Home > Editorial > Time for real-realpolitik

Time for real-realpolitik


Realpolitik is politics defined as

politics based on practical and material considerations, rather than based on ideological or ethical considerations.

Realpolitik has been practiced, to varying degrees, by the West since before the term was coined. It has been predominant since the end of the World War II. Realpolitik has resulted in various nefarious practices, including (but not limited to): seeking out and supporting “strong men” as bulwarks against Communism (and more recently as protectors of Western interests), using aid programmes to prop up or undermine regimes, and deposing democratically elected leaders.

As Brian Crozier says in his 1965 book “South-East Asia in Turmoil”:

In its search for local ‘strong men’, the United States used anti-Communism as a decisive credential… administrative capacity, and even honesty, were less important than unwavering anti-Communism plus willingness to become a partner of the United States. Nor did it matter if a strong man was also an oppressive despot, as Syngmnan Rhee of Korea and Ngo Dinh Diem of Vietnam turned out to be, so long as he kept repeating that he was anti communist.

Or put more succinctly in the apocryphal statement attributed to Franklin D. Roosevelt:

Somoza may be a son of a bitch, but he’s our son of a bitch.

(Some claim that this was actually a self-serving statement fabricated by Somoza himself.)

The trouble with realpolitik is that it just does not work. Sure, it can produce short term advantages, but those advantages don’t last, and the long term consequences can be dire. Even a cursory examination of history shows this.

The 1955 partition of Vietnam and the support of President Ngo Dinh Diem – that didn’t work out too well did it? The 1953 overthrow of democratically elected Dr. Mohammed Mossadegh of Iran and his replacement with Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi – that didn’t work out too well either. The subsequent US backing of Saddam Hussein in the 1980-1988 Iran-Iraq war, how did that go? The appeasement of Nazi Germany during the 1930s was arguably a form of realpolitik, since an ethical stance against Germany was replaced by a pragmatic one directly seeking peace. That could hardly be called a success. And recent events in the Middle East and North Africa show that the “stability” achieved by supporting despots and kleptocrats is short-lived.

It’s not actually very surprising that realpolitik doesn’t work. If we replace the phrase “practical and material considerations”, with “short term considerations” (since “practical considerations” are effectively things we believe are achievable in the short term) and if we replace “ideological or ethical considerations” with “long term considerations” (since our ideology and ethics is based on how we believe things should be, along with a recognition that those ideals may take some time to achieve), we then find the definition of realpolitik is changed from:

Realpolitik is politics based on practical and material considerations, rather than based on ideological or ethical considerations.

to

Realpolitik is politics base on short term considerations, rather than long term considerations.

When put like that, it’s not surprising realpolitik doesn’t work.

Advocates and practitioners of realpolitik often accuse those who advocate more ethically based policies of being naive. I argue that it is the practitioners of realpolitik who are simplistic in their belief that long term interests can be achieved by narrowly pursuing short term gains. Real-realists know that to achieve your long term goal you often need to make short term compromises.

It’s time for real-realpolitik. It’s time to recognise that we cannot achieve our long term goals by abandoning them as naive and unrealistic. It’s time to recognise that our foreign policy should have a much larger ethical component, not only because it is “the right thing to do”, but also because it is what works and it is what is in our own long-term self-interest.

  1. FND
    Mar 1, 2011 at 07:47

    While I generally agree with you, the logic of equating ideology with long-term considerations seems flawed. Ideology does not necessarily concern itself with any expected results, but can be based purely on a view of how things should be – even if that’s unrealistic or known to lead to inferior results in certain respects.
    (I’m sure there’s a narrow and a broad view of ideology, and I haven’t looked up the exact definition of the term… )

    • Martin Budden
      Mar 4, 2011 at 07:45

      While I agree that it is a slight stretch to equate ideology with long-term goals, the purpose of the stretch was to illustrate the short-term nature of realpolitik. Within that context I think the stretching of the definition is warranted. An ideology is a system of ideas, but one that guides an individual or group in its actions. The holders of a political ideology generally have a desire or plan to, at least to some extent, transform society according to that ideology – even if they recognize aspects of that ideology as unrealistic.

  2. Mar 1, 2011 at 21:04

    As I learned in International Relations 101 (in the 60′s), the definition of Realpolitik is, a nation’s foreign policy decisions being driven by its own self-interest (see “Man, the State and War, Ken Waltz).
    The limitation of the definition in practice is being able to clearly identify what that self-interest.

    • Martin Budden
      Mar 4, 2011 at 07:50

      All definitions of realpolitik that I have come across include a willingness to compromise ethics or ideals to achieve the desired aims. Without wishing to be rude, I think you have probably not fully remembered the definition given in your class. The distinction is important, since my argument in this blog post is that this willingness to compromise principles is the reason that realpolitik does not work (or at least only works in the short term).

  1. No trackbacks yet.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

%d bloggers like this: