Reviving realism: a study of key critiques of Hans J. Morgenthau’s political realism and of his contemporary legacy
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AbstractThis thesis focuses on Hans J. Morgenthau’s theory of political realism. Despite his prominent reputation, Morgenthau’s theory has long been criticized on the grounds that it is ambiguous, contains contradictory elements and is, to some extent, morally inadequate. This thesis contests such criticisms, seeking to arrive at a more nuanced understanding of the ideas that Morgenthau was trying to communicate. I explore what I regard to be the four fundamental concepts underpinning his work, namely, reason, power, the national interest, and morality, arguing that an understanding of these concepts, their intended applications to politics and their interplay will better illuminate Morgenthau’s theoretical stance. Never before have the criticisms of these core concepts been addressed together in spite of the abundance of secondary literature on Morgenthau. The evaluation contained herein includes a review of his published works and some of his unpublished materials which are held in the Hans J. Morgenthau archive. This thesis reveals that although Morgenthau was often vague in his use of key terms and concepts, and was thus partly responsible for the criticism he received, his theory of political realism represents a thoughtful and balanced approach to foreign policy. As Morgenthau viewed politics as an ongoing struggle for power, a view based in his understanding of human nature, he urged leaders to apply their faculty of reason in developing policy to civilize politics. He stressed that leaders should exercise ‘prudence,’ a notion that implies a need to morally evaluate alternate political actions. Based on Morgenthau’s analysis of foreign policy issues, we find that the cautionary note he struck in relation to the use of military force, notably in the context of the Vietnam War, was based on a realistic assessment of the operations of power and on moral grounds. This cautionary note remains highly relevant today as numerous analyses of the 2003 invasion of Iraq demonstrate. This thesis argues that Morgenthau’s political realism remains a highly useful tool for formulating and critically evaluating foreign policy, a tool which arguably can help policy-makers to realize the best possible political and moral outcomes in a given political circumstance.