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

By Andrew Gibson

By Andrew Gibson

Matthew Specter’s The Atlantic Realists: Empire and International Thought Between Germany and the United States (Stanford 2022) provides a genealogy of “realism” through German-American exchanges over global politics. Following Part I, in Part II of their conversation, Andrew Gibson and Matthew Specter discuss the civilizational assumptions underlying IR “realism” and its emphasis on the “tragic” character of political life. With these limitations, Specter questions realism’s prospects for guiding future foreign policy decision-making.


Andrew Gibson: The concept of Haltung (posture or attitude) looms over many sections of the book, as does Bourdieu’s theory of habitus. What I find quite intriguing is how realist rhetoric often describes how one must come to “see the world” or take a “stance” toward the realities of power. You argue that this, however, is “a set of embodied attitudes and mental habits that can be historicized.” Thus, the ways of seeing and thinking that are assumed as “second nature” to the realist tradition are actually historical artifacts that can be “provincialized” (206).

Matthew Specter: What I found was this word that kept popping up in the texts from Haushofer to Morgenthau: Haltung, which can also be translated as “posture,” as you say. I thought well why is it that authors keep reaching for this word? Haltung is a very embodied word; it is not just worldview (Weltanschauung) or ideology. I saw this is realism’s “tell,” like poker players have a “tell.” It shows that realism is not all that convincing in its coherence. Instead, what holds it together is a sensibility.

Even though the policy dimensions of realism have evolved and waged widely from American empire to Nazi empire but what seems to persist across all of these contexts is a certain Haltung, a certain realist sensibility. There are metaphors of cold-bloodedness and sobriety. There are lots of metaphors of vision: being able to see the world as it is and face realities without flinching. You also find these metaphors of the face; these are all embodied and it is always a masculine, gendered body. 

In my Morgenthau chapter, what I was trying to argue was that Morgenthau didn’t just teach these ideas, he embodied them himself. In fact, he performed what it meant to be a realist. He was a charismatic leader of a certain kind, and my reading of his texts suggest that they are actually vehicles of the routinization of that charisma. When you are socialized into the American foreign policy establishment or into the discipline of international relations by reading its founding fathers, you are being socialized into not just specific axioms or doctrines—but, more importantly, a way of seeing, a way of thinking and feeling. For me, it is, fundamentally, a way of thinking like an empire and as an imperial subject. 

Hans Morgenthau (1904-1980). Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

Realists often equivocate between describing realism as a set of scientific laws and an art. In his essay on Churchill, for instance, Morgenthau describes the wisdom of the statesman as unsystematizable. Maybe that is correct. Of course, I would want my statesman to have a good feel for his or her métier. But I’m not convinced that reading these texts will give you that set of tools. Realist habitus purports to be the equipment for a democratic statesman but embedded in that habitus are all kinds of ideas about hierarchy in international affairs.

In some ways, it is this “sensibility” which holds the whole tradition together and perpetuates a specific discourse over international politics. There is certainly a textual tradition at work within realism and its self-conscious creation of a canon creation of a “canon” in the mid-twentieth century. But there are also these supposedly enduring concepts like “vital interests” or “national interests” that can be traced back centuries. Instead of enduring concepts, I see them as unthought doxa we keep reproducing. 

I’ve been frustrated with one early review of my book in Foreign Affairs, where the reviewer wonders what purchase the history of realism has over its present-day value: “Although [Specter] is correct that the classical realists of the 1950s took concepts and ideas from earlier, less ethical theories of international relations, it is not clear why such borrowing undermines their later arguments…Much of Specter’s overall argument amounts to guilt by association.” But the reviewer’s implication that there is a clean break between the 1880s and 1930s discourses and those of the 1950s forward is not borne out. Not only are the discursive continuities more significant than the breaks but the temporality of imperial realism doesn’t conform to the moral narrative about 1945 as turning point. 

That’s why I pay so much attention to Mahan, because I see his writings of the first two decades of the century as a workshop in which the first realist syntheses were hammered out. Later figures like Morgenthau aren’t nearly as original as they seem. And none of us are innocent of history; we carry it within us. So, it’s not a matter of guilt by association. It’s more like we’re thrown into the world, and this is what we got, so now we need to work through it. Realism is a set of theories embedded in practices—practices of empires, practices of comparison. We don’t free ourselves from the broader way of seeing like an empire overnight.

AG: Certainly. My last question is on how to view history and the history of international thought. In your final chapter, you emphasize the place of the “tragic” in classical realist thought. Take Mearsheimer’s Tragedy of Great Power Politics(2001), for example. By critically grappling with the history of this transatlantic discourse, you claim your study will help one see realism “not as a storehouse of accumulated historical ‘wisdom’, but rather a historical artifact—and one that has, tragically, exerted too much power over world politics.” Why is it important to move beyond tragedy? How will it help us “emancipate ourselves from realism’s tyranny over the political imagination”? (17).

MS: Well, to start, many scholars have noted the contributions of German-Jewish émigrés to the development of American IR after they fled persecution in the Third Reich. Take a figure like Henry Kissinger. Most of the biographies on him I’ve read often emphasize his pessimistic view of human nature, the sense of the inevitability of tragedy, and critiques of the illusions of liberalism coming out of his confrontation with Nazism. That generation, however, was quite successful in convincing that the lessons of the twentieth century were realist and that the moral catastrophe of history and the Holocaust demanded a certain kind of stance, a certain kind of sobriety and alertness to the weaknesses of liberalism.

But if the true origins of those ideas are much earlier, then the effort to derive moral capital from the confrontation with fascism and the Holocaust seems to be a distortion. If I’m right that late nineteenth century imperialism is the formative matrix, not the 1930s, then the moral capital accrued to it would not just be a world scarred by the Holocaust.

I can’t dismiss the view that a Morgenthau or a Kissinger gained some wisdom or insight of the tragedies of the twentieth centuries. After all, the émigrés are serious scholars and impressive in many ways. Yet, I feel as though there is a kind of romanticism of tragedy within their thought—a romanticization of the gap between ideals and reality. It becomes a sort of fetish of the tragic failure. My argument is that if that becomes a mental habit, then it is not a very empowering vision for us as political actors today.

To always be focused on the gap between intentions and outcomes or between ideals and power, I don’t find that empowering for political action. I think that if we want to be creative political actors in our time, we needn’t be fixed on this vision of the constraints of the world that emerged from a traumatized generation that attempted to construct a tradition which left intact many of the hierarchical imperial notions. 

So, my broader point is that the Atlantic realists all shared a common imperial blind spot and democratic deficit. Both Kissinger and Morgenthau were committed to the idea of an elite statesman who would understand and develop the art of statecraft. This art was for the privileged few, as statecraft was not something they believed the democratic public could handle—it was too emotional, too plural, too divided, too fickle, what have you. 

After writing this history, I remain skeptical of realism as a liberating project. I find realism’s tendency to prioritize great power competition and spheres of influence as the “hard-wiring” of international relations particularly ill-suited to thinking about common planetary challenges like climate change. I agree with the new coalition of foreign policy thinkers in Washington, D.C. that argues for a new grand strategy for the US focused on “restraint” as opposed to what Stephen Wertheim calls “armed primacy.” But many of the restrainers self-identify as realists. Defense Priorities, a think tank, calls themselves the “hub for realism and restraint.” Restraint and realism are distinct traditions. I am for the pragmatic wisdom of the former and against the more fatalistic ontological claims about international anarchy and inevitably “tragic” clashes of interest and principle of the latter. 

I worry that some of the restrainers take on too much realist baggage and breathe new life into a deeply flawed tradition thereby. I imagine the restrainers worry that the current backlash against realism, occasioned by l’affaire Mearsheimer and the realists’ inadequacy on Ukraine, will harm the strategic cause of restraint. Both are legitimate concerns. A progressive realism is not an impossibility, but I just don’t think it’s the right starting point for thinking international politics. The turn to “hierarchy studies” and away from the anarchy-centered problematic in IR is an example of that turn away from conventional realisms. But anyone who wants to be progressive and realist should at least be sensitive to the realists’ historic investments in imperial and racial hierarchies, as well as illiberal and undemocratic modes of thinking. 

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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: The War Room with the Big Board from Stanley Kubrick’s 1964 film, Dr. Strangelove. Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.