The Atlantic Realists
Empire and International Political Thought Between Germany and the United States
Matthew Specter



The Bildungsroman of Empire

Throughout the history of the modern states system, there have been three competing traditions of thought: the Hobbesian or realist, which views international politics as a state of war; the Kantian or universalist, which sees at work in international politics a potential community of mankind; and the Grotian or internationalist, which views international politics as taking place within an international society.

—Hedley Bull, 19771

MANY DIFFERENT IDEAS have been labeled or claimed as “realist.” Like so many concepts in our political vocabulary, the term’s meaning is intensely contested. Who would not want to claim that theirs is a realistic view of politics? To shun realism in the commonsense meaning of the term is to court the charge of idealism, naiveté, or utopianism. In the field of international relations, however, the term “realist” (sometimes rendered as “Realist”) refers to a range of positions claimed by scholars or intellectuals who self-identify, in whole or in part, along the spectrum from “classical realism” to “neorealism.”2 The twentieth-century work most responsible for consolidating “realism” as an identity for critics of liberalism was E.H. Carr’s withering polemic of 1939, The Twenty Years’ Crisis.3 Contrary to its own name, the concept of classical realism was only invented in Carr’s wake, assembling a pantheon of ancestors from ancients to moderns. The leading representatives of classical realism are Hans Morgenthau, E.H. Carr, Reinhold Niebuhr, and Raymond Aron.

Stanley Hoffmann, the Harvard political scientist and connoisseur of European politics, wrote in a brilliant 1977 essay on the evolution of international relations (subtitled “An American Social Science”) that realist scholars like himself were busy trying to ascertain whether growing global economic interdependence “shatters the ‘realist’ paradigm.”4 Two years later, Kenneth Waltz published his field-reshaping book, The Theory of International Politics, which is now regarded as the founding text of neorealism. Just as Hoffmann expressed a widely shared crisis of confidence among realists, Waltz set the wobbly paradigm on new foundations.5

In the decades since, fierce debates have occurred over whether Waltz’s amendations of classical realism were much-needed refinements that strengthen it or a poor substitute for the original. Since the 1980s, critics have charged that realism is a “degenerating” research program that in patching holes in its own argument risks losing its identity in the process.6 A profusion of modifiers—neorealist, structural realist, neoclassical realist—have subsequently been proposed to address the empirical critiques of its liberal institutionalist and constructivist rivals. Whether there is a coherent theoretical center to the tradition is a matter of ongoing controversy. As one of its finest historians, Nicolas Guilhot, has argued, “The realist project has three unresolvable, defining tensions: between realism and democracy, normative and descriptive, and power-maximizing vs. prudence.”7 Despite these profound constitutive tensions, realism has retained its prestige internationally as a major research program in political science and international relations. Given the cutting-edge trappings of this intradisciplinary debate, it is surprising to find that so many of the core concepts of realism—anarchy, tragedy, power politics, the national interest—have barely changed in over a century.

This book conducts a genealogy of the realist paradigm in North Atlantic international thought. By “international thought” I mean the political theory that explicitly or implicitly subtends the academic discipline of international relations, elite foreign policy discourse, and journalistic discourse on what constitutes “realism” in international affairs. How did intellectuals in these spheres come to believe that specific theories offered a privileged glimpse of international “reality”? Bringing the methods of the intellectual and cultural historian to the making of a realist tradition in the late nineteenth and twentieth centuries, this book argues that the entanglement of US and German historical experiences are the major tributaries of what I name the Atlantic realist tradition. Specifically, it focuses on how the German and American aspirations to empire and great power status—becoming a world power, in other words—were the crucible of the contemporary realist worldview. Realism was in this sense an ideological justification for empire. While it had ideological features, in the classical sociological sense of masking interests, it was also a set of mental habits and tools, what we may call a habitus. For much of the period covered by this book, from the 1880s to the 1980s, realism was not yet a formal academic theory. It was a sensibility and a discourse before it was formalized into the theories debated in the academy today. The predisciplinary development of realism is important beyond the academy, however. Despite its persistent normative and empirical weaknesses in the eyes of its critics, including this author, realism remains the default setting that prestructures most conversations about foreign policy and transatlantic relations in the United States. Why this is far less true in Germany today is another puzzle that this book seeks to solve.

Realism appears today to many US policymakers and “thought-leaders” as the only grand narrative remaining that can make sense of the world. As Guilhot observes,

Interventions gone awry in the Middle East and a dangerous stand-off with Russia are today not condemned on the basis of anti-imperialist arguments or because they constitute breaches of international law. They are criticized because they ignore the basic precepts and wisdom of political realism.8

Nearly twenty years after the US invaded Iraq for the second time, neoconservatism is discredited.9 The academic-cum-political revival of “realism” dates to the beginning of the Iraq War in 2003, when leading academic realists such as John Mearsheimer and Stephen Walt rightly opposed the war on the grounds that it was not in the US national interest.10 When the Iraq war became an exhausting stalemate, policymakers began to give the “timeless wisdom” of classical realists like Hans Morgenthau a second look.11 The rise of China and the new assertiveness of Russia under Putin since 2000 has further helped to bring an old notion back into fashion. Pundits increasingly describe a “return to great power competition” as the central motif of world politics. Geopolitics is also having a revival. As Robert Kaplan has argued, the end of history envisioned by Francis Fukuyama has yielded to “the revenge of geography.”12 While Putin indulges the Eurasian continentalist visions of the geopolitical intellectuals around him,13 Trump and Biden are united in a worry about how to “contain” an expansionist China.14 The frequent references to a “new cold war with China” reinforce the post–Iraq War consensus that the tradition of political thought in international affairs known as realism is having a renaissance. The Chinese have been reading the realists with interest too.15

After four years of incoherent and destructive policy-making under Donald Trump, many Atlantic security experts and policy practitioners wish to restore a less erratic form of American hegemony. The self-described classical realist IR scholar Patrick Porter criticizes those who view American empire as a “benign dispensation.” He argues that the notion of a “rules-based liberal international order” is a myth that conceals the assumption of American primacy internationally. In contrast to those nostalgic for a restoration of the frayed liberal order, Porter counsels America to eschew its own myths of liberal order and pursue a power politics without illusions.16

Trump led a revolt against the “traditional” US role in the world, but the tradition of world “leadership” is only seventy years old. Trump’s message resonated because of the exhaustion of large sections of the American public with twenty-five years of unipolarity and war. As historian and commentator retired Col. Andrew Bacevich observed, Trump’s America First nationalism, which articulated frustration with elite-led globalization, created a rare opportunity for the United States to rethink its commitment to global military supremacy.17

Although leading US policymakers since World War II have often claimed the mantle of realism, the relationship of realism to US foreign policy in the Cold War is complex. While George Kennan, author of the “containment doctrine,” considered himself, for example, part of the realist intellectual tradition, the precise meaning of realism in his thought remained “elusive” and was interpreted in highly divergent ways, often to Kennan’s chagrin.18 A similar pattern occurred with Morgenthau, whose great influence was matched by regret and eventually an effort to distance himself from the “Realism” he worked so tirelessly to create.19 In their writings both Kennan and Morgenthau contributed to “realist” practices of the Cold War with which they personally dissented. The realists moved in and out of the driver seat and were often sidelined. The combined impact of Kennan, Morgenthau, and Henry Kissinger—who influenced every president from Eisenhower to Nixon and beyond—confirms the import of realism as a paradigm for Cold War and post–Cold War US policymaking. But major questions concerning the internal coherence of “realism” remain.20

Part of the complexity of determining the exact influence of the realists during the Cold War stems from the fact that many of the Cold Warriors were at once realists and liberals. By contrast, the academic tradition defines the two traditions as opposing poles. Already the leading classical realists of the twentieth century, E.H. Carr, Hans Morgenthau, Reinhold Niebuhr, Herbert Butterfield, and Arnold Wolfers described “liberalism” as their chief rival and opponent.21 The first generation of classical realists, between 1939 and 1954, framed their arguments as a critique of Wilsonianism and a broader interwar “idealism” about the ability of the League of Nations and other international institutions to abolish war or mitigate serious conflicts. But this realism-liberalism dichotomy has made it hard to see the historical overlap between realism and liberalism before, during, and since the Cold War.

The anti-liberal, anti-idealist account of the interwar period was nonetheless central to the story the fledgling US field of international relations told itself beginning in the mid-1950s. With both feet firmly planted on realist ground the new discipline was said to have vanquished the idealists in a “great debate.”22 An important wave of revisionist historiography has since shown that many aspects of this realist origins story is incorrect. Interwar European, and especially British, thought was neither as idealistic and impractical as the realists depicted it, nor had a dialogic debate ever occurred.23 Recent scholarship on Woodrow Wilson has similarly complicated this picture by pointing out that the realism-liberalism dichotomy obscured the extent to which Wilson was guided by his conception of the national interest, not universal principles.4 National self-determination was not a blank check that any people could cash. A strict racial and civilizational hierarchy marked those who were fit to rule themselves. Wilson believed himself a realist when it came to race relations at home and abroad. As Beate Jahn has explained, realism is from this vantage point the disavowed shadow-side of liberalism. Realism ascribed a naivete and utopianism to liberalism, while liberals themselves had their own reasons for disavowing their will to power.25

From World War II until at least the early 1980s, writes Jahn, realism was “generally taken to be . . . the dominant theoretical and practical paradigm for International Relations.”26 Beginning in the 1950s, the realists also began to construct an intellectual pedigree for themselves. They anchored the “American Century” heralded by Henry Luce with the ballast of an invented tradition. As Guilhot writes, in the 1940s and 1950s, the realists “conscripted Thucydides, Machiavelli, Hobbes and Augustine into the role of precursors or pioneers of a realist tradition that soon became central to the disciplinary lore—even though some of these authors had never been considered ‘realists’ until then.”27 By the 1980s and 1990s, Robert Keohane, one of the leading neorealists of the time, articulated the assumption then widely shared in the field: there is a unitary realist tradition that connects Thucydides to Morgenthau.28 The claim that realism’s deep roots in Western thought disclose perennial truths seems to imply that the international realm has not changed much in twenty-five hundred years. Despite the shift from agrarian to industrial societies, the emergence of the modern state, the rise and globalization of capitalism, and the history of imperialism and decolonization, the international realm is said to have retained the fundamentally anarchic character that justifies realism’s generally pessimistic conclusions about international cooperation.

In his 2001 volume The Tragedy of Great Power Politics, Mearsheimer emphasizes this pessimistic cyclical philosophy of history.

The sad fact is that international politics has always been a ruthless and dangerous business, and it is likely to remain that way. Although the intensity of their competition waxes and wanes, great powers fear each other and always compete with each other for power. The overriding goal of each state is to maximize its share of world power, which means gaining power at the expense of other states. But great powers do not merely strive to be the strongest of all the great powers, although that is a welcome outcome. Their ultimate aim is to be the hegemon—that is, the only great power in the system.29

In some respects, Mearsheimer’s book merely recapitulates some of the fundamental motifs, tropes, and gestures of a century of realist thought. Often inadvertently, many of us utilize a vocabulary of international politics and foreign policy that depicts the international arena as anarchic and dangerously ungovernable, pregnant with danger and uncertainty, but ultimately knowable: a world where the weak do what they must and the strong do what they can, as Thucydides wrote.

International relations theory, obsessed as it is with paradigmatic truths, has paradoxically until recently lacked much interest in its own intellectual-historical roots. In the last twenty years, however, scholars of international history have become more interested in ideas, and intellectual history has been internationalized.30 This has been described by leading practitioners as the “dawn of a historiographical trend” in international relations and the end of a “fifty years’ rift” between international relations and history.31 The writing of the history of international intellectual history, or the history of international thought, is now in full swing. One of the most impressive fruits of this historiography has been the revision of our understanding of both the liberal internationalist and realist traditions.32

Historians of “realism” in particular have in the process sought to dislodge Thucydides, Machiavelli, Hobbes, and other alleged precursors of twentieth-century realist thought from the Procrustean bed of a unified “Western tradition.”33 As others have remarked, realism seems to suffer from a broader failure of international relations theory to recognize its Eurocentrism.34 Postcolonial critiques of international relations have begun to reconnect realism to its European roots. But the work of provincializing realism has really only begun.35 This book joins this literature in articulating the ways in which the Atlantic realists mistook a Western tradition for a universal one. The IR realist tradition constructed in the United States over the last several decades considers great power politics the basso continuo of human history, turning an artifact of the post-Westphalian European-dominated globe into universal truth. This historiography of realism challenges the view of realism as a continuous tradition with deep roots in Western history and insights of permanent value for understanding international and global affairs.

Provincializing Realism: Historicizing the Midcentury Modern

The revisionist historians of international relations who have highlighted realism’s midcentury moment of self-fashioning underscore the provincial nature of Western realism. We now know that the realism which shaped US conduct and conceptualization of the Cold War was, in large part, the work of German or German-speaking émigrés formed by particular European experiences. The émigrés of this generation, who formed the central players in the new discipline of international relations, most prominently, Hans Morgenthau (1905–1980), John Herz (1908–2005), and Arnold Wolfers (1892–1968), had been trained in law. They brought from Weimar Germany an obsession with its fragility, and as Martti Koskenniemi argued twenty years ago, projected these anxieties about Weimar law onto international law in toto.36 Even before the United States entered WWII, American scholars began planning for the world they hoped would follow successful conclusion of the war. They argued for the necessity of a new “realism” about the role of power in international affairs. Guilhot has shown how the Rockefeller Foundation “excluded scholars associated with the study of international law and organizations. More importantly, it firmly located the interest in theory within a network of scholars and practitioners committed to the study of power politics.”37 From strongholds at Yale, Princeton, and the University of Chicago, and with the support of major foundations like the Rockefeller Foundation, the realists attempted to consolidate a discipline of international relations with realism as its guiding philosophy and raison d’être.38 While they failed to stem the coming tide of the behavioral revolution, Morgenthau still was the discipline’s leading public intellectual and “founding father.”39

Alfons Söllner, Martti Koskenniemi, Nicolas Guilhot, Udi Greenberg, Jana Puglierin, Daniel Bessner, Felix Rösch, and Jeremy Suri have taught us that the midcentury modern version of classical realism was a response to a profoundly felt, but historically specific, crisis of liberal institutions and values.40 Their emphasis on the force of the intellectual emigration from Germany to the US in the 1930s and 1940s has helped to draw attention to the way in which twentieth-century realists fashioned a self-narrative of their own discipline. But as I will argue in this book, by making the sea change of the American mind in the 1940s and 1950s the key moment of realism’s consolidation, we risk replacing one myth with another: Realism derived much of its prestige in the last seventy years from a certain understanding of the tradition’s origins. The cachet of the midcentury modern Atlantic realists derived, in part, from their status as émigrés from Nazi Germany. The realists’ teachings were rightly said to reflect their experience as witnesses to the collapse of European liberalism in the 1930s. Their realism was its bitter fruit. Realism was the saving remnant of the greatest tragedy in modern history. The realists were the heroic protagonists of a redemptive narrative according to which liberalism would shed its illusions and emerge stronger.

The revisionists have brilliantly situated realism in its midcentury modern form. But this is not sufficient to prevent a new myth from taking hold. My book tells a different—complementary but also corrective—story that instead places realism’s formative development earlier, in the 1880s and 1890s. The thinkers I examine there—Alfred Thayer Mahan, Friedrich Ratzel, Paul S. Reinsch, and Archibald Coolidge—are the first generation of the “Atlantic realist” tradition.41 This was the period in which both Germany and the United States had achieved rapid industrialization and seeded ambitions to attain greater status through expanded naval power. The “competitive globalization” of late nineteenth-century nation-states was the main context in which the Atlantic realist tropes of great power competition as a Darwinian struggle first took shape. It was the era of imperialist globalization that gave realism its first stamp, not the crisis of liberalism in the 1930s. Stressing the imprint of fin de siècle concepts of Lebensraum and Weltpolitik, both cut from a Social Darwinian cloth, offers a different narrative than the alleged rediscovery of Bismarckian Realpolitik after disillusionment with Wilsonian idealism. Realism was thus in the first instance not the hard-won ideology of the victims of empire, nor the wisdom of those who had the courage to face the truths it disclosed. Instead, developing from the 1880s to the 1980s and beyond, this book tells the story of the relationships, both biographical and conceptual, between intellectuals in Germany and the US. The Atlantic realists presented themselves as objective diagnosticians of “great power politics,” but reconstructing the German-American intellectual dialogue over the course of the century also highlights their role as expansionary ideologists of empire.

My decision to reconnect the 1930s to the 1890s is supported by the revisionist wave in the British historiography of international relations already mentioned. The leading historians of American international relations, Brian Schmidt and Robert Vitalis, have similarly redirected our gaze to the late nineteenth century, when the first course on world politics was offered in the US (at the University of Wisconsin in 1900) and the journal Foreign Affairs was still known by its Victorian-era title, The Journal of Race Development.42 Charles Maier and Michael Geyer have redirected our attention to the 1860s and 1870s as the time when the modern nation-state first conquered the world. Maier has argued that the notion of a “short twentieth century” from 1914 to 1989 articulates the way “dramatic moments structure . . . our moral narratives,” but urges us “to keep a different tempo and follow long-term processes.”43 The year 1945 was the beginning of the recivilization of the German people. But it was the 1890s that taught the Americans the practice of overseas empire as much as it had the Germans.44

It is true that the idea of raison d’état, or realism about “national interest,” predates the 1890s in Europe and elsewhere.45 Morgenthau often claimed that the American founders knew what subsequent generations of Americans forgot.46 Mahan reached back to George Washington for his notion of an international order governed by natural law—the “nature of things” was the phrase Mahan borrowed from him. And both Mahan and Carl Schmitt looked to the 1823 Monroe Doctrine for a model of imperial hegemony applicable to the twentieth century. The importance of the Monroe Doctrine gives grounds for thinking that the roots of Atlantic realism are even earlier than the 1890s, but the periodization employed in this book has a clear rationale. As Charles Maier has argued, the history of the nation-state form—of “Leviathan 2.0”—spans from the 1870s to the 1970s. Other scholars of adjacent discourses have alighted on the same periodization. Koskenniemi’s history of the rise and fall of international law traces an arc from 1870 to 1960. Robert Vitalis’s history of the American discipline of international relations also begins in the 1880s and takes the story into the 1970s.

Conceptualizing realism as a predominantly transatlantic and German-American affair builds on the provincializing work of the revisionists but makes three fundamental innovations. First, the Germanization of the American mind that occurred in the middle of the twentieth century does not exhaust the transatlantic story. The flow of ideas went in both directions. To highlight two examples discussed in depth in the book, in the 1890s, German naval elites translated Mahan and learned much from him. Geographer Friedrich Ratzel formulated his influential theory of “Lebensraum” in 1900 after extensive travel in and study of the United States in its own “sphere of influence.” Neither Wilhelm II’s concept of an imperialism oriented to the sea, Weltpolitik, nor the interwar discourses on Lebensraum that fed into the Third Reich’s official ideology, would have been possible without Ratzel, Mahan, and their experiences in America. Both the Foreign Office in the Third Reich, as well as legal theorists like Carl Schmitt and Wilhelm Grewe, devoted extensive commentary to the Monroe Doctrine; Hitler adopted the notion of a “Germanic Monroe Doctrine” as a way to describe German hegemony on the European continent. Realism’s Atlantic crossings were a two-way street.

Second, realism is not the direct descendant of Realpolitik. As we know from excellent recent scholarship, Realpolitik was coined by Ludwig Rochau (1810–1873) in 1853.47 It only became associated with Bismarck by later historians. In fact, as John Bew has argued, Bismarck never actually used the term.48 While some American realists like Kissinger and Kennan found inspiration in Bismarck’s practice of balancing Great Power competition, realism is not, in my account, really about balance. But my account departs from Bew’s in major respects.49 In contrast to the conventional view that realism is a form of Realpolitik, I argue that the first Atlantic realists were more influenced by the German term Weltpolitik, which developed in the 1890s as a counter-concept to the more conservative, status quo–oriented theory of Realpolitik. Realism in the fin-de-siècle Atlantic world was more informed by Social Darwinist ideas of dynamism, appetite, and mastery than Rochauian ideas of balance and equilibrium. This is the source of the view of human nature as a quest for dominance (animus dominandi) made axiomatic by Morgenthau. The leitmotif of all the Atlantic realists was a view of history as the struggle over power—not visions of balancing, prudential ethics, or a sense of the tragic.

Third, by reconnecting the discourses of the 1930s to those of the 1890s, I am able to tie the discussion of realism to the historiography of classical geopolitics.50 While historians locate the origins of what is conventionally referred to as “classical geopolitics” between 1890 and 1910, they withhold the label “realist” until WWI.51 The connection would seem to follow naturally from the hypothesis that American realism descended from German Realpolitik, but none of the intellectual biographies of Morgenthau or Herz trace the roots of their ideas to figures associated with geopolitics like the Briton Halford Mackinder, the Swede who coined the term, Rudolf Kjellén (1864–1922), or the doyen of Weimar geopolitics, Karl Haushofer (1869–1946). The self-image of realism was so distinct from geopolitics—and geopolitics so unfamiliar in the public sphere—that a veritable media panic erupted about geopolitics in America in 1942. Articles in Life and Reader’s Digest obsessed about a geopolitical science that they imagined as a distinctly German “superweapon behind Hitler.”52 The implication that the US had never acted geopolitically was absurd. But the American denial that it shared a common Atlantic patrimony—that geopolitics was as much British and American as German—speaks volumes. The idea of realism in the US in the 1940s became a semantic refuge from a geopolitics tarnished by its association with the Nazi enemy.

Entangled Empires: A Transnational Intellectual History of Germany and the United States

The intellectuals, academic theories, and public discourses treated in this book provide a sharp lens on the development of an Atlantic realist tradition of international thought. The book argues that the two historiographies of foreign relations and intellectual history are illuminated better through the transnational lens than separately. Americans and Germans repeatedly denied the entangled nature of their thought, claiming the ideas as irreducibly German or American. This points to yet another paradox of realism. Over the course of a century, from 1848 to 1945, the German language developed a plethora of concepts to describe international politics: these included Realpolitik, Machtpolitik, Weltpolitik, Großraum, and Lebensraum. But none of these concepts was formulated in a national vacuum. Likewise, the history of “realism” in the American discipline of international relations and US foreign policy has been similarly sundered from its global roots. “Realism vs. idealism,” “Anglo-American vs. continental,” “American exceptionalism vs. German exceptionalism”—each of these framings has obscured the fact that this philosophy of the national interest was not national: it was a German-American coproduction.

This book focuses on moments when intellectuals in the US and Germany connected and produced thinking about the state and its international role that I call “Atlantic realism.” Atlantic realism, in my transatlantic German-American sense, enables a focus on moments of connection and exchange between the two national experiences. These connections are not necessary for the work of comparative history, but they enable comparisons that are particularly meaningful. Not every aspect or chapter in the history of American and German empire in the twenYes, tieth century can be meaningfully compared; of course, the Holocaust has unique qualities in modern history that should not—and need not—be effaced by the study of comparative genocide. Nonetheless, and however one connects the experience of American and Nazi continental imperialism, the two modern nation-states have imperial histories that are not just kindred but entangled.53 While at times uncomfortable to contemplate, the connection between the German and American empires in the twentieth century mitigates the temptation to treat either history as exceptionally virtuous or pathologically deviant from a purported liberal norm.54

In recent years, historians of US foreign relations have taught us to see the territorial dimensions of the US empire as an archipelago of islands and bases, or a “pointillist empire” not captured on the traditional continental map of the US. They have also shown us that foreign policy elites, many of German origin, were determined to insulate certain kinds of decision-making from too much democracy.55 Military history has taught us how comparable and connected the naval ambitions of elites in Germany and the US were before WWI.56 At the same time, historians of German empire (1870–1918), the Third Reich, and the Holocaust, but also other areas of German history, have made the transnational connection to the United States the fulcrum of their interpretations.57 Since the mid-1990s, historians of German colonialism finally broke through the strictures of the Sonderweg narrative, arguing that the German colonial experience was as integral to the history of Germany as their respective colonial empires were to metropolitan Britain and France. Today, one of the field’s leading scholars, Geoff Eley, argues that the links between “colonialism overseas and twentieth century expansionism inside Europe itself are too clear to ignore”: they have become “noncontroversial.”58 German imperialists of the late nineteenth century considered America the model empire.59 Eley’s most recent programmatic guidance for the field concludes: “In recovering the genealogies of Nazism, it is to the connective dynamics of the period between the 1890s and the 1930s that we should look.”60 The writings of these scholars convinced me that the Nazi spatial imaginary was rooted in the “German Atlantic” of the 1880s and 1890s.61 In the process my attention was directed away from the 1930s and 1940s and instead back to an earlier period in search of realism’s deeper roots.

The Atlantic realists worked within, and across, a range of fields of international thought including geopolitics, naval theory, geography, law, diplomacy, and political science. The first generation of Atlantic realists considered the American and German empires highly comparable: both were poised to attain the rank of a “world power,” and both deserved this elevated status. The Atlantic realists engaged in practices of comparison that had tangible effects. These intellectual practices accentuated national rivalries but also created a seemingly objective criterion by which to determine “reasonable” behavior in international politics.62 However, something about the practice of ranking nations and the practice of comparison caused a mutation in thought. Realism was this mutation. It was founded on a practice of comparing that took the globe as a fully knowable space in which rank could be clearly established.

Realism was the linguistic shorthand that developed to capture this savoir-faire, the “knowing how” to act like a world power. In principle this knowledge was open to all. Only later did realist motifs become combined with narratives that insisted on the exceptional character of American or German nationhood and empire. The sympathy of American writers at the turn of the century such as Mahan, Reinsch, and Coolidge for the Germans’ appetite for empire is a jarring revelation. Together, they disputed the Anglo-American alliance, forming a new “special relationship” instead. There was temporal synchronicity in the two countries’ world-historical position that led them to recognize the other as a peer. Realism resulted from this practice of comparison and reflection on the national self.

The first Atlantic realists authored the Bildungsroman of German and American empire. Begun as an intra-Atlantic project of imperial comparison, realism dates to a moment when the world began to feel to many observers as if it had lost its frontier zones. Just as the world became knowable in its totality, a closed space, intellectuals and statesmen and citizens wanted tools with which to grasp this world whole and make sense of it. Over the course of a century, from 1880 to 1980, this realism evolved and transformed under the pressure of WWI and the interwar crisis, WWII and the Holocaust, the Cold War and détente. The “science” of geopolitics, discussed in chapters 2 and 5, was one such tool. The realist language of international politics, discussed in chapters 3, 4, 6, and 7, was another. The synchronicity of the two countries’ historical positions at the turn of the century was upended by two world wars. A wholly asymmetrical relation of power took its place. After 1945, the American empire championed discourses of realism and geopolitics that were regarded with deep suspicion by Germans. By the early 1970s, Atlantic realists in Germany began to protest that Germany could and should relearn power politics. If it could not be a world power of the first rank, it should at least outgrow the progressive-liberal illusions that had become fashionable during the heyday of Social Democracy and détente-oriented “peace research.”

Max Weber, Carl Schmitt, and Hans Morgenthau are the most familiar figures from the canon of international political thought treated here. Scholars have studied the Weimar roots of Morgenthau’s ideas, emphasizing his relation to Nietzsche and Freud but also Weber and Schmitt. But these figures of the canon are too often abstracted from the transnational Atlantic intellectual and political contexts I reconstruct and analyze here. My work builds on the voluminous German-and English-language literature on Schmitt and Morgenthau, and offers a new interpretation of the Schmitt-Morgenthau relationship. I examine thinkers from a wide range of disciplinary and institutional locations where intellectuals created conceptions of international politics. The major protagonists of the chronologically ordered chapters that follow, in the order of appearance, are: Friedrich Ratzel, Max Weber, Paul Reinsch, Archibald Coolidge, and Alfred Mahan (chapter 1); Karl Haushofer, Isaiah Bowman, and Ellen Semple (chapter 2); Carl Schmitt (chapter 3); Wilhelm Grewe (chapter 4); Haushofer and Bowman (once more), Edmund J. Walsh, and Nicholas Spykman (chapter 5); Hans Morgenthau (chapter 6); Morgenthau and Grewe (once more), Ernst-Otto Czempiel, and Hans-Peter Schwarz (chapter 7).

Why does the book describe the United States and Germany as the major representatives of a realist tradition conceived as “Atlantic”? Comparable studies could be written for Britain and France and other European countries. There are significant British and French figures, like E.H. Carr and Raymond Aron, who would enrich a study of realism’s Atlantic crossings. But the particularly intense dialogue between US and German thinkers was not replicated by Anglo-American, British-French, or French-German exchanges. While there are major French realists, like Raymond Aron, Morgenthau’s relationship with Aron was superficial and left no mark on his work.63 Moreover, the Anglo-American dialogue has already been well researched.64 The US-German story does not preclude other mappings of the flow of ideas in the North Atlantic. Nonetheless, recognizing the cultural specificity of the American-German synthesis is, I hope to show, one major step toward the provincialization of a major tradition in Western intellectual history, a task in service of a more pluralistic and cosmopolitan perspective on global problems.

This book addresses the questions that are addressed under the rubrics of “great power politics” and “geopolitics,” but it differs from others by inquiring how these categories came to be in the first place. Reconstructing the genesis and itinerary of the concepts associated with realism—in the academic discipline of IR and in the public sphere—this is a study of the intellectual history of political ideas about the international realm.65 My approach is genealogical. It looks for the origins, development, and transformation of ideas that were self-consciously labeled “realist” or cognates like “realistic” by politicians, intellectuals, the military, and civilian bureaucracies in the US and Germany, over the course of a century. The story it tells is filled with ironies and reversals, borrowings and forgettings, recognition of affinities and denial. It offers an account of how realism, a public philosophy of power and its exercise, achieved a dominant place in the political imagination of the North Atlantic democracies, and global resonance beyond.

Realism is an intellectual tradition of global importance, but not for the reasons that are usually given. It is not a storehouse of accumulated historical “wisdom,” but rather a historical artifact—and one that has, tragically, exerted too much power over world politics. This book reconstructs the mental universe of the realists in order to loosen their spell. Atlantic realists succeeded beyond their wildest dreams in turning a local history into a universal one. They turned realism from a European varietal of empire-talk into the global common sense of the international realm. Historicizing this common sense, and subjecting it to rigorous normative and contextual critique, can help to emancipate ourselves from realism’s tyranny over the political imagination.


1. Hedley Bull, The Anarchical Society. A Study of Order in World Politics, 4th ed., with forewords by Andrew Hurrell and Stanley Hoffmann (London: Palgrave, 2012), 23.

2. For a powerful critique and defense of classical realism, see Richard Ashley, “The Poverty of Neorealism,” International Organization 38, no. 2 (Spring 1984): 225–86; Daniel Bessner and Nicolas Guilhot, “How Realism Waltzed Off: Liberalism and Decisionmaking in Kenneth Waltz’s Neorealism,” International Security 40, no. 2 (2015): 87–118.

3. For the context and debates around Carr’s classic, see Brian Schmidt, ed., International Relations and the First Great Debate (London: Routledge, 2012).

4. Stanley Hoffmann, “International Relations: An American Social Science” (1977), repr. in Hoffman, Janus and Minerva: Essays in the Theory of International Politics (New York: Westview Press, 1987), 14.

5. Kenneth N. Waltz, The Theory of International Politics (New York: McGraw Hill, 1979). Where the classical realists treated the sinfulness of man, or the lust for power (animus dominandi), as the deepest cause of the conflict and violence characteristic of international politics, neorealists shifted attention to the structural tendencies in the international “system,” abandoning the more controversial claims about human nature.

6. See the exchange in Colin Elman and Michael A. Jensen, eds., The Realism Reader (New York: Routledge, 2014), 481–523.

7. Nicolas Guilhot, ed., The Invention of International Relations Theory: Realism, the Rockefeller Foundation, and the 1954 Conference on Theory (New York: Columbia University Press, 2011), 23.

8. Nicolas Guilhot, After the Enlightenment: Political Realism and International Relations in the Mid-Twentieth Century (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2018), 5.

9. For the connection between neoconservatism and the realist revival, see also Guilhot, Invention, 5–7. In early 2019, Steven Wertheim observed that they were reinventing themselves as “neo-neoconservatives” or “post-neoconservatives,” which suggests that this may have already begun to change. See Wertheim, “Return of the Neocons,” New York Review of Books, January 2, 2019.

10. Thirty-three leading American IR scholars signed a statement displayed as an op-ed in the New York Times, “War in Iraq Is Not in America’s National Interest,” September 26, 2002.

11. See, for example, Karl E. Meyer, “Weighing Iraq on Morgenthau’s Scale,” World Policy Journal 20, no. 3 (2003): 89–92; Michael Williams, “Morgenthau Now: Neoconservatism, National Greatness, and Realism,” in Realism Reconsidered: The Legacy of Hans Morgenthau in International Relations, ed. Michael C. Williams (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2008).

12. Robert D. Kaplan, The Revenge of Geography: What the Map Tells Us About Coming Conflicts and the Battle against Fate (New York: Random House, 2012).

13. See, for example, David Lane and Vsevolod Samokhvalov, eds., The Eurasian Project and Europe: Regional Discontinuities and Geopolitics (London: Palgrave Macmillan, 2015)

14. See, for example, Aaron L. Friedberg, “An Answer to Aggression: How to Push Back against Beijing,” Foreign Affairs 99, no. 5 (September–October 2020): 150–64.

15. See, for example, Yan Xuetong, Leadership and the Rise of Great Powers (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2019).

16. “As a mytho-history that provides an account of origin and a guide to action, the false memory of order obscures what power politics involves. And it turns attention away from where it can lead, especially when the powerful inhale their own mythology. The task should not be to adapt, reform, refresh, repackage or rebrand this vision. That vision put the USA where it is now. The prudent response is instead to correct or at least restrain its flaws.” Patrick Porter, The False Promise of Liberal Order: Nostalgia, Delusion, and the Rise of Trump (Cambridge: Polity, 2016), 16.

17. However oblivious to the finer points of diplomacy,” Bacevich continues, “candidate Trump correctly intuited that establishment views about the United States’ proper role in the world had not worked”; Andrew J. Bacevich, “Saving America First: What Responsible Nationalism Looks Like,” Foreign Affairs 96, no. 5 (September–October 2017): 61.

18. John Lewis Gaddis, Strategies of Containment: A Critical Appraisal of American National Security Policy during the Cold War (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1982). In his biography of Kennan, Gaddis wrote: “Others determined, to be sure, what ‘containment’ required: hence Kennan’s disillusionment with that strategy from the moment he ceased to make those determinations.” In John Lewis Gaddis, George F. Kennan: An American Life (New York: Penguin Press), 695. I thank Dr. Milorad Lazic for help with this point and references.

19. For a discussion of this irony in Morgenthau’s career, see Udi Greenberg, The Weimar Century: German Emigres and the Ideological Foundations of the Cold War (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2014).

20. Summarizing the work of many recent scholars, Beate Jahn writes, “The Cold War is, indeed, widely seen as the quintessential realist balancing of power in operation, thus, in turn, supporting the primacy of the realist paradigm in international affairs.” Jahn, Liberal Internationalism: Theory, History, Practice (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2013), 19.

21. The “realist liberalism” proposed by John H. Herz was an effort to bridge the perceived gap but was not very influential at the time. See John H. Herz, Political Realism and Political Idealism: A Study in Theories and Realities (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1951).

22. See, for example, the account of Brian Schmidt, “The National Interest Great Debate,” in International Relations and the First Great Debate, ed. Brian Schmidt (London: Routledge, 2012), 94–117.

23. These historians have shown how rooted modern British international relations thinkers, such as Alfred Zimmern, Norman Angell, and others, caricatured as unworldly “idealists,” were actually perceptive students of late nineteenth-century dynamics of globalizing capitalism, imperial nation-state competition, and the possibility—not inevitability—of interdependence. See Jens Steffek and Leonie Holthaus, et. al., eds., Jenseits der Anarchie: Weltordnungsentwürfe im frühen 20. Jahrhundert (Frankfurt: Campus Verlag, 2019); David Long and Peter Wilson, eds., Thinkers of the Twenty Years’ Crisis: Inter-War Idealism Reassessed (Oxford: Clarendon, 1996); Brian Schmidt, ed., International Relations and the First Great Debate (London: Routledge, 2012).

24. See Tony Smith, Why Wilson Matters: The Origin of American Liberal Internationalism and Its Crisis Today (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2017); Adam Tooze, The Deluge: The Great War, America, and the Remaking of the Global Order, 1916–1931 (New York: Viking, 2014).

25. As Jahn writes, brilliantly, “Unlike liberalism . . . realism offers at best a very few ground rules for the conduct of international politics. This paucity suggests that realism is not, in fact, a competitive political project but rather a product of the exclusion and subsequent systematization of the essential role of power politics within liberalism . . . The separate theorization of the power-political dimension of liberal world politics helps to present and promote liberalism as a genuine alternative to ‘realist power politics.’” In Jahn, Liberal Internationalism, 174.

26. Jahn, Liberal Internationalism, 15.

27. Guilhot, After the Enlightenment, 24, 83.

28. “The three most fundamental Realist assumptions . . . evident in [their] books [are] that the most important actors in world politics are territorially organized entities (city states or modern states); that state behavior can be explained rationally; and that states seek power and calculate their interests in terms of power, relative to the nature of the international system that they face.” Cited in Brian Schmidt, The Political Discourse of Anarchy: A Disciplinary History of International Relations (Albany: SUNY Press, 1997), 28.

29. John Mearsheimer, The Tragedy of Great Power Politics (New York: W.W. Norton, [2001] 2014), 2. For insight into this tradition, the work of Duncan Bell is indispensable. See his “Anarchy, Power and Death: Contemporary Political Realism as Ideology,” Journal of Political Ideologies 7, on. 2 (2002): 221–39; Bell, Political Thought and International Relations: Variations on a Realist Theme (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2009).

30. David Armitage, “The International Turn in Intellectual History,” in Armitage, Foundations of Modern International Thought (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2012), 17–32.

31. David Armitage, “The Fifty Year’s Rift,” Modern Intellectual History 1, no. 1 (2004): 97–109; Duncan Bell, “International Relations: The Dawn of a Historiographic Turn?” British Journal of Politics and International Relations 3, no. 1 (April 2001): 115–22.

32. Key revisionist works are well summarized in Schmidt, International Relations.

33. For the different preoccupations of Hobbes and Locke from their modern “realist” and “liberal” epigones, see, for example, Armitage, Foundations of Modern International Thought, 59–90; and for Thucydides and Hobbes, see Beate Jahn, ed., Classical Theory in International Relations (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2006).

34. John Hobson, The Eurocentric Conception of World Politics: Western International Theory, 1760–2010 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2012). On the hegemonic status of American IR globally, see Ole Waever, “On the Sociology of a Not-So International Discipline,” International Organization 52, no. 4 (1998): 687–727; Knud Erik Jørgensen, “After Hegemony in International Relations, or, the Persistent Myth of American Disciplinary Hegemony,” European Review in International Studies 1, no. 1 (2014): 57–64.

35. This book aims in part at a Chinese audience that is growing interested in this tradition.

36. See Martti Koskenniemi, “Out of Europe: Carl Schmitt, Hans Morgenthau and the Turn to ‘International Relations,’” 413–509, in The Gentle Civilizer: Rise and Fall of International Law, 1870–1960 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2001). Skepticism toward international law became a signature of the realist critique.

37. See Nicolas Guilhot, “The Realist Gambit: Postwar American Political Science and the Birth of IR Theory,” in Guilhot, ed., The Invention of International Relations, 148.

38. Inderjeet Parmar, Foundations of the American Century: The Ford, Carnegie, and Rockefeller Foundations in the Rise of American Power (New York: Columbia University Press, 2015). For a critique of Parmar’s interpretation of the Yale Institute for International Studies’ “realism,” see Robert Vitalis, White World Order, Black Power Politics: The Birth of American International Relations (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2015), 90–92. For the shifting geography of IR in the elite American universities, see Guilhot, Invention.

39. Hoffmann, “American Social Science,” 6.

40. Alfons Söllner, Deutsche Politikwissenschaftler in der Emigration: Studien zu ihrer Akkulturation und Wirkungsgeschichte (Wiesbaden: VS, 1996); Koskenniemi, Gentle Civilizer; Guilhot, Invention; Guilhot, After the Enlightenment; Greenberg, Weimar Century; Jana Puglierin, John H. Herz: Leben und Denken zwischen Idealismus und Realismus, Deutschland und Amerika (Berlin: Duncker & Humblot, 2015); Daniel Bessner, Democracy in Exile: Hans Speier and the Rise of the Defense Intellectual (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2018); Felix Rösch, ed., Émigré Scholars and the Genesis of International Relations: A European Discipline in America? (London: Palgrave Macmillan, 2015); Jeremy Suri, Henry Kissinger and the American Century (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2009).

41. Nicolas Guilhot and Robert Vitalis converge on the 1930s. Guilhot asserts that the term “realism” was first used in the US in the 1930s: “The call for a ‘realist’ approach to contemporary issues first resonated in theological circles of the 1930s, long before it became a stable category in political theory.” See his After the Enlightenment, 79. Vitalis writes, “A new and subsequently crucial concept (and identity) for writers and students of international relations—‘realism’ and ‘realist’–was introduced in the United States in the 1930s,” at 83. For “the protean nature of mid-1930s American realist discourse,” see Vitalis, White World Order, 88–92.

42. Vitalis, White World Order, ix, 59–66.

43. Charles Maier, Leviathan 2.0: Inventing Modern Statehood (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2012),16.

44. See Eric Grimmer-Solem, Learning Empire: Globalization and the German Quest for World Status, 1875–1919 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2019).

45. Friedrich Meinecke, Machiavellism: The Doctrine of Raison d’État and Its Place in Modern History, trans. Douglas Scott (New York: Praeger, 1965).

46. Hans Morgenthau, “The Mainsprings of American Foreign Policy: The National Interest vs. Moral Abstractions,” American Political Science Review 44, no. 4 (December 1950): 836.

47. Rochau was a member of the German National Liberal party, and of the generation that sought to make of the Prussian monarchy a constitutional one in the failed revolution of 1848. See Bew’s impressive work, Realpolitik: A History (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2015).

48. Bew, Realpolitik, 47–64.

49. Bew has examined how “Realpolitik” became an epithet or term of endorsement thrown at a wide range of American policymakers but in every case missing the originally intended meeting represented by its coiner, Ludwig Rochau. Bew argues that in the period from 1900–1914, “America might be said to have awoken to the Realpolitik that was causing such a stir in Europe.” He mentions Theodore Roosevelt, Mahan, and Lippmann as examples of “what might be described as a new ‘realism’ in American foreign policy debates . . . From its inception this was clearly distinct from that associated with Germany”; Bew, Realpolitik, 108. Bew’s narrative depends on an Americanization of Realpolitik but does not identify the American or German sources or channels by which the translation was made, and ultimately downplays the German connection in favor of a British one: “The Lippmann version of Realpolitik in fact owed more to traditional British than German ideas of strategy. It held that America had a broader interest in the stability of the international system . . . It was, in essence, a form of robust internationalism” (108). He concedes, however, that “in the US, Realpolitik never had the same pejorative connotations as in England” (146), but offers no explanation why. My approach stresses a much more robust transnational connection between Germany and the US, anchoring the Mahan-Roosevelt moment in that context.

50. See Michael Heffernan, “The Origins of European Geopolitics, 1890–1920,” 51–70, in Geopolitical Traditions: A Century of Geopolitical Thought, ed. Klaus Dodds and David Atkinson (New York: Routledge, 2000); Irene Diekmann, Peter Krueger, et al., Geopolitik: Grenzgänge im Zeitgeist, 2 vols. (Berlin: Verlag für Berlin-Brandenburg, 2007); Gerry Kearns, Geopolitics and Empire: The Legacy of Halford Mackinder (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2009).

51. John Bew ascribes to Alfred Mahan and Theodore Roosevelt a protorealism (“what might be described as a ‘new realism’”) that flowered in the intellectual circle around Lippmann at the New Republic. The first American text that he names “realist” is an essay of Walter Lippmann’s from 1915, “A Little Realpolitik.” At that time, Lippmann and his circle at the New Republic were arguing for the US entrance into World War I.

52. Coined by the Swedish political scientist Rudolf Kjellén in 1915, the term did not catch on internationally until it was translated into the German as Geopolitik. For the next twenty-five years, the word used in England and America had, as Realpolitik had, an unavoidable aura of “Germanness” about it.

53. See Carroll P. Kakel III, The American West and the Nazi East: A Comparative and Interpretive Perspective (London: Palgrave Macmillan, 2011).

54. The view that Germany’s development from 1848–1945 was pathologically deviant from a Western norm represented by Britain and France, and secured to them by “successful” bourgeois revolutions, is called the “Sonderweg” or “special path” thesis. It was commonly held by postwar historians until convincingly overturned by Geoff Eley and David Blackbourn, The Peculiarities of German History (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1984).

55. Daniel Immerwahr, How to Hide an Empire: A History of the Greater United States (New York: Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 2019); Daniel Bessner and Nicolas Guilhot, The Decisionist Imagination: Sovereignty, Social Science, and Democracy in the Twentieth Century (New York: Berghahn Books, 2019).

56. Dirk Bönker, Militarism in a Global Age: Naval Ambitions in Germany and the United States in Germany and the United States before World War I (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2012).

57. See Emily Levine, Allies and Rivals: German-American Exchange and the Making of the Modern Research University (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2020)

58. Bradley Naranch and Geoff Eley, eds., German Colonialism in a Global Age (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2014), 38.

59. Jens-Uwe Guettel, German Expansionism, Imperial Liberalism and the United States, 1776–1945 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2012); Andrew Zimmerman, Alabama in Africa: Booker T. Washington, the German Empire and the Globalization of the New South (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2012); James Q. Whitman, Hitler’s American Model: The US and the Making of Nazi Racial Law (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2018).

60. Geoff Eley, “Empire by Land or by Sea? Germany’s Imperial Imaginary, 1840–1945,” in Naranch and Eley, German Colonialism, 39.

61. The phrase “German Atlantic” was coined by Andrew Zimmerman in Alabama in Africa.

62. Willibald Steinmetz, ed., The Force of Comparison: A New Perspective on Modern European History and the Contemporary World (New York: Berghahn Books, 2019); Angelika Epple, Walter Erhardt, and Johannes Grave, eds., Practices of Comparing: Towards a New Understanding of a Fundamental Human Practice (Bielefeld: Bielefeld University Press, 2020).

63. The record of their correspondence in the Morgenthau Papers at the Library of Congress contains nothing of real substance.

64. While the Anglo-American connection is important, it is one that also obscures a lot and (falsely) creates the impression of a monolithic, Anglophone “West.” See Duncan Bell, Reordering the World: Essays on Liberalism and Empire (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2016); Jeanne Morefield, Covenants without Swords: Idealist Liberalism and the Spirit of Empire (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2005).

65. Sometimes called “the history of international thought,” this is a dynamic field in European and American academies right now—an intersection of history, sociology of knowledge, political theory, and IR. David Armitage calls it “international intellectual history.” See Armitage, Foundations of International Thought. Important syntheses include Lucian Ashworth, A History of International Thought: From the Origins of the Modern State to Academic International Relations (London: Routledge, 2014), and Brian Schmidt and Nicolas Guilhot, eds., Historiographical Investigations in International Relations (London: Palgrave, 2018).