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"Under Carter the US largely gave up the practice of helping rightwing regimes to make war on their own liberals. Under Reagan, especially if Kissinger makes a comeback, that sordid brand of Realpolitik might well be resumed." --Glued to the Box by Clive James

"Aron's Realpolitik was distinguished by being real, as Realpolitik in the strict sense rarely is." --Cultural Amnesia by Clive James

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Realpolitik (from "realistic", "practical", or "actual"; and Politik "politics", is politics or diplomacy based primarily on power and on practical and material factors and considerations, rather than explicit ideological notions or moral or ethical premises. In this respect, it shares aspects of its philosophical approach with those of realism and pragmatism. The term Realpolitik is sometimes used pejoratively to imply politics that are coercive, amoral, or Machiavellian.


History and branches

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

  • Sun Tzu, a Chinese military strategist who wrote The Art of War that foreshadowed elements of Realpolitik developed later.
  • Thucydides, a Greek historian who wrote the History of the Peloponnesian War and is also cited as an intellectual forebearer of Realpolitik.
  • Chanakya (or Kautilya), an early Indian statesman and writer on the Arthashastra.
  • Ibn Khaldun, an Arab Muslim historiographer and historian and one of the founding fathers of modern historiography author of Muqaddimah a universal history of time.
  • Han Fei, a Chinese scholar who theorised Legalism (or Legism) and who served in the court of the King of Qin—later unifier of China ending the Warring States period. His theory centres on the Two Handles (about penalty and rewards as tools of governance). He theorised about a neutral, manipulative ruler who would act as head of state while secretly controlling the executive through his ministers—the ones to take real responsibility for any policy.
  • Niccolò Machiavelli, an Italian political philosopher who wrote Il Principe (The Prince) in which he held that the sole aim of a prince (politician) was to seek power, regardless of religious or ethical considerations. However, there is scholarly debate about whether his sentiment was genuine, or a satirical criticism of contemporary politics.
  • Cardinal Richelieu, a French statesman who destroyed domestic factionalism and guided France to a position of dominance in foreign affairs.
  • Thomas Hobbes, an English philosopher who wrote Leviathan in which he stated the state of nature was prone to a "war of all against all".
  • Frederick the Great, a Prussian monarch who transformed Prussia into a great European power through warfare and diplomacy.
  • Charles Maurice de Talleyrand-Périgord, a French diplomat who guided France and Europe through a variety of political systems.
  • Prince Klemens Wenzel von Metternich, a Koblenz-born Austrian statesman opposed to political revolution.
  • Carl von Clausewitz, an 18–19th century Prussian general and military strategist who wrote On War (Vom Kriege).
  • Camillo Benso of Cavour, an Italian statesman who diplomatically managed to maneuver the Kingdom of Sardinia to become a new great power in Europe, controlling a nearly united Italy that was five times as large as the Kingdom of Sardinia had been before he came to power.
  • Otto von Bismarck, a Prussian statesman who coined the term balance of power. Balancing power means keeping the peace and careful Realpolitik practitioners try to avoid arms races.
  • 20th century proponents of political realism include Hans Morgenthau, Henry Kissinger and Charles de Gaulle.
  • Mao Zedong's Three Worlds Theory is described as Realpolitik by his critics, including Enver Hoxha, who argue that it was not based on a strong ideological grounding and used only to justify rapport with the West.


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.

Adolf Hitler's attempt to annex the predominantly German region of Czechoslovakia called the Sudetenland in 1938 may also be described as Realpolitik. 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. 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".

Henry Kissinger has been credited with formally introducing the policy of Realpolitik to the White House as Secretary of State to Richard Nixon. 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 generally receives credit for introducing Realpolitik to American foreign policy. Kissinger himself said that he had never used the term and has said that it is used by both liberal and realist foreign policy thinkers to label, criticize and facilitate a choosing of sides.

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".

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.

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.

See also

Unless indicated otherwise, the text in this article is either based on Wikipedia article "Realpolitik" or another language Wikipedia page thereof used under the terms of the GNU Free Documentation License; or on research by Jahsonic and friends. See Art and Popular Culture's copyright notice.

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