Daniel W. Drezner

Are there any realpolitik films?

Are there any realpolitik films?

Your humble blogger will not be blogging with great frequency over the next few days, as he’ll be drinking power-schmoozing diligently going to panels attending the American Political Science Association (APSA) meetings in Washington.  I have to present at a few panels this year, so blogging will be on the lighter side (though if I have time, I want to revisit this question about millennials and foreign policy attitudes). 

Here’s a topic for discussion.  Yesterday I had a disturbing dream involving some hybrid of a normal APSA meeting and The Highlander.  Today I finally went to see The Expendables with an IR colleague, which led us into a deep discussion of how much of a bad-ass Dolph Lundgren is how most movies that have any IR component are essentially idealist in their orientation.  This led my companion to ask me an interesting question:  "Has there ever been a film with an explicitly realist take on world politics?" 

I went back and consulted my list of top IR films and came up empty.  I then consulted Steve Walt’s list and came up empty again.  In theory Independence Day has some very crude balancing behavior, but let’s face it, that’s pretty weak beer.  Both The Americanization of Emily (on my list) and Wag the Dog (on Steve’s list) are very cynical movies, but I don’t think the logic of realpolitik plays that big a role in either film.  The best example that comes to mind is an old Star Trek episode — A Private Little War — but that’s not a movie. 

In the end, I can offer two proper film suggestions.  The lesser film would be No Way Out (1987), but I can’t explain why this is a realist movie without spoiling the ending. 

The better example — or, at a minimum, the better film — would be The Godfather (1972), which is not exactly about international relations, but is about negotiating an anarchic environment.  For more on this selection, see John Hulsman and A. Wess Mitchell’s The Godfather Doctrine, which started as an article in The National Interest.  As they argue: 

Unlike Tom [Hagen], whose labors as family lawyer have produced an exaggerated devotion to negotiation, and Sonny [Corleone], whose position as untested heir apparent has produced a zeal for utilizing the family arsenal, Michael has no formulaic fixation on a particular policy instrument. Instead, his overriding goal is to protect the family’s interests and save it from impending ruin by any and all means necessary. In today’s foreign-policy terminology, Michael is a realist.

Still, this is a thin list.  Additional suggestions are welcomed in the comments.