IN 1934, a young British historian published his first book, The Italian Problem in European Diplomacy, 1847–1849. In it, he announced 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.” It was the duty of the historian, he wrote, “to clarify these assumptions and to trace their influence upon the course of every-day policy.”
By that apodictic verdict A. J. P. Taylor, who soon became one of the greatest British historians of the past century, meant realpolitik, which he believed was the true motor of international relations, with moralism serving at best as a pious smokescreen for a battle for power, or, as he put it in the title of one of his best books, for the struggle for mastery in Europe. Since then, realpolitik has had its ups and downs, both in Britain and America. In the late 1930s, for example, it became a convenient excuse among much of the British aristocracy for doing nothing in the face of Nazi terror and aggression, but, then again, it also underlay Winston Churchill’s declaration that he would sup with the devil to defeat Hitler, which is what he did in forming a wartime alliance with Stalin. Now that this elastic term is once again coming back into vogue, it is worth taking up Taylor’s challenge again.
John currently holds the Henry A. Kissinger Chair in Foreign Policy and International Relations at the John W. Kluge Center of the Library of Congress. Bew is a reader in history and foreign policy at the War Studies Department at King’s College London.