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The Real Realpolitik

A Review of John Bew’s ‘Realpolitik: A History’, published by Oxford University Press, 2016. ISBN: 9780199331932

By Lewis Gordon Miller

The grating sound of optimism never stops attempting to penetrate my ears. In recent years, the sirens of idealistic left have renewed their singing in the hope of seducing the angrily optimistic. Their music is littered with references to ‘political revolutions’, ‘new politics’ even, monstrously, ‘world peace’. Their song would not be so painful to hear if I did not secretly wish it to be true.

Look to one of the most famous of these sirens; Senator Bernie Sanders. The overly-hopeful Democratic nominee candidate has presented a disenfranchised youth, eager for radical change, a picture of the US renewed. His powerful words, his swishing hands, are enticing and mesmerising. His song carries a simple message; change your course and sail for Utopia.

Hillary Clinton, his shrewd adversary, hands her sailors jars of ear-plugging realism. Clinton appears prudent to the point of dishonesty, ambitious to the point of insincerity. Her experienced hand remains tightly gripped on the Democratic Party’s rudder. The ship’s crew note her Machiavellianism, of mixed virtue and vice, as ever more appear transfixed by the sirens’ song.

This lazy picture is all too common these days. Our analysis of elections is often boring and simple, black and white. Bernie exhibits saintly naïveté: Hillary shows insincere prudence. This is analysis without insight or nuance. We degrade the combatants with our crude little dichotomy and smugly raise ourselves above them.

The commonly exaggerated picture of realism versus idealism represents a general divide which permeates deeply in human nature. We often see ourselves as divided when it comes to our beliefs, our history, and our nature. Some are Girondins, some Montagnards; some are Fabians, some Revolutionaries; some are Homo Economicus, some Homo Socialis.

The debate is often not about the sheer practicality of ideas, but the underlying motives of the human. English philosopher Thomas Hobbes irked his French contemporary, Baron de Montesquieu, by suggesting that we were all, ultimately, careless and selfish. “The state of nature is a state of war,” he famously penned. Without the state, there is little but fear and death. For Montesquieu, it was selfishness which lead to fear and death, as he outlined in his ‘Myth of the Troglodytes’: Humans were naturally good and caring. Society was built on empathy and solidarity, with the state acting as a corrupting, but convenient, administrator.

Similar arguments rage constantly in academia and journalism. There are critics-a-plenty when it comes to the the ‘rational actor’ who, according to a simplified picture of economics, does little else than calculate the costs and benefits of any situation. Likewise, in International Relations, there is no shortage of opposition to the hypocritical ‘Realists’, a past-time I am personally guilty of. Realists are said to practice the uncaring doctrines of ‘Realpolitik’, utilised by unscrupulous men like Henry Kissinger and Sergei Lavrov, with little care for humanity, sincerity, and morality. Once more we over-simplify.

John Bew’s Realpolitik: A History is an excellent work whose protagonist, the much maligned and misunderstood concept of Realpolitik, finds itself corrupted by our incessant urge to attack the fictional. Bew tells this story over an intimidatingly long period of 160 years, expertly distilled into just over three-hundred pages. The book is a study of Realpolitik which attempts to challenge the simplistic understandings parodied above, and which frequently derides academics and journalists of ‘talking past each other.’ The author also carries out the worthwhile task of illustrating that most of our ancestors wasted their time with many the same debates as we do today. We all too frequently echo our grandparents without listening to them.

The central aim is not just to wrestle Realpolitik from the abusive hands of pseudo-proponents and critics, but to rescue its heritage embodied by its largely ignored father Ludwig von Rochau.

Von Rochau’s Realpolitik is far from the patrician high politics we are used to seeing in the Truman building and the Quai d’Orsay. Readers are confronted with Realpolitik’s birth in the domestic debates between German revolutionaries over the reasons for their failure in founding an Assembly after their rebellions of 1848. Their defect, von Rochau concluded, was the unwillingness to accept the realities of politics by those who spent too long building ‘castles in the clouds’. As Bew puts it, ‘a work that had been begun with aimless enthusiasm and carried out with an over-estimation of one’s own capabilities ended in dishonour and injury.’

Realpolitik was born as an attempt to bring political insight and practicability to the ideal of a liberal society. Ideas and morality were ‘not to be jettisoned and had a rightful place in political calculations. At the same time moral principles were always subject to compromise.’ Many of the criticisms which were levelled at Realpolitik back then still echo today. ‘Realism’ often simple appears as an excuse for defeatism and materialism.

The banner of Realpolitik was carried forward in Germany by Heinrich von Treitschke, whose distortion of the concept is criticised by Bew. It was from Treitschke that many of the notions associated with other Teutonic ideas of Weltpolitik and Machtpolitik became entangled with Realpolitik. Demagogues, inspired by Treitschke, furthered these associations as it was used as an excuse for war and expansionism.

Bew has attempted to correct these corruptions by providing a more nuanced view of Realpolitk’s history. The book is dotted with counter-intuitive examples of the idea’s application. British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain interestingly uses Realpolitik to justify his policy of appeasing Nazi Germany. Likewise, Henry Kissinger’s reluctance to use the term highlights his thoughts that ‘purely pragmatic policy provides no criteria for other nations to assess our performance and no standards to which the American people can rally.’

The mission of Realists is not to destroy the naiveté associated with having ideals, but to recognise the limits and impracticalities of over-idealism. When alone we are free to be uncompromising moralisers, but in a world of politics and other people we are forced to find, as Bew puts it, ‘some sort of reconciliation between one’s ideals and an understanding of the limits of morality in the political sphere.’ This is where Bew argues Realpolitik’s usefulness lies and where we can learn most from it.

The book is well written and engaging, although the chapters on academic debates may from time-to-time appear overly aloof for non-academic readers. This is to be expected from a book about a complex and abstract idea. No-one should be put off, as on the most part the book is easy to read and events are put in context. The breadth of knowledge, scholarship, and research is impressive as the author covers a debate which has raged for over one-and-a-half centuries.

Realpolitik is, however, far from criticism. Its original meaning is very useful, and Bew is congratulated in bringing our attention to it, but it has its issues. The main problem is that making Realpolitik the simple concern with practicability risks diluting what gives it meaning. For example, the study picks plenty of cases of governments as utility maximisers and as generous empathisers. In each, states invoke Realpolitik to justify almost anything as being in their national interest and as practical. The issue is that it is hard to prove that Realpolitik, rather than some deeper bias, is the motivator. That is why we are still torn between Homo Economicus and Homo Socialis. After all, who justifies their actions on the basis of imprudence?

Most people, even the most radical, see their ideas as implementable and practical. The more radical these ideas are, the more proponents plan revolution and false-consciousness correction as a means of building Utopia. These corrections are frequently brutal and terrifying, but existent nonetheless. Robespierre and Mao were both men of practice.

This is not to argue that Realpolitik is a useless tool for understanding the world. In its commonly used form, the concept gives us an insight into events which other perspectives may not. Machiavelli’s short book, The Prince, is a noteworthy critique of impractical idealism. Godly commands of Christian piety and caring are not simply ill-advised for rulers, he argues, but they can cause great harm and destruction to both the Prince and his people. Machiavelli attempts to build a moral code which Princes can follow and which can be applied in the brutal world of politics. Religious alternatives are subtly dismissed as being too far removed from the realities of the real world.

Reminding us of our need to expose our ideals to the difficulties of politics is a worthwhile task. America’s outgoing President Obama is a man who is notable for his chastisement over being simultaneously too idealistic and too pragmatic.

In the early morning of January 2009, I sat in a pale chilly classroom staring in wonder as history was projected onto our wall. Standing there, in typically American pomp, the recently elected President Obama delivered a speech designed to bring together the challenges and difficulties of the age with the hopes and ideals of his people. “America has carried on not simply because of the skill or vision of those in high office,” he reminded his audience, “but because we, the people, have remained faithful to the ideals of our forebears and true to our founding documents.”

Time after time he has repeated this message. Obama’s oratory was never there to deliver the simplified idealism which can easily be tacked onto vague slogans of ‘Hope’ and ‘Change’. Each speech always contains depressingly difficulties; financial crisis, terrorism, war, gun crime. But in each Obama attempts to inspire his audience to work and overcome them through dedication and hard work, not through anger and resentment. The outgoing President has always appeared something of a pragmatic idealist.

As he noted in the masterful article in The Atlantic, The Obama Doctrine, “I suppose you could call me a realist in believing we can’t, at any given moment, relieve all the world’s misery… I am also an idealist insofar as I believe that we should be promoting values, like democracy and human rights and norms and values, because not only do they serve our interests the more people adopt values that we share… but because it makes the world a better place.” This vision of realism is much like that Bew seeks to reclaim.

Obama’s foreign policy, summarised in the mantra ‘don’t do stupid shit’, is not made easier by his need to bridge international and national interests. He is simultaneously criticised for both interventionism and non-interventionism in the crises of Iraq, Syria, and Libya. This is perhaps because of this need to be on no side of the divide. The limits of his conception of Realpolitik is visible when he rages against the critics of his motto; ‘Who exactly is in the stupid-shit caucus? Who is pro–stupid shit?’ In this case, Obama is, unwittingly, his own best critic. Should the world’s superpower be guided by notions that nobody can oppose?

Bringing ideals and practice together is difficult. It is hard to analyse a society driven by emotion but also by logic and to imagine a politician driven by idealism but also by practicality. This is ultimately the reality we face. Those who lazily oversimplify humanity’s protagonists do not simply degrade their subjects, but degrade the complexity of human nature. But if we are to bring these two together, we face a further problem; how do achieve this in a way which runs the risk of being proven wrong?

The discussions triggered by Realpolitik: A History are conveniently timely as Britain considers whether it should remain in the European Union, as the British Labour party quarrels over whether its leader’s ‘new politics’ is realistic or desirable, and as the Democratic Party decides on what reality is realistic; Bernie’s or Hillary’s. Bew provides advice for all involved in these struggles. The book’s concluding chapter, in particular, should be required reading for those who find themselves in these simplified battles between ideals and reality; politics is ultimately the effective marriage of both.