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

“Formless ideas, impulses, emotional surges, melodic slogans, naively accepted catchwords . . . [and] habitual self-delusions”—these were the targets that Rochau had in mind when he published The Principles of Realpolitik in 1853. By the time he wrote the second volume of his book fifteen years later, however, he had already recognized that the word he had coined had taken on a life of its own: liberals condemned it out of hand; conservatives adopted it without actually understanding what it meant. Looking at the way realpolitik has been used since that time, one can see that old habits die hard. For some the word has become a synonym for evil; for others it has been an accoutrement of sophistication. “I reject at this occasion the criticism which has been levelled at the title of my book from different directions,” Rochau wrote, with a hint of exhaustion, “if not so much against the content itself.”

John Bew currently holds the Henry A. Kissinger Chair in Foreign Policy and International Relations at the John W. Kluge Center at the Library of Congress. He is a reader in the War Studies Department at King’s College London and director of the International Centre for the Study of Radicalisation and Political Violence. His Castlereagh: A Life (Oxford University Press, 2012) was named a book of the year by the Wall Street Journal, Sunday Telegraph, Spectator and Total Politics.

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