Realpolitik is a foreign policy based primarily on pragmatic considerations, rather than on moral principles. It should never be engaged in by a free country because a nation should always act according to the moral values of its citizens. Ambitious amoral politicians like Themistocles, Bismarck and Kissinger should never be allowed to pursue their own agendas. Plutarch relates the following story from antiquity:

Themistocles having one day declared to the general assembly that he had thought of an expedient which was very salutary to Athens, but ought to be kept secret, he was ordered to communicate to Aristides only, and abide by his judgment of it. Accordingly he told him, his project was to burn the whole fleet of the confederates; by which means the Athenians would be raised to the sovereignty of all Greece. Aristides then returned to the assembly, and acquainted the Athenians, “That nothing could be more advantageous than the project of Themistocles, nor anything more unjust.” And upon his report of the matter, they commanded Themistocles to give over all thoughts of it. Such regard had that people for justice. (The Life of Themistocles, 75 BC.)

This incident clearly demonstrates that a moral people will not support an immoral policy. This being the case, the people should always be consulted on major questions of foreign policy. The American and British people would never have abandoned Eastern Europe to communism—as Churchill and Roosevelt did—nor would they have countenanced the Morgenthau plan. Proof of their true values lies in the Berlin Airlift and the Marshall Plan.

Advocates of Realpolitik claim that a moral foreign policy is impossible when dealing with immoral countries—that it is necessary to be Machiavellian in order to succeed. This is false counsel; the same rules apply to a nation as apply to a person. Doing the right thing is always the most advantageous course, no matter how intractable the situation appears to be. This was explained by Thomas Jefferson:

If ever you find yourself environed with difficulties and perplexing circumstances, out of which you are at a loss how to extricate yourself, do what is right, and be assured that that will extricate you the best out of the worst situations. Though you cannot see, when you take one step, what will be the next, yet follow truth, justice, and plain dealing, and never fear their leading you out of the labyrinth, in the easiest manner possible. The knot which you thought a Gordian one, will untie itself before you. Nothing is so mistaken as the supposition, that a person is to extricate himself from a difficulty, by intrigue, by chicanery, by dissimulation, by trimming, by an untruth, by an injustice. This increases the difficulties tenfold. (Letter to Peter Carr, Paris, August 19, 1785.)

This article is an extract from the book ‘Principles of Good Government’ by Matthew Bransgrove