Realist Thought Between Empire-Building and Restraint: Matthew Specter on Why a Flawed Tradition Endures

In this conversation with RevDem editor Ferenc Laczó, Matthew Specter discusses key concepts and tropes in the language of realism; the comparisons across the Atlantic that have defined the realist tradition over the generations; the broad appeal of this manner of thinking despite its notable intellectual weaknesses; and the more normative elements of his critique.

Matthew Specter is a Senior Fellow at the Institute of European Studies at the University of California, Berkeley and teaches history there as well as at Santa Clara University. He is also Associate Editor of the journal History and Theory. He researches modern European and American intellectual history, especially the history of international thought. Matthew Specter’s first book was entitled Habermas: An Intellectual Biography and was published in 2010. The Atlantic Realists: Empire and International Political Thought Between Germany and the United States has just been released by Stanford UP.

Ferenc Laczó: The Atlantic Realists studies international thought and explores the intellectual roots of International Relations as a discipline, placing realism’s emergence as a pre-disciplinary discourse earlier than usual. You associate realism’s emergence with imperialist globalization rather than the crisis of liberalism. Now you state in the book that you originally started out with the idea of exploring the triangle between Carl Schmitt, Hans Morgenthau, and Wilhelm Grewe but then expanded the scope and timeframe of your study further. What motivated you to begin to study these three persons and their relationships? What has the exploration of them yielded and why did you eventually choose to expand your coverage and return to the late 19th century? Which other major thinkers ended up being most relevant to your argument as a result, and why?

Matthew Specter: My interest in Carl Schmitt dates back to my book on Habermas where I tried to argue that the presence of Carl Schmitt in the intellectual field of West Germany, especially its conservative legal discourse, created the conditions under which Habermas formulated his project of legal and political philosophy and anti-statist constitutionalism.

As a citizen of the United States, paying a great deal of attention to the rise of neoconservatism and the decision of President Bush the Younger to conduct an illegal war of aggression in Iraq in 2003 also sensitized me to the presence of friend-enemy discourse in American foreign policy, as represented by Bush’s famous line, “You are either with us, or against us”.

There were a great number of us, critics of the war, who started to feel that Carl Schmitt was helpful for making sense of the war on terror as a war in the name of humanity which denied important protections to what it called enemy combatants. At the same time, as a left liberal of Habermasian stripe, I became very critical of a left-Schmittian critique of US foreign policy which seemed to replicate the Schmittianism of the neoconservatives.

So I’ve long been interested in Carl Schmitt, but unlike many of my friends and colleagues on the left, I never drank the Kool-Aid, as it were, in terms of feeling that Schmitt really offered an emancipatory way out of either American imperialism or other imperialisms.

The interest in Hans Morgenthau might require less explanation. He is the canonical foreign policy realist, the author of the book Politics among Nations, the most read, most assigned, most republished textbook in the field of International Relations in the United States after 1945 – really a kind of super ego for the entire field. Even when the Iraq war took place, I remember articles being written, including by John Mearsheimer, asking “what would Hans Morgenthau say?”, and weighing the Iraq war on Morgenthau’s scale. Morgenthau himself, like Schmidt in the 2000s and I guess for related reasons, also had something of a renaissance because the failure of the neoconservatives in Iraq made the realists look quite sensible. As Colin Powell, part of the Bush administration, had famously advised Bush the Elder, if you topple Saddam Hussein, if you invade Iraq and try to conquer it, if you break it – you buy it. In other words, you’re stuck with it, and on realist grounds, Colin Powell had resisted that move in 1991. As frustrations with the Iraq war grew in the early 21st century, it became clear that the realists were more realistic than the neoconservatives, and so there was a great revival of Morgenthau.

At the same time, I was well aware that Morgenthau had direct encounters with Carl Schmitt in the late 1920s, and actually accused Schmitt of plagiarizing his doctoral dissertation – there’s in fact some good evidence for that. More broadly, the question that interested me was to what extent the Schmittian concept of the political was replicated in Morgenthau. 

I like to call Wilhelm Grewe the German Kissinger, which of course will sound funny because Kissinger was also German, except you can consider the fact that he was from Bavaria and so we might call Kissinger the Franconian and Grewe the German Kissinger.  What do I mean by the latter expression? Someone who had a very active life, both in academia and in diplomacy. Grewe was the West German Ambassador to the United States during the Kennedy administration. He began his career in the Nazi Foreign Office.

 Grewe appeared to me to be a classic figure of the time of Konrad Adenauer, essentially someone who represented a disturbing continuity between Nazism and the West German reconstruction of democracy. When I found significant similarities between Grewe and Morgenthau’s thought, I thought that I could construct a triangle that would show the way in which two of the leading realists of postwar United States and West Germany, respectively, both have a Schmittian genealogy.

So that’s why I began with those three persons.

Why did I go back to the late 19th century? In trying to come to terms with Schmitt’s theory of Großraum, the kind of space in which one powerful country exerts hegemony over its neighborhood, I became a little bit frustrated with the existing historiographical discussion, which was either affirming the scientific validity of the concept, its neutrality and utility for thinking about entities like the EU, or argued that Schmitt’s partisanship for Nazism essentially tainted and poisoned the concept and made it unusable for contemporary realist political thought. I saw a way out of that aporia by thinking about Schmidt as a kind of node in Atlantic thought. Schmitt was not just someone we should canonize or demonize. He might be seen as a transmission point from discourses of the turn of the century into the middle of the 20th century.

I took my cue from some notes in Schmitt’s writings that pointed back to Friedrich Ratzel and Halford Mackinder as influences on Schmitt’s very powerful book The Nomos of the Earth, which was published in 1950. Understanding that there was a line that connected Schmitt, Morgenthau and Grewe back to an earlier generation got me started on Friedrich Ratzel, who was the geographer who coined the term Lebensraum. From there, I wanted to understand the connections between the turn of the century discourse on Lebensraum – which is not unrelated to what Frederick Jackson Turner was talking about with the closing of the frontier – and the anxieties about a closing frontier on a world scale.

I wanted to connect the Lebensraum discussion, which was a transatlantic discussion at the turn of the century to Schmitt’s concept of Großraum which was formulated before he became a Nazi. I also wanted to show that Schmitt’s defense at Nuremberg that Großraum had nothing to do with Lebensraum, nothing to do with the biopolitical project of Nazi empire building and racial extermination was not sustainable. In other words, these connections between Ratzel, Schmitt and Nazi biopolitics were a reason for me to go back to Ratzel and to try to understand what Ratzel’s original intellectual context was.

I’ll just wrap this question up by saying that there were two scholars who really brought me back to the fin de siècle: Jens-Uwe Guettel, who wrote a brilliant book under the titleGerman Expansionism, Imperial Liberalism and the United States, 1776-1945 on German liberal imperialism and it’s admiration for American empire, which gave me a comparative framework for thinking about figures like Ratzel and Frederick Jackson Turner. And then Dirk Bönker’s book on militarism in Germany and the United States called Militarism in a Global Age. Naval Ambitions in Germany and the United States Before World War I alerted me to the profound impact of the American naval strategist Alfred Mahan on Emperor Wilhelm II, Admiral Tirpitz and the German security elite. So broadly speaking, in Mahan and Ratzel I was looking for a discussion of empire by land or by sea which prefigured Carl Schmitt’s later discussion of those themes.

Part of the agenda of your book is indeed to reconstruct the genesis and itinerary of key concepts associated with realism. You aim to expose how the language of realism is not a storehouse of accumulated wisdom but much rather a historical artifact that one therefore has to study contextually. Would you be willing to introduce and discuss some of the key concepts and key tropes associated with realism?

Yes, I was definitely trying to place realism in time, and to contest the idea of realism as some kind of timeless wisdom. The way that the timeless wisdom argument is usually made is to say that there is an accumulated wisdom from Thucydides to Hans Morgenthau and Kenneth Waltz, and that perennial truths keep being rediscovered and redisclosed, and our job is basically to safeguard that canon and to learn from it. I don’t think that can be dismissed 100%. The fact that the Chinese are very interested in the realist tradition and are creatively engaging with it suggests that realism may indeed have a trans-cultural purchase – it may in fact be less provincially North Atlantic than I argue in the book.

To stick to my own argument: I am indeed very interested in the language that is used to authorize realism, and I would point to five key concepts that are not meant as an exhaustive catalog. The first key concept of realism, I think, is the notion of the national interest. To talk about the national interest as a timeless principle is ahistorical because, of course, Thucydides didn’t live in a nation state, he lived in a polis. The kind of universalization of the modern European nation state experience and of the notion of the national interest is a very peculiar intellectual move. Secondly, the question of the national interest is worryingly reified; it poses as something objective and non-ideological. I was listening to a podcast recently talking about whether contemporary China under Xi Jinping is animated by a realist pursuit of interests, or whether it’s really driven more by something ideological. I thought to myself, this opposition, this dichotomy of national interest and ideology is an ideological proposition. It’s also not objective: after all, who gets to decide what the national interest is? As a college student I learned a great deal from Noam Chomsky who introduced me to this notion that the national interest was a kind of myth, because it disguised elite interests and elite determinations that, for example, the oil of the Persian Gulf was a vital national interest of the United States and authorized whatever we needed to do to get it. This ambition was authorized on the grounds that this was existential. The language of existentialism in fact keeps on recurring in all these discussions.

The second concept that I think is important for the tradition that I’ve tried to reconstruct, and which comes into the present, is the notion of spheres of influence. The notion implies that great powers get to have them, and that there is a geographical or geopolitical determinism that is inescapable – a kind of iron cage of global politics that we have to simply admit. I think that geography and history really need to take a critical look at this version of purported common sense. I also think that the notions of hegemons with clearly defined spheres of influence often owe a great deal to racialized visions of global space, or civilizational ideologies. ‘The West’, ‘the Islamic world’, etc. are very problematic constructs.

I think there’s no simple way to talk about spheres of influence without interrogating their racialized and civilizational coordinates, and these are ideological constructs, not geopolitical facts.

The third key idea that keeps recurring in any discussion of realism and foreign policy, and which was very important for my own thinking in the book, is that of power politics. Like anyone who has worked in an office, we all know that there is something like power politics – there is politics in the office and there is politics in the home too. We’re not going to enter a world without politics: power relations are part of the human condition. Being realistic and situationally aware of power politics is a good idea. But I do think that realism has a tendency to essentialize power politics and to evacuate it of history and social theory.

To say that the state always engages in power politics without articulating a theory of the state can only amount to a massive oversimplification.

I show in my book that in Scientific Man versus Power Politics from 1946, which was Hans Morgenthau’s own favorite book, not only is there a very strong dose of Carl Schmitt’s concept of the political, but there’s a worrying tendency to treat power as something ineffable and unmasterable. I agree with Jürgen Habermas that power must be held accountable to communicative rationality. The reification of power as this transcendent thing amounts almost to an ontology, it’s almost a political theology. While we need more theoretically sophisticated ways to talk about power politics, most realisms lack a rigorous social theory of power politics.

The fourth concept I want to highlight would be the tragic. In my next book, I actually want to try and understand the figure of tragedy a bit better. I do think that realists tend to insist on the inevitability of tragedy, the need for statesman to make tough choices and enter a compact with evil. It’s there in Max Weber with his contrast of the ethics of conviction and the ethics of responsibility. I think that we rely on this motif a little too uncritically; I remain a bit skeptical about tragedy as the kind of master trope of human existence. That’s not to say that I don’t believe that hubris is an important problem in foreign policy.

There are any number of examples of foreign policy errors that show the sin of hubris, and you might approach that using the literary figure or genre of tragedy. However, I do think that all of the focus on tragedy can be disempowering in an era in which we need to believe more in our own powers of will and rationality and determination to survive on this crowded, overheated planet.

In other words, I just think that this emphasis on the tragic is perhaps not ideally suited to our moment and not as empowering as other employments of politics in the mode of hope might be.

Finally, I would speak about the valorization of reason over emotion in the discourse of realism, and the gendered quality of realism. Many feminist theorists of international relations have done excellent work on this topic already. The proposition is that there is hard power and soft power and that interests are more real than ideals. A figure like Hans Morgenthau addressed himself to an essentially all-male elite and tried to school them in a realist sensibility of statesmanship that, by using the national interest as its lodestar, attempted to banish things that are not interest-based and available to reason as the legitimate guideposts for decision making. This has the effect of discrediting everything from a human rights-centered foreign policy to a foreign policy that, as we see today in Ukraine, should be concerned at the very first level of analysis with stopping a genocide.

Your book insists that realism has also served as the expansionary ideology of empire and has very much been about knowing how to act like a world power. You devote attention to ironies and reversals, borrowings and forgetting, recognition of affinities but also erasure and denial in the transatlantic history of international thought you explore. You also underline how intra-Atlantic comparisons andmimetic competition have been crucial to the articulation of realist thought in the US as well as Germany. Would you be willing to discuss some of the prominent examples of German-US comparisons that have been articulated across time in the two countries, and how such comparisons have evolved since the late 19th century?

Let me give three examples of German-US comparisons and try to explain why those are important. I tried to argue that Germany and the US shared an affinity with one another as young empires at the fin de siècle, not least in comparison to the more established French and British empires which had had overseas colonies for much longer. There’s a wonderful text that I cite by Archibald Coolidge, an American historian, in which he describes this sympathy that he feels for German imperial aspirations at the turn of the century: Coolidge essentially says that we, the Americans and Germans, are like “two young pushing firms that have yet their way to make,” whereas the French and the English are these old established business houses.

In other words, the first moment of comparison is one in which German intellectuals and American intellectuals are looking across the Atlantic and recognizing a similarity. I argue that realism begins as such a practice of comparison, of looking across the Atlantic and saying, what does it take to be a power of the first rank? The answer in the 1890s is the need for naval power and for overseas colonies and the ability to project enough power to maintain those overseas possessions.

I argue that there’s a kind of mutation in global political thought that takes place through this practice of comparison, in which the US and Germany recognize that to be a power of the first rank, to be an actor on the world stage – and I’m very interested in that metaphor of the world stage too – requires leaving the sphere of the continental, whether it be the European continent, as in the case of Germany, or the American continent in the case of United States, and going out upon the seas. And I try to show through close readings of Ratzel and Mahan and of the political scientist Paul Reinsch who offered the first course with “world politics” in the title in the United States that there is a German-American process of comparison and effort to understand what the prerequisites of becoming a power of the first rank are.

The second moment of German-US comparison or looking back and forth in this Atlantic hall of mirrors is the debate during World War II on geopolitics. I love the story of the priest Edmund Walsh, founder of the Georgetown School of Foreign Service. Walsh had been reading the geopolitical writings of the German thinker Karl Haushofer throughout the 1920s. As the war came to a close, Karl Haushofer was under arrest and was going to be brought to trial in Nuremberg for his theorization of the necessity of the Nazis conquering Lebensraum, a concept that he had gotten from Friedrich Ratzel. Father Walsh was embedded with the US army and was sent to interrogate Haushofer, and when Haushofer was confronted with this army officer, he said why couldn’t the Americans have sent me someone who understands my geopolitical writing, someone like that priest at Georgetown? And, of course, that priest was standing right in front of him.

The point of the story is that Edmund Walsh came back to the United States and began to proselytize for an American geopolitics, but he struggled publicly with the fact that the geopolitics of Haushofer had underwritten and authorized Nazi imperialism.

In one of my chapters, I trace the difficulty that American intellectuals had with the concept of geopolitics. A whole generation of thinkers began by saying geopolitics is other, it’s German, it’s Nazi, it’s dangerous, but then within just three years – 1942-45 – pivoted to saying that we actually not only need geopolitics but need a geopolitics of our own. The problem with this wartime debate and pivot from demonization of geopolitics to insistence that we have one of our own was that it rested on a denial: it rested on the denial that the US had ever practiced geopolitics before 1940. I think this is a key moment in which America misrecognizes itself.

I try to show the tremendous irony of this misrecognition, because if you look at the writings of Karl Haushofer and his circle who edited the Zeitschrift für Geopolitik, it’s very clear that the Germans saw themselves as belated actors in the field of geopolitics, and thought that they needed to catch up with the British and the Americans. What was wonderful for me as a scholar was to find corroboration in the text that a figure like Haushofer in the 1920s was saying to his peers that they needed to catch up with Mahan and Mackinder and Ellen Semple – who was a very important American geopolitical thinker who had gone to study with Ratzel. That’s the second moment of German-US comparison that I would like to highlight with all the misrecognition and all the difficulties that link Germany and the US in this mirror relationship.

The third moment involves Hans Morgenthau’s most important German-speaking pupil, a man named Gottfried-Karl Kindermann, an Austrian who went to the University of Chicago to study with Morgenthau in the 1950s. What I try to show in my discussion of Kindermann is the story of a West German’s effort to synchronize the time of realism in West Germany with that of the United States. How did Kindermann try to do this? He tried to have Morgenthau translated from English to German, but it took 15 years to find a publisher – there was thus a significant time lag in which there was practically no Morgenthau reception in West Germany. By the time Kindermann succeeded in getting a Chair from where he could try and promote a Morgenthauian type of realism in West Germany, the times were out of sync – he arrived too late. Realism had entered a crisis because of détente, because of Vietnam, because of the rise of a new generation of political scientists who were critical of the realism of the Cold War, of the notion of mutually assured destruction – the Frankfurt School in particular was critical of the positivistic dimensions of realism. In this third example, I thus try to show the difficulty of synchronizing the West German foreign policy discussion with the postwar American discussions.  

The second moment I trace in that third story is what we might call the Helmut Kohl moment. Helmut Kohl, who was a historian before he became West Germany’s Chancellor, edited a book on realism in 1980. I try to show that there was a generation of thinkers among the Christian Democrats and on the right-wing of the Social Democrats who argued for a return to the realist tradition.

As détente was waning and as the Cold War was reheating with the Soviet Union, there were a number of thinkers like the political scientist Hans-Peter Schwarz who argued that it was time for Germany to recover its power-political instincts and to no longer be limited by what he called the “syndrome” of liberal idealism. Here you can see a kind of pathologizing of the traditions of German pacifism.

Those are three examples of German-US comparison. They show us how the sense of temporal belatedness and of catching up were important for the transatlantic development of realism.

Your book aims to nuance, and ultimately to correct, the redemptive narrative regarding realism’s rise in the US in the wake of catastrophe. Such a narrative hinges on the erasure from sight of the shared intellectual prehistory of the US and Germany your book reconstructs. Why have attempts to underplay shared US-German traditions of thought on both sides of the Atlantic become so powerful after 1945 just when the US and West Germany emerged as close allies? What have been some of the consequences of such attempts to downplay how the realist tradition had been co-shaped prior to 1945?

I think there are two major consequences of downplaying this cross-fertilization of American and German traditions. The first is that it re-inscribes a myth of American innocence. If you think that realism is an old-world specialty and that realism is really a product of the Germanization of the American mind, the modernization of Bismarckian Realpolitik, then if not for the old-world sensibilities we imported with the German emigres, Americans would essentially be just a bunch of hippies and hippie idealists! This is a total distortion of the US record from the 1780s to the 1930s, especially what we know about Woodrow Wilson, which is that he was not the idealist of realist caricature, but someone who had a very strong sense of Western civilizational superiority, white supremacy, and who played hardball at Versailles and was not naïve at all.

I think a second consequence of downplaying this inter-woven transatlantic intellectual history is the risk of reinforcing narratives of American and German exceptionalism. It reinforces the narrative that America was an empire by invitation, an empire without precedent, and that the Third Reich somehow also stands outside of history and is without precedent, almost impossible to historicize.

Without in any way trying to flatten out the differences between American liberal imperialism and the Nazis’ very illiberal, fascist imperialism, there is a shared Western experience of empire that I was trying to get at. My project is part of an anti-Eurocentric turn where I’m trying to provincialize realism by underscoring its Euro-Atlantic coordinates.

That entails an optic in which American and German empires in the 20th century are comparable and connected – not reducible to one another, but still both comparable and connected.

You argue in the book that realism appeals to the national interest and naturalizes power politics. You talk about the romantic idealizations and deterministic positivism that realist thinkers often express. You also refer to the populism and elitism of realist ways of thinking – how realism simultaneously appeals to common sense while insulating decision makers from democratic forms of control. You claim at one point that realism may be viewed as a public philosophy of power whose exercise achieved a dominant place in the political imagination. Would you be willing to discuss why you think realism has succeeded in shaping professional and broader public conversations so strongly despite exhibiting several notable intellectual weaknesses? In other words, what are some of the key sources of its appeal and of its undeniable impact on academia, politics, and public discourses?

For Stanley Hoffman, who was writing in 1977 in a disenchanted post-Vietnam mood, the appeal and impact of realism was that it offered the United States a kind of compass for crafting an interventionist foreign policy during the Cold War. I think for much of the postwar era, realism did authorize an interventionist policy.

There is a section of American public opinion and intellectual opinion today that is turning to realism for the opposite reason, which is not to authorize interventionism, but to authorize restraint. I applaud the restraint orientation that’s put forward by thinkers like Andrew Bacevich, Stephen Wertheim, Patrick Porter – all three of whom are affiliated with the Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft – and others. Yet I think the policy of imperial restraint does not require a realist ontology or realist philosophy to authorize it. I don’t believe that the contingent appropriateness of one set of policy choices – US imperial restraint today – should be used to shore up a paradigm that is so normatively deficient and conceptually confused.

For Stanley Hoffman, as I said, realism’s appeal had to do with offering Cold War policymakers a kind of compass. I think for us today – and this is a bit of speculation on my part that I thought about in relation to your question – who live in a bewildering world of globalized interdependencies and weaponized networks, realism offers us an attractively parsimonious logic. Realism offers us an image of the international in which there are large states who have hard power and rational motivations. It offers us a kind of a map for making sense of the world in which the fracture lines are predictable: there are big states with their spheres of influence and there is an inevitability to conflicts where there is “the return of great power competition,” as the phrase goes.

I think this offers a reassuring kind of faith that we can know and master our world. I wonder if realism is not a kind of Enlightenment myth, an Enlightenment project and faith, a way of orienting ourselves and believing in reason. At the same time, it’s appeal also derives from its critique of the Enlightenment, of claiming the limits of reason, the permanence of sin and the dangers of hubris. It can also speak to us in our anti-technocratic moods.

If I may overgeneralize for a moment, I would also add that the appeal of realism on the left, the kind of realist mood on the left, offers a way of atoning for the era of American liberal internationalism and unipolarity. While the desire to atone is healthy, I think, I don’t think it needs to reinvigorate or reiterate all the principles of realism.

Finally, I would say that because realism is so often a cover for conservatism and pessimism, it is also a kind of cowardice. It provides an excuse for failure of will and imagination.

It perhaps expresses an anxiety about pursuing projects that might turn out to be Gods that fail. I wonder whether this allergy to the utopian is not wisdom at all, but rather a form of cowardice.

By showing that realism has a different pedigree from the one often presented, you also point to realism’s continued imperial blind spots and democratic deficits. You thereby develop a normative type of critique. In your conclusion, you indeed argue against progressive attempts to appropriate realism. Could you discuss the more normative elements of your critique and how you relate to recent and current attempts to reformulate realism?

Those are questions I’m wrestling with every day, especially since the war in Ukraine began. In the conclusion to my book, I argue that we need to move beyond tragedy and restraint. I’ve already spoken a little bit about tragedy.  

My problem with the restraint paradigm is that, of course, restraint is better than hubris, and the critique of American exceptionalism is salutary. The critique that the thinkers Anatol Lieven and John Hulsman put forth in their book Ethical Realism that there is a common mistake made both in the Democratic Party and in the Republican Party that always speaks about the nobility, the universality of American ideals, and assume that good intentions are enough – and, of course, that’s wrong.

The restraint paradigm says that the US should really think more carefully about what’s actually in its national interest, think more carefully about what it can reasonably achieve, and have that kind of Burkean modesty about promoting reform projects abroad. All of that is salutary.  My problem with such otherwise brilliant works of scholarship is that I think they leave the notion intact that power politics and empire are hardwired into human history. I just don’t see why that’s necessary and certainly don’t find it convincing.

While it might seem utopian to try and imagine a world beyond empire, I really am worried that the restraint paradigm seeks to restrain without trying to change the underlying dynamic. While it has this patina of a deep leftist critique of the world system, I think it actually leaves things very much as they are and is not as ambitious as I would hope.

In terms of the current Ukraine situation, what I find frustrating about the adoption of realism by some elements on the left, or the realism of someone like John Mearsheimer, is that my version of the left is one that is consistently anti-imperialist. It is not just against American empire, not just atoning for the sins of unipolarity and the pursuit of hegemony in the war on terror and in Iraq and Afghanistan. It is also anti-Russian imperialism and being absolutely and unashamed forthright about that, and not having any truck with the notion that Russia is somehow an honorary member of the global South that is valiantly fighting against the global American imperium. That idea is just nonsense.

In terms of the more normative elements of my critique, I think people could make the mistake of thinking that my critique of realism merely lands you back in a defensive liberal internationalism.

What I try to show instead is that liberal internationalism and realism are both faces of empire. I’m not making a brief for liberal internationalism, nor do I think I am vulnerable to the critique that I merely or implicitly rehabilitate discredited utopianisms of the past.

I don’t offer programmatic solution in the book, nor do I sketch a utopia, but I do think that we can do better than a realism of tragedy or restraint.

The transcript has been edited for length and clarity.

In collaboration with Karen Culver and Lucie Janotová

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