John Bew's new book, Realpolitik: A History is an interesting read for sure - fully crunk with hot deets and big phased cookies about the evolution of the ammoral corrupt cult of Realpolitik
In the lexicon of world politics, “realism” suffers from polysemy. Sometimes the word means nothing more than expedience or prudence in the pursuit of the interest of a state or even a stateless nation. Others use the term to connote raw power politics—the pursuit of interest at the expense of legal norms or ethical ideals. At the other extreme, some self-described realists believe that states must take into account the interest of the international system as a whole. These are all prescriptive doctrines. Realism is also used for a school of international-relations theory in the United States that purports to describe and even predict the behavior of states.So what exactly is the Anglo-American tradition?
One of the most valuable services to scholarship in the book is in tracing the intellectual development of the European émigrés like Hans Morgenthau and Arnold Wolfers who helped stimulate the postwar American school of realism in international-relations theory. Like other academic schools, American international-relations theory has its founding myths. Several generations of students and scholars after World War II were taught the myth that the United States, sheltered by the oceans and benefiting from the indirect protection of the Royal Navy, was innocent of serious thinking about world politics. What passed for an American philosophy of international affairs in the period before Pearl Harbor tended to be impractical schemes for international law, collective security and global social reform, designated by the pejorative term “Wilsonian.”
Forced into the harsh world of power politics by the world wars and the Cold War, so the story goes, Americans were schooled in the arcana imperii by Central European émigrés, of whom the most important for the postwar discipline of American academic realism was Hans Morgenthau, author of Politics Among Nations. These immigrant lawgivers were then succeeded by native-born American realists like Kenneth Waltz and John Mearsheimer (Henry Kissinger, who emigrated at a young age, is a transitional figure).
For generations, self-described realists have blamed Woodrow Wilson for allegedly destabilizing the world with the idea of national self-determination. But the idea of the replacement of a world of multinational empires by a world of nation-states was championed earlier by Giuseppe Mazzini and William Gladstone and helped to inspire the European revolutions of 1848. The failure of those revolutions bought time for the Habsburg, Hohenzollern, Ottoman and Romanov empires, but all were swept away as a result of World War I (save the Romanov empire, which survived under new management until the 1990s).
What hardline realists often dismiss as “idealism”—international institutions and international law—is best understood as part of the apparatus necessary to realize the Anglo-American liberal vision of a world society without a world empire. International law is an answer to the question of how nation-states, most of them small, are to cooperate, if they are not provinces coordinated from above by a regional or global empire. In a postcolonial, nonimperial world, as a practical matter the function of providing security for many small and weak independent states must be performed by the most powerful states in a concert of power, or perhaps by a single liberal hegemon.
The project of creating a liberal world order based on national self-determination requires world governance as an alternative to world government. With good reason, then, Bew concludes his history of realpolitik with a tribute to the Anglo-American alternative: “In many cases, Anglo-American idealism has been vapid or self-deluding. And yet, it has given Anglo-American foreign policy more coherence, direction, and purpose than it might otherwise have had.”
Notwithstanding critics who are guided by continental traditions of realpolitik, the United States, like Britain before it, at its best has sought to shape world order in ways that promote both its interests and its ideals.