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Whither classical realism? An unfounded speculation

January 24, 2011
The hypertrophy of executive power and unchecked government actions in the pursuit of security and foreign policy, at least for the past decade or so, put many realists in the same boat as idealistic critics of the establishment. While this is not necessarily contradictory, it did have the odd effect of putting intellectuals who cringe at the idea of an idealistic foreign policy shoulder to shoulder with the UN’s strongest cheerleaders. Yet an effective foreign policy cannot merely be a rejection of certain policy elements of its predecessor, devoid of a coherent worldview or positive principles for action.
This odd scenario has left me wondering just how compatible the US liberal democratic system is with realist agendas. In previous posts, I have emphasized that there is a historically significant tradition of American realist and geopolitical thought, most notable in the writings of Alexander Hamilton as Publius. Hamilton’s opponents, though, often villanized him as a monarchist sympathizer and un-American opponent of democratic change. Realism, with its associations with Machiavelli, cynicism, and rejection of moral vision, has always seemed suspect to American intellectuals and the general public. The most influential political realist in modern American foreign policy, Kissinger, owed his power in no small part to the nefarious dealings of the Nixon administration. Does realism benefit from, or need an imperial presidency? Is realist foreign policy in inherent tension with a democratic electorate?
There is, after all, a good reason that foreign policy powers are concentrated in the executive. Though Congress, through its power to declare war and conclude treaties, has some check on binding conditions of international politics, the Constitution vests the day to day conduct of foreign policy in the President. Despite their differences, both the Federalists and the Democratic-Republicans were quite willing to sidestep Congressional power in their foreign policy endeavors. Realism, regardless of its acceptance of a moral dimension to foreign policy, has historically distanced itself from the foreign policy of the “masses.” The authors of the Federalist papers were astute students of Greek history. The Athenian public’s susceptibility to demagoguery, and its tragic results in the Peloponnesian War, provide an early precedent for realist distrust of the body politic’s foreign policy acumen.
The experience of the 20th century reinforced this tendency. The US public became involved in World War One not for the grosse politik realism of Teddy Roosevelt and like-minded imperialists, but for the moral rationale of Woodrow Wilson and a mobilization of popular outrage over German offenses against neutrality. After WWI, realists such as Hans Morgenthau, Walter Lippmann and Henry Kissinger all looked down on the American public’s ability to responsibly handle foreign affairs, though their preferred foreign policies differed. These men, however, wrote in the context of two perceived existential threats to the United States, Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union. Absent such a threat, is such an elitist form of realism possible, let alone necessary or preferable?
How many American realists today share Morgenthau or Kissinger’s disdain for the ability of a democratic public to craft sound foreign policy? Presumably a good deal share the sentiments, but likely few could muster the willpower to divorce domestic principles so fully from foreign policy indefinitely. Offshore balancing realism is unlikely to prove a very popular foreign policy, while the process of a more active realist foreign policy is less open to a democratic decision-making.
Incidentally, the sort of elitist realism that animated the likes of Morgenthau and Kissinger seems rather absent from policy circles and academe today. For all the animus heaped on realists now, Waltz, Mearsheimer and Walt, et. al. hardly seem to share the anti-democratic sentiments the classical and Cold War realists did. One guess: the translatio imperii of realist thought from European great powers to the United States. For the European realists who emigrated to the United States, mass politics was potentially the gateway to disorder and horror. Morgenthau’s “hidden dialogue” with Schmitt is evident in both of their major works, and Kissinger’s admiration for Spengler and Metternich hardly lends itself to favorable opinions towards liberalism. Both thinkers acclimated themselves to their new homeland’s political traditions, but not without criticism. These German Jewish intellectuals inherited the Weimar-era sense of Verfallsgeschichte that seems rather lacking in the chastened internationalists and skeptical social scientists who practice and debate realist foreign policy today.
Most popular realist discourse in America today harks back neither to interwar German political theory nor Hamilton and the realism of Publius. If American social-science, offshore balancing realism is practically implausible, given the difficulty of extracting America from foreign entanglements, then classical realism is intellectually implausible, if we consider the moral climate in American political and academic life.
4 Comments leave one →
  1. January 26, 2011 2:41 pm

    Thoughtful post. I think however it exaggerates Morgenthau’s elitism. Rather than go into it here, I will put up a brief post myself on this, I hope by Friday (1/28).

    • January 27, 2011 2:52 pm

      Excellent, sounds great. To be completely honest, my knowledge of Morgenthau is really from his earlier work (not the writing directed specifically towards the US), so I’m probably giving too much weight to the German inheritance. Looking forward to your thoughts.


  1. Wither classical realism? (II) « Slouching Towards Columbia
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