International Organization

Why Ideas Matter in International Relations: Hans Morgenthau, Classical Realism, and the Moral Construction of Power Politics

Michael C.  Williams  a1
a1 Michael C. Williams is Senior Lecturer in the Department of International Politics at the University of Wales, Aberystwyth, Wales. He can be reached at

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Debates over how ideas matter in international relations have come to occupy a key place in the field. Through a reexamination of the thinking of Hans Morgenthau, this article seeks to recover a tradition of classical realism that stressed the role of ideas in both the construction of action and in political and ethical judgment. Locating Morgenthau's understanding of politics against the background of the oppositional “concept of the political” developed by the controversial jurist Carl Schmitt shows how Morgenthau's realism attempts to recognize the centrality of power in politics without reducing politics to violence, and to preserve an open and critical sphere of public political debate. This understanding of Morgenthau's realism challenges many portrayals of his place in the evolution of international relations, and of the foundations of realist thought. However, it is also of direct relevance to current analyses of collective identity formation, linking to—and yet providing fundamental challenges for—both realist and constructivist theories. a


a For helpful and insightful comments on this article in its wide variety of previous incarnations, I would like to thank Michael Barnett, James Der Derian, Randall Germain, Alexandra Gheciu, Stefano Guzzini, Jef Huysmans, Oliver Jutersönke, Jennifer Mitzen, Vibeke Schou Pedersen, and especially Rita Abrahamsen and Richard Wyn Jones. Previous drafts were presented at the 2002 meetings of the British International Studies Association, and at the Department of Political Science and International Studies, University of Birmingham, United Kingdom. My thanks also to the participants at those sessions.