The Real Origins of Realpolitik

The Real Origins of Realpolitik

Mini Teaser: An allegedly illiberal idea—and its liberal father.

by Author(s): John Bew

IN 1934, a young British historian published his first book, The Italian Problem in European Diplomacy, 1847–1849 . In it, he announced that a nation’s foreign policy “is based upon a series of assumptions, with which statesmen have lived since their earliest years and which they regard as so axiomatic as hardly to be worth stating.” It was the duty of the historian, he wrote, “to clarify these assumptions and to trace their influence upon the course of every-day policy.”

By that apodictic verdict A. J. P. Taylor, who soon became one of the greatest British historians of the past century, meant realpolitik, which he believed was the true motor of international relations, with moralism serving at best as a pious smokescreen for a battle for power, or, as he put it in the title of one of his best books, for the struggle for mastery in Europe. Since then, realpolitik has had its ups and downs, both in Britain and America. In the late 1930s, for example, it became a convenient excuse among much of the British aristocracy for doing nothing in the face of Nazi terror and aggression, but, then again, it also underlay Winston Churchill’s declaration that he would sup with the devil to defeat Hitler, which is what he did in forming a wartime alliance with Stalin. Now that this elastic term is once again coming back into vogue, it is worth taking up Taylor’s challenge again.

For what does this portentous Teutonic word actually mean and what implications, if any, does it hold for the assumptions of contemporary Western statesmen? As realpolitik undergoes a renaissance in the English-speaking world, it is surely worth investigating what the word, coined in 1853, was originally supposed to entail. The answer to that question might surprise but will also enlighten. Real realpolitik has been used and abused beyond all recognition over the last 160 years. But the original concept is still relevant to the challenges of the twenty-first century, if not quite in the way one might expect. It contains notions within it that both bolster and act as a useful counterweight and corrective to the mantras of modern American realism. Real realpolitik, you could say, is ripe for excavation and rediscovery.

The reasons for the most recent return of realpolitik are no mystery. The optimism and sense of triumph which crept into Anglo-American political culture following the end of the Cold War and which peaked with the toppling of Saddam Hussein’s statue in Baghdad’s Firdos Square just over ten years ago have been replaced by the “return of history” and the “end of dreams.”

As periodically happens when the world becomes a more challenging place, a slew of new books on Niccolò Machiavelli have appeared on both sides of the Atlantic, including offerings by Jonathan Powell (Tony Blair’s former chief of staff) and Philip Bobbitt. Last December, in a review of four recent books on the Florentine statesman in the Atlantic, Michael Ignatieff announced the coming of the latest “Machiavellian moment” (a phrase introduced by the historian J. G. A. Pocock in 1975). By that he meant “an instance when public necessity requires actions that private ethics and religious values might condemn as unjust and immoral.” Other familiar heroes of realpolitik—such as Lord Castlereagh and Count Metternich (the focus of Henry Kissinger’s A World Restored ) and Otto von Bismarck and George F. Kennan—are also enjoying a return to prestige.

This time around, realpolitik also has some new friends and unlikely advocates. The most liberal president to inhabit the White House in many years has been as realist as any of his predecessors in the conduct of foreign affairs, with a zero-sum security policy in which “interests” are paramount. Last May, the German weekly Der Spiegel ran an article declaring that President Obama was the heir to “Kissinger’s realpolitik,” quoting National Interest editor Jacob Heilbrunn to the effect that he “may even start speaking about foreign affairs with a German accent.” “Everybody always breaks it down between idealist and realist,” said Obama’s then chief of staff Rahm Emanuel in April 2010. “If you had to put him in a category, he’s probably more realpolitik, like Bush 41 . . . you’ve got to be cold-blooded about the self-interests of your nation.”

In the 1990s, some regarded realpolitik as a thing of the past—a relic of the Cold War and a “needs must” approach to the world which could now be tossed into the dustbin of history. Even at the height of their influence, Western realpolitikers have often faced resistance and criticism from within their own societies. As a foreign import, lifted from the heart of the great Anglo-American bogeyman of the two world wars, the word does not sit comfortably alongside such soothing terms as “enlightenment,” “morality” and “virtue.” In a world where great-power rivalries have returned, however, realpolitik is once more discovering a receptive audience. The chastening of American ambitions in the Middle East also allows realpolitikers to point out, with some justification, that idealism can lead to worse moral outcomes than the cool, circumspect approach to statecraft that they purport to employ.

So the exponents of realpolitik have rediscovered their voice and their swagger. Yet realpolitik is one of those words borrowed from another language that is much used but little understood. Its true meaning remains occluded by the fact that it has so often been caricatured—but also because realpolitikers caricature the naive idealists whom they set themselves up against. “I will leave it to the self-described realists to explain in greater detail the origins and meaning of ‘realism’ and ‘realpolitik’ to our confused journalists and politicos,” said Robert Kagan in 2010, in a discussion of President Obama’s realist credentials. In fact, few satisfactory definitions exist, largely because international-relations theorists have remained uninterested in its historical origins.

In picking up the gauntlet thrown down by Kagan, then—to explore the origins and meanings of realpolitik—one discovers some surprising answers. Both realists and their critics should take heed. Rediscovering real realpolitik is, in fact, a more useful exercise than simply dusting off a copy of Machiavelli’s The Prince . We can do better than revert to Renaissance-era statecraft every time we get our fingers burned. That is because real realpolitik was born in an era that more closely resembles the one in which we find ourselves today. It emerged in mid-nineteenth-century Europe from the collision of the Enlightenment with the realities of power politics: a world that was experiencing a unique combustion of new ideas about freedom and social order alongside rapid industrialization, class war, sectarianism, great-power rivalry and the rise of nationalism. In other words, it was a response to the quintessential dilemmas of modernity, some of which we are still grappling with today.

Image: Pullquote: Rather than abandoning his liberalism, he challenged his fellow liberals to think of smarter ways to achieve their goals. Essay Types: Essay