In the September/October issue of Foreign Affairs, John J. Mearsheimer writes that the conflict between Ukraine and Russia “shows that realpolitik remains relevant–and states that ignore it do so at their own peril.”
That Realpolitik remains relevant to conversations on foreign affairs is certainly evidenced by its seeming ubiquity in public discourse. Commentators around the world–in the pages of The Indian Republic, The Canberra Times, Diario de Cuba, and The New York Times–have cited the concept just this past month. The term has been invoked in the analysis of actions by Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, Chinese President Xi Jen Peng, Russian President Vladimir Putin, and U.S. President Barak Obama. It was even a recent word of the day on Dictionary.com.
Whether there exists a common understanding of Realpolitik, however, remains an open question. Such was the assertion of historian John Bew, a scholar of British foreign policy and this year’s Henry A. Kissinger Chair in Foreign Policy and International Relations at the Kluge Center. Bew observed that Realpolitik “had come back into fashion” in Washington, D.C., in discussions of international affairs – both among scholars and practitioners. Yet, through six months of research at the Library of Congress, Bew concluded that much of what stands for modern Realpolitik today deviates from the original meaning of the term.
According to Bew, Realpolitik emerged in mid-19th century Europe following the failed revolutions of 1848. The original term, coined by German journalist Ludwig August von Rochau, arose from the desire to achieve liberal enlightened goals in a world where, according to Bew, “the law of the strong” had not “suddenly evaporated just because it was unjust.” Liberals had to get real, Bew says, understand the nature of power and politics, and think of smarter ways to achieve their goals given the conditions on the ground. This was the original essence of Realpolitik. Yet as the concept was seized upon by European thinkers during the latter part of the century, and became associated with Otto Von Bismarck’s unification of Germany, usage of the word became detached from its original meaning.
A century-and-a-half later, there remains much to ponder about the concept’s true meaning, according to Bew. In March of this past year, Bew and historian Robert Kagan debated the concepts of Realpolitik, Anglo-American realism, and the varieties of realism in American foreign policy, from Woodrow Wilson to Henry Kissinger to Barack Obama.
The following month, Bew’s final lecture as Chair traced the history of Realpolitik to its origins, and tracked its evolution through German, British, and American political thought. Bew arrived at the conclusion that ultimately, “the more ubiquitous the use of Realpolitik became, the less it really meant anything.” Bew noted that in looking at Realpolitik in this way, the term actually tells us more about ourselves than it does about the world around us.
Bew is working on the first-ever English-language book, largely researched and written at the Kluge Center, that traces Realpolitik back to its origins and frames its relevance for the twenty-first century. “The book will be a historian’s guide to the twenty-first century, looking at all the debates and trying to distill them into something relevant for the century ahead,” Bew says. “I hope it will be read by policymakers, and be a source of enlightenment.”
§ Watch: “Realpolitik & American Exceptionalism.” Historians John Bew and Robert Kagan on Realpolitik in Anglo-American foreign policy.
§ Watch: “Real Realpolitik: A History.” Historian John Bew on the origins of Realpolitik and its relevancy to the 21st-century.
§ More: Dissecting The Return of Realpolitik. The Washington Diplomat, May 2014.
The Henry A. Kissinger Chair in Foreign Policy and International Relations supports one senior scholar from the academic community or one high-ranking foreign policy practitioner no longer in office to be in residence at the Kluge Center and research any aspect of foreign policy involving the United States. Applications and nominations are due annually on November 1.