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The False Narrative of Realpolitik

US President Donald Trump’s pledge at the UN last month to put America first was seen as a revival of American realpolitik in global affairs. But while severing moral concerns from practical interests would weaken the US geopolitically, Trump's emphasis on national sovereignty could stimulate global cooperation elsewhere.

GENEVA – In an era of divisive social media and partisan “fake news,” the notion that “actions speak louder than words” is no longer true. As we are rediscovering, words are both powerful and problematic, particularly in the context of geopolitics. The recent United Nations General Assembly meeting in New York offered the latest reminder that in diplomacy, words still matter.

Much attention has been drawn to US President Donald Trump’s remark that the United States “will have no choice but to totally destroy North Korea” should the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK) threaten it or its allies. In fact, most military experts agree that a kinetic war on the Korean Peninsula would annihilate the DPRK, and quite possibly South Korea along with it.

But other parts of Trump’s UN speech, especially its passages about national interests and sovereignty, require further reflection. Trump makes no secret of his desire to “put America first,” and he reiterated that pledge at the UN dais. But he also urged other leaders to put their countries first, too. “To overcome the perils of the present and to achieve the promise of the future, we must begin with the wisdom of the past,” he said. “Our success depends on a coalition of strong and independent nations that embrace their sovereignty to promote security, prosperity, and peace for themselves and for the world.”

One could infer, and many have, that such statements signal a revival of US devotion to Realpolitik in world affairs. As the historian John Bew observed in his 2016 history of the term, the pendulum swing was to be expected: “Our foreign policy debates follow cycles, in which policymakers declare themselves more idealistic, or more realistic.”

But Bew’s survey also reminds us that the singular pursuit of national interests – the type of worldview championed by Trump – is not Realpolitik at all if it is uncoupled from a transformative idea or normative purpose. Severing moral concerns from global affairs would only weaken the US and all who emulate it.

The concept of Realpolitik emerged from the mixed outcomes of the European revolutions of 1848, when Germany’s future unification had many possible permutations, but the larger political goal – an international order comprising strong nation-states – was nonetheless clear. But in the wake of Trump’s “America First” doctrine, the challenge for the world today is to discern what the purpose of political realism has become.

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One answer was shared at the World Economic Forum’s (WEF) annual meeting in Davos earlier this year. There, Chinese President Xi Jinping offered a robust defense of globalization and emphasized his view that in pursuing national agendas, countries should place objectives “in the broader context” and “refrain from pursuing their own interests at the expense of others.”

If leaders of the world’s two most powerful countries differ fundamentally in their approach to international relations, what are the prospects for strengthening cooperation globally?

History is replete with examples of conflicts stemming from a rising power challenging the influence and interests of an incumbent. During the Peloponnesian War, according to the Greek historian Thucydides, “It was the rise of Athens and the fear that this instilled in Sparta that made war inevitable.” How China and the US avoid what Harvard’s Graham Allison has termed the “Thucydides Trap” is of great concern to the world, as is ensuring that geostrategic disputes elsewhere don’t lead to violence.

As Stanford biologist Robert Sapolsky has argued, behavioral dichotomies that might seem inevitable and crucial one minute can, under the right circumstances, “evaporate in an instant.” For Sapolsky, “contact theory,” which was developed in the 1950s by psychologist Gordon Allport, can foster reconciliation among rivals, and help bridge the “us-them” divide. “Contact,” whether between kids at a summer camp or negotiators around a table, can lead to greater understanding if engagement is lengthy and on neutral territory, outcome-oriented, informal, personal, and avoids anxiety or competition.

What is said during these engagements is crucial. As the Nobel laureate economist Robert J. Shiller has noted, stories, whether true or not, are drivers of major decisions, especially economic choices. In his study of “narrative economics,” Shiller highlights the effects that “viral” stories can have on the global economy. He points out that people’s choices and assessments of current events are partly based on the stories they have heard about past events. For example, the 2007-2009 global financial crisis is called the “Great Recession” because the traumatic tales of the Great Depression persist in our collective memory.

Words and narratives affect international affairs in similar ways. Narratives that have emerged in response to – or as a result of – national, regional, and global divisions are often structured by an “us-them” dichotomy. But these national narratives, as appealing as they may be to some, must not be confused with Realpolitik,as they remain bereft of the innovation, inspiration, and idealism needed for transformational change.

Stories that seek to preserve the singular benefits of global integration, while limiting shared obligations, may in fact go “viral” domestically, because citizens yearn for responsive leadership that addresses local and national concerns. But a shared identity and collective purpose remains elusive, despite the fact that we are living in an age of social networks.

That fact alone cannot absolve governments of their regional and global responsibilities. The political, economic, and social fractures that have emerged must not foster intolerance, indecision, or inaction. That is why next year’s WEF annual meeting will seek to rededicate leaders to the development of a shared narrative, one that strengthens cooperation for this generation and every generation to come.


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