Realpolitik and the Misuse of History


If we needed any further confirmation, the crisis in Ukraine and the breakdown of Syria and Iraq have underlined, once again, the limits of Western power. In truth, the notion that there are many problems in our world beyond our gift to solve has been in the ascendant for at least the last decade. It is firmly entrenched in the defense and foreign policy establishment due to a series of chastening experiences since 2001. Polling confirms that such a view is widely shared among the general population.

Like British foreign policy in the 19th century, American foreign policy for the last hundred years has been characterized by cycles of optimism and pessimism over the country’s role in the world. Robert Kagan recently described the latest pessimistic turn as “an intellectual problem, a question of identity and purpose.”

Debates about American foreign policy are often mischaracterized as a battle between realists and idealists. This is misleading. In truth, it has always been a matter of emphasis rather than absolutes: a debate between those who emphasized front-footed and proactive engagement with the world at any one time, and those who emphasized the need for restraint and circumspection. As an outsider in D.C.—and, to top it off, a British one—it strikes me that the trenches between various “schools of thought” are dug much deeper than they need to be. Nonetheless, one consequence of America’s unprecedented power in the international arena is that relatively minor shades of difference in Washington can have global historical effects.

Much of the debate about these recent crises has not been about the substance of the problems themselves—centuries old ethnic and religious rivalries, arbitrarily drawn borders and the unravelling of late colonial structures—but the role of the United States in somehow creating them. Depending on what side you are on, it is the fault of the other. In this case, “the other” is no longer the subjected peoples on the end of the imperial boot, but the last or current administration, or factions therein. Various explanations blame the invasion of Iraq in 2003, the failure to keep combat troops there beyond 2013, American meddling in the Middle East, or American inaction thereafter. The debate over Syria in 2012 and 2013, for example, was really a debate about Iraq in 2003, the debate some wished we had. It is not so much that we end up fighting the last war as we end up having the wrong argument.

History informs our understanding, but it can also obscure. The professional historian is faced with the fact that there is so much bad or misleading history in the public domain. There is a temptation to cede that arena to others. But if one does so, the bad history remains unchallenged and undiluted—it even gathers momentum. In 1934, the British historian A. J. P. Taylor wrote 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, Taylor said, “to clarify these assumptions and to trace their influence upon the course of every-day policy.”

There are certain catchwords that reappear in debates about American foreign policy, and that are used positively and pejoratively. “Isolationism” is an example of a word that is much overused. Another one now back in vogue is “realpolitik.”

We are often told, in the context of recent crises, that we are witnessing the “return of realpolitik” in the West—a concept that has unlikely new converts, none more important than President Barack Obama himself. In truth, we use the word without really knowing what it means. If it is back in fashion, it is the job of the historian to discover its origins, and explore its true meaning.

This academic year, I’ve been fortunate to do that as the Henry A. Kissinger Chair in Foreign Policy at the John W. Kluge Center in the Library of Congress.

I gave my final lecture in April, which was a kind of position paper outlining my argument and presenting some of the research I’ve done for my book “Realpolitik: A History” (to be published by Oxford University Press next year). It also develops and adds to some of the themes I addressed in an article for The National Interest.

You can now watch that lecture here:

The first part of the lecture excavates the origins of realpolitik in mid-19th century Europe. German writer Ludwig August von Rochau first coined the word in his 1853 treatise The Principles of Realpolitik. Rochau is a largely forgotten figure today, despite the fact that realpolitik lives on.

The second part of the lecture examines how realpolitik has been used in Anglo-American discourse about foreign affairs ever since. From its German origins, realpolitik seeped into the English language (and the Anglo-American conscience) in two ways and in two distinct waves. The first was in the slow build up of Anglo-German antagonism before the First World War. For Britons, increasingly conscious of threats to their position as the leading global superpower, realpolitik—as practiced by Bismarck and then the Kaiser—was an unpleasant and disconcerting discovery. It became a byword for German dastardliness, taken to imply cynical and uncivilized conduct on the international stage—a lack of respect for the treaties and laws that provided some semblance of order in global affairs.

The second wave of realpolitik was channelled into America’s leading universities (Yale and Chicago in particular) through an influx of German-speaking emigrant intellectuals who fled Germany before 1939. They included a raft of uniquely talented historians such as Hajo Holborn, Hans Morgenthau, Fritz Kraemer, Felix Gilbert and Henry Kissinger, all of whom made an indelible impact on the course of American foreign policy.

In looking at how we have used and abused realpolitik in the English-speaking world—throughout the First and Second World Wars, through the Cold War and in the 9/11 era—we have what I call a “window into the soul” of the Anglo-American worldview. It has been used both positively and pejoratively, depending on who is using it and in what context.

Realpolitik is not, as is often assumed, as old as statecraft itself. Nor is it part of a seamless creed stretching back to Thucydides and running through Machiavelli, Cardinal Richelieu and Thomas Hobbes, up to Hans Morgenthau, George Kennan and Henry Kissinger. Nonetheless, I believe there is something in that original meaning that is still relevant today. Indeed, real realpolitik was born in a world experiencing the quintessential problems of modernity. Nineteenth century Europe experienced a unique combustion of new ideas about freedom and social order alongside rapid industrialisation, class antagonism, sectarianism, great power rivalry and the rise of nationalism. We are still grappling with many of these problems today.

I explore Ludwig von Rochau’s original conception of realpolitik at more length in the lecture. But perhaps the most important lesson to take away is that real realpolitik was intended to be an enemy of lazy thinking and meaningless rhetoric.

A certain level of historical neurosis is perhaps understandable when it comes to debates about foreign affairs. But bad history can also clog our minds and pollute our discourse.

“Formless ideas, impulses, emotional surges, melodic slogans, naively accepted catchwords … [and] habitual self-delusions” were the targets that Rochau had in mind when he wrote Foundations of Realpolitik.

More than 160 years later, I would submit the same characteristics are present in many of our foreign policy debates today, no matter where one stands on the political spectrum.


John Bew is the Henry A. Kissinger Scholar at the John W. Kluge Center at the Library of Congress for 2013–2014. He is a Reader in History and Foreign Policy at the War Studies Department, King’s College London and a contributing writer at the New Statesman.


Photo credit: Nixon Presidential Library and Museum