Should we be dealing with the Saudis? President Barack Obama welcomes King Salman bin Abdelaziz Al Saud to the White House in 2015 ©Rex Shutterstock

The art of Realpolitik

When dealing with dictators we shouldn't forget our long-term interests, argues Jonathan Powell
February 18, 2016
Realpolitik: A history by John Bew, Oxford University Press, £14.99

The term “Realpolitik” is endlessly bandied around in foreign policy debates, usually as an insult or synonym for Machiavellianism, but John Bew’s scholarly new book, Realpolitik: A History, reminds us that we don’t really know what it means.

Realpolitik, as a system of politics based on realism and interests rather than moral or ideological considerations, is not, in fact, as old as history. Bew traces it back to Ludwig August von Rochau’s The Foundations of Realpolitik, the first volume of which was published in 1853 in the aftermath of the European revolutions of 1848. Von Rochau was a liberal and his work was not initially directed at foreign policy but at domestic politics, in an attempt to find a way of combining the emerging nationalism with liberalism rather than authoritarianism. He thought 1848 had failed because the revolutionaries were naive and lacked a clear understanding of power. He proposed Realpolitik as an alternative to the failed Idealpolitik. His aim was, Bew says, “to solve the conundrum of achieving liberal enlightened goals in a world that did not follow liberal enlightened rules.”

Von Rochau’s ideas were subsequently hijacked in Germany and came to be associated with the “blood and iron” policies of Otto von Bismarck, and later with Henry Kissinger, although neither man used the word and each tried to distance himself from it. Bew is the right man to study the idea, having written an excellent biography of Viscount Castlereagh, a great exemplar of Realpolitik before the invention of the term, and until recently holder of the Henry Kissinger chair at the Library of Congress. Bew was granted an interview with the great man, and perhaps as a result is a little too willing to let him off the hook when Kissinger claims he had nothing to do with Realpolitik and that the term was just an effort by liberals to label him as German rather than American. As the book makes clear, all those officials who worked for him in the National Security Council and State Department realised both at the time and subsequently that Kissinger was practising Realpolitik, whatever label he chose to use.
"The diplomat George F Kennan gave the idea practical expression with he post-war-strategy of 'containment' to keep the Soviet Union in check"
Only a small part of the book is devoted to the German origins of Realpolitik. What really interests Bew is its impact on Anglo-American thinking from 1900 to the present day. He traces its meandering path by digital methods, picking up where the term appears in newspapers and periodicals over the century. (This is a fascinating new tool for historians, but may lead to some loss of context). In Britain, Realpolitik was at first dismissed as representing the “menacing and uncivilised world view” of German militarism. British diplomats liked to reassure themselves that they, by contrast, followed a value-based approach. The Germans rightly dismissed this as rank hypocrisy and Bismarck complained of the “cant of English public opinion.” After 1916, British officials, however, picked up the term and used it to justify some of their less savoury activities, including the Sykes-Picot agreement (over the objections of Arabists such as TE Lawrence) and the Balfour Declaration (despite promises made to Arab leaders). One official wrote: “the only ‘real-politik’ for us is to take a line in the Near East that will keep [us] in with the French… and the Jews, and not be too nervous of Arab susceptibilities.” Later, Neville Chamberlain used the concept to justify his policy of appeasement and the abandonment of the of the League of Nations at Munich as a way of protecting British interests—with disastrous consequences.

The idea was first adopted in the United States by Theodore Roosevelt, who used it as a justification of a more muscular American foreign policy and a greater engagement in the affairs of the world. An anti-Realpolitik tradition was founded in response by Woodrow Wilson with his 14 Points and the establishment of the League of Nations at the end of the First World War. The great American theorist of Realpolitik was Hans Morgenthau, himself a German immigrant, who published Politics Among Nations in 1948. His argument was that “Realism maintains that universal moral principles can’t be applied to the actions of states.” The diplomat George F Kennan, an admirer of Bismarck, gave the idea practical expression with the post-war strategy of “containment” to keep the Soviet Union in check, rather than contesting its lack of democracy and human rights. Both Kennan and Hans Morgenthau opposed the Vietnam war. Kennan believed it was “a mistake to think others could be made to think, walk and talk like Americans.”

American politics then settled into an alternation of Realpolitik and idealism as administration succeeded administration. President Richard Nixon and Henry Kissinger were criticised as exponents of Realpolitik in adopting a policy of détente towards the Soviet Union, to the fury of right-wing ideologues; and in working with dictators such as Augusto Pinochet and the Greek colonels, to the fury of liberals. Kissinger was considered to have “Europeanised” US foreign policy by making it less idealistic and more pragmatic, based on his admiration for the old ways of Klemens von Metternich and Castlereagh, captured in his doctoral thesis A World Restored (1957). Jimmy Carter reacted against the cynicism of Nixon and Kissinger by asserting the importance of human rights and democracy, symbolically re-employing Tony Lake, a young official who had resigned from the Nixon administration to expose the “human reality of Realpolitik” in the bombing of Cambodia. George HW Bush and his Secretary of State James Baker swung the pendulum towards Realpolitik, and Bill Clinton swung it back to idealism.

Bew points out the dangers of the extremes of cynical Realpolitik and selfless idealism. In Britain, Robin Cook’s self-conscious attempt in 1997 to bring an “ethical dimension” to foreign policy since “the national interest cannot be defined only by narrow Realpolitik” ended in embarrassment when the world turned out to be more complicated. In the US, the godfather of the neo-conservative movement, Irving Kristol, rejected the utopianism and naivety of the human rights lobby but also rejected “Real-politik a la Disraeli.” This didn’t prevent the neocons from veering wildly between idealism and cynicism. Charles Krauthammer, another conservative commentator, asserted in his 1986 essay “The Poverty of Realism” that the goal of American foreign policy was not just security but “the success of liberty.” In 1985, however, he had praised Ronald Reagan’s administration for its willingness to deal with Saddam Hussein, which showed that Americans “can play as cool a game of Realpolitik as anyone… And who can blame us?... We must take our allies where we find them”—not the most idealistic of positions.

Nowadays, Anglo-American leaders try to escape the trap of the extremes. Tony Blair set out a policy of “mutual self-interest and moral purpose” in his Chicago speech in 1999, justifying an idealistic intervention in Kosovo to prevent a humanitarian disaster. In doing so, he was denounced by a young American academic at Stanford who quoted Morgenthau on the advantages of realism. Paradoxically, that academic, Condoleezza Rice, later became National Security Adviser and Secretary of State to George W Bush, widely seen as the proponent of a highly ideological US foreign policy. No one therefore seems to score high marks for consistency when it comes to Realpolitik.

Bew concludes that we should rediscover Von Rochau’s original concept. He does not try to argue that Von Rochau was a great philosopher, but he does believe his balanced way of considering questions with an emphasis on historicism and empiricism and the avoidance of self-delusion is correct. He wants a Goldilocks approach, with a bit of Realpolitik and a bit of idealism, where the porridge is not too hot and not too cold but just right.

He points to President Barack Obama as an example of this. Obama used his Nobel Prize speech in 2009 to articulate a “liberal realist worldview” explicitly founded on the thinking of the theologian and philosopher Reinhold Niebuhr. Obama was, Bew says, “searching for a third way between the misadventures of the Bush years and the temptations of isolationism and fatalism.” In 2015, he went further and complained that if you are an idealist, “you’re like Woodrow Wilson, and you’re out there with the League of Nations and imagining everybody holding hands and singing ‘Kumbaya.’” And if you are a realist, “then you’re supporting dictators who happen to be our friends, and you’re cutting deals and solely pursuing the self-interest of our country as narrowly defined.”

This is precisely the challenge that faces policy makers. Should we welcome a willingness by a dictator like Muammar Gaddafi to give up his weapons of mass destruction and accept him back into the international community? Or should we resist having anything to do with him because he is a dictator and hope he is eventually overthrown? Should we offer training to the Saudi Arabian prison system or sell them weapons while they are at war in Yemen, or should we shun them despite our national economic interests because of their barbaric penal policy and absence of democracy? And if we do make a Machiavellian deal in the case of one country does that disable us from having any principles in our foreign policy at all without being accused of inconsistency?

Every government’s foreign policy has to be a mixture of Realpolitik and idealism, and of course it will sometimes be inconsistent because of the realities of our imperfect world. But the danger of the Obama approach is that it leads to an excess of caution, a glorification of stability at all costs and a policy of inaction—as in 1930s Europe. We stand by when terrible things happen in Bosnia or Rwanda or Syria for reasons of Realpolitik without realising that our interests are in fact engaged and that our failure to act will have consequences—such as an unmanageable flood of refugees. As Obama’s hero Niebuhr thought, as summarised by Bew, “both action and inaction—intervention and non-intervention—contained within them the possibility of good and evil.” The failure is not being too cynical or too naive but being unable to think widely enough about our interests. What we need is not liberal realism but a new form of liberal internationalism that takes a longer-term view.

Von Rochau wrote his two volumes in the aftermath of the 1848 revolutions which appeared to fail but transformed Europe. We live in the aftermath of the apparently failed, but still unfinished, Arab Spring. Like Von Rochau we need to think deeply about our long-term interests and identify new, principled ways of defending them. Jonathan Powell was Chief of Staff to Tony Blair from 1995-2007 and is Director of Inter Mediate, a charity working on armed conflicts around the world