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Cool Hans Morgenthau's "Fourteen Points"

Hans Morgenthau's "Fourteen Points"

A Reading of Politics Among Nations: The Struggle for Power and Peace

Daniel Whelan
Ph.D. Student
Graduate School of International Studies
University of Denver
Denver, CO

Revised December 1999


Hans J. Morgenthau is among the most venerated scholars in the field of International Relations. His seminal text, Politics among Nations: The Struggle for Power and Peace has been held up as the most important articulation of the theory of realism in international politics. At the same time, this work has been highly misinterpreted and many of his conclusions taken wholly out of context. The result is an interpretation of Morgenthauís thesis that is misleading. Consider the following quotes from the book:

International politics, like all politics, is a struggle for powerÖ.whenever [statesmen and peoples] strive to realize their goal by means of international politics, they do so by striving for power. (27)

What is needed [for permanent peace] is a radical transformation of the existing international society of sovereign nations into a supranational community of individuals. (480)

The first quote is "classic Morgenthau." However, the second quote seems more like something one might expect of classical liberal or even constructivist thinkers. Did Morgenthau actually say that? How can it be? Isnít Morgenthau the "right is might," power-politics guru of international relations? In order to demonstrate the intricate balance between the many arguments presented in Politics among Nations, this paper will compress the essential elements of Morgenthauís entire thesis, and show how his theory has been simplified and distorted by taking it out of context, leading to erroneous conclusions about his theory, and thus to a widespread misunderstanding of his contribution to the field of international relations.

The first edition of Politics among Nations emerged from lectures given at the University of Chicago from 1943-1948 (xvii). Subsequent editions of the book expanded upon the earlier themes and updated factual information. In all cases, Morgenthauís theoretical arguments are explained, supplemented by historical example and followed by detailed conclusions which are explored step-by-step. In a way, the text is dialectical in that each chapter presents an element of the realist paradigm (e.g., the balance of power), explains how it works, offers critiques of how it fails, and suggests that better solutions might be found elsewhere. The "elsewhere" is the critical path that eventually leads the patient reader to seek out a full understanding of Morgenthauís thesis. This structure makes it problematic for the student of IR, insofar as specific chapters do not contain a universal context. Rather, each element of the broad theory relies upon other elements that have preceded it in the text, and that follow in subsequent development of the theory. A close reading of the text has allowed me to reduce the development of Morgenthauís theory into fourteen main points. These are presented below as paraphrased distillations of the essential elements of Morgenthauís theory of international politics.

Before I embark on the main task, I must dispense with a brief presentation of Morgenthauís Six Principles of Realism. The first two principles are necessary to understand international politics as a scienceóobjective laws that have their root in human nature govern politics. For example, the concept of interest defined as power "makes the objective study of international politics possible, for it infuses rational order into the subject matter of politics." (5) The third principle, however, places a brake on the second, and only becomes clear as to its meaning later in the text, namely that "the meaning of interest defined as power is not fixedÖthe content and manner of its use are determined by the political and cultural environment." (8-9) Principles 4-6 go on to state that we must view international politics through a lens and avoid applying "universal moral principles" to the actions of states in their abstract formulation. (10)

While scholars have held these six principles them as a kind of biblical law, they only serve one purpose for Morgenthauís thesis: to objectify and provide solid justification for the ambitious mission of positing a general theory of international politics the he develops in the course of the text.

The Fourteen Points of Morgenthauís Theory

1: Political Motivations of Power

All political phenomena can be reduced to one of three basic types: keeping power, increasing power, and demonstrating power. (40) Internationally, these patterns are transformed into policies: status quo (keeping power); imperialism (increasing power); and prestige (demonstrating power). (41)

Throughout the text, Morgenthau devotes many pages to the manifestations of power on the international scene. His reasoning for such in-depth exploration of the subject is based on his belief that "history shows that all nations actively involved in international politics are continuously preparing for, actually involved in, or recovering from organized violence in the form of war." He describes each policy in detail, showing how some policies might appear as one thing but actually be another. Yet Morgenthau cautions that "not every policy aiming at an increase in power is necessarily a manifestation of imperialism." (46) He reminds us that "as policies of the status quo and imperialism are fundamentally different, so must the policies designed to counter them." (65) Meeting a policy with a response appropriate for another type of policy can lead to miscalculations and upward spirals of mutual fear. (65-69) This is one of the areas in which the unity of Morgenthauís thesis is critical. As we shall see later, the foundation of his solution for the "problems of power and peace" is skilled diplomacy that relies on a context of maneuvering space to achieve its objectives.

2: Justifications for Power Politics

Policies of power are often explained and justified in ethical, legal, or biological terms. This is especially true of the policy of imperialism. That is, ideological rationalization and justifications conceal the true nature of policy. (88)

Here Morgenthau is reminding us that things are not always as they seem. This is especially true of imperialistic policies. The role of ideology in policies of the status quo are not as necessary, because such policies "can afford to reveal [their] true nature because [they] have already acquired a certain moral legitimacy." (91) When a policy of the status quo is carrying an ideological cloak, it is usually in the form of "peace" and "international law." Later in the text, this becomes an important point insofar as such ideologies may be part of the "crusade" of a certain form of "nationalistic universalism." This is an example of how Morgenthau makes a point critical to his entire argument, but which would be lost on the student who fails to consider the whole set of arguments in his theory.

3: Sources of Misunderstanding

Foreign policy misunderstandings occur when policy makers focus on the aims of ambiguous ideologies (such as self-determination, peace, and disarmament) rather than the true policy that underlies it. (96-98)

This is another reminder to the wary that "moral" ideologies, such as self-determination, can be used to justify either imperialism, or an anti-imperialistic policy of the status quo. Similarly, Morgenthau highlights the use of the ideology of "peace" to mask all kinds of policies. This is especially true of the politics of the Cold War, wherein any policy that included with it the possible threat of nuclear weapons could be called a policy in search of peace because it does not lead to actual war. (96) The possible repercussions of foreign policy misunderstandings are not yet clear at this point, but they become so much later in the text.

4: The National Power Concept

National power consists of stable and unstable or changing elements. These include: geography; natural resources (such as food and raw materials); industrial capacity; military preparedness (including technology, leadership, and quality/quantity of armed forces); population; national character; national morale; quality of a nationís diplomacy; and quality of government. (112-140)

In international politics, the quality of diplomacy is the most important element of national power, however "unstable." Diplomacy "is the brains of national power, as morale is its soul." (140)

National power is often erroneously evaluated. Typical errors include believing that power is absolute and not relative; that a nationís power is immutable to change; and that any one factor can be used to measure a nationís power. (154-158)

These arguments, his realism promises, are central to Morgenthauís discussion of national power as perceived by other nation-states in the international system, and when combined with intent, create conflict in the international system. Some scholars explain how power leads to waróespecially when focused exclusively on military and industrial capacity, yet Morgenthau actually highlights the importance of the quality of a nationís diplomacy. A nation that has strong capabilities but underdeveloped diplomacy "must yield to one whose diplomacy is prepared to make the most of whatever other elements power are at its disposal, thus making up through its own excellence for deficiencies in other fields." (141) Furthermore, Morgenthau contends that "nations must rely on the quality of their diplomacy to act as a catalyst for the different factors that constitute their power." (142) Again, Morgenthau touches upon a theme whose importance has not yet been fully explored at this point in the text.

5: Restraints on Power

Throughout the history of the modern nation-state, there have been two main restraints on power in the international system: the balance of power (167-224) and morality, mores and law (225-240).

This argument sums up Chapters 11-19. It is a rather terse representation of the totality of nine chapters (constituting two separate "parts" of the book) which form the heart of Morgenthauís thesis. He intends to use them as points of comparison between the "old" world and the "new" configuration of international politics in the 20th century. The reader who stops here will totally miss the point. As Morgenthau states in Chapter 11, the "instability of the international balance of power is due not to the faultiness of the principle but to the particular conditions under which they principle must operate in a society of sovereign nations." To a student reading only this section of the book, this statement would appear cryptic. Nevertheless, the meaning of this one sentence can only be understood in the context of subsequent chapters, as I will show later.

6: Limits of the Balance of Power

The balance of power alone could not account for the stability of the international system in the 17th, 18th and 19th centuries. If motivations and mechanisms of power were all that was needed to understand international politics, we would have a Hobbesian state of nature. "Might" would indeed make "right." (225)

Realism is often accused of relying on mechanistic models of "nature" and to explain behavior in the international system, as if there were no human element. If one were to excise Chapters 11, 12 and 13 (on the nature, methods, and structure of the balance of power) from the book, one would come away with such an impression. But Morgenthau subsequently brings the human element into his thesis in Chapter 14. It is critical for understanding the comparison he makes with the modern state of international affairs later in the book. His main argument is that the balance of power system, as a paradigmatic expression of how all systems in nature seek equilibrium, only gets out of balance because of human factors. So the system must depend on a measurable human element to replace the balance. He argues that a moral consensus developed within European society. Especially important were the contributions of political philosophers such as Fťnelon, Rousseau, and Vattel, who argued that a balance of power must repose on shared moral values. (217) Morgenthau states "this consensus grew in the intellectual and moral climate of the age and drew its strength from the actual power relations, which under normal conditions made an attempt at overthrowing the system of the balance of power itself a hopeless undertaking." (219) Considering Morgenthauís conclusion that this moral consensus prevailed from 1648-1772 and from 1815-1933, (i.e., the majority of the life-span of the Westphalian nation-state system) its importance as a comparative point of reference to the post-1933 world is, again, critical to understanding the entirety of his thesis.

7: The Limits of Morality

Morality has two faces: a "real" morality which keeps aspirations for power within socially-tolerable bounds, and an "ideological" morality which is used to mask power aspirations under a cloak of reason and justice. (225-229) Modernity has weakened "real" moral restraints which, in concert with the balance of power, maintained the stability of the international system in the 17th, 18th and 19th centuries.

Morgenthau begins to clarify the role of morality in international politics, comparing a "universal morality" to a new state of affairs in international politics, namely the emergence of "nationalistic universality." Universal morality emerged through reason and consensus that were the hallmark of the age, characterized by a rising awareness of certain moral limitations on the use of war as an instrument of foreign policy. (237). However, three developments in modern times have contributed to the "destruction" of that universal morality.

The first is the emergence of total war, which Morgenthau maintains is evident when one considers the percentage of populations engaged in activities related to war, affected by war, and who are "emotionally connected" to war as an expression of nationalism. In addition, the objective of war in todayís world (or at least Morgenthauís world) is also total (i.e., the objective of a war between the Soviet Union and the United States would be total destruction). (238) The second development is the rise of democratic as opposed to aristocratic responsibility for foreign affairs. (241-242) Again, Morgenthau brings in a discussion of the role of diplomacy in the age of a working balance of power, in order to make a point of departure later in the text. The third factor, indeed the defining difference separating the old and new international politics is the substitution of nationalistic standards of action for universal ones (i.e., nationalistic morality) (242). According to Morgenthau, "nations no longer face each other within a framework of shared beliefs and common values, which imposes effective limitations upon the ends and means of their struggle for power. They oppose each other now as the standard-bearers of ethical systems, each claiming to provide a supra-national framework of moral standards which all other nations ought to accept." (253) From this point forward, Morgenthau will begin to examine the new international politics of "nationalistic universalism," focusing on the mechanisms and institutions that have evolved to deal with the questions of the struggle for power and peace in this new world.

8: The Nature of Modern International Politics

International politics in the 20th century has the same structure as it did in earlier centuries. However, the "roof" and the "walls" have been replaced. (337)

This is the beginning of Morgenthauís analysis of how international politics have changed in the 20th century. The following quote, eloquent in its metaphor, is the final paragraph of Chapter 20:

The struggle for the minds of men, advancing rival claims to universal dominion on the part of different nations has dealt the final, fatal blow to that social system of international intercourse within which for almost three centuries lived together in constant rivalry, yet under the common roof of shared values and universal standards of actionÖ.The collapse of that roof has destroyed the common habitat of the nations of the world, and the most powerful of them each assert the right to build it anew after their own pattern. Beneath the ruins of that roof lies buried the mechanism that kept the walls of the house of nations standing: the balance of power.

Morgenthau uses vivid metaphor (structures lying in ruinÖa reminder of the bombing of European cities during the War?) to describe the passing of a nostalgically pleasing old world and the emergence of a new one. His passage about "the most powerful asserting the right to build it anew" is an obvious reference to the United States and the Soviet Union. The structure of the old system had a roof of "real" international morality (shared values) supported by the "walls" of a working balance of power system. The new international politics is characterized by a roof of "nationalistic universalism" (i.e., the superpowers crusading for their own vision of what is "right" and "moral"), supported by new "walls"ónamely the bipolar stalemate of the nuclear balance of power. (337) Within this new world, different mechanisms for restraining power will emerge. He dispenses with two of them as fictions.

9: Faulty Mechanisms for Peace

World public opinion as a restraint on the struggle for power is a fiction because agencies of national policy that reflect a nationís desire to impose their morality on others mold such opinion. (267)

International law as a restraint on the struggle for power is a fiction as well, for it only gains its validity in the very sovereignty of nation-states that create the law and mechanisms for enforcing it. Treaties that have sought to outlaw war have always failed. (273-326)

While dismissing world public opinion fairly quickly, Morgenthau devotes a number of pages to the subject of international law. He starts with the position that the decentralized nature of international law is an inevitable result of the decentralized structure of international society. Problems in its construction and enforcement, therefore, can be traced to three aspects of sovereignty. (273) The first is independenceóthat the supreme authority of the nation-state excludes the authority of any other state. (309) The notion of equality means that nations are subordinated to whatever international law exists, but not to each other. (309) Finally, the concept of unanimity in international law means that states choose to be bound by law, and without unanimous consent, international law does not exist. (310) Morgenthauís positivistic viewpoints, while outdated, still need to be understood in the context of his entire thesis. If one were to stop here, one would come away from the book with a heavy-handed pessimism about the future of the world.

10: Getting to a Workable System for Peace

In this new configuration of international politics, there are three ways to achieve a lasting international peace: peace through limitation (disarmament, security, judicial settlement, peaceful change, and international government); peace through transformation (world state and community) and peace through accommodation (diplomacy). (379-529)

Peace through limitation will not work because of the problems with international law as a viable restraint on the behavior of sovereign states that do not give their recognition to law that limits their sovereignty and perceived or actual power. (379-475)

This argument sums up the conclusion of Morgenthauís consideration of the viability of the thesis of peace through limitation, representing almost 100 pages of the book. He deals with each proposal in turn (e.g., disarmament, collective security and an international police force, and international government in the form of the United Nations), describes how they are meant to work, and then argues why, in the end, they will fail to provide workable solutions toward achieving a lasting international peace. His basic conclusion is that sovereignty, coupled with a the emergence of nationalistic universalism, will prevent the emergence of an international morality that would permit nation-states to surrender effective control to international institutions for preserving peace and enforcing international law. It is at this point that the reader may begin to realize what Morgenthau means when he speaks of "peace." Morgenthau is not concerned with functional peace, or of global problem solving in those areas outside armed conflict. His notion of peace is a negative one: peace as the absence of conflict. He is searching for a permanent end to war. Maybe Hans Morgenthau is not quite the pessimist he is often portrayed to be.

11: The Need for Transformation

The only way to ensure a permanent peace is through the transformation of the state system into a world state. (480)

Morgenthau arrives at this conclusion by asking what accounts for peace within nation-states. He argues that the conditions of domestic peace that are met by the state are: suprasectional loyalties (being loyal to society as a whole instead of to any part of it); expectation of justice; and the existence of overwhelming power within the state (i.e., a monopoly on the use of violence and irresistible social pressure). (480-484) But beyond these "structural" qualities of the state itself, there is something more than the mere existence of the state that accounts for peace. "On the contrary," Morgenthau argues, "the state is part of the society from which it has sprung, and prospers and decays as society prospers and decays. The state, far from being apart from society, is created by society." The critical importance of this statement will become evident below.

12: A World State

The creation of a world state could be achieved through conquest or a federative process. The current context of international politics makes both of these methods unworkable (491-495). However there is in the American experience a clue as to how the second method might come about: the creation of a community.

In imagining how a world state might emerge, Morgenthau must present the arguments that come to mind first, in order to analyze them logically, and (as he has done throughout the book), dispense with them outright. The first is the "world conquest" avenue toward a world state, such as the Roman Empire. But he offers Rome as an exception to the rule that "most of these world statesÖhardly ever survived the lifetime of their founders." (491) The second method is the creation of a federation, such as Switzerland or the United States. However, as Morgenthau argues, the emergence of the Swiss state from thirteen original sovereignties was largely a product of collective security arrangements to stave off the German Empire and the Hapsburgs. (493) Internationally, there is no such "outside" threat that compels the nations of the world to federate for collective security. Morgenthau dismisses the mechanics of the American example, saying that the creation of the United States was really the trading of one form of sovereignty for another. (494) However, Morgenthau touches on another aspect of the American experience that was crucial for the successful emergence of an independent nation-state from a group of separate colonies: the existence of a pre-existing moral and political community upon which the structure of the state could repose.

13: The Formation of a World Community

A world community must antedate a world state. Attempts at creation of a community have applied a cultural approach (i.e., UNESCO) and a functional approach (i.e., UN specialized agencies). (496-507)

The prime requisite of creating a world community which could make the emergence of a world state possible is "the mitigation and minimization of political conflicts which in our time pit the two superpowers against each other and evoke the spector (sic) of a cataclysmic war." This method of establishing the precondition for permanent peace is peace through accommodation. (517)

Here is where the entire thesis of Morgenthauís Politics among Nations begins to coalesce. He has taken us through history, showing how the stability of the international system from the emergence of the modern nation-state in 1648 until the rise of Hitler in 1933 was the result of the balance of power and the existence of an international morality. His thesis explored how these mechanisms of constraint on national power have changed in the post-World War II world, and how a new international politics is characterized by a balance of nuclear terror coupled with a rigid and dogmatic morality of nationalistic universalism. The existence of sovereignty remains a roadblock to the creation of a consensus for peace based on international law or collective security. The only structure that could possibly eliminate conflict in the system is a world state. Within the political reality of the day, the only avenue for achieving a world state is the creation of a world community.

Morgenthau explores the cultural approach of the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) toward the creation of community in terms of its three mandates, namely: cultural development and peace; cultural unity and peace, and international understanding and peace. He concludes that these approaches miss the point. According to Morgenthau, "The world community is a community of moral judgements and political actions, not of intellectual endowments and esthetic appreciationÖ.So long as men continue to judge and act in accordance with national rather than supranational standards and loyalties, the world community remains a postulate that still awaits its realization." (501)

Like the famous work by Maurice Ravel, "Bolero," Morgenthau is edging the student on toward the solution for world peace. He begins to take a very appreciative look at a functional approach to the creation of a world community through common action based on needs that transcend nation-states. Morgenthau, in citing the work of David Mitrany, states, "The specialized agencies of the United Nations, serving all peoples all over the world regardless of national boundaries, could create by the very fact of their existence and performance a community of interests, valuations, and actions. Ultimately, if such international agencies were numerous enough and served the most important wants of most peoples of the earth, the loyalties to these institutions and to the international community of which they would be the agencies would supersede the loyalties to the separate national societies and their institutions. (503)

But then Morgenthau brings his theory back down to earth, noting that functional agencies provide an invaluable sense of shared community where political conflict is non-existent, yet "[w]hat stands before the eyes of all are the immense political conflicts that divide the great nations of the earth and threaten the well-being of the loser, if not his very existenceÖ.More important than anything else is the ability of the national government to defend its territory and citizens against foreign aggression and within its territory to maintain peace and keep in operation the processes of social change. The neglect with which the public treats international functional agencies is but the exaggerated reflection of the minor role these agencies play for the solution of international issues." (505-506)

In the post-Cold War world, one wonders if Morgenthau would have stopped here and changed the title of the book to Functional Approaches to International Peace. For Morgenthau, the only way to mitigate such political conflict is through accommodation, whose instrument is diplomacy. Thus we arrive at the final main point of Politics among Nations.

14: Diplomacy is Essential to Peace

The instrument of accommodation is diplomacy. Diplomacy must be transformed in order to successfully fulfill a function that will create the conditions necessary for the emergence of a world society, and hence, a world state.

According to Morgenthau, diplomacy fulfills four basic tasks. First, it must determine its objectives in light of the power that is actually or potentially available for the pursuit of those objectives. Second, diplomacy must assess the objectives of other nations in terms of the same criteria. Third, diplomacy must determine to what extent the different objectives of nations are compatible with each other. Finally, it must employ the means suited to the pursuit of its objectives. These means are persuasion, compromise and the threat of force. As always, these options must be balanced. (517-519)

The brief references to diplomacy found earlier in the text begin to take on a special significance at this point, especially in light of what Morgenthau calls the "decline of diplomacy." Recall his discussion about the critical importance of determining the true nature of policy, stripping it of its ideological cloak in order to apply the policy response most appropriate to the situation at hand. That is the crucial task of the diplomat. Morgenthau contends that the current state of diplomacy makes the fulfillment of that task tenuous at best.

In Morgenthauís thesis, five factors have contributed to the decline of the status and practice of diplomacy in the 20th century. The first is the development of communications that allow lower-level delegates to carry out negotiations, receiving instructions by telephone (or today, e-mail?) from the capital. Diplomats of higher rank with more experience tend not to reside with negotiations, preferring instead to be in many places at once, which is made possible by reduced travel times. The second element of the decline is public depreciation of diplomatic practices as devious and wallowed in secrecy, the response to which represents the third development of the decline, namely the rise of diplomacy by parliamentary procedure. This practice is characterized by the public nature of diplomatic procedures in deliberative bodies, such as United Nations. Forth, and for Morgenthau among the most important element of the decline, is that the superpowers are "newcomers" to diplomacy, and lack the benefit of active diplomatic corps that have been developed over centuries. Finally, the nature of contemporary international politics places the diplomat within a confining space of reason and action. We recall the new international politics, and can see how it influences the practice of diplomacy. Crusading ideologies, the possibility of total war, and the inflexible opposition of superpowers with underdeveloped diplomatic skills are a recipe for intransigence. (523-528) To put it in Morgenthauís own words, "[u]nder such moral and political conditions, it was not the sensitive, flexible and versatile mind of the diplomat, but the rigid, relentless, one-track mind of the crusader that guided the destiny of nations. The crusading mind knows nothing of persuasion and compromise. It knows only victory and defeat." (528-529)

In the final chapter of the book, Morgenthau asks the question, "How can diplomacy be revived?" and offers his prescription for the future of diplomacy. He starts by arguing that it must transcend the three "vices" of publicity, majority decision, and fragmentationóprocedures that "poison the international atmosphere and aggravate the conflicts that carry the seeds of war." (535) Only then can the context for the emergence of a world society, and thus a world state, emerge. Morgenthau then proceeds to offer nine rules. The first four "fundamental rules" are: that diplomacy must divest itself of the "crusading spirit;" the objectives of foreign policy must be defined in terms of the national interest and must be supported with adequate power; diplomacy must look at politics from the point of view of other nations, and that nations must be willing to compromise on all issues that are not vital to them. (539-542) He then offers five "prerequisites for compromise" which I will not highlight here. I do not wish to give away the whole story!


The mere sight of the book is enough to offer an incentive to focus only on particular sections in the hope of capturing the essence of Morgenthauís thesis. Indeed, each chapter can be viewed as a compartmentalized, in-depth treatment of various aspects of politics among nations. However, taking such an approach is to run the risk of misunderstanding Morgenthauís thesis. For example, early in the text, he states that "[n]ot every action between states is a political oneÖ.Not all nations are at all times to the same extent involved in international politics (i.e., the struggle for power)." (28) This contention makes far more sense when it has been re-integrated into the entire thesis. Considering this statement in light of Morgenthauís search for a negative peace (i.e., the absence of war), it becomes patently obvious why Morgenthauís theory cannot be considered a theory of global politics. This is a common complaint among critics and readers of the text, who focus on the sections of the book dedicated to international law and the UN system. They highlight that Morgenthau dispenses with non-conflict situations as if they do not contribute to the state of peace in the world. One would have to remember that it is not politics unless there is a struggle for power that must be ameliorated through persuasion, compromise, or threat of force. Morgenthauís thesis is only as good as a possible blueprint for truly "inter-national" or "interstate" relations as they bear on conflict resolution. Criticisms of the work do not bear out the evidence that in most arenas, nation-states cooperate with each other on those things that do not necessarily impinge on the question of national power, as Morgenthau himself states.

But one would have to read the entire book to uncover that truth.
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