Humphreys on Bew, 'Realpolitik: A History'

John Bew
Adam Humphreys

John Bew. Realpolitik: A History. New York: Oxford University Press, 2015. 408 pp. $27.95 (cloth), ISBN 978-0-19-933193-2.

Reviewed by Adam Humphreys (University of Reading) Published on H-Diplo (May, 2016) Commissioned by Seth Offenbach

The term “Realpolitik,” John Bew observes in his new history, is “much used but little understood” (p. 4). As reflected in its familiar association with figures such as Niccolò Machiavelli, Otto von Bismarck, and Henry Kissinger, the term “has long had pejorative connotations” (p. 4): Bew records Kissinger lamenting that “advocates of a realist foreign policy are caricatured with the German term Realpolitik … I suppose to facilitate the choosing of sides” (pp. 4-5). Yet Realpolitik has also, if less often, been deployed in the opposite fashion. When contrasted with Wilsonianism or neoconservatism, Bew observes, Realpolitik becomes “an accoutrement of sophistication, intended to signify one’s worldliness and historical depth and to distinguish oneself from dunderheaded ideologues” (p. 5).

It would be a mistake, Bew’s analysis implies, to interpret such competing uses of the term as merely reflecting differing evaluations of Realpolitik. For the story he tells is one of ambiguity, contestation, and transformation in what the term denotes. Whereas other histories, such as Jonathan Haslam’s No Virtue Like Necessity (2002), situate Realpolitik within a broader realist tradition, Bew’s is explicitly and unashamedly a history of the concept itself, starting with its formulation by the little-known German liberal activist Ludwig von Rochau in 1853 and following its fortunes as it was picked up, redeployed, reshaped, and reacted to, first in Germany and later in the Britain and the United States. A remarkable trajectory emerges as the concept is associated variously with liberalism, Machiavellianism, appeasement, American realism, neoconservatism, and more. Indeed, the signal achievement of Bew’s history is to bring out the many and often contradictory ways in which the term “Realpolitik” has been (and still is) used. He thereby also illuminates how analytical concepts can become tools of political debate and thence play a part in shaping our political history. In a sense, Bew does for Realpolitik what Piki Ish-Shalom has done for the idea of the “democratic peace” in his Democratic Peace: A Political Biography (2013).

Bew describes himself as an adherent of the Cambridge school approach to intellectual history: he “holds that political ideas, and associated political discourse, should be understood in the context of the historical era in which they were used” (p. 5). He therefore seeks to destabilize a familiar way of thinking in which Realpolitik is “part of a seamless creed stretching back to Thucydides and running through Niccolò Machiavelli, Cardinal Richelieu, Thomas Hobbes, and Lord Castlereagh, up to Hans Morgenthau, George Kennan, and Henry Kissinger” (p. 17). He maintains that in order to understand Realpolitik we must pay attention to the very particular context in which it emerged: the effort by German liberals to make sense of the failure of the 1848 revolution.

Although Realpolitik is most widely known as a foreign-policy doctrine, Rochau coined the term in relation to the “domestic political conundrum” faced by liberals in mid-nineteenth-century Germany, viz. “how to build a stable and liberal nation-state in an unsteady and rapidly changing environment, without recourse to violent convulsion or repression” (p. 17). Rochau surmised that liberals only had themselves to blame for the failures of 1848: they naively believed that history was on their side. His Realpolitik was both a call for a more realistic analysis of “the contending social, economic, and ideological forces struggling for supremacy within the state” (p. 17) and a method for conducting such an analysis. Liberals had to recognize that in order to be influential ideas had to be allied to power. But this was not the crude politics of interest or necessity with which the term Realpolitik was later to be associated. Rochau’s aim was to advance the liberal cause. Though an understanding of this context was soon lost, the origins of Realpolitik lie in a bourgeois liberal analysis of domestic politics in Germany after 1848.

Rochau’s focus on domestic politics is reflected in the title of the work in which he coined the term: Foundations of Realpolitik: Applied to the Current State of Germany. Towards the end of that work, Bew notes, Rochau did turn his attention to foreign affairs, but he did so in the context of his concern with domestic state-building in Germany: he argued that the rise of Napoleon III gave additional urgency to the need for German unification, that such unification could only take place if led by Prussia, and that Prussia must also commit to a defensive alliance with Austria, even though Austria was, Rochau believed, “an enemy to both German unity and liberalism” (p. 44). It was Heinrich von Treitschke’s redeployment of “Realpolitik” to characterize Bismarck’s similarly hard-nosed foreign policy that popularized the term, even though, as Bew points out, “Bismarck never used the word himself, and there is no evidence that he ever read Rochau’s work” (p. 47). The consequent association of Realpolitik with “a cultish devotion to the importance of power in the German national ideal” (pp. 68-69) departed dramatically from Rochau’s original concern with how liberalism could be kept alive “in a world that looked unfavorable to it” (p. 66).

As Realpolitik found its way into British discourse in the late nineteenth century, its usage reflected this twisted understanding. Employed as a characterization of German foreign policy, the term was “taken to imply dastardly conduct on the international stage, in diplomacy and war” (pp. 85-86). In this guise, Realpolitik served to prompt the further development of liberal internationalist ideas, both in Britain and in the United States. At this point, however, Bew makes an important distinction. He reserves the term “Realpolitik” for the approach, originating with, but deviating from, Rochau, which developed in Germany and was later criticized in the United Kingdom. He uses “realpolitik” to denote a distinctive approach developed in the United States and later picked up in Britain. For while many in the United States came to share the British rejection of Realpolitik, they were also suspicious of the British claim to hold themselves “to a higher standard” (p. 107). Equally, the key debate in the United States was between calls to resist entanglement in old-world diplomacy and to play a more active role in shaping the world. As Bew demonstrates, the characterization of the latter position as a form of “realpolitik” represented a new, more positive, sense for the term, even if it was more closely linked to geopolitics than to Rochau. In the American formulation, “realpolitik” denoted a form of enlightened self-interest: a recognition that liberal internationalism had to be backed up by force.

Bew identifies Walter Lippmann as a key figure in the articulation of realpolitik as a “corrective to naiveté, isolationism, and pacifism” (p. 116). But an intriguing dimension of his story is the way in which the more positive use of “realpolitik” in the United States made its way back to the United Kingdom in the interwar period as a counterweight to what came, increasingly, to be regarded as the “postwar idealism” (p. 136) of the League of Nations. In this iteration realpolitik “increasingly came to imply … a reversion to tried and tested modes of statecraft,” that is, the “less sentimental, more realistic approach to foreign policy” (p. 136) associated with the Concert of Europe. At this point familiar themes begin to emerge, most notably the question of what realism consists in. Neville Chamberlain, for example, justified Britain’s search for accommodation with Benito Mussolini in terms of realpolitik, but for his critics appeasement was “anything but realistic … because it did not grasp the nature of fascism” (p. 175). In the United States meanwhile, realpolitik “was invoked against appeasement, rather than in justification for it” (p. 188), reflecting the specific place of realpolitik in a debate about whether to adopt a more activist foreign policy.

Realpolitik figured prominently in the emergence of American realism in the mid-twentieth century and in debates about containment and détente. A significant tranche of the book is devoted to this story, but it is hard to avoid the conclusion that “realpolitik” was, by now, just a ritualized term of abuse and, in any case, that debates about realpolitik were less central to political decision making than they had been in the interwar period. For example, those who opposed intervention in Yugoslavia in the 1990s “appealed to ‘realpolitik,’” while the same term “was used, in a pejorative sense, to denounce the cynicism of those who opposed intervention.” As Bew observes, this amounted to little more than the revival of an old term “to serve new polemics” (p. 291).

The lesson of all this appears to be that concepts evolve and that as they do, they can become “so diluted as to become effectively meaningless” (p. 12). Yet this is not Bew’s principal conclusion. Instead, the book closes with a new argument, viz. Rochau’s original concept of Realpolitik “is ripe for rediscovery:” his work represents “an untapped and almost unknown source of wisdom about the nature of politics that still has uses in today’s world” (p. 9).

Bew argues that “Rochau’s most useful legacy lies in the method of political analysis he bequeathed. This was to consider any given situation on three levels: the existing distribution of power within a state … the socioeconomic structures of society; and the cultural and ideological setting of the time” (p. 300). Translated into the realm of foreign policy, Bew argues that this method generates a basic script for addressing any foreign-policy problem. To summarize, Rochau invites us to consider the actual distribution of power alongside underlying social and economic conditions, the cultural context, and ideological movements, and to ask what room these afford for political action to forward one’s interests or ideals. Such an approach is valuable, Bew contends, because it “reminds us of the messy business of politics and all the tributaries that flow into it” (p. 299).

Having insisted that Rochau’s ideas must be understood in their historical context as a liberal approach to domestic politics in Germany after 1848, it may appear somewhat surprising that Bew then seeks to derive from these ideas a generalized approach to foreign policy. Yet this is foreshadowed in Bew’s vacillation between two terms he uses interchangeably to describe Rochau’s approach: “real Realpolitik” and “the original Realpolitik.” The latter term is, of course, much more in keeping with Bew’s avowed Cambridge school approach. Indeed, the most valuable feature of his new history is precisely Bew’s commitment to situating the various debates about Realpolitik/realpolitik (in Germany in the mid- and late nineteenth century, in Britain prior to World War I, in the United States and United Kingdom in the interwar period, and in the United States after World War II) in their historical contexts. By doing so, Bew is able to illuminate how and why this concept came to be used in so many different and often incompatible ways.

By contrast, Bew’s insistence that Rochau’s is the “real Realpolitik” risks putting more pressure on Rochau’s analysis than it can bear.  For the insights Bew derives from Rochau are little more than common sense. Rochau, Bew acknowledges, “cannot tell us what to do about global markets, energy interdependence, climate change, or … cyberspace,” but the virtue of his approach, Bew insists, is that it reminds us “of the need to take such things into account” (p. 302). Taking all dimensions of a problem into account is surely sensible, but it is not clear that it requires us to go back to Rochau. Moreover, like all forms of realism, Rochau’s approach is more useful as a critical tool than as a foundation for political action. It is one thing to identify features of the political landscape that mid-nineteenth-century German liberals failed to consider, but it is quite another to assert that the challenges with which they grappled “remain the quintessential problems of modernity” (p. 9). To give just one example, Rochau may have sought to offer liberalism “a helping hand” (p. 9), but the kind of liberalism he advocated was conservative even for its time and seems incredibly backward-looking today. As Bew reminds us: we must locate ideas within their historical contexts.

Bew defends his call for a return to Rochau by insisting that historians do not have to remain detached from the burning issues of the day (p. 9). Let us grant that. Even so, Bew’s principal contribution to contemporary political debate is surely to illuminate “the use and misuse of a concept over time” (p. 13). He is right that scholars of international relations have been “largely uninterested” (p. 5) in the historical origins of Realpolitik and he is right to lament the tendency to use the term interchangeably with terms such as “realism” and “raison d’état.” Indeed, he might have pushed this point further. One of the real strengths of the book is that it highlights how Rochau’s Realpolitik differs from late nineteenth-century German Weltpolitik, from an unmitigated politics of force (Machtpolitik), from Machiavellianism, from Max Weber’s ethic of responsibility, from geopolitics, and more. There is a basis here for a more systematic conceptual typology. Interesting subplots also emerge. For example, although the reduction of Realpolitik to dastardly conduct brought it into line with popular understandings of Machiavellianism, Machiavelli’s The Prince (1532) was, like Rochau’s Foundations of Realpolitik, principally focused on the management of domestic politics. If the career of Rochau’s Realpolitik has one thing to teach us, it is surely that the loose employment of concepts tends to deprive them of whatever analytical insight they might once have brought. As Bew observes, “labels such as realpolitik can change so much over time as to lose much of their meaning” (p. 298).

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Citation: Adam Humphreys. Review of Bew, John, Realpolitik: A History. H-Diplo, H-Net Reviews. May, 2016. URL:

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