Hans Morgenthau was a leading postwar intellectual of political realism in the international relations discipline and, at times, an outspoken critic of U.S. foreign policy. In his 1949 article, “ The Primacy of the National Interest ,” Morgenthau criticized the Truman Doctrine for placing universal moral principles (e.g., the promotion of freedom and democracy) above the national interest as the standard for U.S. foreign policy, and in the 1960s he became a vocal opponent of the Vietnam War. Following Morgenthau’s legacy of dissent on U.S. foreign policy, a group of international relations scholars (including prominent realists) in the U.S. academy published a piece in the New York Times in September 2002, warning the U.S. government that war against Iraq would not be in the national interest. While a clear “Trump Doctrine” is yet to materialize, the foreign-policy inclinations of the new administration are detectable from President Trump’s campaign rhetoric and his first weeks in the White House. What might Morgenthau have to say about the administration’s emerging foreign policy?
Many of Morgenthau’s core insights about foreign policy and international politics are captured in his six principles of political realism , found in his seminal work Politics Among Nations . The second, fourth and fifth principles are of particular relevance to the current administration. Morgenthau’s second principle states that “the main signpost that helps political realism to find its way through the landscape of international politics is the concept of interest defined as power.” Morgenthau believed that international politics is fundamentally a struggle for power (understood in terms of the mutual relations of political control between nation-states), and that peace is often tenuous in a world lacking a sovereign authority that can protect the interests and survival of individual states (an insight that has been codified in the neorealist conception of “international anarchy”). As a result, the “national interest” is primarily concerned with the resources (especially military and economic capabilities) and limitations (primarily the balance of power) that determine the national power of the state in international politics.
The fourth principle states that “political realism is aware of the moral significance of political action, but maintains that moral principles cannot be applied to the actions of states in their abstract universal formulation.” Morgenthau did not reject ethical considerations in foreign policy (as is clear from his criticisms of the Vietnam War), but believed that political prudence (i.e., the practical consideration of the consequences of foreign policy) requires that moral principles be “filtered” through the “concrete circumstances” of power politics. Moral ends should be pursued to the extent that they are within the limits of national power and are consistent with national interests. The fifth principle takes this one step further by stating that “political realism refuses to identify the moral aspirations of a particular nation with the moral laws that govern the universe.” Morgenthau cautioned against the dangers of national “exceptionalism,” which can lead to “political folly,” such as the fighting of wars that do nothing to advance or protect the national interest, and can cause unnecessary human suffering through “moral excess.” Thus, “moderation in policies cannot fail to reflect the moderation of moral judgment.”
What wisdom does this offer to the new administration? The first thing that the current administration needs to recognize is how much the international “status quo” favors the United States. The most important structural feature of the contemporary “unipolar” international system is the United States’ preponderance in military and economic capabilities. The United States also benefits politically (and economically) from its leadership position in international institutions (e.g., the United Nations Security Council, the International Monetary Fund, the World Bank and the World Trade Organization) and strategically from its global alliance system, which is the biggest in world history. The political reality of U.S. hegemony in international politics reveals the irony behind President Trump’s campaign slogan “make America great again,” at least from the perspective of U.S. foreign policy. The United States is the world’s only great power and therefore its geopolitical position could hardly be better.
Based on the conception of interest defined in terms of power, the fundamental aim of U.S. foreign policy should be to maintain U.S. hegemony in international politics. Yet, far from seeking to uphold the status quo, the current administration is acting like a revisionist state. Its “America first” rhetoric is not just nonsensical (as if the U.S. government would put its interests second), but that rhetoric actually threatens U.S. national interests by eroding the confidence of America’s allies and giving fodder to its enemies. In a remarkably foolish foreign-policy shift, President Trump has criticized the country’s treaty allies for not paying their “fair share” of collective defense, and has warmed up to one adversary—Russia—that is bent on putting an end to U.S. hegemony.
President Trump criticized the Obama administration for getting outplayed and outsmarted by Russian president Vladimir Putin, and yet he seems to be falling into the same trap as Obama by thinking that he can do better vis-à-vis Russia through diplomatic rapprochement. The problem is to see U.S. foreign-policy challenges with respect to Russia in terms of misunderstandings between political leaders and administrations, rather than the fundamental differences between United States and Russian national interests. Russia seeks to increase its power and sphere of influence while the United States aims to maintain hegemony. If the current administration seeks rapprochement by making concessions to Russia (e.g., by rolling back sanctions), then foreign-policy analysts will soon be writing about another failed “reset.” On China, Trump broke with diplomatic precedent by accepting a phone call from Taiwanese president Tsai Ing-wen, which called into question the United States’ commitment to a “One China” policy. The problem here is for foreign policy to extend beyond power, since the military balance within the first island chain—and specifically in a Taiwan war—is rapidly shifting in China’s favor. While realism suggests that geopolitical rivalry between China and the United States is inevitable, interest as power would suggest that picking a fight with China over Taiwan is not a prudent course for U.S. foreign policy.