#165: Realpolitik Is About Appeasing Power, not Reality or Morality

Henry Kissinger reminded us recently that Realpolitik means to make a compromise with a “great power” like Russia. Specifically, that compromise was supposed to respect Russian claims and restore the “status quo ante” before the most recent attack – thus codifying the theft of Crimea and parts of the Donbass.

Such a statement clearly ignores the fact that the Russian claims go even further than what Kissinger suggested, and that the Russian attack is clearly genocidal and purely destructive, revisionist, imperialistic and eliminationist – for what else do you call the deliberate razing of cities, deportation of people, killing of civilians, organized raping of Ukrainians, stealing of property, creation of a world hunger crisis, destruction of cultural sites, denial of any Ukrainian claim to its own identity and existence as a people? Furthermore, in 2014, Russia had no right to attack Ukraine and steal its territory, and to denigrate the Maidan Revolution which freed Ukraine from Russian-controlled puppet Viktor Yanukovych. While some Russian people were indeed victimized then in Ukraine, this never justified outright aggression against the country, and at the same time, Ukrainians were victimized by Putin-and Yanukovych-backed riot police.

What Kissinger describes here, what he stands for, is so-called “Realpolitik” or Foreign Policy “Realism.” In theory, this means to accept the facts on the ground, to see politics for what it is, not what it should be, and to recognize one’s limits. If done well, it can show impressive results and achieve peace or rapprochement. It is not entirely a dubious affair.

And yet, let us remind us what realpolitik also means, and has always stood for: The appeasement of the claims of great powers. Under the guise of respecting “reality”, the United States during the Cold War  felt the need to support anyone who would stand in opposition to the Soviet Union, and to oppose anyone who would be in favor of it. That sounds logical in some way, as the Soviet Union stood for an inhumane, totalitarian and oppressive regime that terrorized the world before and after World War II. They were our allies against Hitler, but that was only a coalition of convenience, also born out of realpolitik considerations – and only after Hitler had attacked the Soviet Union in 1941 (before that, Stalin and Hitler were allies and happily “shared” Poland and other Eastern European countries together).

Realpolitik means to make dirty compromises for the sake of the greater good. That was certainly necessary in the fight against Nazi Germany, but did it ever justify US interventions in Iran (deposing Mohammad Mosaddegh and by supporting Shah Reza Pahlavi bringing about the current regime), Chile (deposing Salvador Allende and instituting Augusto Pinochet), and many other cases. The idea of supporting “the devil we know” has made for some very uncomfortable alliances that frequently have directly stood against our self-declared morality. We supported Saddam Hussein until we didn’t, same with Muammar Gaddafi, Bashar al-Assad, and others. We intervened in Viet Nam as part of playing on what famous realpolitik icon Zbigniew Brzeziński has called the “Grand Chessboard,” and even the 2003 Iraq war can be seen as part of it. The Cold War, the War on Terror, and also the War on Drugs, have somehow seemingly necessitated the West to invite strange bedfellows. Even currently, we are allied with the House of Saud, and even in NATO with Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s Turkey – hopefully, these will not turn out to be mistakes as well.

We have had to live with the consequences of our “reality”-based decisions – or rather, the people of affected countries have had to do so. When former allies like Saddam Hussein turned against us and attacked Kuwait in 1991, we had to turn against him – after having enabled him for many years even after his use of chemical weapons against the Kurds.

These dirty compromises – the support of immoral partners in pursuit of the alleged greater good – may sometimes be necessary, but will always leave a stain on us. Currently, the question is as follows: does Ukraine have a right to exist, does it have a right to its territory, and does the support of its claims justify antagonizing a Russian state which has been waging an unprovoked war of aggression against its neighbor since 2014?

The “realist” position, as described by Kissinger, suggests that in order to make peace in Ukraine, Russia would need to be appeased, and Ukraine would need to cede territory. In an age of decolonization, such a position is deeply immoral, but in the face of what we know Russia is doing in the occupied territories, it is coming close to condoning and becoming complicit in genocide. Russia is not just seeking lands, it seeks the destruction of Ukraine and Ukrainians, and we have seen it happen. We also know that the compromise which already existed – Russia de facto owning Crimea and parts of the Donbass – did not prevent Russia from seeking to conquer all of Ukraine. The only thing that so far has stopped Russia is military pushback by Ukraine, and our support of it. Russia will not stop after any compromise, and we have already seen Russian designs to go after Moldova and Georgia next, with threats already made against Poland, Finland, and the Baltic States.

Kissinger is thus asking for appeasement, as Volodymyr Zelenskyy has rightfully shown: This is, indeed, a 1938 situation: Do we allow Putin’s Russia to take Ukrainian territory? Would we not thereby be enabling Russia to go even further? At which point does this stop?

If the “West” – whatever that means – wants to claim to stand for anything, it needs to make a stand here: Realpolitik as appeasement of great powers needs to be over. We are betraying our principles, betraying our allies and friends, betraying even the justification for freedom and democracy if we allow Russia to continue its fascist neo-colonial quest. If we have learned any lesson in the last century, it should be that morality needs to guide foreign policy, that we need to live up to our principles rather than to betray them, and that the world is indeed watching whether we indeed stand for our values, or whether we are just another hypocritical empire in a long history of empires that believes in power over principles.

Such “realist” policies may well be necessary in the short term to solve an urgent problem, but they will always backfire in the future, as they will increase the perception (sometimes rightfully so!) of hypocrisy. This then damages our alleged commitment to a values-based world order.

Henry Kissinger may well be wrong, as he has been so many times already. Ukraine needs our support, and it needs to win.

Ceterum censeo Ucrainam esse defendam. Слава Україні!

(This post was edited on 7/17/2022 by adding the eleventh paragraph, clarifying the problem of hypocrisy vs. values, and weakening the judgement about Kissinger in the twelfth).