5 Questions with John Bew on Realpolitik, Obama, and Intervention


Each week, we feature an expert, practitioner, or leader answering five questions on a topic of current relevance in the world of defense, security, and foreign policy. Well, four of the questions are topical.  The fifth is about booze. We are War on the Rocks, after all.

This week I spoke with John Bew. John is the Kissinger Chair at the Library of Congress, where he is writing a history of Anglo-American realpolitik.  He is the director of the International Centre of the Study of Radicalisation at King’s College London, where he is a Reader (senior academic) in History and Foreign Policy at the War Studies Department. More importantly, he is a Contributing Editor at War on the Rocks. John’s event series on “the return of Realpolitik” at the Library of Congress is open to the public (information here). 


1.  John, thanks for doing this. When people talk about realpolitik, they usually begin with Machiavelli. Is that the right place to start?

No it’s not. Obviously Machiavelli is full of wisdom. But I think the way we return to The Prince all the time is rather tired. We’ve been doing this for centuries. The idea that Machiavelli discovered some secret to the way that states and princes act is a little simplistic. And the idea that we need to rediscover him to really understand the world is a cliché, wheeled out every few decades. Machiavelli has never been out of circulation. We could learn more from having better knowledge about the centuries of history in between the publication of The Prince and today.

In fact, realpolitik was not created until 1853. And the man who coined the word (a German journalist and liberal agitator called Ludwig von Rochau) was not so interested in political theory as “real-world” events. He was responding to the failure of the liberal revolutions which took place across Europe in 1848. He believed strongly in the Enlightenment and was not some sort of nineteenth-century Machiavelli. In fact, he more resembled Edmund Burke.

Rochau wanted to achieve liberal aims such as parliamentary government and equality before the law. But he recognized that liberals had to get smart, compromise, and truly understand the nature of power if they were to win. He was a “liberal mugged by reality”. To my mind, this seems to be closer to the quintessential dilemma of modern American foreign policy. So that’s why I think “real realpolitik” is ripe of rediscovery – and more useful than Machiavelli.

2.  As someone exploring realpolitik and realism through the lens of history, how do you view the evolution of the international relations tradition of realism from Morgenthau to Mearsheimer?

The criticism that is often made of realism in the west is that it is immoral or amoral. I think this is entirely misses the point. Post-war American realism was a deeply moral creed. I’m not the first to argue this. I would steer you towards a superb book by Joel H. Rosenthal, called Righteous Realists: Political Realism, Responsible Power and American Culture in the Nuclear Age. In calling for restraint in the use of American power, they owed a conscious debt to Max Weber’s n0tion of an “ethic of responsibility.” The importance of Reinhold Niebuhr in shaping the discourse of western realism (both in Britain and America) is striking here. Niebuhr was a theologian, of course, and a lot of the classic realist texts resemble a form of theology. To a certain extent, realism kind of developed like early modern Protestantism – with key theologians, figureheads, schisms and different “schools” emerging. After Vietnam, on which they felt they were vindicated, some realists begin to sound a little absolutist. In the mid-1970s, Morgenthau was calling for nothing less than a “reformation” in American foreign policy.

What’s important to understand here is that realism grew out of an internal dialogue within western liberalism. To my mind, this strong moral aspect to realism means that much of what is supposed to be “realist” is based on a critique of western “idealism,” rather than a particularly innovative way of looking at foreign affairs. It has often been bound up in what the writer Fritz Stern called “the politics of cultural despair.” In some incarnations then, realism therefore seems to fail on its own terms. It’s bound up with its own angst rather than necessarily offering a true insight into the basis of power and behavior of other states.

Thus American realism has always defined itself against certain ghosts, such as Woodrow Wilson and, more recently, George W. Bush – against ideas or individuals which are seen as naive. Yet, the first “realpolitikers” of the nineteenth century viewed politics as the art of the possible. It was a new way of looking at power, states and societies which combined liberalism, sociology and history.

There is another big change since the key realist texts of the early post-war period, written by Morgenthau, Kennan etc. They were historically-informed interjections in public and political debate. They were intended to have an impact and be a guide for statesmen. Much of the practice of international relations theory has retreated into remoteness and abstractness. It has lost both its historical basis and its present-mindedness. This is not a problem specific to realism, of course; it is tied up in the changing nature of academia. I hate to do any one a disservice but many offerings in modern IR seem more interested in contributing to “the field” than “the world.” There’s a great piece on this by James Kurth (“Inside the Cave: The Banality of I.R. Studies,” Fall 1998, The National Interest).

3.  President Obama is criticized for being too realist by some, and not nearly realist enough by others. Liberal internationalists and neo-conservatives have condemned the President’s interests-based argument for keeping America largely aloof from the Syrian civil war.  And recently, the Washington Post editorial board condemned his foreign policy as being “based on fantasy” for not understanding the realities of power politics. Is President Obama a realist president?

He certainly sees himself as a realist president. I believe that he has consciously evoked that mantra – and if you look at the comments from those close to him, they are also comfortable with him being seen in this way. His Nobel Peace Prize acceptance speech was an attempt to articulate a liberal realist worldview – and drew a lot on Niebuhr. Essentially he was saying, I’m not a naïve idealist. Again, he is setting himself up against the ghost of George W. Bush.

Whether you like this or not, he is not pretending to be anything else. Again, then, the proof of the pudding is in the eating. The question is not whether one can articulate a cogent worldview. The question is whether it works on its terms.

To which I would say that there was clearly a case for a more lean, judicious discriminatory, prudent, perspicacious and effective use of American power. Any President elected in 2008 was likely to go that way. To argue that a radically different course was available to him is to enter the realm of fantasy.

Where you can challenge Obama’s foreign policy from a realist perspective is on specifics. For example, its understanding of the dynamics of other states. There was a sense with events in Egypt, for example, that the United States was always taken by surprise, always at the mercy of events since the Arab Spring. That is not to say that the U.S. can control Egypt’s destiny – it is to say that it could be a lot better at anticipating certain scenarios. Again, it needn’t have a grand strategy for the Middle East per se. But it can do better than looking reactive or flip-flopping in response to developments, as this diminishes its leverage.

Another issue has been the gap between purported diplomatic goals and the means to achieve them. Why demand a transition to democracy in Egypt without really wanting it? Why say Assad has to go (a strong moral line), then do nothing to enforce it? Why say chemical weapons are a red line, and then wish you hadn’t when confronted with a violation of this rule? Why say Russia can’t invade neighboring states, without really having any means or willingness to stop it? In other words, if the willingness to project force is diminished, then someone has to turn down the dial on the megaphone diplomacy.

I also think that the debate on Syria was the wrong debate, both in Britain and America. It was a re-run of the Iraq debate. It was a debate on the efficacy of an intervention which no one was really seriously proposing. It also asked the wrong questions. Instead of “can we solve this” (to which the answer was no), the question should have been “how can we manage this in a way which suits our interests”? That would have been a better, more “realist” starting point. There are also potentially counter-intuitive lessons here. One could even argue that a hidden lesson in Syria – the only time the United States exerted serious diplomatic leverage (on chemical weapons), is when it offered a credible threat of force.

Obama’s foreign policy has been styled as liberal-realism. I guess the most salient criticism is that the liberalism and the realism don’t always seem to match up. Let’s assume that the future direction of American foreign policy is to offer a much more streamlined and circumspect version of American leadership. If it is, then I still think there is room for a better understanding of diplomatic leverage and power projection: a better way of matching ends and means. To give an example, the way in which sanctions have come back into usage (and had some effect) is one area which might be explored further.

One could say I’m nitpicking of course. The world is a difficult place. And Obama’s team will say, with some justification, that you can’t lay any disasters – or huge blunders – at their door.

4.  Your last book was on the famous Foreign Secretary and arch-realist, Lord Castlereagh. What would Castlereagh do about Crimea?

Castlereagh would have been torn between two instincts. The first instinct was a disinclination towards intervention. Let me make it clear that this was a disinclination and not (as is often argued) a fixed principle of non-intervention. At repeated points in his career, he was an advocate of force projection and pre-emption (to use modern phrases) to preserve British security, from the bombardment of Copenhagen in 1807 to the Peninsular War. But he set the bar pretty high when it came to intervention in peacetime.

The other instinct – working against this – was his belief in the necessity of resisting expansionist powers. This related to a loose conception of the balance of power. After Britain had defeated Napoleon, Castlereagh (to the horror of his colleagues and the British Prime Minister) almost risked a war with Russia in order to frustrate her attempts to dominate Poland. If the point of Poland were conceded, the Tsar’s ambitions would not stop there. “Acquiescence will not keep him back, nor will opposition accelerate his march.” It was necessary “to watch him, and to resist him if necessary as another Bonaparte.” In other words, appeasement was storing up more problems for the future.

As I read about Crimea, the one thing that keeps on occurring is what Castlereagh said to the Whig opposition in 1821. They were demanding that he do more to stop Austria’s suppression of a liberal revolution in Naples.

Castlereagh seized on what he saw as a contradiction between the lofty moral tones assumed by the Whigs in foreign policy debates and their failure to turn words into actions. During the war years, the opposition had been “perpetually recommending that England should rest upon its oars” – maintaining naval supremacy but avoiding Continental entanglements.

He believed that it was ironic that he was being criticized for inaction by the same people who had demanded military spending be slashed. He said “when reduction of every kind, and especially of our army, had been called for again and again, it was too much … to be told that the British government ought to dictate moral lessons to Europe.”

And there is a great quote here which I keep coming back to:

He should deem it most pusillanimous conduct on our part, if, after interfering on a question of this nature, we limited our interference to the mere delivery of a scroll of paper, and did not follow it up with some more effectual measures. Were we to turn itinerant preachers of morality to the other nations of Europe, and to follow up the doctrines which we preached by nothing else but what was contained in our state papers?

Ultimately, in a lesson which is pertinent to all great powers, “if we did speak, we ought to speak with effect.”

5.  If you could have a drink with any of the historical realist thinkers you’re writing about in your book, who would it be, what would you imbibe, and what is the first question you’d ask him?

In all honesty, I’d rather not go for a drink with many of them. Having read some of their private letters in the Library of Congress, some of them seem rather full of angst – and think the world is against them. I think I’d feel a bit depressed if I spent Friday night complaining about Woodrow Wilson. I’d quite like a drink with Castlereagh as the Regency-era was pretty louche. I’d bring him something exciting from the future – like Smirnoff ice – and ask him how he felt the day the White House burned down.


Ryan Evans is the assistant director of the Center for the National Interest. He is the editor-in-chief of War on the Rocks.


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