The Atlantic Realists: An Interview with Matthew Specter (Part I)

By Andrew Gibson

By Andrew Gibson

Matthew Specter is an intellectual historian who specializes in 20th century Germany and the global history of international thought. His most recent book is The Atlantic Realists: Empire and International Thought Between Germany and the United States(Stanford 2022). Specter is a Senior Fellow at the Institute for European Studies at UC Berkley, a Lecturer in History at Santa Clara University, and an Associate Editor at History & Theory. He is also the author of Habermas: An Intellectual Biography (Cambridge 2010). 

Andrew Gibson spoke to Specter about The Atlantic Realists (2022) and the legacies of “realism” in international relations (IR) theory. Rather than seeing the realist tradition stretching back to antiquity or emerging in the mid-twentieth century, Specter contends realism should be considered a “discourse” and “sensibility” born out of late nineteenth century debates over empire. He argues we cannot simply divide Atlantic imperial powers into the “exceptionally virtuous” or the “pathologically deviant” and must confront the imperial origins of the international relations theory. This includes questioning realism’s pessimistic assumptions about human nature and the oversized influence of “great powers” in international history. 


Andrew Gibson: Your new book offers a timely and provocative critique of “realism” by suggesting that its core logics have troublesome imperial origins. Consequently, contemporary calls for “restraint” in U.S. foreign policy should be weary of basing their policy positions on realist grounds. To start, how did you come to write this genealogy of “the realist paradigm in North Atlantic international thought” (2)? It initially began as an investigation of the Nazi jurist Carl Schmitt (1888-1985), the international relations theorist Hans Morgenthau (1904-1980) as well as German diplomat and professor of law Wilhelm Grewe (1911-200), correct?

Matthew Specter: The original project was aimed to connect Schmitt and Morgenthau as well as Schmitt and Grewe and to sort of do a triangulation of their thought from roughly 1930 to 1960. Morgenthau was the central figure because of the outsized impact of his ideas in American international relations and in foreign policy discussions. His status as an émigré from Germany and a bridge between worlds fascinated me. William Scheuerman had just written his first articles on the influence of Schmitt on Morgenthau’s vision of global politics. Like Morgenthau and Kissinger, Wilhelm Grewe had had an impressive career that spanned academia and government. 

But Grewe’s reputation as a wise man of the Adenauer administration and brilliant scholar of international law had left his wartime oeuvre unexamined. When I found that there was no dialogue between Morgenthau and Grewe whatsoever—even though their careers seemed incredibly parallel—I was astonished to see that they had nothing to say to each other. I still don’t entirely know why that is; perhaps it was because Grewe was so complicit with the Nazi state that Morgenthau wanted nothing to do with him.

President John F. Kennedy (1917-1963) and Ambassador of West Germany, Wilhelm G. Grewe (1911-2000). Image courtesy of the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library.

In any event, the first chapter that I wrote was the Schmitt chapter on Großraum and Lebensraum. To understand those discourses, I started research Friedrich Ratzel (1844-1904) and Karl Haushofer (1869-1946), and in that process I was led back to the 1890s by Jens-Uwe Guettel’s German Expansionism, Imperial Liberalism, and the United States 1776-1945(2013) as well as Dirk Bönker’s Militarism in a Global Age: Naval Ambitions in Germany and the United States Before World War I (2012).

Once I looked at the 1890s, I started thinking about the geopolitics of empires by land and by sea—a topic covered in Geoff Eley’s lifetime of reflection on the historiography of German imperialism. Eley showed that to understand the Holocaust, you had to understand the earlier German discourses on spatial and racial thought of the 1890s. So, I had all of these things pointing me back to the 1890s. 

AG: Yes, I think one of the most important interventions your book makes is scrutinizing the mid-twentieth century origins story of IR realism. Against the “moral narratives” that see realism as a product of the collapse of European liberalism in the 1930s and the influx of émigré intellectuals into the United States, you argue it should be best seen as an Atlantic discourse born from “the spirit of fin de siècle American and German imperialism” (205).

MS: Sure. I think one of the important moments of discovery was realizing that Nicolas Guilhot, Udi Greenberg William Scheuerman, David Milne, and Martti Koskenniemi—all of the people who work on the German émigrés—had realism emerging in the 1930s and 40s. And then to see that the historiography of geopolitics was never discussed at the same time as the historiography of realism. Everyone says that the age of classical geopolitics is the 1890s, but the historiography of realism always starts in the 1930s. 

With Ratzel and Mahan, I discovered these “bridge figures” who take you from the fin de siècle up to the First World War. It wasn’t as though I just read John Bew’s history of Realpolitik (2016) or the essays in Guilhot’s The Invention of International Relations Theory (2011) and thought I would write a book that tells a slightly different story. I wanted to go back beyond what was in the existing literature. It was a book that took a lot of time to write, a voyage full of interesting discoveries that were hard to let go of.

Alfred T. Mahan (1840-1914), a U.S. naval officer whose The Influence of Sea Power Upon History, 1660-1783 (1890) was an immediate success across the Atlantic. Emperor Wilhelm II claimed that he was “not reading but devouring” Mahan’s book; soon after, Admiral Alfred von Tirpitz urged all of the German Naval High Command to study the “works of Captain Mahan” (24). Image courtesy of Naval History and Heritage Command.

After I wrote the Schmitt chapter and worked on Friedrich Ratzel (1844-1904) and Alfred T. Mahan (1840-1914), I realized I had this big historiographic problem of how to get from around 1910 to 1930. I knew the chapter on Haushofer would link fin de siècle realism and Weltpolitik to mid-century modern émigré realism—and I knew that Schmitt would help me as well. But that was just the German side. In looking at the American side, my realization was that Isiah Bowman, who had all of these affinities with Haushofer, was working for Woodrow Wilson.

So you have this German inflected realist at the heart of the liberal internationalist establishment, which is at the same time pervaded by racial thinking of Archibald Coolidge and Lothrop Stoddard, as is shown in Robert Vitalis’s excellent book White World Order, Black Power Politics (2015). What I started to see—and I think I underplay this in my book—is the idea is that realism and liberal internationalism are the two faces of North Atlantic empire.

AG: Yes, this early history is often covered over in the American collective memory. One of the striking scenes in your book is the American moral panic over “geopolitics” in the late 1930s and early 1940s when an intense public relations campaign was waged to distinguish the “good” American form against the “bad” Nazi Geopolitik. Even a Frank Capra propaganda film sponsored by the War Department emphasized the dangerous teachings of Karl Haushofer. Were these traditions as disparate as many international relations theorists wanted Americans to think? 

MS: In the runup to the Second World War, geopolitics appears in the American public sphere as urdeutsch—a kind of Nazi superweapon that is essentialized and seen as something foreign, something to be feared. This ignored American political geographers like Bowman who had been in dialogue with the group around Haushofer’s Zeitschrift für Geopolitik. It also undersold the American inspiration for German geopolitics, especially since the circle surrounding Haushofer saw themselves as responding to Bowman’s book The New World: Problems in Political Geography(1921). 

During the Second World War, Bowman tried to make these very ideological distinctions from what Americans do and what the Germans do by exaggerating the differences between the two. Ultimately, realism became what I call a “semantic refuge” from geopolitics (12). Geopolitics gets a bad name, yet much of the interwar Atlantic discourse gets a second life under the rubric of “realism.” Whether it is Nicholas Spykman (1893-1943) and Arnold Wolfers (1892-1968) at Yale or Edmund Walsh (1885-1956) at Georgetown, postwar planning is filled with the same logics and assumptions across the Atlantic. 

AG: This leads us to Hans J. Morgenthau (1904-1980), often considered the father of “classical realism.” As you note, Morgenthau was at first uneasy with the “realist” label, only coming to embrace it in the late 1940s and early 1950s. How did this émigré—trained as a scholar of international law—become the founding father of an American approach to international affairs?

MS: Certainly, writing a classic such as Politics Among Nations (1948)did important work in this regard, as it was adopted as a foundational textbook in American universities shortly after publication and is still assigned in IR courses today.  Part of the problem is that so many editions of Politics Among Nations have been circulated since the original publication in 1948. Further, the “Six Principles of Political Realism” was only added in the second edition of 1954 through the encouragement of the publisher. 

Morgenthau also has a very selective reading of American history. He leaves out the Monroe Doctrine and Mahan to jump back to the Founding Fathers. I wouldn’t say that Morgenthau is just building with indigenous American materials; that’s more a cynical PR gesture to show that Washington might have anticipated some of these questions in his “Farewell Address.” So, he’s neither genuinely recovering an American tradition, nor is he simply bringing Realpolitik to America as some scholars have suggested. My point is that Morgenthau is bringing Weltpolitik across the Atlantic. 

But that doesn’t mean he was fully formed at age 35. He’s not just Schmitt, Meinecke, and Nietzsche writing to an American audience. What is missing from the “Germanization of the American mind” argument is that Morgenthau was very much formed by his encounters in America in the 1940s and 50s with “behaviorism” at the University of Chicago. Oliver Jutersönke has done a wonderful job characterizing his early years in the United States especially how the encounter with behaviorist political science at the University of Chicago informed his tendentiously antiliberal contrast of “scientific man” and “power politics,” so deeply redolent of Schmitt. American Freudianism even emerges more clearly in his American works as he offers psychoanalytic readings on Americans and their aversions to facing the realities of global power. 

AG: In drawing our attention to Morgenthau’s lesser read works such as Scientific Man Versus Power Politics (1946), you critically analyze Morgenthau’s characterization of Wilsonian idealism, which he believed dominated American interwar thought. While rhetorically engaging, you suggest his conclusions are highly reductive and rely on dualities or false dichotomies. For instance, the contrast between a Wilsonian who seeks only justice and a Machiavellian who seeks only power (146-7).

MS: The story that the realists tell is that all interwar thought was dominated by liberal internationalists and idealists. They claim that to be realistic, you have to reach over the interwar period and over the fin de siècle all the way back to Otto von Bismarck (1815-1898). And so, the story the realists tell is about recovering Bismarckian Realpolitik to counter a naïve Wilsonianism. Yet, not only are the Wilsonians not as naïve or “liberal” as is often imagined, but what’s also left out is the two important chapters in the making of a realist tradition.

This is significant because realism centers the anarchy problematic in international relations rather than the hierarchy problematic. So, Morgenthau can describe the failure of the League of Nations and the absence of a centralized authority in international affairs as the problem realists must understand; they must refuse intoxication and gaze upon the world in this disillusioned type of way because there is no ordering force that can adjudicate conflicts between states. In centering anarchy, the hierarchical and racialized nature of international politics—along with the centrality of empire—is pushed to the side. The unit of analysis becomes the nation-state and the great powers. 

There has been a critique of Eurocentrism in IR theory and we have histories that emphasize the persistence of racial and civilizational hierarchical thinking deep into the twentieth century. And the story that IR likes to tell itself is that it is a new discipline intended to be a science of peace to prevent the recurrence of the First World War and the realists are essentially trying to repeat the reoccurrence of the Second World War.

However, there is another temporality to how realism unfolds. Brian Schmitt and David Long bring us back to the late nineteenth century; this is when IR is really coming together, not the post-World War One period. My point is that neither American nor German history is exceptional. Both belong to a shared Atlantic tradition. And the point is note that there have been various ways of seeing like an empire in the North Atlantic in the twentieth century, and that what all of them leave unquestioned is the hierarchy of great powers and small states.


Andrew Gibson is a Ph.D. candidate in Government at Georgetown University and a Hans J. Morgenthau Fellow with the Notre Dame International Security Center (NDISC). He is currently writing his dissertation on the “transatlantic Machiavelli” and mid-twentieth-century debates over the Florentine secretary’s political-historical legacy; pieces of his research were recently published on the JHI Blog

Edited by Isa Jacobs

Featured Image: Geopolitical Conceptualization of the World According to Heartland and Rimland Doctrines. Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.