Moderation as Courage: The Legacy of Stanley Hoffmann as Scholar and Public Intellectual

10 January 2018

par Magnus Feldmann, School of Sociology, Politics and International Studies, University of Bristol – U.K., and Benoît Pelopidas, University of Bristol and Chair of excellence in Security studies, Sciences Po – USPC.

(Reims, September 9, 2017)

Stanley Hoffmann’s biography and scholarship transcend multiple divides and defy easy classification. His theoretical approach was eclectic in that it could not easily be described as either realist or liberal, as noted by Joseph Nye and others (Lambert 2007; see also Hall forthcoming). His teaching ranged across international relations, political history, French politics and social and political thought. A central aspect of his work was a constant dialogue between domestic and international politics, empirical political science and political theory, and between France and the United States, where one country often served as a reference point for observations about the other, as in Hoffmann’s essays about nationalism (Hoffmann 1993 and 1998). This sense of transcending divides could also be said to characterize Hoffmann’s position in relation to the role of being an academic and a public intellectual. Being able to examine issues from multiple perspectives, effectively both as an insider and as a semi-outsider of sorts, rooted both in France and the United States, enabled Hoffmann to develop a distinctive approach to the study of politics and society combining familiarity, empathy and detachment (Hoffmann 1974: xi).  In the preface of his collaborative book on the Iraq war, Hoffmann says: ‘Nevertheless, I have resigned myself to an ambiguous condition: someone whom by his nature, his choices, and his fate have made marginal in almost all possible ways, neither fully integrated in an America which, except for New England, remains largely unknown to me but not belonging either really to France whose daily life I have not shared for many years’ (Hoffmann 2004: vii). Many observers have noted how intimately Hoffmann’s scholarship was bound up with his own biography – or as Hoffmann himself remarked, ‘It wasn’t I who chose to study world politics,’ he wrote in a memoir about his childhood. World politics forced themselves on me at a very early age.’

We write this tribute to a man whose gentle manners, illustrious career and overall moderation may obfuscate the very reason why we remember him and want to pay tribute to his legacy.

The gentle touch of the Harvard Professor for more than half a century are often admired and challenged for the very same reason: his moderation and refusal to belong to an academic tribe. Given the prominence of the liberal tradition in US political science at least until the synthesis between neo-realism and neoliberalism within IR in the 1980s which led to an acceptance of most structural realist assumptions, one could even say that he started within the mainstream. He was a man of his time, attentive to the early manifestations of the process of European integration but rejecting alternative political forms such as world government as nothing more than a future form of alien domination when decolonization in the name of national identity had just brought about freedom (Hoffmann 1986: 7). As a matter of fact, he would later describe his PhD dissertation, Organisations internationales et pouvoirs politiques des Etats as “a wild call for overcoming sovereignty” (Hoffmann in Miller and Smith 1993: 9). As a result, when they became hegemonic in the field in the 1980s, the structural realists would blame him for his continued, typically liberal, struggle for cooperation beyond power politics, for his efforts to overcome the state as a political organization and for praise for interdependence and influence beyond force (See for instance Jonathan Haslam’s harsh criticism along those lines. Haslam 2002: 220-221, 226-227). Hoffmann’s Kantian inclinations also relate to his broader discomfort with realist thinking, which in the last decades of his career also manifested itself in a stronger emphasis on ethical imperatives, not least in relation to human rights (Keohane 2009).

And in political terms, Hoffmann was not in the camp of radical critics of US policy, such as Noam Chomsky, or the most radical French intellectuals, such as those close to the French Communist Party (PCF). As he revisits the debates between proponents of nuclear deterrence and abolitionists in 1985 as one between ‘traditionalists’ and ‘radicals’, he says “I am a traditionalist in case you didn’t know it” (Hoffmann 1986: 5). Indeed, as his student, friend and collaborator Robert Keohane has pointed out, there is something rather modest or conservative about the kind of analysis and critique that Hoffmann provides (Keohane 2009: 370). Marxists and critical theorists would probably blame his belief in the power of ideas and accommodation with existing power structures in world politics and academia and he only had a limited sympathy with most critical/Marxist or dependency approaches (see Hoffmann 1977). Post-structuralists, feminists and post-colonial scholars would regard him as a rationalist who ended up entrenching the politics of knowledge of hegemonic white Ivy League America. He was certainly not a revolutionary.

In this piece, we argue that as a scholar, a teacher and a public intellectual, Stanley Hoffmann was consistent throughout his career in fighting two fights which took courage and deserve representatives of his stature today: he refused to be absorbed by the National Security State and promoted a notion of policy relevance which includes broader audiences (from Vietnam to the Iraq War). Second, we see his contribution as a defense of the humanities against monolingualism and monocausal grand explanations.

Policy relevance beyond US policymaking elites

Unlike many other members of the remarkable generation of Europeans who had come to the US and who at various times were his colleagues on the Harvard Faculty, Stanley Hoffmann seems never to have entertained the possibility of becoming directly involved in policy-making in Washington DC. While Henry Kissinger, Zbigniew Brzeziński, Francis Bator and even the historian Richard Pipes served either for longer or shorter periods (as did US-born colleagues, like Samuel Huntington and Joseph Nye), it seems that Hoffmann never felt this temptation. Neither did he get involved in militarized Cold War social science research. This is quite exceptional in the Ivy League context of Cold War social science, perhaps especially at Harvard University (Solovey and Cravens 2012; Rhode 2013) While Hoffmann wrote approvingly of some of Kissinger’s historical writings, he was quite critical of many aspects of Kissinger as a policy-maker. In a discussion of Kissinger’s attempts to shape world order, Hoffmann writes that ‘the lesson from Kissinger’s attempt should be, not that world order policy is wrong, but that that particular one was both too arrogant and too tight, too much made-in-Washington and too obsessed by stability to succeed’ (Hoffmann 1976-77: 107). In a comparative discussion of Kissinger and Metternich, Hoffmann also highlighted the dangers of overreliance on one person and some of the challenges of maintaining such a policy regime in the USA related both to bureaucratic capacity and the domestic constraints of foreign policy (Hoffmann 1972). The proximity of international relations scholarship to the corridors of power – indeed even the ‘kitchens of power’ (Hoffmann 1977: 49), as academics-turned-policy-makers participate in the exercise of power and formulation of policy – means that the ideal of dispassionate and objective analysis is undermined in the process. In other words, ‘the closer the Washingtonian connection, the greater the temptation of letting oneself be absorbed’ (Hoffmann 1977: 56; see also Hoffmann 1986: 2). In an early article discussing the scholar’s purpose, Hoffmann says that ‘his duty is to seek knowledge and understanding for their own sake; and this implies that the main purpose of research should not be “policy scientism”’ (Hoffmann 1959: 349; Hoffmann 1957). There is a risk that academic analyses are shaped by the scholars’ desire to be relevant to policy concerns and even earn the right to participate themselves, if not directly in government, then in various foundations funding international relations research that were also close to government (Hoffmann 1977: 50; for a focused analysis of this problem, see Solovey 2013).

The question of policy relevance and the relationship of scholarship to policy-making remains controversial, especially for subjects like political science and international relations. Hoffmann has argued that the proximity of American academia to the corridors of power in Washington, DC has often compromised international relations as a field (for a focus on security studies and self-censorship, see Pelopidas 2016). However, despite his misgivings about direct involvement with the world of policy-making, Hoffmann’s work spoke to policy in at least two ways.

First, many of Hoffmann’s writings straddled the divide between scholarship and public commentary. His numerous publications in journals like the New York Review of Books, Foreign Policy, Foreign Affairs and Daedalus testify to his ambition to reach a wider audience and contribute to popular debate, notably by elevating it and offering nuanced and dispassionate analysis of key issues. These articles often addressed current affairs, such as a series of articles about the foreign policy of the Carter administration, or offered interpretations of topical issues, like globalization (Hoffmann 2002). His audience was that of the public intellectual, which included two political communities: France and the US, as well as future citizens, some of whom had the privilege of being his students (Hoffmann 1986: 17). For him, teaching, scholarship and political commentary were necessarily complementary aspects of his activity as a public intellectual. Peter Hall cites him as giving the following advice to students: “as scholars and as citizens working in a field in which violence, deceit, injustice and oppression are in full display, beware of illusions, but never give up hope – by which I didn’t mean a faith in progress, only the modest belief that it is not impossible.” (Cited in Hall, forthcoming) This piece of advice illustrates his belief in the individual as an agent of progressive change, his fear of political voluntarism leading to moderation as a response to the two ideological projects of the twentieth century. It also shows that his audience is both composed of his students of citizens of a political community, past, present and in the making.

Second, true to important strands in the French political tradition, he also perceived the intellectual’s responsibility to speak out when fundamental issues were at stake (Hazareesingh 1994, chapter 2). Among other things, this included his outspoken criticism of the Iraq war which is perhaps best encapsulated by the book of interviews with French historian Frédéric Bozo.

Here we will show how his moderate stance took a lot of personal and professional courage at critical times. His early critique of the US involvement in Vietnam on realist rather than moral grounds, in a Spring 1965 with then US Defense Department official Daniel Ellsberg, is too famous to be recounted again (Paisner 1965). We will focus on three instances: his admiration for Raymond Aron over time, the intellectual turn towards nuclear weapons in France in the early 1980s and the 2003 controversy about the Iraq war and the French veto at the UN Security Council

Hoffmann’s admiration for Raymond Aron is well established (Among many others Hoffmann 1983a, 1983b, 1985).[1] He wrote a long and warm obituary for the New York Review of Books when his mentor passed, but he never was a blind follower. In the 1970s, when Aron turns to the right and to a degree towards supporting American conservatives and neo-conservatives,[2] Hoffmann distances himself. Even in the obituary, he writes: “[I] have reached, on many occasions, conclusions different from his own (I was a Mendèsiste, later a Gaullist, and my views of nuclear strategy and of American diplomacy are not at all those Aron held in his last years)” (Hoffmann 1983b). The Aron he praises the most is the earlier one, the Renaissance man for whom the sense of the tragic of history does not yet fully means embracing conservative politics. In an assessment of Aron’s contributions to international relations, he largely sidesteps this conservatism, though he hints at it by acknowledging some differences of opinion, most notably, by criticizing Aron for having ‘curbed his Kantian inclinations – too much for my own taste’ (Hoffmann 1985: 21; see also Hoffmann 1957: 921-923 for an early critique of the conservative effects of the claim of value neutral objectivity in the social sciences).

While Jacques Chirac and Dominique de Villepin’s opposition to the 2003 Iraq War has been praised in retrospect as signs of wisdom and moderation, most French strategists at the time were agnostic or sceptical of that attitude (See Bozo, forthcoming). Instead, Stanley Hoffmann was opposed to the war early on and expressed it in writing, in French first, in L’Amérique vraiment impériale.

André Glucksmann’s 1983 book La force du vertige was almost unanimously praised, with the exception of the communist press and the Canard enchaîné and followed a trend of accommodation with militarisation and nuclear weapons in French intelligentsia (Hoffmann 1984: 386; Gorand 1984: 389). In spite of the unanimously favourable reception of the book, Stanley Hoffmann mocked the techno-fetishist enthusiasm which did put the warhead as the main subject of history. The title of his review goes far beyond his usual moderate touch: “le presque rien et le n’importe quoi” and treated that as a French ideology (Heuser 1998 chap. 5; Pelopidas 2012). Of course, one could claim that Hoffmann is simply being a good member of the American strategic community here, which believes in empirical quantification of damage rather than lyrical speculations. He himself admits to that to a degree (387). But at a time when French intellectuals have largely abandoned the field of nuclear critique, embraced nuclear deterrence as the insurmountable horizon of our times, and focused on “pacifism” as the new enemy (Anderson 2017), Hoffmann writes:  “Européen moi-même, je partage la révulsion pour la guerre conventionnelle exprimée par André Glucksmann. Si la dissuasion nucléaire était une panacée, une garantie parfaite contre une telle guerre en Europe, je serais d’accord avec lui. Mais la foi dans cette dissuasion là est devenue en France l’équivalent de la foi dans la ligne Maginot. Et c’est cela qui est inquiétant”. (Hoffmann 1984: 387; see also Hoffmann 1985: 18-20; 1986: 13)

He offered a very lucid assessment of the militarisation of French intelligentsia at the time (Anderson, 2017): “Il raisonne comme si la seule force capable d’ébranler la dissuasion était le pacifisme, sans comprendre que celui-ci, en Allemagne comme aux Etats-Unis, est dans une très large mesure non une capitulation devant la menace soviétique, mais une reaction fort sensée de gens horrifiés par l’escalade des moyens, par les propos officiels sur la possibilité de mener et de gagner des guerres nucléaires”. (Hoffmann 1984: 387)

Hoffmann’s choice to write his review of Glucksmann’s book in French for Commentaire speaks to the second dimension we would like to highlight: his defense of a modality of research and teaching opposed to monolingualism and grand generalisations.

A humanistic approach to the social sciences

It seems clear that Stanley Hoffmann observed the development of the modern social sciences in the United States with a certain sense of ironic detachment. His famous characterization of international relations as an ‘American social science’ (1977) is still widely cited forty years after publication. (In an ironic gesture, given its critique of mainstream international relations, one could note that it has been cited 25 times in the first half of 2017 only and that its core insights are widely confirmed by leading international relations scholars (e.g, Waever 1998; Walt 2011). Hoffmann’s article  embodies a critique of two aspects of the discipline. The first aspect relates to its Americanness and hence the proximity to power.[3] The second problem with international relations as social sciences is associated with what Hoffmann perceived as its rather hubristic scientific ambitions, not least encapsulated in quantification and formalisation (Hoffmann 1985: 14).

As famously argued by Martin Hollis and Steve Smith (1990), the social sciences can be divided into two broad traditions. They see one of them as related to the rise of the natural sciences, what they describe as the outsider’s view, akin to ‘a natural scientist seeking to explain the workings of nature’ (Hollis and Smith 1990: 1). This has been the dominant tradition in much of US political science at least since the behavioralist revolution in the middle of the 20th century. The other one is related to the 19th century tradition of historiography, or the attempt to write history from the inside by uncovering the meanings attributed to events by the actors themselves, as well as the notion of understanding (Verstehen) as first formulated by the German philosopher Wilhelm Dilthey. Keohane (2009) is right to highlight that Hoffmann’s work reflects elements of both approaches, including an awareness of many fundamental continuities of international relations (Keohane 2009: 370), but given the emphasis Hoffmann places on history and human agency, his empirical approach comes much closer to the second tradition. In his article about Raymond Aron’s contributions to international relations, he approvingly discusses Aron’s assessment that ‘it is much more difficult than in the case of economic theory to separate such abstract theory or conceptualization from the concrete sociological and historical study, the logic of behavior from the specific characteristics of the actors. Only the concrete study can help make the behavior of the actors, their calculations of forces, and the stakes they give to their conflicts intelligible’ (Hoffmann 1985: 15). This calls for an approach privileging understanding, with great emphasis on analysing particular actors, situations, goals and constraints. It also accepts reasons as the main causes of action and is suspicious of unconscious causal forces that would reduce reasons to insignificant rationalizations (Hoffmann 1986: 8-9).

It would be a mistake to conclude that he was entirely hostile to generalization, but the kinds of generalizations he embarked on were of a bounded kind, the kind that generalises about trends at a certain time or in a well-defined set of cases. This included generalisations about post-war France (Hoffmann 1963 and 1973) or the ‘post-Cold War world’, as in his influential ‘Clash of Globalizations’ (a response to Fukuyama 1989, 1992 and Huntington 1993, 1996; Hoffmann 2002) or about the principal features of the global system or European integration in this period.

However, while general theories can help clarify concepts, establish categories and raise important questions, Hoffmann suggests that most grand generalisations emanating from the more scientifically oriented international relations scholars, perceives the analysis of specific countries and cases as essential.

In his classic article on International relations as an American Social Science, Hoffmann notes that the three international relations books he would take to a desert island are – Thucydides (Peloponnesian War), Waltz (Man, the State and War) and Aron (Peace and War) (Hoffmann 1977: 51). It should be noted that the Waltz book mentioned here is not his later work, notably the Theory of International Politics (Waltz 1979), which apart from the fact that it had yet to be published probably would have gone too far in the direction of deductive grand theory for Hoffmann’s taste (see the discussion in Hoffmann 1977: 52 on what would later be published as The Theory of International Politics)

One of the problems of such generalizations is that they are too strongly determined by the condition of the one who proposes them: in time, space, ideology, training, and language. This is where Stanley Hoffmann appeared as a renaissance man: he would encourage learning foreign languages as a way of distancing oneself from one’s native cultural universe and as a step towards a more fruitful understanding of the other. This effort at taking a distance from one’s circumstances is also visible in his call for deep historical investigation (i.e. a distancing from one’s present conditions) as opposed to an instrumental use of the past as a large dataset which only has an illustrative value and purpose. His words should still resonate today: “American political scientists do not receive enough training either in history or in foreign languages, indispensable for work on past relations among states (Hoffmann 1977:57) This is directly consistent with what he admired in Aron and Thucydides: their historical and sociological sensitivities and their attention to the understanding of the actors of history at their time and on their own terms. This approach meant that Hoffmann distanced himself to some degree from some of his American colleagues, many of whom favoured a more deductive approach to theorizing. Indeed, as he wrote about Aron in 1985, ‘even if one compares him with American specialists of international relations, Aron seems strikingly original’ (Hoffmann 1985: 13).

Hoffmann’s approach is reflected in his studies of foreign policy. For example, his writings on French foreign policy under de Gaulle combines an awareness of various structural constraints, the role of history and the traumas of the 20th century, but also an emphasis on statesmanship and the creative strategies adopted to modify the international milieu and maximize France’s influence in the world (Hoffmann 1974: 290). In later years Hoffmann deplored the limited attention his Harvard colleagues paid to the teaching of foreign policy: ‘Jargon has invaded everything and the relationship of theories to reality has faded. There are all these wonderful equations, but how are they affected by a real-world phenomenon like death? When I came to Harvard, American foreign policy was near the top of the hierarchy of subjects taught here. Today, there is no tenured government professor teaching American foreign policy. At present, the hierarchy of prestige values everything that is abstract and theoretical, and you cannot do that with foreign-policy studies. They have to be concrete and deal with concrete issues.’ (Lambert 2007)


Our article has highlighted how Stanley Hoffmann’s French-American biography and interest in both countries can be seen as reflected in his general approach to scholarship and public life.  While he was a successful and influential American academic, he was in many ways closer to the traditional French ideal of scholarship and to liberal ideals of an intellectual. In his book on Duties Beyond Borders, Hoffmann addresses the role of the intellectual and states that ‘quite simply his duty is to dismantle prejudices, national self-righteousness, and parochial views, patiently and painstakingly, to protest constantly against inequity and violence, which is not very easy; it is to be the conscience of national society.’ (Hoffmann 1981: 226). In his scholarship and public writings Hoffmann promoted such a nuanced understanding of countries, cultures and foreign policy-making,

In the current times, when the humanities are under threat in many countries, Hoffmann’s legacy of scholarship and public engagement is a powerful illustration of the strengths of a nuanced and humanistic approach to the study of society and global politics, beyond the demands of the policymaking elites of the day, which helps us grasp complexity, an important prerequisite of sophisticated policy-making and informed citizenship. Even those who feel that courage today requires more than moderation would be well advised not to give up on the two struggles of Stanley Hoffmann.



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[1] Strategist Bernard Brodie also labels Hoffmann’s review of Paix et guerre entre les nations in the February 1963 issue of Critique as « marvelous » in his letter to Aron from 28 August 1963. Fonds Raymond Aron (NAF28060), Bibliothèque nationale de France, Paris, box 88, folder Santa Monica (California) IV, 78f.

[2] Justin Vaïsse’s attempt at minimizing Aron’s proximity with the neoconservatives is interesting in that it focuses on the 1980s, not the 1970s and still acknowledges Aron as the most important compagnon de route français alongside Jean-François Revel (Vaïsse 2005). In any case, Aron’s conservative turn in the 1970s is visible in the growing influence of Carl Schmitt on this thinking and by his growing concern about a communist takeover of Europe in the context of economic and military decline of the US with Watergate and Vietnam and the union of left wing political forces in France. (Steinmetz-Jenkins 2014 and 2016: chap. 4),

[3] Hoffmann had also identified the problematic US-centrism of political science naturalized as objectivity as early as 1957 (Hoffmann 1957: 920-921).