“PPeople live off the narrative, ”said Boris Johnson in a recent profile for the Atlantic. “Human beings are creatures of the imagination.” It was a revealing line from a man who generally prefers to evade, but the British journalist and statesman did not get where he is today by underestimating the power of a good story. Regarding the question of which narrative Johnson himself live, some light can shine with the book described as the “primer of johnsonism”: Realpolitik: a story. It was written in 2015 by John Bew, who has since been pulled by Johnson from King’s College London’s war studies department to serve as his chief foreign policy adviser and help figure out what “global Britain” might actually mean.
It is extremely rare for a British prime minister to invite a historian into his inner circle, but Bew, “one of the foremost historians of his generation,” says Michael Gove, has already proven himself influential. He was a key author of “Global Britain in a Competitive Era”, released in March and the most comprehensive review of Britain’s place in the world since the end of the cold war. Among the most striking features of the review is the promise to re-spend 0.7% of national income on development “when the fiscal situation allows it” (which appears to have not happened yet). Another is the clear identification of Russia as an “active threat” (China is simply a “systemic challenge”) and a commitment to expand Britain’s nuclear arsenal from 180 to 260 warheads. However, Britain’s highest international priority is identified as climate change.
Bew is an intriguing and contradictory figure. The fact that his most recent book is Citizen Clem, an Orwell Award-winning biography of Labor Prime Minister Clement Attlee, shows that he is far from tribal. Citizen Clem It’s currently a must-read for Labor MPs, meaning the 41-year-old Bew has a rare cross-sectional appeal. He grew up in Belfast, where his parents were history teachers. He has worked for the right-wing think tank Policy Exchange and is the former chairman of Henry Kissinger at the United States Library of Congress, but he has also written left-wing essays for the New Statesman (including some remarkably harsh denunciations of David Cameron and Philip Hammond). It is said to be “independent of Brexit.” But none of this would be incompatible with the principles of realpolitik, a term that has been widely used in international relations since it was coined by the German liberal writer August Ludwig von Rochau in 1853, but which Bew shows has been distorted. and misunderstood. in subsequent decades.
The world Rochau faced in 1853 was one that a modern liberal might find strangely familiar. Disruptive technologies interacted with new ideas about individual freedom in unpredictable ways; nationalism, sectarianism, and class rivalries were boiling; The “great powers” were facing each other. Then, as now, Europe was grappling with the “quintessential problems of modernity,” as Bew puts it. And the liberals were bitterly disappointed in the way things had turned out.
Since Napoleon’s defeat in 1815, German intellectuals like Rochau had dreamed of uniting the small states of Germany into a modern, progressive nation. They were convinced that history was on their side, that the bourgeoisie and the new proletariat would inevitably defeat the old corrupt elites. “We don’t recognize this lazy nobility that we have now, we reject our current class hierarchies,” says the idealistic medical student Morton in Thomas Mann’s novel. Buddenbrooks. “We want all men to be free and equal, that no one be a subject of another, but that all be subject to the law.”
In 1848, such ideals would animate uprisings not just in Germany but throughout Europe, from Ireland to Romania, France to Bohemia, Denmark to Italy, a kind of 19th-century European version of the Arab Spring. But as with the Arab Spring, the autocrats emerged victorious. The Prussian military leader Otto von Bismarck would finally prove that nations were forged with “iron and blood” and not with fancy speeches.
It was in this context that Rochau wrote Principles of Realpolitik (Foundations of Realpolitik), drawing on his political disappointments, as well as the new theories of class consciousness by Karl Marx and the conservative philosopher Edmund Burke. Rochau lashed out at the utopianism of his fellow radicals: their “formless words, impulses, emotional waves, melodic slogans, naively accepted slogans.” [and] habitual self-deception ”. He did not abandon his ideals, but he realized that if liberals ever wanted his vision to prevail, they would have to be realistic. So: realpolitik.
Bew’s Realpolitik it was written six years ago, before Trump and before Brexit; when he mentions realpolitik in a 21st century context, it is to contrast Barack Obama’s nuanced foreign policy with the warrior ideologues that preceded him. However, it is in his summary of Rochau’s four key principles that he begins to see why the book might have “ping” Johnson.
The first is that “the law of the strong is the determining power in politics,” so it doesn’t matter if you “won the argument,” as Jeremy Corbyn protested after the 2019 election. It matters that you won the actual election. However, power often lies outside of conventional politics as well; the art is to find out exactly where it is and how to use it.
The second principle is that the most effective governments take advantage of competing social forces within a society. Harmonious nations are strong nations. If an opponent cannot be crushed, they must be assimilated. (So: if an opponent cannot be assimilated, May get crushed?)
The third is that ideas play a vital role in politics, but not because they are “correct,” “true,” or “moral.” They only matter to the extent that people care about them. A nice idea like “eternal peace” has no political force. But the “craziest chimera” can become extremely important, Rochau argued, even if it is rooted in prejudice, ignorance or immorality. The German nationalist historian, Heinrich Gotthard von Treitschke, further developed this idea. An effective leader is capable of awakening the “finest energies” in men, but must not ignore the fact that “stupidity and passion matter, and have always mattered in history.” All great leaders display a “touch of cynical contempt for humanity.” Johnson would echo this line in the Atlantic profile: “All romantics need the mortar of cynicism to stay on their feet.”
And finally: the zeitgeist – “the consolidated opinion of the century” – is the most important factor in determining the path of a nation. All leaders, even the strongest, are indebted to forces they cannot control. The coronavirus would be one of those forces. The rise of China, climate change, perhaps even the Black Lives Matter movement could be others. So being able to change priorities, breach commitments, make new friends, and ditch old ones isn’t necessarily the weakness your opponents imagine it to be. A liberal London mayor moment, lover of immigrants; the next moment champion of the north and enemy of “awakening”.
Indeed, Johnson’s prologue to global Britain in a competitive age emphasizes the need for “agility and speed of action” as guarantors of British prosperity and security. “We must be willing to change our approach and adapt to the new world emerging around us.”
But the afterlife of the term “realpolitik” shows how easily it can go wrong. Rochau was soon forgotten, but his ideas were studied by Treitschke, who soon dispensed with idealism: “We must become more radical on issues of unity and more conservative on issues of freedom,” he urged the new German nation in 1870. – in stark contrast with Rochau – a vicious anti-Semite.
The term realpolitik would then be associated with Otto von Bismarck and the aggressive foreign policy of the early German Empire. Early twentiesth century, it was often used interchangeably with “machtpolitik” (the politics of power) and contrasted with British “idealpolitik”, as the British liked to claim that their own imperial aggression was to serve higher ideals. The Germans would simply call this hypocrisy. But which approach was really the most “realistic” in the long run? A country that relentlessly pursues “self-interest” without appealing to public opinion or morality can hardly be said to have taken all relevant factors into account. No one defends the German Empire today, but the myths that upheld the British Empire retain monstrous political power.
In an American context, realpolitik would be closely associated with Cold War strategists, particularly Henry Kissinger (although he never used the term). It featured the kind of “headstrong” assessment of interests that might make Cambodian farmers who bomb the carpet seem like a good idea, and was often contrasted with pacifists who chanted “Kumbaya” and just wanted everyone to get along. Yet, as Bew shows, Rochau always hoped to put realism at the service of idealism, and those who have claimed to have a firmer understanding of “reality” are often the ones who have detached themselves.
One of the curious questions is: why would Johnson identify so easily with a set of ideas born of defeat? Rochau was addressing the liberals who had been outmatched in the revolutions of 1848. Johnson chose the winning horse in the EU referendum and now leads a country that increasingly feels like a one-party state. It is true that one of the strangest features of British politics is that the more emphatically Brexiters win, the more they behave like losers, full of grievances. An optimist might prefer to see Johnson as the idealist in this scenario, trying to find the best way to hold on to a freedom-loving liberalism. A pessimist might note that things didn’t really work out for German liberals from the mid-19th century to the end. And the danger, in the meantime, is that Johnson will become so dependent on the “mortar of cynicism” that he locks himself up and the country.
As for “crazy chimeras,” ideas that are politically powerful regardless of their merit, you don’t need to look too long. GB News has a whole team. Apparently, so does the secretary of culture. The fact that fishing accounts for 0.12% of British GDP did not stop the Brexit imagination from dominating the imagination. Likewise, an additional 80 warheads will do nothing to make any of us safer, but that may not be the point. Former Labor MP Chris Mullin recently observed how popular nuclear weapons were in his former “red wall” seat in Sunderland South. “The slightest suggestion that the UK could live without nuclear weapons caused apoplexy among some of my working-class constituents.”
Another disturbing question is which of the nation’s competing forces can be harnessed and which can be crushed? Is it really possible to “rule Britannia” to 16 million voters who remain subdued? But in the meantime, those dismayed by the way power operates in Johnson’s Britain would do well to review their Realpolitik – since there are lessons for them here too.
George is Digismak’s reported cum editor with 13 years of experience in Journalism