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Summary of Morgenthau’s “A Realist theory of International Relations”

April 25, 2012

Morgenthau, Hans.  “A Realist theory of International Relations” in Politics among Nations: The Struggle for Power and Peace. New York: McGraw-Hill Education, 2005.

This chapter sets forth the six fundamental principles of political realism.  For a criterion of effectiveness, the article argues that a theory must be evaluated by its purpose, in this case, “[bringing] order and meaning to a mass of phenomena that without it would remain disconnected and unintelligible” (3). Focusing on the real and observable phenomena of international relations, political realism critiques the utopian thought of its idealist counterparts, who believe in the “essential goodness and infinite malleability of human nature” and who “[blame] the failure of the social order to measure up to the rational standards on lack of knowledge and understanding, obsolescent social institutions, or the depravity of certain isolated individuals or groups” (3).

In contrast, the first principle of political realism maintains that politics are grounded in observable laws of human nature – any idealistic attempt to challenge these laws will only lead to failure. Therefore, the project of political realists is “the testing of this rational hypothesis against the actual acts and their consequences that gives theoretical meaning to the facts of international relations” (5).

The second principle of political realism is the centrality of power:  realists believe that power is the main articulation of political interest, a hypothesis which can be tested by the observable actions of statesmen throughout history. By focusing on the study of political power, realists create a continuity of analysis of policy: each state can be analyzed in terms of power politics. However, Morgenthau warns against two common misconceptions: the first, trying to understand the motives of statesmen, is faulty because motives do not always align to actual policy or outcomes of policy; and the second, the alignment of ideology with action, to which the realist responds that a policy may be articulated in terms of popular ideologies, but nevertheless remains a product of considerations of power. Only a rational foreign policy built off a reasoned analysis of international relations will be a successful foreign policy.

The third principle is that while power is a “universally valid” concept, “[realism] does not endow that concept with a meaning that is fixed for once and all” (11). In other words, while the unit of analysis remains power, the method and articulation of power throughout centuries has changed and will continue to do so. For example, Morgenthau writes that it is possible for a shift in scalar units of analysis (away from then nation-state), since “the contemporary connection between interest and the nation-state is a product of history and therefore bound to disappear in the course of history” (11).  However, realists still disagree with their idealist counterparts in believing that the transition away from the nation-state system will occur as a product of the laws of international relations – not by the reasoned pleas of a utopian minority.

According to the fourth principle, “political realism is aware of the moral significance of political action” (12). However, the moral principles relevant to a particular policy must be historicized and contextualized. Therefore, ethics is incorporated into political realism through the calculation of the political consequences of a particular policy or action.

The fifth principle holds that “political realism refuses to identify the moral aspirations of a particular nation with the moral laws that govern the universe” (12). Since nations have and will continue to disguise their particular ambitions within the language of universal morality, the shrewd realist sees through their rhetorical maneuver.  Instead, power forms the basis for judging the actions of other countries and developing appropriate reactions to those actions.

Lastly, the sixth principle is the acknowledgment of the primacy of political analysis in the sphere of the political. Although it may sound obvious, Morgenthau warns that policy has been repeatedly guided by legal and moral guidelines instead of strictly political considerations. As a result, the power of a country and the welfare of its citizens have been routinely endangered. Instead, realism advocates that policy must arise out of purely political analysis: an analysis of power.


From → IR Theory

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