Realism’s Imperial Origins

Realism’s Imperial Origins

The left cannot afford to renounce its historical commitment to self-determination.

Hans Morgenthau in 1969 (Denver Post via Getty Images)

The following is part of an argument on realism and the left. Read Anatol Lieven’s “The Ethics of Realism” here.

“Restraint” is the foreign policy watchword of a progressive American left chastened by the United States’ twenty-first-century sins: the misconceived War on Terror, the illegal invasion of Iraq, the costly and failed occupation of Afghanistan. Restrainers seek to correct not just for neoconservative hubris, however, but for American military interventionism over a much longer period. Restraint has an understandable appeal for a public that has endured the high costs of what Stephen Wertheim calls “armed primacy” since 1945. Over the last six years, two major think tanks, Defense Priorities and the Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft, have forced a long overdue and urgently needed debate about the costs of American militarism at home and abroad.

Restrainers are neither pacifists nor isolationists. In a 2021 article in the National Interest, Andrew Bacevich and Rajan Menon explain: “What then is restraint? Above all it warns against hubris and urges modesty, an outlook influenced by Reinhold Niebuhr.” Bacevich calls Niebuhr’s The Irony of American History (1952) the “most important” book ever written on U.S. foreign policy. Niebuhr’s warnings about American messianism belong to a noble tributary of the realist tradition that emphasizes our limits and is skeptical of imperial adventurism. T.J. Jackson Lears has also identified a tradition of American thought he calls “pragmatic realism,” which connects Charles Beard, Walter Lippmann, George F. Kennan, and J. William Fulbright.

Lears, Bacevich, and Menon are right to emphasize the corrective value of the dissenting pragmatic strain of American realism. But the counsel of restraint, prudence, and other sensible virtues does not vindicate the much deeper claims about the nature of power, the political, the national, and the international that North Atlantic realists have made since the 1880s, when realism first emerged.

In their origins, realist ideas and practices reflected the status anxieties of rising powers on the world stage. We can see that legacy among intellectuals today who treat Russian anxieties about NATO expansion and relative decline as more important than the agency of Ukrainians. Progressives, however, should unapologetically support the defensive war for Ukrainian sovereignty; the left cannot afford to renounce its historical commitment to national self-determination, a compass that has served us well in our critiques of U.S. foreign policy in Vietnam, South Africa, and Central America. Ukraine’s struggle to survive is an anticolonial struggle. Leftists should not dignify the Russian state’s neuroses over its loss of imperial privilege with the name “realism.” And prudent calls for American restraint should not reauthorize a tradition characterized more by intellectual apologetics for imperialism than for critiquing it.

Realists typically locate the origins of their framework in a heroic generation scarred by the crises of European liberalism in the 1930s. They brought a chastened tragic sensibility to a United States allegedly dominated by a naïve Wilsonianism. Mid-century realists like Kennan, Niebuhr, and E.H. Carr were ethically serious and thought deeply about the problems of ordering an anarchical world of nation-states. But the central figure of the transatlantic crossings that helped produce realism as an international relations theory, expert discourse, and sensibility in modern American statecraft was Hans Morgenthau. In his writings from the mid-1940s to the late 1950s, Morgenthau derided the utopianism, legalism, and moralism of state leaders who failed to grasp the concrete nature of power politics. He made the concept of the national interest the North Star for rational statesmen, and he denigrated motives for state action that cannot be tallied on the scales of self-interest. Morgenthau’s concept of national interest was a resource for critics of the Vietnam War, earning him a spot on the advisory board of the New Left–inspired Institute for Policy Studies.

But these dissenting moments in realism are marginal compared with the larger story of realism’s imperial investments. Realism was born not in the 1930s but the 1880s and ’90s, a period when both the terms “geopolitics” and Lebensraum (living space) were first coined. Realism was less an emancipatory diagnosis than a symptom of the racialized hierarchies of an unequal world system. Key categories of the realist worldview—the national interest, spheres of influence—were forged by Western imperial powers who treated their self-serving constructs as objective facts. Realism disguised the contingent hierarchies of European global domination as theses about the “nature” of the international realm. Morgenthau himself oscillated between insisting on the moral dimensions of statecraft and treating American national interests, especially the dominant position of the United States in the Western Hemisphere, uncritically.

Progressives should also note the conservatism of realist restraint. In his otherwise brilliant critique The False Promise of Liberal Order, Patrick Porter calls for American restraint in light of the “tragic nature of international life” and “brutal power politics.” Porter writes his aim is “less to transform than to reveal the hard-wired realities and constraints of an anarchic world, the hard trade-offs it imposes.” He argues that “ordering is an inherently imperial undertaking,” and that a “more restrained and self-aware power politics” is the best we can hope for.

There are numerous examples of foreign policy errors that demonstrate the folly of hubris. However, an excessive focus on the tragedy of world politics is not well-tailored to the demands of collective survival. We need to believe more, not less, in our own powers of will and rationality if we are to survive on this crowded, overheated planet. Let us not exchange the self-assurance of Enlightenment progressivism for an overly cautious meliorism that leaves intact the deepest global hierarchies.


Matthew Specter teaches history at Santa Clara University and UC Berkeley and is author most recently of The Atlantic Realists: Empire and International Political Thought Between Germany and the United States.


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