Approaching Hans Morgenthau: An Introduction to Realism

Hans Morgenthau is known for methodising the basics of classical realism into one understandable theory. The theory is based on six principles, each outlines below, to be applicable to political situations and international process.

  1. Politics are governed by objective laws, that alike to general society, have their roots in human nature.

Since Thucydides, it has been apparent that politics is just another strand of human nature. In Thucydides work, he comments on human nature is not changing, thus politics on a domestic and international level reflect this unchanging nature, as they are already pre-developed by that time. Morgenthau uses these concepts from Thucydides as well as the contemporary reality he was engaged with to apply concept to reality. In response to his first principle, Morgenthau draws a conclusion that the existence of objective laws, it is possible to develop a rational theory that reflects them. In essence this primary principle points out that it is indeed possible to generalise politics, and that International relations itself does not consist of the many small issues surrounding it, due to the general principles and objective laws that are ratified by the theory.

2) The concept of national interest is defined in terms of power. There is rational order in the matter of politics making the theoretical understanding of politics possible.

Realism stresses the rational, objective and unemotional reasons of state actions. In a sense, the interest on a national level in lieu of interest of the individual or nation state leader. National interest is the most important, the very centre of these interests being the security and survival of the nation. (In context of the realist paradigm). Foreign policy is constructed on the aim to defend the national interest and prolonged existence of the nation. Using this model, it is easy to predict potential actions of a realist state within international relations, as their main goal is survival.

3) Interest defined as power is an objective category, that always exists.

Morgenthau defines power as control of man over man, but never referring to government. This third principles leads to difference between political science and international relations. In essence, political science is about the government; how politicians get to the power, the exercise of power and the retention or loss of power. On the other hand IR reflects the idea that power is control man over man; nation states within IR do not directly order the others what they should do, they are independent in the global hegemony neither making laws for other nation states or directly telling them how they should be behaving.

4) Awareness of the moral significance of a political action.

Political realism doesn’t deny the existence of moral significance of political action. It is also aware of the tension between moral command, and the requirements of successful political action. Morgenthau includes morality within the realist theory of IR in order to avoid the common misconception that realists avoid the topic of morality. Morality exists outside political theory.

5) Political realism refuses to identify the moral aspirations of a particular nation with the moral rules that govern the universe.

As with the last principle, the fifth conceptualises interest defined in terms of power that saves us from moral excess and consequencentally political folly. The interest, the objective category of political, helps us from not being vulnerable by the stupidities caused by the individual stance of moral principles and preferences.

6) The political realist maintains the autonomy of the political sphere.

How does this policy affect the power of the nation?
Political reason, alike to the first principle, is based on the pluralistic conception of human nature. A man who stands for nothing but politics, would be a beast, as he would be completely lacking in morality. However, in order to develop an autonomous theory of political behavior, the political man must be abstracted from other aspects of human nature.

The nature of the realist approach to IR is very important to understand. To sum it up in three points:

  • Statism – concentration on the state
  • Survival – every main task of every nation state is to survive
  • Self-help – in an anarchic environment, nobody can help but yourself

After understanding these 6 principles and concepts, applying realist theory to political situations should not be so challenging. Morgenthau’s original text is a hefty read to get through especially if you are new to the subject so having a short guide to each point without the chapters of explanation on explanation.

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