Hans Morgenthau and the National Interest

| March 2016
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Hans Morgenthau’s concept of “the national interest” first appeared, somewhat like thunder out of China, in the essay “The Primacy of the National Interest” as part of a forum in the Spring 1949 issue of The American Scholar titled “The National Interest and Moral Principles in Foreign Policy.” As William Scheuerman observes, “The concept of the ‘national interest’ first takes on a special analytic status in this essay.” In the essay, the national interest is first presented as a necessary corrective to what Morgenthau had already characterized in Scientific Man vs. Power Politics as legalism, moralism, and sentimentalism in American politics, and as a more effective guide to foreign policy than the American tradition seemed able to provide.

The political context is critical to understanding Morgenthau’s thinking on the subject. At the time of the forum’s publication, the cold war was in its early stages, and there was growing public unease not only about Soviet intentions but also American responses. Scheuerman stresses the Russian atomic bomb explosion in August 1949 and the vexed questions of the new demands of an atomic age. But Morgenthau’s use of the national interest as a framework for understanding the new requirements for an American foreign policy appeared before the Russian test (the forum was organized in late 1948), and relates rather to the steady institutionalization of the cold war that had occurred throughout 1948: the signing of the Brussels Treaty by Britain, France, Belgium, the Netherlands, and Luxembourg, creating a collective defense alliance; the U.S. decision to go ahead with the Marshall Plan absent Soviet concurrence; and the development of the Atlantic security pact. More pertinently, at the end of 1948 Morgenthau had been invited by George Kennan, then head of policy planning in the State Department, to join the team of State Department policy consultants, where he was defending negotiation with the Soviets and urging the continuation of diplomatic efforts to heal the growing rift. Morgenthau was uneasy about Kennan’s famous essay “The Sources of Soviet Conduct” because it appeared to support a policy of containment, thus structuring, he would argue, an unnecessary degree of enmity between the two countries. Morgenthau had underlined his commitment to the classic principles of diplomacy in 1946, in a response to the emerging idea that with the establishment of the United Nations traditional diplomacy had become outmoded. Elaborating on this idea, he had argued in Politics Among Nations that modern technology had obviated the use of war as a mechanism of dispute settlement, thereby increasing the importance of diplomacy; and by 1950, with the breakup of Allied cohesion, he would openly support a negotiated settlement on the basis of spheres of influence.

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Category: Issue 30.1, Roundtable: Morgenthau in America

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