Reconciling Realism and Human Rights
If Hans J. Morgenthau is correct about self-interested behaviour, can states consistently commit to human rights norms?
Examination Number: 7321763
MA (Honours) International Relations
Dissertation Supervisor: Tim Hayward
Word Count: 10,000
I like clean endings. I like the dramatic pause, the punchy last line and anything that makes sure you remember but never look back.
Four years later and I am still deeply unsatisfied with my final dissertation at the University of Edinburgh. It was rushed, a presented mess and it can’t even be called a respectable association of mine.
The reasons for this were numerous and not entirely my fault. It was not totally out of disorganisation or a lacklustre enthusiasm, or more likely they were the symptoms of the more profound and deeply personal circumstances of the time.
It was completed after staying awake for three days and I’m still convinced I wrecked myself on caffeine and pro-plus pills. My friend, Iain, came over to help me write the biography as I tackled the final chapter and the conclusion the night before it was due to be handed in. We then drove up to the university at 10am, got it bound (during which the university stationer managed to make a mess of the formatting) but there was no time to fix it. At 11.45am with a deadline of 12pm and after a three-month extension, it was submitted. I stayed awake for another 12 hours and then crashed for three days resigned to the failure of my International Relations degree.
The point of all this is simply to say that all even after all of these years it has still bothered me. It’s unfinished business, it didn’t reflect what I could do and the ideas behind it were sound.
The story afterwards is not unhappy. I passed it, graduated with a 2:1 MA (Honours) in International Relations and went on to work in politics, public affairs and most recently running Darrow and working as a TEFL teacher in Spain. I am happy.
If you read Darrow, you’ll know I regularly write on politics and international affairs. They were and are a great love. I’ve mused on fixing up ‘the failure’ for years but it always seemed too daunting task. In the last week however, the time felt right to use a honed ability to do justice to an idea that was never expressed at the time.
The point of this? Simply to say that pride in one’s work own work is paramount and old scores should always be settled. It’s taken four years for me to develop the finesses in my writing style to give these old ideas that were born in frustration and direness the articulation they deserved.
I wouldn’t say that I’m a petty man, but I have a long memory. Family and friends and my Director of Studies, Dr. Nicola McEwen, were intransigently supportive back in 2011.
My grandmother, Eleanor, gave me the home to study in and mother, Sue, gave me the love and support to succeed. My brother, Ewan, reminded me of the joy of laughing, the loyalty of family and that the most important tool in ridiculous or cruel circumstance is laughing in its face. My friends reminded me to live; my friend Iain reminded me to see the best in myself when the world expected the worst. Then as, as now, with more memories, more friends and more joy, the story continues.
So it is with pride and appreciation, and very much from the heart, that I write the acknowledgement that my friends and family deserve that they never got at the time.
Contemporary Realist scholarship has done much to reclaim Hans Morgenthau’s scholarship from the generic clichés about Realism which ignore his work on the relationship between ethics and power. Nevertheless, the application of Morgenthau’s work to the issues surrounding states adhering to human rights norms remain bare bones. The supposed irreconcilability between self-interest and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights at first seems obvious yet they both dispositions share very similar empirical foundations. This thesis will attempt to provide the groundwork for a reconciliation between self-interest and an understanding of human rights rooted in the work of Hans Morgenthau. It will conclude that viewing human rights as a transcendental morality and conducting statecraft using Morgenthau’s formulation of ‘the lesser evil’ will allow for a largely consistent adherence by states to human rights.
We begin with an empirical claim: since their elevation to international relations in 1948, the concept of human rights has progressed to become “settled norms” and “standards of conduct by reference to which behaviour is judged and approved or disapproved” (Frost 1996: 104-111). In both the national and international conduct of states, “political legitimacy is increasingly judged by and expressed in terms of human rights” (Donnelly 2003: 38).
The 1970’s signalled the first attempt to include a practical human rights commitment to the foreign policy of the then world’s only true superpower, the United States (Brzezinski 1995: 4). The plight of Soviet dissidents, the Helsinki agreement, American Congressional concern with human rights abuses by U.S allies and the desire for a credible alternative to the realpolitik of Henry Kissinger culminated in President Jimmy Carter committing to make human rights a key component of his foreign policy (Thompson 1979: 1984; Arnold 1980: 57).
The September 11th, 2001 terrorist attacks shifted the potential of the post-Cold War resurgence of liberalism and rights and ushered in a return to hard realpolitik. The subsequent American-led ‘war on terror’, drone strikes, unlawful detainment, secret extradition, the erosion of civil liberties, the so-called ‘illegal’ and inflammatory wars of Iraq and Afghanistan and the seemingly irrepressible rise of extremist hate toward the West have made human rights, even more, an entrenched reactionary force. It has also made ensuring that states adhere to them that more difficult, and it is in this context that we turn our attention.
Despite the rising and continued significance of what human rights could mean to statecraft during his lifetime, the great international relations theorist Hans Morgenthau had only given one exposition on the issue by the time of his death in 1980 (Thompson 1978: 9; Morgenthau 1979).
Morgenthau’s reputation as a great legal mind and moral and political philosopher had been overtaken by his authorship of Politics Among Nations (1948). The book remains the de facto text on Realism and, given its ease of access, is often quoted out of context and taken out of the context of Morgenthau’s body of scholarship to suggest he viewed international politics as a perennial struggle of self-interest; of power trumping right with no end in sight. Indeed, Morgenthau did not help himself in the confusion surrounding his considerations:
“Realism maintains that universal moral principles cannot be applied to the actions of states…The individual may say for himself: ‘Let justice be done, even if the world must perish’, but the state has no right to say so in the name of those who are in its care…While the individual has a moral right to sacrifice himself in defense of such a moral principle, the state has no right to let its moral disapprobation of the infringement of (that moral principle) get in the way of successful political action, itself inspired by the moral principle of national survival.”
(Morgenthau, 1985, 165)
Morgenthau has always been of particular academic interest. He is widely credited as being the founding modern articulator of Realism; a disposition placing the protection of the group first in a self-interested system of anarchy lacking higher authority to regulate state behaviour.
Yet while Morgenthau’s Politics Among Nations is the seminal textbook for students and academics alike to glean an insight into statecraft and theory, his writing is lucid and accessible to such an extent that it has made him subject to frequent quoting that often disregards the broader context of his scholarship that spans over 60 years.
Morgenthau’s formative years were so obviously focussed on ethics, functional jurisprudence and normative ambition in international relations as to bring into question how anyone can box him in exclusively as a Realist obsessed with power.
Born to a Jewish family in Germany in 190 and, after attending Casimirianum Coburg, he was educated at the universities of Berlin, Frankfurt, Munich, and pursued postgraduate work at the Graduate Institute of International and Development Studies in Geneva, Switzerland. He finished his doctoral dissertation in Germany in the late 1920s. It was published in 1929 as his first book, The International Administration of Justice, Its Essence and Its Limits.
Following this Morgenthau left Germany to complete his Habilitation dissertation (license to teach at universities) in Geneva. It was published (in French) as The Reality of Norms and in Particular the Norms of International Law: Foundations of a Theory of Norms. In 1933, he published a second book in French, The Concept of the Political, which was only translated into English in 2012.
By the 1920s and 1930s, Morgenthau sought a Realist alternative to international law. He taught and practised law in Frankfurt before emigrating to the United States in 1937, after several interim years in Switzerland and Spain. Morgenthau subsequently taught at universities throughout the US, including in Kansas City from 1939–1943, and then the University of Chicago until 1973, when he moved to New York and took a professorial chair at the City University of New York.
In 1940 he set out a research program for legal functionalism in the article ‘Positivism, Functionalism, and International Law’. International law professor Francis Boyle has written that Morgenthau’s post-war writings perhaps contributed to a “break between international political science and international legal studies” (Bell 2010: 28)
As such, Morgenthau is deemed as one of the “founding fathers” of the Realist school of international relations school in the 20th century. This disposition holds that nation-states are the main actors in international relations and that the main concern of the field is the study of power.
Morgenthau emphasised the importance of the national interest, and in seminal work Politics Among Nations, he wrote that “the main signpost that helps political realism to find its way through the landscape of international politics is the concept of interest defined in terms of power (Morgenthau 1948: 63).
Despite this reputation, Politics Among Nations contains a chapter on international law and Morgenthau remained an active contributor to the subject of the relationship between international politics and international law until the end of his career.
Morgenthau was a consultant for the Kennedy administration from 1961 to 1963 and a strong supporter of the Roosevelt and Truman administrations. When Johnson became President, Morgenthau became much more vocal in his dissent concerning American participation in the Vietnam war for which he was dismissed as a consultant to the Johnson administration in 1965, which brought him considerable public and media attention.
After 1965, Morgenthau had become a leading authority and voice in the discussion of just war theory in the modern nuclear era. In summer 1978, Morgenthau wrote his last co-authored essay titled ‘The Roots of Narcissism’. This essay was a continuation of Morgenthau’s earlier study of this subject in his 1962 essay ‘Public Affairs: Love and Power’, where Morgenthau engaged some of the themes that Niebuhr and the theologian Paul Tillich were addressing.
He continued with a prolific writing career including reviewing over 100 books and published three collections of his writings in 1962. Volume one was entitled The Decline of Democratic Politics, the second was The Impasse of American Politics, and the third volume was The Restoration of American Politics. His book Truth and Power (1970) dealt with both U.S foreign policy and domestic politics.
He died after a brief hospitalisation in New York after being admitted with a perforated ulcer he died on July 19, 1980.
Nevertheless, there is still a tendency to view Morgenthau’s position that there is an “impossibility of enforcing the universal application of human rights” (Morgenthau 1979: 6) as his concrete position on the subject. But this logic plays to his detriment and not his strengths and his silence on the specific issue of human rights should not be taken as a definitive view on the place of morality in politics.
Morgenthau identified four key issues with states observing human rights:
- Relativism of time – principles of morality differ offer from one historical period to the next.
- Relativism of culture – certain moral principles are obeyed by some nations and not by others.
- The problem of implementation: public pressure – the issue of actualising a respect for human rights through public exposure of its violations is unlikely to yield results by contrast to private persuasion.
- Self-interest and the broader concerns of foreign policy – a nation will defer to its interests over its obligations to a consistent application of human rights.
There have been five editions to date of Morgenthau’s most famous text. The latest, edited by his colleague Kenneth Thompson has tried to posthumously give the air time to the subject that Morgenthau didn’t give in life. Should this neglect serve as evidence in of itself of Morgenthau’s disinterest?
Aims and Objectives
This thesis contends that a reconceptualization of human rights based on empirical human needs rather than a theoretical argument about rights will allow for a reconciliation between Realism and an inviolable respect for human rights. It will argue that it is Morgenthau’s scholarship on transcendental morality and the lesser evil, combined with a Platonic interpretation of human rights, that will allow for a far greater respect and adherence to human rights than a legalistic and homogenous adherence to theoretical documents such as the United Nations Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR; Appendix 1).
For Morgenthau, the tragedy of humanity is that the baser impulses of our nature often trump our potential to rise to a higher plane of moral thinking. There is a tension: the moral dimension of our existence pushes us to break free of the simple hunt or be hunted need and psychology of our being, but our need to dominate others out of fear of someone else doing the same to us stops us breaking the cycle. As Morgenthau articulates:
“Suspended between his spiritual destiny which he cannot fulfil and his animal nature in which he cannot remain, (man) is forever condemned to experience the contrast between the longings of his mind, and his actual condition as his personal, eminently human tragedy”
(Morgenthau 1946: 221)
Taking this problem as a premise, what can be done to reconcile a respect for human rights with the nature of the statesman in the sphere of international relations populated by a fear of political domination or the pre-emptive quest to avoid it.
Morgenthau was plagued by a deep dualism between the static, historically unchanging ‘drive for power’ and also an astute historical appreciation of changes in the state system (Rosecrane 1981: 749 – 765). His stubborn insistence on the continuities of human nature (Scheuerman 2009: 30) but also his recognition of changes in history further provide a basis to use his work for more than a parochial cliché on the perennial nature of power. After all, the subtitle of his most
- Chapter 1 will establish a working definition of ‘human rights’ for this thesis.
- Chapter 2 will examine Morgenthau’s methodology to see if it can afford a better understanding of the empirical reality of human nature than the more populist Neorealism. It will be argued that while Morgenthau’s consideration of ‘self-interest’ must be distanced from the paradigmatic formulations of Neorealism and the chapter will explore and establish Morgenthau’s understanding of human nature.
- Chapter 3 will posit that the lust for power and morality are both rooted in human nature. It will then attempt to demonstrate a compatible relationship between Morgenthau’s definition of human nature and human rights as understood in terms of a hierarchy of human needs.
- Chapter 4 will put forward a Platonic reconceptualization of Morgenthau’s transcendental morality based on Augustinian contextualization. It will argue that removing the divisive theological elements surrounding human rights can demonstrate that Morgenthau’s understanding of human nature can be reconciled with an understanding of a shared humanity among people. This allows for his ‘lesser evil’ argument to become about the least evil approach towards violating another’s basic needs and thus a new, workable norm in the protection of human rights.
- Chapter 5, based on this new understanding of human nature and human rights, will examine the potential challenges and limitations this new normative approach will face in ensuring a reconciliation between power and morality.
It will be postulated that society must be something that evolves, not something that can be superimposed from an international government. World government will be considered inadequate to restrict the power and Morgenthau’s ‘lesser evil’ the most realistic chance of ensuring protecting human rights.
A domestic analogy will be used to demonstrate that each nation has its own morality which has arisen by socialisation. To transplant and export this would limit human motivation and thus create a situation of possible civil war. It will be concluded that an appeal to a shared humanity is the only logical and remaining recourse.
- Chapter 6 will discuss the claim that there is an international society, concluding that the risk of mutual annihilation and the overlapping consensus of morality rooted in the reconceptualised transcendent ethic has generated one.
This thesis will conclude that the best possible solution for the reconciliation of Realism and human rights is the ‘lesser evil’ which will create an international society with an emphasis human rights as understood in relation to mutual threats and appeals to a shared humanity.
One definition of human rights is as follows. To have a ‘right’ requires a “right-holder [with] a claim to some substance (the object of a right) which can be asserted or demanded against some individual or group (the bearer of the correlative duty) (Vincent 1986: 8). The prefix of ‘human’ means rights holders are entitled to “conditions for a dignified life, a life worthy of being a human being” (Donnelly 2003: 15; Vincent 1999: 13).
There is an entire body of scholarship on the philosophical, theological and pragmatic foundations for human rights.
Given the contention and ambiguity surrounding this issue, this thesis will forgo engaging in this debate and instead adopt a preliminary definition of human rights as being those outlined in the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights. ‘Human rights’ will refer synonymously to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights for four reasons.
- The UDHR makes clear that no “State, group or person” (Appendix 1, Article 25) has any right to violate the rights laid out the document. This is fit for our purpose as Morgenthau articulates that “man cannot help sinning when he acts in relation to his fellow men…he may be able to minimise it but he cannot escape it” (Morgenthau 1962: 318). Human rights can, therefore, apply to all social interaction.
- This document and its definition of human rights has the empirical advantage reality of coming into existence by mutual agreement by states in the United Nations General Assembly on 10 December 1948 at the Palais de Chaillot, Paris. No votes against were cast against it, but there were eight abstentions.
It remains truly global in recognition and is “endorsed, regularly and repeatedly, by virtually all states” (Donnelly 2003: 22) and it was intended as an expansion upon commitments to human rights referenced in the UN Charter which is in itself binding: States “pledge themselves to take joint and separate action” (UN Charter: Article 56) to promote “a universal respect for, and observance, of human rights” (UN Charter 55(c).
Focussing on the UDHR undercuts much of the ideological controversy still surrounding the later adoption of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (1966) and the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (1966) and allows for the utility of what has been agreed upon already.
- For every major regional body throughout the world and in every major treaty and convention produced by the UN between 1965 and 2015 the UDHR has been the benchmark to be built upon (Tomuschat 2003: 64). For example, the series of Geneva Conventions (1949 onwards) which govern the conduct of armed conflict and the treatment of military personnel and civilians can find their antecedents in the UDHR with their shared affinity to protect the quality of human life. This relates to point 1.
In this respect, the UDHR can be said not to draw a distinction between times of war and peace but rather affirms that the “inherent dignity and of the equal and inalienable rights of all members of the human family is the foundation of freedom, justice and peace in the world” (Preamble, UDHR).
- Today, states adherence to human rights is based on restraint (not violating abuses) rather than a feared, consequence-based system of punishment if they do not. There is a taboo on breaching human rights, but no universally applied system that can sufficiently diminish states by other states to prevent human rights breaches. Catching rights breaches is based on appropriate monitoring and reporting machinery rather than actual enforcement.
The UDHR is, therefore, a normative list of what should be done, rather than what must be done or face the consequences, and this is advantageous for its combination with Morgenthau’s thinking.
A normative document would usually be considered weak because it lacks a feared mechanism of enforcement beyond sanctions or denouncements, but the UDHR’s reputation is such that it can be presupposed that statesmen do want to commit to human rights for the sake of being respected, but that they are often limited by both their nature and the circumstances created of international anarchy and the power struggle therein.
The conflation between the UDHR as a basic list of human rights and a respect for life is often made. Because the UDHR is recognised as a normative projection, and not a legally binding document, for human rights, there is scope to reconsider its normative nature because its principles are arbitrary and contested because there is no set definition of human rights, but there is, inherent to most humans, some desire to avoid hurting others needlessly. It is here that we can mesh it with the practical considerations of power, morality and what Morgenthau called the ‘lesser evil’.
The UDHR has ultimately “established the contours of the contemporary consensus on internationally recognised human rights norms” (Donnelly 2003: 22). Indeed, on the sixtieth anniversary of its creation, its relevance and normative function remain unfettered. As UN General-Secretary Ban Ki-moon aptly surmised: “It has become a yardstick by which we measure respect for what we know, or should know, as right and wrong.”
Norms are “standards of conduct by reference to which behaviour is judged and approved or disapproved” (Williams 1964: 204). Human rights have become an international regime defined as “sets of implicit or explicit principles, norms, rules, and decision-making procedures around which actors’ expectations converge” (Krasner 1995: 2).
The seemingly irreconcilable tension between a commitment to the principles set forth within the UDHR and the demands of a state’s self-interest is where we find our battleground. As Morgenthau himself notes, the motivations of the statesman are irrelevant: interest defined in terms of power is how state action should be interpreted (Morgenthau 1985: 5). How then can we reconcile this self-interest with a commitment to consistent commitment to human rights?
We now address how Morgenthau’s methodology can aid in forming a hypothesis of human rights adherence.
The popular understanding of Morgenthau’s scholarship begins with a series of ‘Great Debates’ in the late 1930’s and early 1940’s between the then dominant Liberal Internationalists and Realist writers (Wilson 1998: 1). The failure of Liberal Internationalism, with its emphasis on human rationalism and organisational ingenuity to solve the problem of conflict in the social world and to account for the devastation of the First World World War, left it susceptible to calls for a better alternative by the end of the Second.
The conviction that the ills of the social world could be understood in the same way as the natural sciences and the belief in the essential goodness of human nature (Morgenthau 1985: 3) was to be replaced as the dominant international relations paradigm by those that saw conflict rooted in human nature and power (Morgenthau 1946: 10; Donnelly 2000: 26). The dominant prevailing Liberal and Idealist schools of thought and their “focus on law and organization” gave way to “an almost exclusive concentration upon the study of power” (Tucker 1952: 214) by the end of the 1940s.
As Realism became the dominant paradigm (Vasquez 1983: 13-19), Hans Morgenthau was to become one its foundational thinkers (Williams 2007: 1). Morgenthau’s moral understanding was expounded in 1946 with the publication of Scientific Man vs. Power Politics. The book rejects the false promise of Liberal Institutionalism and its attempts to “[eradicate] human associability by scientifically engineered solutions because of its inability to provide scientific solutions that could decisively abolish evil in history” (Tellis 1996: 45).
It was on this foundation that Morgenthau’s seminal text Politics Among Nations (1948) posited a theory of international relations based on an understanding of history based on what was empirically possible and pragmatic (Morgenthau 1985: 3) and not what was desired or imposed on that reality. As one writer put it, Morgenthau’s “message was shocking to the orthodox formulators…of American foreign policy” (Good 1984: 32) who had traditionally seen the role of America to be an exemplar to others or a crusader to impose truth, justice and the America way.
Morgenthau placed primacy on the lust for power as rooted in human nature. He saw that it was an inherent truth of our nature that we covet power. He postulated that a recognition of self-interest defined in terms of power in the autonomous sphere of politics is how the observer can discern the actions of a statesman, and how in turn they should judge actions they must take (Morgenthau 1985: 6).
The statesman’s primary responsibility, argued Morgenthau, must be to act in the self-interest of the state he represents, distinguishing between his personal wishes and those of his official duty (Morgenthau 1985: 7). It is the moral obligation of the statesman to act for self-interest and that their “political qualities of intellect, will and action” will inform how they understand foreign policy necessities (Morgenthau 1985: 7). The self-interest of the state is ultimately, for Morgenthau, a “positive value and an admirable aim, if not the very basis for moral statecraft (Molloy 2006: 19).
Morgenthau desired to make a theory of politics that could explain political action. It was to be photograph, and not an exact replica of reality, that could guide an understanding of political action in international politics (Morgenthau 1985: 7). He establishes the six ‘objective’ laws that govern political relations:
Politics is governed by objective laws that have their roots in human nature.
Interest defined in terms of power.
Interest is not fixed once and for all.
Universal moral principles cannot be applied to state action.
The moral aspirations of nations cannot be identified with the moral laws that govern the universe.
The autonomy of the political sphere is unaware of the existence and relevance of standards of thought other than political ones.
You would be forgiven for thinking that Morgenthau’s only contribution to the study of international relations was his “Six Principles of Political Realism” (Morgenthau 1985: 4). Such was the level of the book’s success and its accessible maxims that it raised his views “to the highest level of governmental and academic approval” in the United States (Myer 1984: 127). With some irony, his ‘principles’ were only added to the second edition of the book at the recommendation of his publisher so they would increase sales, which they duly did (Jütersonke 2010: x).
Morgenthau was to find that his attempts at a universal theory and his six principles were to become synonymous with his name. They defined his name and his reputation but ignored the broader story of his academic and intellectual thinking.
They were also the source of his intellectual irrelevance. Coupled with Morgenthau’s increasing criticism of U.S policy about Vietnam and the rise of more positivistic approach to understanding international relations as based on capabilities and not human nature, Morgenthau and ‘Classical Realism’ were largely replaced and remembered as an important anachronism on the journey to positivism and a prelude to Neorealism (Williams 2007: 1) His nuanced and dialectical understanding of power and morality were to be sidelined. For the time being.
While Politics Among Nations “became the textbook that educated an entire generation of American policymakers” (Tellis 1996: 52), its practical success soon gave way to a desire for a more “systematic understanding of international politics derived more from a theoretical knowledge of its underlying structure than from pragmatic insights” (Rosenberg 1990: 291). Morgenthau’s dominance and success for the first two decades after the end of the Second World War (Mollov 2002: 203) was to be dislodged by a generation of theorists for whom science was the only way of conceiving IR” (Molloy 2006: 19).
It was political scientist Kenneth Waltz who was to be “the most significant Realist theorist” (Molloy 2003: 72) with his ambition build a deductive systemic theory of international relations in an effort to create a “parsimonious theory at the system level… [giving] explanatory weight to the nature of the system, the number of actors, and the distribution of their capabilities” (Lebow 1994: 253).
Waltz’s emphasis on the structural totality of anarchy and the capabilities of states in international relations and the need to find and account for “observed regularities” between them (Joseph 2007: 347) was a specific break with previous “commonsensical, subjectivist, atomistic and empiricist understandings” of international relations (Ashley 2000: 1574).
Neorealists provided an alternative “paradigm that clearly specified a picture of international politics and a set of the core areas of inquiry” that if properly researched would “delineate the laws of international behaviour” (Vasquez 43). Three key assumptions inform this paradigm and are the subject of its focus:
States are rational actors
Power as the aims of states
(Molloy 2006: 19).
A science of Realism was generated around a conceptual understanding of the material capabilities of states in an attempt to generate a positivist theory that “can be verified by observations” (Morgenthau 1940: 261). Material variables and not a statesman’s judgement became the most important factors in determining state behaviour.
The “transformation of IR into a quasi-scientific discipline” (Molloy 2006: 18) and the sheer dominance of Neorealism was reflected in a new typology of Realism. The Realism of Hans Morgenthau became “the category [of] ‘classical’…those who are not structural (Neo) Realists” applied by Neorealists in an effort to emphasise their “newness and the differences from earlier realists arising from their strong structuralism” (Donnelly 2000: 11).
Morgenthau was made a typological and historical footnote – but it was not to last.
The unexpected and peaceful end to the Cold War (Legro and Moracvcsik: 1999: 5) left Neorealism and its traditional axiomatic focus on economic and military structural factors as explanations for state behaviour (Kamminga 2010: 5) on the defensive, with accusations that it was obsolete (Waltz 2000: 5) because it was unable to comprehend new developments (Lebow 1994: 249).
The increased normative ambitions of international relations, the rise of non-government actors and a renewed commitment to human rights and liberal democracy made Neorealism’s traditional focus struggle to realign and find a purpose to explain these developments, and how they factored in a statesman’s view of the world. As Hurrell noted at the time:
“…cooperation has come increasingly to involve the creation of rules that affect very deeply the domestic structures and organisation of states, that invest individuals and groups within states with rights and duties, and which seek to embody some notion of a common good.”
(Hurrell 1995: 2)
While Waltz stressed the international system with its emphasis on self-help in a system of anarchy has remained unchanged since the end of the Cold War (Waltz 2000: 6), criticisms have nevertheless endured with calls to “reopen questions of foreign policy and the domestic sources of state action” (Williams 2007: 8).
As Murray describes, the problem with “Neorealism is it seeks less to provide an explanatory theory of international politics than to articulate the problems which confront the application of moral principles in international relations” and it “abandons the practical element for a purely technical concern” (Murray 1997: 7, 8).
As human rights discourse has only increased since the end of the Cold War, Neorealism remains unsuitable to posit an argument for how states could consistently respect human rights because it can’t – by its nature – fully appreciate the wider historical, cultural and judgemental roles that the statesman sees human rights in.
Is there an alternative?
The failure of Neorealism does not condemn all of Realist theory (Wohlforth 1995: 92). As discussed, as it became dominant and it sidelined many of its own antecedents, including Morgenthau and ‘Realism’, remains too much of an umbrella term. The school houses many nuanced expositions and theories that share a similar philosophical disposition of human nature, power and the self-interest of anarchical necessitates but are very different (Gilpin 1986:304). As Duncan Bell notes, there is a “family resemblance rather than [a cohering] unified theoretical structure” (Bell 2010: 3).
Morgenthau might have walked willingly into his own demise by whetting the whistle of others for a theory of international relations, but the confusion surrounding his own convictions is as much his fault as that of his successors because he was reluctant to use the term Realist to describe himself or his intellectual endeavours (Scheuerman 2007: 506).
Part of the issue with Neorealism and its unsuitability for understanding human rights is it ‘boxes in’ the thinking of other Realists and presents key tenants as if they are true across the board. Yet these tenants are often taken out of the context of their broader work. Morgenthau, of course, focussed on power, but it is inaccurate to say his thinking is the same as the material concerns of Neorealism or that he disavows a consideration of ethics (Murray 1996: 33). Such a misnomer that Realism is amoral (Molloy 2010: 83) detracts substantially from Morgenthau’s study of power and ethics, but it is not made easier by the author himself refusing to align himself with the school which he has given so much to.
To reduce international relations then to a “system of laws, even if it could be done, would be an impoverishment” (Hoffman 1959: 7). While Morgenthau was not averse to quantitative methods, he believed it a tool among many but not something to be over relied upon because it could produce results of packaged trivialities that detracted from a real understanding of international relations:
“I have no prejudice against them…I have to be shown…And if somebody develops a methodology and says this is the thing that is going to save us, without applying it to the concrete issues of the day, I am simply unimpressed.”
(Morgenthau 1968: 138)
No “advocate of a purely theoretical approach” (Frei 2001: 145), Morgenthau alternatively proposed the role of theory to “provide a map that suggests to us the possible meanings of foreign policy” by generating an approximation by focussing on the rational elements of political action (Morgenthau 1985: 7). Morgenthau calls the study of history “the essential, if not exclusive, foundation for the study of international politics” (Tellis 45). The facts are to be enriched with theory and history (Frei 194), to inform an empirical methodology of testing by witnessing if the “the theory [is] consistent with the facts and within itself” (Morgenthau 1985:3).
This paper will employ such a methodology, attempting to generate an understanding of international relations and human rights in terms of how the statesman could see international relations based on current circumstances and not as a grand theory. To generate a theory of human rights and power would afford little benefit to statesmen or citizens as both operate on a predominantly empirical plain. Their reconciliation should thus be firmly rooted in what is empirically possible.
It cannot be a speculative spectator sport because the realities of being a citizen and being a statesman are entirely different. The observer of politics is biased by “civilisation, the national community, and all the particular religious, political, economic and social groups of which he is a member” (Morgenthau 1962: 36). Their human nature is shared with the statesman, but his responsibilities are not. It is ultimately the latter that decides the course of action for international relations and this thesis will focus on the methodology for that purpose.
It is the task of this thesis to reassess how the statesman understands ‘interest defined in terms of power’ by taking the foundational block of Morgenthau’s theory of politics, human nature, and the foundation block of what constitutes human rights and linking the two together.
What Hedley Bull calls the ‘classical approach’ to international relations consists of “philosophy, history and law…and is characterized by the explicit reliance upon the exercise of judgement” and it will be utilised to re-examine the options available to the statesman (Bull 1966: 1). As Lebow notes, “wisdom is a holistic understanding of the human condition” (Lebow 2003: 360) and not something demonstrable by science.
As Morgenthau himself says, acting upon political wisdom requires understanding the rules of politics to influence the course of policy (Morgenthau 1985: 1-8). This thesis shall posit changing how a statesman sees the rules to generate guidelines on how human rights can be consistently factor into the thinking of a statesman whose priority must be the national interest.
Morgenthau’s contention that scholars have a “moral responsibility to speak truth to power” (Cozette 2008: 5), his rejection of the abstraction of science and understanding of the biases of the observer make his scholarship the perfect source to base a proposal for how statesman can observe human right.
As Eric Voegelin says “whenever the theorist wants to understand a political society, it will be one of his first tasks, if not the very first, to ascertain the human type that expresses itself in the order of the concrete society” (Bloom 1968: 337-44).
To do this, we must reject the theoretical considerations of what human rights are and instead embrace the UDHR as the empirical reality and benchmark of what are considered human rights in international relations
Of its 30 articles, the UDHR focusses on what is the prerequisite for a free form of human existence. From the right food and water to free movement and education and liberty from torture, there is plenty that establishes the encompassing statement about what a comfortable and prosperous human life looks like.
Forgetting the UDHR as a document for a moment, none of its articles can be declared as irrelevant to human physical or emotional need. I both need food and want to move freely. I do not want to be tortured nor do I want to be arrested without trial. Linking rights to the needs of our “physical nature” (Vincent 1986: 14) offers an opportunity to bypass the normative demands of the UDHR and instead view its articles as grounded from the same recognition of our shared humanity as Morgenthau’s definition of human nature.
This chapter will examine the similarities in the conception of human nature as adopted by the UDHR and Morgenthau and attempt to link them together in their understanding. It will be concluded that there is significant overlap and that both concepts offer different, but similar, recognition and fulfilment of self-actualisation that satisfies the physiological and psychological fundamentals of human nature. The implications of this shared recognition for a reconciliation between self-interest and human rights will then be examined.
The purpose of the articles of the UDHR are to reach a level of “self-actualization” (Marlow 1970: 33). They are the conditions by which human life and liberty can be observed and respected by others; that no one has a right to infringe upon. They are the basic level tenants required to achieve the ability to do what one wishes with one’s life; without each of the articles there will be unnecessary suffering and fear that will preclude a human from achieving a higher state of fulfilment.
Once the basic physiological and psychological needs common to all humans are guaranteed, human rights, like the ‘hierarchy of needs’ described by clinical psychologist Abraham Maslow, become self-actualising, meaning they create the conditions for further motivational wants which are beyond the basic necessities of human nature. Maslow first proposed his hierarchy in his 1943 paper “A Theory of Human Motivation” and they are what are required for a person to then springboard onto what they are ‘capable of becoming’ as humans (Maslow 1970:33).
The UDHR commits that the “inherent dignity and of the equal and inalienable rights of all members of the human family is the foundation of freedom, justice and peace in the world” (UDHR, Preamble). This was reaffirmed by the Vienna Declaration of 1993 that stated that “All human rights are universal, indivisible and interdependent and interrelated” (Vienna Declaration, article 1.5, 1993).
Like Maslow’s hierarchy, “no motivation can be treated as if it were isolated, and “every drive is related to the state of satisfaction or dissatisfaction of other drives” (Maslow 1970: 23).
So is there also, a similar understanding of human nature that can be linked with Morgenthau’s?
Since the 1960s, there has been a revived interest in linking human needs to the claims of human rights (Fitzgerald 1985: 87). The argument follows that human beings have ‘needs’ and “a basic human need logically gives rise to a right” (Green 1981: 55). While Donnelly argues that there is no philosophical link between the two (Donnelly 1985: 28), the consensual agreement by states to the normative UDHR in 1948 which contends basic human needs should be observed suggests that there is justification in positing that human needs confer rights in international relations.
An immediate problem is what typology should be used to distinguish between those true needs that and those which, while important, are optional affectations (Donnelly 1985: 28). Marcuse discerns that “nourishment, clothing, lodging and an attainable level of culture” (Marcuse 1955: 4-5) are the most basic and important claims, while Bay claims that “man’s social belongingness or solidarity needs are most crucial to human freedom and wellbeing: love, social acceptance, a sense of being rooted, self-esteem as social beings, joy inhuman relationships” (Bay 1979: 30).
Yet both arguments are “concerned almost entirely with the maintenance of life, rather than its quality” which requires a blend of the physiological and the psychological (Donnelly 1985: 29) as the UDHR does.
Maslow’s based his ‘hierarchy of human needs’ on clinical observation and combines the two. He argues that physiological needs are a prerequisite for other ‘higher’ needs that follow in a causal order of satisfaction (Maslow 1970: 25). This hierarchy order is as follows:
(Maslow 1970: 27-45)
The first are basic physiological needs – homeostasis – and the body’s autonomic ability to maintain an optimum level of health. When threatened a human’s motivation will be directed at remedying the deficiency of that state. Hunger is an example of this, making the physiological resolution of primary importance over all other concerns including changing how a human thinks about the future, or as Maslow says, “Utopia can be defined as where there is plenty of food” for example (Maslow 1970: 26).
This need is reflected in Article 25 of the UDHR: “Everyone has the right to a standard of living adequate for the health and well-being of himself and of his family, including food, clothing, housing and medical care.”
What then happens “when there is plenty of bread and when his belly is chronically filled?” (Maslow 1970: 27). Maslow contends that now that physiological needs have been satisfied, the desire for security from, for example, “wild animals, extremes of temperature, criminals, assault and murder, tyranny” become the most important drive; becoming such an overwhelming need that previous physiological needs become, in retrospect, unimportant (Maslow 1970: 32).
Morgenthau’s first tenant of human nature consists of a “simple selfishness which equates to the will to live” through security (Morgenthau 1946: 188). This is compatible with Maslow’s understanding of physiological needs. Morgenthau agues that selfishness is for the purpose of “food, shelter and the means by which they are attained…offer the best chance of survival” (Morgenthau 1946: 193). For Maslow, seeking security means that a “man, in this state, if it is extreme enough and chronic enough, may be characterised as living almost for safety alone (Maslow 1970: 28). Both stem for a recognition that human physiology dictates need.
Morgenthau and Maslow, therefore, both agree that “selfishness has limits” and can be largely gratified by the satisfaction of physiological and security needs (Morgenthau 1946: 193). According to Maslow, the third criterion on his hierarchy of needs is the “hunger for affectionate relations with people in general…namely, for a place in his group, and he will strive with great intensity to achieve his goal” (Maslow 1970: 32). Maslow allows for love and self-esteem to be interchanged because it is “the respect of others”, including a desire for strength among peers and the prestige, that fulfils both of these needs (Maslow 1970: 33).
While Maslow posits that the need for power only the motivation to satisfy his hierarchy off needs, and that love is a part of this, Morgenthau posits that love and power are intertwined. He argues that eventually power eventually wants to consume love causing the second tenant of his view of human nature: the animus dominandi, the lust for power as “the desire to maintain the range of one’s own person with regard to others, to increase it” (Morgenthau 1946: 188).
For Morgenthau, the “common quality of love and power [is that] each contains an element of the other” (Morgenthau 1962: 248). He contends “that of all creatures only man is capable of loneliness, as only he is in need of not being alone” (Morgenthau 1962: 247). Like Maslow, love is both contingent on loving and being loved (Maslow 1970: 33). Human beings, for Morgenthau, therefore seek love with another to fulfil their loneliness. Yet love is fleeting because there is a tension between the desire to preserve one’s individuality and to merge completely into this love (Morgenthau 1962: 249) and this tension will inevitably collapse.
What man cannot, therefore, achieve “for any length of time through love he tries to achieve with power” to cure his loneliness. Power, therefore “becomes a substitute for love” as those who “use and suffer power would rather be united in love” (Morgenthau 1962: 250).
Love, and the freedom to love is a liberty woven throughout the UDHR and it’s a criterion of Maslow’s hierarchy is. Power, as a “substitute” to love, suggests that in Morgenthau’s rationale there is room to suggest that power can be mitigated by conditions of love, or when combined with Maslow, conditions which promote “self-esteem”, a key criterion on his hierarchy that can lead to greater human self-actualisation.
Morgenthau has increasingly been awarded more attention for his complex appreciation of human nature. Recent analyses have focussed on the Freudian elements of Morgenthau’s understanding of human nature. Using Freud’s instinct dualism of the ‘ego instinct and a sexual instinct or Eros’ (Scheutt 2010: 29), Scheutt posits that Morgenthau’s first instinct (survival) of man is the ego instinct – self-preservation through shelter, food and security (Jervis 2008), something that both Maslow and Morgenthau concur on.
Scheutt also argues that Morgenthau’s second tenant, the animus dominadi, is driven by Freud’s understanding eros, the sexual instinct. Morgenthau specifically says that power is an attempt to compensate for the absence of love with the ever greater accumulation of power, which only “begets the desire for more, for the more men the master holds bound to his will” yet this will result in his “[being] the more…aware of his loneliness” (Morgenthau 1962: 249). The cycle of trying to conquer, to seek the love of the subjects as a substitute for the love of interpersonal associations, continues.
What Morgenthau does not make clear is if he is speaking of emotional or physical intimacy. Scheutt channels Freud to suppose that the analyse of which Morgenthau speaks is referring to the sexual instinct, it’s dissatisfaction driving forward “man’s desire to dominate fellow men” (Scheutt 2010: 27, 28) as a need for conquest as a need to compensate.
The absence of love/sex is bound to the drive for power, and the latter comes from the former. Maslow is more explicit, stating that “love and affection, as well as their possible expression in sexuality, are looked upon with ambivalence…and are customarily hedged about with many restrictions and inhibitions” which can lead to illness as “compensatory or neurotic trends’ (Maslow 1970: 33, 34).
If sexually is repressed, or left unsatisfied, it can be supposed that the natural expression of it as power finds a natural home in an international realm that has few inhibitions or restrictions on behaviour.
There is a confusing implication that those that conquer, or do not observe human rights, are merely sexually neurotic. Nevertheless, Morgenthau’s contention that the “Alexander’s and Napoleons…painfully aware of the love that is beyond their reach seek to compensate…with an ever greater accumulation of power” (Morgenthau 1962: 249) is a logical basis for behaviour internationally that does not exist to such an obvious extent in the domestic borders of a state.
Here we find the biggest similarity between Morgenthau and Maslow, expressed entirely differently. For Morgenthau, only physiological needs can be the preconditions for peace; yet love and power are intertwined, incompatible and dissatisfactory leading to the perpetual quest for power as a substitute for love which means the observance of human rights would seem impossible.
For Maslow on the other hand, love and sex are the precursors to self-actualisation or a higher plain of morality. Both find their basis in their humanity, and whereas you cannot force people to engage in the conditions that will allow them to find satisfaction; you cannot restrict them, and the UDHR is an expression of liberty that finds a similarity to the understanding of human nature as outlined by Morgenthau and reinforced by Maslow.
What can be done to then make the statesman commit to a compliance with the UDHR and human rights?
Morgenthau stipulates that there are three means by which to restrain power in international relations, “morality, mores and law” (Morgenthau 1985: 229). They differ to each other in the severity of the sanction. The first, morality, is a matter of conscience. This shall now be examined to see if a deeper understanding of Morgenthau’s ‘lesser evil’ is enough to generate a respect for human rights by the statesman by appealing to their conscience.
Having established that the breakdown or absence of love leads to a lust for power in the international sphere which leaves adhering to human rights unlikely, can there be any mitigation of that power to induce a respect for rights?
Morgenthau recognises that as well as the animus dominandi there is another side to man’s nature, the moral component: “animal by nature… a moralist because he is a man” (Morgenthau 1946: 168). While he provides an account of power that is rooted in human nature and his understanding of the empirical facts of our existence, there is no immediate connection as to why there is a moral component to man’s nature, nor does he posit an explanation for one (Scheuerman 2007: 514).
Can this void be filled by a contemporary study about what Morgenthau understood in the first part of the 20th Century? There are arguments in evolutionary biology, such as an understanding of primates, which suggest that morality may have evolved as a method of limiting selfishness to foster cooperation in groups. Dr. morality is as firmly grounded in neurobiology as anything else we do or are” (De Waal 1996: 6). If this is the case, then it is perfectly common have a have a moral want to be kind to other people as a means of fostering cooperation as sure as the need for power is as true to the human character as Morgenthau purports.
Morality, therefore, would not be some abstract concept that is an opt-in which can be explained exclusively by religion or by society, but as something that is innately part of human nature.
Morgenthau’s understanding of morality oscillates between a transcendental or universal values and position grounded in the acknowledgement that humans do have a moral centre. He never gives an account of morality as being of human nature in the same way as he does power, other than by stating morality is a component of man because he is a man.
What are the implications of this? Does this mean that there is an a priori component of our nature that can be influenced in the same way that the animus dominandi emerges or is curtailed by the pursuit and breakdown of love? Is this ambiguity in Morgenthau’s work actually advantageous to adapting his argument to show that there is a case for adherence to human rights?
Freud can again provide an elaboration in stating that man’s conscience contains internalised norms “shaped by parental and societal prohibitions” (Scheutt 2010: 32). The existence therefore of an a priori component of man’s thought as something that is comprised of limits provides a basis for the limitation of power. Man, and humans can be socialised or conditioned to respect moral norms. Yet these limits, by inference, can be culturally tuned to what is taught hence why societies have different moral norms, but moral norms nevertheless.
If then Morgenthau’s statement that man is moral because he is a man and the Freud account that he is socialised by parents and society is true, what unifying moral thread can we use to weave together our acknowledgement that Morgenthau’s definition of human nature and Maslow’s understanding of human needs share the same antecedents to bring about a commitment by statesmen to respecting those rights?
Despite suggesting that morality is intrinsic to human nature, Morgenthau acknowledges that there are serious questions as to how to “build a bridge between ethics and politics (Morgenthau 1960: 6). Indeed, even though he acknowledges a moral element to man’s character that moves beyond the pastiche of ‘power, power and power’ that he is famed for, there is an inconsistency at the heart of his moral thinking.
The oscillation between ‘bottom-up’ morality, or a priori morality inherent to to human nature and to top-down, transcendental morality marks an inconsistency in Morgenthau’s work. Morgenthau’s supreme transcendental ethic is an objective moral code that can be “discovered” (Morgenthau 1979: 10) but also contains “commands that must be obeyed for their own sake” (Morgenthau 1960: 354).
Such a code is unusual, but not unexpected, from a scholar who has placed so much emphasis on empirical reality yet whose work has remained so ignored and ambiguous. Nevertheless, this ethic creates an “unbridgeable gulf” between how man must act out of political necessity and the “demands of Christian ethics” (Morgenthau 1960: 6). Are we back to square one?
Not quite. Morgenthau’s use of “Christian ethics” is telling: his moral compass can be largely found in a Niebuhr-Augustinian context and owes an intellectual debt to theologian Reinhold Niebuhr’s ‘Christian Realism’ and to the Saint Augustine’s ideas of “original sin and the lust for power” (Smith 1986: 126; Murray 1996; Russell 1990: 61; Frei 2001: 76).
In the 1940s and 50s, Niebuhr developed Christian Realism, a view superficially different to political Realism because it retains a concern for justice and peace. It stands in contrast to Christian Idealism because it accepts the realities of power and politics in human life and therefore that the Kingdom of God cannot be realised on earth because of the corrupt tendencies of society. Ultimately, due to the injustice innate to every human society, a person – or in our case a statesman – is forced to compromise the ideals of the Kingdom of Heaven on earth and make do with as close an approximation as possible to it.
To this day it has found a natural home in the American foreign policy, particularly in the presidencies of Jimmy Carter and Barrack Obama and secretaries of state Madeleine Albright and Hilary Clinton and Republican former presidential candidate John McCain.
Morgenthau and Niebuhr formed a close friendship (Mollov 2002: xii) and while their proximity to each other’s ideas was to drift in the latter stages of Morgenthau’s life (Murray 1996: 87), Niebuhr’s scholarship “had a favourable and lasting impact” on Morgenthau (Rice 2008: 255).
The theological element of Morgenthau’s moral thinking, and in particular the Judeo-Christian moral tradition, is an often overlooked component. Yet scratch below the surface and beyond the cliché of a parochial obsession with power, he has consistently wrestled with moral idealism and the practical realities of power and life.
To Morgenthau there was something unifying and shared in morality that was empirical and, if not the spiritual, then transcendental. He observed and acknowledged that man had a moral component and contended that it was “impossible to postulate a plausible moral code without a theological foundation” (Morgenthau 1979: 10) and that “it’s difficult to conceive of a valid moral universe without a theological foundation” (Mollov 2002: 59).
Yet also he said that “religion is not alone in this ability to propagate such transcendent doctrine; a secular doctrine could provide the same propagative facts” (Morgenthau 1955; Mollov 2002: 72).
The source of this morality is perhaps not as important as the founding-Realist conceding that man not only has a moral dimension but that there is a universal morality by which it is measured against.
As Mollov has identified, Morgenthau’s Judaism was a key influence in the formation of this transcendental morality. Frei even goes further to note that Morgenthau said that “had I lived in another time, I might have become a priest” (Frei 2001: 143; Mollov 2002: 203)).
The deference to the transcendental is a curious departure from Morgenthau’s commitment to the empirical. Nevertheless, when describing the work of his great contemporary and intellectual rival, E.H. Carr, as one of failure he attributed the cause to Carr’s relativist foundations (Morgenthau 1948: 133).
Morgenthau’s transcendental morality, by its definition, is a set morality for all of man. However, it is loaded with Judeo-Christian principles and it is either a spectacular cosmic coincidence or he has broken his own observation in chapter 2, that the observer is biased because of his influences.
Despite this issue, a theological or secular transcendental ethic is an integral tool for establishing a commitment to human rights.
Morgenthau does not commit a fallacy by saying that man must follow the transcendental ethic but rather notes there is one and that he should strive towards it. It is the natural hand holder to his previous observation that man is moral because he is a man. Morgenthau’s specifics on what this moral code consists of is minimal, but he says it contains “certain basic moral principles applicable to all human beings”.
He later clarifies that “there exists a moral order in the universe which God directs, the content of which we can guess. We are never sure that we guess correctly; or that in the end, it will come out as God wants it to come out.’ (Morgenthau 1979: 17, 25, 36).
The extension of this is that there are simply some things which are immoral to every culture which cannot justified; or cannot be justified by the majority.
But let’s consider Morgenthau’s other observation: “man cannot help sinning when he acts in relation to his fellow men; he may be able to minimise that sinfulness of social action, but he cannot escape it”
The secularisation of Morgenthau’s transcendentalism and the replacement of God with a Platonic understanding can create a transcendental perspective that doesn’t rely on the judgement of God but on the measurement by which the political actions of man can gain in proximity to what the perfect ideal is.
Morgenthau’s solution to the problem of moral action and political necessity is the inspired ‘lesser evil’.
While Aristotle, Augustine and Niebuhr share a common contention that moral perfection in this world is impossible and only a small fraction of that can be achieved (Morgenthau: 1962: 375; Russell 1990: 145), it is Aristotle that first wrestled with it outwith the context of a Christian tradition. His solution of being morally good, but accepting the demands and practicalities was the ‘lesser evil’:
“The unjust man does not always choose the greater, but also the less-in the case of things bad absolutely; but because the lesser evil is itself thought to be in a sense good, and graspingness is directed at the good, therefore he is thought to be grasping. And he is unfair; for this contains and is common to both.”
Morgenthau likewise acknowledges that there is “no escape from the evil of power regardless of what one does” (Morgenthau 1945: 17). In tandem with his transcendental ethic, he posits that: “He must choose among the political actions at his disposal the one which is the least likely to do the least violence to the commands of Christian ethics. The moral strategy of politics is then, to try to choose the lesser evil” (Morgenthau 1945: 17).
Morgenthau and Aristotle both agree that being good was rooted in practical wisdom (Molloy 2009: 104) and for Morgenthau “the only true guide to moral action in international politics is an honest awareness of the role played by interest and power” (Molloy 2006: 88).
In this context, both men argue that the moral ‘right’ in decision-making does not rest in “universal laws derived…from abstract principle” but the application of the intellect to taking them as a benchmark and pursuing the least evil course. For a statesman, this will be about observing Christian ethics and acting out of the necessity of the national interest and power in the least evil way possible (Molloy 2009: 107).
Political ethics is the ethics of doing evil yet, as the doctrine of the lesser evil contends, the quantity and quality of the evil involved in the decision to act (or not to act), are unequal. As advice to a statesman, Morgenthau articulates that it is:
“To choose among several expedient actions the least evil one is moral judgment. In the combination of political wisdom, moral courage, and moral judgment man reconciles his political nature with his moral destiny.”
(Morgenthau 1945: 17–18)
It is for the statesman to recognise historical and cultural relativism exists, but that there is an objective, transcendental moral law which we can measure what the lesser evil is against. All different moral codes, argues Morgenthau, filter an objective moral code When questioned about the lack of applicability of this universal code, he replied:
“I think the normative function of the moral code remains intact. Only it is put in a situation in which the compulsive force, the normative force of the code, is qualified by potential considerations. I mean what we call circumstantial ethics.”
(Morgenthau 1945: 17–18).
A statesman cannot, therefore, seek to do the greatest good all of the time because it is not possible, but prudence to determine the least evil act and committing to that can be morally right.
The implication for human rights is twofold. Firstly, the UDHR can still retain a normative function which in turns allow for statesmen to retain the duty of safeguarding the national interest of their country.
Second, political action in international relations becomes measured by causing the least damage. We can acknowledge that there is a relativist international society, defined by the morals and mores of the day, but that infringing needlessly on them will be both bad statecraft because they will be condemned by fellow nations but also that it is morally wrong.
Human rights, as understood as being a shared and basic humanity, can be supplemented with a transcendental ethic. Morgenthau himself has said it is deliberately vague and only states that there is “a moral order in the universe” (Morgenthau 1979: 17, 25, 36) if it is populated by basic human needs, as outlined by the UDHR and not by theoretical restrictions, it becomes good statecraft and good morality to respect, rather than adhere, to their principles. Human rights and self-interest can thus be reconciled.
Are there any alternatives for human rights enforcement that allow them to be adhered to consistently and indivisibly by states?
This thesis has attempted to establish that Morgenthau’s transcendentalism can afford a better understanding of the prospects of state commitment to human rights if it is not understood in theological, but secular terms rooted in an understanding of human nature. Morgenthau himself stated that man cannot escape his nature and nor should we ignore the duality between morality and a need for a power (Frei 2001: 165).
Morgenthau’s lesser evil is this most pragmatic solution for adhering to human rights in the present situation of international anarchy. But Morgenthau himself acknowledged the changing tides of history, and while he understands man’s nature to be true of man, there is little in his total body of his thinking to suggest he was blind to changes in the international system throughout history, or that it might never change in the future.
The lesser evil does not afford, on its own, a total guarantee for overcoming state self-interest as the national interest, particularly when the articles of the UDHR are taken as a positivist set of indivisible prerequisites.
Can law, using a domestic analogy, paint a different picture for the future of the international system if moral choice is removed from a statesman and replaced by the legal consequences of a global world order?
For Morgenthau citizens “owe their peace and order to the existence of state” (Morgenthau 1985: 501). How do we translate this debt to the international sphere, where global citizens owe their peace and order to a global organisation so that human rights are observed like the domestic rights that most people enjoy around the world?
Morgenthau posits that there are suprasectional loyalties that demand different roles for man in domestic society and it is because of these roles that there is an inherent peace which “neutralise conflicts and…restrain them within such limits as to enable the members of society to play their different roles at the same time” (Morgenthau 1985: 503). Citizens are members of the same national society and “they partake of the same language, the same customs, the same historic recollections, the same fundamental social and political philosophy, the same national symbols (Morgenthau 1985: 508).
Domestic society must also have a justice system that is respected whereby competing groups with a legitimate claim can voice these concerns. Any breakdown of this and a descent into violence will threaten the state. It must, therefore, by its “very presence, towering above contending groups, keeps their conflicts within peaceful bounds (Morgenthau 1985: 508). Alternatively, those that resort to violence will be met with “whatever means of violence it retained for the purpose of maintaining peace and securing its own survival” (Morgenthau 1985: 508).
Is such a conception of international relations possible to enforce human rights upon the nations of the world?
There are immediate issues. There are no shared languages or customs and historical recollections remain multifaceted and the source of lingering and entrenched conflicts. There is no justice system with teeth and no supranational or international body yet in existence which can restrain or deter the military capability of states except by shaming it into submission.
Even with these issues aside for a moment, a world state would not be possible to enforce human rights for there is, according to Morgenthau, no moral consensus on which to build it and no means of overcoming the traditional state bonds which localise loyalty and promote a concern for the nation’s own self-interest (Speer: 1969). The state ultimately is “part of the society from which it has sprung, and prospers and decays as society prospers and decays. The state, far from being a thing apart of society is created by the society” (Morgenthau 1985: 508).
States will, therefore, have their own concepts of morality as we understand Morgenthau’s contention that man has an a priori moral component to his nature.
Morality is bottom up then, certainly in the context of the state’s borders. Freud again affords an explanation, positing that if man is not shaped by a higher authority then his morality will be subject to societal and parental internalisation of norms (Scheutt 2010: 45). These, in turn, will create unique society.
How then could a world state hope to achieve a universal system of law that was founded in moral agreement to protect and enforce human rights?
The world state enforcing international law (law overriding or replacing domestic law) would face exactly the same challenge of human nature that the domestic realm does. Yet, most of the time, man breaks the law but does not launch wars against his literal neighbour or other citizens of his country unless, as Morgenthau notes above, there is a breakdown in the means of the state to enforce order.
Man is driven to social relationships in an attempt to resolve the “fruitless search for love” said Morgenthau, and if he cannot find it will use power to as a replacement to love. This, according to Morgenthau, is the explanation for the drive for power manifest in international relations between states.
Domestically on the other hand, “groups, political communities, or civilisations” (Scheutt 2010: 33) require man to forgo his motivational wants. He cannot do as he pleases. Man might go to any lengths to satisfy his physiological and psychological needs but within the borders of a state they are curbed by what is morally and legally permissible. As Morgenthau notes, “man’s “freedom [is] marred by the power of others, as his power is by their freedom” (Morgenthau 1963: 420).
Maslow’s hierarchy of needs presupposes an orderly transition from one level to the next. Like the UDHR, and its subsequent manifestations, it does not take into consideration the inherent individualism and selfishness required for physiological, psychological and security to be satisfied. Whatever the moral capability of a person, it still remains secondary to the lust for power which will create a war of “every man against every man” (Morgenthau 1946: 194). A strong state is, in short, needed to enforce rights so as to limit the conflict between its members: “Enforced conformity of opinions and attitudes is the cement that holds together the structure of American society” (Morgenthau 1960: 61).
In international relations, the lesser evil does not kerb empire, conquest or expansion. It merely requires, in the context of this thesis, that human rights be observed and protected. If there is a world state, a global law and a global enforcement agency then the solution of Morgenthau, Freud and Maslow of satisfying human needs – which both concede involves love as power and power as love – has nowhere to be expressed.
The state and international anarchy are the vents for man’s needs. “Man is a perpetually wanting animal” (Maslow 1970: 22) and as a result, people are “unable to satisfy their lust for power in the national community” because their needs are restrained (Morgenthau 1985: 102). International anarchy affords an opportunity for “frustrations we experience within the national community… [to be] compensated for by…the power of the nation (Morgenthau 1985:99).
By Freud’s process of identification (Scheutt 2010: 33), man associates himself with the power of the statesman in order to partake in the “power, prestige, and glory that the nation and its leader wield in the international sphere man.” Man receives a share in the power of the nation and becomes powerful himself thereby finding compensation for the lack of satisfaction within the society because of its constraints.
Morgenthau understands the group mentality as being a vent for man’s nature into an international arena where “what is forbidden for the individual within the nation can be pursued as a political community, or rather by its representatives” (Scheutt 2010: 35).
As a consequence, through identification of man with the statesman, humans can have their instinctual drive for power fulfilled by the association with a leader that can accomplish internationally what is otherwise impossible at home. Self-interest becomes a group activity (Scheutt 2010: 33).
The limitations required domestically demand that man sacrifice some of his total ability to fulfil his needs by power because of social conventions and law whereas “there are virtually no societal restrictions on the international sphere (Scheutt 2010: 33). There is, therefore, an irreducible tension between man and society (Scheutt 2010: 31) that is partially resolved with the presence of international affairs.
It is onto these conditions that a world government and legal order would be imposed. If this legal and moral order was forced on states that had contrary views, the same problem which occurs in the domestic community would occur within the international community: a breakdown of an international consensus and civil war because there was no shared history, language or culture.
So without international anarchy, it is unclear what the consequences would be for man’s natural ‘vent’ if it disappeared. The present conditions have the advantage of being what we empirically know, and Morgenthau’s lesser evil, in conjunction with his transcendentalism and human rights, offers a way of behaving differently within this order rather than trying to alter the order itself with uncertain consequences.
Can we achieve greater success then by more concretely underpinning Morgenthau’s yardstick transcendentalism with the moral mores of the day, rather than an appeal to our shared humanity?
Does an international society afford a better prospect for restraining moral order?
The focus of this chapter will be to establish that there is what Morgenthau calls a “restraining influence of moral consensus” (Morgenthau 1985: 216) among states and international society.
Bull defines a society of states as existing when there is a consciousness about certain common interests and the society feels that they are bound by certain common rules (Bull 1995: 31). Does such a society exist, and of so does its ethical centre serve the same purpose Morgenthau’s transcendental ethic and his lesser evil proposition?
Morgenthau argues that before the rise of nationalism with the French Revolution the European aristocracy conducted themselves by morals and social mores by which all diplomats and statesmen were judged. These rules existed by a shared understanding of the norms of the day and the behaviour that was to be expected. Ultimately, it was “fear and shame, horror and justice…[that] induced leaders to moderate their ambitions” (Morgenthau 1948: 270-84).
Today international society, while still distinctly nationalist in character, has developed a normative framework based on three understandings unique to the 20th century and into the 21st which operate in a similar manner as the previous aristocratic and familial connections in Europe of old.
Firstly, there are international threats which, for the first time in human history, pose a threat not just to countries but to all of humanity. The infringement of human rights around the world, climate change, nuclear weapons, international terrorism and war and migration are issues which have, by the very definition of the problem, necessitated cooperation to try and prevent and solve.
Secondly, the predominance of Western civilisation, liberal democracies and the UDHR through the universally participated in UN General Assembly have made an appeal to human rights a major concern for states. While they may not observe them, states accused of breaches respond to their critics by proclaiming their innocence and assuring the international community that they respect their citizens. Even if there is a lie, keeping up appearances on human rights is integral to a state because the response from the international community would mean ostracisation, sanctions or, in some cases, intervention and war.
Thirdly, the rise of non-state actors, pressure groups, cyber groups such as WikiLeaks and the increasing utilisation of the internet to affirm the first and second point mean that governments cannot escape their duties or do as they please without the consequences of the international community. It is the latter expression which has come to mean the citizens of the world and not just the governments of the world that makes an international society, and a shared international morality, the functioning reality of Morgenthau’s transcendentalism.
Rights can be found in the ideas, laws and declarations of cultures from around the world. The internet has facilitated a greater appreciation of this, a greater understanding of other cultures and a greater understanding of the shared bonds of humanity and what it means to violate human rights.
The possibility of transcending the national interest was not new to Morgenthau. In the late 1940’s and 1950’s the unprecedented example of nuclear weapons undermined traditional state concerns about the national interest as the traditional “quest for power and prestige [which] might now erupt into a war that would decimate the human species” (Scheuerman 2009: 138). Morgenthau observed that “nuclear power provides governments with a destructive force transcending all possible rational objectives of the foreign policy of any nation (Morgenthau1962: 76). The self-interest would mean little if there was no one left to exercise it.
The extent of Morgenthau’s concern was such that he posited a radical departure from his scholarship to merge Realist and Utopian ideas together. His solution was to think more in terms of a “supranational community and a world government, a political organization and structure which transcend the nation state” (Morgenthau 1962: 78). The magnitude and obstacles for transferring this power would be considerable, but necessary of humanity for the “nation-state is in the process of becoming obsolete” (Morgenthau 1962: 75).
The risk of nuclear war affects the rational perspective of the statesman for the view of death is absolute or, at least, catastrophic. The risk of nuclear attack, despite coming from ideologically opposed states, at least guarantees a rational fear in the mind of statesmen operating in the atomic age.
If this shared understanding can be facilitated because a statesman can see that death will be the end to human nature, then it is empirically evident that a yardstick understanding can be shared in international relations even among states of differing ideologies and morality. If not direct cooperation among states, the transcendental quality here at least establishes a shared fear of death and the lesser evil is statecraft which refrains from using nuclear weapons and looks for alternatives.
In the case of human rights, this is the exemplar which holds true that in a world of differing moralities it is possible to establish one red line by which statesmen can conduct statecraft and know not to cross for fear of the consequences.
To conclude, because self-interest is an inherent part of human nature it must always be considered a factor in the relations among states. Nevertheless, Morgenthau’s transcendental morality is an important tool to understanding that a shared morality or a shared agreement are ‘red lines’ that statesmen know not to cross. The lesser evil is actions that are committed, in the name of the national interest and state self-interest which do not cross this line but which do not stop the statesman from performing his duty to represent and defend the interests of his country.
In international anarchy, there is no guarantee that human rights will always be observed by states. There is no mechanism to compel a respect for human rights except sanctions that detract from the prosperity of a state or ostracisation or, as a last resort, the prospect of intervention and war.
This reconciliation between self-interest and human rights is accomplished by the Platonic reinterpretation of Morgenthau’s transcendental morality into a proximity of how close one can adhere to the normative principles in the United Nations Declaration of Human Rights. This is the most tangible and rewarding choice for seeing human rights observed in the world. The alternative is a global government which is both unlikely and untested, but certainly, the imposition of human rights laws on countries without an organic evolution into a hierarchical world government would most likely end in rejection and chaos.
In this way, a statesman will always have the option not to respect the human rights of his own citizens or others, but will always have to factor them into his decision-making for violating them will launch a detrimental course of action from the international community.
This consideration is not the same as consistently respecting human rights, but – as evidenced by the example of nuclear weapons – it offers a more realistic chance for them to be observed most of the time.
Morgenthau is correct about self-interest as being a constant of human nature. He is also correct about morality being a part of man’s nature. With a greater understanding of his transcendental moral thinking, his views on human nature and his Aristotelean inspired concept of the lesser evil, it becomes possible to see human rights as a foreign policy consideration which forms a necessary part of a statesman’s decision-making.
Because international society has the same concern about being seen to conform to the moral mores of respecting human rights, as evidenced by their being adopted by the United Nations General Assembly in the form of the UN Declaration of Human Rights, it becomes possible to call them a form of the transcendental morality benchmark which Morgenthau spoke of.
The UDHR is a set of normative principles of what constitutes a physiological and psychological fulfilled human life which are principles shared by Morgenthau but less expounded upon. The lesser evil is statecraft which avoids violating these basic tenants of humanity.
In conclusion, self-interest and human rights can be reconciled by statesmen applying Hans Morgenthau’s moral transcendentalism and articulation of the lesser evil to human rights and international relations.
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Whereas recognition of the inherent dignity and of the equal and inalienable rights of all members of the human family is the foundation of freedom, justice and peace in the world,
Whereas disregard and contempt for human rights have resulted in barbarous acts which have outraged the conscience of mankind, and the advent of a world in which human beings shall enjoy freedom of speech and belief and freedom from fear and want has been proclaimed as the highest aspiration of the common people,
Whereas it is essential, if man is not to be compelled to have recourse, as a last resort, to rebellion against tyranny and oppression, that human rights should be protected by the rule of law,
Whereas it is essential to promote the development of friendly relations between nations,
Whereas the peoples of the United Nations have in the Charter reaffirmed their faith in fundamental human rights, in the dignity and worth of the human person and in the equal rights of men and women and have determined to promote social progress and better standards of life in larger freedom,
Whereas Member States have pledged themselves to achieve, in co-operation with the United Nations, the promotion of universal respect for and observance of human rights and fundamental freedoms,
Whereas a common understanding of these rights and freedoms is of the greatest importance for the full realization of this pledge,
Now, Therefore THE GENERAL ASSEMBLY proclaims THIS UNIVERSAL DECLARATION OF HUMAN RIGHTS as a common standard of achievement for all peoples and all nations, to the end that every individual and every organ of society, keeping this Declaration constantly in mind, shall strive by teaching and education to promote respect for these rights and freedoms and by progressive measures, national and international, to secure their universal and effective recognition and observance, both among the peoples of Member States themselves and among the peoples of territories under their jurisdiction.
All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights. They are endowed with reason and conscience and should act towards one another in a spirit of brotherhood.
Everyone is entitled to all the rights and freedoms set forth in this Declaration, without distinction of any kind, such as race, colour, sex, language, religion, political or other opinion, national or social origin, property, birth or other status. Furthermore, no distinction shall be made on the basis of the political, jurisdictional or international status of the country or territory to which a person belongs, whether it be independent, trust, non-self-governing or under any other limitation of sovereignty.
Everyone has the right to life, liberty and security of person.
No one shall be held in slavery or servitude; slavery and the slave trade shall be prohibited in all their forms.
No one shall be subjected to torture or to cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment.
Everyone has the right to recognition everywhere as a person before the law.
All are equal before the law and are entitled without any discrimination to equal protection of the law. All are entitled to equal protection against any discrimination in violation of this Declaration and against any incitement to such discrimination.
Everyone has the right to an effective remedy by the competent national tribunals for acts violating the fundamental rights granted him by the constitution or by law.
No one shall be subjected to arbitrary arrest, detention or exile.
Everyone is entitled in full equality to a fair and public hearing by an independent and impartial tribunal, in the determination of his rights and obligations and of any criminal charge against him.
(1) Everyone charged with a penal offence has the right to be presumed innocent until proved guilty according to law in a public trial at which he has had all the guarantees necessary for his defence.
(2) No one shall be held guilty of any penal offence on account of any act or omission which did not constitute a penal offence, under national or international law, at the time when it was committed. Nor shall a heavier penalty be imposed than the one that was applicable at the time the penal offence was committed.
No one shall be subjected to arbitrary interference with his privacy, family, home or correspondence, nor to attacks upon his honour and reputation. Everyone has the right to the protection of the law against such interference or attacks.
(1) Everyone has the right to freedom of movement and residence within the borders of each state.
(2) Everyone has the right to leave any country, including his own, and to return to his country.
(1) Everyone has the right to seek and to enjoy in other countries asylum from persecution.
(2) This right may not be invoked in the case of prosecutions genuinely arising from non-political crimes or from acts contrary to the purposes and principles of the United Nations.
(1) Everyone has the right to a nationality.
(2) No one shall be arbitrarily deprived of his nationality nor denied the right to change his nationality.
(1) Men and women of full age, without any limitation due to race, nationality or religion, have the right to marry and to found a family. They are entitled to equal rights as to marriage, during marriage and at its dissolution.
(2) Marriage shall be entered into only with the free and full consent of the intending spouses.
(3) The family is the natural and fundamental group unit of society and is entitled to protection by society and the State.
(1) Everyone has the right to own property alone as well as in association with others.
(2) No one shall be arbitrarily deprived of his property.
Everyone has the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion; this right includes freedom to change his religion or belief, and freedom, either alone or in community with others and in public or private, to manifest his religion or belief in teaching, practice, worship and observance.
Everyone has the right to freedom of opinion and expression; this right includes freedom to hold opinions without interference and to seek, receive and impart information and ideas through any media and regardless of frontiers.
(1) Everyone has the right to freedom of peaceful assembly and association.
(2) No one may be compelled to belong to an association.
(1) Everyone has the right to take part in the government of his country, directly or through freely chosen representatives.
(2) Everyone has the right of equal access to public service in his country.
(3) The will of the people shall be the basis of the authority of government; this will shall be expressed in periodic and genuine elections which shall be by universal and equal suffrage and shall be held by secret vote or by equivalent free voting procedures.
Everyone, as a member of society, has the right to social security and is entitled to realization, through national effort and international co-operation and in accordance with the organization and resources of each State, of the economic, social and cultural rights indispensable for his dignity and the free development of his personality.
(1) Everyone has the right to work, to free choice of employment, to just and favourable conditions of work and to protection against unemployment.
(2) Everyone, without any discrimination, has the right to equal pay for equal work.
(3) Everyone who works has the right to just and favourable remuneration ensuring for himself and his family an existence worthy of human dignity, and supplemented, if necessary, by other means of social protection.
(4) Everyone has the right to form and to join trade unions for the protection of his interests.
Everyone has the right to rest and leisure, including reasonable limitation of working hours and periodic holidays with pay.
(1) Everyone has the right to a standard of living adequate for the health and well-being of himself and of his family, including food, clothing, housing and medical care and necessary social services, and the right to security in the event of unemployment, sickness, disability, widowhood, old age or other lack of livelihood in circumstances beyond his control.
(2) Motherhood and childhood are entitled to special care and assistance. All children, whether born in or out of wedlock, shall enjoy the same social protection.
(1) Everyone has the right to education. Education shall be free, at least in the elementary and fundamental stages. Elementary education shall be compulsory. Technical and professional education shall be made generally available and higher education shall be equally accessible to all on the basis of merit.
(2) Education shall be directed to the full development of the human personality and to the strengthening of respect for human rights and fundamental freedoms. It shall promote understanding, tolerance and friendship among all nations, racial or religious groups, and shall further the activities of the United Nations for the maintenance of peace.
(3) Parents have a prior right to choose the kind of education that shall be given to their children.
(1) Everyone has the right freely to participate in the cultural life of the community, to enjoy the arts and to share in scientific advancement and its benefits.
(2) Everyone has the right to the protection of the moral and material interests resulting from any scientific, literary or artistic production of which he is the author.
Everyone is entitled to a social and international order in which the rights and freedoms set forth in this Declaration can be fully realized.
(1) Everyone has duties to the community in which alone the free and full development of his personality is possible.
(2) In the exercise of his rights and freedoms, everyone shall be subject only to such limitations as are determined by law solely for the purpose of securing due recognition and respect for the rights and freedoms of others and of meeting the just requirements of morality, public order and the general welfare in a democratic society.
(3) These rights and freedoms may in no case be exercised contrary to the purposes and principles of the United Nations.
Nothing in this Declaration may be interpreted as implying for any State, group or person any right to engage in any activity or to perform any act aimed at the destruction of any of the rights and freedoms set forth herein.