Let’s get real about realpolitik

Dr Kissinger gives hope to all of us, old geezers. At a post-mature age of 98 he can still advocate surrender to evil as lucidly as 50 years ago.

Old dog, old tricks

The Ukraine, he declared at Davos, should sue for peace, in the realpolitik sort of way. “Ideally, the dividing line should be a return to the status quo ante,” Kissinger said, meaning to the demarcation line as it was on 24 February. “Pursuing the war beyond that point would not be about the freedom of Ukraine, but a new war against Russia itself.”

Lying “beyond that point” are the territories grabbed by Russia’s previous bandit raid, in 2014. They include the Crimea and chunks of the Donetsk and Lugansk provinces.

Since Ukrainians will never stop trying to recover their stolen property, heeding Kissinger’s recommendation wouldn’t so much bring peace as create a rich potential for never-ending wars. But as long as Kissinger’s pet notion of realpolitik is upheld, we should all be happy.

Realpolitik is essentially cynical amorality. Or if you wish to be kinder than I am, it’s approaching international policy strictly from the pragmatic view of selfish national interests.

In the American context, this philosophy was epigrammatically worded by John Quincy Adams. America, he said, “goes not abroad in search of monsters to destroy. She is the well-wisher to the freedom and independence of all. She is the champion and vindicator only of her own.”

This sounds wise and indeed realistic. Every nation should look after its own interests first, and possibly last. Who could argue against that? Yet there’s a minor snag: understanding exactly where national interests lie is often difficult.

Determining that even in today’s context is hard enough. But how will things develop next year? Three years from now? Ten? A fair argument can be made that there are so many variables coming into the long-term equation that even Dr Kissinger’s gigantic intellect can’t take all of them into account.

For example, the US systematically equipped the young Soviet Union to build its economy from the ground up. Yes, those Bolsheviks looked a bit, well, bolshie. But their gold was as good as anyone else’s, and American industries needed new markets.

America first, right? And sure enough, US companies made millions first nurturing the Soviet state, then financing its war effort, then helping it rebuild after the war, then doing brisk business throughout the lifetime of the USSR.

Yes, millions. But how many billions has it cost to counteract the Soviet war machine once it got strong enough to threaten the world? For every million of realpolitik profits, the US had to pump a billion into defence – and still fail to eliminate the risk of global confrontation.

And the Soviet Union wasn’t the only evil regime suckling at the tit of American realpolitik. Nazi Germany was another recipient of US technologies and finance. Henry Ford, for example, profited handsomely on both sides of the Second World War – and American conservatives still see him as one of their own.

Had America (and the rest of the West) replaced realpolitik with moral judgement, refusing to nurture inchoate evil regimes, millions of lives could have been saved. And fine, if human lives don’t figure in realpolitik calculations, then there are also trillions of dollars that wouldn’t have had to be spent.

The problem is that national interest is both subjective and fickle. It’s subjective because what some people see as vital for the country, others may see as a blueprint for disaster.  It’s fickle because what’s in the national interest today may run against it tomorrow – and it’s almost guaranteed to do so ten years from now.

Moral judgement, on the other hand, is more universal and less changeable – especially if it’s passed by an authority widely accepted as such.

Thus, had the American, British and French governments decided that the Bolsheviks were evil (there was enough evidence to make it the easiest decision ever), refused to deal with it, and instead supported the anti-Bolshevik forces, the midnight terror that even now is still threatening to blow up the world wouldn’t have survived to maturity.

A similar judgement about Nazi Germany could have enabled the same three countries to starve it of resources and enforce the terms of the Versailles Treaty. Instead… well, you know what happened instead.

My point is that moral politics is in most cases the best politics – even in the most pragmatic of terms. Whereas Dr Kissinger’s much-touted amoral realpolitik leads to the triumph of evil and potential disaster as often as not.

Just look at his track record. It was largely due to Kissinger’s diplomacy that communist China has risen to its present status of a global, aggressive economic powerhouse. It was also thanks to his policy of détente that the Soviet Union managed to hang on longer than it should have done – and then come back as Putinism.

In his heyday Kissinger was once overheard saying that the West had lost the Cold War, and it was up to him to negotiate the best terms of surrender. Some called it realpolitik then, but I’d prefer a different term that I’d rather not utter in a public space.

In January, 1973, Kissinger scored another realpolitik victory by negotiating a ceasefire in Vietnam. Peace has arrived, clamoured the papers. Realpolitik triumphed yet again.

In fact, what Kissinger and his counterpart, the communist cutthroat Le Duc Tho, had negotiated was the annihilation of South Vietnam, which duly followed less than two years later. But not so soon as to deny Kissinger his Nobel Peace Prize, shared with Le Duc Tho.

The latter, however, had the decency to turn the honour down – he knew what was what. Kissinger knew it too, but no such scruples for him. He gobbled up the Nobel, and his head swelled so much his cranium almost burst. Chalk up another one for realpolitik.

At about the same time, there was much brouhaha about the Soviet Union refusing to let Jews emigrate and generally stamping human rights in the dirt.

A great deal of pressure was applied in the US, and not just by American Jews. Senator Jackson and Congressman Vanik were trying to push through an amendment to the Trade Act, denying the USSR trade privileges should it continue to abuse human rights, including that to emigration.

When asked to comment, Kissinger provided another perfect example of realpolitik. “The emigration of Jews from the Soviet Union is not an objective of American foreign policy,” he said, “and if they put Jews into gas chambers in the Soviet Union, it is not an American concern.”

At least John Quincy Adams refrained from expressing a related thought with the same refreshingly amoral cynicism. No such limits for our champion of realpolitik.

Now Dr Kissinger has added his cracking voice to the chorus of Macrons and Scholzes of this world who are all effectively calling for the Ukraine to surrender. Putin’s face must be saved come what may, and no slice of Ukrainian territory is too big a price to achieve that outcome.

Realpolitik at work again. These chaps don’t realise that twisting the Ukraine’s arm into unacceptable concessions won’t bring lasting peace in Europe. It’ll bring a succession of small wars at least – and possibly one big, ultimate war.

I wish Dr Kissinger gave his restless mind a well-deserved rest. He ought to be satisfied with the damage his misconstrued political ideas have already wreaked. Let Macron, Scholz and Orbán have their own go now. They know all there’s to know about realpolitik.

6 thoughts on “Let’s get real about realpolitik”

  1. According to the elder Hitchens, Kissinger was an unrepentant warmonger. So what gives?

    The US, along with the UK, experimented with a ‘moral’ approach to foreign policy. It went by the name of ‘neoconservatism’ – you didn’t like the result. I really don’t see what more NATO could do to help the Ukrainians, short of launching a nuclear first strike.

    1. Your quotation marks on the ‘moral’ approach of the neocons is just right – it wasn’t real morality. It was democratic messianism married to American exceptionalism. Neither has anything to do with morality. And I wasn’t talking about NATO at large, but about those members of it who are trying to force the Ukrainians into concessions.

      Kissinger was a warmonger when that suited his notions of realpolitik; and he was an appeaser for the same reason. I wouldn’t quote Christopher Hitchens as an authority on such matters.

  2. Realpolitik or realeconomik? It seems most of these decisions are based on the almighty dollar. Is there any trade involved? If so, then nothing should be done to interrupt that. The factors that go into each decision might be amoral (as you write), but the consequences often are immoral.

    I remember watching Dr. Kissinger on television in the early to mid 1970s and wondering how he knew so much about every country – including their history and relationship with every other country. Well, turns out he didn’t, he just had the spotlight and a philosophy that wouldn’t endanger the flow of money.

  3. I think Heinz was talking along such lines even before the overt combat began. Heinz sees Ukraine the conflict as just another of the age-old European change of borders and redrawing the map to suit the situation.

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