Realpolitik or Realism?


Review of Realpolitik: A History, by John Bew

New York: Oxford University Press, 2016

John Bew believes that we are experiencing another “Machiavellian moment.” The triumphalist optimism produced by the teleological end-of-history thinking that prevailed following the collapse of the Soviet and East European communist states has by now been exposed as naïveté by “the return of history, the revenge of geography, and the end of dreams.” The rekindling of interest in Niccolo Machiavelli’s ideas—more precisely, those expounded in The Prince—attests to the revived interest in realism, which continues to demonstrate its resilience and relevance even as pundits proclaim it passé. Bew, a young British historian and rising star who teaches at King’s College London, sets out to offer a history of Realpolitik and its offshoots. Moving adroitly across the realms of political theory, history, and practical politics, he offers a learned and engaging account.

Aside from the inescapable Machiavelli, the luminaries associated with Realpolitik include Thomas Hobbes, Viscount Robert Stewart Castlereagh (on whom Bew has written a book), Prince Klemens von Metternich, Heinrich von Treitschke (an extreme nationalist and anti-Semite), and Otto von Bismarck. In the 20th century the idea influenced, albeit in different ways, the works of E.H. Carr, Reinhold Niebuhr, Walter Lippmann, George Kennan, Hans Morgenthau, and Henry Kissinger, among others. These practitioners and thinkers tend to be associated with a cold-eyed, unsentimental approach to statecraft. It regards states’ pursuit of power as unchangeable rather than as an anachronism that will be overtaken by the march of progress and a future featuring liberalism, a Kantian democratic peace, and a commerce-driven, technocratic world of globalization that renders war obsolete. For their part, those inclined to a liberal, optimistic view of politics reject realism—and revile Realpolitik, at least as commonly portrayed.

Thus Realpolitik evokes strong reactions. Critics deride it a reactionary doctrine that privileges the great powers, disparages the supposedly passion-driven and ill-informed masses, and valorizes statesmen, presenting them as philosopher kings à la Plato. To them, it reeks of balance of power politics, spheres of influence, the conquest or partition of weak states, and the veneration of war. Bew seeks to get beyond the polarized perspectives on Realpolitik, arguing that they have obscured the true meaning of the idea and, worse, are wrongheaded, even caricatures.

Bew aims to identify the true precepts of Realpolitik as originally created. He identifies the misconceptions that have surrounded it and explains why it has retained enduring appeal despite the intermittent funeral sermons delivered by those who denounce it simplistic and primitive, even dangerous. Along the way, he notes that Realpolitik and realism, though often used as synonyms, are in fact different animals. Kissinger, a realist—though not according to the first installment of Niall Ferguson’s idiosyncratic biography—disavowed the term and criticized the underlying theory. So did other American realists. Bew also puts paid to the idea of Realpolitik being “as old as statecraft itself.” (No, the idea cannot be traced back to Thucydides.)

Realpolitik arose in the mid-19th century. As for its latest resurgence, Bew dates it to 2005, when the intervention and nation building projects in Afghanistan and Iraq started to go awry, demolishing many of liberal internationalism’s axioms and aspirations. Though his book appeared in 2016, Bew does not discuss the war in Ukraine, which has spawned the idea that a second Cold War has begun. Yet the rupture in relations between Russia and the West following the 2014 conflagration in Ukraine would substantiate further his contention that Realpolitik’s historically grounded truths keep getting rediscovered. The same can be said for the debate sparked by China’s emergence as a major power, which he also omits.

Bew has an unlikely hero, not any of the above-mentioned usual icons associated with Realpolitik but someone who will be little known, and perhaps unknown, to many readers of his book. He credits the 19th century German journalist and liberal political activist August Ludwig von Rochau with having first developed the idea. Rochau did so in a two-volume study, Grundsätze der Realpolitik (Foundations of Realpolitik). The first volume appeared in 1853, the second in 1869, yet an English translation remains unavailable. Starting in the last decade of the 19th century the concept “moved from Germany into the mainstream of Anglo-American political discourse.”

By placing Rochau on center stage, Bew dismisses three common misconceptions about Realpolitik —first, that Bismarck (he of blood and iron fame never used the term) was its “theoretician-in-chief”; second, that its essentials were developed by Machiavelli, “the consensus father of the theory,” whose canonical treatise, The Prince, was published in 1532; third, that it originated as theory of international politics.

Bew’s admiration for Rochau’s thought is evident and he wants to rescue Realpolitik from the distortions, which started early, and in Germany, in the form of “irredentist interpretations.” The misrepresentations continued and multiplied following Realpolitik’s increasing popularity in the Anglo-American world, the concept eventually being conflated not only with realism but worse still with Machtpolitik (power politics) and Weltpolitik (power-driven international relations), the former associated with Treitschke (an uncompromising nationalist, militarist, and imperialist), the latter with the eminent German historian Friedrich Meinecke, who shared many of Treitschke’s unsavory, illiberal ideas and was an early exponent of the essentiality of Lebensraum.

The Treitschke and Meinecke mutations of Realpolitik in particular are crude reductionisms that twist the original idea, presenting it as a militarized mode of thinking while stripping from it Rochau’s commitment to liberalism. The results proved catastrophic for 20th century Germany—not once but twice. Bew leaves little doubt that Rochau would not have accepted these as creative and legitimate variations of his idea and would indeed been repulsed by them.

If Realpolitik has been much maligned and mangled, what exactly did it mean in the original sense? By Bew’s account, Rochau did not try to develop a theory of world politics. He was committed to the creation of a unified German state based on “the rule of law and constitutional and representative government.” Indeed, his work in behalf of the cause led to his arrest once and forced him to seek exile in Paris twice. The subtitle of Rochau’s opus, “Applied to the Current State of Germany,” makes the national focus of his book clear—a point worth keeping in mind given that Realpolitik soon became seen as essentially an interpretation of international relations.

One of Rochau’s main themes was that German liberals who wished to promote the project of unification had to have a clear-eyed understanding of the mainsprings of quotidian politics and the realities of power and jettison their precious illusions and sentiments. (Rochau lived to see German unification accomplished, though he died two years later, in 1873, after having become a member of the Reichstag.)

Bew provides a clear explanation of Rochau’s political agenda and the historical context in which he worked to advance it. But despite his claim that Rochau’s interpretation of politics “is an untapped and almost unknown source of wisdom…that still has uses in today’s world,” he fails to offer the reader a substantive account of what Realpolitik, Rochau style, was really all about.

Quotations from Rochau and Bew’s own lucid explanations help—up to a point. According to Bew, to understand Realpolitik accurately one must begin with the historical milieu in which Rochau wrote. As with the rest of Europe, the Germanic lands were shaped by the clash between the optimism and rationalism of the Enlightenment on the one hand and, on the other, the disruptive forces (among them nationalism and class conflict) unleashed by modernization and “the bloody process of state formation and great power politics.” Given these complex cross currents, Rochau stressed that those studying or practicing politics and wedded, as he was, to forging a unified, liberal German state had to understand the forces and interests vying for power in their societies and how their claims, which were often at odds, were shaped by historical legacies as well as contemporary conditions.

Intellectuals and leaders who remained fixated on ideal outcomes and were unable, intellectually or temperamentally, to settle for an equilibrium based on partial solutions emanating from compromise would fail, but each in their own way. The former would be unable to grasp the real nature of politics—unfortunate, but tolerable, the effects likely being limited. The latter, however, would blunder—and with serious, even deadly, consequences because they wielded power.

Rochau offered a number of observations on how politics should be understood and practiced that Bew enumerates. He believed that power rather than sweeping ideals was decisive in producing outcomes. He believed that ethical principles were important but had to be compromised in the face of contingent power-based realities rather than clung to dogmatically. He warned that states that failed to identify rising social forces and bring them into politics—coopt them in other words—would fail and that multinational polities were inherently susceptible to instability, even fragmentation. He believed in the Zeitgeist, defined as an idea whose veracity had been proven by time and that defined an epoch, warning that rulers pushed against it at their peril.

But Bew’s exposition of Realpolitik amounts to a poorly integrated list of particulars more than an in-depth account of a rich and intricate and systematic body of thought, which he believes it is. Moreover, much of what Rochau believed other theorists did as well. That raises the question, which Bew does not really answer, of why Rochau deserves to be hailed as a seminal thinker.

Bew draws a distinction between Rochau’s Realpolitik and realism. But all of Rochau’s ideas are wholly compatible with realism, as opposed to neorealism in the fashion of Kenneth Waltz and John Mearsheimer, and indeed have been propounded by realist thinkers. These include the centrality of power, the destructive effects of absolutist ideologies and utopian thinking, the importance of judicious compromise, politics as a struggle among rival forces and stability as an equilibrium based on accommodations among them, and the importance of savvy statesmanship.

Bew admits that Rochau’s Realpolitik may not qualify as a theory and that it would have to be called “messy” even if it were recognized as one. In part, the messiness stems from its being a mélange of (often incompatible) political traditions, including liberalism, conservatism, and Marxism. Fair enough. But even if Rochau did not produce a full-blown theory, readers of Bew’s book will be left wanting a fuller elucidation of Realpolitik, the more so because he emphasize that Rochau’s ideas offer many valuable insights into politics and yet have “been almost entirely missed by historians of international relations.” (They are not alone: I cannot recall any major work by political scientists dealing with world politics that contains a comprehensive discussion of Rochau’s thought.) Rochau did devote two full volumes to his perspective on politics, so there’s no dearth of information.

In the end, Bew excels in explaining the misconceptions about Realpolitik a la Rochau and the evolution of the concept across time and space but does not reach the same standard in explaining what it was. His final chapter offers pithy maxims that are derived from Realpolitik and designed to convey its distinctiveness. But they amount to commonsense generalities that even those who have never heard of Rochau would find intuitively obvious. Consider this one: “Real Realpolitik … avoids the fatalism, absolutism, and pessimism that have infected some versions of realist thought.” Or this: “Foundations of Realpolitik asks us to consider power, economics, and society, and to identify the junctures and connections between them.”

John Bew offers a lucid, learned account on the origin, historical context, and evolution of an important concept. His book rests on a foundation of prodigious research and traces deftly the varying interpretations and reception of Realpolitik over the past 150 years. He reveals the changes that Realpolitik underwent as it moved from Europe to the United States and the ways in which it has been misunderstood, even misrepresented. He debunks the view that American realism was a European import that did not appear before the 1930s by showing that Realpolitik had many exponents (including Lippmann) in the United States before then and that they were well versed in German political thought. In singling Rochau out for attention, Bew brings a little known thinker to light, even though he does not explain why his subject’s original ideas were not revived and why they failed to have much of an effect, except in derivations Rochau would have disliked or even been repelled by.

These fine qualities alone make Bew’s book well worth reading, even for those who, having done so, may remain unclear about what Realpolitik à la Rochau was really all about and how exactly it can advance the understanding of present-day politics, national and international, beyond what realism contributes.

Posted on 22 August 2016

RAJAN MENON , Anne and Bernard Spitzer of International Relations at the City College of New York/City University of New York and Senior Research Fellow at the Saltzman Institute of War and Peace Studies at Columbia University, is author, most recently, of The Conceit of Humanitarian Intervention, (Oxford University Press, 2016).