Hans J. Morgenthau, Politics Among Nations: The Struggle for Power and Peace
A Realist Theory of International Relations summary:
Modern political thought has two schools:
1. A rational moral and political order can be achieved here and now; human nature is good and infinitely
malleable. The failure of social order is a consequence of lack of knowledge and understanding, outdated
social institutions, or the immorality of certain isolated individuals or groups. Solutions to remedy these
effects include education, reform, and the sporadic use of force.
2. The world is imperfect because of forces inherent in human nature; moral principles can never be fully
realized. Historic precedents trump abstract principles; concerned with the realization of the lesser evil
rather than the absolute good. This is called realism.
Six Principles of Political Realism:
1. Politics is governed by objective laws that have their roots in human nature. Human nature has not
2. International politics is the concept of interests defined in terms of power separate from other spheres
of action such as economics, ethics, religion, etc. Without this separation, we could not distinguish between
political and nonpolitical facts/issues nor bring a measure of systematic order to the political sphere.
a. It is futile and deceptive to search for clues to foreign policy exclusively in the motives of
statesmen; history shows no exact and necessary correlation between quality of motives and quality of
foreign policy in both moral and political terms.
b. A realist theory avoids equating foreign policy with ideological preferences. Political realism
requires a sharp distinction between what is desirable everywhere and at all times and what is possible
under concrete circumstances of time and place.
c. Political realism considers a rational foreign policy a good foreign policy; a perfect balance of
power policy will scarcely be found in reality.
3. The idea of interest is the essence of politics and is unaffected by the circumstances of time and
a. The kind of interest determining political action in a particular period of history depends on the
political and cultural context within which foreign policy is formulated; the same goes for the concept of
power: its content and the manner of its use are determined by the political and cultural environment
b. Realism does not assume that existing conditions under which foreign policy operates cannot be changed
c. The nation state is the ultimate point of reference of contemporary foreign policy.
d. The transformation of the contemporary world can be achieved only through the manipulation of the
recurrent forces that have shaped the past as they will the future
4. Universal moral principles cannot be applied to the actions of states in their abstract universal
formulation, but must be filtered through the concrete circumstances of time and place. Prudence, the
weighing of the consequences of alternative political actions, is the supreme virtue in politics.
5. Realism refuses to identify the moral ambitions of a particular nation with the moral laws that govern
a. We are able to judge other nations as we judge our own, and having judged them in this fashion,
we are capable of pursuing policies that respect the interests of other nations while protecting and
promoting our own.
b. Moderation in policy cannot fail to reflect the moderation of moral judgment.
6. The difference between realism and other schools of thought is profound. The political realist
maintains autonomy of the political sphere, but recognizes different facets of human nature exist.
SIX PRINCIPLES OF POLITICAL REALISM
1.Political realism believes that politics, like society in general, is governed by objective laws that have their
roots in human nature. In order to improve society it is first necessary to understand the laws by which
society lives. The operation of these laws being impervious to our preferences, men will challenge them
only at the risk of failure.
Realism, believing as it does in the objectivity of the laws of politics, must also believe in the possibility of
developing a rational theory that reflects, however imperfectly and onesidedly, these objective laws. It
believes also, then, in the possibility of distinguishing in politics between truth and opinionbetween what is
true objectively and rationally, supported by evidence and illuminated by reason, and what is only a
subjective judgment, divorced from the facts as they are and informed by prejudice and wishful thinking.
Human nature, in which the laws of politics have their roots, has not changed since the classical
philosophies of China, India, and Greece endeavored to discover these laws. Hence, novelty is not
necessarily a virtue in political theory, nor is old age a defect. The fact that a theory of politics, if there be such a theory, has never been heard of before tends to create a presumption against, rather than in favor
of, its soundness. Conversely, the fact that a theory of politics was developed hundreds or even thousands
of years ag~as was the theory of the balance of powerdoes not create a presumption that it must be
outmoded and obsolete. A theory of politics must be subjected to the dual test of reason and experience. To
dismiss such a theory because it had its flowering in centuries past is to present not a rational argument but
a modernistic prejudice that takes for granted the superiority of the present over the past. To dispose of the
revival of such a theory as a "fashion" or "fad" is tantamount to assuming that in matters political we can
have opinions but no truths.
For realism, theory consists in ascertaining facts and giving them meaning through reason. It assumes that
the character of a foreign policy can be ascertained only through the examination of the political acts
performed and of the foreseeable consequences of these acts. Thus we can find out what statesmen have
actually done, and from the foreseeable consequences of their acts we can surmise what their objectives
might have been.
Yet examination of the facts is not enough. To give meaning to the factual raw material of foreign policy, we
must approach political reality with a kind of rational outline, a map that suggests to us the possible
meanings of foreign policy. In other words, we put ourselves in the position of a statesman who must meet
a certain problem of foreign policy under certain circumstances, and we ask ourselves what the rational
alternatives are from which a statesman may choose who must meet this problem under these
circumstances (presuming always that he acts in a rational manner), and which of these rational
alternatives this particular statesman, acting under these circumstances, is likely to choose. It is the testing
of this rational hypothesis against the actual facts and their consequences that gives theoretical meaning to
the facts of international politics.
2. The main signpost that helps political realism to find its way through the landscape of international
politics is the concept of interest defined in terms of power. This concept provides the link between reason
trying to understand international politics and the facts to be understood. It sets politics as an autonomous
sphere of action and understanding apart from other spheres, such as economics (understood in terms of
interest defined as wealth), ethics, aesthetics, or religion. Without such a concept a theory of politics,
international or domestic, would be altogether impossible, for without it we could not distinguish between
political and nonpolitical facts, nor could we bring at least a measure of systematic order to the political
We assume that statesmen think and act in terms of interest defined as power, and the evidence of history
bears that assumption out. That assumption allows us to retrace and anticipate, as it were, the steps a
statesmanpast, present, or futurehas taken or will take on the political scene. We look over his shoulder
when he writes his dispatches; we listen in on his conversation with other statesmen; we read and
anticipate his very thoughts. Thinking in terms of interest defined as power, we think as he does, and as
disinterested observers we understand his thoughts and actions perhaps better than he, the actor on the
political scene, does himself.
The concept of interest defined as power imposes intellectual discipline upon the observer, infuses rational order into the subject matter of politics, and thus makes the theoretical understanding of politics possible.
On the side of the actor, it provides for rational discipline in action and creates that astounding continuity in
foreign policy which makes American, British, or Russian foreign policy appear as an intelligible, rational
continuum, by and large consistent within itself, regardless of the different motives, preferences, and
intellectual and moral qualities of successive statesmen. A realist theory of international politics, then, will
guard against two popular fallacies: the concern with motives and the concern with ideological preferences.
To search for the clue to foreign policy exclusively in the motives of statesmen is both futile and deceptive. It
is futile because motives are the most illusive of psychological data, distorted as they are, frequently
beyond recognition, by the interests and emotions of actor and observer alike. Do we really know what our
own motives are? And what do we know of the motives of others?
Yet even if we had access to the real motives of statesmen, that knowledge would help us little in
understanding foreign policies, and might well lead us astray. It is true that the knowledge of the
statesman's motives may give us one among many clues as to what the direction of his foreign policy might
be. It cannot give us, however, the one clue by which to predict his foreign policies. History shows no exact
and necessary correlation between the quality of motives and the quality of foreign policy. This is true in
both moral and political terms.
We cannot conclude from the good intentions of a statesman that his foreign policies will be either morally
praiseworthy or politically successful. Judging his motives, we can say that he will not intentionally pursue
policies that are morally wrong, but we can say nothing about the probability of their success. If we want to
know the moral and political qualities of his actions, we must know them, not his motives. How often have
statesmen been motivated by the desire to improve the world, and ended by making it worse? And how
often have they sought one goal, and ended by achieving something they neither expected nor desired?
Neville Chamberlain's politics of appeasement were, as far as we can judge, inspired by good motives; he
was probably less motivated by considerations of personal power than were many other British prime
ministers, and he sought to preserve peace and to assure the happiness of all concerned. Yet his policies
helped to make the Second World War inevitable, and to bring untold miseries to millions of men. Sir
Winston Churchill's motives, on the other hand, were much less universal in scope and much more narrowly
directed toward personal and national power, yet the foreign policies that sprang from these inferior motives
were certainly superior in moral and political quality to those pursued by his predecessor. Judged by his
motives, Robespierre was one of the most virtuous men who ever lived. Yet it was the utopian radicalism of
that very virtue that made him kill those less virtuous than himself, brought him to the scaffold, and
destroyed the revolution of which he was a leader.
Good motives give assurance against deliberately bad policies; they do not guarantee the moral goodness
and political success of the policies they inspire. What is important to know, if one wants to understand
foreign policy, is not primarily the motives of a statesman, but his intellectual ability to comprehend the
essentials of foreign policy, as well as his political ability to translate what he has comprehended into
successful political action. It follows that while ethics in the abstract judges the moral qualities of motives,
political theory must judge the political qualities of intellect, will, and action. A realist theory of international politics will also avoid the other popular fallacy of equating the foreign
policies of a statesman with his philosophic or political sympathies, and of deducing the former from the
latter. Statesmen, especially under contemporary conditions, may well make a habit of presenting their
foreign policies in terms of their philosophic and political sympathies in order to gain popular support for
them. Yet they will distinguish with Lincoln between their "official duty," which is to think and act in terms of
the national interest, and their "personal wish," which is to see their own moral values and political
principles realized throughout the world. Political realism does not require, nor does it condone, indifference
to political ideals and moral principles, but it requires indeed a sharp distinction between the desirable and
the possiblebetween what is desirable everywhere and at all times and what is possible under the concrete
circumstances of time and place.
It stands to reason that not all foreign policies have always followed so rational, objective, and unemotional
a course. The contingent elements of personality, prejudice, and subjective preference, and of all the
weaknesses of intellect and will which flesh is heir to, are bound to deflect foreign policies from their rational
course. Especially where foreign policy is conducted under the conditions of democratic control, the need to
marshal popular emotions to the support of foreign policy cannot fail to impair the rationality of foreign
policy itself. Yet a theory of foreign policy which aims at rationality must for the time being, as it were,
abstract from these irrational elements and seek to paint a picture of foreign policy which presents the
rational essence to be found in experience, without the contingent deviations from rationality which are also
found in experience.
Deviations from rationality which are not the result of the personal whim or the personal psychopathology of
the policy maker may appear contingent only from the vantage point of rationality, but may themselves be
elements in a coherent system of irrationality. The conduct of the Indochina War by the United States
suggests that possibility. It is a question worth looking into whether modern psychology and psychiatry have
provided us with the conceptual tools which would enable us to construct, as it were, a countertheory of
irrational politics, a kind of pathology of international politics.
The experience of the Indochina War suggests five factors such a theory might encompass: the imposition
upon the empirical world of a simplistic and a priori picture of the world derived from folklore and ideological
assumption, that is, the replacement of experience with superstition; the refusal to correct this picture of the
world in the light of experience; the persistence in a foreign policy derived from the misperception of reality
and the use of intelligence for the purpose not of adapting policy to reality but of reinterpreting reality to fit
policy; the egotism of the policy makers widening the gap between perception and policy, on the one hand,
and reality, on the other; finally, the urge to close the gap at least subjectively by action, any kind of action,
that creates the illusion of mastery over a recalcitrant reality. According to the Wall Street Journal of April 3,
1970, "the desire to 'do something' pervades top levels of Government and may overpower other 'common
sense' advice that insists the U.S. ability to shape events is negligible. The yen for action could lead to bold
policy as therapy."
The difference between international politics as it actually is and a rational theory derived from it is like the
difference between a photograph and a painted portrait. The photograph shows everything that can be seen by the naked eye; the painted portrait does not show everything that can be seen by the naked eye,
but it shows, or at least seeks to show, one thing that the naked eye cannot see: the human essence of the
Political realism contains not only a theoretical but also a normative element. It knows that political reality is
replete with contingencies and systemic irrationalities and points to the typical influences they exert upon
foreign policy. Yet it shares with all social theory the need, for the sake of theoretical understanding, to
stress the rational elements of political reality; for it is these rational elements that make reality intelligible
for theory. Political realism presents the theoretical construct of a rational foreign policy which experience
can never completely achieve.
At the same time political realism considers a rational foreign policy to be good foreign policy; for only a
rational foreign policy minimizes risks and maximizes benefits and, hence, complies both with the moral
precept of prudence and the political requirement of success. Political realism wants the photographic
picture of the political world to resemble as much as possible its painted portrait. Aware of the inevitable
gap between goodthat is, rationalforeign policy and foreign policy as it actually is, political realism maintains
not only that theory must focus upon the rational elements of political reality, but also that foreign policy
ought to be rational in view of its own moral and practical purposes.
Hence, it is no argument against the theory here presented that actual foreign policy does not or cannot live
up to it. That argument misunderstands the intention of this book, which is to present not an indiscriminate
description of political reality, but a rational theory of international politics. Far from being invalidated by the
fact that, for instance, a perfect balance of power policy will scarcely be found in reality, it assumes that
reality, being deficient in this respect, must be understood and evaluated as an approximation to an ideal
system of balance of power.
3. Realism assumes that its key concept of interest defined as power is an objective category which is
universally valid, but it does not endow that concept with a meaning that is fixed once and for all. The idea
of interest is indeed of the essence of politics and is unaffected by the circumstances of time and place.
Thucydides' statement, born of the experiences of ancient Greece, that "identity of interests is the surest of
bonds whether between states or individuals" was taken up in the nineteenth century by Lord Salisbury's
remark that "the only bond of union that endures" among nations is "the absence of all clashing interests." It
was erected into a general principle of government by George Washington:
A small knowledge of human nature will convince us, that, with far the greatest part of mankind, interest is