Hans Morgenthau, Realist Theory of International Leadership, and the Future of Global Order
Hans Morgenthau, Realist Theory of International Leadership, and the Future of Global Order
Biao Zhang 0
0 International Relations, School of Political Science and Public Administration, China University of Political Science and Law , No. 7 Fuxue Road, Beijing , People's Republic of China
This article argues that IR scholars can use Hans Morgenthau's work as a resource for developing a 'classical realist theory of international leadership', helping them understand the nature and impact of international leadership, especially the future of world order in which the US is believed to be abandoning its global leadership under the Trump presidency. This article first introduces the political and intellectual context in which Morgenthau develops his realist thoughts on international leadership. Then, it elaborates Morgenthau's account of how international leadership is depended on the qualities of political leadership, namely, that international leadership requires political leaders to display intellectual, moral, and practical virtues. These include wisdom, foresight, judgment, prudence, willingness, determination, courage, restraint, skill, leadership, governance, and persuasion. Finally, it argues that the dean of classical realism provides a theoretical tool that enables a more 'realistic' analysis of the future of world order, showing the deficiencies of the liberal vision that US withdrawal from the international arena under the Donald Trump presidency will necessarily create chaos and a leaderless world. This article concludes that the liberal bias against Trump has made it almost impossible to undertake a realistic assessment, and Morgenthau's writing can provide considerable insight into the problem of international leadership.
International leadership; Donald Trump; Classical; Morgenthau realism
Can classical realism help international relations (IR) scholars understand the nature
and impact of international leadership, especially the future of world order, at a time
when the US is believed to be abandoning its international leadership under the
presidency of Donald Trump?1 This article argues that Hans Morgenthau, the
leading classical realist, and the founding father of the discipline can provide insight
into this question
(Hoffmann 1987, 6)
. This article is divided into five sections. The
first section introduces the political and intellectual contexts in which Morgenthau
develops his realist theory of international leadership, outlining his key arguments
and highlighting the main theoretical features while offering a comparison with
other three prominent theories of international leadership
(the theories of hegemonic
war, liberal hegemony, and hegemonic stability in Gilpin 1981, 1988; Modelski
1978, 1987; Organski and Kugler 1981; Ikenberry 2011; Ruggie 1982; Kindleberger
1981, 1987; Krasner 1976)
. The following three sections elaborate Morgenthau’s
theory of international leadership: international leadership requires political leaders
to display intellectual, moral, and practical virtues. These include wisdom,
foresight, judgment, prudence, willingness, determination, courage, restraint, skill,
leadership, governance, and persuasion. The final section incorporates
Morgenthau’s approach into an analysis of the prospect of world order under the Trump
presidency. It argues that classical realism provides a theoretical tool that enables a
more ‘realistic’ analysis of the future of world order, showing the deficiencies of the
liberal vision that US withdrawal from the international arena under the Donald
Trump presidency will necessarily create chaos and a leaderless world.
2 Mapping Morgenthau’s Location within Theories of International
To understand Morgenthau’s theory of international leadership, the best place to
begin is with the political context which played a prominent role in shaping his
thinking: the Cold War
(Thompson 1960; Myers 1997; Nobel 1995; See 2001; Craig
2003, 93–116; Cox 2007)
. Morgenthau recognized that the US, in emerging from
the Second World War as the most powerful country in global affairs, was
immediately confronted by a dual challenge.
The main challenge was presented by the Soviet Union. The Soviet Union’s
expanding influence in the European continent after the war, its support of
communist takeover, and its acquisition of nuclear weapons later in 1949 posed a
clear and deadly threat to the US. The spread of communism from Europe to Asia
(as embodied by ‘‘the loss of China’’) also resulted in a substantial increase of
communist influence, thus drastically altering the regional balance of power.
Morgenthau maintained that the US was being encroached upon from both Europe
1 Due to space limitations, I make reference to Morgenthau’s collections of political writings—In
Defense of the National Interest, Politics in the Twentieth Century (three volumes) and Truth and
Power—rather than the original individual essays.
and Asia. The security that the US had enjoyed in the Western Hampshire prior to
the Second World War appeared to once again be in danger.
The other challenge was internal—it came from the American political tradition
and its institutional structures. The American political tradition was pulling US
postwar foreign policy towards two ‘‘extreme’’ directions, neither of which could
respond adequately to the external Soviet/communist challenge
One extreme was isolationism. This current sought to direct American foreign
policy towards hemispheric isolation from the European continent
(e.g., R.A. Taft,
see Thompson 1960, 186–8)
. The other current was liberal internationalism. This
sought to establish international organizations that would integrate the Soviet Union
into the new order (e.g., final term FDR). Both currents within American political
thought tended to overlook the growing danger.2 While both currents were deficient
in relation with the growing threat, the American democratic constitution presented
an even more serious problem. Morgenthau maintained that the American
democratic constitution inhibited the ability to conduct foreign policy in a world
of hostile communist/totalitarian states: democracies could easily become the victim
of their own existential weakness because of the fragmentation of authority and
weak presidential leadership
(Morgenthau 1951, 225; Jervis 1984, 872)
. He saw a
parallel between the postwar world and the European democracies in the 1930s, but
maintained that the ultimate outcome could be worse than Munich. He feared that
the US, lacking the ‘‘institutional excellence of the British [parliamentary system]’’
would invite aggression, succumbing to blunders worse than those perpetrated by
Chamberlain during the late 1930s
(Morgenthau 1948, 108; Scheuerman 2009,
It was against this backdrop that Morgenthau developed his theory of
international leadership. Although he never used the term ‘international leadership’,
Morgenthau sought to address the issue in a substantive and sophisticated way.
First, Morgenthau argued that in the aftermath of the Second World War, the US
must assume the role of a number one power in the international system. A number
one power meant a power that recognized its unparalleled material capability,
defined its interest and responsibility in global terms, and assumed the lead in
preventing a decisive shift in the global balance of power and defending against
challenges by aspiring hegemons in key regions
(Nye 2008, 64)
. Morgenthau argued
that international leadership implied two tasks. Politically, the most important task
was to assume the role of an offshore balancer: this would entail maintaining a
stable balance of power in both Europe and Asia, and organizing the democracies
with a view to checking Soviet expansion and aggression
. In acting at a moral level,
argued that the US must strive
to ensure that the ‘‘American purpose of politics’’ prevailed over communism. By
virtue of the fact that the fortunes of democracy and Western civilization was
dependent on its moral leadership, the US must take the lead in defending the values
of freedom, while taking care to ensure that, in acting thus, it did not transform itself
2 Later Morgenthau became increasingly concerned with the danger of over-balancing the Soviet threat.
His apprehension about the universalistic aspiration became stronger when, for instance, the strategy of
‘‘massive retaliation’’ was announced in the early 1950s.
into a garrison state with a ‘top-heavy’ national security apparatus that ultimately
acted to the detriment of the liberal purposes it sought to defend
The US must accomplish both tasks. It would be disastrous if the US was defeated
in the military or moral battleground.
Second, Morgenthau viewed, in drawing on the thoughts of Max Weber, that
international leadership was largely dependent on qualities of political leadership
(see esp. Turner 2009, 76–9; Turner and Factor 1984, 64–9; Thompson 1984;
.3 International leadership was dependent on whether political
leaderships could externally discern aggressive intention, anticipate the adversary’s
reaction, and make circumspect decisions, and internally implement policy that
effectively responded to threats, convince people about the necessity of scarifying
themselves for the rightful cause, and exercise statecraft that gained broad public
support. Morgenthau acknowledged the significance of material capability: he
recognized that even if it was weakened by ‘‘poor statecraft’’ and ‘‘mediocre
diplomacy’’, the US could still punch fairly heavily by virtue of its substantial
reserves of material power (Morgenthau 1948, 108). However, he did see that
political leadership played a decisive role in sustaining international leadership.
Morgenthau insisted that the qualities of political leadership could almost determine
the fate of international leadership
(see similarly the literature on the influence of
political leadership on foreign policy, institutional bargaining, and power
redistribution in Byman and Pollack 2001; Greenstein 2000; Ikenberry 1996, 395–8; Quinn
2011; Yan 2016; Young 1991)
Third, Morgenthau drew mainly on the Ancient Greek thinkers to define what
qualities of leadership would need to be exhibited. Morgenthau underscored, under
the influence of Aristotle, ‘‘practical wisdom’’ (‘‘prudence’’), ‘‘foresight’’, ‘‘political
art’’, and moral ‘‘determination’’ as opposed to akrasia
(see Brown 2012; Lang
2007; Molloy 2009; Ringmar 2014, 14)
. He followed the Greek Tragedians to stress
the importance of ‘‘decisiveness’’ and ‘‘humility’’, warning against the danger of
(Morgenthau 1962a, 326, 1978, 11; Lebow 2003, 2009)
. He praised the
greatest statesman as an approximation to Plato’s philosopher king who evidenced
substantial reserves of ‘‘knowledge’’ and ‘‘wisdom’’
(Morgenthau 1962c, 67)
drew attention to ‘‘what Machiavelli called virtue’’, which he defined as the ‘‘quality
of our wills and minds’’
(Morgenthau 1960, 323)
. In addition to the classical
thinkers, Morgenthau also followed Weber to stress the importance of ‘‘moral
conviction’’, ‘‘objectivity’’, and ‘‘responsibility’’ for the statesperson
1970, 68–70; Turner 2009; Myers 1997, 259)
. His conception of ‘‘prudence’’ also
had strongly Burkean connotations
(Morgenthau 1954; Hoy 1958, 246; Murray
.4 Morgenthau’s account of qualities of leadership, in short, was built on the
vocabulary of virtue
(see similarly Gaskarth 2011)
3 On Weber’s influence on Morgenthau, see further Barkawi (1998).
4 Notice that the Burkean conception of prudence has a strong empirical connotation that downplays the
importance of intellect. And it seems that Morgenthau tends to associate prudence more with Burke than
with Aristotle. Thompson (1960, 222) indicates that Morgenthau’s conception of ‘‘humility’’ has
Christian-ethical origin. See the most comprehensive account of the languages of virtue in
Morgenthau’s theory, which stressed the relationship between political leadership
and international leadership at times of challenge, evidenced several features that
could be compared with some later theories of international leadership.
First, Morgenthau understood international leadership with reference to the tasks
of ‘security/political order stabilizer’ and ‘moral leader’. Morgenthau defined
international leadership as the tasks that sought to (a) maintain systematic stability
against change and serve as a bulwark against aggression by the potential hegemon
in key regions and (b) exemplify the moral purposes of Western democracy and
(see Morgenthau 1960, 177–88, on ‘‘free world order’’)
did not define international leadership with reference to the stabilization of the
economy, i.e., the ability to govern international economic infrastructure using
preponderant power to provide public goods for others to free ride, pay more than
the pro rate share of cost or impose a preference of open trade on other states
(Kindleberger 1981, 248–53; Krasner 1976; Lake 1993)
. Nor did he equate
international leadership with the military-technological capability to prevail over
the opponent during the course of an amoral contest for world domination
. Morgenthau instead argued that the US political leadership should assume
international political and moral leadership. In so doing, it demanded political
leaders to manifest political wisdom, moral determination, and the ability to execute
Second, Morgenthau’s focus was always on how to use national power to
preserve the political status quo and defend the moral value. In contrast to the
hegemonic theorists’ focus on how cyclical replacement of declining hegemons by
rising challengers through the application of large-scale violence occurred,
Morgenthau concentrated on the preservation of a leading state’s position against
(Gilpin 1981, 197–202; Organski and Kugler 1981; Modelski 1978,
situated his theory of international leadership
within the ‘‘conservative school’’. Furthermore, in contrast to the liberal hegemony
theorists who considered institutionalization to be the best way through which
existing power relations could be preserved, Morgenthau viewed national power as
the foundation of international leadership
(cf. Ikenberry 1996, 389–95, 2001,
. He conceived of national power as the first and foremost means through
which to protect itself and other countries from military aggression and moral
subversion. This made him place greater emphasis on national power, and the
intellectual and practical virtues that were related to the conversion of resources into
different forms of powers that could be applied and employed in different
situations—such as acumen and sophisticated skills to mobilize material and
ideational resources (e.g., persuading people to act).
Third, Morgenthau argued that it was the responsibility of political leadership to
employ a wide range of means/strategy to fend off a powerful challenger while
offsetting the threat of large-scale war. While many hegemonic war theorists
considered the periodic large-scale use of violence to be the main means through
which contestation could be resolved, Morgenthau argued that the question of how
5 Morgenthau’s idea of what international leadership entails is quite close to that of the liberal hegemony
to maintain one’s international leadership against the opponent’s aggression and
challenge depended to a far greater extent on diplomatic maneuver, political
pressure, and sometimes even compromise and accommodation
(see Gilpin 1981,
187–210; Modelski 1987; Organski and Kugler 1981)
.6 For instance, Morgenthau
endorsed the idea of a ‘‘negotiated settlement’’ with the Soviets which would be
essential to contain their expansion within the given sphere of influence. He
believed that the nuclear age put more demand on political leaders to use
nonviolent means: nuclear weapons changed the structural condition of international
politics; stockpiles of nuclear arms meant that superpower war with nuclear
exchange was no longer a viable instrument of statecraft.7 Only a political
leadership that exhibits prudence and moral restraint can fend off aggression and
challenge without triggering a nuclear war.
Fourth, scholars must assume the responsibility of developing a theory that
helped political leaderships to cultivate/nurture these virtues. For Morgenthau,
social-scientific (e.g., psychological or neurobiological) approaches to international
leadership that studied the influence of leadership traits on foreign policy were
misleading, because they aimed to formulate timeless/universal hypothetical laws,
discover causal connections, and use history as a database for hypothesis testing
(e.g., McDermott and Hatemi 2014)
. On the contrary, a theory of international
leadership should educate the political leadership, helping nurture the virtues that
were indispensable to flourish in various political situations; it should use history to
teach lessons and enhance reflections
(Brown 2012; McCourt 2012, 34–6)
. This was
the ethics of scholarship. A realist theory of international leadership should aim to
induce political leadership to take on certain qualities, thereby changing the status
and direction of American foreign policy.
In the following discussion, I elaborate several key qualities that Morgenthau
repeatedly exhorted the American political leadership to display. These virtues
should be taken to be indicative rather than exhaustive. They include intellectual
virtues like wisdom, judgment, and prudence; moral virtues like courage and
determination; and practical virtues like leadership, governance, and persuasion.
3 Morgenthau on the Intellectual Qualities
The cardinal virtue that political leadership should exhibit was ‘‘political wisdom’’
(Morgenthau 1951, 3)
.8 For Morgenthau, political wisdom was the tendency to:
(a) understand politics in terms of (the conflict and compromise of) national interest
and (the distribution and balance of) power; (b) grasp the ‘contextual nature’ of
interest and power; and (c) calculate how one’s interest and power were affected in
6 Morgenthau would be disturbed if he found someone arguing, for instance, that ‘‘a hegemonic war is
characterized by the unlimited means employed’’
(Gilpin 1981, 200)
7 Craig argues that Morgenthau changes his position on nuclear weapons later
(Craig 2003, p. 116, calls
it a form of ‘‘intellectual suicide’’)
, see also Scheuerman (2009, 123 ff).
8 In fact, ‘‘political wisdom’’ is a master/mother virtue to all virtues: it is the combination of intellectual,
moral and practical virtues. I use it here in an intellectual sense, i.e. political wisdom understood as
particular circumstances—this emphasized flexibility at the expense of rigid rules of
conduct. American political leaderships that were possessed of political wisdom, for
instance, would be wary of the conflict of interest between the US (a stabilizer of
regional security) and the Soviet Union (a revolutionary actor). They would be
aware that the US national interest, which was contingent on a global balance of
power, was jeopardized if the American leadership allowed its opponent to
dominate Europe and Asia.
The failure to display political wisdom not only endangered the US’ international
leadership but also imperiled its very existence. Moralism was decried by
Morgenthau (1951, 33) as a clear ‘‘intellectual error’’ that sought to make sense
of events with reference to a universal common good, thus identifying the interest
and security of the state with that of mankind or democracy in the process (e.g.,
Woodrow Wilson’s pursuit for a world ‘‘safe for democracy’’). Utopianism was an
error that gave rise to the misconception that a leading state could maintain order
and peace by abolishing the balance of power and spheres of influence while
incorporating the challenger into a new order through the establishment of
international institutions. An example was FDR’s attempt to organize the ‘four
police’ and devotion of his final years to the UN, while Stalin was seeking to expand
Soviet influence in Europe at the same time
(Morgenthau 1969, 59–60)
Isolationism, meanwhile, sought to ‘protect’ the US from any entanglement of
foreign affairs. It was flawed because it eventually left the challenger (whether
Hitler’s Germany, Imperial Japan or Stalin’s Russia) to dominate a key region, thus
giving rise to further aggression. McCarthyism was an ‘‘intellectual failure’’ that
derived from an inability to grasp that the main threat to American security was
external (e.g., Soviet) and derived from a standing army and developing nuclear
weaponry capability, rather than internal and from treason
. In the absence of political wisdom, in short, political leaderships would
misunderstand the situations.
Second, political leaderships should exhibit ‘‘foresight’’. Morgenthau (1948, 153,
1951, 139, 1970, 177) understood foresight to entail the ability to see ahead and take
the long-term view: leaderships would need to anticipate the adversary’s action,
analyze emerging threats, address new configurations of interest emerging from the
current situation, and accordingly prepare themselves for future threats
Keohane 2005, 711)
. Morgenthau praised Winston Churchill for anticipating in
advance that the Soviet Union would dominate Europe after the defeat of Germany.
He argued that had the American leaders displayed similar foresight, they would
have waged the war with a view to establishing a new balance of power between the
US and USSR after the war
(Morgenthau 1951, 32)
: American military force should
have been projected as far east as possible, thus protecting Eastern Europe and even
Germany from Soviet occupation near the end of the war. In the late 1950s, he also
criticized the American leadership for failing to anticipate the danger that the USSR
may attempt to take advantage of rapidly developing technology (missile gap) by
undertaking more aggressive moves. In the absence of foresight, leaders would find
themselves in unprepared situation and would be caught by surprise. Morgenthau
(1970, 175) stressed that foresight was a virtue that was indispensable for
leaderships to prepare themselves for challenges, but was hard to instill within
Third, political leaderships should exhibit ‘‘judgment’’. Morgenthau
understood judgment as something related to the ability to base decisions on (a) the
careful calculation of one’s own objectives and power resources; (b) an
evaluation of the challenger’s intention and capability (to harm); (c) a correct
understanding of the nature and complexity of challenge (e.g., whether a
challenge corresponded to a radical shift in the balance of power); (d) the ability
to discern a compatibility between the individual’s and opponent’s objectives
and assess whether the distribution of power was favorable to one’s aim; and
(e) an understanding of when to stand firm and when to accommodate
opponents, namely, to avoid ‘‘politically unwise’’ concessions that might
compromise a vital interest
(quotation from Morgenthau 1951, 137; see further
Lang 2004, 34, 59, 2013)
. Any failure to exhibit these qualities would lead to
defeat and destruction. During the Cold War, Morgenthau repeatedly warned the
American leadership against the danger of overestimating US capability and
underestimating the Soviet threat: he warned that Khrushchev’s ‘‘peaceful
coexistence’’ only shifted the battleground to technology and production; the
aggressive nature of Soviet foreign policy had not fundamentally changed in the
aftermath of the Cuba Missile Crisis
(Morgenthau 1970, 175)
. In the absence of
judgment, the political leadership could easily misperceive the nature of threat
and underbalance rising power.
Fourth, the political leadership should exhibit virtues that manifested certain
styles of decision. Morgenthau placed these virtues under the headings of
‘‘decisiveness’’ (quick decision without hesitation) and ‘‘prudence’’ (weighing up
the costs and benefits of one course of action against that of another or using force in
a scrupulous and restraint way). These virtues were essential for a state to make
quick and decisive responses to challenges, and avoid risks or unnecessary
sacrifices. In the absence of decisiveness, the leadership would be confronted by an
indeterminate number of potential choices. Morgenthau maintained, for example,
that Kennedy was plagued by his indecisiveness—the poorly organized invasion of
Cuba and hesitation over Laos both exemplified his inadequate response to
Each of these intellectual virtues—political wisdom, foresight, judgment, and
prudence—is central to the maintenance of the balance of power against aggression.
The failure to display these virtues would make the leadership unable to recognize
the challenge and predisposes them to safe courses of action; they would help the
challenger to advance.
4 Morgenthau on the Moral Qualities
The political leadership should exhibit four key moral qualities. First, it should
exhibit moral willingness. Morgenthau (1960, 184) understood moral willingness as
the state of being ready to assume the burden of managing international problems,
overcome isolationist tendencies, and shoulder the responsibility of assisting other
states to maintain regional status quo.9 The lack of moral willingness—a situation in
which ‘‘will and mind were not equal to [American] power, responsibility, and
opportunity’’—would result in a failure to assume international leadership. This
demonstration of weakness would in turn invite attack
(Morgenthau 1960, 184)
Morgenthau (1948, 60) was concerned, for instance, that the US would repeat the
error committed of the interwar period during the Cold War: the reluctance to
assume international leadership in the interwar period created the impression that
the US was weak, and thus encouraged Germany and Japan to attack. His concern
reached its zenith when the Eisenhower administration sought to ease tensions with
the Soviet Union. Morgenthau argued that the Geneva meeting and the policy of
nonintervention towards Hungary and Poland were ultimately derived from an
enfeebled will and an unwillingness to assume the leadership to stand up to Soviet
aggression—this abdication of responsibility left the Europeans alone in the face of
the Soviet threat
(Morgenthau 1962c, 141, 152)
. In Morgenthau’s view, the ‘will to
lead’ was the first moral prerequisite for international leadership.
Second, Morgenthau (1951, 230, 240) argued that political leadership should
exhibit ‘‘moral determination’’. Moral determination was the ability to resolutely
exercise international leadership: the leaders evidenced it when they demonstrated a
strong commitment to holding the opponent’s expansion in check, and sought to
fend off challenges through quick response and the overcoming of obstacles (e.g.,
alliance management, or domestic mobilization). Moral determination was
frequently strengthened by a commitment to the American purpose, or a firmly
held belief that one was fighting for the right and just cause. In the absence of moral
determination, the political leadership would weaken, and ultimately abdicate, the
state’s leading position. Morgenthau criticized, for instance, that the Truman
administration did not demonstrate a strong determination to assert international
leadership when the administration was tempted to return immediately after the
Second World War
. When they showed weakness in
manifesting a moral determination to assert international leadership, political leaders would
miss the opportunity to do so.
Third, political leadership should display moral courage. By ‘‘courage’’,
Morgenthau (1960, 323, 1962c, 109, 161, 307, 322, 356–8) meant that political
leadership must have the ability to stand up to the challenges from the expanding
power when faced with the exigencies of national security. To the same extent, it
must also evidence the ability to resist domestic pressure—the demands which
originated within the Congress or citizenry (public opinion) counseled against the
wasting of domestic resources, the increase of taxation, and the sacrifice of life for
international commitment. In the absence of moral courage, leadership would tend
to appease the aggressor, or accommodate domestic opposition which ultimately
privileging domestic demands over international challenges
(Herman and Hagan
Fourth, political leadership should exhibit moral restraint. By moral restraint,
Morgenthau (1948, 38, 121, 184–96) meant the ability to exercise self-imposed
limits on ends and means. In evidencing it, the actor would feel itself to be bound by
9 On moral will(ingness), see Morgenthau (1962c, 141).
rules, recognize the danger of self-righteousness, learn to contain one’s
universalistic aspirations (e.g., universalistic nationalism), and endeavor to respect the other
party’s interests and rights. The leading state should not, for instance, show a
‘‘crusading spirit’’ (such as the one which the Truman doctrine evidenced when it
called for a democratic crusade against Soviet Union). Nor should it arrogantly
equate itself with moral superiority. Rather, political leadership should resist the
temptation to depict the contestation as a struggle between virtue and vice, good and
evil, humanity, and subhumanity.
The lack of moral restraint was a deadly vice: in defending one’s international
leadership, the political leadership could easily exceed the original aim. In addition,
it could also get easily dragged into adventures and become committed to
intervention around the world (e.g., against ‘communist’ aggression in Southeast
Asia). Its moral zeal could result in the use of extreme means and the infliction of
excessive harm upon the opponent (whether through nuclear attack or escalation of
strategic bombing). The failure to display moral restraint led to unnecessarily large
casualties and self-destruction, ultimately ‘‘engender[ing] the distortion in judgment
which, in the blindness of crusading frenzy, destroys nations and civilizations’’
(Morgenthau 1978, 11)
These moral qualities—willingness, determination, courage, and restraint—are
indispensable if political leaders were to fully assume the responsibilities of
international leadership and effectively balance against the opponent’s expansion.
5 Morgenthau on the Practical Qualities
Political leadership should also display several practical virtues. First, political
leadership should exhibit ‘‘skill’’
(Morgenthau 1962a, 313, 1962c, 11)
leadership should excel at using a wide range of means—establishing alliances,
building a community of common interest, striking diplomatic deals with the
opponent to buy more time, or waging ideological war—to achieve the end of
defending against aggression and maintaining balance of power. In some
circumstances, such as the Suez Canal Crisis and Cuban Missile Crisis, the
American leadership must evidence the ability to effectively deploy conventional
(force ‘‘rationally employed’’ as Morgenthau 1962d, 430, called it)
other instances, such as the crisis of the Western alliance after Suez, the leadership
must establish how to ‘‘exact a higher harmony from the disparate national
interests’’. Morgenthau was also one of the forerunning theorists of economic
statecraft. In working within this framework, Morgenthau (1962c, 250–3) exhorted
the American leadership to ‘‘develop a policy which would make foreign trade a
potent instrument of American foreign policy’’. He argued that instead of allowing
American foreign trade policy to be dominated by liberal economic thinking, the US
should match the Soviet practice of using economic assistance to enhance its
political influence in Asia and Africa. In his view, the political leadership must
10 On skill, Morgenthau (1960, 290; 1962a, 173–4 (on ‘‘technical skill’’), 1962c, 121, 283, 315).
demonstrate the ability of applying the appropriate means to a given situation (and
also applying these means in the appropriate manner11).
If this skill was not displayed, it would not only be impossible to counterbalance
the opponent’s expanding power and influence, but produce counterproductive
results. Morgenthau correctly observed, for instance, that the deployment of military
force to conflicts in Lebanon and Vietnam to fight against ‘‘communist aggression’’
was counterproductive. The interventions gave rise to anti-Americanism, because
enemies were able to depict them as imperialistic adventure against the seeking of
national independence; they provided opportunities to the Soviet Union (and China)
to position itself as a supporter of national independence
(see Morgenthau 1965;
also George and Smoke 1974, 309–58)
. Indeed, Morgenthau (1970, 176–7) often
suggested that the American leadership should learn from their opponent’s
‘‘combined consistency in the pursuit of objectives with extreme flexibility in the
choice of means’’. In his view, political skill is central to the achievement of
balancing against threat.
Second, leaders should exert ‘‘leadership’’ over the legislature. Here, Morgenthau
(1970, 166) referred to the ability to exercise presidential control over foreign policy
by winning support for legislation. The leadership must exhibit certain virtues if the
executive and legislative branches of government are to effectively collaborate. If
this skill was absent, the leaders would either be defeated in the Congress or be
submissive to congressional influences. For example, Wilson’s failure to secure
support for his vision undermined his attempt to establish American international
(Ikenberry 2001, 149–60; Thompson 1960, 211–4)
Third, the leadership should display governance. By governance, Morgenthau
meant the ability to exercise supervision over the executive branch/bureaucracies in
their implementation of presidential orders, resisting the ‘‘new feudalism’’—a term
used by Morgenthau to refer to the fighting of inter-agency wars, the predominance
of parochial interests, and the breakdown of response along organizational lines
(Klusmeyer 2010, 403; Lebow 2016, 57)
.12 For Morgenthau, it was essential for the
political leadership to be able to direct the executive branches. In his words, the
political leadership must, ‘‘through the authority of his office’’ and ‘‘the strength of
his will’’, command the executive branch, ensuring the effective implementation of
foreign policy decision (Morgenthau 1960, 278).
In the absence of governance, it would ultimately frustrate the attempt to exercise
state power effectively or to achieve national objectives. It would also result in a
fragmented and inadequate response to challenges. Morgenthau maintained that US
leaders in the aftermath of FDR had displayed poor quality in this respect. He
expressed the concern, for instance, that during the Truman presidency, the process
of ‘‘government by committee’’ became more ingrained: he considered the
establishment of inter-departmental committees such as the National Security
Council as contributing to a diffusion of central authority (Morgenthau 1960,
11 Morgenthau was not only concerned with the problem of which instrument would be used, but also
with how it would be used. An example was his harsh criticism on the Eisenhower administration’s
alliance and aid policy
(see e.g. Morgenthau 1970, 178)
12 Morgenthau’s favorite example was the Thor-Jupiter controversy, see
258–62). If leadership is not exerted over the bureaucracies, governmental
fragmentation and dysfunction will make it impossible to take strong and swift
Fourth, political leadership entails simultaneously assuming the roles of
leader, educator, and orator
(Morgenthau 1960, 266)
. The leaders must be ahead
of the people, and must be capable of leading, step by step, towards the
commitments that are necessary to defeat the challenger. They must be
possessed of the ability to educate public opinion and to inform the people when
they are ignorant of the urgent situation (and raise their awareness of the issue).
They must be able to persuade the people to act, and have the capacity to
impress the audience through the powerful presentation of political facts, thus
inspiring them to act (this skill, therefore, entails the mobilization of public
opinion and domestic support). They should convey a sense of calm, restrain
warlike passions, and enhance the ‘‘renunciation of quick and radical solutions’’
(Morgenthau 1962c, 203)
. Political leadership, therefore, entails the ability to
move the people, unify the nation, and gain public consent for actions that
uphold the national interest. Morgenthau’s (1960, 332) ideals were drawn from
Pericles and Demosthenes, and found approximation perhaps only in John F.
In the absence of this quality, the political leadership will either be unable to
command public support, or will be forced to rely on ‘‘devious means’’ to mobilize
(Morgenthau 1949, 147)
. The invocation of making the world ‘‘safe
for democracy’’, fighting for the ‘‘free world’’, and undertaking ‘‘massive
retaliation’’ against aggressors is common reference points in this respect.
6 American Foreign Policy and World Order in the Trump Presidency
Viewed from the Perspective of Morgenthau’s Theory
So far, I have demonstrated that Morgenthau has developed a realist theory of
international leadership that is grounded on the qualities of political leadership.
However, does it still have relevance to contemporary international relations? Can it
help IR scholars understand the orientation of American foreign policy under
Trump’s presidency, and shed light on the future of international leadership and
Since Donald Trump was elected as US president, there has been a widely
voiced concern—which has been particularly pronounced among liberal
opinion—that his administration would renounce the responsibilities of US
(Ayres 2017; BBC 2017a, b; Washington Post 2016; Sanger
and Perlez 2017; Stubb 2017; Trump 2016b)
. The liberal vision of the prospect
of world order can be traced to three anticipating points. First, the Trump
administration’s approach to international affairs radically departs from the
policies adopted by his predecessors in the aftermath of the Second World War.
Whereas (say) the Obama administration, which was a strong champion of the
liberal order, was willing to assume the lead in managing global issues through
multilateral institutions, the Trump administration has proven to be much more
reluctant in this respect. Trump described NATO as ‘obsolete’ (at a time when
Europe is under growing pressure from Russia), terminated the TTIP, cut
funding for human rights initiatives and withdrew from the Paris Agreement.
Second, the liberals argue that Trump has been quite explicit that he will put
America first—this means that under Trump’s leadership, the US will be
abandoning global leadership, turning inward, withdrawing from the world, and
retreating from the international arena.13 The US is ‘‘suiciding’’ its international
leadership and creating vacuums in global leadership on key issues such as
climate change, trade, and globalization, For liberals, there is a clear concern
that states such as China will step into fill the vacuum. Third, as the US turns
inward, chaos and disorder will follow. The liberal international order is
coterminus with peace and prosperity.14 The erosion of the preexisting world
order, which is currently sustained by American leadership, will lead to a
disordered and dangerous new world.
Morgenthau’s theory of international leadership can assist IR scholars to work
within a realist perspective and develop three key insights into the future of
America’s international leadership and world order.
Morgenthau’s first contribution will be critical in character. While the initial
claim that Trump does not have any great ‘love’ for the liberal order and is intent on
rolling it back has some grounds, the second and third assertions are questionable.
The second liberal assertion seems to make the error of equating Trump’s approach
with isolationism (at the same time, it collapses the defense of liberal international
order into active engagement with world affairs).15 From this perspective, Trump’s
attempt to prevent the draining of American resources, the loss of American jobs, or
the entanglement in the web of commitments and agreements is interpreted to signal
the abandonment of international leadership. This raises the question of why it is
impossible to use a national/unilateral and power-based approach to sustain
international leadership and maintain order. The third liberal claim equates the
liberal international order with peace, security and prosperity. It accordingly
constructs international leadership, exerted through multilateral fora, as the only
viable way in which the world can be governed; the post-liberal future, by direct
implication, will be chaotic and dark. While moving away from an institutionalized
and multilateral approach that places emphasis upon rules and restraints, Trump can
also consolidate American power, and uses that national power to manage world
order. The grim picture that the liberal theorists of international leadership forecast
may not necessarily come true.
13 Susan Rice tweeted, for instance, ‘‘the cumulative effect of Trump policies, capped by his foolish,
tragic Paris decision = abdication of America’s global leadership. Shame!’’
14 The Washington Post (2016), in an editorial, stated that ‘‘this [liberal] order is worth saving, and it is
worth reminding ourselves why: It generated unprecedented global prosperity, lifting billions of people
out of poverty; democratic government, once rare, spread to more than 100 nations; and for seven decades
there has been no cataclysmic war among the great powers’’.
15 ‘‘After the post-second world war, the US gave birth to a new world order through the Marshall Plan
and the creation of international institutions. It was the driver of peace, prosperity and security, through
engagement, nor disengagement’’ (Stubb 2017).
Second, Morgenthau would establish the basis for a cool-headed analysis of
Trump’s aspirations (i.e., thinking on international leadership).16 So far, liberals
have sought to portray Trump and the populist movement as intellectually poor,
morally outrageous, and practically impotent. This liberal bias against Trump has
made it almost impossible to undertake a realistic assessment.
Morgenthau would be able to use his theoretical tool to undertake an objective,
nuanced, analysis. He would observe in general that measured against his standards,
Trump is seeking a balance-of-power approach to world order—however, he does
not at the same time assume moral leadership for Western democracy and liberty or
the moral conviction that underpins a liberal vision of American hegemony. Trump
is predisposed to adopt a ‘‘muscular approach’’, which presumes ‘‘only economic
and military power count’’ and which ‘‘abdicate[s] moral power’’
Sanger and Perlez 2017; Robinson 2017)
Morgenthau can also offer a detailed analysis that examines whether (and to what
extent) Trump displays the qualities that are necessary for him to implement his
vision. Intellectually, (a) with regard to political wisdom, Trump views international
politics as a competitive arena—the distribution and balance of power. He is,
therefore, wary of the current imbalance of power, and has expressed particular
concern about the fact that globalization and liberal trade policy has enabled the
transfer of power and wealth from the US to China. His claim that ‘‘[t]he
nationstate remains the true foundation for happiness and harmony’’ embodies his idea of
. (b) Trump also has the foresight to recognize that a
power shift from the US to China will bring danger. The Trump administration does
appreciate a point that liberals frequently overlook: given that economic strength is
an essential element of American power, a redistribution of US wealth to other
countries will ultimately lead to the loss of American hegemony
(Sanger and Perlez
. (c) Trump evidences sound judgment to a certain extent. Trump grasps, for
instance, that power resources are limited and (for him) that the US has spent too
much on cutting greenhouse emissions, with this course of actions often coming at
the expense of its military (especially nuclear) force. He recognizes that he must cut
funds for climate change and human rights, to enhance US military capability
vis-a`vis China. The US is also contributing far more to NATO than its allies, and many
of whom have been underpaying their bills. He even has some grounds to ask the
South Koreans to meet some of the costs of deploying THAAD. (d) It is also
noticeable that Trump exhibits deliberative virtues in some places. Trump shows
decisiveness in his attempt to free the American hands from the ties of multilateral
institutions. While he sometimes appears to be reckless, Trump is nonetheless aware
that the American leadership is clearly challenged and that a clear policy shift is
necessary if American resources are to be saved from being used for international
purposes. His meeting with Xi, along with his suggestion of a face-to-face meeting
with Kim, demonstrates that he is willing to take alternative courses of action.
16 Morgenthau would be contemptuous of Trump’s presidency, condemning his victory as a ‘pathology’
of American politics, and as an indication of corruption of ‘standards of excellence’. Morgenthau would
view Trump as a leader with ‘zero virtue’.
Trump also arguably displays several moral characters, each of which further
strengthens his own vision. He exhibits a clear willingness and determination to
reassert America’s leading role within world affairs, as epitomized by his calls to
‘‘make America great again’’. This is also reflected in his attack on the Obama
administration for losing the respect of other countries, maintaining that US
influence in Asia and the Middle East has been impacted as a result. Trump also has
the moral courage to stand up to challenge and to confront exigencies of national
security, albeit often in a way that is combative and confrontational. Trump has
argued that the Obama administration was too conciliatory to its rivals, maintaining
that he would take a more hardline position towards China and Iran. However, it
remains unclear whether Trump could show moral restraint. Perhaps, this was
evidenced when he exchanged rhetoric with the North Korean leader.
In short, an analysis of Trump’s intellectual and moral qualities shows that he
does not want the US to withdraw entirely from the world. Rather, Trump is taking
an approach to sustaining and reasserting American leadership in a way that is
radically different from the liberal one.
Third, Morgenthau’s realist theory of international leadership can contribute an
assessment of whether Trump will successfully realize his vision. Trump, while
roughly possessing the intellectual and moral virtues required for the task, does not
yet possess the practical ability to implement this strategy. His inadequate
possession of practical ability paralyzes his attempt to effectively execute such a
policy. There are few signs, for example, that he can overcome domestic constraint
of fully switch from a liberal institution to a power-based strategy. In short, Trump’s
disastrous lack of practical virtues has resulted in innumerable forms of domestic
chaos, each of which has severely undermined his presidency.
With regard to practical skill (the ability to employ the ‘right’ strategy against the
opponent), it should be noted that Trump has displayed some competency in
tackling the external challenges—for example, he responded to North Korean
provocation by threatening ‘‘fire and fury’’. However, in other instances, Trump has
displayed incompetency in building communities of interest and unifying allies. A
belligerent speech in Brussel irritated NATO allies, a ‘screw you’ handshake with
the French President and ill-advised comments in the aftermath of a terrorist attack
on London have all served to alienate allies.
With regard to leadership, Trump has failed to display any practical virtue in
exercising presidential leadership over the Congress. He has struggled to win
congressional support for his foreign policy, and even his own party evidences
considerable suspicion towards his foreign policy. A recent Senate motion, which
was sustained by bipartisan support, forced Trump to extend sanctions against on
Russia—Trump was committed to the very opposite policy.
With regard to governance, it is clear that Trump does not possess the practical
virtues that would enable him to exercise leadership over the government agencies.
After becoming president, Trump has gradually lost control over the execution of
his policy. His Chief strategist (Steve Bannon) has resigned. Meanwhile, his
Secretary of State (Rex Tillerson) is increasingly pressurized by a ‘human resources
crisis’ in the State Department
. His Chief of Staff (Reince Priebus)
and Communications Director (Anthony Scaramucci) have also departed. His orders
have been defied (Sally Yates have refused to execute Trump’s Muslin-Ban order,
and are sacked). Even if Trump wants to ease the tension with Russia, the FBI chief
continued to pursue investigation into Trump’s connection with Putin until its chief
Finally, Trump deeply divides the country. This explains why he has been unable
to instill a sense of unity or political momentum. Quite the opposite—Trump
appears to be a source of disunity. Amidst rising tensions, even the UN has been
forced to intervene and issue a warning on racial conflict. Trump’s response to
farright activism has also caused considerable unrest within his own administration and
In returning to Morgenthau’s realist theory of international leadership, one may
conclude that even if Trump does have certain intellectual and moral abilities, his
lack of practical virtues will ultimately restrict his ability to implement his foreign
This article has contended that Hans Morgenthau can help IR scholars to understand
the nature and impact of international leadership. It argues that classical realism
provides a theoretical tool that enables a more ‘realistic’ analysis of the future of
world order. It shows the deficiencies of the liberal vision that US withdrawal from
the international arena under the Donald Trump presidency will necessarily create
chaos and a leaderless world. When perceived from Morgenthau’s approach, the
world will perhaps be less chaotic than the liberals argue—only if Trump can
successfully manage to transform his vision into reality. To accomplish this task,
Trump must cultivate in himself certain practical qualities, such as skill, leadership,
and governance. In the absence of these virtues, Trump can only fulfill the liberals’
Acknowledgements I am grateful to the conference organizers for offering an excellent opportunity for
sharing my thoughts on the subject and presenting the draft. It is interesting to compare and contrast G.
John Ikenberry and Hans Morgenthau’s theories of international leadership. Special thanks go to Atimav
Acharya, Ben Boulton, Sujian Guo, Pippa Morgan, and Xiaoyu Pu, for their comments and help.
Compliance with Ethical Standards
Conflict of interest The author declares that there is no competing interest.
Funding In writing this article, I have been supported by the ‘‘Program for Young Innovative Research
Team in China University of Political Science and Law’’ (grant number 16CXTD19).
Biao Zhang obtained his degrees from Peking, Warwick, and Exeter. Having successfully defended his
thesis on The Concept of Reason in International Relations 1919–2009 (passed without correction), Biao
joined CUPL as a lecturer in IR. He is interested in IR theory and China–EU relations (with a special
focus on China–UK relations).
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