You may be all too familiar with those exhausting political-tagging debates involving this politician or that intellectual—and whether he or she is “really” a conservative (or a “real conservative”), a liberal, a libertarian, or a classical liberal. Or perhaps we should add a “paleo” or a “neo” to the label.
These discussions provide opportunities for some to question the ideological purity of their rivals and in some cases, to ex-communicate and deprive them from membership in what is really an imagined political community. But usually they go nowhere, and amount to yet another intellectual parlor game.
Political labels like “liberalism” or “conservatism” are mental constructs, or what German sociologist Max Weber referred to as “ideal types” that help us to conceptualize reality. But in the here and now, in the complex reality of political life, most of us apply simple “I-know-it-when-I-see it” rules of thumb that involve reading the body language and disposition of a person to identify a conservative or a liberal. That process seems to be more credible and cost-effective than the long and tedious debates in intellectual magazines that reflect more on those who are bickering than on those they are bickering about.
More recently, international relations thinkers and practitioners in Washington and elsewhere have been engaged that kind of heated political-tagging squabbling that helped produce a stream of news reports, op-eds and exchanges between cable television pundits, not to mention all the Facebook posts and tweets online. This one focuses on whether Republican Presidential front-runner Donald Trump is a foreign policy “realist” or not.
Hence Harvard University professor Stephen Walt insisted in an article on Foreign Policy that “No, @realDonaldTrump Is Not a Realist,” challenging Fletcher School of Diplomacy Professor Daniel Drezner, who argued that based on a deconstruction of the New York real estate magnate’s statements on foreign policy, Trump should be considered some sort of realist.
Yours truly also joined the debate, siding with the Trump-is-not-a-realist school of thought, noting that Trump has failed to introduce a coherent foreign policy vision and that much of his mishmash of stream-of-consciousness babble on global doesn’t suggest that he subscribes to any school of thought in international relations and that he is basically marketing himself as someone who could make successful business deals and is now ready to conclude winning diplomatic agreements.
But that was before Trump delivered his recent telepromptered foreign policy address and before and I finished reading Realpolitik: A Brief History, an interesting and wide-ranging examination of a term that has been used interchangeably with “realism,” “Machiavellism,” “raison d’état,” and, yes, “realist.”
In a way, historian John Bew, who teaches at the war studies department at King’s College London, attempts to give us an answer to the question: Who is a real realist? And the answer comes close to: It depends on your definition of realpolitik and, by extension, of realism. Or, if you take his argument to an extreme: Nobody and everybody.
Bew introduces the reader to the originator of the term realpolitik, August Ludwig von Rochau, a German writer and politician who published in 1853 a groundbreaking study, Foundations of Realpolitik (with a second version issued in 1869) in which he presented his vision of German unification and nationalism, as well as a practical strategy to achieve it.
Rochau, who today would probably be tagged as either a liberal or a conservative—he was labeled then (and regarded himself) as a “liberal nationalist”—was responding to the failures of the liberal revolution that engulfed Europe in 1848, by sketching, unsurprisingly, a realistic strategy to attain and the goal of a liberal and democratic Germany.
Rochau, who was a journalist and a practitioner, didn’t claim that he was establishing a new school of political thought. In fact, much of what he argued would sound today like common sense. That the “law of the strong is the determining factor in politics”; that “the most effective form of government is one “that incorporates the most powerful social forces within the state”; that ideas influence society that public opinion or the Zeitgeist is crucial in critical in determining a nation’s direction. Duh!
As Bew points out, Rochau was a child of the Enlightenment and a staunch (classical) liberal in the tradition of Edmund Burke. But he was also a pragmatic nationalist who attributed the collapse of the 1848 revolutions to the failure by their leaders to take into consideration political realities; they drifted instead into the la-la lands of idealism and utopianism, trying to impose their wishful thinking on reality. From Rochau’s perspective, being a realist means trying to achieve liberal goals in a world unguided by liberal rules.
After helping to form the Progressive Party in Prussia, Rochau witnessed the unification of Germany by Otto von Bismarck and won a seat in the Reichstag in 1871. He later split with the Progressive Party over the issue of cooperating with Bismarck, and founded the National Liberal Party, which supported accommodation with the Chancellor of the German Empire.
It is at that point, according to Bew, that the term realpolitik started to take a life of its own and was “bastardized.” It was identified with and the militaristic and aggressive type of nationalism that was pursued by Bismarck and later on with the nationalist philosophy that was popularized by Heinrich von Treitschke, which embraced racism, promoted the use of force and territorial expansionism, and eventually integrated into Fascist and Nazi ideologies.
At the same time, the terms realpolitik and realism were applied either as a way to disapprove of policies that supposedly lacked moral foundation, that were cynical or Machiavellian and that placed the interests of the state and its leaders above any other consideration, including the shared moral values and rules of liberal democratic societies.
Or the terms were sometimes used to praise policies and leaders that were committed to a pragmatic approach towards politics and foreign policy. These approaches rejected various utopian projects in favor of those that were based on the realistic considerations of the here and now and required making deals that sometimes ran contrary to ideological purity.
But Bew urges us to return to Rochau’s Foundations of Realpolitik and rejects many of the interpretations of the concept, especially in its authoritarian and expansionist nationalist versions, that he believes are nothing more than caricatures of the original idea. Pragmatism doesn’t have to be value-free, while a willingness to make compromises can demonstrate a moral quality.
And Bew also dismisses attempts by many current theoreticians to add a “scientific” veneer to realpolitik and realism, one that suggests that leaders, like engineers, can choose cost-effective models of statecraft that align with the real facts. He contends that political decisions are by definition products of historical conditions and personal dispositions.
Being realistic means that in the real world we don’t deal with leaders who are either “realists” or “idealists” who operate based on either realpolitik or idealpolitik. Indeed, most U.S. presidents have combined realism and idealism in their policymaking. Woodrow Wilson was not so “Wilsonian” (a dreamy internationalist idealist) as his detractors or supporters imagined him to be. Nor was Richard Nixon the kind of “Nixonian” (a Machiavellian seeker of power) the way he has been sometimes portrayed.
Moreover, pursuing diplomacy and responding to the pressure of public opinion, which is sometimes associated with idealism, can prove to be a very realistic option. At the same time, realist policymaking can sometimes to be an effective way to achieving moral goals. Think Roosevelt allying with Stalin to defeat Hitler. The proof in is the pudding: Saying that a particular leader was a successful statesman assumes that he was also a realist. Otherwise he wouldn’t have been successful.
Returning to Rochau, who after all wasn’t a theoretician, Bew proposes that realpolitik or realism shouldn’t be considered as a foreign-policy doctrine or even school of thought. Like conservatism or liberalism, it should perhaps be seen more as a reflection of personal and political dispositions. Or perhaps it is a set of general principles and an analytical framework that discourages self-delusions and fantasies—and encourages policymakers to strive for what is possible, recognizing the limits set on the use of power at home and abroad.
Which brings us back to the Republican presidential front-runner. Welt and others raised doubts that Trump is a realist by noting that the former television reality-show host hasn’t read any of the great international-relations tomes about realism. And my guess is that he probably hasn’t flipped through Rochau’s Foundations of Realpolitik, which was published in Germany a few years before Trump’s grandparents emigrated from that country to the U.S.
But when one goes through a series of Rochau-inspired recommendations that Bew lists at the end of his book (and compares them to some of the points that Trump raised in his foreign-policy address), one could imagine the late German realist nationalist finding in the New Yorker a kindred spirit. Up to a point.
Rochau, for example, cautioned us that realpolitik was an enemy of “habitual self-delusions” and “naively accepted catchwords” from wherever they come. That is a message that Trump seems to get. Hence he insisted in his address that as a president he would “no longer surrender this country, or its people, to the false song of globalism,” “globalism” being a prime example of a “naively accepted catchword.”
Trump also stressed that “the nation-state remains the true foundation for happiness and harmony,” delivering what could be described as cry of defiance vis-à-vis the “habitual self-delusions” espoused by the foreign policy elites, including the leading newspaper editorial pages and think tanks that led us into the mess in Iraq and adventures of “regime change” and “nation building”
And Rochau would have probably applauded Trump’s pledge that “war and aggression will not be my first instinct” and his insistence that one cannot have a foreign policy without diplomacy and that a superpower “understands that caution and restraint are signs of strength.”
But then 19th century German leader Otto von Bismarck and his successors bastardized the term realpolitik as part of an effort to market their policy of national aggrandizement, militarism and expansionism, leading Bew to warn that “real Realpolitik should be distinguished from a cult of national interest and avoid the traps of fatalism, absolutism and pessimism that have infected some versions of realist thought.”
And there is a bit of “a cult of national interest” in Trump’s trumpeting of the “America First” slogan and lot of fatalism and pessimism in his repeated talk about American military and economic decline, not to mention that disturbing touch of absolutism that he sometimes projects.
That Trump is on his way to winning the Republican presidential nomination suggests that he is more of a realist that his many detractors, all of whom have predicted his fall time and again. And he is a pragmatic dealmaker who will not be caught day-dreaming about building heaven on earth. Luxury hotels are what he builds.
But if Trump may be a realist, he is also a nationalist. You can be both and turn out to be a successful statesman if you follow Rochau’s recommendation to “consider power, ideas, economics and society at the same time, and to identify the junctures and connections between them.” The question is whether Trump could do all of that and tweet at the same time.
Leon Hadar is a senior analyst with Wikistrat, a geo-strategic consulting firm, and teaches international relations at the University of Maryland, College Park.