Of the many foolish things said by Barack Obama during his press-conference/sob-in with Angela Merkel, the most foolish was his disparaging of Realpolitik. The term is generally attributed to 19th century German political figure Ludwig von Rochau. The idea of Realpolitik was born in a Europe that was devastated by centuries of religious wars and more latterly by the ideologically driven French Revolutionary and Napoleonic wars, in addition to the equally ideologically nationalist uprisings of 1848.
Looking for a worldview that stood in opposition to religious and ideologically driven foreign policies which invariably lead to war and destruction, adherents of Realpolitik strove to work under the notion that the world must be dealt with as it is and not as some think it ought to be. This is not only a valuable lesson for world leaders but also for ordinary people. The very problem with ideals is that they are never universal. One men’s ideal of perfection is another’s ideal of hell. One man’s meat is another man’s poison. So too is it with nations.
This is the lesson Trotsky learnt when his idea of perpetual world revolution, a model he learned from the Revolutionary French of the 1790s, came up against a brick wall of Stalinism, which stressed socialism in one state. World revolution is just another way of saying world war, only with an added element of ideological zeal.
The idea that foreign policy based on reality rather than fantasy is somehow a bad thing, beggars belief. Obama’s denunciation of Realpolitik in its country of origin, Germany, is especially odd as Germany was at her best under Otto von Bismarck who was a staunch adherent to Realpolitik. Germany was at her worst when under the heel of Hitler’s zealous fascism.
The US has abandoned realism and under Obama America’s fantastical, ideologically driven (also greed driven) foreign policy has drowned much of the world in blood.
Donald Trump is seen by many as a foreign policy realist. Unless one is in the mafia, businesses like Trump’s are built on realism. One cannot simply murder the competition. But murdering the competition is exactly what Bill Clinton did to Yugoslavia whose economic model did not conform to capitalism.
It’s what happened when Saddam decided to sell oil in Euros rather than US dollars. And it is also what happened to Gaddafi when he wanted to put Libya and eventually all of Africa on a gold-backed African Dinar, which had the potential to lift the continent out of poverty and challenge the global economic hegemony of the Federal Reserve.
This is the result of politics based on fantasy. Whether something starts out as a French Revolution, October Revolution, or neo-liberal revolution, it all comes down to what Thucydides observed when Athens threatened to conquer Melos. In the Melian Dialogue, as written in The History of The Peloponnesian War, the Athenians gave the Melians an ultimatum to either pay tribute to Athens or be fully reduced to rubble. In the dialogue the Athenians claim, “The strong do as they will and the weak submit as they must”.
This is the penultimate conclusion of every ideological or religious war. One man’s idea of ‘wrong versus right’, rapidly disintegrates into ‘might makes right’. The neo-liberal system which got Hillary Clinton rich will not necessarily get Syrians rich, let alone feed and house them. The free trade economy that made 19th century Britain rich, cannot be forcibly supplanted on a Yugoslavia that had its own, separate economic model of success.
Obama has been called intelligent by many observers. Judging him on his remarks about Realpolitik, I cannot agree.