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Although power is not always the end result of political activity, Morgenthau asserts that “power is always the immediate goal of international politics.”

For Morgenthau, whatever is achieved by political methods must be a result of man’s ‘struggle’ for power. Many actions conducted as a result of political decisions are considered by some political theorists as a result of man’s fundamental desire for more power over others. “Political realism believes that politics, like society in general, is governed by objective rules that have their roots in human nature,” says Morgenthau.

For Thucydides, power politics was a rule of human behaviour. Like Morgenthau, classical realists think the desire for power and dominance is inherent in human nature. He means that politics is based on objective laws that are founded in human nature, which is self-centred, self-regarding, and self-interested. So, if international politics is self-interested, then power struggles will always be at the core of politics, assuming classical realists are correct. “International politics is necessarily power politics because of human nature.”

They think that the basic elements of politics, namely power struggles, are inherited from man’s nature. “For both Thucydides and Morgenthau, the essential continuity of political power-seeking is founded in human biological drives.”  If humans are wired to seek power, Morgenthau’s claim is understandable, as politics is the best way to achieve it. For example, Nazi Germany and Czechoslovakia in 1939, and the Soviet Union and Hungary in 1956, validated Morgenthau’s classical realist thesis. For twentieth-century classical realists, this cycle of violence confirmed the existence of violent drives. “The desires to live, reproduce, and dominate are universal,” says Morgenthau.

Power is a central theme in political theory. However, structural realist political theorists disagree with Morgenthau’s claim. Unlike classical realism, structural realism focuses on the international system rather than human nature. We now live in a world of anarchy and hierarchy, with anarchy referring to decentralised international politics and hierarchy referring to internal order. While structural realists agree with Morgenthau that international politics is primarily a power struggle, they reject the classical realist idea that this is a function of human nature. Instead, structural realists blame the lack of supranational authority and power imbalance in the international system for security competition and inter-state violence.

To understand crucial international outcomes such as war and peace, alliance politics, and power balance, structural realists argue that power distribution is a key independent variable. Like Waltz, many structural realists believe power will be used in politics to gain security. This theoretical perspective contrasts with Morgenthau’s view of politics as a method to achieve more power over others. “Sensible statesmen attempt to have an acceptable amount of power,” writes Waltz. “In critical situations, states’ first interest is not power, but security,” he adds.

Waltz believes that our international system’s states want to maximise security overpower over others. So rather than a war for power, politics can be seen as a means of achieving and maintaining stability.

A nation’s self-interest is sometimes confused with the interests of other nations or the international community. Unlike Morgenthau, Waltz sees self-interest as a matter of security rather than political aggression and power. John Mearsheimer’s ‘offensive realism’, a type of structural realism, approaches the power dynamics of the anarchic system from a different aspect. It is similar to Waltz’s structural realist theory but differs in how it describes state behaviour. Fundamentally, “offensive realism differs from defensive realism on how much power nations want”. To gain power at the expense of other states, Mearsheimer believes, no state is satisfied with its position. Moreover, the international system’s structure forces state to want to increase their dominance. Thus, Mearshemier’s offensive realism thesis echoes Morgenthau’s claim. If the international system allows governments to gain power at the expense of others, then that is the purpose of international politics. Thus, Morgenthau’s claim that international politics is a power struggle appears to be well-founded. Furthermore, according to Mearsheimer, global hegemony is virtually unattainable, therefore “the globe is destined to continual great power competition”.

Since the conclusion of the Cold War, a collection of political theorists has pushed beyond structural realism to explain international politics. Gideon Rose calls this group of scholars ‘neoclassical realists’. Neoclassical realism, according to Stephen Walt, “places domestic politics as an intervening variable between power distribution and foreign policy behaviour”.

The goal of international politics will differ depending on circumstances such as leaders’ perceptions of global power distribution. Morgenthau’s claim that politics is primarily about power is short-sighted since it assumes that all states or leaders have identical goals. Neoclassical realists disagree. “States differ in their ability to extract and direct resources from the societies they rule.”

Also, the nature of politics must depend on the state’s position in relation to global and domestic events. Politics’ goals will also shift over time. Morgenthau’s claim reflects the time he was writing in, when developing nations fought over global influence, resulting in wars like WWII. Moreover, the degree to which politics becomes a power struggle generally depends on a state’s stage of development, as the demands of the nation vary.

Realists argue that governments strive for power and security in our chaotic international order. Given that the state’s first act is to organise power at home, and its second is to accumulate power abroad, it’s worth exploring what realists mean by combining power and politics. Morgenthau believes politics is a means to an end: “whenever they seek to achieve their goals through international politics, they seek power.”

In reality, power is relational; it is never exercised in isolation but in relation to another entity. They also believe power is a relative concept, requiring estimates of one’s own and other governments’ power. However, detractors claim realism theory’s use of power is inconsistent. Waltz tried to solve the problem of focusing too much on power. Instead of power, he emphasises “size of people and territory, resource endowment, economic competency, military might, political stability and competence”.

However, defining power in terms of skills does not explain Japan’s higher economic success over China. Regardless of how power is defined, Morgenthau maintains that power is the primary purpose of politics. “But isn’t power a means to an end, not an end in itself?”

Survival must be the primary purpose of international politics. Beyond the survival motive, nations’ goals might be indefinitely varied, says WaltzSurvival is absolutely required for all other aims. Concerning Morgenthau’s claim, the debate rages over whether nations are primarily security or power maximizers. Defensive realists like Waltz argue that states pursue power mainly to preserve their own existence.

Conversely, aggressive realists like Mearsheimer claim that “all governments seek hegemonic status in the international system”. From this perspective, international politics appears to be a power struggle between states. However, a realistic understanding of international politics exposes opposing opinions. “A nation’s survival is its first and ultimate obligation; it cannot be compromised or put at risk,” said Henry Kissinger, Secretary of State under Nixon. Although realists argue on whether power or security is more important, Morgenthau does not dismiss the security argument. The best method for a state to be secure is to have influence over others and so negate their threat.

As we’ve discussed, the realists’ main concerns are national security and power. In an anarchic international system, states aim to maximise national interests, power, and security. And, “Conflicts in the international system are inevitable, according to political realism.”

Other theories of international relations, however, disagree with many realists like Morgenthau. Pluralists, for example, emphasise that power is not a physical entity that individuals possess or lack. People gain power by controlling resources. Realists like Waltz have tried to measure a state’s power capacity based on military and economic strength. Pluralists say that power cannot be quantified in this way since money might be utilised skillfully or clumsily, totally or partially, or not at all.

From this perspective, Morgenthau’s claim misunderstands the nature of power. Moreover, pluralism emphasises topics other than Morgenthau’s ‘power’ that international politics should focus on. Among them are welfare, human rights, and economic prosperity. Moreover, from a Marxist perspective, the main challenges are economic reasons and global inequality, which contradicts the concept that politics is always a power struggle.

Legacy Editor Changed status to publish March 22, 2022