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Fathers Of Twentieth Century Neoclassical Realism Politics Essay

The father of twentieth century Neoclassical Realism, Hans Morgenthau has a similar view but under the signpost of interests which are defined in terms of power but combining the principle of “rational order” with politics, where the type of interests vary in relation to foreign policy (Hans J. Morgenthau, Politics Among Nations: The Struggle for Power and Peace, Fifth Edition, New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1978, pp. 4-15.). On the other hand, Neo-Realists (also known as structural realists), such as Kenneth Waltz dismiss human nature as an explanation of IR behaviour within the realm of politics; they rather base their theories on structural constraints (ref). This strand of realism thus holds that the international arena is defined by anarchy and the number of great powers in the international arena. These states are seen as sovereign and equal, thus each state seeking its own interest and will not give up its interests up to another state. Thus states are always in a state of aggressive behaviour.

The realist belief that states are innately aggressive has given rise to different variants of realism. Offensive realism like other strands of realism view states as the main players or actors in the international arena but with the view that conflict is based on anarchy of the international system and not on human nature and characteristics as proposed by Morgenthau. Offensive realism thus views states as hegemonic, with an insatiable appetite to maximise power thus ensuring security and survival. Furthermore, defensive realism, another variant views international system provides encourages expansion only under certain conditions, where anarchy creates the circumstances where by the tools that a state uses to amplify its security causes an inverse reaction i.e. diminishes the security of other states. This creates a security dilemma where states are in constant worry over one another’s future and relative powers. Most notable examples of this variant of realism include balance-of-power theory and security dilemma theory (Sources: Jeffrey W. Taliaferro, 'Security-Seeking Under Anarchy: Defensive Realism Reconsidered,' International Security, 25, 3, Winter 2000/2001: 152-86; and John J. Mearsheimer, (2002), Tragedy of Great Power Politics, W.W. Norton, New York).

The purpose of this essay is to answer the question of whether or not Realism is a bellicose tradition of thought. I have started off the first section of this essay (above) by giving a brief oversight of realism and its variants. The remainder of this essay will discuss how realism and realists view war, conflict, and their ethics. The third section examines how different variants of realism view war and conflict. The fourth section provides a case study and the views of notable realists on wars, such as the Iraq War (in 2003). Finally the last section of this essay summarises the preceding arguments and argues that although realism talks of war and studies war and conflict, it is by no means bellicose tradition of thought.

Realism and Power:

It is common that critics of realism view realists as immoral or a school of thought that does not involve ethics. On the other hand, classical realists such as Thucydides (460–411 B.C.) viewed politics with an eye for moral questions. This is evident when he asks whether relations between states to which power is fundamental can accomplished through an eye of justice and peace. Thucydides through his book History of the Peloponnesian War has inspired many realists as he gives an acknowledged classical text in international relations. In his book, realism is expressed in speeches and dialogues of Athenians showing a debate in Sparta before the Peloponnesian war. Furthermore it is through realist views and explanations that Thucydides explains the cause for such a war through a “Melian Diaglogue” made by Athenian envoys.

Realists exhibit and highlight the limitations imposed by the nature of human beings on politics. This human nature according to realists is defined as being egoist hence power and security become the main issue when looking at the factors that contribute to conflict in IR. It is through Thucydides that the notion and main building blocks of state actors, anarchy, security and power are defined within the context of realist tradition. To take two main points from Thucydides into account:

Thucydides describes the debate in Sparta (Chapter 1 Par. 76) that the Athenians have a preference of self-interest over morality. That is, the analogies and concerns of right or wrong have “never turned people aside from the opportunities of aggrandizement offered by superior strength” (chap. 1 par. 76).

Realists find an anarchical world and security as a central issue in their school of thought. To achieve security, states increase their strength and power, thus formulating a power-balancing paradigm in order to deter prospective enemies. Thucydides further stresses this issue by locating the cause of war in the change in the balance of power between the Delian League (led by Athens) and the Peloponnesian League (led by Sparta). It is the conviction of Thucydides that the fear of the increase in Athenian power and Sparta’s future security vulnerability that led Sparta into war (1.23).

Realists are skeptical about applying morals to international relations and its politics i.e. there is no place for morality in IR, that is to say there is a rejection of ethical norm. This can be highlighted within the Melian Dialogue (5.85-113) when Athens invaded the island of Melos. The Melians were offered a choice, annihilation or admit defeat, without the recourse to justice, just to think of their survival. The Athenians were hence stressing the fact that since any authority above the state does not exist, and in the case of the Melians, the only right is that of the stronger, hence survival of the fittest. To shine light on this matter further, the Athenians equate right with power and thus disregard issues of justice, ethics and morals from foreign affairs, in this case war.

Critics of IR have always juxtaposed classical realism with that of idealism or even liberalism. That is to say liberals and idealists view the world through emphasis on international standards, interdependence among states and international and economic cooperation. The Melian Dialogue of Thucydides gives rise to one of the first debates between idealist and realist schools of thought, that is, whether politics can be based on moral thoughts drawn from justice or will politics be seen as a struggle for interests and power?

To take a closer look at the Athenian argument of the Melian Dialogue, it is clear that it is based on realist notions of security and power. There is a clear disregard for moral talk and thus advise the Melians to take a closer look at the status quo. Here the status quo is that of Melians inferior military capabilities, thus advising the Melians to think about their survival (5.87; 5.101). Furthermore, another description of this realist status quo is the fact that Athenians base their argument around security issues, self interest and power. On the other hand, when looking at the Melian situation closely, it is clear that the Melians are weak and do not risk the security and self interests of the Athenians.

In his book, Thucydides remains neutral to the thoughts of the Athenians and Melians, i.e. supports neither the idealists nor the realists. Therefore, if Thucydides is to be regarded as a realist, he would not be seen as one that resembles a member of the realpolitik that denies ethics and morals, but one that is neither amoral or immoral (ref) and can be compared to realists such as Hans Morgenthau (discussed later) where they are rational to the views of national interest and also place moral aspects to the way political actors should act in the international arena.

It was not until the 15th century that Niccolò Machiavelli was born and challenged the notion of morality and ethical standards in Christian political spheres. His approach, indeed a novel one for his time lies in his criticism of the unrealistic attributes of Western politics. Thus, after setting the ground for a new ground into realist doctrine, Machiavelli skews away from the teachings of early scholars towards “the effectual truth of the matter rather than the imagined one” (chapter XV of The Prince), i.e. a realist truth and view. Machiavelli hence replaced morality in politics with the “ends justifies the means”, i.e. “whatever is good for the state and not ethical or scruples norms”, in other words what is encompassed in the phrase ragione di stato or its French equivalent, raison d'état (ref).

Although Machiavelli is often seen as the father of both modern political strategy and defense of the republican form of government, he may also be seen as the one that caused the demoralization of Europe by challenging the Christian views of the union between politics and ethics. Before Machiavellism, it is thought that the notion of using any means and all means in the state of war was unheard of. As a result, Machiavellism gave rise to masses of armies fighting each other, where the morality has lost its validity and presence in the political moiety. This concept of politics where ethics according to Machiavelli was now under two: “private” and “public” and the principle of raison d'état would further give rise to politics of Lebensraum and world wars.

It is in my opinion, as well as other political commentators (ref) that realism has an inclination to drift into an extreme standpoint where the ends justify the means at the expense of other states, no matter how immoral or amoral the policy is. The end goal is the security and power of the state in an anarchical world.

Thomas Hobbes: Morality and Anarchy

Thomas Hobbes’ (1588-1683) realism came through around the same time as Machiavelli, his views of human behavior was that they are particularly individualistic rather than moral or ethical, as Hobbes mentions in his Leviathan, humans are subjected to “a perpetual and restless desire of power after power, that ceases only in death” (Leviathan XI 2), hence are always in a power struggle. These concepts are briefly summarized in the fact that humans are egoistic, in a state of international anarchy, and their view of politics is rooted in a power struggle. Thus when comparing schools of thought, it is clearly visible that Hobbes’ views have a great affinity towards neorealism.

Taking the concept of anarchy as a state or nature further, Hobbes clearly mentions that the world is in a state of “war as is of every man against every man” (XII 8). That is to say that the status quo of the world we live in is a state of war. The views of Hobbes are deduced from the an individual’s behavior, that is individuals are selfish and egoistic and may use force at any given moment without recourse to morals, encouraged by competition for wealth and power. Hence, individuals may even invade one another for gain; take preemptive measures to ensure their safety. Hobbes’ therefore mentions that humans “endeavor to destroy or subdue one another” (XIII 3) whether for gain, safety or power. Overall, in this regard, where conditions are of potential aggressors are optimum, realists believe that it is best to make war rather than peace, where the world becomes “Darwinian”; i.e. survival of the fittest.

When analyzing Hobbes’ writings in Leviathan, it is apparent that Hobbes views the relationship between individuals and the state as a primary focus. To indulge deeper into this argument, Hobbes views that once states are formed, the individuals running the state control the state’s behavior, hence their lust and drive for power i.e. domination of other states. This is evident where Hobbes mentions that states, “for their own security…enlarge their dominions upon all pretences of danger and fear of invasion or assistance that may be given to invaders….endeavour as much as they can, to subdue and weaken their neighbors” (XIX 4).

Furthermore, Hobbes also argues that even though there is a “war of all against all”, that does not mean that states are always in a state of war, but they are always on guard and expect war at any given moment (XIII 8). Furthermore, to evade war and overcome fighting, Hobbes does not support a social contract or “deal” between nations like the UN to end international anarchy. He also does not believe that war could ever be obliterated from the world we live in. Furthermore, it would also seem that Hobbes believes that the continuous condition of anarchy and insecurity which states are in is not reflected in the insecurity experienced by the individuals (statesmen). Hence as long as there is no onset of war between states, statesmen can feel safe.

It is evident when reading through Hobbes’ Leviathan that there is a common view shared between Machiavelli and Hobbes when it comes to their denial of moral principles and the support of the notion of raison d'état. On the other hand, although they both also view independent states are enemies by nature, selfish and egotistical, what differentiates them is that Machiavelli has a view of doing “anything it takes” to bring forward to what is advantageous to the state. Hobbes’ view of classical realism is one with a defensive nature of foreign policy. His approach unlike Machiavelli, is a that of prudence and pacifism where sovereign states should be liaised towards peace through reason. Furthermore, although Hobbes views the world as anarchical and immoral, he does not view it as one with no rules. Hobbes’ believes that because certain rules of reason do exist therefore there may be some leeway for international cooperation achieved through jointly beneficial treaties between sovereign states. On the other hand, Hobbes does not dismiss the fact that international rules will also be ineffective in ceasing the struggle for power through war. That is to say, states will interpret these rules according to their own interests thus ignoring international laws and commitments. This therefore highlights the egotistical, selfish and greedy nature of states through Hobbes’ pessimistic view of relations between sovereign states in IR.

The idea of the creation of modern (20th century) realism arose from the attitude and results of the emergence of an idealist school of thought most notably after WWI. These liberals also known by synonyms just as idealists or utopians had an aim of building peace by the virtue of creating a system of international law intertwined with international ogranisations. This gave rise to the League of Nations via the interwar idealism in 1920 followed by the Kellogg-Briand Pact of 1928 that prohibited war and propagated the peaceful settlement of interstate disputes. It was the advocacy on behalf of scholars like the U.S. President Woodrow Wilson, a political scientist by profession that focused their abilities uniting humanity and appealing to rationality and morality. It was the view of utopians like Wilson that saw war as an imperfection of social conditions that could be improved rather that it being a primordial of egoistic human nature.

On the other hand, the hopes of utopians were short live, and although Wilson was the main advocate for the League of Nations, the US never joined, and with the withdrawals of Japan and Germany, a second world war broke out. By that time, realists such as E. H. Carr has been heavily criticizing the liberal school of thought. It was the works of realists such as Carr and Morgenthau that influenced the creation of what is thought to be a liberally induced United Nations in 1945.

Carr’s famous work on international relations, famously known as The Twenty Years' Crisis (1939) focuses on a rebuttal of the idealist utopian views of international relations. Carr criticizes and challenges the idealist views of the harmony of interests where he believes that “morality can only be relative, not universal” (19). Furthermore, he mentions that the principle of the harmony of interests is created by “privileged” groups “to justify and maintain their dominant position” (75). When Carr argues his central idea of moral principles, he refers to and uses a concept that can be traced back to Marxist theories (ref) of the “relativity of thought”. His idea is that the interests of a particular group will always pave the way and be deterministic of what that group deems as moral principles, hence not universal as utopians might believe. It is also worthy to note that as Carr views a politician’s use of morally discrediting or “slandering” an enemy as an act created by actual policies. Thus these policies in realist views are dependent on interests of the parties involved and not universal and independent of interests as utopians claim (ref). Carr also views that values and interests are also not universal, where a party that acts on these values and interests are basically their own interests; and what is best for that party is best for everyone (71).

A further theory put out by Carr contradicts an idealist principle of “harmony of interests” where humans can be rational and cooperate to achieve those interests. Carr believes that humans actually have different interests, therefore would compete and between them to achieve their goals, this is what he terms “conflict of interests” (ref). This conflict of interests thus coalesces with a Hobbesinian view that morality is dominated by a “coercive power” (ref) (61). Therefore, Carr believes that international moral principles are enforced by countries with power over other nations with no or less power, hence, morals are made to subdue weaker nations into dominance (ref).

Carr also views morals and views of peace, justice and international order as the status quo. He further supports this argument by viewing that states or powers that are happy with the current status quo view the current status as just, and those who don’t, view it as unjust and would therefore end up in going to war (76). Furthermore, Carr also views that if peace cannot be attained through war then the best way to ensure peace is to satisfy powers greater than the weaker state: “Those who profit most by [international] order can in the longer run only hope to maintain it by making sufficient concessions to make it tolerable to those who profit by it least” (152).

The Realism of Hans Morgenthau, Morals and Power

Hans Jochaim Morgenthau was an avid neoclassical realist thinker influenced by the works of Hobbes and Reinhold Niebuhr. He presents a fact that humans have an insatiable lust for power identifying it with animus dominandi, the desire to rule or dominate. This desire Morgenthau sees is the pivotal root cause of conflict: “international politics, like all politics, is a struggle for power” (25).

In his main work, “Politics among Nations”, Morgenthau bases his theories of realism on six main principles. It is in the second principle that Morgenthau clearly presents his argument of where state leaders “think and act in terms of interest defined as power” (5). This concept presents two main points: firstly is the autonomy of politics from other fields such as economics, religion and ethics. Furthermore, the second principle allows for the analysis of foreign policy without recourse to motives and morals of statesmen or politicians, hence the presence rationality in international politics.

But, unlike Machiavelli, Morgenthau does not completely devour ethics from politics. In his fourth principle, Morgenthau explains the relationship between realism and ethics. He mentions that “Universal moral principles….cannot be applied to the actions of states in their abstract universal formulation, but …they must be filtered through the concrete circumstances of time and place” (9). That is, there is always some form of friction between morality and political decisions. Morgenthau also stresses the need for prudence when applying his principle as political morality cannot exist without prudence, i.e. “without consideration of the political consequences of seemingly moral action” (ibid.).

To take a closer look at his central themes of “power and interest”, Morgenthau believes that moral and ethics are not sufficient to comprehend the dynamics of international politics, there therefore has to be a balance in power interests. Morgenthau like Carr was doubtful and pessimistic at how idealists viewed politics in that they never took into account the harsh and negative lesson of history. Morgenthau further contested that the “ethics of evil” as an inherent part of foreign policy. This is due to the fact that politicians may not have a choice between “right or wrong….. but rather between bad and worse” (ref).

Morgenthau’s realist views stresses on the pessimistic vision of foreign policy, thus creating version of ethics that intertwines power and morality together, a view also shared by Max Weber’s ethics (ref). Morgenthau’s view of ethics was born out of harsh lesson from the failure of the League of Nations to the fascist actions of Nazi Germany and the dangers of communism. Therefore national interests to Morgenthau were an utmost priority as long as these interests contributed to a balance of power; a balance between power, interest and ethics (2). This to Morgenthau is fact and reality as opposed to the idealist’s utopian views. Morgenthau further emphasized his point by: "I prefer the brutality of realist inquiry over the confused sentimentality that neglects its interests and does not get to the point."(3). Furthermore, according to Morgenthau and the concept of animus dominandi, man’s strife for power makes man greedy hence taking everything for themselves and depriving their neighbours. Morgenthau’s view thus makes him a promoter of power poltics, but on the contrary, Morgenthau’s realism offers elements of morals and ethics to utilize power adequately thus giving rise to “morally good results” (ref). Morgenthau’s neoclassical realism was indeed a mix between limiting power intertwined with morality, balanced with tolerance and self constraint made his neoclassical form of realism appealing.


Political theorists have long seen Morgenthau with an eye of immorality. On the other hand, when looking closer (as mentioned above), Morgenthau has been in agreement with Max Weber in that decisions based on moral values could not be justified rationally thus deeming him a realist with morals aspects. Furthermore, Morgenthau also viewed the world as morally imperfect and corrupt, thus should have some morality incorporated to it. This is evident in his opposition to the Vietnam War. He clearly opposed US foreign policy during that war, and thus called for a realist foreign policy based on national interest.

Overall, Morgenthau was a harsh critic and opponent of US intervention and foreign policy in Asia. On the other hand, he advocated for a peaceful coexistence with communist Russia and thus advocated a dual strategy of military might and a willingness to seek “détente”. His support was clearly expressed when Kissinger and Nixon attempted to enforce a more moderate realist strategy toward Communist powers (China and Russia) hence creating a multipolar world led by the US via the use of Morgenthau’s balance of power and his détente (4). Finally, Morgenthau has advocated a mixture of prudence, morality and realist views of national interest and balance of power in his politics. His advocacy supports Friedrich Meinecke's concept of raison d'etat and when combined with his realist views, makes an effect and coherent realist model.

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