This article will be published in the May 9 edition of the Weekly Standard.
A good historian is inevitably a revisionist. Why write if you have nothing new to offer? But of course, not all revisionists are good historians. Whole forests have been cut down in the name of publishing some novel insight that obscures the past rather than enlightens. John Bew, a professor in the War Studies Department of King’s College, London, is a revisionist for sure but one whose works never fail to deepen knowledge of the past.
In 2012 Bew published Castlereagh: A Life. Rapidly received as the definitive account of the British minister to date, it overturned the orthodox portrayal of the Tory statesman as a one-dimensional counterrevolutionary diplomat and politician. Instead, Bew cast him as a figure attached to Enlightenment ideals but whose career was largely defined by the thankless task of dealing with foreign and domestic threats to British rule and (to Castlereagh’s mind) the rule that made attainment of those ideals possible.
Previously, in Talking to Terrorists (2009), Bew and his coauthors challenged the conventional view that the Troubles in Northern Ireland were resolved only when London decided to sit down with the IRA with no preconditions and broker a final agreement. To the contrary, their research showed that what actually led to the settlement was far more complicated—including the overlooked but critical fact that the British security services had so disabled the militants by arrests, penetrations, and assassinations that there was no alternative left for the IRA but to give up its armed struggle.
Similarly, Bew’s 2009 The Glory of Being Britons: Civic Unionism in 19th-Century Belfast was, as the title suggests, a new account of Ulster Unionism that didn’t simply conflate that political persuasion with Northern Irish desires for Protestant supremacy. Instead, he recovered a strand of Unionism grounded in a Whiggish attachment to the crown and the British constitution.
Now there is Realpolitik: A History, in which Bew provides a new or, more specifically, forgotten account of the origins of the word and its many uses and abuses since.
Most often associated with “realism” as a school of international relations, Bew points out that the term “real-politik” has a distinct origin and father: the 19th-century German student-activist, writer, and politician August Ludwig von Rochau. Contrary to how contemporary political scientists might use the word today, Rochau’s two-volume Foundations of Realpolitik (1853, 1868) did not attempt to reduce politics to normative-free practice. Rather, his intent was to instruct fellow liberals that, if they hoped to succeed in establishing a reformed and unified German state, they needed to be more realistic and consider all the forces at play in a modern society. Having experienced the failure of the European revolutions of 1848, Rochau coined the term “realpolitik” as a kind of Burkean rejoinder to his colleagues’ too-utopian plans. In Bew’s telling, Rochau was “a liberal mugged by reality.”
For Rochau, while social forces, political coalitions, and geopolitics had to be factored into reformers’ efforts to move policies forward, so too did the power of ideas in shaping politics. But whatever nuance there was in his account of realpolitik, it was (as Bew shows) rather quickly dispensed with by the word’s most famous practitioner, Otto von Bismarck, and the word’s most effective popularizer, the German historian Heinrich von Treitschke. By the turn of the 20th century, it had come to mean in British eyes a narrow-minded and brutish approach to world politics—a distinctly German statecraft devoid of all principle except the pursuit of greater power.
If politics emptied realpolitik of its original meaning and resulted in its being used as a term of opprobrium, politics also resurrected the word into a more positive connotation following World War I. Reacting to the failure of the League of Nations, realpolitik gained more approving use in both Great Britain and the United States as a counterbalance to the overly moralistic approach to world politics that followed the war. Indeed, as Bew details, even before the United States entered the war, the young American journalist and intellectual Walter Lippmann wrote a book with a chapter titled “A Little Realpolitik.” There, Lippmann called on Americans to put aside their naïveté about the world and use their power in conjunction with others in the West to build a liberal international order.
Realpolitik: A History takes readers through the complex genealogy of the friends and foes of realpolitik in continental Europe, Britain, and the United States before and after the Great War and World War II, and during the Cold War and after. As one might expect, Bew gives special attention to the lineage of German emigrés to the United States, such as Hans Morgenthau, Henry Kissinger, and Carl Friedrich, who differed substantially in their understanding of realpolitik and realism more broadly. So thorough is Bew in recounting the history of the use of the word that it is difficult to imagine that there is much left to discover.
Yet precisely because the word has taken on so many connotations through the years, a reader might well be left to wonder: Why conduct this exercise at all if the term has had no lasting meaning? It’s a lot of words spilt over a word that never seems to stay true. Bew the historian might answer that, precisely because of all the to and fro over realpolitik, how the word is used actually becomes something of a Rorschach test for tracking modern ideas about the conduct of national security.
But Bew, one of Britain’s top guns when it comes to writing about current strategic affairs, doesn’t want to leave it at that. He concludes his history by attempting to pull from Rochau’s own admittedly convoluted work a list of principles to help guide a country’s foreign policy. Here the real realpolitik is principled but prudent, knowing thoroughly the existing circumstances that give rise not only to the limits of statecraft but also to its possibilities.
One suspects that this version of realpolitik is as much John Bew as August von Rochau. Nevertheless, it’s worthwhile advice.
Gary Schmitt is director of the Marilyn Ware Center for Security Studies at the American Enterprise Institute.
Source: New AEI Feed