International Relations

The Paradox of Morgenthau’s Realism

Per Magnus Muren (2016), The London School of Economics and Political Science, Msc in International Relations 


H. Carr suggests in The Twenty Year’s Crisis that: “The impossibility of being a consistent and thorough-going realist is one of the most certain and most curious lessons of political science.” All attempts at political theory, social science and political thinking will be devoid of both purpose and meaning if it does not include some ideal vision for politics to work towards. Carr argues that all political thinking must include four aspects: “a finite goal, an emotional appeal, a right of moral judgement and a ground for action.”[1] Realism attempts to reject these aspects of political thinking. However, the exclusion of a telos robs the theorist of any purpose and leads to a passive acceptance of the status quo. It therefore becomes almost impossible to maintain a completely consistent realism, which is particularly clear in the writings of one of IR’s most influential realist thinkers, Hans J. Morgenthau. In Politics Among Nations (PAN) Morgenthau lays the foundation for Classical Realism, and from the second edition onwards he includes his six principles of realism, which suggests that politics operate under a set of objective laws.[2] However, by examining some of the paradoxes and ironies found in Morgenthau’s realism we see that he does not offer a completely objective theory of IR but instead perpetuates general realist assumptions about human nature, politics and the state. We will see that Morgenthau’s apparent contradictory and utopian shift to the “world state” actually follows rather logically from his Hobbesian assumptions and that his real inconsistency lies in his idealization of the state and statesmen.

Morgenthau founds his theory of International Relations on the assumption that politics is governed by objective laws, rooted in the unchanging nature of human beings as always pursuing their interests defined as power.[3] For Morgenthau, politics is a struggle for power. Regardless of a nation’s ultimate goal, it will always seek power as a means to achieve those goals.[4] In his first book Scientific Man vs. Power Politics, he argues that all men have a desire to dominate others [5] and in PAN power is further defined as “man’s control over the minds and actions of other men.” All activities that does not concern power, such as trade, humanitarian and cultural concerns are conveniently defined as apolitical.[6] Although rarely cited in PAN, Morgenthau’s fellow German theorist Max Weber’s understanding of politics as a “striving for a share of power or for influence on the distribution of power[7] seems to have had a profound influence on Morgenthau’s own pessimistic understanding of politics and the human struggle for power.[8] Being a German Jew who saw the early rise of fascism in Europe, before his move to the US in 1937,[9] Morgenthau rejected the application of universal moral principles to the actions of states and the moral superiority of one state over others.[10] He argues that statesmen should rationally pursue national interests without the interference of ethical principles, which will lead to the “Balance of Power” or an equilibrium of interests that maintain order in the international system.[11]

Unlike the Neorealism of Waltz and others that merely focus on the international system,[12] Morgenthau does not ignore the importance of morals and values but suggests that such considerations must be separated from politics, in order to pursue effective political action.[13] Morgenthau strongly rejects Kantian deontological ethics, which have inspired liberal ideas about international law and institutions, as he sees power as the only meaningful guarantee for political order. Politics must therefore be judged in terms of consequences, not moral principles. Much like Machiavelli did in the 15th and 16th century,[14] Morgenthau sees the statesman as responsible for the survival of the state and places a moral obligation on the statesman to rationally pursue national interests. He places a premium on prudence in foreign policy and warns against decisions based on idealistic and universal values. Moral and principled approaches to IR fails to see the consequences of action in terms of power relations, which can lead to failed policies such as Chamberlain’s appeasement policy[15] and presumably unwise campaigns of intervention in the 21st century.

Now that we have laid out Morgenthau’s Realist theory of international politics as a struggle for power, governed by objective laws, rooted in an unchanging human nature we must examine if Carr’s assertion is applicable to Morgenthau and PAN as a whole. PAN opens by arguing that the theory presented should be judged by how well it holds up to empirical data and its ability to make sense of, and order empirical phenomena. But it should also be internally consistent.[16] Our focus here will be the internal consistency of the theory and not empirical scrutiny, but it is worth mentioning that he, as a post-Darwinian writer, is making rather significant assumptions about human nature without any reference to evolutionary biology or psychology, which explains both selfishness and, particularly, altruism quite well.[17] There is also a more general problem of realist thought to view evolutionary concepts like the survival of the fittest as a naturalization of power struggles and conflict, while the survival of the fittest merely refers to reproductive ability. Claims about human nature must be rooted in biology and accommodate much more complexity than a mere desire for power. There is also the problem that Morgenthau only provides examples in form of powerful states and statesmen for his assumed power hungry nature, leaving most of humanity as potential selfless beings. So, on empirical grounds we might accuse him and realism’s view of human nature of both oversimplification and selective use of evidence.

The more interesting critic, and our focus, is found in the seemingly inconsistent and idealistic claim that “in order to save the world from self-destruction…” we require “…the transference of the sovereignties of individual nations to a world authority,”[18] or the creation of a world state. On the face of it, it would seem that Morgenthau breaks with his established realist principles of a world comprised of competing nations, pursuing their own selfish interests and the existence of a plurality of interests among those nations. The argument for a world state, as necessary to save the world from self-destruction, also presents itself as a rather universal moral value that might justify expansionist policies by a determined super power. Morgenthau does acknowledge the impossibility of obtaining a world state in the current political and social realities of the international system. He sees it as the job of prudent diplomacy among statesmen to create the necessary environment for the world state to emerge.[19] It seems to be Morgenthau’s view that the statesmen of powerful nations can, with the help of his realist thought, come to the rational conclusion that a more concentrated and centralized world authority is required to govern the international anarchy we find ourselves in today. A world authority backed by real power and not merely idealistic talk of international law and rights.

We might be seeing the beginnings of an idealistic break within Morgenthau’s realism in his insistence on the world state, even though he maintains the importance of prudent realist diplomacy in the process. However, Campbell Craig argues in Glimmer of a New Leviathan that the prospect of total thermonuclear war lead Cold War realists, including Morgenthau, to envision and argue in favor of, a new global leviathan emerging out of the threat of nuclear Armageddon.[20] The absurdity and lack of rational political goals in a nuclear war coupled with Morgenthau’s understanding of human nature and power politics necessarily lead to a merger between realist and utopian thought.[21] A world state logically follows from the realities of a total nuclear war, which leaves everyone dead, with no interests to pursue. Given a world populated by the individual’s irrational lust for power and the state’s ability to rationally pursue interests it becomes necessary to pursue a single governing authority to limit the possibilities of conflict over interests escalating into nuclear war.

Morgenthau’s understanding of human nature draws heavily on Nietzsche’s concept of “will to power” and his claim that we desire above all else to discharge our strength.[22] But his understanding of the state resembles more that of Hobbes and, later Max Weber who focus on national survival and the state’s role as a protector of national values and identity,[23] and the escape from the state of nature in the case of Hobbes.[24] Given these intellectual influences it becomes clear how the power hungry individual and the rational state logically leads to a world state within a realist framework confronted with thermonuclear weapons. Just as Hobbes’ state of nature allowed even the weakest to kill the strongest,[25] prompting the necessity of a leviathan, nuclear weapons level the playing field between weak and strong.

Viewed through the lens of the Cold War and the coupling of Nietzsche’s individual with Hobbes’ leviathan we see how the logic of PAN holds up despite the merging of realist principles and the liberal ideal of a world state. But Carr’s assertion about realism still holds true by virtue of Morgenthau’s idealization of the state itself. Perhaps the most central claim of Morgenthau’s thought is that a desire for power is the driving force behind human and state behavior. This often leads to irrational behavior, but Morgenthau still seems very willing to bestow more power and more responsibility on statesmen. Like Hobbes, Morgenthau idealizes the state and presents the people involved with statecraft as immune to the corrupting human nature that the rest of us suffer from. There is also a rejection of Morgenthau’s own political sphere of power in the world state. If politics is rightly described as the struggle for power, we would only substitute interstate war with civil war if the realist claim about human nature holds true. The German legal scholar, Carl Schmitt, argued precisely that: as politics is about the distinction between friend and enemy a state with no external enemy will have to find enemies within.[26] There is a profound inconsistency with the basic assumption about human nature and the idealized image of the state that does not recognize the conflicts arising within states themselves and the potential for irrational violence perpetrated by statesmen.

Morgenthau offers a valuable critic of deontological ethics’ ability to control the international system in the absence of a central authority. But his focus on political efficacy and statecraft leads him to idealizing the state itself, forgetting that statesmen and governments must be subject to the same human limitations as the rest of us. Carr’s prediction holds true, but not because Morgenthau backs down on his realism. The inconsistency arises rather from realism itself and its attempt at understanding politics through a very limited understanding of human nature and an idealized vison of the state and power.


Barkawi, Tarak. Strategy as a vocation: Weber, Morgenthau and modern strategic studies. Review of International Studies, 1998. 24, 159–184.

Bliddal, H, Sylvest, C. and Wilson, P. (eds.) Classics of International Relations: Essays in Criticism and Appreciation. (Kindle Edition) Routledge, 2013.

Carr, E. H. The Twenty Years’ Crisis, 1919-1939: An Introduction to the Study of International Relations. ed. Michael Cox. Palgrave, 2001.

Craig, Campbell. Glimmer of a new Leviathan. New York: Columbia University Press, 2003.

Dawkins, Richard. The Selfish Gene. Oxford University Press, 2006.

Hobbes, Thomas. Leviathan. New York: Penguin Classics, 1985.

Machiavelli, Niccolo. The Prince. New York: Penguin Classics, 2003.

Morgenthau, Hans J. Politics among Nations. Sixth Edition. United States of America: McGraw-Hill Publishing Company, 1985.

Morgenthau, Hans J. Scientific Man vs. Power Politics. Chicago. University of Chicago Press, 1946.

Nietzsche, Friedrich. Beyond Good and Evil. Millennium Publication, 2014.

Schmitt, Carl. The concept of the Political. Translated by George Schwab. New Jersey: Rutgers University Press, 1976.

Weber, Max. The Profession and Vocation of Politics. from Weber, Max, Political writings pp.309-369, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1994.

Waltz, Kenneth. Theory of International Politics. USA: Waveland Press, 2010.

[1] E. H. Carr. The Twenty Year’s Crisis. (2001) p84.

[2] Bliddal et al. Classics of International Relations. (2013) Ch 7.

[3] Hans Morgenthau. Politics Among Nations. (1985) p4.

[4] Ibid. p31.

[5] Hans Morgenthau. Scientific Man vs. Power Politics. (1946) p16.

[6] Morgenthau. PAN. p31-32.

[7] Max Weber. The Profession and vocation of Politics. (1994) p311.

[8] Tarak Barkawi. Strategy as a vocation: Weber, Morgenthau and modern strategic studies. (1998) p159.

[9] Campbell Craig. Glimmer of a New Leviathan. (2003) p54.

[10] Morgenthau. PAN. p12.

[11] Ibid. p187-189.

[12] Kenneth Waltz. Theory of International Politics. (2010)

[13] Morgenthau. PAN. p12.

[14] Niccolo Machiavelli. The Prince. (2003)

[15] Morgenthau. PAN. p6.

[16] Ibid. p3.

[17] Richard Dawkins. The Selfish Gene. (2006)

[18] Morgenthau. PAN. p525.

[19] Ibid. p563.

[20] Craig. New Leviathan. pXVII.

[21] Ibid. p108.

[22] Friedrich Nietzsche. Beyond Good and Evil. (2014) #13.

[23] Craig. New Leviathan. p10.

[24] Thomas Hobbes. Leviathan. (1985)

[25] Ibid. ch14.

[26] Carl Schmitt. Concept of the Political. (1976) p26-27.

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