The Real Origins of Realpolitik

In The National Interest

by John Bew

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.

For what does this portentous Teutonic word actually mean and what implications, if any, does it hold for the assumptions of contemporary Western statesmen? As realpolitik undergoes a renaissance in the English-speaking world, it is surely worth investigating what the word, coined in 1853, was originally supposed to entail. The answer to that question might surprise but will also enlighten. Real realpolitik has been used and abused beyond all recognition over the last 160 years. But the original concept is still relevant to the challenges of the twenty-first century, if not quite in the way one might expect. It contains notions within it that both bolster and act as a useful counterweight and corrective to the mantras of modern American realism. Real realpolitik, you could say, is ripe for excavation and rediscovery.

The reasons for the most recent return of realpolitik are no mystery. The optimism and sense of triumph which crept into Anglo-American political culture following the end of the Cold War and which peaked with the toppling of Saddam Hussein’s statue in Baghdad’s Firdos Square just over ten years ago have been replaced by the “return of history” and the “end of dreams.”

As periodically happens when the world becomes a more challenging place, a slew of new books on Niccolò Machiavelli have appeared on both sides of the Atlantic, including offerings by Jonathan Powell (Tony Blair’s former chief of staff) and Philip Bobbitt. Last December, in a review of four recent books on the Florentine statesman in the Atlantic, Michael Ignatieff announced the coming of the latest “Machiavellian moment” (a phrase introduced by the historian J. G. A. Pocock in 1975). By that he meant “an instance when public necessity requires actions that private ethics and religious values might condemn as unjust and immoral.” Other familiar heroes of realpolitik—such as Lord Castlereagh and Count Metternich (the focus of Henry Kissinger’s A World Restored) and Otto von Bismarck and George F. Kennan—are also enjoying a return to prestige.scl_cardinalcesareborgia

This time around, realpolitik also has some new friends and unlikely advocates. The most liberal president to inhabit the White House in many years has been as realist as any of his predecessors in the conduct of foreign affairs, with a zero-sum security policy in which “interests” are paramount. Last May, the German weekly Der Spiegel ran an article declaring that President Obama was the heir to “Kissinger’s realpolitik,” quoting National Interest editor Jacob Heilbrunn to the effect that he “may even start speaking about foreign affairs with a German accent.” “Everybody always breaks it down between idealist and realist,” said Obama’s then chief of staff Rahm Emanuel in April 2010. “If you had to put him in a category, he’s probably more realpolitik, like Bush 41 . . . you’ve got to be cold-blooded about the self-interests of your nation.”

In the 1990s, some regarded realpolitik as a thing of the past—a relic of the Cold War and a “needs must” approach to the world which could now be tossed into the dustbin of history. Even at the height of their influence, Western realpolitikers have often faced resistance and criticism from within their own societies. As a foreign import, lifted from the heart of the great Anglo-American bogeyman of the two world wars, the word does not sit comfortably alongside such soothing terms as “enlightenment,” “morality” and “virtue.” In a world where great-power rivalries have returned, however, realpolitik is once more discovering a receptive audience. The chastening of American ambitions in the Middle East also allows realpolitikers to point out, with some justification, that idealism can lead to worse moral outcomes than the cool, circumspect approach to statecraft that they purport to employ.

So the exponents of realpolitik have rediscovered their voice and their swagger. Yet realpolitik is one of those words borrowed from another language that is much used but little understood. Its true meaning remains occluded by the fact that it has so often been caricatured—but also because realpolitikers caricature the naive idealists whom they set themselves up against. “I will leave it to the self-described realists to explain in greater detail the origins and meaning of ‘realism’ and ‘realpolitik’ to our confused journalists and politicos,” said Robert Kagan in 2010, in a discussion of President Obama’s realist credentials. In fact, few satisfactory definitions exist, largely because international-relations theorists have remained uninterested in its historical origins.

In picking up the gauntlet thrown down by Kagan, then—to explore the origins and meanings of realpolitik—one discovers some surprising answers. Both realists and their critics should take heed. Rediscovering real realpolitik is, in fact, a more useful exercise than simply dusting off a copy of Machiavelli’s The Prince. We can do better than revert to Renaissance-era statecraft every time we get our fingers burned. That is because real realpolitik was born in an era that more closely resembles the one in which we find ourselves today. It emerged in mid-nineteenth-century Europe from the collision of the Enlightenment with the realities of power politics: a world that was experiencing a unique combustion of new ideas about freedom and social order alongside rapid industrialization, class war, sectarianism, great-power rivalry and the rise of nationalism. In other words, it was a response to the quintessential dilemmas of modernity, some of which we are still grappling with today.

Above all, the creation of the concept of realpolitik was an early attempt to answer a conundrum that has been at the heart of Anglo-American foreign policy ever since: how to achieve liberal, enlightened goals in a world that does not follow liberal, enlightened rules; and how to ensure political and social progress in an unstable and unpredictable environment.

REALPOLITIK IS NOT, as is often assumed, as old as statecraft itself. Nor is it part of a seamless creed stretching back to Thucydides, Machiavelli, Hobbes and Richelieu, though, as Jonathan Haslam points out in No Virtue Like Necessity: Realist Thought in International Relations since Machiavelli, it has a place within it. It is something distinct from raison d’état, strategic thought or Machiavellianism—though all played a part in its formulation.

Realpolitik is of more recent vintage. The neologism was invented by the German thinker Ludwig August von Rochau in his 1853 treatise Grundsätze der Realpolitik (The Principles of Realpolitik). Rochau, who added a second volume in 1869 and wrote a total of eleven books, is a largely forgotten figure today. His work has attracted comment in his homeland, including Natascha Doll’s perspicuous 2005 study, but has never been translated into English and there are no extended discussions of his life and work in the English language (notable exceptions here are brief mentions in Jonathan Haslam’s history of realism and James Sheehan’s work on nineteenth-century German liberalism).

So who was Rochau and what did he mean by the word realpolitik? Rochau, to borrow a loaded phrase, was what might be called a “liberal mugged by reality.” The illegitimate son of an officer of the Braunschweig hussars, he was a publicist, journalist and radical participant in the Vormärz, the movement for liberal political reform in the German states. The efforts of this liberal movement—like those of its sister movements across Europe—culminated in the rebellions of 1848, which were intended to establish constitutional and representative government. Rochau, who had been forced into exile before the uprising, tried to attain a seat in the liberal Frankfurt Parliament, which was established that year. Although he failed, he became a well-known figure in the National Liberal Party and eventually became a deputy in the German Reichstag in 1871.

In some respects, the 1848 revolutions were nineteenth-century Europe’s equivalent of the Arab Spring. Uprisings that began in the name of freedom and constitutional rights quickly fell victim to other political phenomena. The liberal gains of 1848 were soon lost as the would-be revolutionaries were swatted down by coercive governments who restored their authority or were overtaken by more powerful social forces such as class, religion and nationalism.

The liberal dream of a united Germany under the rule of law was thwarted. In the multifarious states and principalities of Germany, autocrats, monarchists and the landed classes quickly reestablished their control and scattered the revolutionaries into prison or exile. Over the following two decades, Germany was indeed to be united but not by the means that the men of 1848 envisaged. Rather than constitutionalism and representative government, it was the “blood and iron” of the Prussian chancellor, Otto von Bismarck, that forged the creation of the German Empire in 1871.c

Nor was this all. In France, the Second Republic was established in early 1848 and the French people were granted universal suffrage. But democracy did not prove to be a vehicle for liberalism, as might have been expected. The people (chiefly the peasants) elected Napoleon’s nephew Louis, who used this mandate to abolish the representative assembly, marginalize the liberals and install himself as emperor in 1852. It was the implosion of the 1848 French revolution that Karl Marx wrestled with four years later in The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Napoleon, noting—referring to the resurrection of Bonapartism—that history tends to repeat itself, “the first time as tragedy, the second time as farce.” In Italy, meanwhile, where Rochau also visited, a series of local rebellions were swiftly suppressed.

As Rochau watched the dreams of the liberals dissipate in smoke, he thought it time for some hard thinking. Liberals had to get real. “The castles that they have built in the air have evaporated into blue mist,” he wrote. “A work that had begun with aimless enthusiasm and carried out with an overestimation of one’s capabilities ended in dishonour and injury.”

It was as an antidote to their failure to understand the nature of power and politics that this budding realist invoked the need for a new realpolitik. This was juxtaposed with “idealpolitik,” which had inspired Rochau and his comrades but won them no real gains. “Realpolitik does not move in a foggy future, but in the present’s field of vision,” he wrote. “It does not consider its task to consist in the realisation of ideals, but in the attainment of concrete ends.”

Rochau was far from ready to give up on the ideas he had held so far. In his view, the great achievement of modernity had been to undermine the notion that might is right in politics—or that kings or certain classes had a God-given right to rule because they were strong. But that did not mean liberals could simply dismiss the laws of politics. In making such progress, they had mistakenly assumed that the “law of the strong” had simply evaporated overnight. In reality, this law was as unavoidable as the “law of gravity over the material world.” The foundational truth of politics was the link between power (Macht) and dominance (Herrschaft).

Rather than abandoning his liberalism, he challenged his fellow liberals to think of smarter ways to achieve their goals. They had much to fight for. The regimes that had been restored after 1848 were “anachronisms” because they did not adequately reflect the balance of social forces within German society. The only viable government for Germany, he argued, was one that was constructed around and harnessed the full potential of the Mittelstand (the middle classes). But the intellectual progress made by the Enlightenment had hit the brick wall of reality. To get through that wall, it needed more than ideological purity. When it became “a matter of trying to bring down the walls of Jericho, the Realpolitik thinks that lacking better tools, the most simple pickaxe is more effective than the sound of the most powerful trumpets.”

The strange afterlife of realpolitik showed just how difficult it was for liberals to balance their ideals with a true understanding of means and ends. After Rochau, the concept became entrusted into the hands of the historian and fellow National Liberal politician Heinrich von Treitschke, a virulent anti-Semite—his credo was “the Jews are our misfortune”—who set out to show the German people “how brilliant Realpolitik is.” But Treitschke’s influence—and his ideas of racial struggle and war—represented an increasingly rightward turn in German liberalism. Among the National Liberals, liberal values were increasingly subordinated to the German national cause, which had been seized upon and exploited by Bismarck. Rochau had regarded anti-Semitism as repugnant, absurd and delusional.

Rochau remained a fierce critic and opponent of Bismarck until his death in 1873. Bismarck’s government banned the publication of the weekly journal that Rochau edited in the 1860s. By a strange twist of fate, however, the phrase that Rochau coined became increasingly associated with Bismarck himself. Detached from its original meaning, it was used to describe Bismarck’s brand of practical and ruthless statecraft in the domestic and international arena: his astute management of different social forces within the state and his ability to combine diplomacy with the threat of force. Thus the true meaning of realpolitik began to be drowned out as it was harnessed by conservatives for a very different cause. For those watching the rise of the German nation from outside, therefore, realpolitik soon became a byword for German dastardliness.

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 buildup of Anglo-German antagonism in the late nineteenth century. 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 was 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 and a fetishization of naked self-interest as an end in itself.

The first mention of realpolitik in the English language came in 1872. It was in a translation of an attack on Rochau by the Prussian nationalist Constantin Frantz, who believed that the very notion of realpolitik betrayed the Christian spirit of benevolence that was central to the essence of liberalism. After this, the word was barely mentioned again until the 1890s, when it began to seep into the press with growing frequency, as Wilhelmine Germany became an increasingly aggressive and assertive actor on the international stage. Following Frantz, realpolitik was identified as the source of a sort of gangrene in German philosophy and intellectual life. The traditions of Goethe and Kant, which had been so admired in England, had been marginalized by what seemed to be a neo-Machiavellian obsession with power and the interests of the state.

In 1895, the Times, for example, bemoaned the fact that there were few “survivors of a period when the old-fashioned idealism of the German character had not been superseded by what is now called ‘realpolitik.’” By 1904, as German naval rearmament gained pace, the Fortnightly Review noted how the German state “works exclusively upon a science of self-interest, more definitely methodized than in any other Foreign Office, and applied with more tenacious consistency.”

Not everyone accepted the implication that realpolitik was a uniquely German condition. In 1902, the English radical economist J. A. Hobson published Imperialism: A Study, in which he suggested that the growing ambitions of the great powers—reflected in colonialism and huge military and naval rearmament programs—were all symptoms of the same sickness. It was a

greedy type of Machiavellianism, entitled “real-politik” in Germany, where it was made, which has remodelled the whole art of diplomacy and has erected national aggrandisement without pity or scruple as the conscious motive force of foreign policy.

What Hobson called “earth hunger”—the scramble for markets and resources and the repudiation of treaty obligations—was reflected in the “sliding scale of diplomatic language” and words like “hinterland, sphere of interest, sphere of influence, paramountcy, suzerainty, protectorate.” Even the Americans, too, were being drawn into the imperial game, engaging in what the Germans now called Weltpolitik (world politics).

In India, the philosopher Sarvepalli Radhakrishnan, a future president of the country, echoed Hobson’s views:

Realpolitik, which has for its principle, “It is good when I steal your cow, and bad when you steal my cow,” has been the governing force of European relations all these four or five centuries. Self-interest is the end; brute-force, the means; conscience is taboo.

The Great War, he added, was “the penalty which Europe pays for its steadfast loyalty to a false ideal.”

OF ALL THE great powers, America came late to realpolitik. It was, after all, in Rochau’s pithy description, one of those nations that “have hardly stepped out of the shoes they wore as children.” Before its entry into the Great War, America was often chided in the English press for its lack of understanding of the true nature of realpolitik, much as Rochau rebuked his liberal colleagues for their naïveté about the nature of politics after 1848.

In 1911, the British writer Sydney Brooks—a regular contributor to Harper’s—suggested that America was a geographically cosseted nation and that its understanding of international politics was blunted by its relative security (a theme recently revisited by John Mearsheimer in The National Interest). 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, a diversion which by itself is proof enough of their unique immunity from the serious realities of Weltpolitik,” Brooks wrote.

The exponential growth of American power soon caused Europeans to adjust their opinions about the American capacity for realpolitik. As pressure grew on the United States to enter the war in 1916, Walter Weyl, the editor of the fledgling New Republic and one of the intellectual fathers of the progressive movement, returned from a trip to Europe with some advice for his countrymen. “They ascribe to us more foresight than we possess, not realizing how often we have happily blundered into success, how often we have pursued Realpolitik in our sleep.” To illustrate the point, he recounted a conversation he had with a German academic about America’s position: “‘We Germans,’ a Berlin professor recently assured me, ‘write fat volumes about Realpolitik but understand it no better than babies in a nursery.’ ‘You Americans,’ he added, I thought enviously, ‘understand it far too well to talk about it.’”

postcard-skagerrak-scheerCWhen Woodrow Wilson did eventually take America into war in 1917, some of his supporters began to style his support for democracy and liberal values as a direct assault on realpolitik. The word had begun to seep into the American press in preceding years. Like in England, it was used interchangeably with Machiavellianism, for which the El PasoHerald provided a helpful definition in 1918: “Michiavellianism [sic]—pronounced ‘mak-ee-ah-vel-eean-izm.’ A term descriptive of unscrupulous diplomacy. Derived from the name of Machiavelli, a Florentine statesman . . . Michiavellianism has been revived by the Prussian military autocracy, and is called Realpolitik.”

Wilson’s vision of politics—along with his emphasis on liberal values—was presented as a powerful alternative to the shortsighted cynicism that realpolitik seemed to denote. Wilsonianism was no longer seen as naive; it was a potent weapon in the international arena in its own right. “How curious it is that these professors of realpolitik in European chancelleries, who lately saw nothing in the President but an academist, and nothing in his phrases but dreamy vaporings of the millennium, should be changing their tune at this time!” declared the Washington Herald in April 1917. “Of course diplomats and militarists who deal exclusively in ‘facts’ and the realities of force never see much farther than their own noses.”

The irony of this was that Wilsonianism was closer to Rochau’s version of realpolitik than anyone imagined.

AS THE Great War turned in the Allies’ favor, and they began to write the victor’s version of its origins, realpolitik featured heavily in their explanations.

Sir Charles Waldstein, an Anglo-American academic with extensive experience of Germany, reiterated the common view that it had been part of the poisoning of German philosophy and political culture in the years preceding the war: “Real-Politik and Interressen-Politik were constantly in the mouths of its leaders, from the Kaiser down to the political stump-speaker.” Even the British foreign secretary, Arthur Balfour, stated in 1918 that “Realpolitik . . . has been the true and dominating doctrine of every important German statesman, German soldier, and German thinker for two generations at least.”

Liberal Germans, Rochau’s true heirs, also joined in the criticism. Father W. Foerster, an exiled German pacifist, educationalist and ethicist, said the country had succumbed to “hallucinations of ‘Realpolitik’” that were brought on by a destructive sense of national superiority:

In spite, therefore, of all our talk of “Realpolitik,” we have remained altogether incapable of assessing the surrounding world objectively, or of emerging from our own drunken egoism; and this especially because, in addition, a fundamentally false political philosophy has taught us to look upon egoism as the only true world policy.

By the end of the Great War, therefore, realpolitik was already taken to mean a variety of sins—which were long removed from anything that Rochau had written in 1853. These included militarism, illiberalism, imperialism, naked self-interest and recklessness in the international arena. Realpolitik was understood not as a science of realism but, rather, as a glaring symptom of what had gone wrong in Germany. Insofar as other nations had participated in it, they had contributed to the unprecedented death and destruction of the Great War.

First Wilsonianism, and later the construction of the League of Nations, were conceived as an antidote to the realpolitik that had seeped into international affairs in the years before 1914. Realpolitik was to remain a dirty word in the Anglo-American world in the interwar years.

THE SECOND WAY Central European realism—and realpolitik more specifically—seeped into Western political consciousness was through the wave of German emigrant intellectuals who arrived in America before and after the Second World War. This brought a raft of uniquely talented historians and theologians such as Reinhold Niebuhr, Hans Morgenthau, Fritz Kraemer, Felix Gilbert and Henry Kissinger. In addition, the Dutch American Nicholas J. Spykman, who taught at Yale, made an important contribution to the establishment of classical realist thought in postwar America.

kam-064By the outbreak of the Second World War, realpolitik was sufficiently established in the American political lexicon to no longer need elaborate definition. It had crept into discussions about Hollywood in the 1930s, as some called for an “awakened sense of Realpolitik” in the movie industry as a corrective to the “sugar-coated” endings that contributed to the decline of cinema audiences in the period of the Great Depression. In 1940, the journal American Speech included it in a list of loan words from Germany that had become increasingly prevalent in the American press in the preceding years, alongside some other unfortunate imports: Reich, gestapo and putsch.

As those who had been trained in the way of German realism recognized, it was not a word with which one would typically want to associate oneself in this period. Despite the fact that they were entirely cognizant of the Mitteleuropean origins of realpolitik, the German émigrés generally steered clear of using the term.

In his 1951 In Defense of the National Interest, for example, Hans Morgenthau largely concealed the German influences in his thought and emphasized an English-language canon of realist thinking, which included the Federalist Papers and Lord Castlereagh’s work as British foreign secretary at the time of the Congress of Vienna.

Morgenthau’s critics recognized the sleight of hand. A review in the Economist declared his book to be the latest addition to the now “considerable American library of sermons based on the theology of realpolitik.” In 1952, he was attacked by the Austrian American theorist Frank Tannenbaum, who stated that “the advocates of Realpolitik would sweep away all of our old beliefs as foolish, sentimental, and moralistic.” Carl J. Friedrich, another émigré and a theorist of totalitarianism, called Morgenthau’s book “an American version of the German Realpolitik.”

Even by the time Morgenthau expanded his views in 1960 in The Purpose of American Politics, which he defined as “the achievement of freedom,” yet another émigré, the Marxist intellectual Herbert Marcuse, wrote to him asking what “might have driven the theorist of Realpolitik to transcend Realpolitik.”

Typically, it was President Obama’s favorite philosopher, Reinhold Niebuhr, who in 1944 came closest to finding a happy medium between what he called “the most rarified heights of constitutional idealism” and “the depths of realpolitik.”

For the most part, however, anything resembling traditional German raison d’état was seized upon by the critics of the realist school as the most recent incarnation of realpolitik. Leo Strauss, another German émigré, was perhaps the most vigilant of all, comparing Machiavelli, whom he believed had lowered men’s sights, to the “teacher of evil.” In The Road to Serfdom, Friedrich Hayek wrote that if the West were to convince Germans that there was an alternative to Nazism, it would “not be by concessions to their system of thought.” According to him, “We shall not delude them with a stale reproduction of the ideas of their fathers which we have borrowed from them—be it state socialism, Realpolitik, ‘scientific’ planning, or corporativism.”

The label was hard to shake. “The advocates of a realist foreign policy are caricatured with the German term Realpolitik,” noted Kissinger many years later, “I suppose to facilitate the choosing of sides.”

THE COLD WAR—and perhaps above all, the association with Kissinger—breathed new life into realpolitik and meant that the term outlasted the vituperative debates of the 1940s and 1950s. To this day, the word also enjoys a unique position in contemporary political discourse in that it is one of the few terms in international-relations theory that practitioners and diplomats both recognize and use.kissi

In the Frontline Diplomacy archive at the Library of Congress, which contains transcripts of 1,743 interviews with senior American diplomats from the postwar era to the present day, the word realpolitik appears in fifty-seven of those interviews, often with expansive expositions as to what it means to the interviewee.

In truth, in contemporary usage, realpolitik has become interchangeable with “realism” or “realistic.” Simply speaking, it denotes an unflinching and nonideological approach to statecraft and the primacy of the raison d’état. It involves an intuitive suspicion of grandstanding and moralizing on the international stage. In theory, it most closely resembles Morgenthau’s contention that a nation could not “escape . . . into a realm where action is guided by moral principles rather than by considerations of power.” More recent versions of this creed include the neorealist theories advanced by the prominent political scientist Kenneth Waltz, who died recently. Weighty disputes between the champions of liberal institutionalism, rational-choice theory and realism continue to dominate the international-relations field. But it is realism that holds the oldest pedigree and attracts the most ire.

The Frontline Diplomacy archive demonstrates that usage of realpolitik peaked in the 1970s in the Nixon-Carter era. About half of diplomats viewed it positively, and about half used it unfavorably, as something with which they preferred not to be associated. By the 1990s and with the fall of the Soviet Union, perspectives were changing. In 1991, at the end of the Gulf War, a provocative editorial in the Wall Street Journal suggested that the power of twenty-four-hour news television presented a serious challenge to traditional notions of realpolitik. “We recognize that there are significant dangers in trying to create a foreign policy that must incorporate the imperatives of national interest, a common national morality and the information stream of global communications,” it noted, but “Realpolitik is not so readily separated from national values, from a country’s common idea of itself.”

But in its journey from 1853 to the modern day, it has been purged of much of its original meaning. It has become a label or a badge of identification. In that sense, the hand-wringing about realpolitik is, as much as anything, part of an internal monologue in Western liberalism rather than a fully developed view of world affairs. For both its critics and its advocates, it is used to denote a philosophical disposition—an instinct or an inclination—rather than a hardheaded way of analyzing political circumstances on a case-by-case basis.

President Obama’s imaginative use of Reinhold Niebuhr’s work—the subtle strains of which crept into his Nobel Peace Prize speech in 2009—to explain his liberal realism does not, in that sense, represent the true spirit of realpolitik. It is, like much before it, an attempt to square the circle—to articulate an intellectually coherent worldview. Like much of the scholarly practice of international relations, this is theology rather than realpolitik.

WHAT THEN, would Rochau have made of all this? Going back to his original definition, it appears that much of what masquerades as modern realpolitik has strayed quite far from the original essence of the term.

The first thing to note is that he was an enemy of lazy thinking. He would have been unimpressed with those versions of realism that resemble a knee-jerk reaction that responds to idealism with a roll of the eyes and retreats to its own set of tropes and doctrines.

Realpolitik does “not entail the renunciation of individual judgement and it requires least of all an uncritical kind of submission,” he wrote. It was more “appropriate to think of it as a mere measuring and weighing and calculating of facts that need to be processed politically.” Above all, it was not a strategy itself, but a way of thinking: an “enemy of . . . self-delusion” and “the misguided pride which characterises the human mind.”

What Rochau was attempting to articulate was not a philosophical position but a new way of understanding politics and the distribution of power. “Experience has shown that treating it along abstract-scientific lines, or on the basis of principles is hardly useful,” he wrote. One had to contend “with the historical product, accepting it as it is, with an eye for its strengths and weaknesses, and to remain otherwise unconcerned with its origins and the reasons for its particular characteristics.”

Here, once again, his work is distinct from the Renaissance statecraft of Machiavelli because of its attempt to incorporate the conditions of modernity into his analysis. Sovereignty was not the natural property of God, the king, the people or the aristocracy. It was simply a reflection of the balance of different societal forces. The best forms of government were those that mediated between them most effectively; for this observation Rochau was indebted to the Scottish Enlightenment, Edmund Burke and the French social theorist Charles Fourier. In the race among nations, the most successful state would be the one that harnessed the energies and industry of its most productive classes to the cause of the nation. By this he chiefly meant the middle classes, by virtue of their “education, wealth, entrepreneurial spirit, and appetite for work.” In the Renaissance era it had been easier to suppress new societal forces that challenged the authority of the state, but the “increased mobility of the more recent centuries” had made this impossible.

At the same time, however, modernity also presented social and political forces—such as sectarianism or ignorance—which also had to be taken into account. A true realpolitiker could not ignore “those latent forces of habit, tradition and sluggishness” such as “poverty, lack of knowledge, and prejudice” and even “immorality.” Here again, modernity intervened. The “great masses,” too, which “formerly appeared only in exceptional situations in the political arena,” were now an established fact of political life.

Above all, however, in a lesson that modern realists often miss, Rochau refused to dismiss the power of ideas and ideology. “Things like bourgeois class consciousness, the idea of freedom, nationalism, the idea of human equality are completely new factors of social life for many of today’s states,” he wrote, and good policy should not “deny these forces the appropriate recognition.” Such manifestations of “public opinion,” as Rochau called it, “can be potentially very influential and a force that even oriental despotism has to bow to.”

Indeed, it was as a theorist of public opinion that Rochau was perhaps at his most original. He painstakingly laid out different gradations of it, in ascending order of importance. In the first instance, he believed that the “feeble self-conscious opinion of the day is not entitled to claim political consideration,” as it was merely fleeting and unfocused. From this starting point, however, the more “consolidated it becomes, and the more it transforms itself into a firm conviction, the more important it becomes for the state.” The most important expression of public opinion was “Volksglaube” (popular belief), which should always be treated with “care and protection, not blandishment.”

While the popular belief was the highest “peak” of popular opinion, the zeitgeist was its broadest foundation and a central component of realpolitik. The zeitgeist amounted to the “consolidated opinion of the century as expressed in certain principles, opinions and habits of reason.” An opinion transformed itself into the zeitgeist to the extent that it stood the test of time. And the zeitgeist represented “in all circumstances the most important influence on the overall direction of politics.” For a state to “enforce its own aims in defiance of the zeitgeist” was to court serious trouble.

Realpolitik, therefore, was much more than raison d’état. In fact, Rochau made this distinction clear: “Statecraft, as its name suggests, is nothing more than the art of success, applied to the specific ends of the state.”

Realpolitik was about the art of politics in the post-Enlightenment world. He wrote in an age of mass ideological awakening, economic transformation, social upheaval and international rivalry. The job of statesmen was not to remain studiously aloof from these forces but rather to manage and mediate them. For Rochau, too, patriotism and nationalism were not delusions and distractions from raison d’état but one of its most effective tools. A shared sense of national purpose was a “natural conciliatory force” between conflicting parties within a state. This was why “human judgement has been very firm regarding the view that it is the utmost sacrilege to question the national spirit (Nationalgeist), the last and most valuable guarantee of the natural order of society.” Any policies designed to break this spirit, or ignore it, “thereby descend to the lowest ranks of despicability.”

Most importantly, Rochau was a critic of utopianism, not idealism. As befitted a man of the Enlightenment, he understood that ideology played the “role of a harbinger and trailblazer of events.” “Realpolitik would contradict itself if it were to deny the rights of the intellect, of ideas, of religion or any other of the moral forces to which the human soul renders homage,” he wrote. The political importance of ideas was not dependent on how rational or noble they were. On the one hand, it was common that “the most beautiful ideal that enthuses noble souls is a political nullity.” When it came to “phantasms” like “eternal peace,” international fraternity and equality, with “no will and no force” behind them, “Realpolitik passes by shrugging its shoulders.” On the other hand, he noted—casting his eyes to the socialist movement emerging in Germany at the time—“the craziest chimera may become a very serious realpolitical matter.”

“Formless ideas, impulses, emotional surges, melodic slogans, naively accepted catchwords . . . [and] habitual self-delusions”—these were the targets that Rochau had in mind when he published The Principles of Realpolitik in 1853. By the time he wrote the second volume of his book fifteen years later, however, he had already recognized that the word he had coined had taken on a life of its own: liberals condemned it out of hand; conservatives adopted it without actually understanding what it meant. Looking at the way realpolitik has been used since that time, one can see that old habits die hard. For some the word has become a synonym for evil; for others it has been an accoutrement of sophistication. “I reject at this occasion the criticism which has been levelled at the title of my book from different directions,” Rochau wrote, with a hint of exhaustion, “if not so much against the content itself.”

John Bew currently holds the Henry A. Kissinger Chair in Foreign Policy and International Relations at the John W. Kluge Center at the Library of Congress. He is a reader in the War Studies Department at King’s College London and director of the International Centre for the Study of Radicalisation and Political Violence. His Castlereagh: A Life(Oxford University Press, 2012) was named a book of the year by the Wall Street JournalSunday TelegraphSpectator and Total Politics.


  1. Harry Bergsteiner said,

    John, thank you for this erudite but concise discourse on Realpolitik. Very helpful. I’m a little surprised, however, that the defining Realpolitik issue for people of my generation (b. 1944 in Munich) did not even get a byline and that is Willy Brandt’s initially much maligned detente with the Ostblock, which arguably helped prepare the way for Gorbachev’s Glasnost and Perestroika and thus constituted Realpolitik at its best.

    • The Westphalian Post said,

      Dear Harry,

      Your comment is appreciated but I feel I should warn you that this article is republished from The National Interest. If you really wish to start a dialogue with John Bew, I’d suggest you post your comment on TNI’s comment box of the article.

      Best regards,

  2. The Westphalian Post said,


    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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