Review of International Studies

Research Article

The impotence of power: Morgenthau's critique of American intervention in Vietnam



While a superb scholarship on Morgenthau as a political theorist has literally exploded over the past ten years, his analysis of foreign policy has been generally neglected, overlooking the intimate relationship between theory and policy in his practical philosophy. This article presents Morgenthau's public opposition to the Vietnam War by placing it in the broader framework of his theoretical work. In doing so, I illustrate and clarify the meaning of three theses that are at the very centre of his political reflection: the critique to any type of universalistic understanding of world politics; his claim about the intangible roots and social bases of political order; and, finally, the dangers of the ‘military displacement of politics’. Writing about Morgenthau's critique of American intervention in Vietnam today is neither a purely academic exercise, nor a mere historical reconstruction of a great scholar's position on one of the most important military conflicts of the twentieth century. In fact, this article aims to shed light on some intellectual categories which seem to be useful in order to understand current political phenomena, and to criticise philosophies and faulty modes of thought that still enjoy a predominant but unjustified political status.

(Online publication January 05 2011)

Lorenzo Zambernardi is a lecturer at the University of Bologna-Forlì and doctoral candidate in the Political Science department at the Ohio State University. He is the author of the book I limiti della potenza. Etica e politica nella teoria internazionale di Hans J. Morgenthau (Il Mulino: Bologna, 2010).

* For helpful comments on earlier drafts, the author would like to thank Filippo Andreatta, Nicola Antonetti, Emanuele Castelli, Michele Chiaruzzi, Ted Hopf, Massimo Morelli, Francesco Raschi, Stefano Recchia, Mario Tesini, Matteo Truffelli, Srdjan Vucetic, Michael C. Williams, and the three anonymous referees of the RIS.