Realpolitik: What is it and how does it work? A Talk with John Bew

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Megan Jackson - MA Journalism, University of Roehampton

Realpolitik is a word that’s coming back in fashion says author and academic, John Bew. In conversation with Tom Clark, Editor of Prospect Magazine, John sheds some light on the origins of Realpolitik, what it looks like in practice, and how the UK could benefit from adopting it as an approach to foreign affairs.

Realpolitik is a notion that comes with a hefty amount of baggage, yet it remains elusive and at times misunderstood. In its most simplistic definition, it is a system of politics or principles based on practical rather than moral or ideological considerations.

John begins by asking the audience what they associate with Realpolitik. “Pragmatic, Machiavelli, compromise, cynical, communist, art of the possible”- all the usual connotations you’d expect, and John agrees it can be all of those things but he believes to truly understand Realpolitik we must look to its creator.

Ludwig von Rochau, a German politician and journalist coined the term in 1853. John says Rochau was a firm believer that a Realpolik approach can only be successful if it is in tune with zeitgeit (the spirit of the time). “Any from of Realpolitik that doesn’t understand the mood of the times, and the ideals of the times, is doomed to fail. It will consume itself, but it can’t sustain itself.”

John asserts that Trump is a caricature of Realpolitk, and Kissinger represents a hard-headed version. He says: “[sic] real Realpolitik, if you go back to the original essence, is to keep enlightened liberal goals in one’s mind, to recognise that ideas do matter, but to be able to pull levers and instruments of power in a more humble way.”

John says Realpolitik is being rediscovered and discussed now because in times of weakness, people look for alternative politics. “Many years ago we would’ve be very uncomfortable with the notion that we would return to Realpolitk, we wanted to leave that behind after the Cold War. Slowly we’re imbibing the idea again that we need to be more tough minded, cool headed about the world, more skeptical about what we can do.”