Morgenthau six principles of realism

Realism is a big idea in international relations. Hans Morgenthau first explained it clearly in his book, Politics Among Nations, published in 1948. Morgenthau, who is often seen as a creator of the realist group, made a big theory about world politics that said there are real rules built in human nature to explain why countries fight for power. Morgenthau’s idea became known as old-style realism. It had six main rules about how power and goodness work in the world system between countries. At its heart, Morgenthau’s realism thinks that human nature is not very good and believes that international politics is always a fight for power between self-focused states. His idea wanted to explain the powers that control relationships between countries and make a smart structure for studying global politics.
Over the years, some might disagree but Morgenthau’s six rules would help explain the realist way. This made realism a big part of studying international relations and statesmanship. His work gave a different view to the popular way of thinking in his time. It showed that world politics should be controlled by its own rules, separate from what is right and wrong. Morgenthau’s realistic views would greatly change the study and talk about world affairs for many future people.

Six Principles of Morgenthau

First Principle: Objective Laws

Morgenthau says that politics, just like society in general, has rules that are based on human nature. These are real rules that guide politics. He thought it was important to know these rules and create a sensible idea about world politics. Morgenthau said, “These rules can’t be argued against. Using them as a guide, we can create a smart plan for International Politics.”

  • The key facts of human nature, according to Morgenthau, are:
  • Man is a power-hungry creature that wants to rule.
  • Because humans run states, states also naturally want power.
  • To understand these laws, we need to learn about human connections history.

Morgenthau thought that if we comprehend the goal rules based on human nature in politics, we could create a smart theory about international relations. This idea would not be about high-level good rules, but it would use the real facts of how people and countries act.

2. Second Principle: National Interest explained as National Strength.

The main idea of Morgenthau’s Realism is its second rule. This idea says countries always think about their country’s interests in terms of power and take action to protect those interests using power. A national interest that isn’t supported by power isn’t real in the world, it’s just a theory written down. People who make decisions about foreign policy always create policies based on evaluations of what’s best for their country, which they see as power. According to Morgenthau’s realism, power is the main thing used in international relations. National interests and power thinking are a lot more important than ideas or moral beliefs. Morgenthau said that sometimes leaders use ideas or good speeches, but this is just a cover for reason driven by the country’s interest and power. Morgenthau’s theory says that what is best for a country and how strong it is are the main things that decide its foreign policy. Moral rules or beliefs are less important than national interest and strength.

3. Third Principle: Interest is always Dynamic

National interest and national power, the key determinants of a nation’s foreign policy according to Morgenthau, are dynamic. Rather, they are dynamic and constantly changing based on shifts in the political and social environment. Morgenthau believed that national interest must be continuously re-evaluated and redefined as circumstances change. What a nation perceives to be in its interest today may look very different than its interests a decade from now. As such, realist theory argues that leaders and policymakers must repeatedly analyze national interests to realistically direct the course of international relations. Similarly, national power is not fixed, but ebbs and flows as a country’s resources, capabilities, and global standing evolve. As the balance of power shifts between nations over time, so too does the relative power and position of each state. This fluctuating power dynamic ensures that the international order is never permanently settled, but rather endures constant reshaping and reordering as nations seek power advantages. According to Morgenthau, properly accounting for the dynamic nature of national interest and national power is essential for formulating realistic foreign policies. Only by continuously re-evaluating a nation’s place in the world can leaders make prudent decisions to advance its position through diplomacy and power politics. Morgenthau thus saw national interest and power as living concepts, requiring frequent redefinition and analysis by states seeking to navigate an ever-changing global landscape.

4. Fourth Principle: Moral Principles Don’t Apply to State Actions

A core tenet of political realism is that moral principles cannot be applied to the actions of states on the international stage. According to realists, states cannot and should not be held accountable to a universal set of ethics or values. The reason is that a nation’s foreign policy and national interests are not formulated based on adherence to moral principles. Instead, realism asserts that a state’s policies and conduct in the international sphere are determined primarily by the pursuit of national power and self-interest. Realists contend that it would be naive to expect governments to abide by the same moral standards and principles that individual human beings are reasonably expected to follow. The international arena is viewed as an amoral realm, an anarchic self-help system where morality does not factor into state calculations and behavior in the way it governs individual conduct and choices. States may sometimes invoke moral arguments to justify their actions propaganda, but realists maintain that this is merely rhetoric intended to portray the nation favorably, not the actual motivations which are grounded in rational calculations of national interest and power. The desire to preserve and increase national power, not adherence to ethical values, is seen as the force that shapes decision-making. According to realist theory, while moral principles may influence the behavior of states to some limited degree, they will never override or supersede considerations of national interest and power. States are expected to pursue policies that strengthen their geopolitical position rather than conform to an external moral code. Realism asserts the autonomy of the political sphere from the moral sphere when it comes to the conduct of states in the international arena.

5. Fifth Principle: Difference between the Moral Aspirations of a Nation and the Universal Moral Principles

Morgenthau did not see ethics playing a significant role in international politics. According to him, national interests and policies of any nation cannot be based on universal moral principles. Instead, Morgenthau believed that each nation tries to hide its true national interests behind the mask of moral principles. In his view, a nation’s actions are always ultimately based on national interests and the pursuit of power, not adherence to universal moral principles. Morgenthau argued that while nations may claim their policies are founded on moral principles, this is merely rhetoric used to obscure motives grounded in the national interest. Nations invoke moral principles as propaganda to portray their actions favorably when in reality they aim to increase relative power. Nations pretend to adhere to moral codes but in fact, make strategic calculations of national interest. Universal ethics are proclaimed to mask ulterior motives of maximizing power.

6. Sixth Principle: Autonomy of the Political Sphere

Like economists, lawyers, and those who talk about what’s right or wrong, realism wants to study the fight for power among countries. Every country tries to keep or gain more power. Realism believes that the political sphere operates autonomously from other spheres like economic, legal, and moral. While economic, legal, and moral factors are considered, realism gives priority to political aspects in studying relations between states. The realist view is that the fundamentals of international politics are shaped by the struggle for power and national interest, not by economics, law, or morality. These other spheres do influence state behavior, but realism asserts the autonomy of the political sphere as the determining factor in international relations. Politics and the dynamics between nation-states take primacy over other areas of international relations according to realism. The quest for power, rather than economic or legal considerations, is seen as the key driver of how countries interact and relate to one another on the global stage. Moral factors may come into play, but realism contends that these ultimately have little influence compared to political calculations based on national interest. In sum, realists believe that international relations are fundamentally shaped by power politics between states seeking to advance their interests, not by ethical standards, economic interdependence, or legal obligations. This principle of the autonomy of the political sphere places power dynamics between nation-states at the center of understanding world affairs.

Significance of Morgenthau’s 6 Principles of Realism

Morgenthau’s six principles of realism provide an important theoretical lens for understanding international relations. By outlining key tenets around objective laws, national interest and power, and the autonomy of the political sphere, the principles offer guidance for statecraft. At the core, the principles emphasize the primacy of national interest and power in driving foreign policy. According to Morgenthau, nations must define and pursue their interests in terms of national power. This view stands in contrast to those that give greater weight to ideological or moral factors. The principles argue that moral principles cannot be directly applied to the actions of states on the international stage. By grounding analysis in national interest and power, the principles aim to build a rational and realistic theory of international politics. Rather than ethics, Morgenthau stresses political prudence as a guide. The principles provide an influential perspective that still shapes realist thought today. Their focus on harsh realities over idealism continues to inform the worldview of many foreign policy experts and decision-makers.

Criticisms of Morgenthau’s Principles

Morgenthau’s principles of realism have been criticized on several grounds:

Too Pessimistic About Human Nature

Many, especially liberals, argue that Morgenthau paints an overly pessimistic view of human nature as simply power-seeking. They contend that human nature also encompasses cooperative and altruistic tendencies. Morgenthau’s description of human nature as solely animus dominandi (struggle for power) is seen as incomplete and biased.

Power Monism

Stanley Hoffman argued that Morgenthau’s principles suffer from “power monism” – overemphasizing power as the key factor in international relations at the expense of other factors. Critics contend that many other factors like ideology, culture, norms, etc. also significantly influence state behavior and foreign policy.


The rise of non-state actors and increasing international cooperation has made Morgenthau’s state-centric view of world politics seem limited. Transnational corporations, NGOs, and regional and global institutions play important roles today. Focusing only on states as the key actors is seen as outdated.


Morgenthau’s six principles of realism have had a significant impact on the field of international relations theory. To summarize, the principles state that:

  1. Politics is governed by objective laws rooted in human nature.
  2.  Nations define their interests and act through power.
  3. National interest is dynamic
  4. Universal moral principles cannot be applied to state actions.
  5. A nation’s moral aspirations differ from universal moral principles.
  6. Politics is autonomous from economics, law, and morals.

These principles posit that international politics is centered around nation-states pursuing national interests defined in terms of power. Morgenthau argues that rather than universal ethics, objective laws arising from human nature shape the struggle for power between nations. Morgenthau’s realist theory has been highly influential, providing a rational lens for analyzing international relations focused on national interest and power politics. The principles have been both praised for their harsh realism and critiqued for overemphasizing power and minimizing other factors. Overall, Morgenthau’s six principles represent an essential foundation for the realist paradigm in international relations theory. His focus on objective laws, national interest, and power politics continues to shape realist approaches to understanding relations between nation-states.