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Dealing with the World As It Is, Not as We Imagine It to Be
Why foreign policy realists are so often unrealistic about the world
Since the start of the war in Ukraine, it's become common to hear realist foreign policy thinkers and pundits denounce what they call the moralism of their intellectual sparring partners and congratulate themselves for their own superior commitment to the “logic of consequences.” But as the historian Mark Mazower vividly illustrates in his recent book The Greek Revolution: 1821 and the Making of Modern Europe, public opinion and morality can’t simply be shunted aside or detached from foreign policy deliberations and decisions. Published in time for the bicentennial of the Greek war of independence from Ottoman Empire, Mazower’s history provides a compelling example of how realist accounts of international politics fail to explain the world as it actually exists in reality.
Mazower splits his narrative in two: the first half deals with the byzantine machinations of Greek revolutionaries, dilettantish aristocrats, and unscrupulous brigands as they foment an uprising against the rule of the Ottoman sultan in Constantinople (now Istanbul). He clearly documents the war’s brutality – mass enslavement and “ethnic punishment” were two main tools of Ottoman policy, for instance, while the “casual ferocity” of Greek fighters shocked even sympathetic foreigners – as well as the way leading revolutionaries coated what was essentially a traditional peasant uprising with a sheen of early nineteenth century liberal constitutionalism.
The narrative picks up in the book’s second half, when Mazower pulls back and shows the ways the war rippled out across Europe and around the world. Greece’s struggle for independence attracted foreign fighters known as philhellenes, mostly young Europeans (including the great Romantic poet Lord Byron) and a smattering of Americans possessed by romantic ideas about ancient Greece and medieval chivalry as well as not-entirely-coherent political and ideological commitments to the cause of modern Greek liberty. Perhaps most importantly, however, the second half of Mazower’s narrative shows the limitations of realism as a worldview and framework for analyzing international affairs.
Indeed, modern realists like Henry Kissinger tend to portray nineteenth century Europe as a golden age of great power politics and diplomacy – one that deserves close study and emulation today. Great statesmen like Metternich and Castlereagh decided the fate of nations at ornate conference tables, making deals and maintaining a peaceful equilibrium between Europe’s major powers for nearly a century. But as Mazower makes clear, the image of nineteenth century European diplomacy offered by contemporary realists has always been more romance than reality.
The role of public opinion
Perhaps most crucially, the realist account ignores the prominent role public opinion and popular sentiment had in the making of European and American foreign policy dating back even to the early 1820s. This influence went well beyond the scattered bands of philhellenes that picked up and fought for Greek independence; disciples of the British utilitarian philosopher Jeremy Bentham, for instance, sought to export the septuagenarian’s ideas to Greece – local conditions and context be damned. More to the point, these utilitarian activists also helped raise loans for the Greek independence movement in London’s financial markets. As Mazower observes, Bentham’s devotees gave the Greek cause publicity in Great Britain and transformed the London Greek Committee into a vehicle for popular political engagement on foreign policy.
However, nothing mobilized public opinion in Europe and America like the siege of Mesolonghi in 1825-6. Byron had died there the previous year, making the location well-known (at least in name) around the world by the time it fell to an Egyptian-Ottoman army. Committees to support the Greek cause appeared across Europe and the United States, with women often played an important role in collecting donations. Americans in particular, Mazower notes, offered the “most decisive and concrete response to the Greek refugee crisis” that resulted from the war, organizing and funding major relief efforts to provide food and shelter to displaced and destitute Greeks. In other words, ordinary Americans and Europeans couldn’t idly stand by as they saw a nation crushed under the foot of a great power.
The role of ideology
Equally important, however, many Greeks and their foreign supporters saw their war as part of a wider global struggle for freedom and against despotism. The defenders of Mesolonghi, for instance, named their fortifications after Byron as well as political figures like Benjamin Franklin and Taddeusz Kosciuszko, “indicating,” Mazower writes, “that the Greeks saw themselves as participants in a single struggle for liberty that extended from the Americas to Poland.” Americans and Europeans of liberal and radical political persuasions saw matters similarly, and prominent figures ranging from the ardent abolitionist William Lloyd Garrison to British Prime Minister William Gladstone would acknowledge the influence the Greek uprising had on their own worldviews.
This fight, Mazower explains, was as much against the international order established in the wake of the Napoleonic wars to “impose a conservative order upon a continent convulsed by the French Revolution.” Neither of its two main architects, Austrian foreign minister Metternich and British foreign minister Lord Castlereagh, “had much time for the talk of rights of peoples or nations.” Indeed, the great powers of Europe intervened to crush liberal and constitutionalist political movements in Spain and Italy around the same time the Greek revolt against Ottoman rule broke out. In the United States, Mazower reminds us, the Monroe Doctrine arose more to prevent the European great powers from reconquering their independent former colonies in Latin America than to carve out a privileged sphere of influence for the United States.
Above all, the Greek war for independence represents the first well-documented instance where public opinion exerted a major influence on the foreign policies of great powers and international affairs as a whole. As Mazower shows, it’s something astute observers and statesmen of every political and ideological persuasion recognized at the time.
So why does any of this history matter today?
First, there was no golden age of great power diplomacy in which far-sighted statesmen sat down to adjust their conflicting national interests. That reality undermines many of the fundamental conceits of realist ideology – at least as it’s presented for public consumption. The romantic past imagined by many realists cannot be emulated or reproduced in the present, and the sovereignty and independence of smaller nations like Ukraine cannot simply be bargained away by great powers like the United States without consequence. As Mazower puts it in his conclusion, the Greeks fought for and won “the freedom to shape their future in a state of their own within an international system of states.” That’s not to say that great power diplomacy doesn’t matter – indeed, it matters quite a lot – but it’s important to recognize both its moral and practical limitations.
Second, ideology and politics matter as much as cold calculations of national interest. Realists often emphasize the role of national interests (at least as they narrowly define them) in foreign policy to the practical exclusion of less tangible factors like ideology and politics. But these elements cannot be overlooked, and they often define how political leaders and ordinary citizens conceive of their own country’s national interests. President Biden has made the rivalry between democracy and autocracy the rhetorical touchstone of his foreign policy, but Mazower’s account of the Greek war of independence reveals that this ideological conflict runs much deeper than we often imagine today. European monarchies repeatedly intervened in other nations to crush liberal political movements, while liberals and radicals themselves also saw struggles for freedom overseas as in some sense related to their own at home.
As a corollary, it’s important to note that these movements are often deeply flawed and compromised when it comes to their adherence to liberal principles. At the start of the uprising against Ottoman rule, few Greek fighters adhered to liberal constitutionalism and the revolt resembled a typical peasant rebellion more than anything else. But despite these shortcomings, Mazower notes that liberal and constitutionalist principles did take hold fairly quickly in Greece: the country had a constitution by 1843, about a decade after independence. That’s all the more relevant today when we see Russia attempting to crush a flawed Ukrainian democracy through force, or as we watch the Taliban snuff out the remnants of civil society in Afghanistan.
Finally, public opinion and moral outrage matter when it comes to foreign policy. It’s hard to imagine the Greeks winning their war for independence without the support of public opinion in Europe and the United States. The massacre at Chios, the sieges of Mesolonghi and Athens, and widespread enslavement of ordinary Greeks by Ottoman forces all fueled sympathy for the Greek cause in American, British, French, German, Haitian, and other societies on both sides of the Atlantic. Average citizens provided funding and material support to Greece, while pro-Greek public agitation in France and Britain eased the way for the multinational naval intervention against the Ottoman and Egyptian fleets at Navarino in 1827 that finally won Greece its independence.
Today, the mass murders perpetrated by Russian forces in Bucha and elsewhere in Ukraine can’t be swept under the rug for the sake of great power diplomacy. Indeed, these atrocities are in large part what the war has become about – not least in the minds of many Americans and Europeans. We see this concern in the way Ukraine has become a cause for many Americans and Europeans, such as fundraising campaigns mounted by local restaurants for humanitarian relief efforts like chef José Andrés’ World Central Kitchen. Sympathy for the Ukrainian cause also makes it that much harder for the United States and its allies to cut an ignoble deal with the Kremlin at Kyiv’s expense.
As The Greek Revolution shows, these features – the limitations of great power politics and diplomacy, the importance of ideology, and the growing influence of public opinion and moral considerations on foreign policy – have been present in international politics and foreign affairs for at least two hundred years. They have endured and changed the conduct of diplomacy and armed conflict, mostly for the better. Policymakers, analysts, and pundits can either struggle against them or recognize them for what they are: permanent realities that define foreign policy and international affairs.