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Morgenthau Reconsidered: The Origin and Meaning of Morality in Political Realism
Unformatted Document Text:  2 At first glance, this criticism may be surprising, and even quite contradictory in itself. If international politics really is condemned to be power politics, and if realists claim to have uncovered the general laws and causal mechanisms which link the condition of anarchy in the international arena to observable patterns of state behaviour, it is not obvious why a realist should engage in any kind of political activism. Moreover, it is not only why they should participate that is puzzling, but moreover it is ambiguous as to how they (may) expect their public statements to be of any consequence in terms of actually having the capacity to transform public and elite consciousness and/or produce social pressures for alternative outcomes. 2 Despite this however, when criticizing US foreign policy, realists are neither willing to put their theory as a whole, nor any of their fundamental assumptions under question. In recognizing this, Franke and Herborth (2007: 1-3) argue that realist thinkers not only fail to establish a consistent link between theoretical arguments and policy interventions, but also lack reflexivity. Their arguments have developed out of Morgenthau’s criticism of Vietnam War, Waltz’s objection to the US arms control policy during the Cold War, as well as John Mearsheimer’s and Stephen Walt’s most recent critique of the war in Iraq. 3 The critical problems being that, instead of putting the realist theory into question and bridging the theory’s gaps, realists change the level of analysis from the systemic to the domestic level (Mearsheimer/Walt 2007), or put the rationality of the actors in question (Mearsheimer/Walt 2003) or they offer moral arguments against US foreign policy. In any case however, when observing the context of their policy interventions, it becomes explicitly clear that realists play the role of the rational, sober, prudent, moral statesman who claims to know what is good and what is bad, and what is a good foreign policy guided by moral principles (Morgenthau 1954: 5). As Franke and Herborth have noted, realists make the impression to hold a validity claim and to possess rigorous knowledge. The striking tension inherent in the realist tradition between the quest for law-like generalization and causal determinism of the theory on the one hand and practical policy 2 Payne (2007: 503/504) argues that Neorealists who participate actively in public debates behave like Habermasian constructivists and critical theorists, violating and rejecting their own theoretical presuppositions about the inferior role of communication action and the domestic level in shaping outcomes in international politics and taking political discourse and the force of the better argument quite seriously. 3 Furthermore, Franke and Herborth (2007: 30/31) hold the view that realism, in its process of scientific professionalization from Morgenthau’s “realist thought to neorealist theory” (Waltz 1990), has undergone a tragic process of increasing technocratization, claiming a stance of “speaking truth to power” as a moral quality, and thereby avoiding the impression of already holding a validity claim at the expense of giving up the critical perspective. For both authors, tragedy and technocracy are the core tenets of the realist tradition. As a non-technocratic understanding of policy interventions which they aim for, Franke and Herborth ultimately recommend a Habermasian approach of giving and taking reasons and of challenging routinized patterns of interpretations in spaces of deliberation (for example in public debates) within which the equal participation of scholars as citizens in processes of argumentative exchange becomes possible.

Authors: Reichwein, Alexander.
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2
At first glance, this criticism may be surprising, and even quite contradictory in itself.
If
international politics really is condemned to be power politics, and if realists claim to have
uncovered the general laws and causal mechanisms which link the condition of anarchy in the
international arena to observable patterns of state behaviour, it is not obvious why a realist
should engage in any kind of political activism. Moreover, it is not only why they should
participate that is puzzling, but moreover it is ambiguous as to how they (may) expect their
public statements to be of any consequence in terms of actually having the capacity to
transform public and elite consciousness and/or produce social pressures for alternative
outcomes.
2
Despite this however, when criticizing US foreign policy, realists are neither
willing to put their theory as a whole, nor any of their fundamental assumptions under
question. In recognizing this, Franke and Herborth (2007: 1-3) argue that realist thinkers not
only fail to establish a consistent link between theoretical arguments and policy interventions,
but also lack reflexivity. Their arguments have developed out of Morgenthau’s criticism of
Vietnam War, Waltz’s objection to the US arms control policy during the Cold War, as well
as John Mearsheimer’s and Stephen Walt’s most recent critique of the war in Iraq.
3
The
critical problems being that, instead of putting the realist theory into question and bridging the
theory’s gaps, realists change the level of analysis from the systemic to the domestic level
(Mearsheimer/Walt 2007), or put the rationality of the actors in question (Mearsheimer/Walt
2003) or they offer moral arguments against US foreign policy. In any case however, when
observing the context of their policy interventions, it becomes explicitly clear that realists play
the role of the rational, sober, prudent, moral statesman who claims to know what is good and
what is bad, and what is a good foreign policy guided by moral principles (Morgenthau 1954:
5). As Franke and Herborth have noted, realists make the impression to hold a validity claim
and to possess rigorous knowledge.
The striking tension inherent in the realist tradition between the quest for law-like
generalization and causal determinism of the theory on the one hand and practical policy
2
Payne (2007: 503/504) argues that Neorealists who participate actively in public debates behave like
Habermasian constructivists and critical theorists, violating and rejecting their own theoretical presuppositions
about the inferior role of communication action and the domestic level in shaping outcomes in international
politics and taking political discourse and the force of the better argument quite seriously.
3
Furthermore, Franke and Herborth (2007: 30/31) hold the view that realism, in its process of scientific
professionalization from Morgenthau’s “realist thought to neorealist theory” (Waltz 1990), has undergone a
tragic process of increasing technocratization, claiming a stance of “speaking truth to power” as a moral quality,
and thereby avoiding the impression of already holding a validity claim at the expense of giving up the critical
perspective. For both authors, tragedy and technocracy are the core tenets of the realist tradition. As a non-
technocratic understanding of policy interventions which they aim for, Franke and Herborth ultimately
recommend a Habermasian approach of giving and taking reasons and of challenging routinized patterns of
interpretations in spaces of deliberation (for example in public debates) within which the equal participation of
scholars as citizens in processes of argumentative exchange becomes possible.


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