Back to Westphalian realism

by Ken Feltman

The strong do what they will and the weak suffer what they must.
– Thucydides, History of the Peloponnesian War

The Peace of Westphalia (1648) is usually cited as the end of Europe’s religious wars, which began in 1517 when Martin Luther published his Ninety-Five Theses. Thousands had died and more were displaced in bloody battles waged in the name of the same Christian God. Westphalia may have put an end to Europe’s religious wars, but not Europe’s bitter religious and ethnic prejudices. The current century, and especially the last, show us that hatred based upon another’s faith or genes is as strong as ever.

Coming out of the Peace was a new way of looking at politics. Politics began to be the art of the possible, not the competition of principles held deeply. Westphalia introduced a practical statehood into fractious Europe. The emerging nation-states were carved with more defensible borders enclosing ethnically similar populations, usually with a like mind on matters of religion. This eliminated some of the dissension. People who look alike and worship alike have fewer reasons to hate each other. The idealism and religious fervor underlying so much hostility cooled and leaders who offered realistic, practical solutions, often secular solutions, replaced the hot-blooded leaders of earlier times.

European armies no longer marched beneath the sign of the cross. Now they marched under the banner of a king or other political leader.

Bismarck’s definition

Eventually, Chancellor Bismarck coined the term “realpolitik” to describe the efficient style. Europe prized efficient governments that tried to limit idealism. Occasionally, a government or nation would slip back into the firebrand political mode: France during the Revolution, for example. But the model was moderate, realistic governing.

Disputes were fought over markets, trade and territory, seldom over religion, although sometimes still over ethnicity. This realism prevailed to a greater or lesser degree in Protestant and in Catholic Europe. But it did not always prevail in Europe’s colonies in the Western Hemisphere, which tended to respond to the more radical within their populations. In Europe, extremists could be marginalized by the central governments. But the colonies were a refuge and dumping ground for misfits, criminals and fanatics. The North American colonies were especially inclined to respond to idealistic views of the march of history. Thus, many British colonists saw their cause as ennobled by god: They were founding the Biblical “city upon a hill.”

Fast forward to the first Gulf War. President George H. W. Bush, an admirer of China’s realpolitik and Henry Kissinger’s unswerving realism, took the advice of another realist, General Colin Powell, and called a halt to the U.S. attack without decimating the Iraqi forces lined up on the road north, sitting ducks for American air power. But his son could not quite close the deal for war with realpolitik alone; He invoked emotional and patriotic themes. Americans then, and today, have not decided whether they are practitioners of the politics of reality or the politics of hope, liberty and higher causes.

Note that presidents who speak of hope and other emotional issues, but who practice realpolitik, are often successful in getting their domestic agenda adopted: Lincoln, Lyndon Johnson, Reagan and, although too early too tell, perhaps Obama. Presidents who preach realism but make emotional, gut-level decisions have problems: Wilson, Nixon and Bush 43. Presidents who both talk and walk realism tend toward disaster because they seem to lack the vision needed to realize that they are governing at a moment of wrenching change: Buchanan, Hoover. Those who talk and walk lofty ideals leave little legacy: Kennedy (possibly) and Carter. You may disagree with my definitions and placement of certain presidents, but take the idea to another level: Foreign leaders.

What is realism in a place like North Korea?

Think about it: Are North Korea, Venezuela and Iran deploying realpolitik to achieve their goals? Of course not. Ideology comes first. They are mercurial. They are reckless. The realists among the politicians of the world understand that, whenever possible, such countries are best left alone to sort out their disputes amongst their own people. But Americans, with a history of high and good causes, laced with the belief that the United States is an exceptional nation with a mission to spread democratic governments throughout the world, are sometimes too ready to engage.

In a realpolitik world, the countries that practice emotional fundamentalism are the ones that do not fit. But they are very distracting.

Now take this to another level: Vladimir Putin wants to be viewed as a practitioner of realpolitik. Is he? I have stood next to him. I have seen how he takes satisfaction in little decisions that inconvenience the Russian people first and than ripple across borders. I have seen how he acts on old beliefs and prejudices. He strikes me as the boy who pulls the legs off spiders. He is not the realist he wants to be. He should not be dealt with as the great global chess-player he wishes to be.

North Korea is an example of a country ruled by a paranoid despot being held up by sycophants. Such leaders tend to be ruthless as those close to power jockey for more power. Venezuela is governed by an over-reaching and Quixotic dictator who needs foreign devils to blame.

Now try an even more difficult level: The Israelis are considered by many to be the most practical, realistic political thinkers of all. Because Israel was founded as a religious state, Israel’s practice of realpolitik is sometimes discounted. With Iran governed by decision-makers who rely on emotional arguments, and Israel governed by leaders who are steeped in realpolitik, is an ultimate confrontation in the offing? When?

Instinctive but crucial judgments

When dealing with France, for example, the United States knows that France will be guided by realpolitik. It is the French who will not know which U.S. they are dealing with: The practical, the ideal or the combined. They must test and probe. When dealing with governments such as Iran, North Korea and Venezuela, to say nothing of Pakistan, Georgia, Somalia or Syria, the United States must determine the “realpolitik quotient” of the other country’s government. That determination should be based on realpolitik, not idealism or hope.

This may be a time for an American leader who can muster the emotional rhetoric of the idealists but temper that with the cold eye of realism: President Obama may find his footing in foreign affairs even as he stumbles domestically.

About Radnor Reports

Ken Feltman is past-president of the International Association of Political Consultants and the American League of Lobbyists. He is chairman of Radnor Inc., a political consulting and government relations firm in Washington, D.C. Feltman founded the U.S. and European Conflict Indexes in 1988. The indexes have predicted the winner of every U.S. presidential election beginning in 1988, plus the outcome of several European elections. In May of 2010, the Conflict Index was used by university students in Egypt. The Index predicted the fall of the Mubarak government within the next year.
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