Realism without Illusions? Book Review of Matthew Specter’s “The Atlantic Realists”

30 April 2022

Review: The Atlantic Realists: Empire and International Thought Between Germany and the United States, by Matthew Specter (Stanford University Press, 2022)


Open any textbook on International Relations today, and you will find, more or less, the same story about the origins of the discipline, particularly as it relates to the ‘Realist’ tradition. In this telling, Realism, the founding tradition of modern International Relations, draws on a legacy as old as diplomacy itself. Its insights link Thucydides in the 3rd-century BC down to E.H. Carr, George Kennan, Reinhold Niebuhr, and above all Hans Morgenthau, in the 20th-century AD via Machiavelli, Cardinal Richelieu, and Hobbes. For Morgenthau, usually recognized as the founding father of ‘Classical’ Realism, the school’s core thesis held that “the nature of international politics [is] an unending struggle for survival and power.” In an ‘anarchic’ international environment war was always possible, and preparation for it always necessary. This thesis, Realists argue, had been coterminous with both thinking about international politics and diplomatic practice for almost all of history, until supplanted by Wilsonian idealism in the wake of the First World War, to disastrous effect.


But, as Matthew Specter shows in his new book  The Atlantic Realists: Empire and International Thought Between Germany and the United States, this largely invented tradition has little to do with the true origins of the discipline. Rather, he argues, both Realism as a tradition, and International Relations as a modern academic discipline originated in the rejection of Bismarckian realpolitik and the ‘balance of power’ so beloved by modern Realists, and the imperialist Weltpolitik proposed as an alternative. In place of Bismarck’s conservatism, thinkers like Theodore Raztel, Henrich von Treitschke, and Admiral Tirpitz embraced a Social Darwinist and vitalist conception of the state which stressed the will to power and the drive to expansion, partly influenced by Nietzsche and Weber.


But, puncturing myths of Germany’s exceptional militarism and imperialism, Specter shows how similar ideals arose in the United States from the 1880s onwards. He thus charts the coevolution of the American geopolitics of enthusiastic imperialists like Alfred Thayer Mahan, Archibald Cary Coolidge, Henry Cabot Lodge, and President Theodore Roosevelt as Americans first came to view themselves as a world power. Specter thus situates the convergent and mutually constitutive ideals of American and German geopolitics in their shared search for an alternative to the diplomatic conservatism of Bismarck in Europe and the isolationism of the Founders in America as both sought the intellectual resources to justify their revolt against the hegemony of the Pax Brittanica and the pursuit of empire.


These two visions of Geopolitics – or ‘Political Geography’ in its American guise – continued to hold sway at the highest levels in both countries into the 20th-century. Through a brilliant comparative study of the intertwined careers of Karl Haufhouser, and Isaiah Bowman, Specter is able to reconstruct the intellectual and personal affinities between the foreign policy intellectuals of Wilsonian progressivism and the theorists of Wilhelmine Weltpolitik in the years leading to the First World War and during the Interwar period.


Haufhouer, a professor at the University of Munich, was the most famous European professor of geopolitics of the 20th-century, and Bowman his American counterpart. Yet where Haufhouser’s vision of a German dominated Eurasia would later directly influence the Nazi Lebensraum policy (indeed Haufhouser had tutored Hitler during his time at Landsberg Prison), Bowman, an advisor to Woodrow Wilson, was an architect of the post-First World War international order and an early advocate of American global hegemony. Both, as Specter shows, were nonetheless admirers of one another’s work, and engaged in a Transatlantic academic debate on geopolitics both before the First World War and in the Interwar period.


The Second World War, however, represented a turning point for thinking about international politics, which would ultimately cleave American and German geopolitics apart. As Specter demonstrates through the lens of Carl Schmitt’s wartime writings, the dark implications of the ‘Atlantic Realists’’ racist and imperialist interpretation of the nature of world politics were fully realized in Nazi imperialism. Schmitt and his apologists have often argued that however much these works may have justified Nazi foreign policy, he did so on geopolitical rather than racist ‘biopolitcal’ grounds, often citing the condemnation of Schmitt by senior SS figures as insufficiently racist. Against this reading, Specter argues that, if Schmitt’s writings on Großraum or ‘Great Room’ often avoid the explicitly racial language of Nazi Lebensruam, the concept was, in practice, itself inextricably tied up with the genocidal conquest of Russia and Eastern Europe which it justified.


Nonetheless, in his analysis of Schmitt, Specter also makes clear how much the pre-war thought of the Atlantic Geopoliticians on which Schmitt’s wartime writings drew extensively already had in common with the doctrine of Lebensraum. Without minimizing the evil of Nazi imperialism, he is thus able to situate it in continuity with, rather than as a break from, Euro-American imperialism and its ideological foundations.


That this imperialist Atlantic Realism was reconstructed, both in the United States and Germany, into the modern discipline of International Relations was, therefore, largely a product of the Second World War. In particular, in response to a moral panic about Haufhouser’s geopolitics as ‘Hitler’s superweapon’ in the US in the 1940s, Bowman and colleagues like Nicholas Spykman, Colonel Herbert Beukema, and others attempted to revivify an American power politics and geopolitics free of its Nazi and imperialist baggage. It was from these efforts that the modern discipline was born, claiming to offer a value-neutral study of international politics.


If Specter tells the story of the co-evolution of German and American geopolitics in the late 19tt and early 20th-centuries adroitly, however, his analysis of the transition from this tradition to post-war Realism is less coherent. In particular, though Specter’s chapters on Wilhelm Grewe, the architect of West Germany’s foreign policy in the Adenauer years, and on Morgenthau document their personal and intellectual links to the pre-war Atlantic Realists extensively, much less is done to show what exactly they inherited from this tradition. This is particularly strange since, as Specter explains in the conclusion, “[t]his book began originally as a study of a triangle of figures: Carl Schmitt, Hans Morgenthau, and Wilhelm Grewe. How, I wanted to know, had major concepts of Schmitt’s political theory seeded postwar American and German foreign policy discourses and practices?”


One can perhaps imagine what the contours of that book might have looked like. It is certainly possible to trace an intellectual genealogy which connects Schmitt’s famous vision of a political world determined by the existential clash of ‘Friend’ and ‘Enemy’ to the Realist school of International Relations through Morgenthau, baking a Schmittian influence into the discipline’s theoretical foundations. But such a discussion is largely absent. So too is a concrete demonstration of how Morgenthau was influenced by the likes of Treitschke, Haufhouser, and Bowman. Whilst a clear case is made for the role of the pre-war geopolitical tradition in shaping the academic environment in which Morgenthau developed his theory of Classical Realism after the war, not enough is done to demonstrate what he might have taken from this tradition.


In the same vein, although the evidence of Grewe’s connections to Carl Schmitt, to the Nazi regime, and to the interwar ‘Conservative Revolutionary’ movement is deployed decisively to refute Grewe’s own claims to have been an apolitical technocrat in the Nazi foreign office, less is done than one would have liked to show the influence of these connections on his thought. We are left with little idea, for example, of how Grewe’s involvement with the ultra-reactionary anti-communist Conservative Revolution of the Weimar years might have shaped his response to the Cold War.


Indeed, the book’s treatment of Grewe in particular, situated awkwardly between Specter’s treatments of Carl Schmitt and of the wartime and post-war reconstitution of American geopolitics, felt somewhat episodic when compared to the deftly interweaved intellectual profiles of the pre-war thinkers in the earlier part of the book. It might have been to the book’s benefit to combine the chapters on Schmitt and Grewe, for example, into a longer study of the National Socialist roots of post-1945 German foreign policy thinking. Doing so would have given Specter the opportunity to place Schmitt and Grewe’s wartime careers alongside one another, observing how both provided a veneer of respectability to Nazi foreign policy. It would also have allowed the book to analyze the affinities between their major works on European international law in the post-war period in greater depth.


In fact, the nostalgia for the post-Westphalian Jus Publicum Europaeum, so central to Schmitt’s most significant work of international relations theory, The Nomos of the Earth, receives only a passing mention, despite its importance to Grewe and its notable similarities to the so-called ‘English School’ of International Relations founded by Hedley Bull in the 1950s. This strand of Schmitt’s thought which was focused on the balance of power and a Realist approach to international law, as well as his engagement with Meinecke (also absent), form an important counterweight to the Geopolitics of Haufhouser and his predecessors in Schmitt’s thought and a critical bridge between it and the post-war discipline of international relations. Of course no book can discuss everything. But including these critical links would have helped to present a more multi-dimensional picture of the origins of the Realist tradition in International Relations, including by helping to show which of its elements cannot be found in these more traditionally cited influences but can be found in Specter’s Atlantic Realist tradition.


Specter’s final chapter, on the rise and fall of Grewe’s Realist doctrine in the Adenauer years and the SPD government which followed, the rise of ‘peace research,’ the return of Realism in the 1980s, and the absence of Morgenthau’s work from this debate is perhaps the most fascinating of all, but also the least connected to the Atlantic Realist tradition outlined in the book’s earlier chapters. In a departure from the excellent comparative work of the rest of the book, however, it did little to address the rise of American Neorealism or Structural Realism under the influence of Kenneth Waltz, which stripped Morgenthau’s theory of its psychological insights in favour of a game theoretic and ‘social scientific account.’ Perhaps this was simply because this is already a familiar story, though its absence prevents Specter from making explicit one of the more important implicit arguments of the book for an Anglophone audience about the hidden moral assumptions embedded in the supposedly ‘value neutral’ prescriptions of the structural realist school.


Matthew Specter’s book is nonetheless a tour de force of historical writing, and its arguments are too many and too sophisticated to address them all. Indeed, it is a significant achievement that Specter has managed to pack such a range of detail, such sophisticated analysis, and a bold theoretical revision of Realism into a relatively short volume. Yet it is worth concluding by tackling what I take to be his central theoretical argument: that the project of Realism is too conceptually indebted and foundationally influenced by imperialism, racism, and fascism to furnish a credible foreign policy in the modern world.


In the conclusion to the book, Specter acknowledges that a critique of Realism might have seemed untimely in an environment characterized by renewed nationalist self-assertion and a crisis of international institutionalism. But in the wake of Russia’s horrifying invasion of Ukraine, indictment of Realism has taken on another tenor entirely. The early days of the invasion saw an outpouring of rage against the dean of contemporary American Realism, John Mearsheimer, over his past claims that Ukraine ought to remain ‘neutral’ and join neither NATO nor the EU as alignment with the West was liable to lead to Russian aggression. Attacks on Mearsheimer even descended into . In such an intellectual climate, a re-evaluation of the moral content of the Realist approach to international politics seems undeniably timely. With the eyes of the world upon Ukraine’s heroism, the prophets of power politics are not, exactly, in fashion.


In perhaps the most thoughtful riposte to Mearsheimer, in an essay for The New Statesman, which itself engaged critically with this book, however, Adam Tooze has argued that in criticizing Realism’s tendency to be brusque about the realities of power politics, we should not mistake analysis for endorsement. We should not, he argues, simply see Realism as an ideology of power worship, and Specter’s focus on the imperial origins of Realism “comes at the price of a narrowing of historical vision. If Mearsheimer is a typical exponent of great power realism, then his interests are defined less by the questions of late 19th-century imperialism than by the question of why the world went to war in 1914.” But, as Tooze goes on, if Realism provides a cogent descriptive analysis of the constraints we face in a world of power politics, it provides no moral vision for how we should act within it.


In fact, despite its claims to represent a value neutral science of international politics, modern Structural Realism has inherited significant moral assumptions from the 19th-century Geopoliticians about which its proponents are usually silent. Tooze misses the extent to which, contrary to its own claims to be derived from an analysis of rational human behaviour under international anarchy, the ‘Structural Realism’ championed by Mearsheimer inherited a tribalist, expansionary, and conflict-oriented ontology of human nature from these thinkers via the tradition of Classical Realism.


Indeed, as Specter might have argued more explicitly, had he extended his survey to encompass debates on Realism in the United States from the 1960s onwards, far too often Realist analyses smuggle these moral assumptions into supposedly merely descriptive analyses of world politics. The moral lacuna at the heart of modern Realism is all too easily filled by the assumption that, if life is merely a struggle for survival and domination in which might makes right, all that matters is the pursuit of security by the accumulation of power. That is the logic of Russia’s war in Ukraine, and one might somewhat glibly note that a different version of this book might have focused on the ‘Eurasian Realists’ Haufhouserian and Schmittian inheritance, and the ideological architecture of the new Russian imperialism.


But does this mean that, as Specter argues, we must move beyond Realism in search of credible foreign policy prescriptions? I am not so sure. Realism does not have to be morally vacuous or a justification of militarism. In one reading of Morgenthau’s Classical Realism we can find a set of moral commitments lost in the social scientific revolution which produced its Waltzian heir, and a warning about the dangers of a wholly amoral foreign policy. For Morgenthau, “Political realists are not amoral, they just take different choices between moral values” – they choose to accept the reality of power politics, but temper it with principle. It was because he failed to do this that Morgenthau recognised the dark consequences of his sometime disciple Henry Kissinger’s power at all costs approach to Realism earlier than most – as he wrote, “it is a dangerous thing to be a Machiavelli. It is a disastrous thing to be a Machiavelli without virtù.


As Specter rightly argues, if this element of Morgenthau’s thought has often been missed, Morgenthau’s at times less than nuanced presentation of his own work shares a great deal of the responsibility. But that does not mean we cannot learn from his better intentions. Taking them into account, we can interpret Morgenthau’s relationship to the imperialist thinkers of the Atlantic Realist tradition Specter outlines in a different light. Morgenthau used the categories, concepts, and theories of the imperial Realists to imagine a way to manage and balance the world they had made. This Morgenthau, the opponent of the Vietnam War, patron of refugee organizations for Soviet Jews, and staunch critic of advocates for a “limited nuclear war” with the Soviet Union was not the cold realpolitiker of caricature.


Like his friend Hannah Arendt, Morgenthau saw the war-prone anarchic state system as a political tragedy, and believed that in the long-run the world of competing Great Powers would have to give way to a world state, or immolate itself in nuclear fire. In the shadow of the atomic bomb, he wrote in 1961, “realistic and utopian approaches to politics in general and to international relations in particular” would have to merge, and abandon the illusions of power politics. In seeking to balance the two, we find few better guides to how to balance realism about the nature of international politics with a moral recognition of the disastrous consequences of power politics for its own sake than Morgenthau. That wisdom is needed now more than ever.

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