Cover of The Atlantic Realists by Matthew Specter
The Atlantic Realists
Empire and International Political Thought Between Germany and the United States
Matthew Specter


February 2022
336 pages.
from $32.00

Hardcover ISBN: 9781503603127
Paperback ISBN: 9781503629967
Ebook ISBN: 9781503629974

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In The Atlantic Realists, intellectual historian Matthew Specter offers a boldly revisionist interpretation of "realism," a prevalent stance in post-WWII US foreign policy and public discourse and the dominant international relations theory during the Cold War. Challenging the common view of realism as a set of universally binding truths about international affairs, Specter argues that its major features emerged from a century-long dialogue between American and German intellectuals beginning in the late nineteenth century. Specter uncovers an "Atlantic realist" tradition of reflection on the prerogatives of empire and the nature of power politics conditioned by fin de siècle imperial competition, two world wars, the Holocaust, and the Cold War. Focusing on key figures in the evolution of realist thought, including Carl Schmitt, Hans Morgenthau, and Wilhelm Grewe, this book traces the development of the realist worldview over a century, dismantling myths about the national interest, Realpolitik, and the "art" of statesmanship.

About the author

Matthew Specter is a Senior Fellow at the Institute of European Studies and teaches modern European history, global history, and political thought at the University of California, Berkeley. He is also Associate Editor of the journal History and Theory. His first book was Habermas: An Intellectual Biography (2010). He researches the history of international thought.

"One may believe there is little left to know about the realist theory of international relations and its founder Hans Morgenthau. But through the complex figure of Morgenthau, Matthew Specter is able not only to work out the ambivalent pathways of the German mandarins who emigrated to the USA, but also put the theory of political realism itself into a wholly new light as a transatlantic exchange of ideas between the US and Germany. This dates back to the geopolitical thought and social Darwinistic milieu of both rising industrial powers in the 1880s. A particular gem is the surprising chapter on Wilhelm Grewe—a student of Carl Schmitt, who continued his Nazi career in the Federal Republic unbroken—and here, in postwar Germany, played a role similar to that of Morgenthau in the USA. An original, an illuminating, a brilliant book."

—Jürgen Habermas, Emeritus Professor of Philosophy, Goethe University Frankfurt

"A singular aspect of the German-American relationship is the cross-pollination of political and constitutional thought going back to the Revolutionary era. Matthew Specter's fascinating study shows that the concept of realism made several Atlantic crossings—beginning not, as has long been assumed, in the global cataclysm of World War II, but in the heyday of US and German empire. His trenchant critique of the 'imperial blindspots and democratic deficits' of realism is also a useful warning to the current advocates of restraint seeking to wrap themselves in the mantle of the Atlantic realist tradition."

—Constanze Stelzenmüller, Fritz Stern Chair on Germany and trans-Atlantic relations, Brookings Institution

"Matthew Specter's rich history rewrites the genealogy of realism. Specter lays bare the intellectual foundations of the default setting of American foreign policy. This is not just a major addition to trans-Atlantic intellectual history. In a world of escalating international tension, it is an urgent book."

—Adam Tooze, Kathryn and Shelby Davis Professor of History and Director of the European Institute, Columbia University

"An intensively grounded study of a carefully defined body of thought, ambitiously pitched, and persuasively contextualized, The Atlantic Realists brings both clarity and challenge to some vital cross-disciplinary conversations, from international relations and political theory to intellectual history and political history. Among its many particular virtues is a thought-provokingly helpful commentary on the influence of Carl Schmitt."

—Geoff Eley, Karl Pohrt Distinguished University Professor of Contemporary History, University of Michigan

"Specter's important cultural-historical reinterpretation of Realism relocates its intellectual origins from the Weimar Republic back to late nineteenth-century imperialism. He shows how American and German thinkers, steeped in provincial assumptions about imperialism and competition, developed the apologies for empire and the international use of force that still haunt international relations theory today."

—Isabel Hull, John Stambaugh Professor of History Emerita, Cornell University

"Matthew Specter has written a superb study that spans the intellectual history of realism across two centuries and between two continents, and traces in a most original way the network of interconnections among Atlantic Realists, notably between the US and Germany."

—Karl Kaiser, Harvard Kennedy School

A Financial Times Best summer book of 2022: Politics

"Atlantic Realists stands as a significant and important contribution to the history of international political thought and to continuing debates over what it means to be realistic in world politics."

—Michael C. Williams, Contemporary Political Theory

"Specter makes a solid case that the classical realists in many ways invented a noble lineage for themselves, identifying great historical philosophers whose work fit in with their notions of the world (such as Hobbes) while eliding or avoiding altogether their more questionable historical antecedents. ...This intellectual genealogy of realism is an impressive contribution."

—Emma Ashford, Foreign Affairs

"[Specter] makes the innovative choices of studying the timespan from the late 19th century to the present to show the long emergence of post-WW II realism and identifying relevant currents of thought between Europe, especially Germany, and the United States. These choices reveal new sources for tracking the development of realism, and readers come to appreciate that the key tenets of the theory are historical constructs that evolved somewhat erratically as currents of German and American thought interacted. ... Recommended."

—M. A. Morris, CHOICE

"[Specter's] criticisms are compelling and they are grounded in a close reading of the published writings and private correspondence of key figures in Germany and the United States. Specter shows that modern realism does indeed have connections to imperial pretensions from the late nineteenth century, and it smuggles subjective value judgments and political aims into its naturalized discourse. The realist worldview is not any more organic than non-realist frameworks, including liberal internationalism, Leninism, or others."

—Jeremi Suri, Diplomatic History

"By forcing us once more to confront the quixotic character of realism as both aggressively imperial, but with a hyperromantic attachment to politics as the art and exercise of power, Specter compels us to consider very carefully what exactly we think we are doing if we are also teachers of political thought in the first place."

—Duncan Kelly, Perspectives on Politics

"Specter'sThe Atlantic Realistsis an invaluable, thought-provoking addition to the history of International Relations and sheds further lights on the debates that made this discipline. Readers will learn a great deal about American-German intellectual relations since the end of the nineteenth century and how they shaped International Relations. More of this kind of work is needed."

—Felix Rösch, E-International Relations

"Atlantic Realists removes major cobwebs that are still lingering in the North Atlantic discourse on foreign policy, security, and other IR themes."

—Michaela Hoenicke Moore, American Historical Review

"The Atlantic Realists is an excellent addition to both Cold War history and to the intellectual history behind international relations. It is accessible and draws upon a wealth of underused, German- and English-language archival material to build a clearer picture of the evolution of political thought and its material influence on the politics and policies of the Cold War. Specter's emphasis on the German-American relationship is especially welcome in an intellectual tradition that often elevates the Anglo-American experience and interchange of ideas."

—Davis Ellison, Cold War History

"Matthew Specter has written a truly excellent book that invites the reader to question their preconceived notions about a subject with which they probably felt familiar.... [H]is scholarship is superb – a model for how international intellectual history can be done."

—Steven J. Brady, Central European History

"Matthew Specter's The Atlantic Realists offers a new and provocative genealogy of realism, the theoretical approach to international relations that became academic orthodoxy in the United States during the Cold War.... By exposing realism's checkered past, Specter intends to critique both its intellectual and moral legacy for international political thought."

—Joshua Derman, The Journal of Modern History