For a U.S. president who supposedly lacks a coherent ideology, Donald Trump has surrounded himself with political ideologues of the first order. Commentators, in turn, have shown a continued fascination with what Trump’s advisers are reading. Part of this curiosity is because of the unfamiliarity, and the perceived political danger, of the extreme-right thinkers whom White House Chief Strategist Steve Bannon admires—Julius Evola, Alexander Dugin, and Charles Maurras, for example—and the promise that their works will elucidate the intellectual currents driving Trump’s policies.
As Bannon’s power in the administration has decreased, there has remained a fervent desire to discover the ideas influencing the administration. The most recent case in point is journalist Michael Crowley’s highly cited Politico article “Why the White House Is Reading Greek History.” Crowley reported that Trump’s advisers have a marked obsession with the writings of the ancient Greek historian Thucydides.
What Bannon, Defense Secretary James Mattis, and National Security Adviser H. R. McMaster find attractive about Thucydides is his political realism. Crowley writes, “Thucydides is considered a father of the ‘realist’ school of international relations, which holds that nations act out of pragmatic self-interest with little regard for ideology, values or morality.” In a world where U.S. political hegemony is being challenged by China, Thucydides offers Trump’s advisers timeless wisdom on how to strategically maintain power “according to perceived self-interest” rather than by a commitment to right and wrong. And if there is a foreign policy that fits what we know of Trump’s personality, this might be the one.
Yet in that case, from an intellectual perspective former President Barack Obama’s general political disposition does not sound all that different. It is well known that Obama was fond of Reinhold Niebuhr, a Cold War liberal theologian and one of the most influential political realist thinkers in the history of the United States. Obama gleaned from him the idea that self-interest drives politics and that politics is always imperfect in a “fallen world.”
Niebuhr, nevertheless, believed that human beings, however “sinful,” still possessed enough of a moral compass to keep evil in check. Obama supposedly embraced this general Niebuhrian outlook, which he described in 2008 as promoting “pragmatism over ideology.” As with Trump’s foreign policy advisers, Niebuhr claimed to have derived his views from an ancient source, but one Christian in outlook: Saint Augustine.
Strangely, these two very different administrations have supposedly converged around a philosophical tradition of political realism with deep roots in classical thought. Yet at what point were these thinkers even considered realists? More generally, when and why did students and statesmen in the United States start reading them in exactly this light?
A new book on the history of political realism in the United States provides a series of illuminating answers to these questions. In After the Enlightenment: Political Realism and International Relations in the Mid-Twentieth Century, the intellectual historian Nicolas Guilhot suggests that regarding Thucydides and Saint Augustine as political realists is not simply a recent interpretation but also a means to conceal a counter-Enlightenment tradition that is antidemocratic to the core.
Guilhot’s story begins with the failed Weimar Republic and the German émigré scholars who fled Adolf Hitler’s brutal regime for the United States. Many of them arrived in the land of freedom with an immense fear of mass democracy. Thinkers such as Hans Morgenthau, Felix Gilbert, Hans Speier, and many others believed that the widespread public support of Hitler’s rise to power proved that the newly enfranchised masses could be easily manipulated; their political decision-making posed a dangerous threat and they could not be trusted. Moreover, the chaotic political instability of Weimar proved to them that liberal constitutionalism, parliamentarianism, and deliberative democratic politics were ill adapted to and could paralyze the handling of political crises.
As a consequence, these “defensive liberals,” as Guilhot describes them, supported theories of elite and wise governance insulated from the whims of the ignorant populace. Moreover, they believed that in times of political emergency, liberal democracies’ best chance of survival necessitated dictatorial decision-making for the sake of securing liberal-democratic ends. At such critical political moments only an elite group of wise statesmen and intellectuals possessed the requisite education and knowledge to decide what was best for the people. Guilhot’s point is clear: by the time these scholars arrived in the United States, their thinking about international affairs was antidemocratic to the core.
Here the book enters into a speculative moment of argumentation. Guilhot contends that certain émigré thinkers, and specifically Morgenthau—who became the chief theorist of political realism in the United States—were inspired by problematic anti-liberal German thinkers whose great intellectual influence helped bring down the Weimar Republic.
He claims that Morgenthau’s main theoretical inspiration was none other than the influential Nazi theorist Carl Schmitt, who argued that morals had no place in politics, critiqued international law, and favored executive authority. This basic outlook, Guilhot believes, can be found throughout Morgenthau’s works, specifically the earliest editions of Politics Among Nations, which became the bible of political realist thought. Guilhot therefore argues that defensive liberals such as Morgenthau paradoxically made recourse to an illiberal and authoritarian political tradition in the hope of protecting liberal democracy from its enemies. In the context of the Cold War, such measures had to be taken due to the menacing threat of the Soviet Union.
Because such problematic Teutonic influences would not have been tolerated in the United States, Guilhot argues, émigré intellectuals like Morgenthau had to Americanize and conceal their antidemocratic way of thinking about politics. In this regard, they were helped along by circumstances. Thrust into global supremacy after World War II, the United States proved intellectually and politically ill-equipped for understanding its role in the new global order. Policy institutes, universities, and charitable organizations, especially the Rockefeller Foundation, rushed to bring scholars together in the hope of creating some type of theoretical foundation for the practical training of a new generation of foreign policy personnel, diplomats, and political analysts.
It is this specific context, Guilhot affirms, that allowed for a cross-pollination of ideas to occur between antidemocratic émigré thinkers and various native-born American intellectuals who expressed a similar conservative outlook on the post–World War II order. The traditionalism of the American diplomat George Kennan, the theological realism of Reinhold Niebuhr, and the blatant elitism of the famed journalist Walter Lippmann did not at all seem that different from the general outlook that the Weimar émigrés Guilhot examines. Out of this mélange of thinkers international relations realism was born.
In order for their ideas to appear respectable, Morgenthau and the historian Felix Gilbert, as Guilhot suggests, referenced philosophical sources that would be met with approval in their new host country. Morgenthau Americanized his work by referencing the Federalist Papers and the speeches of Abraham Lincoln rather than Schmitt. Gilbert transformed Machiavelli into “the first modern realist,” who offered wise statesmanship, when prior to the 1940s he was regularly understood as a precursor of totalitarianism.
Soon, Guilhot writes, “the production of a realist ‘tradition’ reaching back to Augustine, and eventually enriched by the addition of Machiavelli, Hobbes, or Thucydides, further contributed to masking the immediate roots of IR theory in the reactionary canon of the interwar years.” On this score, realism has nothing to do with a long-standing tradition of how statesmen should wisely serve the national interest. Such a tradition is mere subterfuge for ensuring that elites, and not the public, decide what happens.
But the lingering question undergirding Guilhot’s interpretation is whether the German émigrés he studies really did consciously seek to conceal their problematic inspirations from their new countrymen. That they were educated in Germany and influenced by the trendiest ideas of the day there seems hardly surprising. Yet the bogeyman of Carl Schmitt seems to lurk behind every chapter of his book, and often without the hard evidence necessary to prove his influence over the likes of Morgenthau and Gilbert. One senses that Guilhot believes that connecting their critique of parliamentary democracy and suspicions of masses to the philosophies of a former Nazi is needed in order to convince the readers just how antidemocratic political realism really is. But one wonders how necessary it is to invoke a rather speculative connection to Schmitt’s influence, and more generally to a reactionary strain of German thought, in order to make the case that the early American political realists were elites with a marked suspicion of mass democracy.
Still, the thesis that political realism is ultimately antidemocratic is illuminating. There has been a revival of interest in political realism since 9/11, and it is easy to see its effects: the Iraq War, the Patriot Act, Obama’s drone warfare, and the “I alone can fix it” rhetoric of Trump. A small wonder indeed that Obama and Trump are relying on Thucydides and Augustine. Or why someone with such a strong interest in the cannons of fascist political and philosophical thought, such as Steve Bannon, would look for an ancient realist for guidance.
The book also does much to explain how reliance on computer technologies to determine military strategy and insurgent actions came to replace the great statesmen view of diplomacy that had so marked early political realism. The problem remains the same. And the bottom line is that the demos is shut out of the conversation. After the Enlightenment shows us how this came to be.