Commentary Magazine

Janus and Minerva, by Stanley Hoffmann

A Turn Toward Utopia

Janus and Minerva. Essays in the Theory and Practice of International Politics.
by Stanley Hoffmann.
Westview. 458 pp. $39.95.

Inside this rather fat book by Stanley Hoffmann, a professor of international relations at Harvard and a well-known liberal proponent of realism in foreign policy, there are two thinner books struggling to get out. One, consisting primarily of essays grouped under the headings “Theories and Theorists” and “Order and Violence,” is a series of generally judicious and informative surveys and meditations on political philosophy and its applicability to international relations. The other, arranged under the headings “Actors and Interactions” and “Sermons and Suggestions,” is chiefly on arms control and national security. This second “book” contains, in the guise of objective analysis, and interspersed with common sense, a number of dubious or even dangerous assumptions. Their common denominators are that arms control is a road to peace and that the U.S. should focus less on the conflict with the Soviet Union and more on encouraging change in the Third World.

Between Hoffmann’s method and his philosophical views, on the one hand, and his policy analysis and prescriptions, on the other hand, falls the shadow. The latter just do not seem to follow from the former. For example, in “Taming the Eagle,” he calls on us to “give up our obsession with ‘stability,’ which so often makes us try to prop up a collapsing or criminal status quo”; to “give up our conviction that we know what is good for others . . . yet without hesitating to use our influence to prevent violations of human rights by governments that depend on us”; to “give up the dream of climbing out of the nuclear age by means of a technological miracle”; and, finally, to accept that “‘existential deterrence’ remains the best protection against nuclear attack.” (Existential deterrence, for the uninitiated, is the view, propagated most recently by Robert McNamara and McGeorge Bundy, that strategic nuclear weapons are so devastating as to be militarily useless and therefore that a small number of them are enough to create, in the mind of an aggressor, a fear that we might, if attacked, use them.)

Now none of these recommendations, not to speak of the ideas and the world view underlying them, has anything to do with the traditional doctrine of realism in the study of international relations, in which Hoffmann was educated. They have a whole lot to do with utopianism, and with what I have elsewhere called the “innocent arrogance” of liberal Americans who think the rest of the world really does dance to America’s tune. Thus, although Hoffmann excoriates the alleged belief of the Reagan administration in “the United States’ sacred mission either as a world policeman or as a world benefactor,” here he is himself advocating that the U.S. should intervene against human-rights violations by “governments that depend on us,” quite as if the United States had the power or the ability to compel this sort of change either in hostile or in friendly governments. And as for that utopian commitment known as existential deterrence, Hoffmann writes about it as though it were a fact about the way the world works and not a figment of the imagination of certain former U.S. officials plagued by feelings of guilt; in the real world, to adopt such a posture would be to hand the power of nuclear blackmail to the Soviet Union.

The fact is that the Soviets, whose behavior, Hoffmann notwithstanding, will remain decisive for the fate of our own liberties and those of our remaining friends in the world, do not believe that their conflict with us is anything but central; do not believe that perpetual coexistence with us is either desirable or possible; do believe that military might “works” in gaining geopolitical power; and, finally and most emphatically, do believe in the “dream” of antimissile defense.



Hoffmann follows his list of utopian prescriptions with a chapter entitled “Beyond Terror,” in which he sings the praises of arms control as though it were a process that had actually worked. “It is necessary,” he writes, “to try to constrain further dangerous technological developments. It can be done: witness the ABM treaty.” That treaty, however, hardly proves that one can “constrain” technology—not, at least, the technology being developed in a totalitarian state like the Soviet Union. What it has proved, rather, is that the Soviet Union can fool the U.S. into thinking that strategic defense is a bad idea.

Hoffmann’s misreading of the significance of the ABM treaty is symptomatic of his faith in arms control in general: for him, it is not a political tool of very marginal value, but a positive instrument for stability and peace. Its ultimate purpose, he writes, is “common security,” that is, a political condition in which both superpowers realize that their safety depends on the stability of their mutual relationship, and neither tries to win unilateral advantages over the other.

The phrase “common security” should sound alarm bells in the mind of any genuine realist. As an approach to international relations, realism was born not only out of the experience of World War II but out of the ignominious collapse of precisely that notion of “common security” which had been developed by international lawyers and diplomats in the aftermath of World War I and enshrined in the League of Nations. In the view of Hans Morgenthau and Raymond Aron, Hoffmann’s principal mentors in political realism, common security, like human rights, could only obtain in and between regimes that shared certain civilized values. In other words, common security worked where there was really no need for security, and was thus a highly unusual condition in international affairs. The more general condition of world politics, according to the realists, was a state of war which no overarching authority was capable of changing. As far as the two superpowers were concerned, the only difference made by nuclear weapons was that the state of war could no longer take the form of combat between military forces but became rather a diplomatic, economic, and cultural struggle for the control of geopolitically vital territory, accompanied by occasional proxy wars between smaller states supported by the two sides.

Even as the realists were propounding this view of the world in the late 40’s and 50’s, many Western politicians were resurrecting the idea of common security in the form of the United Nations. By the mid-1960’s, just at the time that the UN was becoming a positive force for instability and anti-Western conflict, Morgenthau himself, and after him other realists, suddenly and paradoxically turned utopian: they discovered in themselves a hitherto unsuspected faith that the UN was really going to lead to that universal pacification proclaimed as the goal of politics by Immanuel Kant in the 18th century.

Hoffmann made this “utopian turn” along with Morgenthau. (Raymond Aron emphatically did not.) One suspects he was moved by something else besides an irrational faith in the UN, and what that something else was becomes clear from a number of remarks he makes here about the perils of “indiscriminate” U.S. interventionism. It was the Vietnam war.

Hoffmann holds to the liberal view of Vietnam, according to which, however deplorable the results of the U.S. defeat and withdrawal, the war was still wrong and should not have been fought. Vietnam was an area of “secondary importance,” and we did not and do not have the “ability to control, shape, or even understand political developments in deeply foreign cultures and countries.” One might think that the lesson to be drawn from this accurate observation is that the U.S. needs better sources of information and a more consistent policy; Hoffmann, however, like Morgenthau before him, concludes that we have defined our interests too widely and need to be restrained.



Apart from Vietnam, what motivated Morgenthau and Hoffmann—but, again, not Aron—to depart from their original realism was the fear of nuclear war, and the belief that technological developments were increasing the danger of it. From this derived their somewhat apocalyptic belief that either the world will achieve, in Hoffmann’s words, “the progressive prevalence of restraints over violence, of cooperation over hostility, of a common humanity over the innumerable divisions of the human race,” or we will all face a repetition of “the summer of 1914.”

The 1914 analogy has lately become exceedingly popular with liberal politicians and intellectuals, from George Kennan to the former German Chancellor Helmut Schmidt. It implies a world of rival alliances in which a minor event somewhere on the periphery (in the Middle East, say, or in Central America) can set of a chain reaction, triggering interventions, ultimatums, and maneuvers which will end by pulling the nuclear superpowers into war with each other. But as Donald Kagan has definitively shown in his article “World War I, World War II, World War III” in the March COMMENTARY, this widespread use of the 1914 analogy is based on a false interpretation of World War I. That war occurred not by mistake but as a result of rational calculation: the offensive calculation by Germany that a bid for European hegemony might succeed, the defensive calculation of Britain and France that German expansionism would have to be stopped. Clearly if we apply this understanding of what happened in 1914 to our present situation, conclusions entirely different from Hoffmann’s impose themselves: namely, that war between the U.S. and the USSR will occur, if it does, because the Soviets calculate that a bid for world hegemony might succeed. The governing task of U.S. foreign policy thus becomes akin to that faced (inadequately) by Britain and France before 1914, namely, to prevent a situation from arising in which the Soviet leaders might act on such a calculation.

Hoffmann’s use of the false 1914 analogy is yet another illustration of the way his policy prescriptions conflict with his philosophy. In one of his best chapters, on the history of the study of international relations in America, he names Thucydides as one of the three authors that all students of world politics must read (the other two being Kenneth Waltz and Raymond Aron). Yet Thucydides located the cause of the war that crippled Greek civilization in, precisely, a calculation by each side that the power of the other was growing and must be stopped. We need not look, in other words, for accidents or automatic triggers; wars happen for entirely rational and political reasons, easily understandable by any realist then and now.



To Hoffmann, nuclear weapons are so terrible that they must, by their very existence, compel a common search for world order. But nothing in the record, and especially not in the record of the Soviet Union, supports the notion that this is happening or must happen. The fact is that there is no way to avoid the danger of nuclear war altogether: even a policy of outright U.S. surrender to the Soviet Union would not lessen, and might well increase, the risk of nuclear war between the Soviet Union and China, or between other nuclear-armed states.

A correct reading of the past forty years suggests that the single greatest force for peace in the world has not been the fear of nuclear war, or the quest for common security, but the power of the United States. While that power was strong and credible, the risk of war, including nuclear war, was less than it has become since we fell into our post-Vietnam dotage. That is the all-too-real fact.

Because Hoffmann is obviously no radical, this book will give aid and comfort to liberal enemies of SDI and of the Reagan administration’s Central America policy. That is unfortunate, because despite the many things of value to be found in his essays on political philosophy and on the proper way to study international relations, the policy prescriptions contained herein are based on a flawed and utopian view of the way the world works and where it is heading.



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