Stanley Hoffmann and Heroic Idealism: from World Disorders to Chaos and Violence in the company of Gulliver Unbound. Part One


Hoffmann is a towering intellect who has substantially shaped American political discourse even if his name and works are not widely known or popular in the general public. For an examination of his post-Cold War writings, read on…


Stanley Hoffmann and Heroic Idealism: from World Disorders to Chaos and Violence in the company of Gulliver Unbound. Part One




by Gilbert Doctorow, Ph.D.


Stanley Hoffmann has a number of points in common with our other great American thinkers on international affairs in the post-Cold War period, but there are still more points where he is in a class by himself.


The first shared point is his institutional affiliation. Hoffmann belongs to the group of eight out of the ten writers in our survey whose career is linked to Harvard University. At the age of 81, Hoffmann has spent more than 50 years there as professor. Yet, unlike Fukuyama, Huntington, Nye, Gelb, Brzezinski, Kissinger and Kagan, Hoffmann did not himself take a degree at the university. Rather he received his entire education in France before coming to America as a young man. He graduated from the Institut d’Etudes Politiques de Paris, or ‘Sciences Po’ as it is familiarly called by the French elites


Vienna-born, French trained Stanley Hoffmann belongs to the same generation of talented Europeans including Henry Kissinger and Zbigniew Brzezinski who arrived on American shores in the wake of the Nazi assault on the Old Continent. We have seen how the notion of ‘foreignness’ dogged the public image of Henry Kissinger, due in part to his accented English which betrays his German-speaking childhood but due more fundamentally to his Realpolitik intellectual persuasion which many Americans, rightly or wrongly, have considered to be an alien concept imported from Europe and incompatible with the popular faith in idealism. We have seen Zbigniew Brzezinski’s self-consciousness about his unpronounceable name and foreign origins. However, among these arrivals who made very successful careers in their adopted country, Hoffmann is, without a doubt, the least typically American in terms of self-awareness and lifestyle choices. This is so even though his position as exponent of idealism and advocate for the moral dimension in managing international affairs would if taken by itself make him ‘American as apple pie.’


By lifestyle choices, I mean firstly his staying clear of government service. Hoffmann chose not to follow Harvard and other Ivy League colleagues down to Washington for prestigious assignments advising the President and Congress on national security issues. Partly this follows from his stated belief that the role of the scholar is to advance human knowledge, not to counsel policy makers. Partly it is the logical consequence of his candid understanding of his profession as essentially philosophy and rhetoric rather than hard science with predictive value such as Washington policy-makers demand.


Hoffmann explicitly rejects futurology or mathematical modeling of international relations on epistemological grounds. He tells us that ‘the search for general laws remains futile.’  In Hoffmann’s view, the purpose of political philosophy is to present a clear vision of the present, to take into account as many of the factors driving events as possible. Then these insights may inform our efforts to implement what is both feasible and morally correct.


Hoffmann very comfortably wears the robes of a philosopher. It has to be said that Hoffmann is the only author in our survey who goes back to first principles. In Chaos and Violence, he tells us “The questions for American statecraft are, Leading for what? And with whom?” In their volumes running into hundreds of pages, none of our other thinkers poses such a challenge and then attempts to answer it.


While he declines to be a gray eminence advising princes, Hoffmann is the embodiment of the ‘man of letters’ in the European tradition, striving to enlighten the thinking public outside the campus. He has for years been a regular contributor to intellectual journals including The New York Review of Books, where his articles go from fairly straightforward book reviews to general commentary on current affairs in the journalistic genre. These more accessible writings constitute a significant part of the essay collections we will review below.


Hoffmann is a towering intellect who has substantially shaped American political discourse even if his name and works are not widely known or popular in the general public. Indeed despite catchy titles and the often appealing chapter headings of his books, they make difficult reading because of the ponderous writing style of the author and a certain lack of discipline which a good editor could but evidently does not take in hand.


Hoffmann emerges from his writings as a very honest man, though not especially ‘democratic.’ There is a bit of the French hauteur here. He can be dismissive of opponents at times, and it is rare for him to counter the arguments of others directly and point for point. He does not reason with his reader so much as reason with himself and allow us to be witnesses.


In the two part analysis which follows, we will look at three of Stanley Hoffmann’s books from the 1990s and the first decade of the new millennium. Two of them are collections of articles having a certain thematic unity. One is a more personal piece entitled Gulliver Unbound which was prompted by the American invasion of Iraq in March, 2003 and the strain this placed on Hoffmann’s split identity as both French and American while his two motherlands were pitted against each other in a diplomatic furore.


© Gilbert Doctorow, 2010

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For the full analysis, see the author’s 2010 book Great Post-Cold War American Thinkers on International Relations.   G. Doctorow was a 2010-2011 Visiting Scholar of the Harriman Institute of Columbia University. He is today (2013) an occasional lecturer at St. Petersburg State University and a Research Fellow of the American University in Moscow. His latest work, published in April 2013, is Stepping Out of Line: Collected (Non-conformist) Essays on Russian-American Relations, 2008-12. Both works are available from and amazon websites worldwide in paperback and e-book editions. They are also on sale at Barnes & Noble and other leading bookstores.