Review Essay

Realism's Illiberal Roots

And Its Revival in American Politics

In This Review

After the Enlightenment: Political Realism and International Relations in the Mid-Twentieth Century
After the Enlightenment: Political Realism and International Relations in the Mid-Twentieth Century
By Nicolas Guilhot
Cambridge University Press, 2017, 258 pp. Purchase

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

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