Friday, January 28, 2011

Morgenthau once more

An interesting post on realism (by dptrombly at Slouching Towards Columbia) raises the question of realists' attitudes toward public participation in, and influence over, foreign policy. The post suggests that Hans Morgenthau (1904-1980) and Henry Kissinger shared an elitism and a wariness about the participation of mass publics:
For the European realists who emigrated to the United States, mass politics was potentially the gateway to disorder and horror. Morgenthau’s “hidden dialogue” with [Carl] Schmitt is evident in both of their major works, and Kissinger’s admiration for Spengler and Metternich hardly lends itself to favorable opinions towards liberalism. Both thinkers acclimated themselves to their new homeland’s political traditions, but not without criticism. These German Jewish intellectuals inherited the Weimar-era sense of Verfallsgeschichte [history of decline] that seems rather lacking in the chastened internationalists and skeptical social scientists who practice and debate realist foreign policy today.
There is clearly some truth in this. In Morgenthau's case, however, Carl Schmitt was only one of several important influences on him; other influences, notably his mentor Hugo Sinzheimer, were on the left in Weimar's politics. (Sinzheimer was a prominent lawyer at the center of a circle of young leftist intellectuals.)

Fast forward to Morgenthau in his later years: From the late 1950s on, he developed a critique of American politics and society which informed his later strong and vocal opposition to the Vietnam War and which has been well analyzed by William Scheuerman in Hans Morgenthau: Realism and Beyond (2009). This critique, as expressed for example in The Purpose of American Politics (1960), drew on, among other things, a Tocquevillian concern about the threat of conformism and "the prospect of a novel form of mass-based or democratic despotism" (Scheuerman, p.189). This theme, which perhaps also reflected the wave of concern in the 1950s with the dangers posed by "mass society," does reflect a wariness of mass publics, and yet elitism does not seem quite the right word for it. Morgenthau in The Purpose of American Politics was also critical of capitalism in its consumerist guise and called for an expansion of the welfare state (Scheuerman, p.191).

Perhaps more significantly, in the 1960s a good deal of Morgenthau's writing about civil rights and other U.S. domestic issues strongly suggests that he thought too little democracy, not too much, was at the root of the country's problems. For example, in an essay published in Commentary (the old Commentary) in January 1964, Morgenthau began by declaring (echoing his Purpose of American Politics): "The unequal condition of the black American has been an endemic denial of the purpose for the sake of which the United States of America was created and which, in aspiration and partial fulfillment, has remained the distinctive characteristic of American society: equality in freedom." ("The Coming Test of American Democracy," reprinted in Morgenthau, Truth and Power [1970], pp. 209-210)

Morgenthau went on to argue in this piece (written shortly after John F. Kennedy's assassination) that the related problems of segregation and structural unemployment threatened a breakdown of democracy and a descent into violence. He observed that the governments of Southern states already were ruling by violence and decried the power exerted by Southern legislators in Congress. (pp. 213-214)

In the Epilogue to the 1970 collection Truth and Power, which is undoubtedly one of the most radical-sounding pieces Morgenthau ever wrote -- parts of it read as if they could have been written by, say, the authors of the Port Huron Statement (the founding document of SDS) -- Morgenthau saw the American student revolt as "a national manifestation of a world-wide revulsion against the world as it is," a world that "sacrifices human ends to technological means, as well as the needs of the many to the enrichment and power of the few," a world in which mechanized and bureaucratized institutions exercise unprecedented power over individuals, drain life of meaning, and confront the student with "a Kafkaesque [condition] ...of make-believe, a gigantic hoax where nothing is as it appears to be and upon which what he feels, thinks, aspires to, and does has no effect except to provide inducements for harassment and repression." (Truth and Power, pp.433, 434, 437).

American society, Morgenthau concluded here, had chosen preservation of the status quo over its original animating purpose. "Abroad, the United States has become the antirevolutionary power par excellence, because our fear of Communism has smothered our rational insight into the inevitability of radical change in the Third World. Our interventions in Indochina and the Dominican Republic are monuments to that fear. At home, our commitment to making all Americans equal in freedom has been at war with our fear of change and our conformist subservience to the powers-that-be." (ibid.,p.439)

And here is the last paragraph (p.439), which should be read in light of his belief that nuclear war under the then-prevailing trends was not only likely but virtually certain:

The extent of the repression in store for the dissenters will depend upon the subjective estimate of the seriousness the powers-that-be place upon the threat to the status quo. Considering the thus far marginal nature of the threat, society will need only resort to marginally totalitarian methods. The dissenters will people our prisons, our graveyards, our Bohemias, or -- as utter cynics -- our positions of power. Those last will not be unlike the Marxist-Leninists of the Soviet Union: They will mouth a litany of slogans which they not only do not believe in but which they also despise. Such a society can carry on for a while, like a body without a soul, but sooner or later it must either recover its soul -- that is, the purpose that has given it life -- or disintegrate from within. Perhaps, then, a new society, with a new purpose, will be built upon the ruins of the old; or perhaps nothing will be left but ruins for later generations to behold.
In sum, although Morgenthau was perhaps not an especially profound or original democratic theorist (his most acute insights lay elsewhere), he did come to insist that the normative core of liberal democracy ("equality in freedom" as he called it) had to be reflected in U.S. foreign policy, and that U.S. foreign policy, in order to be justifiable and effective, had to retain a very close connection to the country's moral foundations. If one still wants to label Morgenthau a classical realist, his version of classical realism is arguably quite compatible with an enlightened, egalitarian, and progressive version of liberal democracy.

P.S. It may be of interest to note that Morgenthau was an original trustee of the
Institute for Policy Studies and served on its board of trustees for five years. (Source: Letter of Marcus Raskin in The Washington Post's Book World, Sept. 22, 1991)


Note: I also discussed Morgenthau, in a different connection, in this post.

Update: Response by DPTrombly.

No comments: