An intellectual giant

Print edition : December 06, 2002

Hans J. Morgenthau: An Intellectual Biography by Christoph Frei, Louisiana State University Press; pages 235, $49.95.

ONE'S understanding of the world is shaped by the fundamentals that mould one's outlook; the inarticulate major premise. Bacon's "craftymen contemn studies". So do "practical" diplomats. The case in hand absorbs them. But their appreciation of the facts is governed by their world-view.

This book appears at a time when militarism and chauvinism are dominant ideologies in both the United States and India. Academics and retired diplomats speak glibly, ignorantly, of realpolitik as if it signified an amoral approach to foreign policy; one in which power alone matters and morality does not.

Indians may be forgiven. They have no intellectual tradition in this field. Americans are abandoning a fine tradition built up by great thinkers. Peerless among them was Hans J. Morgenthau.

This writer considers it his good fortune to have known him and to have become acquainted with his work way back in 1953 at a formative period in his life. In Defence of the National Interest, published in 1951, had just arrived in a local library when I picked it up out of curiosity. It was a trenchant critique of notions very popular in India and the U.S. the "evils" of "balance of power", the radical transformation which the United Nations had brought about in the world and an idealism which was unreal; even self-serving. The book rent apart the veil and revealed the verities of the world order with stark realism. It introduced me to his works and they have had a lasting impact on my thinking on foreign policy.

Concerned with mainsprings of foreign policy, it reflected its author's "public philosophy". Its opening lines are relevant to the Indian situation. "It is often said that the foreign policy of the United States needs to mature and that the American people and their government must grow up if they want to emerge victorious from the trials of our age. It would be truer to say that this generation of Americans must shed the illusions of its fathers and grandfathers and relearn the great principles of statecraft which guided the republic in the first decade and - in moralistic disguise - in the first century of its existence. The United States offers the singular spectacle of a commonwealth whose political wisdom has not grown slowly through the accumulation and articulation of experiences."

He held that "the fundamental error that has thwarted American foreign policy in thought and action is the antithesis of national interest and moral principles. The equation of political moralising with morality and of political realism with immorality is itself untenable. The choice is not between moral principles and the national interest, devoid of moral dignity, but between one set of moral principles divorced from political reality, and another set of moral principles derived from political reality" (page 3; emphasis added, throughout). Both admirers and critics ignored this blend of realism and morality, which was a constant in all his writings. It is absent in the chatter about realpolitik that one hears in India these days from the Bharatiya Janata Party figures whom some Americans laud as "realists", whether in ignorance or opportunism.

Morgenthau's plea for accord with the Soviet Union, made at the height of the Cold War, was vindicated by archival disclosures when it ended. He drew on the masters of old. What Charles James Fox said, in the House of Commons on February 1, 1793, is relevant to the U.S. policy on Iraq: "The destruction of that Government was the avowed object of the combined powers whom it was hoped we were to join... He thought the present state of government in France anything rather than an object of imitation; but he maintained as a principle inviolable, that the government of every independent state was to be settled by those who were to live under it, and not by foreign force."

Amidst the euphoria about the U.N. he warned that it "did not put an end to power politics... on the contrary, it has become the forum where the nations of the world fight their battles for power... through legalistic manipulation of the procedures... "

On the slogan of "appeasement" he remarked: "Future historians will have to decide whether the Western world has suffered more from the surrender at Munich - that is, from appeasement as political practice - or from the intellectual confusion that equates a negotiated settlement with appeasement and thus discredits the sole alternative to war."

Morgenthau concluded with a set of truths to "forget and remember", "FORGET the sentimental notion that foreign policy is a struggle between virtue and vice, with virtue bound to win... FORGET the crusading notion that any nation, however virtuous and powerful, can have the mission to make the world over in its own image... REMEMBER that diplomacy without power is feeble, and power without diplomacy is destructive and blind. REMEMBER that no nation's power is without limits, and hence that its policies must respect the power and interests of others."

This book drove me to two classics which had preceded it. The first was one in which Morgenthau defined the fundamentals of his political philosophy. Published in 1946, Scientific Man vs. Power Politics, his first work, shook America. It was a frontal attack on conventional wisdom. "Politics must be understood through reason, yet it is not in reason that it finds its model. The principles of scientific reason are always simple, consistent, and abstract; the social world is always complicated, incongruous, and concrete. To apply the former to the latter is either futile, in that the social reality remains impervious to the attack of that one-eyed reason, deficient in its vision of depth; or it is fatal, in that it will bring about results destructive of the intended purpose. Politics is an art and not a science, and what is required for its mastery is not the rationality of the engineer but the wisdom and the moral strength of the statesman. The social world, deaf to the appeal to reason pure and simple, yields only to that intricate combination of moral and material pressures which the art of the statesman creates and maintains.

"Contemptuous of power politics and incapable of the statesmanship which alone is able to master it, the age has tried to make politics a science. By doing so, it has demonstrated its intellectual confusion, moral blindness, and political decay. A book such as this can picture the disease but cannot cure it. More especially, it must leave the production of neat and rational solutions to those who believe in the philosophy against which this book is written. It must deprive the reader of that exhilaration which the rational solution of an oversimplified problem, from the single tax to the outlawry of war, so easily imparts. Yet, if it might lift the veil of oblivion from a truth once known, it would do for the theory and, in the long run, for the practice of politics all that a book can do."

Despite his considerable output later, in 1975 he called this "the book I most favour". These were bold words for the author of a first book to use. Behind them lay 40 years of privation and suffering. Only a passion for the truth and confidence in his scholarship sustained him.

He inveighed against "rationalism", not reason. For, reason itself teaches its own limits. Rationalism considers every problem soluble by the exercise of reason alone. "While fundamental social problems are impervious to scientific attack, they seem to yield to the efforts of ill-informed men who, while devoid of scientific knowledge, possess insights of a different and higher kind... Justice Holmes, according to one of his biographers, found it `extraordinary that a woman like Mrs. Whitman without study, without work, could arrive at large social conclusions that he himself had found only after years of conscious search!'... De Tocqueville did not have a great deal of knowledge, he possessed in a large measure those higher faculties of the mind in which his more scientific successors were lacking."

There is no escape from the fallible, the imperfect and the tragic. They are inherent in the condition of war. "Where the insecurity of human existence challenges the wisdom of man, there is the meeting point of fate and freedom, of necessity and chance. Here, then, is the battlefield where man takes up the challenge and joins battle with the forces of nature, his fellow-men's lust for power, and the corruption of his own soul. It is because of his freedom that, unlike god or beast, he is liable to err in the choice of his weapons." He has the capacity to chose.

Two years later appeared that formidable tome Politics Among Nations, which was soon prescribed as a textbook by Harvard, Yale, Princeton and Columbia. A rare best-seller among textbooks, its purpose was to formulate "the principles which control the relations of nations with each other".

Sample this nugget: "The means at the disposal of diplomacy are three: persuasion, compromise, and the threat of force. No diplomacy relying only upon the threat of force can claim to be both intelligent and peaceful. No diplomacy that would stake everything on persuasion and compromise deserves to be called intelligent." A diplomat must use persuasion, hold out the advantages of a compromise "and impress the other side with the military strength of his country".

THANKS to Henry Kissinger whose international seminar at Harvard I attended in the summer of 1964, I could meet Morgenthau. Armed with Kissinger's letter of introduction, I went to Chicago for a day only to meet him; a fact which, I noticed, impressed him. He spoke in polished sentences and was candid in his replies. Till he died in 1980, he never failed to keep his promise, made at my request, to send off-prints of his articles.

One such gift from The Forensic Quarterly has an article on "Organisation of a Power System: Unilateralism and the Balance of Power". Like much else he wrote its relevance to our times is amazing. We met again in 1968 in Delhi and Bombay. I shall never forget his remark on the paranoiac response in India to the Kutch Award: "Yours must be the only country in the world which wins 90 per cent of its claim before an international tribunal and calls it defeat." A year later, I received "with the author's compliments" his work A New Foreign Policy for the United States. By then (1969) he was a hero on campuses all over the country for his opposition to U.S. involvement in Vietnam.

Dazzling as the writings are in their brilliance and depth, one gets a full measure of the author's greatness only when one learns of his intellectual development. That was no easy task. Morgenthau was born in Coburg, Germany, on February 7, 1904, the son of Dr. Ludwig Morgenthau, a physician, and Frieda Bachmann Morgenthau. He took his early degrees at the Universities of Munich and Frankfurt. He practised law until 1930, and went to teach in Geneva in 1932. When Hitler came to power in Germany the following year, he decided not to return.

He became a Professor of International Law at the Institute of International and Economics Studies in Madrid; then moved to the U.S. in 1937 and became a naturalised citizen in 1943. Fluent in English, French, German and Spanish, Morgenthau held many teaching posts; the first was at the University of Kansas. Scorned by his father, he faced anti-semitic hostility in Germany as well as in Geneva. Spain was a happy interlude.

Kansas City University treated him as a slave labourer. The first break came when the University of Chicago offered him a post in 1943. He never looked back since. Only a scholar of Christoph Frei's industry and depth could have accomplished, with signal success, the task of writing an intellectual biography of a man who had so chequered a career; "the roots of an enigmatic person". Frei spared himself no pains whether in interviews or in study of papers. Only in late 1940 did Morgenthau receive the crates of papers he had left behind in Madrid as it fell to the Fascists. The book is not a comprehensive synopsis of his work. Its cut-off point is 1947. For the most part Frei lets Morgenthau speak for himself. Where he provides his own insights, it is to dispel the myths that grew up around the subject.

"Young Morgenthau clearly felt that he was destined for great things." What is one to say of an 18-year old who could define his mission in life in these words: "To be able to work in the service of a great idea, on behalf of an important goal; to be able to commit every nerve, every muscle, and every drop of sweat to a work, to a great task; to grow with the work, to become greater onself in the struggle with one's betters - and then to be able to say at the end: I die, but there remains something that is more important than my life and will last longer than my body: my work. That is my hope, which is worthy of tremendous efforts, that is my goal, for which it is worth living and, if need be, dying."

Christoph Frei has proved more than equal to the challenge of tracing the roots, the development of, and the elements in, this enigmatic man's thinking. Friedrich Nietzsche "was the god of my youth", Morgenthau wrote in his diary in 1928. A year later, he remarked: "It is one of the luckiest accidents in the life of an intellectual to hit upon the right books at the right time", adding, later on, "or is it perhaps not an accident at all?" None before Frei noticed the Nietzsche connection. "He consciously covered his tracks" and cited figures like Burke, Castlereagh and Churchill to his American readers, his views remaining the same.

Before long, "while Morgenthau remains attached to the analyst, he refuses to follow the prophet". Max Weber noted in 1920 that "we now dwell in a world that has been intellectually shaped to a large extent by Marx and Nietzsche". Weber himself was a "reassuring influence". Rienhold Niebuhr was another. Asked, in 1976 to indicate the ten books that meant most to him, Morgenthau listed: Arendt's The Human Condition; Aristotle's Politics; Carr's The Twenty years' Crisis; The Federalist Papers; Plato's Symposium; Pascal's Pensees; Cochrane's Christianity and Classical Culture; Niebuhr's The Nature and Destiny of Man; The Political Writings of Max Weber and the Collected Works of Friedrich Nietzsche.

THE concept of "power" and the nature of man remained his central themes. "Foreign policy is nothing but the will to maintain, to increase, or to demonstrate one's power, and these three manifestations find their basic empirical expressions in a policy of the status quo, a policy of imperialism, and a policy of prestige." But, he warned, these formulations "are of a provisional nature and are subject to further refinement".

He had no respect for scholars devoid of integrity, no matter how erudite and brilliant. The jurist Carl Schmitt was called a despicable opportunist who "basically toadies to the powers that be" and is "subservient to the intrinsic values of the political realm... Thus scholarship ultimately turns into a matter of advocacy that is at the beck of anyone willing to pay for its services. The scholar turns into a dialectically agile, yet intellectually dishonest, defender of anyone who is politically strong at the moment. Thereby, he disavows any values transcending the political realm - a Jesuit who no longer believes in God." (For an incisive critique of Schmitt, Martin Heidegger, Michel Foucault and Jacques Derrida, vide Mark Lille's The Reckless Mind: Intellectuals in Politics, New York Review of Books).

The moral aspect came out loud and clear in The Purpose of American Politics (1960). Morgenthau lamented the decline of the public realm, the subordination of ethics to the values of the market and the neglect of pressing issues such as the H-bomb, housing and education. "The objective criteria of excellence through which civilised man has learned to distinguish a work of art from trash, craftsmanship from shoddiness, scholarship from pretentious sophistication, a good man from a scoundrel, a statesman from a demagogue, greatness from mediocrity - those vital distinctions are blurred if not obliterated by the self-sufficient preferences of the crowd...

"The objective standards which constitute, as it were, the moral backbone of a civilised society are here dissolved into the ever changing amorphousness of public opinion. What a man ought or ought not to do is here determined not by objective laws immutable as the stars, but by the results of the latest public-opinion poll."

He never trimmed his sails to suit the wind; the only compromise he made was not to shock Americans by flaunting Nietzsche. He was anxious that his message should be heard. "Morgenthau thought of himself not only as an observer and analyst of the crisis, but also as a doctor who could cure the disease. The treatment he prescribed consisted of intellectual remedies that he had brought along from his homeland, most of them unknown in America. Most specifically, Morgenthau made it his task to acquaint American thought with new prescientific categories. Against the root evil of an overly optimistic view of life, he posited the tragic as an ineluctable condition of human existence. In the face of excessive expectations as to what man can rationally discover, plan, and control, he stressed the limitations of the scientific method. Finally, against the false hopes of a decadent liberalism, against the simplifications of a naive legalism and the missionary zeal of a self-righteous moralism, he upheld the permanence of political forces and the autonomy of politics."

As Arthur Schlesinger Jr. wrote after his death, "His acrid realism appeared to be heresy, outrageous as well as dangerous". Frei shows how he came to differ with Nietzsche and Weber. "The potency of his own dismal experience drives Morgenthau in a different direction; while he recognises and acknowledges the reality of the `political' and of politics, he does not affirm it. What is examined by the analyst is strongly condemned by the moralist.

"Hans J. Morgenthau never was nor could he ever be solely a realist. Such was his nature that two sides were always present; the lucid, dispassionate observer of reality and the deeply passionate moralist. Which side of his nature was more strongly manifested at any given time depended largely on his surroundings. `I might have become a great idealist if I had lived in a realistic environment,' he wrote many years later without a trace of irony. Fate, however, had cast him adrift in America - in an intellectual environment where the lessons of the realist were bound to create a greater stir than his basic liberal values."

In Morgenthau's own words, "To say that a political action has no moral purpose is absurd; for political action can be defined as an attempt to realise moral values through the medium of politics, that is, power... In order to be worthy of our lasting sympathy, a nation must pursue its interests for the sake of transcendent purpose." Frei makes an apt comment: "What must have looked to outsiders like a penitential turning away from his realist past, was, in fact, a seemless continuation of Morgenthau's own idealist past, for The Purpose of American Politics was based entirely on the moral philosophical system that the author had developed thirty years earlier, that is, a system of transcendent idealism."

He held that since society did not create moral standards, it could not abolish them. "The validity of these standards owned nothing to society; like the law of gravity they were valid even if nobody recognised and abided by them."

What, then, of his insistent pleas on behalf of "the national interest", a concept that earned him much odium? Morgenthau's explanation touches the core of that concept: "Moral considerations go into the concept of the national interest as it is defined by a nation at a particular moment. One might say that the legitimacy of the national interest thus defined depends in large measure upon the moral qualities of the definition... While military strength and political power are the preconditions for lasting national greatness, the substance of that greatness springs from the hidden sources of intellect and morale, from ideas and values."

The statesman has perforce to deal with the circumstances as he finds them. Prudence is a moral duty. "While the individual has a moral right to sacrifice himself in defence of such a moral principle, the state has no moral right to let its moral disapprobation of the infringement of liberty get in the way of successful political action, itself inspired by the moral principle of national survival."

The clever are not practitioners of realpolitik. They are hucksters. Prudence implies wisdom and foresight. "Moral principles provide the objective standards for political action. However, they cannot be directly applied to political action but must be mediated through the application of prudence."

This is not a counsel of perfection. But, then, the tragic is inseparable from the human condition. Morgenthau quotes Pascal "Man is neither angel nor beast and his misery is that he who would act the angel acts the brute" only to add:

"It is only the awareness of the tragic presence of evil in all political action which at least enables man to choose the lesser evil and to be as good as he can be in an evil world. Neither science nor ethics nor politics can resolve the conflict between politics and ethics into harmony. We have no choice between power and the common good. To act successfully, that is, according to the rules of the political art, is political wisdom. To know with despair that the political act is inevitably evil, and to act nevertheless, is moral courage. To choose among several expedient actions the least evil one is moral judgment. In the combination of political wisdom, moral courage, and moral judgment, man reconciles his political nature with his moral destiny. That this conciliation is nothing more than a modus vivendi, uneasy, precarious, and even paradoxical, can disappoint only those who prefer to gloss over and to distort the tragic contradictions of human existence with the soothing logic of a specious concord."

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