenthau dismisses as “irrational”—and not the least of the latter are regime imperatives of the sort singled out by Montesquieu. 

Thucydides, whom Morgenthau and his successors are also wont to cite as an authority, has his Athenians trace their acquisition of dominion in the Aegean to fear, first and foremost, but also to honor and to advantage. When forecasting how another polity is apt to act, no statesman should, as the realists recommend, leave out of his calculus considerations of honor and advantage—for, in deciding what is to be done, neither he nor any other statesman will, in fact, ignore the dictates of honor and advantage, as they are understood within the regime each heads.

As I have attempted to show in a recent volume, it was in part with honor and advantage in mind that Darius sent an armada to Marathon. It was even more emphatically with honor and advantage in mind that Xerxes invaded Greece, and it was first and foremost with honor and advantage in mind that the Spartans, the Athenians, and their allies obstinately defended their liberty. Had these Hellenes soberly calculated their interests in the restricted fashion recommended by Morgenthau, they would have joined the Macedonians, the Thessalians, the Thebans, and the Argives in going over to the Mede. If there is an “astounding continuity” which makes the foreign policy of each of these three powers “appear as an intelligible, rational continuum, by and large consistent within itself, regardless of the different motives, preferences, and intellectual and moral qualities of successive statesmen,” it is not, as self-styled realists suppose, because each of these polities was obsessively intent on maximizing power. It is, instead, because each was governed not only by a concern with its own security but also by a limited set of regime imperatives particular to the form of government and way of life it embraced and cherished.

In what is perhaps the most important passage in Thucydides’ history of the Peloponnesian War, his Corinthians try to bring this point home to the Spartans, who are inclined to think their strategic rival like themselves. “The Athenians are,” they warn their longtime ally,

innovators, keen in forming plans, and quick to accomplish in deed what they have contrived in thought. You Spartans are intent on saving what you now possess; you are always indecisive, and you leave even what is needed undone. They are daring beyond their strength, they are risk-takers against all judgment, and in the midst of terrors they remain of good hope—while you accomplish less than is in your power, mistrust your judgment in matters most firm, and think not how to release yourselves from the terrors you face. In addition, they are unhesitant where you are inclined to delay, and they are always out and about in the larger world while you stay at home. 

No analyst of the international arena can afford to ignore the diversity of regimes and the variety of imperatives and propensities to which that diversity gives rise.

Wearing blinders of the sort designed by the so-called Realists can, in fact, be quite dangerous. If policy makers were to operate in this fashion in analyzing politics among nations in their own time, they would all too often lack foresight—both with regard to the course likely to be taken by the country they serve and with regard to the paths likely to be followed by its rivals and allies. In contemplating foreign affairs and in thinking about diplomacy, intelligence, military strength, and its economic foundations, one must always acknowledge the primacy of domestic policy. This is the deeper meaning of Clausewitz’ famous assertion that “war is the continuation of policy by other means.”

It was with Clausewitz’ dictum and this complex of concerns in mind that Julian Stafford Corbett first revived the term “grand strategy,” reconfigured it, and deployed it both in the lectures he delivered at the Royal Naval War College between 1904 and 1906 and in the so-called Green Pamphlet that he prepared as a handout for his students. And it was from this broad perspective that J. F. C. Fuller wrote when he introduced the concept to the general public in 1923. As he put it,

The first duty of the grand strategist is . . . to appreciate the commercial and financial position of his country; to discover what its resources and liabilities are. Secondly, he must understand the moral characteristics of his countrymen, their history, peculiarities, social customs and system of government, for all these quantities and qualities form the pillars of the military arch which it is his duty to construct.

To this end he added, the grand strategist must be “a student of the permanent characteristics and slowly changing institutions of the nation to which he belongs, and which he is called upon to secure against war and defeat. He must, in fact, be a learned historian and a far-seeing philosopher, as well as a skillful strategist and tactician.” Indeed, he observes, “from the grand strategical point of view, it is just as important to realize the quality of the moral power of a nation, as the quantity of its man-power.” With this in mind, the grand strategist must concern himself with establishing throughout his own nation and its fighting services “a common thought—the will to win”—and he must at the same time ponder how to deprive his country’s rivals of that same will.

As recent studies of the Roman, Byzantine, and Hapsburg empires and my own work on Achaemenid Persia and on ancient Athens and Sparta strongly suggest, every political community of substance that manages to survive for an extended time is forced by the challenges it faces to work out—usually, by a process of trial and error—a grand strategy of sorts and to develop a strategic culture and an operational code compatible with that strategy. The study of history, of the particular conditions and challenges that inspire the strategic cultures of different peoples, and of the role played within the inter-communal order in times past by the imperatives attendant on the diversity of political regimes—this is the proper school of statesmanship. 

Social science theories that abstract from the circumstances in which peoples find themselves, deny the central importance of regime difference, and treat all polities as equivalent may be instructive. But, if thought dispositive, they are apt to lead statesmen astray. 

The post The Dangerous Blinders of Realism appeared first on The American Interest.

Visit the USSA News store!
Click this link for the original source of this article.
Author: <a href=’’>Paul A. Rahe</a>

This content is courtesy of, and owned and copyrighted by, and its author. This content is made available by use of the public RSS feed offered by the host site and is used for educational purposes only. If you are the author or represent the host site and would like this content removed now and in the future, please contact the administrator by using the contact form located in the top-left menu. Your request will be immediately honored. Please visit for more terrific, conservative content. The owner of this website may be paid to recommend American Bullion. The content of this website, including the positive review of American Bullion, the negative review of its competitors, and any other information may not be independent or neutral.