The art of the possible: rediscovering the meaning of realpolitik

Realpolitik: a History by John Bew reviewed.

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Many years ago I studied history as an ­undergraduate at Edinburgh University. My motivation was a fascination with the future more than with the past: without historical study, as my fellow Scot Niall Ferguson has argued elsewhere, our reference points for understanding the future are limited to either personal biography or theoretical models. Realpolitik: a History exemplifies the benefits that can be gained by careful and methodical study of history as a means to a better understanding of contemporary challenges.

By examining the origins, uses and misuses of the concept of realpolitik over the past century and a half, John Bew, reader in history and foreign policy at King’s College London and a contributing writer for this magazine, reveals a notion that is more often discussed than defined, and offers the reader a lens through which to view many of the most acute problems currently confronting policymakers in the West.

Bew’s extensive research ranges across the UK and US national archives. Yet this is no dry work of obscure scholarship – it is written in the spirit of the quotation from Shakespeare’s Tempest inscribed on the ­National Archives Building in Washington, DC: “What’s past is prologue.” As the author himself describes it, the book is “best understood as a present-minded essay on foreign affairs and statecraft”.

Early in the book, Bew makes clear what I take to be his real purpose. He does so by quoting an observation from A J P Taylor’s The Italian Problem in European Diplomacy (1847-1849), first published in 1934. Here, Taylor wrote 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”.

So far, so familiar. This insight is the equivalent for historians of the warning issued by John Maynard Keynes in his 1936 General Theory of Employment, Interest and Money, that: “Practical men, who believe themselves to be quite exempt from any intellectual influence, are usually the slaves of some defunct economist.” Yet Bew goes on to quote Taylor’s conclusion, that it is the duty of the historian “to clarify these assumptions and to trace their influence upon the course of every-day policy”. The challenge set by Taylor explains both the rationale for and the success of Bew’s timely and insightful new investigation.

As he writes, “The idea for this book was born of the author’s curiosity about the way in which realpolitik was being used in foreign policy debates in the later years of the administration of George W Bush, and Tony Blair’s government, ending in 2009 and 2007 respectively.”

Bew starts his book with a longer lens. Recognising “realpolitik” as “one of those words borrowed from another language that is much used but little understood”, he takes the reader back to the origins of the term. It was first used by the German journalist Ludwig von Rochau in his 1853 treatise Grundsätze der Realpolitik (“principles of realpolitik”). Rochau, the illegitimate son of a Braunschweig hussar, witnessed the failure of liberal revolution and of a United Germany that animated the 1848 uprisings, and he eventually became a deputy in the Reichstag in 1871.

Rochau contrasted Idealpolitik – which he felt had achieved little – with Realpolitik, which, he wrote, “does not consider its task to consist in the realisation of ideals, but in the attainment of concrete ends”. As such, the original conception of real­politik relied on an understanding of historical circumstances and the ability to ­understand and embrace new and powerful ideas. It was about the art of the possible, about achieving change, about grasping the nature of power.

Bew also offers a helpful corrective to so much of the contemporary scholarly focus on Machiavelli. Naturally, the Renaissance writer still has much to teach us about the exercise of power, but so, too, does a careful and insightful reading of history, as Bew’s research confirms. He guides the reader through the 160-year-long history of realpolitik in the English-speaking world.

The build-up of anti-German feeling in the latter part of the 19th and early 20th centuries led to realpolitik being seen as a cynical, brutal and uncivilised approach to international affairs. In 1895, the Times declared that there were few “survivors of a period when the old-fashioned idealism of the German character had not been superseded by what is now called ‘realpolitic’”. By the end of the First World War, Wilsonian idealism was generally contrasted with an understanding of “realpolitik” that reflected the strong anti-German sentiment of the times.

The second “wave” that swept realpolitik into the Anglo-American consciousness was the arrival of German emigrant intellectuals, from Niebuhr to Kissinger, before and after the Second World War. The term was used – and abused – down the years, not least during the Cold War. As Kissinger noted years later, “The advocates of a realist foreign policy are caricatured with the German term Realpolitik, I suppose to facilitate the choosing of sides.”

Whatever the scholarly disputes over Kissinger’s views on realpolitik, there can be little dispute that he has come to be indelibly associated with the expression, principally through his work on Vietnam. His views are the subject of a recent biography, Kissinger – 1923-1968: the Idealist, in which Niall Ferguson argues that idealism, more than realism, influenced the early years of the later US secretary of state. Yet the controversy that has greeted Ferguson’s claims about Kissinger reminds us of quite how contemporary are the disputes over realism and realpolitik.

Critics and advocates alike have found realpolitik a useful and understandable term by which to make sense of the choices available to policymakers in the post-9/11 world. Since the hubris of post-Cold War declarations of the “end of history” was exposed by the cataclysmic attacks of September 2001, journalists, practitioners and politicians have reached back to earlier constructs to make sense of the contemporary and complex international order. From Vladimir Putin’s actions towards Ukraine to the West’s reluctance to engage in the conflict in Syria, realpolitik has again emerged in commentary as a tool for analysing choices that are being made many decades after the term was first coined.

Yet the contemporary confusion surrounding the concept of realism is demonstrated by the way Barack Obama is attacked by some current commentators as too realist and by others as not realist enough. Early in his presidency, in his 2009 Nobel Peace Prize acceptance speech, Obama set out to articulate his approach to international affairs and did so drawing heavily on the writings of his favourite theologian, Reinhold Niebuhr. As Bew notes in the book, Obama had previously told the New York Times that Niebuhr recognised “the compelling idea that there’s serious evil in the world, and hardship and pain”, at the same time maintaining that “we should be humble and modest in our belief that we can eliminate these things”. The president took away from reading Niebuhr “the sense we have to make these efforts knowing they are hard, and not swinging from naive idealism to bitter realism”.

Today, as the end of Obama’s presidency approaches, the challenges of “not swinging from naive idealism to bitter realism” are clear. For statecraft is not a detached academic undertaking. It is judged, ultimately, by real-world outcomes and con­sequences, much more than the eloquence of its articulation.

In the dark aftermath of the Paris terrorist attacks of 13 November, few readers will need to be persuaded of the existence of grave evil in the world, or its harmful impact on international affairs. And, in the face of the continuing conflict in Syria, few will need to be convinced of the existence of “hardship and pain” for millions of the citizens of that afflicted land. Yet the failure of the international community to find a way to resolve this conflict, and so relieve the suffering of Syrians, in part highlights one of the themes of Bew’s book, which is that international affairs is conducted in cycles – and the preceding cycle influences the present one.

The West’s policy towards Syria today takes places in the long shadow of the 2003 intervention in Iraq. Leaders across the West, including the present incumbent of the White House, are determined to avoid the naivety and adventurism they ascribe to George W Bush’s approach to the Middle East. Yet here, as Bew concludes, the original understanding of Realpolitik as defined by Ludwig von Rochau can still assist us. Rochau’s work “reminds us of the messy business of politics and all the tributaries that flow into it. Rochau looked at the mechanics of states and societies – and the nuts and bolts that made them up – rather than the physics of the international system.”

John Bew has done a great service in writing this concise, readable and informative history. Let us hope that leaders and policy­makers do not forget the importance of these insights – the nuts and bolts of politics – as they try to frame an adequate response to the security threat and refugee crisis still growing in the Middle East.

Douglas Alexander was shadow foreign secretary from 2011 to 2015. He is a Fisher Family fellow of the John F Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University

This article appears in the 17 December 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Christmas and New Year special