The Debate

Hans Morgenthau and the Balance of Power in Asia

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The Debate

Hans Morgenthau and the Balance of Power in Asia

The father of realism in international relations envisioned China’s rise, the U.S. rebalance, and the Asian Century.

Hans Morgenthau and the Balance of Power in Asia
Credit: Wikimedia Commons

Hans Morgenthau’s Politics Among Nations, originally published in 1948, is the bible of the realist school of international relations. A less well-known work, Truth and Power, is a collection of essays that he wrote during the 1960s which includes a 1968 piece entitled “The Far East,” wherein Morgenthau applied his realist approach to the balance of power in Asia and envisioned a world where China is the most powerful nation on earth.

Morgenthau was born in Germany in 1904, educated at the Universities of Berlin, Frankfurt and Munich, practiced law for a time, and taught in Frankfurt, Geneva and Madrid before coming to the United States in 1937. After teaching stints in Brooklyn and Kansas City, Morganthau in 1943 settled into his professorship at the University of Chicago, where he taught for the next thirty years. He ended his teaching career at the City University of New York.

In Politics Among Nations, Morgenthau defined international politics as “the struggle for power” and “power politics.” “The aspiration for power,” he wrote, “is “the distinguishing element of international politics.” “The struggle for power,” he continued, “is universal in time and space and is an undeniable fact of experience.”

He set forth six principles of political realism:

1. Politics is governed by objective laws that have their roots in human nature.

2. Statesmen conduct themselves in terns of interest defined as power.

3. Interest determines political conduct within the political and cultural context which foreign policy is formulated.

4. Prudence is the supreme virtue in international politics.

5. Nations are entities that pursue their interests as defined by power and should not be judged by universal moral principles.

6. Political realism rejects the legalistic-moralistic approach to international politics.

Morgenthau identified the elements of national power as geography, natural resources, industrial capacity, military preparedness, population, national character, national morale, the quality of diplomacy, and the quality of government. He judged the quality of diplomacy as the most important of these factors. A nation’s diplomacy, he wrote, “combines those different factors into an integrated whole, gives them direction and weight, and awakens their slumbering potentialities by giving them the breadth of actual power.”

In Politics Among Nations, Morgenthau suggested that developments in Asia, and especially in China, “may well in the long run carry the gravest implications for the rest of the world.” It is in Asia, he explained, “that nations with space, natural resources, and great masses of men are just beginning to use political power, modern technology, and modern moral ideas for their ends.” The awakening masses of Asia, he wrote, “will sooner or later come into full possession of those instruments of modern technology, especially in the nuclear field, which until recently have been a virtual monopoly of the West.” This development would result in a “drastic distribution of power,” he continued, and would be more important than any other factor to the future of the world.

In Truth and Power, Morgenthau expanded on this geopolitical vision. He traced U.S. interests in Asia to the beginning of the 20th century with the Open Door policy that “sought to keep China open for the competitive exploitation of all major powers.” At first a commercial policy, the Open Door evolved into a military and political policy that sought to ensure a balance of power in Asia. “[I]t dawned upon the American statesmen,” Morganthau wrote, “that any nation, European or Asian, that would add to its power the enormous power potential of China would thereby make itself the prospective master not only of Asia but of the world.”

Morgenthau recounted the key historical events. President Theodore Roosevelt negotiated an end to the Russo-Japanese War that maintained the balance of power in Asia. The Washington Naval Treaty of 1922 effectively ended the British-Japanese alliance and sought to limit the rising power of Japan. In 1931, the so-called Stimson Doctrine, which refused to recognize territorial acquisitions gained by force, was aimed at Japanese imperial conquests. In 1941, President Franklin Roosevelt directed U.S. policy at countering the expansionist designs of Japan, resulting in the attack on Pearl Harbor and U.S. entry into the Second World War. In the immediate aftermath of World War II, U.S. policy sought to promote a strong China as a bulwark against a revival of Japanese expansion. That policy broke down when the communists seized power in China. Since then, U.S. policy focused on containing communist China.

Morgenthau next looked at the “position and the prospective policies of China.” China, he wrote, “is the most powerful nation on the Asian continent.” He downplayed the importance of ideology in Chinese foreign policy. There has been, he explained, a “striking contrast between the ideological claims and the actual policies pursued” by China. Communist China’s foreign policy moves since 1949, he wrote, have been based on the fundamental national interests of China. Whether it was the frontier with India, the question of Tibet, or the response to U.S. military moves near the Yalu River or in Southeast Asia, Mao’s China acted no different than China would have acted under Chiang Kai-shek.

Morgenthau called U.S. policy toward China “peripheral military containment.” He described the policy as “the erection of military strong points at the periphery of the Chinese Empire, from Taiwan to Thailand,” and he expressed doubt that such a policy would be effective “once China is strong enough to spill over its present frontiers.”

The China that the U.S. will have to contain in the future, he wrote, will not just be a strong power, but “the most powerful nation on earth.” U.S. peripheral military measures, he predicted, would “be swept away in a matter of days.” U.S. peripheral military containment will not just be ineffective, he wrote, it will also be provocative. “[A] strong China,” he explained, “is not going to countenance a ring of American military bases from Taiwan to Thailand . . .”

Morgenthau, perhaps too sanguinely, doubted that China would seek the conquest of additional territories. But he suggested that if it did, the U.S. could contain China the same way it contained the Soviet Union – by committing “the overall power of the United States to the containment of China.” By making it clear to China that if it tried to conquer India, for example, the United States would do whatever was necessary to prevent that from happening, including going to war.

Morgenthau summarized what he believed to be the best, most effective U.S. policy toward China, and Asia as a whole: establish and hold a defense perimeter “following the island chain from Japan to the Philippines, leaving the mainland of Asia beyond.” The Chinese, he wrote, are “predominant on land,” while our strength is at sea and in the air. Underlying this policy is the geopolitical notion that it is in the vital interests of the United States that no one power “gain a hegemonial position in Asia.”

Forty-seven years ago in Truth and Power, Hans Morgenthau envisioned China’s rise, the U.S. rebalance, and the Asian Century.

Francis P. Sempa is the author of Geopolitics: From the Cold War to the 21st Century (Transaction Books) and America’s Global Role: Essays and Reviews on National Security, Geopolitics and War (University Press of America). He is also a contributor to Population Decline and the Remaking of Great Power Politics (Potomac Books). He has written on historical and foreign policy topics for Joint Force QuarterlyAmerican Diplomacy, the University BookmanThe Claremont Review of BooksThe DiplomatStrategic Review, the Washington Times and other publications. He is an attorney, an adjunct professor of political science at Wilkes University, and a contributing editor to American Diplomacy.