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Realpolitik (from German : real; "realistic", "practical", or "actual"; and Politik; "politics", German pronunciation: [ʁeˈaːlpoliˌtiːk] ) is politics or diplomacy based primarily on considerations of given circumstances and factors, rather than explicit ideological notions or moral and ethical premises. In this respect, it shares aspects of its philosophical approach with those of realism and pragmatism. It is often simply referred to as "pragmatism" in politics, e.g. "pursuing pragmatic policies". The term Realpolitik is sometimes used pejoratively to imply politics that are perceived as coercive, amoral, or Machiavellian. [1]

German language West Germanic language

German is a West Germanic language that is mainly spoken in Central Europe. It is the most widely spoken and official or co-official language in Germany, Austria, Switzerland, South Tyrol in Italy, the German-speaking Community of Belgium and Liechtenstein. It is one of the three official languages of Luxembourg and a co-official language in the Opole Voivodeship in Poland. The languages that are most similar to German are the other members of the West Germanic language branch, including Afrikaans, Dutch, English, the Frisian languages, Low German/Low Saxon, Luxembourgish, and Yiddish. There are strong similarities in vocabulary with Danish, Norwegian and Swedish, although those belong to the North Germanic group. German is the second most widely spoken Germanic language, after English.

Realism (international relations) international relations theory

Realism is one of the dominant schools of thought in international relations theory, theoretically formalising the Realpolitik statesmanship of early modern Europe. Although a highly diverse body of thought, it is unified by the belief that world politics is always and necessarily a field of conflict among actors pursuing power. The theories of realism are contrasted by the cooperative ideals of liberalism.

Pragmatism Philosophical movement

Pragmatism is a philosophical tradition that began in the United States around 1870. Its origins are often attributed to the philosophers Charles Sanders Peirce, William James, and John Dewey. Peirce later described it in his pragmatic maxim: "Consider the practical effects of the objects of your conception. Then, your conception of those effects is the whole of your conception of the object."


Origin of the term

The term Realpolitik was coined by Ludwig von Rochau, a German writer and politician in the 19th century. [2] His 1853 book Grundsätze der Realpolitik angewendet auf die staatlichen Zustände Deutschlands describes the meaning of the term: [3]

August Ludwig von Rochau was a German journalist and politician. He engaged in the Frankfurter Wachensturm of 1833 and subsequently spent ten years of exile in France. He published the famous Grundsätze der Realpolitik, angewendet auf die staatlichen Zustände Deutschlands in 1853.

The study of the forces that shape, maintain and alter the state is the basis of all political insight and leads to the understanding that the law of power governs the world of states just as the law of gravity governs the physical world. The older political science was fully aware of this truth but drew a wrong and detrimental conclusion—the right of the more powerful. The modern era has corrected this unethical fallacy, but while breaking with the alleged right of the more powerful one, the modern era was too much inclined to overlook the real might of the more powerful and the inevitability of its political influence.

Historian John Bew suggests that much of what stands for modern Realpolitik today deviates from the original meaning of the term. Realpolitik emerged in mid-19th century Europe from the collision of the Enlightenment with state formation and power politics. The concept, Bew argues, was an early attempt at answering the conundrum of how to achieve liberal enlightened goals in a world that does not follow liberal enlightened rules.

Age of Enlightenment European cultural movement of the 18th century

The Age of Enlightenment was an intellectual and philosophical movement that dominated the world of ideas in Europe during the 18th century, the "Century of Philosophy".

Liberalism is a political and moral philosophy based on liberty, consent of the governed, and equality before the law. Liberals espouse a wide array of views depending on their understanding of these principles, but they generally support limited government, individual rights, capitalism, democracy, secularism, gender equality, racial equality, internationalism, freedom of speech, freedom of the press and freedom of religion. Yellow is the political colour most commonly associated with liberalism.

Publicist, journalist and liberal political reformer Von Rochau coined the term in 1853 and added a second volume in 1869 that further refined his earlier arguments. Rochau, exiled in Paris until the 1848 uprising, returned during the revolution and became a well-known figure in the national liberal party. As the liberal gains of the 1848 revolutions fell victim to coercive governments or were swallowed by powerful social forces such as class, religion and nationalism, Rochau—according to Bew—began to think hard about how the work that had begun with such enthusiasm had failed to yield any lasting results.

He said that the great achievement of the Enlightenment had been to show that might is not necessarily right. The mistake liberals made was to assume that the law of the strong had suddenly evaporated simply because it had been shown to be unjust. Rochau wrote that "to bring down the walls of Jericho, the Realpolitiker knows the simple pickaxe is more useful than the mightiest trumpet". Rochau's concept was seized upon by German thinkers in the mid and late 19th century and became associated with Otto von Bismarck's statecraft in unifying Germany in the mid 19th century. By 1890, usage of the word Realpolitik was widespread, yet increasingly detached from its original meaning. [4]

Otto von Bismarck 19th-century German statesman and Chancellor

Otto Eduard Leopold, Prince of Bismarck, Duke of Lauenburg, known as Otto von Bismarck, was a conservative Prussian statesman who dominated European affairs from the 1860s until 1890. He was Minister President of Prussia (1862–1890) and Chancellor of the North German Confederation (1867–1871) then the German Empire (1871–1890). He provoked three short, decisive wars against Denmark, Austria, and France. Following the victory against Austria, he abolished the supranational German Confederation and instead formed the North German Confederation as the first German national state, aligning the smaller North German states behind Prussia. Receiving the support of the independent South German states in the Confederation's defeat of France, he formed the German Empire and united Germany.

Unification of Germany Creation of a politically and administratively integrated nation state of German-speaking populations in 1871, in the form of the German Empire

The unification of Germany into a politically and administratively integrated nation state officially occurred on 18 January 1871, in the Hall of Mirrors at the Palace of Versailles in France. Princes of the German states, excluding Austria, gathered there to proclaim William I of Prussia as German Emperor after the French capitulation in the Franco-Prussian War. Unofficially, the de facto transition of most of the German-speaking populations into a federated organization of states had been developing for some time through alliances formal and informal between princely rulers, but in fits and starts. The self-interests of the various parties hampered the process over nearly a century of autocratic experimentation, beginning in the era of the Napoleonic Wars, which prompted the dissolution of the Holy Roman Empire in 1806, and the subsequent rise of German nationalism.

Political realism in international relations

Whereas Realpolitik refers to political practice, the concept of political realism in international relations refers to a theoretical framework aimed at offering explanations for events in the international relations domain. The theory of political realism proceeds from the assumption that states—as actors in the international arena—pursue their interests by practicing Realpolitik. Conversely, Realpolitik can be described as the exercise of policies that are in line with accepted theories of political realism. In either case, the working hypothesis is generally that policy is chiefly based on the pursuit, possession and application of power (see also power politics). However, some international relations realists, such as Kenneth Waltz, have viewed state policy in terms of the pursuit of survival or security, rather than the pursuit of power for its own sake.

International relations Relationships between two or more states

International relations (IR) or international affairs (IA) — commonly also referred to as international studies (IS), global studies (GS), or global affairs (GA) — is the study of interconnectedness of politics, economics and law on a global level. Depending on the academic institution, it is either a field of political science, an interdisciplinary academic field similar to global studies, or an entirely independent academic discipline in which students take a variety of internationally focused courses in social science and humanities disciplines. In all cases, the field studies relationships between political entities (polities) such as sovereign states, inter-governmental organizations (IGOs), international non-governmental organizations (INGOs), other non-governmental organizations (NGOs), and multinational corporations (MNCs), and the wider world-systems produced by this interaction. International relations is an academic and a public policy field, and so can be positive and normative, because it analyses and formulates the foreign policy of a given state.

Power politics is a theory in international relations, which contains the idea that distributions of power and interests, or changes to those distributions, are fundamental causes of war and of system stability.

Kenneth Waltz American political scientist and international relations theoretician

Kenneth Neal Waltz was an American political scientist who was a member of the faculty at both the University of California, Berkeley and Columbia University and one of the most prominent scholars in the field of international relations. He was a veteran of both World War II and the Korean War.

History and branches

See political realism for branches and antecedents more relevant to contemporary diplomacy and the particular modern, international relations paradigm.


Otto von Bismarck, a German statesman often associated with Realpolitik Otto Furst von Bismarck.JPG
Otto von Bismarck, a German statesman often associated with Realpolitik

In the United States, the term is often analogous to power politics while in Germany Realpolitik has a somewhat less negative connotation, referring to realistic politics in opposition to idealistic (or unrealistic) politics. It is particularly associated with the era of 19th century nationalism. Realpolitik policies were employed in response to the failed revolutions of 1848 as means to strengthen states and tighten social order.

The most famous German advocate of Realpolitik was Otto von Bismarck, the first Chancellor (1862–1890) to Wilhelm I of the Kingdom of Prussia. Bismarck used Realpolitik in his quest to achieve Prussian dominance in Germany. He manipulated political issues such as the Schleswig-Holstein Question and the Hohenzollern candidature to antagonize other countries and cause wars if necessary to attain his goals. Such policies are characteristic of Bismarck, demonstrating a pragmatic view of the "real" political world. Another example was his willingness to adopt some social policies of the socialists such as employee insurance and pensions; in doing so, he used small changes from the top down to avoid the possibility of major change from the bottom up. Likewise, Prussia's seemingly illogical move of not demanding territory from a defeated Austria, a move that later led to the unification of Germany, is an oft-cited example of Realpolitik.[ citation needed ]

Adolf Hitler's attempt to annex the predominantly German region of Czechoslovakia called the Sudetenland in 1938 may also be described as Realpolitik.[ citation needed ] At first, Hitler unsuccessfully demanded that Czech President Edvard Beneš hand over that region of the country. However, British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain subsequently gave the Sudetenland to Hitler in the (ultimately unsuccessful) hope of preventing a war as codified in the Munich Agreement. With Britain a guarantor of Czech independence, Hitler knew that Beneš' opinion on the matter was immaterial if Chamberlain was prepared to give Hitler what he desired.

E. H. Carr was a liberal realist and left-wing British historian and international relations theorist who argued for realistic international policies versus utopian ones. Carr described realism as the acceptance that what exists is right and the belief that there is no reality or force outside history such as God. He argued that in realism there is no moral dimension; and that what is successful is right and what is unsuccessful is wrong. Carr was convinced that the Bolsheviks were destined to win the Russian Civil War and approved of the Prime Minister David Lloyd George's opposition to the anti-Bolshevik ideas of the War Secretary Winston Churchill under the grounds of Realpolitik. [5] In Carr's opinion, Churchill's support of the White Russian movement was folly as Russia was likely to be a great power once more under the leadership of the Bolsheviks.

United States

American Realpolitik began in the 1960s with the influence of Polish-American Zbigniew Brzezinski, later National Security Adviser to Jimmy Carter. Contrary to McCarthy-era hostility (and John Foster Dulles' talk of the military "liberation" of the Eastern Bloc), Brzezinski proposed "peaceful engagement" with the Soviet Union while he was advising Presidents John F. Kennedy and Lyndon B. Johnson. Brzezinski, uninterested in promoting anti-Soviet propaganda for the benefit of the United States, felt the United States would be more successful through frequent interactions with regimes and people under communist rule. Brzezinski knew the tough economic realities of those living in the Eastern Bloc, in particular the permanent shortage of goods; and that their attachment to the Soviet Union was born of historic necessity rather than common ideology. Brzezinski suggested enticing these countries economically and through educational and cultural exchanges that would appeal to intellectuals, followed by favoritism for regimes showing signs of liberalization or less reliance on Moscow. Through this approach, Brzezinski "offered a realistic, evolutionary alternative to empty political rhetoric". [6]

Henry Kissinger has been credited with formally introducing the policy of Realpolitik to the White House as Secretary of State to Richard Nixon. [7] In this context, the policy meant dealing with other powerful nations in a practical manner rather than on the basis of political doctrine or ethics—for instance, Nixon's diplomacy with the People's Republic of China despite American opposition to communism and the previous doctrine of containment. Another example is Kissinger's use of shuttle diplomacy after the 1973 Arab–Israeli war, where he persuaded the Israelis to withdraw partially from the Sinai in deference to the political realities created by the oil crisis.

Kissinger himself said that he had never used the term Realpolitik and has said that it is used by both liberal and realist foreign policy thinkers to label, criticize and facilitate a choosing of sides. [8] Kissinger had looked at what he implemented while serving as Secretary of State and National Security Advisor not in the confines of making Realpolitik a standard policy, but within the terms of being a statesman. This political mindset can be seen in Kissinger’s book A World Restored and is pointed out by historian John Bew in his book Realpolitik. Kissinger goes on to say that the role of the statesman is "the ability to recognize the real relationship of forces and to make this knowledge serve his ends". [9] [10]

In this context, one can see how Realpolitik principles can influence American policy, but not as standard policy. The reach and influence of Realpolitik is found instead in pragmatic and flexible policy that changes to the needs of the situation. This type of policy making could be seen as recently as in the administration of Barack Obama. Bew makes note of this direction in the Obama administration when Obama's chief of staff Rahm Emanuel remarked in an article in the New York Times that everyone wanted to break it down into contrasts of idealist and realist, but "if you had to put him in a category, he's probably more realpolitik, like Bush 41 [...] You’ve got to be cold-blooded about the self-interests of your nation". [11]

Realpolitik is distinct from ideological politics in that it is not dictated by a fixed set of rules, but instead tends to be goal-oriented, limited only by practical exigencies. Since Realpolitik is ordered toward the most practical means of securing national interests, it can often entail compromising on ideological principles. For example, during the Cold War the United States often supported authoritarian regimes that were human rights violators in order to theoretically secure the greater national interest of regional stability. [12] [13] [14] [15] After the end of the Cold War, this practice continued. [16] [17] [18] [19]

Most recently, former ambassador Dennis Ross advocated this approach to foreign policy in his 2007 book Statecraft: And How to Restore America's Standing in the World. For the purposes of contrast and speaking in ideal types, political ideologues would tend to favor principle over other considerations. Such individuals or groups can reject compromises which they see as the abandonment of their ideals and so may sacrifice political gain in favor of adhering to principles they believe to be constitutive of long-term goals.


China has a "realistic" tradition dating back thousands of years. Often referred to as Chinese Legalism, the spirit of its content may be most readily recognized by Western viewers through one of its kindred, The Art of War . [20] Chinese administrative organization influenced Western administrative practices not later than the 12th century, playing a significant role in the development of the modern state, including use of the examination. [21] [22] [23] [24]

Starting in the Spring and Autumn period (771–476/403 BC), a trend of "realistic" reformers were taken on to advance the material interest of their respective states, with the Qin state founding the first Chinese Empire, Qin dynasty in 221 BCE, ending China's Warring States period. The political theory developed during the era, including that of Confucianism would influence every dynasty thereafter.

Those termed Legalist are more purely "Realpolitikal" [note 1] in contrast to Confucianism and include non-legal Shen Pu-hai derived political technique, which charges the ruler engage in passive observation to determine facts rather than take on too much himself. Sinologist Herrlee G. Creel writes: "If one wishes to exaggerate, it would no doubt be possible to translate (foundational Realist) Shen Buhai's term Shu, or technique, as 'science', and argue that Pu-hai was the first political scientist," though Creel does "not care to go this far". [21]

During the Spring and Autumn period, [23] the prevalent philosophy had dictated war as a gentleman's activity; military commanders were instructed to respect what they perceived to be Heaven's laws in battle. [25] For example, when Duke Xiang of Song [note 2] was at war with the state of Chu during the Warring States period, he declined an opportunity to attack the enemy force (commanded by Zhu) while they were crossing a river.

The Qin disregarded this military tradition, taking advantage of their enemy's weaknesses.


The PAP government has taken pains to present its principles of meritocracy and pragmatism as a viable alternative to liberal democracy and multi-party competition, sometimes by drawing from a specious notion of Confucian values and Asian culture to construct ideological bulwarks—like "Asian democracy"—against the criticisms of the so-called liberal West. By crediting meritocracy and pragmatism for creating the right conditions for economic success, the PAP government has been able not only to justify its (liberal) democratic deficit, but also to produce ideological resources and a structure of authorization for the maintenance of a one-party dominant regime. In "pragmatic" terms, Singapore's considerable economic success is justification enough for its authoritarian means.

Kenneth Paul Tan, "The Ideology of Pragmatism: Neo-liberal Globalisation and Political Authoritarianism in Singapore" [26]

According to Kenneth Paul Tan of the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy, "Chua Beng Huat (1997) [27] argued that the rhetoric of pragmatism in Singapore is ideological and hegemonic in nature, adopted and disseminated in the public sphere by the People's Action Party (PAP) government and institutionalized throughout the state in all its administrative, planning and policy-making functions. It is suggested that by doggedly describing itself as pragmatic, the Singapore state is actually disguising its ideological work and political nature through an assertion of the absence of ideology and politics. Chan Heng Chee (1975) earlier described Singapore as a depoliticized "administrative state", where ideology and politics had triumphantly been replaced by rational and scientific modes of public administration". [26]

See also


  1. Civilization and Realpolitik, by Prasenjit Duara, India International Centre Quarterly, Vol. 36, No. 3/4, INDIACHINA Neighbours Strangers (WINTER 2009 SPRING 2010), pp. 20-33.
  2. Not to be confused with any Duke of the Song dynasty of a later period.

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Zbigniew Kazimierz Brzezinski was a Polish-American diplomat and political scientist. He served as a counselor to President Lyndon B. Johnson from 1966 to 1968 and was President Jimmy Carter's National Security Advisor from 1977 to 1981. Brzezinski belonged to the realist school of international relations, standing in the geopolitical tradition of Halford Mackinder and Nicholas J. Spykman. Brzezinski was the primary organizer of The Trilateral Commission.

Geopolitics is the study of the effects of Earth's geography on politics and international relations. While geopolitics usually refers to countries and relations between them, it may also focus on two other kinds of states: de facto independent states with limited international recognition and; relations between sub-national geopolitical entities, such as the federated states that make up a federation, confederation or a quasi-federal system.

International relations theory is the study of international relations (IR) from a theoretical perspective. It attempts to provide a conceptual framework upon which international relations can be analyzed. Ole Holsti describes international relations theories as acting like pairs of coloured sunglasses that allow the wearer to see only salient events relevant to the theory; e.g., an adherent of realism may completely disregard an event that a constructivist might pounce upon as crucial, and vice versa. The three most prominent theories are realism, liberalism and constructivism. Sometimes, institutionalism proposed and developed by Keohane and Nye is discussed as a paradigm differed from liberalism.

Hans Morgenthau American political scientist

Hans Joachim Morgenthau was one of the major twentieth-century figures in the study of international relations. Morgenthau's works belong to the tradition of realism in international relations theory, and he is usually considered, along with George F. Kennan and Reinhold Niebuhr, one of the three leading American realists of the post-World War II period. Morgenthau made landmark contributions to international relations theory and the study of international law. His Politics Among Nations, first published in 1948, went through five editions during his lifetime.

Weltpolitik was the imperialist foreign policy adopted by the German Empire during the reign of Emperor Wilhelm II. The aim was to transform Germany into a global power. Though considered a logical consequence of the German unification by a broad spectrum of Wilhelmine society, it marked a decisive break with the defensive Realpolitik of the Bismarck era.

<i>Diplomacy</i> (book) 1994 book

Diplomacy is a 1994 book written by former National Security Advisor and Secretary of State Henry Kissinger. It is a sweep of the history of international relations and the art of diplomacy, largely concentrating on the 20th century and the Western World. Kissinger, as a great believer in the realist school of international relations, focuses strongly upon the concepts of the balance of power in Europe prior to World War I, raison d'État and Realpolitik throughout the ages of diplomatic relations. Kissinger also provides insightful critiques of the counter realist diplomatic tactics of collective security, developed in the Charter of the League of Nations, and self determination, also a principle of the League. Kissinger also examines the use of the sphere of influence arguments put forth by the Soviet Union in Eastern and Southern Europe after World War II; an argument that has been maintained by contemporary Russian foreign relations with regard to Ukraine, Georgia and other former Soviet satellites in Central Asia.

Idealism in foreign policy holds that a state should make its internal political philosophy the goal of its foreign policy. For example, an idealist might believe that ending poverty at home should be coupled with tackling poverty abroad. U.S. President Woodrow Wilson was an early advocate of idealism. Wilson's idealism was a precursor to liberal international relations theory, which would arise amongst the "institution-builders" after World War II. It particularly emphasized the ideal of American exceptionalism.

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Works cited