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Raymond Aron, Peace and War: A Theory of International Relations (Garden

City, NY: Doubleday & Company, 1966), pp. 591-600

From Machtpolitik to Power Politics

It would have been easy, choosing other texts, to lay more emphasis on Treitschke's nationalism or
For example, the idea of various peoples all illuminated by a ray of the divine light might have laid
the foundations of a philosophy of modesty or tolerance. But, in fact, the German historian draws a
lesson of pride from it. "Every people has the right to believe that in itself certain forces of the
divine reason find their highest expression. A people does not achieve self-awareness without
overestimating itself." Treitschke adds that the Germans lack this massive pride. Elsewhere he
evokes the case of conquerors who, in spite of their cultural superiority, are not numerous enough to
convert the conquered peasantry. Such, for example, is the case of the Germans in Lithuania and
Latvia. He does not hesitate to conclude: "No other solution remained than to keep the subjects in a
state of the greatest possible Unkultur so that they would not become a threat to the less numerous
The German historian does not doubt that the European nations will always be the leading actors of
history, those who have and will have the right to draw the sword in order to fulfill their vocation
and create the superior values of culture. He does not conceive that a type of superior state could
appear tomorrow, or that on other continents a culture could flourish equal to that of Europe.
"Europe is always the heart of the world and, since we are now familiar with the entire planet, we
can predict that it will be so in the future."
Today it is no longer necessary to dispel the illusions of European and Germanic vanity. The quasi-
cynicism to which power politics of idealist inspiration sometimes led seems almost naive in the
light of the experience of our century. What still interests us in Treitschke's thought is the joint
justification and almost the exaltation of the sovereignty of the state, of the rivalry of powers, or
war. In other chapters we will take up certain problems raised by this defense and illustration of
power politics: the indivisibility of sovereignty, the impossibility of a superior state (Oberstaat). It
was important for us to look back at the German philosophy of the last century in order to
understand at what point it differs from the American philosophy of today.
In crossing the Atlantic, in becoming power politics, Treitschke's Machtpolitik underwent a chiefly
spiritual mutation. It became fact, not value. The American authors who are commonly regarded as
belonging to the realist school declare that states, animated by a will to power, are in permanent
rivalry, but that they are not self-congratulatory about the situation and do not regard it as a part of
the divine plan. The refusal of states to submit to a common law or arbitration seems to them
incontestable, intelligible, but not sublime, for they hold neither war nor the right to draw the sword
as sublime. "The rational task of a people constituted in a state and aware of itself as such is to keep
its rank in the society of peoples and thus to make its contribution to the great task of human
culture." Thus Treitschke, by the vocation of culture, justified the political duty of every people. I
do not believe that the American realists, the theologian Reinhold Niebuhr any more than the
diplomat George P. Kennan or the professor Hans Morgenthau, have ever established so close a link
between the will to power and the work of culture. I would be tempted to summarize the opposition
between the German doctrinaires of Machtpolitik and the American theoreticians of power politics
by citing the celebrated formula invented by Max Weber to illustrate the contrast between the
Puritans at the dawn of capitalism and the men of today: "The Puritan willed to be the vocational
man that we have to be." The German nationalists desired power politics for itself. The American
realists believe they are obliged to acknowledge its existence and accept its laws.
It is a theologian, Reinhold Niebuhr, who is considered the ideologist of the so-called realist school.
Now, his criticism of the liberal, optimistic, individualistic philosophy of foreign policy has as its
origin and basis a certain conception of human nature. Man is corrupted by sin. He is selfish and
violent. The collective beings that constitute states are worse than individual beings. The former
occasionally practice the Christian virtues, the latter never. The immorality of states in conflict with
one another is all the greater in that the citizens can have the legitimate feeling of acting morally
when they dedicate and occasionally even sacrifice themselves to the state. But since the latter is
fundamentally immoral, self-seeking, violent, the citizens remain prisoners of a sort of tribal
egoism, even when they serve the collectivity. Taking as a term of reference and as a criterion of
ethical values the conduct of Christ, Niebuhr insists on the radical antinomy between the Christian
virtues and political action, in particular that of the diplomat. There is no state that has been created
or which maintains itself without the use of force. It is the corruption of man by sin which is
manifest in the violent course of history and which the ph~osophers of the contract, those who
believe in a peace by law or those who condemn all recourse to force, persist in ignoring.
Of course, it would not be impossible to find, from the pens of the German doctrinaires, texts which
relate war and sin, and from the pens of the American theoreticians texts which put a high value on
the statesman's prudence. In fact, Treitschke wrote: "So long as the human race remains sinful and
passionate as it is, war cannot disappear from the face of the earth." For his part, Robert E. Osgood,
in his book Limited War, went so far as to declare immoral any war whose objects are or seek to he
transcendent. "But military force is not only ineffective as an instrument for attaining transcendent
moral ends: it is morally dangerous as well. It is dangerous because the use of force with a view to
such grandiose ends tends to become an end in itself, no longer subject either to moral or practical
restrictions, but merely to the intoxication with abstract ideals."a7 To use force to make the world
safe for democracy or to substitute the rule of law for that of power politics by the punishment of
the guilty and the organization of a League of Nations is to engage in an enterprise which runs the
risk of being all the more violent in that it professes its ultimate objective to be the elimination of
violence and in that reality will never yield to these sublime dreams. Whence, the author's
conclusion: "In this sense, nations would do better to renounce the use of war as an instrument of all
politics other than national." Thus national selfishness, without thereby becoming sacred, appears to
be the more moral attitude and not only the more prudent.
These texts—others could be added—do not affect, it seems to me, the opposition of intellectual
climate, of metaphysics, even of theology between the nineteenth-century German doctrinaire and
today's American theoretician. The banal formula (war will not disappear from the face of the earth
so long as man is corrupted by sin) that Treitschke, who was a Christian, used in passing, explains
neither the profound meaning of the doctrine nor the conclusions his audience was to draw from the
master's lectures. Much more instructive, eloquent and persuasive are the long passages in which
the educational value of war is proclaimed, the ideal of perpetual peace denounced. Tomorrow,
when war will return, it is God who will have sent it to cure men of their blindness, of their
surrender to pleasure, to instruct them in the superior virtues of devotion and sacrifice which they
were about to forget. No American realist uses such language. At most they are seeking "the moral
equivalent of war" if they expect the victory of the pacifists.
As for the justification of national interest, it remains of contrary significance for each side.
Reinhold Niebuhr, Hans Morgenthau, George F. Kennan, Robert E. Osgood do not exalt the "sacred
selfishness" of states. They fear that this selfishness will become even worse, more brutal, less
reasonable, if it hides behind words of a vague and grandiose kind. On the pretext of punishing the
aggressor, the state carries war to extremes, to the destruction of the enemy state, all the more
immoral as it believes itself moral, all the more egotistical as it supposes itself obedient to a
transcendent principle. In other words, if the realists come to the conclusion of Robert E. Osgood—
force should not be used except in the service of national politics—it is not because they intend to
confer a sacred value on collective selfishness (as Treitschke was inclined to do), it is because the
so-called idealism, in their eyes, either conceals a will to power that is even more dangerous
because it is unconscious of itself, or else leads to disaster because it is incompatible with the
essence of international politics. The teachings of a theologian like Niebuhr or of professors like
Osgood or Morgenthau are inseparably pragmatic and ethical: statesmen should be concerned with
the interest of the collectivity for which they are responsible, but they should not ignore the interest
of the other collectivities. Now realism—the recognition of national selfishness—is more conducive
to an awareness, on everyone's part, of the interests and ideas of the others than idealism or the cult
of abstract principles. Yet Niebuhr, and even Morgenthau, adds that realism should not be cynical
and that "the remedy for a pretentious idealism which claims to know more about the future and
about humanity than is given to mortals to know is not egotism. It is a concern, at one and the same
time, with oneself and with the other, a concern in which the self maintains a proper respect for the
opinions of humanity, derived from a modest awareness of the limits of its own knowledge and its
own power." And again, nations are egotistical, but "the sense of justice should keep prudence from
becoming too prudent, in other words, too opportunistic in its manner of defining interest."
The formula "the ego, individual or collective" suggests a second mutation in Machtpolitik, that is,
the neglect or, at least, the lack of emphasis upon the primacy of foreign policy. The state,
Treitschke tells us, is the scale (of justice) and the sword (of war). But it is above all the sword,
since it can only impose justice once the state is assured, by the sword, that it can enforce
obedience. The American realists, arguing against a false idealism but imbued with the
individualistic and moralistic philosophy of their country, take as their point of departure either the
nature of man (self-seeking, violent) or the nature of politics, which inevitably implies power,
means or end of the rivalry between the individual or collective egos.
The word power, in English, has a very broad (or very vague) meaning, since, depending on cases,
it translates the three French words pouvoir, puissance, force. Power is first of all, in the broadest
sense, the capacity to act, to produce, to destroy, to influence; then it is the capacity to command
legally (to come to power, exercise power); it is also the capacity of a person (individual or
collective) to impose his will, his example, his ideas, upon others; finally it is the sum of material,
moral, military, psychological means (or one or the other of these means) possessed by the three
capacities we have just enumerated.
It is not unjustifiable to regard the concept of power as the fundamental, original concept of all
political order, that is, of the organized coexistence among individuals. It is true in fact that within
states as on the international scene, autonomous wills confront one another, each seeking its own
objectives. These wills, which are not spontaneously reconciled, seek to check each other. Bismarck
wanted to achieve a unified Germany under Prussia's leadership despite the opposition of Napoleon
III, as John F. Kennedy wanted to become President of the United States despite the opposition of
Richard Nixon. But this comparison, as I see it, conceals the essential point, namely that the
members of a collectivity obey laws and submit their conflicts to rules, while states, which limit
their freedom of action by the obligations to which they subscribe, have hitherto always reserved
the right to resort to armed force and to define for themselves what they mean by "honor," "vital
interests" and "legitimate defense." On this point the American realist school seems to me backward
compared with traditional European thought. Obsessed with a concern to refute the philosophy of
the contract, the version of liberalism according to which respect for law and morality is enough to
impose obedience on homo politicus, the realists set one anthropology against another and power
against law (or morality). They define politics as power and not international politics as the absence
of an umpire or of police. It is another Christian, British this time, who returns to the tradition when
he writes: "In international relations, it is the situation of Hobbesian fear which, so far as I can see,
has hitherto defeated all the endeavour of the human intellect." Neither Reinhold Niebuhr nor Hans
Morgenthau is unaware—we scarcely need add?—that conflicts among citizens within a collectivity
take their course according to rules (the highest of which is called a constitution in modern
societies) or are settled by tribunals. The opposition between "the monopoly of legitimate violence"
and "plurality of military sovereignties" is evidently not unknown to them. The insistence with
which Hans Morgenthan reminds us that survival constitutes and must constitute the primary
objective of states, amounts to an implicit admission of the Hobbesian situation among states, hence
the essential difference between international and national politics. Nonetheless, the fact remains
that this avowal is implicit rather than explicit.
It is not impossible, it seems to me, to understand this irresolution of analysis if not of thought. The
American realists, we have said, are located on the margin of the idealist situation and come later in
time. They think against, they criticize the picture the idealists present of the world or the precepts
they formulate. They are led, without being fully aware of it, to follow the example of those whom
they oppose. Now, the idealists accept the whole or almost the whole postulate that there is not and
should not be an essential difference between international and national politics. States are at the
service of individuals and not vice versa. They must obey the law as citizens have learned to do.
Once international law has been established, all legal recourse to force will be police action, as it is
within states today.
Further, on the level of sociology or history, one would search in vain to find a clear limit between
the use of armed force by states in order to establish authority and the use of this same force against
external enemies. The establishment and disintegration of empires or even nations assumes that an
enemy, external at the beginning of hostilities, becomes a compatriot at their end, or conversely that
compatriots fight each other because some want to secede and organize an independent unit in their
turn. This de facto continuity does not in essence contradict the distinction, but in order to
demonstrate this distinction, it would have been necessary to use methods alien to the American
school: either the analysis of the intrinsic meaning of a human activity, or else a reflection upon
history itself. The vision of humanity, progressing from tribes to a universal empire by way of
national states, is distorted by an unjustifiable extrapolation. The widening of the zones of
sovereignty is only a change in scale, within a history whose nature remains the same; the
unification of humanity into a single state would signify a conversion of history and not within
As long as the realist school limits itself to criticizing moral or juridical illusions, these conceptual
ambiguities have no serious drawbacks. But when the realist attempts to be a theoretician, when he
claims to offer not an approximate image but a finished portrait, a rational blueprint of international
politics, he will need strictly defined notions.
Hans Morgenthau's two fundamental concepts are those of power and national interest. But is
power regarded here as the necessary means to any undertaking whatever? Or the objective to
which individual or collective egos cling? Or again, is it the primary objective of states, since they
can count only on themselves in order to survive? It would be easy to cite texts in favor of each of
these interpretations.
The oscillation between these three interpretations is striking in the first pages of Politics among
Nations. Here Morgenthau writes that "international politics, like all politics, is a struggle for power.
Whatever the ultimate aims of international politics, power is always the immediate aim." The
notion of the immediate aim is ambiguous: if power is not the ultimate aim, the immediate aim can
be considered only as a means. Elsewhere Morgenthau writes: "The aspiration for power being the
distinguishing element of international politics, as of all politics, international politics is of
necessity power politics." But if it should he true that the aspiration for power plays the same role in
international politics as in all politics, the specific nature of power politics among nations would
disappear. The moment the essence of international politics is identical "with the essence of politics,
with its domestic counterpart," why could war not be eliminated from one as from the other?
Finally, if one compares the Crusaders who wanted to liberate the Holy Land, Woodrow Wilson
who wanted to make the world safe for democracy, the National Socialists who wanted to open
Eastern Europe to German colonization, dominate Europe and conquer the world, if one asserts that
all are actors on the stage of international politics because they have chosen power to gain their
ends, then power is only a means and defines neither the nature of international politics nor that of
the goals the actors strove to attain. This last interpretation would be confirmed by a text borrowed
from another work. "The interests to which power attaches itself and which it serves are as varied
and manifold as are the possible social objectives of the members of a given society."
But if power is only a means, the propositions which serve as a basis for Hans Morgenthau's theory
are open to doubt. According to Morgenthau, every regime tends to have the same kind of foreign
policy. The content of national interest is constant over long periods of history. Why this constancy?
Because all the elements, ideals and materials which form the content of national interest are
subordinated at the very least to requirements which are not susceptible of rapid change, "on which
depend the survival of the nation and the preservation of its identity."
Is it true that states, whatever their regime, pursue "the same kind of foreign policy"? This statement
is admirably ambiguous. Are the foreign policies of Napoleon, Hitler and Stalin of the same kind as
those of Louis XVI, Adenauer or Nicholas II? If one answers yes, then the proposition is
incontestable, but not very instructive. The features which all diplomatic-strategic behavior have in
common are formal, they come down to selfishness, to the calculation of forces, to a variable
mixture of hypocrisy and cynicism. But the differences in degree are such that a Napoleon or a
Hitler suffices with the help of revolutionary circumstances to change the course of history.
By the same token the falsity of the second proposition is evident: national interest would not
change rapidly because the state's requirements for survival are relatively constant. Even if one
assigns a narrow and as it were a material sense to survival-non-massacre of the population and
independence of the state-national interest can, as everyone knows, require a complete reversal of
alliances in several years, friends becoming enemies (the Soviet Union, best of allies in 1942,
embodies a mortal threat in 1946) and enemies becoming friends (friendship with Adenauer's
Germany replaces hostility toward the Third Reich). Further, in a heterogeneous system, the
opposition party favoring the ideology of the enemy camp obviously does not have the same
conception of national interest as the party in power, and would pursue a different diplomacy if they
came to power.
Could one say, at least, that the elements involved in the definition of national interest are
subordinate to the needs of survival? If this is to be a de facto proposition, it is obviously false. Let
us grant all states, large and small, the will to survive as they are, even if this will is peculiarly
uneven according to place and time (the German principalities, in the middle 0£ the last century,
had only a feeble will to survive such as they were: neither the rulers nor the people considered the
loss of independence as a catastrophe). But let us assume this will: it is not defined by a final
objective or a chosen criterion. All great states have jeopardized their survival to gain ulterior
objectives. Hitler preferred, for himself and for Germany, the possibility of empire to the security of
survival. Nor did he want empire—or an accumulation of power—as a means to security. It would
be useless to define the objectives of states by exclusive reference to power, to security, or to both.
What life does not serve a higher goal? What good is security accompanied by mediocrity?
Moreover, the very idea of survival lends itself to many interpretations. In 1960 the France seeking
to survive is Western, with institutions of the constitutional-pluralistic type. Absorbed in the Soviet
world, she would lose her Western "identity" but probably conserve a substantial part of her
historical culture. Neither in one camp nor the other can she regain a total "independence," in the
sense of the ability to make major decisions on her own, but she would be less autonomous within
the East than she is with the West. Finally, with one side as with the other, if she participates in the
great game of strategy in the thermonuclear age, she exposes her population to the risk of cruel and
perhaps fatal losses. Granting that survival is defined by independence, the identity of the political
regime, of the historical culture, or finally, the preservation of the life of individuals, diplomats will
make different decisions. Even if they all pursued "the same kind of foreign policy," even if they all
had as their final goal, or accepted as the first requirement, the security of the state in their charge,
they still, in many circumstances, would have to choose between the safety of the regime and the
defense of independence.
Hans Morgenthau has not devoted more time and effort to the analysis of these basic concepts
because he, too, is more concerned with praxeology than with theory. He, too, is a crusader, but a
crusader of realism. To invoke national interest is a way of defining not a policy but an attitude, of
polemicizing against ideologies of perpetual peace, international law, Christian or Kantian morality,
against the representatives of special groups who confuse their own interests with those of the
collectivity as a whole and in time. If statesmen did not listen to Utopians, if they strove to forestall
wars or limit hostilities, if they preferred a compromise to a quarrel, if they negotiated with all
states and took less interest in the regimes of their allies or enemies, how much less would humanity
suffer from the inevitable rivalry for power among collective wills!
Perhaps, in fact, it is good to tell the Wilsons and the Roosevelts that they are mistaken about
themselves and the world, that they, too, are motivated by an obscure and hardly conscious sense of
the national interest of the United States, that their actions would be more effective if their thoughts
emerged from the idealistic fog and submitted to the harsh law of equilibrium. Perhaps a lesson of a
certain realism is not entirely useless when it is addressed to men of good will who run the risk of
sinning by over-zealousness and not out of a lack of illusions. Perhaps the realist school has marked
a necessary reaction against the naive conception of an international order which would stand of its
own accord, without any other basis than respect for the law, against the false idea that it suffices to
apply principles (the right of peoples to self-determination) in order to settle conflicts peacefully.
Unfortunately, by mixing theory and praxeology, and by lacking a rigorous distinction between the
permanent characteristics and the historical particulars of international politics, the realist school
has arrived at an ideology comparable to that which it took for the target of its criticisms.
What is true in all epochs is that the necessary reference to the calculation of forces and the endless
diversity of circumstances requires statesmen to be prudent. But prudence does not always require
either moderation or peace by compromise, or negotiations, or indifference to the internal regimes
of enemy states or allies. Roman diplomacy was not moderate, the peace imposed by the Union on
the Confederacy rejected all compromise. Negotiations with Hitler were most often fruitless or
harmful. In a heterogeneous system, it is hardly possible for a statesman to model himself upon
Francois I making an alliance with the Grand Turk, or upon Richelieu supporting the Protestant
princes. True realism today consists in recognizing the action of ideologies upon diplomatic-
strategic conduct. In our epoch, instead of repeating that all states, no matter what their institutions,
have "the same kind of foreign policy," we should insist upon the truth that is more complementary
than contradictory: no one understands the diplomatic strategy of a state if he does not understand
its regime, if he has not studied the philosophy of those who govern it. To lay down as a rule that
the heads of the Bolshevik party conceive the national interests of their state as did all other rulers
of Russia is to doom oneself to misunderstanding the practices and ambitions of the Soviet Union.
The invitation made to the West today not to mix ideology and diplomacy assumes a paradoxical
character in our epoch. The Soviet Union promises perpetual peace at the end of the world crisis,
when socialism will have prevailed over capitalism permanently and universally. Can the West
promise nothing? Can it not champion a type of institution within states, a type of relation among
states? Must it resign itself to an inevitable war while the Communist world proclaims glorious
A true realism takes into account the whole of reality, dictates diplomatic-strategic conduct adapted
not to the finished portrait of what international politics would be if statesmen were wise in their
selfishness, but to the nature of the passions, the follies, the ideas and the violences of the century