Beyond Iron and Blood: The Complex History of Realpolitik

February 25, 2016

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John Bew, Realpolitik: A History (Oxford University Press, 2015).


“It is never a waste of time to study the history of words.”
        — Lucien Lefebvre

“No modern nation has ever constructed a foreign policy that was acceptable to its intellectuals.”
        — Irving Kristol


Due to its occasionally harsh and guttural sonorities, German has gotten an unfair rap over the years. In addition to constituting one of the main languages of opera and literature, the Teutonic tongue’s predilection for compound word structures has provided the English-speaking world with a set of wonderfully evocative terms, ranging from zeitgeist, to schadenfreude, to wanderlust. And as Sen. Ted Cruz’s former roommate recently reminded us, there are a number of other Germanic words, such as backpfeifengesicht, that could prove equally catchy, were it not for the pronunciation difficulties involved.

In his latest book, John Bew of King’s College London embarks on a fascinating quest to refine our understanding of yet another semantic import from Germany — the concept of realpolitik. Bew is one of the United Kingdom’s best-known strategic historians. His first magnum opus, a meaty biography of a wily 19th-century statesman, Lord Castlereagh, was released in 2011 to great acclaim. In addition to his historically oriented work, Bew frequently writes on current affairs for publications such as The New Statesman and The American Interest, where his thoughts and assessments — drawn from a close study of the past — are invariably insightful. He is also a contributing editor here at War on the Rocks.

In a strategic community that seems to be dominated by political science, history is too often overlooked or, worse, abused. As Francis Gavin has noted,

An understanding of the past doesn’t just reveal how things relate over time; history can also expose “horizontal connections” over space and time. … Good horizontal historical work can reveal the complex interconnections and trade-offs that permeate most foreign policies.

This book, in many ways more ambitious in its format and structure than Bew’s biography of Castlereagh, is an excellent illustration of this notion, and of how the history of ideas, in particular, can help us inject a greater degree of intellectual and definitional clarity into some of our own most pressing grand strategic debates.

Clear Roots, Many Offshoots

Bew begins by seeking to more clearly bound the meaning and origins of a word that has become the most “slippery of signifiers”; a term that, throughout history, has taken on a life of its own, meaning very different things for very different people. Frequently misunderstood, grossly simplified, or cynically utilized, realpolitik has been tied to a broad array of foreign policy behaviors, ranging from cultivated prudence on the international stage to the most crudely belligerent form of power politics, or machtpolitik. Its professed practitioners have been alternatively celebrated as enlightened statesmen, dismissed as firebrand nationalists, or shunned as cold, calculating machines. Bew demonstrates how even during the same period in history, the term realpolitik could come to encapsulate radically different diplomatic postures, depending on the country in question. For example, in the United Kingdom during the interwar years, realpolitik came to be associated with a policy of appeasement. Meanwhile, on the other side of the Atlantic, early American realists were weaponizing the same word in favor of greater U.S. activism, with realpolitik “deployed like a bucket of cold water, to be poured on the heads of isolationists and pacifists.”

To really understand the concept, it is necessary to go back to its terminological roots. It can be all too facile, particularly when discussing thorny issues and seemingly intractable conflicts, to assume that there is something of a uni-directionality to the history of warfare and ideas. In many cases, this is simply a form of intellectual lethargy, born out of a reluctance to truly delve into the origins of a situation, ideology, or school of thought. Bew warns us against succumbing to such temptations, arguing that, contrary to what many believe,

Realpolitik is not … as old as statecraft itself. Nor is it part of a seamless creed stretching back to Thucydides and running through Niccolo Machiavelli, Cardinal Richelieu, Thomas Hobbes, and Lord Castlereagh, up to Hans Morgenthau, George Kennan and Henry Kissinger.

Indeed, despite its many evolutions, interpretations, and variations, realpolitik has a distinct point of origin, as well as a set of canonical texts. It first blossomed in the intellectual ferment of mid-19th-century Germany, during a time of great power rivalry and revolutionary turmoil. Its core tenets were first properly conceptualized and laid out in the writings of man named Ludwig Von Rochau, whose seminal work — a two-volume treatise entitled Foundations of Realpolitik — was often not properly read or understood (much like a book by another great German thinker). This has been particularly true in the United States and the United Kingdom, where Rochau has often been ignored in favor of his more sulfurous successors, such as Heinrich Von Treitschke, the anti-Semitic nationalist through whom “realpolitik became associated with a cultish devotion to the importance of power in the German national ideal.” Rochau’s relative neglect is perhaps best epitomized by the fact that his works have yet to even be translated into English. Bew’s book provides ample evidence of the importance of Rochau’s work, despite the world’s collective amnesia. On a broader level, Bew shows how closely the history of ideas is tied to that of certain individuals and their life stories.

Any History of Ideas is a History of People

For most people, the term realpolitik is used to describe a nation’s foreign and defense policy, not its domestic environment or institutional setup. In reality, however, realpolitik was first visualized by Rochau as a praxis-oriented ideology, and as a means to an end. Rochau’s desired end state was a strong, unified German nation, which successfully incorporated all social classes — and the burgeoning bourgeoisie in particular — within a healthy, liberalizing body politic. Foreign policy was almost an afterthought in the first volume of his works, featuring only in the final chapter. For Rochau, Germany’s internal consolidation was the prime objective, upon which everything else depended. Only a strong, unified Germany would be able to shield itself from the predations of its more powerful neighbors and pursue a truly independent brand of foreign policy.

By the time Rochau published the first volume of Foundations of Realpolitik in 1853, he was already a grizzled activist, a liberal, who had been “mugged by reality.” Two decades prior, an idealistic 23-year-old Rochau had taken part in the infamous failed storming of the Frankfurt guard house, with the hope of sparking a series of liberal uprisings across Germany. Imprisoned, he fell into a deep depression and tried to kill himself before fleeing into exile. By the time Rochau turned to the task of Foundations of Realpolitik, he was a hardened, middle-aged man, who had decisively veered away from the utopianism of his youth, and the electric emotiveness of his era. Indeed, one must not forget the context within which Rochau was writing — the aftermath of the failed 1848 liberal revolutionary uprisings in Europe, which many observers, including Bew, have compared to the Arab Spring.

These political upheavals were unfolding within a more generalized climate of nationalist fervor. In the immediate post-Napoleonic era, a number of writers and poets, ranging from William Wordsworth to Lord Byron and Alfred de Musset had espoused what some have referred to as “romantic militarism.” This consisted in a morbid fascination for the theatrics and antique glories of warfare, an existential ennui, and a nostalgia for the era of sweeping battles and mass mobilizations. The French writer Chateaubriand deplored the fact that after Napoleon’s final defeat, everything had “resumed an air of domesticity,” with events “falling into the mud.” Wordsworth fretted that in the absence of existential threats, nations would not be able to escape “decay and concussion from within,” and longed for the liberating sound of the clash of arms.

Rochau’s attitude towards foreign policy, more explicitly laid out in the second volume of Foundations of Realpolitik, provided a level-headed counter to such vainglorious expressions of nationalism. Despite his hatred of Austria, he argued in favor of an alliance in order to better offset French military dominance of Europe. While his grand strategic objectives were defensive, his tactical recommendations could prove more offensive. He thus argued in favor of a more proactive approach to warfare, which envisaged the occasional use of preemptive military action, primarily as a means of preventing future wars from being waged, yet again, on German soil. Such a “war of attack” (Angriffskrieg), however, would require the speedy mobilization times of a newly centralized army. The only way to create such a force was to unite Germany, hence the absolute priority laid on domestic consolidation.

Realpolitik Versus Raison d’Etat: The Relative Importance of Ideas and Public Opinion

Having himself fallen under the sway of such thinking in his youth, Rochau was eager to pave over any residual wellsprings of liberal utopianism. The most important course of action was to identify and harness sources of power, as the law of the strong “dominates life inside the state in the same way as the force of gravity dominates the physical world.” Rochau did not dismiss the potency of idealism, or the need for the state to acquire and preserve the moral support of its citizenry in the pursuit of policy. Rather, what Rochau condemned was the tendency by many liberal intellectuals to build “castles in the air” (Luftschlosser), by assuming that the sheer seductiveness of their ideals would suffice to enact change. This condemnation of self-destructive utopianism should not be viewed as a complete rejection of liberal reformism. Rochau, unlike Treitschke, remained committed to liberalism until the end of his life. As Bew repeatedly notes, real realpolitik is deeply humane in its respect for the role of ideas, and in its vision of history, which it views as a “struggle between ideas, peoples and interests, in which atavism, sectarianism, and realism were an unavoidable part of the picture.”

As a matter of fact, a sophisticated typology of public opinion lay at the heart of this German thinker’s philosophy of moderation. Foundations of Realpolitik thus engages in a systematic description of various levels of public opinion, all meriting different levels of treatment on the part of the policymaker. The “feeble self-conscious opinion of the day” — the fluctuating moods later held in such disdain by thinkers such as Gabriel Almond — were not to be taken into serious consideration, due to their volatility. What political practitioners needed to pay attention to were the more crystallized public opinions, the Volksglauben (popular beliefs), which “should always be treated with care and protection, not blandishment.” The most hazardous of policies was to choose to swim at cross-currents with the Zeitgeist, i.e. a popular belief that had progressively cemented itself into an enduring component of the national consciousness.

Although Bew states in the introduction that realpolitik should be viewed as distinct from the concept of raison d’état, he never truly specifies why. In my opinion, it is this factor — his focus on the importance of maintaining public support when enacting policy — that provides the beginning of an answer, and helps us more clearly distinguish between the two concepts.

In many ways, this can be imputed to the different periods in which both intellectual predispositions took root. Raison d’etat has traditionally been perceived as a product of French absolutist monarchy, first practiced under the reign of kings such as Louis XI (the so-called “spider king”) and then more rigorously explored by crafty clergymen such as the Cardinals Richelieu and Mazarin in the 1600s, during the apogee of French power. Strongly influenced by classical thinkers on statecraft, ranging from Tacitus to Cicero, raison d’état was focused first and foremost on the survival and strengthening of the monarchist state within a brutally competitive system. Absolute monarchy, however, was a system in which one individual formed the sole avatar of the state, and in which the concept of mass politics was totally absent. That being said, a perusing of the writings of some of the theorists of this period does reveal certain striking similarities with the discussions of the intellectual architects of realpolitik, notably in their desire to more rigorously disaggregate levels of morality. Thinkers such as Gabriel Naude, the personal secretary to Cardinal Mazarin, thus distinguished between two types of morality, or prudence: “easy and ordinary prudence,” which accorded with the principles of Christian behavior, and “extraordinary prudence,” which was the state’s prerogative in times of crisis. Espionage, targeted assassinations, subterfuge, and subversion were all permitted in matters of state, and raison d’état theorists were fond of quoting the Latin maxim “qui nescit dissimulare, nescit regnare” — he who does not know how to dissemble, does not know how to reign.

Another more contemporary chronicler of the concept of raison d’état, points to reviled yet arguably effective historical figures such as the Roman Emperors Tiberius or Nero, claiming that

Tiberius, Nero, Louis XI, objects of repulsion for the humanists, are, for the defenders of the state, examples to consider and to follow.

There are thus certain resemblances with the discussions surrounding the role of morality in realpolitik. After all, as Bew notes, there is an enduring philosophical dilemma at the center of all writings on foreign policy, which is “how to achieve liberal enlightened goals,” including “balance and equilibrium,” in a world that does “not follow liberal enlightened rules.”

The similarities, however, end there. Raison d’état’s inordinate attachment to “arcana imperii” (secrets of state), and to the welfare of one individual, the king — living incarnation of an otherwise disembodied state — puts it at odds with the tradition of realpolitik, which places an emphasis on national well-being, as well as the moral health of the state.

Morals, Ethical Egotism, and Realpolitik

Indeed, the question of the role of morals in the practice of diplomacy forms one of the book’s main leitmotifs. Naturally, this an age-old topic of discussion, which extends far beyond the ruminations of those writing on issues such as raison d’état or realpolitik. After all, writers, philosophers, and theorists have long wrestled with the many ethical dilemmas inherent to statecraft. Enlightenment figures such as Erasmus thus occasionally argued, rather unrealistically, in favor of complete transparency in the conduct of diplomacy, which he and others painted as an “obscure art, which hides itself in the folds of deceit, which fears to let itself be seen, and believes it can succeed only in the darkness of mystery.” Liberal thinkers in Victorian England denounced their compatriots’ obsession with offshore balancing, with John Bright memorably declaring that such an “excessive love for the balance of power,” had become little more than a form of callous entertainment, “a gigantic system of outdoor relief” for Great Britain’s jaded aristocracy.

Bew’s book, however, goes further than most in its examination of these perennial tensions. This is perhaps most clearly laid out in the section dealing with American realpolitik — or realpolitik “with American characteristics.” In describing the era of some of the nation’s first realists, such as Alfred Thayer Mahan and Teddy Roosevelt, Bew gives a vivid depiction of the strategic growing pains of a future world power. As members of America’s growing security community debated the nature of their nation’s role in the world, and the extent of their future strategic perimeter, questions tied to the exertion of power, the value of alliances, and the pursuit of self-interest increasingly came to the fore. The United States, with its continent-sized landmass and rarefied geography, could afford to engage in such a sustained debate, a luxury not necessarily shared by those struggling to survive and thrive in a crowded Europe. Bew provides a memorable series of quotes from the British writer Sydney Brooks, who made the acerbic remark that while Europeans lived packed together in a “powder magazine,” Americans “live in an atmosphere of extraordinary simplicity, spaciousness and self-absorption, until from very boredom they are forced to make international mountains out of molehills.”

Of course, this period of splendid isolation from great power rivalries was not to last, and the United States found itself sucked into not one, but two major European wars within the space of a few decades. American postwar realism now had to grapple with the fact that the United States had become the world’s democratic flag-bearer, pitted against a ruthless, ideologically driven foe in the form of the Soviet Union. Bew eloquently lays out some of the key differences between German realpolitik and its American declination, stating, for example, that

The former was born of striving, a fear of others, and a sense that national destiny meant the attainment of great power. The latter was born out of an assumption of great responsibility, and wariness about the damage that one could to oneself as much as others.

It is this wariness — or sense of ethical responsibility — that lies at the core of many of the writings of early Christian realists such as Reinhold Niebuhr, or in the work of someone such as Max Lerner, who defended a concept of “humanist realism.” America’s most valuable conceptual import, however, has been Imperial Great Britain’s linkage of primacy with morality, something that Kissinger has referred to as an Anglo-American tradition of “ethical egotism.” Like the former British Empire, the United States is a great seapower and trading nation, whose own self-interests lie in free commerce and global access. This order can only be preserved if the United States is willing to help preserve the independence of other weaker nations, and decisively thwart the disruptive efforts of predatory second-league powers. In short, according to this line of thinking, there will always be a moral component to American realpolitik.

Behind the History of a Term Lies a Call for Humility

In perhaps one of the most engrossing portions of the book, Bew describes how Rochau’s nuanced philosophy was subsequently plundered and reinvented by generations of German thinkers, from the aforementioned Heinrich Von Treitschke to the rabid Prussian General Friedrich Von Bernhardi, whose 1911 book Germany and the Next War caused alarm in Great Britain. With its description of war as a “biological necessity,” and burning opposition to the UK-led international order, his book was described by British thinkers as the perfect embodiment of the “full-blooded school of Realpolitik.” This assessment resulted from a long evolution in the British intelligentsia’s understanding of the concept of realpolitik. Bew carefully dissects this phenomenon, explaining how the deterioration in Anglo-German relations led to a progressive darkening of the word’s undertones. By the time Bernhardi’s book was published, the term realpolitik was already tightly entangled with concerns over rising German militarism, revanchism, and “earth hunger.”

Another interesting chapter discusses the traditional association of the word realpolitik with the policies of Bismarck. The Prussian chancellor’s “Iron and Blood” speech at the German parliament in 1862 has often been held up as one of the most emblematic articulations of classic realpolitik:

Prussia has to coalesce and concentrate its power for the opportune moment, which has already been missed several times; Prussia’s borders according to the Vienna Treaties are not favorable for a healthy, vital state; it is not by speeches and majority resolutions that the great questions of the time are decided — that was the big mistake of 1848 and 1849 — but by iron and blood.

In a way, notes Bew, this is somewhat surprising. After all, Bismarck never actually employed the term, and seemed not to have read Rochau’s work. Furthermore, Rochau did not hesitate to vehemently criticize some of Bismarck’s policies. Nevertheless, the Prussian statesman seems to have become indelibly associated with the term. Sometimes for better, as when historians point to his relatively restrained diplomacy (particularly in comparison to his successors), and sometimes for worse, when the term is used as a means of highlighting his authoritarianism and cynicism.

This debate points to a recurring theme of the book — the extent to which popular terms such as realpolitik are historically and geographically contingent. One could point to other signifiers that have proved equally elastic. Socialism, for example, seems to mean very different things for the American and Swedish publics. Similarly, what the French call “ultra-liberalisme” would be understood as traditional economic conservatism in the United States.

Bew thus charts how, throughout history, realpolitik has been perceived as synonymous with a wide variety of foreign policy comportments, ranging from carefully calibrated restraint, to dastardly appeasement, to reckless expansionism. A refreshing plea for intellectual humility, evenhandedness, and tolerance courses through these discussions. The historian notes how easily we tend to resort to academic territorialism, commenting on how “so many of our foreign policy debates are taken up with the mischaracterization and even caricaturing of our opponent’s position.” After reading this book, one comes away with the distinct — and dispiriting — sense that this tendency towards ideational tribalism forms a recurrent element in the history of ideas.

The conclusion of the book, couched in elegant prose, is something of a call to arms. Bew encourages us to return to the writings of the original founding father of realpolitik, the thoughtful, unfairly neglected Rochau, and to draw lessons from the best elements of the tradition he helped pioneer. The eight recommendations he lays out — to which it would be difficult do full justice here — are well worth pondering. Perhaps one of the most salient reflections is on the decidedly “ecumenical nature” of “real realpolitik,” and on the need to avoid those “methods of analysis that claim to offer a science of politics, or to be innately superior to others.” In short, to quote another great German thinker, theory should not be viewed as a “positive doctrine,” or as a “manual of action,” but rather as an aid for judgment, leading to a “closer acquaintance with the subject.”

To this day, realpolitik is all too often associated with offensive realism, or what the philosopher Jürgen Habermas once described as “the quasi-ontological primacy of brute power over law.” Nothing could be more reductive in its simplicity. Original realpolitik’s attention to liberalizing societal dynamics, public opinion, and the well-being of the nation as a whole render it a far more sophisticated and inclusive intellectual tradition than many of the modern treatments of realism in political science. Indeed, there is clearly a positive quality to Rochau’s realpolitik, whereas many contemporary realists seem intent, above all, on defining their ascetic creed negatively, in terms of what they “fear, seek to avoid, or criticize as dangerous or misguided.”

In its careful, evenhanded, analysis of one of the Western world’s most consequential intellectual traditions, Professor Bew’s book harks back to the finest tradition of British scholarship, bringing to mind the work of people such as Lawrence Freedman, Hew Strachan, or Michael Howard. In fact, this reviewer can think of no better companion volume to this future classic than Howard’s seminal work on Europe’s other great foreign policy tradition — liberalism.


Iskander Rehman is a Postdoctoral Fellow in the Project for International Order and Strategy (IOS), at the Brookings Institution. He can be followed on twitter @IskanderRehman.

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