Morgenthau Advances Realist School of Power Politics Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

After World War II, scholars in the field of international relations sought a better theoretical basis for understanding conflict and diplomacy. Hans Joachim Morgenthau argued in Politics Among Nations that political realism provided the best account of these areas.

Summary of Event

The publication of Hans Joachim Morgenthau’s book Politics Among Nations: The Struggle for Power and Peace (1948) was a watershed in the twentieth century theory of international relations. While not the first expression of what is called the realist school of political theory, Morgenthau’s work caught the attention of scholars and politicians. The solid intellectual foundation and the clearly defined principles of political realism made it impossible to disregard. It was the basis for future discussions, whether one agreed or disagreed with Morgenthau. The text was widely used in international relations classes for decades. Politics Among Nations (Morgenthau) Political realism [kw]Morgenthau Advances Realist School of Power Politics (1948) [kw]Realist School of Power Politics, Morgenthau Advances (1948) [kw]Power Politics, Morgenthau Advances Realist School of (1948) [kw]Politics, Morgenthau Advances Realist School of Power (1948) Politics Among Nations (Morgenthau) Political realism [g]North America;1948: Morgenthau Advances Realist School of Power Politics[02260] [g]United States;1948: Morgenthau Advances Realist School of Power Politics[02260] [c]Political science;1948: Morgenthau Advances Realist School of Power Politics[02260] [c]Publishing and journalism;1948: Morgenthau Advances Realist School of Power Politics[02260] Morgenthau, Hans Joachim Kennan, George F. Waltz, Kenneth N. Niebuhr, Reinhold

Western analysis of international relations is often seen as beginning with the ancient historian Thucydides, who wrote about the Peloponnesian War (431-404 b.c.e.). Writing about and practicing diplomacy during the early sixteenth century, Niccolò Machiavelli is often seen as a forerunner of the modern power-politics approach to international relations. In the seventeenth century, Thomas Hobbes also espoused a power approach to international relations, while Hugo Grotius put forward an organizational theory as being the best way to deal with international uncertainty. Within Europe, the nineteenth century opened with the Napoleonic Wars (1793-1815) and the Prussian unification of the German states (1815-1871), and it closed with the British and Germans vying for dominance. The intellectual response to this situation was to seek an end to warfare through organizations such as the Permanent International Peace Bureau.

Although organizations such as the bureau did not prevent World War I, it was believed by many that a stronger international organization might more effectively promote peace. A basic tenet of this idealistic school of thought was that an outmoded international system or corrupt individuals were the cause of international conflict. This was the foundation for the League of Nations, through which many sought to change or control the condition that had led to the so-called War to End All Wars. When the league was unable to prevent World War II, many looked for a new theory to explain what had happened and to give political leaders a guide for the future.

Morgenthau moved into this void, offering an understandable if pessimistic analysis. He assumed that anarchy was the norm for the international system, which could be made orderly only through the use of power. He saw the nation-state as the principal international entity, with organizations and other entities playing secondary roles. He assumed each nation-state followed its own self-interest; thus, competition was to be expected, with conflict occurring more often than cooperation.

From this foundation, Morgenthau developed “Six Principles of Political Realism,” the first chapter of Politics Among Nations. The six principles put forward in that chapter include the idea that human nature does not change, which allows rational theories of politics to be developed. Self-interest, moreover, can be viewed in terms of power, which allows the development of political thought. Power is the ability to control others and is seen by Morgenthau as a universal goal. While morality is still seen as a part of life, realism understands it to be expendable in the pursuit of political success. The goals or morals of one group cannot be assumed to be those of all groups. Even though other dimensions of life exist, politics takes place within its own sphere and must be seen within this light and not judged by a set of rules that might apply only to other aspects of life.

Politics Among Nations was seen by many as a guide for the emerging Cold War between the United States and the Soviet Union. The creation of the United Nations at the end of World War II gave some hope to the idealists. However, events such as the communist victory in China and the invasion of South Korea by North Korea made many doubt the ability of this organization to be effective in world politics. Morgenthau’s contention that international relations could be understood rationally gave leaders what seemed to be an approach that would allow them to deal with real events. He also rejected the proposition of those who thought that technology made the post-World War II era different from previous eras. His study of European political history was the reason he believed that the power politics of previous centuries remained intact.

One individual who is believed by many to have helped pave the way for Morgenthau was the Protestant theologian Reinhold Niebuhr. Basing his writing on the New Testament assertion of humankind’s sinful nature, he saw a desire for power, both individually and collectively, as the normal state of affairs. Although differing significantly from Morgenthau’s position on morality in politics, Niebuhr taught that countries must understand international power politics. Thus, when Morgenthau put forward what might seem to be a pessimistic view of world politics, many saw it in the light of the religious teachings of Niebuhr.

If Niebuhr was an important precursor of Morgenthau, George F. Kennan was his intellectual follower, developing the realist school of political theory in a slightly different way than did Morgenthau. While Morgenthau was from Europe (he immigrated from Germany in 1937), Kennan’s analysis of the international situation was based upon an American point of view. He believed that the errors of American idealists were due to their belief that the American system of government had created a relatively peaceful region of the world. He asserted that it was power politics that had created the relative peace of the Western Hemisphere. Thus, plans for a peaceful future should be based on a realist approach to international relations, not an idealistic one that based its hopes on international organizations.

Another individual who built upon the realist school of thought was Kenneth N. Waltz. Waltz did not focus on human nature as the primary cause for power politics; rather, his focus was on the anarchy of the international system. Thus, the structure international system plays the most important role in Waltz’s system in determining whether or not countries can achieve their goals given the specific balance of power between them and their rivals.


Hans Morgenthau’s expression of political realism occurred when leaders were searching for a new way to understand international relations. The structural solutions that had been tried in the first half of the twentieth century had failed. The most costly war in history had just ended, and a new rivalry was heating up. Morgenthau’s assertion that there was a rational approach to understanding these issues fit well with the modern mind-set. The fact that military power had just defeated the aggressive Axis Powers in a world war seemed to confirm Morgenthau’s ideas. In the minds of many Americans, the ideology of the Soviet Union could be contained only through the use of power.

Thus, unlike the works of some scholars, Morgenthau’s book directly affected the outlook of the American government and helped shape world events. For most of the time since the publication of Politics Among Nations, American foreign policy has been shaped by those who accept many of its basic tenets. In addition, Morgenthau shaped the way in which the theory of international relations was discussed during the latter half of the twentieth century. It was impossible for scholars to ignore the realist school of thought. Whether their theories supported or opposed those put forward by Morgenthau, others had to respond to the ideas he presented. Politics Among Nations (Morgenthau) Political realism

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Bucklin, Steven J. Realism and American Foreign Policy: Wilsonians and the Kennan-Morgenthau Thesis. Westport, Conn.: Praeger, 2001. Monograph on the opposed realist and idealistic approaches to foreign policy of Woodrow Wilson and the post-World War II realists. Bibliographic references and index.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Craig, Campbell. Glimmer of a New Leviathan: Total War in the Realism of Niebuhr, Morgenthau, and Waltz. New York: Columbia University Press, 2003. Compares Morgenthau’s work to that of Waltz and Niebuhr using the concept of “total war” to discuss international relations in the nuclear age. Bibliographic references and index.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Frei, Christopher. Hans J. Morgenthau: An Intellectual Biography. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 2001. Initially a standard biography, the latter portion of the book treats its topic more in terms of philosophical development and Morgenthau’s developing realist position.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Lang, Anthony F., ed. Political Theory and International Affairs: Hans J. Morgenthau on Aristotle’s “The Politics.” Westport, Conn.: Praeger, 2004. Allows the reader to gain a fuller understanding of Morgenthau’s political theory, as it is taken from lectures on the application of Aristotle’s ideas, which he gave over a three-year period.

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