Understanding Realpolitik

Realpolitik is a term more often invoked within the English-speaking world than explained or understood. The word provides a condensed symbol that expresses different meanings depending upon who employs it. Sometimes it signals a practical approach focused on the concrete particulars that shape international relations or an effort to cut through naivety and utopianism. More often, however, it conjures a very different image of cynically pursuing advantage by deploying power without moral restraint. As “an unwelcome import from the dark heart of Mitteleuropa,” in John Bew’s telling phrase, realpolitik marks a disturbing counterpoint to Anglo-Saxon conceptions of fair play and liberty under law.

Neither of these meanings offer much beyond a rhetorical device. In his new book, Realpolitik: A History, Bew provides a welcome service by exhuming realpolitik from its 19th century German origins and tracing how Anglophone societies in Britain and the United States received it. His intellectual archeology cuts through mythology to explain an idea from a very particular context and to show how it took on a life of its own. Realpolitik became a reference point for discussing international politics by the 20th century. Along the way, it acquired meanings that turned it into a label rather than a helpful guide for practical thinking.

Part of the challenge in understanding realpolitik lies in the term’s careless use as a synonym for political realism. Bew distinguishes it from other strains of realist thinking drawn from Thucydides, Niccolo Machiavelli, and Thomas Hobbes. Raison d’état is also a separate concept that originated in 17th century France to justify the conduct of foreign policy. British Tories of the 18th century introduced the concept of national interest as something distinct from either a monarch’s personal ambitions or objects pursued by courtiers and metropolitan elites. Neither alone nor together, however, do these ideas comprise realpolitik.

The concept emerged when liberal nationalism in Germany failed during the revolutions of 1848. The domestic political challenge, writes Bew, was how to build a stable and liberal nation state in a fragile, rapidly changing environment without either violent revolution or harsh repression.  Germany’s internal fragmentation, along with its vulnerability to external pressure from its lack of geographically defensive natural frontiers, set the context. Realpolitik proposed that statecraft must first identify the contending social, economic, and intellectual forces to achieve some kind of equilibrium so they would not hinder the nation state’s development. Only then could the project of liberating Germany to form a united realm succeed.

Ludwig von Rochau (1810-1873) coined the term “realpolitik” in 1853. His two-volume Foundations of Realpolitik offered a liberal response to the challenge of power politics that had swept aside constitutionalism in Germany just a few years before. Accepting power as the fundamental determinant of politics, Rochau separated natural or legal right from sovereignty, which he treated as the consequence of power. Political arrangements had to reflect the social forces within a state as harmonious balance among them minimized internal conflict while drawing more effectively upon their intrinsic strength. Ideas mattered, but less for their intrinsic virtue (or viciousness) than for the wider support they attracted.

Cynics might rate an idea’s usefulness above its truth. Rochau focused instead on the power an idea exercised. Whether right or wrong in themselves, ideas had influence that any political assessment must consider if it was to match reality. Modernity, Rochau believed, made public opinion the key factor in national politics. Statesmen had to engage rather than attempt to suppress it.

Realpolitik aimed to strip away illusions, whether grounded in sentiment, ideals, or ambition. Understanding reality made serving higher ideals possible. Critics later charged Rochau with succumbing to obstacles that blocked change, but he sought to work around barriers rather than push through them. German unity, from a realpolitik standpoint, opened the possibility of a liberal agenda of self-government, expanded political participation, and freedom of expression.  Nationalism offered a unifying ideal to overcome differences stemming from religious sectarianism, region, or social class. Since neither Germany’s old order nor the conservative internationalism epitomized by Klemens von Metternich could share power with rising groups or adapt to change, Rochau believed both were doomed to fail.

International politics mattered less to Rochau than later understandings of realpolitik might suggest. His stress on domestic affairs meshed with Otto von Bismarck’s post-unification restraint. What the historian Leopold von Ranke described as der Primat der Aussenpolitik reflected the way Germany’s vulnerability and the fragmentation of its political order blurred the line between foreign and internal considerations. Rochau considered protection against outside coercion to be the precondition for effective independence, though he did not equate a particular state’s independence with political freedom. Securing Germany’s national independence would promote liberal governance within the new realm. Hence Rochau’s support for Bismarck, which implied neither larger foreign ambitions nor admiration for an authoritarian Prussian order.

Bew argues that it was the historian Heinreich von Treitschke, not Rochau, who associated realpolitik with “a cultish devotion to the importance of power in the German national ideal.”  Treitschke kept alive the notion of realpolitik after Rochau’s death while prioritizing national unity over a liberal program. Critiquing John Stuart Mill’s utilitarianism, Treitschke “stressed freedom within the state rather than freedom from the state.” His argument fit German liberalism,  which viewed the state—especially a state operating under the constraints of law—as a particularly favorable environment for human flourishing. However, he played down the liberal side of realpolitik as he became the chief propagandist for the Prussian court.

Treitschke set no limit on state action in wartime, though he took a more subtle view of international politics that encompassed a self-regulating element. Effective statesmanship, he insisted, required awakening the finer energies that lie dormant amidst frailties and failings.  Reason alone could not accomplish that by appeals to abstractions and a rule-based order.  Human nature with its passions precluded such an approach.

The moral arguments of British liberals were to him fundamentally dishonest. The straightforward pursuit of national interest that recognized that other states had legitimate concerns differed entirely from the self-interest cloaked in high-mindedness that he attributed to Victorian Britain. Treitschke’s charge framed the version of realpolitik the Anglophone world encountered in the later 19th century.

British and then American observers found realpolitik a disturbing phenomenon they encountered during Germany’s assertive rise in Europe and the emergence of its rivalry with Britain. Realpolitik implied “a menacing and uncivilized worldview” that ignored humanitarian considerations to focus on power and the pursuit of advantage. The authoritarian bent of German domestic politics in the 1890s gave credence to fears that a traditional idealism had given way to “matter of fact realism,” which had a corrosive effect.

On the other hand, Bew notes, many Anglophone observers did not consider Germany any more self-interested or dishonest than other countries. Colonial empire—as anti-imperialists like J.A. Hobson argued—provided ample evidence of an even harsher realpolitik among the British and the French. Still, the charges against Germany reinforced a negative view of realpolitik that only hardened with the hardening of the idealistic aspirations of liberal internationalism. A kind of “anti-realpolitik,” as Bew calls it, took form.

Ironically, British foreign policy had a realist strain that Treitschke and other realpolitik advocates viewed approvingly. Lord Castlereagh and George Canning, both foreign secretaries, and their colleague the Duke of Wellington spoke honestly about pursuing British interests while recognizing that other countries did likewise. The approach offered space to negotiate differences with other states. It also provided a model that later statesmen, particularly the arch-conservative Lord Salisbury and his 20th century successors, followed. Victorian liberals and their intellectual progeny, however, disdained such compromise from the moral high ground of Britain’s 19th century ascendency. Doctrinaire idealism had set itself as the basis of Anglophone opposition to realpolitik.

Realpolitik did not wither away among English-speakers, however. It found an audience in the United States as great power rivalries in Europe prompted renewed attention to foreign affairs. If vulnerability shaped German realpolitik, geography and the consequent demands of power-projection guided its American variant. While the United States enjoyed nearly unrivaled security from invasion, its overseas commercial interests required protection. Geopolitics provided a framework to explain the problem.

Walter Lippmann, whom Bew describes as the father of American realpolitik, observed that the United States needed to back its diplomacy with armaments, and that its diplomacy ought to be used to ally with the powers whose politics and interests most closely matched its own. Theodore Roosevelt thought Europe’s balance of power an American interest to be upheld even at the price of war, though he preferred to secure it diplomatically. Shaping the world to produce a security environment that favored the United States became a 20th century project.

Germany had profoundly shaped American intellectual culture, particularly as its institutions became the U.S. model for the research university. The romantic idealism that influenced the New England Transcendentalists and Friedrich List’s statist political economy were among the notable earlier imports. Indeed realpolitik faced less resistance in America than in Britain—though the anti-German sentiment that waxed in World War I certainly had a lasting impact. The messianic strain of Woodrow Wilson’s liberal internationalism, which blended British influences with a Calvinist religiosity detached from scriptural roots, brought a decidedly unrealistic moralizing outlook. The disappointment of Versailles fueled a rush to withdraw from European politics. Anti-realpolitik, with its visions of collective security and its repudiation of power politics, fostered a backlash amidst disappointment when the Wilsonian project failed.

The British realism Bew traces during the 1920s and 1930s looks a lot like Rochau’s original focus on the determinants of power in historical context. It rejected the naivety of Wilsonianism, turning instead to earlier British precedents. Planning for the negotiations to end World War I had prompted research into the earlier Congress of Vienna, research that the diplomat Harold Nicholson popularized. Charles Webster, who had advised the British Foreign Office and shaped the academic study of international politics in Britain, wrote seminal works on Castlereagh’s foreign policy. Austen and Neville Chamberlain, along with Anthony Eden, took Castlereagh and Canning as an example. Not just ministers but the British official mind generally turned from a rejection of realpolitik to grudging acceptance of it. An influential realist school around E.H. Carr set a favorable tone among journalists and academics.

The failure of appeasement, however, tainted realist approaches to foreign policy in Britain.  Neville Chamberlain explicitly described appeasing Hitler’s Germany as an outgrowth of a British realpolitik that cast aside “the diplomacy of cant metaphysics” for straightforward bargaining. Bew argues that giving up collective security weakened an already fraying international order with compromises that undermined British interests elsewhere, but that interpretation downplays the unrecognized idealism behind appeasement. Chamberlain believed that reasonable men bargaining in good faith could find common ground to settle differences.  Assumptions that worked in negotiations at home failed when one was negotiating with Hitler.

Realism offered a more lasting counterpoint in the United States to isolationism, and to “the perceived ills of Wilson’s utopian and legalistic internationalism” as well. During the 1930s, realism offered a framework for threat-assessment. Nicholas Spykman, along with émigrés like Robert Strausz-Hupé and Arnold Wolfers, explained the dangers of emerging challenges from Germany and Japan. The geopolitical turn that guided American realpolitik emphasized global military reach and made a case for intervention beyond the Western hemisphere. Besides influencing policy, realpolitik shaped the academic study of international relations.

Bew notes an interesting split between realpolitik’s political and academic legacies. The intellectual migration of émigrés fleeing European upheavals between World Wars had a profound impact on U.S. academic life. It brought critics of realpolitik along with its advocates. The common denominator between them was a Germanic frame of reference, emphasizing method as fundamental to Wissenschaft rightly understood, that resonated within American universities. The American version also bore the marks of Protestant theology, with its stress on reformation in various forms. International relations as a discipline accordingly elevated theory in ways that made realism more “ism” than real.

The author likens the splintering of interpretative schools to “fissiparious Protestant sects” organized “around certain prominent scholars, institutions, or key texts.” Outsiders, including policymakers, diplomats and the educated public, find the result unhelpful. Historians, like Otto von Pflanze who quoted Bismarck’s observation “there is no exact science of politics,” provide a more complete understanding of realpolitik.

Post-World War II American realism outside the academy became what Bew calls “a discourse of restraint and responsibility.” George Kennan’s original argument for containment as a strategy against the Soviet Union offers a notable expression of it. A historically-informed view sensitive to culture and human nature along with the determinants of power encouraged caution. By this time, American realism lacked idealism and became vulnerable to charges of being too cynical or overly accommodating. Calls for action—the liberal internationalist John Kennedy spoke of “vigor”—worked against it.

Vietnam showed, though, how misconceived action could end. Henry Kissinger noted the need to lay bare the intellectual roots of American failure as a first step toward a new approach. He observed an “absolutism in American realism” that distanced self-described realists from those responsible for exercising power. Bew describes Kissinger as blending liberal idealist perspectives with an appreciation of how power works. Neither he nor Richard Nixon denied the United State an exceptional role in world affairs. Instead, they charted a different course for pursuing it and downplayed ideology as they worked to rebalance the Cold War system on more favorable terms. Realist means served an idealist aim: to preserve peace and liberal order.

Ronald Reagan’s emphasis on national power and the hard anti-Soviet rhetoric that accompanied it differed from the pragmatism of Nixon and Kissinger almost as much as it differed from the idealism that Jimmy Carter invoked. Reagan had a romantic streak that emerged in speeches, along with a practical side that resisted exposure to undue risk. His determination to show American strength in the most hard-headed manner—a point downplayed by some historians looking retrospectively at the West’s peaceful victory in the Cold War—opened the way to negotiation with the Kremlin on terms that favored the West. Instead of returning to a détente that critics believed had come to favor the Soviets, Reagan’s shift to conciliation lowered tensions while guiding the Soviet Union toward eventual dissolution. Both sides came to invoke realpolitik more than ideological confrontation.

Had realpolitik by then lost any link with Rochau’s original conception? Tracing the history provides more parallels than direct connections. Ideas become garbled in translation and concepts take on a life of their own when deployed in a different context or time.

Rather than providing the start of an intellectual genealogy spanning the Atlantic (or the English Channel), looking to Rochau’s formulation draws attention to similar ways of approaching problems. Bew makes an important contribution in reflecting upon the perennial challenge of realizing liberal aims in circumstances where liberal ideals offer scant guidance. That was the conundrum Rochau faced in 19th century Germany. If his example provides no doctrine or model—indeed his approach implicitly rejects doctrine and model—realpolitik points to the questions that statesmen must address on the intersection of power, ideas, and the immediate social context in which they operate.