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HomeGlobal Perspective & Critical Research“Apostates from Realism: Harold and Margaret Sprout, Princeton, and Geopolitics: 1931–1965”

“Apostates from Realism: Harold and Margaret Sprout, Princeton, and Geopolitics: 1931–1965”

Authors: Matthew Specter

Affiliation: Institute for European Studies UC Berkeley, USA

Organization/Publisher: Global Studies Quarterly

Date/Place: March 30, 2023/UK 

Type of Literature: Journal Article 

Number of Pages: 12 


Keywords: Geopolitics, Realism, The Sprouts, IR, Policy Makers, Foreign Policy, Behavioral Cognitive



This article attempts to recover the marginalized and unknown contribution of two of the most important thinkers in the field of international relations. It highlights an important instance of a woman’s intellectual production in the field of International Relations (IR) not being sufficiently appreciated by focusing on the joint academic work of Harold and Margaret Sprout, which contributed to the creation of a geopolitical stream of realism. The Sprout couple had a prominent role in introducing geographic and geopolitical approaches into the field of international relations. In order to demonstrate and clarify the collaborative nature of the couple’s work along with the challenges Margaret faced as a researcher in the field of international relations studies, the article relies on the archives of Princeton University and their unpublished biographies.    

In an article entitled “IR’s power couples”, Katharina Rietzler praised the significant contributions made by married couples in the field of Anglo-American international relations during the twentieth century as authors and activists. Association with an influential man was an important way to ensure credibility for women’s knowledge production in international issues. However, the author describes the Sprout’s academic collaboration as rare at the time because, in his view, their work enjoyed an unparalleled balance, respect and equality.         

The joint unpublished biography written by the couple in 1980 and later amended by Margaret in 1995 after her husband’s death shows that Harold consistently ensured that Margaret’s reputation as a co-author was recognized and she was seen as equally responsible for the substantive work of his books. According to the researcher, the couple managed to withstand the structural inequalities that existed in research centers at the time. They managed to avoid the fate of many wives who were marginalized as a result of surveying their research contributions to their husbands’ published work entirely or misrepresenting it. The couple stated that their collaboration in this form almost caused Harold to be expelled from his position at Princeton University because some of his colleagues considered the fruits of his cooperation with Margaret to be unfair competition. Former students of the Sprouts describe the duo’s role as teachers and mentors at Princeton as if they were one person. However, despite being among the most well-known women in the history of the field, during her years as a co-author, Margaret worked as an unpaid researcher and without official academic appointment. Although she was later reappointed as an annual co-researcher, i.e. recognized as a full co-author, she was not paid fairly and equally. Her lack of a Ph.D. was also an obstacle to her obtaining a professorship. Nevertheless, the writer argues that a doctoral degree would not have prevented her from being denied academic posts because it was very common for white women, particularly those married to male faculty members, to be deprived of positions at the time. Thus, Margaret had no other choice but to rely fully on Harold to appreciate her contributions as a researcher and author.

In the introduction to their 1995 joint biography, Margaret mentioned the obstacles and challenges they faced during their careers from close circles and the faculty, most notably traditional gender expectations that women’s place was at home.          

In Part II, the author follows the Sprouts’ work in the 1939-1940 period on naval forces to their critical review of Hans Morgenthau in 1949.                           

The writer argues that the Sprouts were at the center of creating realism in America. At a time when realism was still incomplete as a label, the couple emphasized power in two studies on the evolution of United States maritime policy entitled “The Rise of United States Naval Force 1776-1918” in 1939 and “Towards a New System of Naval Power” in 1940. These articles belonged to the Mahani tradition of supporting the expansion of the United States naval force on a global scale. The US Navy purchased and placed their first two books in American warship libraries. After Margaret was appointed as a contributor to a volume entitled “The Makers of Modern Strategy: Military Thought from Machiavelli to Hitler”, which appeared in 1943, she confirmed in her contribution, published in her full name: Mahan, “Evangelist of Maritime Power,” about the importance and limits of Mahan’s thinking. She praised Mahan’s role in the construction of the American Empire and, at the same time, wrote that he was a proponent of the revival of imperialism in the late 19th century. Margaret concluded that imperial realism was necessary but expensive.

In the 1930s and 1940s, the Sprouts provided a critical review of Morgenthau’s views. The duo focused on the merits of national power and the nation-state’s priority as an international actor, yet the writer considers that they were remarkably realistic. After their death, their students wrote that in their 1946 textbook, “Foundations of International Politics”, that the Sprouts had studied the modern concept of power in terms of capabilities measured against potential targets. Thus, according to the writer, the Sprouts helped build an alternative form of realism in the late 1940s.

The latter part discusses the main assumptions that led to their separation from geopolitical realism. The author then moves on to their work in the period from “1956 to 1965,” which made them pioneers in the cognitive analysis of politics and pioneers of constructive theory.

In the early 1930s, Harold called on the American Academy of Political Sciences to adopt geopolitics in foreign policy studies in a brief note entitled “Geopolitics as a field of political science.” At that time, however, this call was met with a wave of negative criticism, to the point that he was not allowed to teach the subject at Princeton University and they were forced to justify their argument for separating geopolitics from Germany’s use of it for imperialist purposes. This distorted notion of geopolitics had taken root in American minds, forcing prominent international relations scholars to defend it by illustrating the possibility of separating it from imperialist German geopolitics and the unique advantages of a different understanding of geopolitics. The article adds that the Sprouts’ joint work played a prominent role in the decline of the taboo of geopolitics in American international relations.

The author believes that Harold’s 1949 critical review of Morgenthau’s book “Politics Among Nations” started increasingly distancing the Sprouts from realism. Harold criticized Morgenthau’s approach as devoting too little space to the consideration of national policy objectives. Instead, Sprout considers that Morgenthau was overly focused on power as the direct objective of state policy and therefore neglects other specific objectives, and its relative priority in the state’s political strategy. The Sprouts’ proposal on the possibility of connecting specializations (geography and political science) to better understand international relations was appreciated by their peers, including Morgenthau, who ranked Harold among the top men in the field. Regrettably, however, Margaret was excluded even though she was a co-author and an equal partner alongside Harold in the research.                                                             

The writer then highlights that their writings in the 1956-1965 period were marked by their rejection of the classical geopolitics that supported their early work on naval power. The duo argued that technology posed a challenge to geopolitical realism and considered that theorists such as Mahan and McKinder did not consider the extent to which technological changes undermined the validity of the traditional theories. The Sprouts considered that nuclear weapons, for example, were adding more complex dimensions to the concept of international capabilities.

In contrast, the Sprouts offered a different approach that conflicted with the realism and predictability of foreign policy interpretation in “cognitive behaviour” by focusing on “decision maker” in order to avoid interpreting the resolutions on the basis of vague generalizations such as “national interest” and others that dehumanize policy.

“Behavioral cognitive transformation” included self-critical criticism of the Sprouts’ previous work “Foundations of National Power” for failing to link discussion of power factors to the emergency policy reference framework, a term they formulated to enable researchers to look within the Black Box of State Motivations. The article further emphasizes the relationship between the Sprouts’ interest in the knowledge environment of statesmen and the constructive assumptions underlying the ostensible tradition of foreign policy study. This overlap makes them among the first constructivists.  

In conclusion, the article questions the mysterious reasons behind the marginalization of the Sprouts from the field of international relations. First, the partnership between Harold and Margaret, which was perceived as unusual by the traditional perception of women’s key roles at the time, and the singling out of men as “founding fathers.” The second reason is likely to be that foreign policy analysis was not taken seriously within the model-focused international relations approach. The third reason is presumed to be their autonomy and inconsistency with the academic fashion prevailing at the time, such as Morgan realism.    

                                                        By: Ryma Meddah, MA in IR and International Law



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