Realpolitik – the idealist’s bane and Iran’s opportunity

Regrettably illness has delayed this post, but I have for a while now been meaning to introduce a topic that I find to be of great interest. I hope that the concept’s pervasive influence in all matters of foreign affairs might be more obvious for my efforts. I am speaking of ‘Realpolitik’. The term refers to the practice of diplomacy and politics guided by pragmatism and practical considerations rather than ideological principles. Such an approach was infamously the hallmark of Henry Kissinger, the US Secretary of State at the end of the Nixon administration. From the Cambodian Civil War to the deposition of Chilean leader Salvador Allende, the idea of a foreign policy to suit the needs of a nation as a self-interested unit took hold in many of the issues of those years.

What, then, is there to be said against this outlook? My conviction that ideals and values should always be given a say as starting points of reasoning is at its strongest concerning the issues I have just mentioned. Realpolitik is the antithesis of this claim. To assume that politics is best conducted with your own ‘side’ as protagonist and all others arrayed against your aims, with no code to guide action beyond what produces a desirable outcome, is a morally bankrupt approach to governance. I therefore truly believe that Realpolitik, as a concept, should be viewed as an undesirable end of a scale of necessity. Just as a person should act morally, and their abilities to encourage similar behaviour in others might be curtailed by what is and is not feasible in terms of human interactions, states should act with an ideological imperative as their primary concern. Practical matters, though they will come, must come posterior to this approach.

Due to the corruptibility of leaders, as well as the tendency of humans to act self-interestedly at any opportunity, Realpolitik continues to thrive as an implicit guiding principle of diplomats and politicians, if not an explicit one as it was for Kissinger. This is deeply regrettable. Yet the arguments for it hark back as far as Niccolò Machiavelli, the distinguished Italian statesman and theorist. Machiavelli knew the perils of trying to stick to moral guidelines in statecraft. In his view, the most desirable of political ends could often only be achieved through shrewd and even ruthless methods. Moreover, a realist legacy in International Relations has partly been the result of his writings – nations cannot coexist with cooperation as a default state, and thus must strive against each other persistently.

Of course, the sway this set of ideas holds in foreign affairs, even in current issues, is substantial and persistent. Fresh developments in relations between Iran and the US, as well as the rest of the international community, are a prime example. I do not know whether or not Iran intends to develop weapons of mass destruction after obtaining permission for a nuclear enrichment programme. If this was the case, any success for the Islamic nation in its aims would be disastrous for the simple reason that an increase in the number of nuclear weapons in the world would be disastrous. But what I do believe is that Western diplomats should consider very carefully what they believe to be the right outcome for the situation, and ensure that this is kept distinct from what would be the most lucrative outcome for their nation. Once the fundamentally important difference between these two bases for policy is properly conceived, the stance a nation should take to promote either will become equally clear.

I have made my case for ‘ideology first, Realpolitik last’. Hopefully John Kerry and his peers will follow a similar mantra, and remain clear about what should motivate their diplomacy with Iran. If Iran uses a practical approach, it should not be shunned but neither should it be welcomed just to encourage détente for its own sake, or for that of ease.

I am not supposing for a second that foreign policy can always be conducted with a clear-cut route to an ethically preferable outcome in sight. Neither do I think that diplomacy is a simple interaction where actors can get exactly what they want, when they want. I merely hope that the case for setting and following moral principles on an international stage is never forgotten, and that it is always remembered that the sometimes necessary deviation towards pragmatism should be exactly that: an unfortunate yet transitory shift in the method used to promote the good, as we conceive it, for the international community.

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