Louis F. Cooper is a writer and editor. He has a Ph.D. in international relations from the School of International Service, American University. He has been a frequent guest blogger in the past, most recently writing about the Burns/Novick documentary film on the Vietnam War.
Who are the most important American foreign-policy “realists” of the twentieth century? A historian familiar with this terrain would likely answer with some or all of these names: Hans Morgenthau, George Kennan, Henry Kissinger, Walter Lippmann, and Reinhold Niebuhr. Several respondents might also mention Nicholas Spykman or John Herz or Zbigniew Brzezinski. Other names would be proposed as well; for instance, Joel Rosenthal’s Righteous Realists (1991) adds Dean Acheson to the quartet of Morgenthau, Kennan, Niebuhr, and Lippmann. A political scientist answering the same question would not offer exactly the same list of names as a historian — a point of some interest but one that’s not directly relevant to this post.
In the sense in which the word is being used here, there are different varieties of realism and no universally accepted definition. However, typical definitions in the literature usually include some reference to: a tragic view of the world (and/or of human nature); a skeptical or negative attitude toward moralism and legalism in international affairs; and an emphasis on the so-called anarchical character of international politics, i.e., the lack of an authoritative world government standing above states, and the supposed implications of that condition.
The word “realism” conjures up vague, contested words and phrases like power, realpolitik, reason of state, balance-of-power, geopolitics, self-help, and the national interest. As Michael J. Smith observes in Realist Thought from Weber to Kissinger (1986), the national interest “is not an objective datum [or] an amoral law of interstate existence” but “is defined according to a particular hierarchy of values,” and a realist worldview cannot avoid moral considerations, even if, as is often the case, those considerations remain implicit or unacknowledged.
It is thus not surprising that when realists wrote about particular issues – say, Cold War crises or nuclear weapons or the Vietnam War or the 2003 invasion of Iraq – they were often more critical of official policy than some of their abstract pronouncements would have led one to expect. With the partial exception of Kissinger, most of the realists’ writing about policy tends to be wary of dogmatism and suspicious of doctrines.
As just mentioned, realists have often been critical of U.S. behavior in the world. T.J. Jackson Lears traces this strain of criticism in his essay “Pragmatic Realism versus the American Century” (in The Short American Century: A Postmortem, ed. Andrew Bacevich, Harvard Univ. Press, 2012, pp. 82-120). As Lears’s title suggests, he connects realism to the tradition of American pragmatism.
Going back to Emerson, pragmatists have sought, in Lears’s words, to “embrace the strife of the world” (p. 83), rather than withdraw into a purely scholarly remoteness. The gendered assumptions of the late nineteenth century and much of the twentieth century equated action, often of the military sort, with manliness, deemed a desirable quality by the overwhelmingly male participants in foreign-policy debates. The problem was how to harness this activist impulse for more constructive ends than imperialist adventure and militarism. One solution was William James’s famous “moral equivalent of war,” a proposal to channel “the martial virtues” into non-militarist paths, with “gilded youths” conscripted not for military service but for hard work in “coal and iron mines, …freight trains, …fishing fleets in December,” and so on.
James’s position placed, in Lears’s words, “the burden of proof – or at least of persuasion” on those who favored military intervention in any particular case (p. 91). Randolph Bourne, whose “The War and the Intellectuals” (1917) reads, in some respects, as if it could have been written today, applied this view in exposing what he saw as the flawed and often hypocritical arguments of those who favored American entry into World War One.
Lears then moves on to consider Lippmann, Niebuhr, Kennan, and Senator J. William Fulbright (author of The Arrogance of Power), all of whom eventually converged in their opposition to the Vietnam War. While Lippmann had weekly discussions over tea with William James when Lippmann was a student at Harvard, there is no comparable biographical connection between William James and George Kennan. However, Lears sees a Jamesian link in Kennan’s turn, late in his career, to impassioned criticism of the mystifications surrounding nuclear weapons.
After faulting Kennan for ignoring “the role of economic interests” and for “his pronounced Eurocentrism” (p. 109), Lears notes that Kennan’s emphasis on “discriminating restraint” led to his critique of nuclear weapons. Kennan always had had serious misgivings about official nuclear policy – he opposed the U.S. development of the hydrogen bomb — but it was in the twilight of his career, from the 1980s on, that his worries about the prospect of nuclear war deepened. For example, in a speech delivered in November 1981, Kennan praised the growing anti-nuclear movement in the U.S. and Europe, and he referred to the military planners’ “preoccupation with nuclear war” as “a form of illness.” (Kennan, “On Nuclear War,” in The Nuclear Delusion, 1983, p. 199) As Lears puts it: “The reliance on nuclear weapons offered a perfect expression, Kennan thought, of the absolutist tendency to embrace wars of annihilation and doctrines of unconditional surrender. Like James, he recognized the menace of the absolute.” (“Pragmatic Realism,” p. 109)
Lears concludes that pragmatic realism at its best rests on “a realization that nothing more fully reveals a powerful nation’s greatness than its capacity for restraint.” (p. 119) The most prominent American realists themselves did not always remember that. Sometimes they acted as apologists for power rather than speaking truth to power. In short, it’s a mixed and complicated record, which may be one reason why the American realists — especially the canonical quartet of Morgenthau, Kennan, Niebuhr, and Lippmann — have attracted so much interest and attention.
References and further reading
Anything approaching a complete bibliography associated with the matters touched on in this post would be very lengthy. In addition to the Lears piece discussed above, here are some suggested readings from varying perspectives:
Perry Anderson, American Foreign Policy and Its Thinkers. Verso, 2015
Jack Donnelly, Realism and International Relations. Cambridge Univ. Press, 2000
Richard W. Fox, Reinhold Niebuhr: A Biography. Pantheon, 1985
J.L. Gaddis, George F. Kennan: An American Life. Penguin pb, 2012
Nicolas Guilhot, “The Realist Gambit: Postwar American Political Science and the Birth of IR Theory,” International Political Sociology (Dec. 2008)
Walter L. Hixson, George F. Kennan: Cold War Iconoclast. Columbia Univ. Press,1989
George F. Kennan, Memoirs (two vols.). Little, Brown & Co., 1967, 1972
Christopher McKnight Nichols, Promise and Peril: America at the Dawn of a Global Age. Harvard Univ. Press, 2011; pb, 2015
Or Rosenboim, The Emergence of Globalism. Princeton Univ. Press, 2017
Joel H. Rosenthal, Righteous Realists: Political Realism, Responsible Power, and American Culture in the Nuclear Age. Louisiana State Univ. Press, 1991
William E. Scheuerman, Hans Morgenthau: Realism and Beyond. Polity Press, 2009