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Six Principles of Political Realism

Six Principles of Political Realism

“Politics is an art and not a science, and what is required for its mastery is not the rationality of the engineer but the wisdom and the moral strength of the statesman.” ― Hans J. Morgenthau

In 1948, noted political scientist Hans J. Morgenthau published his famous book “Politics Among Nations: The Struggle for Power and Peace”. This classic text, which is considered the bible of the realist school of international relations, established realism as the fundamental way of thinking about international relations. In this book, Morgenthau penned a chapter titled “A Realist Theory of International Relations” wherein he presented six fundamental principles of political realism. Through these principles, Morgenthau seeks to develop a comprehensive theory of international politics, which he terms political realism.

According to Morgenthau’s thoughts, in contrast to idealism which assumes the essential goodness and infinite malleability of human nature and the ability of politics to live up to moral standards, realism assumes that the world is composed of opposing interests, and conflict among them is inevitable. Realism is fundamentally concerned with power rather than morality or material interests. It includes strong assumptions about human nature – humans are not naturally good and conflict is the natural outcome of the search for power, not of misunderstanding.

Following are the 6 principles of political realism:

1. Political realism believes that politics is governed by objective laws with roots in human nature. Realism should try to differentiate (in politics) between “what is true objectively and rationally, supported by evidence and illuminated by reason” and “what is only a subjective judgement, divorced from the facts as they are and informed by prejudice and wishful thinking.”

2. The main signpost of political realism is the concept of interest defined in terms of power which infuses rational order into the subject matter of politics, and thus makes the theoretical understanding of politics possible.

3. Realism assumes that interest defined as power is an objective category which is universally valid but not with a meaning that is fixed once and for all. Power is the control of man over man.

4. Political realism is aware of the moral significance of political action. It is also aware of the tension between the moral command and the requirements of successful political action. Realism maintains that universal moral principles cannot be applied to the actions of states in their abstract universal formulation, but that they must be filtered through the concrete circumstances of time and place.

5. Political realism refuses to identify the moral aspirations of a particular nation with the moral laws that govern the universe. It is the concept of interest defined in terms of power that saves us from moral excess and political folly.

6. The political realist maintains the autonomy of the political sphere; he asks: “How does this policy affect the power of the nation?” Political realism is based on a pluralistic conception of human nature. A man who was nothing but “political man” would be a beast, for he would be completely lacking in moral restraints. But, in order to develop an autonomous theory of political behaviour, “political man” must be abstracted from other aspects of human nature.

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