Echoes of a Forgotten Past: Mid-Century Realism and the Legacy of International Law

| February 13, 2013
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The Realist Case for Global Reform, William E. Scheuerman (Cambridge: Polity Press, 2011), 200 pp., $69.95 cloth, $26.95 paper.

John H. Herz: Leben und Denken zwischen Idealismus und Realismus, Deutschland und Amerika, Jana Puglierin (Berlin: Duncker & Humblot, 2011), 335 pp., €48 paper.

The Concept of the Political, Hans J. Morgenthau, edited by Hartmut Behr and Felix Rösch, translated by Maeva Vidal (Basingstoke, U.K.: Palgrave Macmillan, [1933] 2012), 176 pp., $85 cloth, $35 paper.

Those studying the work of Hans J. Morgenthau, widely considered the “founding father” of the Realist School of International Relations, have long been baffled by his views on world government and the attainment of a world state—views that, it would appear, are strikingly incompatible with the author’s realism. In a 1965 article in World Politics, James P. Speer II decided that it could only be “theoretical confusion” that explained why Morgenthau could on the one hand advocate a world state as ultimately necessary in his highly successful textbook, Politics Among Nations, while writing elsewhere that world government could not resolve the conflict between the Soviet Union and the United States by peaceful means. According to Speer,

Morgenthau posits at the international level a super-Hobbesian predicament, in which the actors on the world scene are motivated by the lust for power, yet he proposes a gradualist Lockean solution whereby the international system will move, through a resurrected diplomacy, out of a precarious equilibrium of balance-of-power anarchy by a “revaluation of all values” into the “moral and political” bonds of world community, a process whose capstone will be the formal-legal institutions of world government.

This oscillation between Hobbes and Locke, Speer asserted, must be the result of Morgenthau’s “commitment to the organismic mystique that comes out of German Romantic Nationalism,” although he admitted in a footnote that his reflections on the intellectual sources of Morgenthau’s theories were “mere speculation.”

Campbell Craig continued Speer’s line of thought by situating Morgenthau’s “paradoxical conceptions of the world state” within the context of the thermonuclear revolution in the late 1950s and early 1960s. Faced with the prospect of world annihilation through nuclear war, Craig argued, Morgenthau oscillated between description and prescription; between the observation that the attainment of a world state was unrealistic under current conditions and the belief that world government was the only thing that might prevent war between the superpowers: “The possibility of world government was so low and the risks of failure so high that the world state notion he put forward in Politics Among Nations was effectively speculation.” Paradoxically, according to Speer and Craig, Morgenthau nonetheless repeatedly argued that the standoff between the Soviet Union and the United States could not be resolved by peaceful means, but only through a hard-nosed, balance-of-power logic and aggressive militarization. Indeed, Morgenthau sharply criticized President Eisenhower’s war-averse policies of 1956–1959 on a number of occasions.

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Category: International Law and Human Rights, Issue 26.3, Review Essays

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