Back to the Future of Political Realism
Questions for Nicolas Guilhot
Paris-trained sociologist Nicolas Guilhot recently left the London School of Economics, where he was working as a lecturer, for a stint as a research fellow at the Social Science Research Council. His arrival stateside coincided with an exciting moment in his own research on the history of the discipline of international relations. About a year ago, he was rummaging through the collections of the Rockefeller Archive Center in Tarrytown, New York, when he unearthed the transcript of a 1954 meeting among Hans Morgenthau, Reinhold Niebuhr, Paul Nitze, Kenneth Thompson, Walter Lippmann, Dean Rusk and other prominent scholars, intellectuals and policy-makers. They had gathered at the invitation of the Rockefeller Foundation with the explicit purpose of carving out the new academic discipline of international relations theory.
Just after his arrival in New York City, Guilhot is heading for Tarrytown again -- this time to bring together a group of scholars to discuss the significance of his archival discoveries. Go to workshop description.
We spoke with Guilhot on the eve of his departure to learn more about his research, his hopes for the workshop, and his belief that political realists are about to have another day in the sun.
Is Hans Morgenthau back in vogue?
After the failure of the global governance ideas of the 1990s and of the neoconservative idealism of recent years -- in particular the doctrine of democracy promotion -- people are looking for a sober way of balancing American power with the country's national interests. Indeed, foreign-policy realists are expected to make a comeback with the next administration.
What about in academe?
Not coincidentally, there has been a resurgence of interest in the history of the IR discipline in academic circles. Academic critiques of President Bush's Iraq adventure rest on assumptions identical to those found in early realist critiques of the Vietnam war, for instance. When you hear John Mearsheimer criticizing Iraq, he is saying the same thing that George Kennan was saying about the Vietnam War in the 1960s: that it wasn't in the major interests of U.S. security. Many realist scholars today are happy to see idealism -- even in its recent military guise -- being defeated, because they know that their time is coming.
What can we learn from going back to the origins of IR theory
that we don't already know?
Nowadays many people assume that IR is a secular social science. But if you go back to the thinking of the discipline's founding fathers, you find a network of people who were deeply inspired by Judeo-Christian theology and morals. They were not very secular. Niebuhr for instance was a Protestant theologian; Thompson was a Christian realist; Kennan often spoke about "two Kingdoms"; and Morgenthau was in many ways inspired by Carl Schmitt's political theology. In other words, one can't maintain the rational character of our political concepts in contrast to the supposedly irrational nature of politics in theocracies or religious regimes. I am thinking in particular of the debate about whether or not a country like Iran is amenable to deterrence. This is deeply flawed.
You have organized your Tarrytown workshop around some archival
findings of yours. Why are you taking this approach?
I find it interesting to look at the development of an academic discipline from a pragmatic viewpoint: what were the social networks, the funding patterns, the methods of recruiting students and building up a department from scratch -- how did it actually take place? The Rockefeller Archive Center in Tarrytown has vast holdings on all of the social science disciplines. You can comb through documents from a wide range of philanthropies and institutions, including, of course, the Social Science Research Council (the Rockefellers started the SSRC in 1923).
Tell us more about the document you found that illuminates the
moment of the birth of IR. What kinds of insights does it
What I found was the minutes of a meeting held in 1954. In attendance were some of the founding fathers of the discipline of international relations -- Hans Morgenthau, Reinhold Neibuhr, William Fox, and Arnold Wolfers -- along with practitioners such as Paul Nitze and Dean Rusk. One of the most fascinating insights I've gleaned from this transcript is that theory was less important to those thinkers than one might assume. Most of us would imagine that defining the theory of IR would be the first step in setting up the discipline, but the papers show that these scholars came to no core agreement on IR theory. Yet they did agree to establish the discipline of IR. What appeared to matter most to these thinkers was the fact that they ought to secure their particular view of power and politics and to prevent it from being turned into a social science. Paradoxically, claiming to have a "theory" was the best way to do this.
Does the transcript reveal anything about how those scholars viewed political realism?
It suggests indeed that political realism was mostly a political project—and a rather reactionary project at that. It was a critique of American liberalism, of its incapacity to develop an understanding of power, of totalitarianism. One of the major events in American social science in the 1930s and 1940s was the infusion of ideas from European scholars -- and in particular of Weimarian ideas -- that were often at odds with those of American scholars. European émigrés who had fled from Nazism, such as Hans Morgenthau, were critical of Wilsonian idealism, which had prevailed in the United States throughout the 1920s and 1930s.
How did the realist worldview affect the development of IR? Are
political realism and IR theory one and the same?
IR was built on the assumption that force -- and not social science -- would solve conflicts. The early realists disapproved of the superinvestment in the power of science to solve issues. They thought that it was a liberal illusion and the height of arrogance to think you could alter the human condition, that you could solve conflict; the best you can do is try to manage it, because conflict is inescapable. Realists see the national interest as the index of rationality. Foreign policy that stretches beyond the national interest, in the name of universals, is irrational.
What is the relationship between IR and area
Area studies were developed in the 1940s with funding from the Rockefeller Foundation, but they really came into their own under the auspices of the Ford Foundation in the 1950s and 1960s. The idea was to bring to bear a wide range of disciplinary skills on our knowledge of world regions. So when IR takes shape as a distinct discipline in the 1950s, it is the theoretical cherry on the area studies pie. IR theorists relied on area studies scholars to mine the data they needed to pronounce upon international politics and policy. There was a whole division -- and hierarchy -- of academic labor implied in the IR project.
How did you decide on which scholars to invite to the
I wanted to bring together people who could reflect on the transcript from a variety of disciplinary perspectives -- whether it's an IR scholar who is interested in history, a historian of foreign policy who is interested in IR, or a sociologist of science (someone who is interested in how scientific research works, how disciplines are built). I've ended up with a really fine bunch of scholars:
- Philip Mirowski, a brilliant historian of economics and neoliberalism;
- Ole Waever, a Danish scholar who has developed a sociological understanding of IR;
- Jack Snyder, a distinguished professor of international relations theory at Columbia who works from within the realist tradition;
- Anders Stephanson, also at Columbia and an outstanding historian of U.S. foreign policy as well as of political concepts in the Koselleck tradition;
- Brian Schmidt from Carleton University, author of a very impressive history of IR theory up to 1945; and
- Inderjeet Parmar from Manchester University, who has done extensive work on philanthropic foundations and U.S. foreign policy.
SSRC President Craig Calhoun will also be joining us.
What is the end product?
An edited volume to be published by Columbia University Press, at the core of which will be the 1954 transcript. But to add value for the sake of the broader community of researchers, the book, consisting of a chapter from each of the workshop participants, will put the archival documents in the context of contemporary social science.
Did participants write their chapters in time for the Tarrytown
No. I have tried to organize the workshop in the same way as the 1954 conference and in the same spirit -- with the emphasis on collective discussion and on the need for developing a common understanding of what this moment was for IR, of what these archives mean. We hope to end up with a really integrated volume, where the chapters echo one another as much as possible.
Will the book be looking at the history of IR through major figures like Hans Morgenthau?
It’s not about the big man and the big theory, necessarily. A number of participants in the 1954 gathering -- such as Kenneth Thompson, Morgenthau's friend and ally (he served as consultant to the Rockefeller Foundation before becoming its officer in charge of international relations) -- played a critical role. Thompson secured the funding that gave institutional power to people like Hans Morgenthau at the University of Chicago and to several realist scholars who worked with William T. R. Fox at Columbia. Also centrally involved were some public intellectuals -- here I’m thinking of Walter Lippmann -- and political figures such as Dean Rusk. When you look back at the development of academic disciplines in the mid-20th century, it is interesting to see how many were created on the basis of concerns that were not exclusively academic. IR was no exception.
Interview conducted, condensed, and edited by Mary-Lea Cox.