Analysis & Opinions - The National Interest

A Call for Realism in Europe

| May 27, 2018

If Europe wants to secure its fate, then it will have to balance European idealism with a renewed realism.

President Donald Trump’s abrogation of the Iran agreement indicates again that progressive Europe is increasingly less relevant to the world. At the same time, the world of power politics has an increasing influence upon Europe. Originally, Realpolitiker Konrad Adenauer and Charles de Gaulle wanted to build Europe as a power bloc that could eventually even resist a rising China. However, the generation of May 1968 rejected such “reactionary” thinking, and thus planted the seeds of contemporary populism. As European societies lose control over their own fate, the guardians of the European project lose their legitimacy.

Strategic thought in Europe is underdeveloped. Hard power and military force remain beyond the scope of many Europeans. That is a problem because the extent to which Europeans can understand the world determines the extent to which they can exert influence. The United States are in a relative decline and there is no guarantee that Washington will protect Europe against the rise of China, the threat from Russia, and/or the instability from the Middle East. Europe will have to stand upon its own feet and take responsibility for its own fate. Doing so not only requires significant investment in military resources, but also a renaissance of European realist thought.

Since the World War II, the United States has continuously invested in the development of American realist thought. That realism became a balance against America’s traditional internationalist idealism. Initially the Pentagon took the initiative. During the 1940s, the U.S. military leadership understood that America’s new, global responsibilities demanded a profound and realistic understanding of geopolitics and international security. The traditional American belief in human goodness seemed naïve when confronted with Hitler’s and Stalin’s totalitarian barbarism.

Remarkably, American realist thought was initially mostly shaped by European immigrants. Among those were the Dutch Nicholas Spykman, the German Hans Morgenthau and Henry Kissinger, the Polish Zbigniew Brzezinski, the Austrian Hubert Strausz-Hupé, and the Rumanian-Italian Edward Luttwak—all worth reading! These Europeans taught the Americans to perceive the world in terms of political power and military force. Cold War national-security policy was significantly informed by their realism.

The tradition continues. Europeans who study power politics and strategy meet each other mostly at Harvard, Yale, and Stanford, but much less at European universities. Nowadays, Europeans cross the Atlantic to learn from American institutions.

For more information on this publication: Belfer Communications Office
For Academic Citation: Hellendoorn , Elmar.“A Call for Realism in Europe.” The National Interest, May 27, 2018.