Realpolitik - An Overview
The greatest foreign policy blunder of the 21st century committed by the United States is simple. This blunder has resulted in trillions of dollars of new debt brought on by the United States, has tremendously soured relations between Russia and NATO, and has created failed states in Iraq, Libya, and Afghanistan.
This blunder is, of course, the vain attempt of the United States to have a foreign policy based largely on ethics, rather than national interest.
Is ethics required in foreign policy? Certainly. American intervention in order to prevent the slaughter of Yazidis by ISIS was a good thing, as the US didn’t waste tons of resources, money, and troops, while saving the lives of thousands of innocent people. A total lack of concern, as seen in Rwanda, could lead to the deaths of hundreds of thousands of people, when a single cruise missile strike into a radio tower could’ve stopped radio stations from giving orders to Hutu militias who were slaughtering Tutsis.
However, the lessons from the expensive failure in Iraq demonstrate that ethics cannot be the driving force behind foreign policy, but rather national interest and reason. Ethics should only be applied when A) the application of ethically based solutions lines up with the United States’ national interest, or B) if the application of ethics does not contradict US national interest and is unlikely to cause chaos. To put it another way, ethics follows the best possible action of the nation-state for herself.
This contradicts many political ideas from both sides of the spectrum - it goes against Orthodox Republican neoconservatism and the internationalism of the Democrats. This is because both parties overlook a key aspect of the global stage. The global stage isn’t an orderly place, but a chaotic mess, where nations act in their own interest. This is why the United Nations is such an ineffective organization. The reality is that most nations do not care much for what an assembly in New York thinks about human rights. Additionally, citizens of these nations don’t sit around craving “democracy” and “American values” - for them, life has always been under an autocratic leader. It is like European trade with the Native Americans - for the guns and manufactured goods the native’s received, they also received a host of diseases such as smallpox, which would eventually wipe them out. While democracy is generally beneficial to countries, introducing democracy into an authoritarian state often introduces “diseases’ such as ethno-religious conflict.
Rather, we must think of the nation-state as what it truly is - an entity that acts in what it’s government believes is the best interest for the government to stay in power. Note that the people are not necessarily taken into account, even in a democracy. The next few paragraphs will explain why this is: read The Dictator’s Handbook for a full explanation on the matter.
No man rules alone. Every ruler, whether it is the prime minister in a parliamentary democracy or a totalitarian dictator has to hire defense ministers, judges, police chiefs, etc. These ministers don’t do their jobs alone either - they have more people below them that they have to manage and keep happy. Thus, even a completely benevolent dictator who cares solely for his people still has to pay the people below him/her, and the people below him/her have to pay their subordinates, some of whom will be corrupt and thus require more money to service. Therefore, the dictator’s hand is forced. He must act ruthless in order to collect his tax revenue to pay his subordinates, in order for his subordinates to keep governing and collecting tax revenue.
It is slightly different in a democracy, and this explains why democracies tend to be highly developed whereas dictatorships are often poor. In a democracy, the representative or president or other democratically elected official must keep his constituents happy in order to stay in power. Consequently, in addition to paying government ministers (who are less demanding in a democracy than in a dictatorship due to the fact that democracies have smaller and less powerful governments), the representative must also invest in his own citizens in order to keep getting re-elected. Additionally, investing in one’s own citizens has the additional benefit of making citizens more productive and therefore generating more tax income, thus continuing a virtuous cycle of prosperity. However, representatives also receive support from corporations and lobbying groups whose views don’t have to line up with those of the voter base. Accordingly, a democratically elected leader has to achieve a careful balancing act.
The reason why democracies are successful is that caring for the people is often in-line with the interest of staying in power. Leaders who at least make an effort to invest in their citizens often get re-elected. In contrast, the dictatorship is a machine that can only service itself. Placing the demand of servicing the people onto the back of a dictatorship will break the back of the dictatorship. This often manifests itself in the form of a coup, in which subordinates (trying to maintain their share of tax revenue) overthrow the dictator in order to maintain stability.
Regardless, both dictatorships and democracies have, first and foremost, staying in power as their number one interest, and stability as their second interest. This demonstrates why both regime change and internationalism fundamentally do not work. Regime change destroys systems that have been in place for decades, often with no coherent plan to replace them, and with a populace that has no concept of “western freedoms” or “liberal ideas”, along with the obvious point that the group of people who lose power will generally want it back. This creates unfettered chaos, eventually leading to disaster. Internationalism, meanwhile, contradicts the first interest. Saudi Arabia, for example, would not want to open up to women’s rights, because it contradicts one of the fundamental things that keep the House of Saud afloat - radical, Wahhabi Islam. Strategic patience could never work with North Korea, because it goes against Kim Jong Un’s interest of staying in power - if he gives up nuclear weapons, he risks being overthrown by the United States, similarly to what happened in Iraq and Libya.
The first and only rule of the global stage is that nations act for themselves, making their own decisions as to what the best course of action is to keep the government in power. The United States must recognize this reality, and if it doesn’t want to keep having to deal with messes in the Middle East and East Asia, must act upon this reality. The United States must act for itself, recognizing that the goal of US foreign policy is not to liberate every oppressed person, but instead benefit the United States above all, increasing the power of the US and promoting global stability. This is known as realpolitik, which is closely related (although not the same) as realism.
Stephen M. Walt offers a very good picture of what the world would look like, had the US followed a realist view for the past 3 decades. For starters, the Middle East would be totally different. The US had nothing to gain by invading Iraq. The WMD story was somewhat true - while Saddam didn't possess WMDs, he was in the process of producing them -- but negotiation is always the better way out, as seen in Iran. Additionally, overthrowing Saddam Hussein makes no sense when considering that Saddam was the only person holding Iraq together, as seen by Iraq’s implosion following the overthrow of Saddam Hussein. This ended up causing more suffering to Iraqi citizens by creating ISIS and ripping open sectarian tensions between Sunnis and Shiites. Therefore, the US strategy in the Middle East following 9/11 would be much simpler - go after Al Qaeda and the Taliban in Afghanistan. Thousands of US lives and trillions of US dollars wouldn’t be wasted, and with all efforts focused on Afghanistan, it is likely that Al-Qaeda and the Taliban would’ve been eradicated.
This is just one example. In the future, look out for a “realpolitik” view of all conflict areas: a deeper analyses of the Middle East, East Asia, and Eastern Europe. We will further look at how realpolitik could have solved these crises without leading to the piles of dilemmas, potential wars, and interlocking alliances we see today.