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Realpolitik: the book behind Boris Johnson’s vision for ‘Global Britain’

A history of realpolitik, by Johnson’s foreign policy adviser John Bew, offers crucial insights into the way this prime minister wields power

“People live by narrative,” Boris Johnson said in a recent profile for the Atlantic. “Human beings are creatures of the imagination.” It was a revealing line from a man who usually prefers to evade, but Britain’s journalist-statesman didn’t get to where he is today by underestimating the power of a good story. As for the question of what narrative Johnson himself lives by, some light can be shone by the book described as the “primer for Johnsonism”: Realpolitik: A History. It was written in 2015 by John Bew, who has since been plucked by Johnson from the war studies department of King’s College London to serve as his chief foreign policy adviser and help work out what “Global Britain” might actually mean.

It is extremely rare for a British prime minister to invite a historian into his inner circle, but Bew – “one of the outstanding historians of his generation”, says Michael Gove – has already proved influential. He was a key author of “Global Britain in a Competitive Age”, published in March and the most comprehensive review of Britain’s place in the world since the end of the cold war. Among the review’s most eye-catching features is a promise to return to spending 0.7% of national income on development “when the fiscal situation allows” (which it hasn’t yet, it seems). Another is the clear-eyed identification of Russia as an “active threat” (China is merely a “systemic challenge”) and a commitment to expand Britain’s nuclear arsenal from 180 to 260 warheads. Britain’s highest international priority, however, is identified as climate change.

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