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.
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.