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Wither classical realism? (II)

January 30, 2011

M.N. Silva at the Westphalian Post and LFC at Howl at Pluto both have thoughtful and interesting posts up responding in part to some of my speculations about classical realism’s prospects in the United States today.

LFC points out that while Morgenthau’s early work did have the dreary tint of Weimar-era German skepticism, he ended up being remarkably supportive of liberal democracy. The Civil Rights movement and the popular outrage at the Vietnam war appeared instrumental in Morgenthau’s advocacy of greater democracy at home and a stronger moral grounding in US foreign policy. Morgenthau was a strong proponent of racial equality and critic of the US intervention in Indochina. Though Morgenthau still feared a descent into violence of some degree, his solutions lay in expanding minority rights and expanding the US welfare state. Morgenthau’s critique of the scientific reasoning endemic to technological and capitalist economics took on a decidedly left-wing turn during the Vietnam war.

So, Morgenthau did find a grounding for realism within American, or at least anti-elitist political traditions. The imperial presidency thus broke realism’s political viability as much as it enhanced its influence on policy. To return to Morgenthau and Kissinger, the political opinions of each, though they differ, both reflect the influence of the imperial presidency’s crisis during Vietnam. For Morgenthau, who stood outside the government, the need to morally reground realism resolved in a fierce critique of the established political and economic order, along with the expansive interventionist foreign policy it produced. For Kissinger, Nixon’s implosion brought about a different path. Though he remained critical of US liberal interventionism in the case of the Balkans, his support of the invasion of Iraq suggest some degree of accommodation with US exceptionalism. Because many view this, and many of his other actions, as politically cynical, Kissingerian realism remains relatively taboo for idealists on the left and right.

Thus, as M.N. Silva observes, realists find themselves encamped with libertarians, paleoconservatives, and anti-establishment types who lack general political popularity. He correctly points out that the tremendous degree of US security since later years of the Cold War has undermined realism’s appeal. In the meantime, the imperial presidency has only entrenched its position in US politics, only this time with far more of a moral flavor than Nixon’s cynical calculations. Ultimately, the imposing executive WWII and the Cold War built, which realists so deftly exploited, has proven equally amenable to crusading moralism as to the amoral realpolitik those such as Kissinger hoped it could practice.

2 Comments leave one →
  1. February 1, 2011 10:40 am

    I’ll add an update to my post referencing this response. I think you’re right btw that Kissinger has very few admirers on the left and a large part of the right — well, to be more precise, he has no fans on the left, and not many among the neocons, paleocons, etc.


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