Realpolitik (from German: real "realistic", "practical", or "actual"; and Politik "politics", German pronunciation: [ʁeˈaːlpoliˌtɪk]) 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" (Singapore). The term Realpolitik is sometimes used pejoratively to imply politics that are coercive, amoral, or Machiavellian.

Realpolitik is often confused with the philosophy of political realism. Political realism is a particular modern, descriptive paradigm, or theoretical and methodological framework, aimed at describing, explaining and, eventually, predicting events in the international relations domains. Both are often believed to suggest working from the hypothesis that it is chiefly based on the pursuit, possession, and application of power. (See also power politics) However, some International Relations Realists, such as Kenneth Waltz and Hans Morgenthau, have viewed states as pursuing immediate survival or security, rather than the pursuit of power.

Origin of the term

The term Realpolitik was coined by Ludwig von Rochau, a German writer and politician in the 19th century.[1] His 1853 book Grundsätze der Realpolitik angewendet auf die staatlichen Zustände Deutschlands describes the meaning of the term:[2]

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 draw 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.

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 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-nineteenth century, and became associated with Otto von Bismarck's statecraft in unifying Germany. By 1890, usage of the word realpolitik was widespread, yet increasingly detached from its original meaning.[3]

History and branches

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

Realpolitik in Europe

In the U.S. 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 (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 (Edward Hallett Carr) was a liberal realist and later 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.[4] 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.

Examples of U.S. Realpolitik

The policy of Realpolitik was formally introduced to the Richard Nixon White House by Henry Kissinger.[5] 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 U.S. 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.

Henry Kissinger generally receives credit for introducing Realpolitik to American foreign policy. However, it should be noted that 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.[6] Kissinger had looked at what he implemented while serving as Secretary of State and United States Security Advisor not in the confines of making Realpolitik a standard policy but within in 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, where 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.”[7][8]

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 can be seen in the current American administration led by President Barack Obama. Historian John Bew makes note of this direction in the Obama administration when President Obama’s former chief of staff remarks in an article in the New York Times. The former chief of staff, Rahm Emanuel says that everyone wants to break it down into contrasts of idealist and realist, however “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.”[9]

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.[10][11][12][13] After the end of Cold War this practice continued.[14][15][16][17]

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.

Chinese Legalism

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,[18] Chinese administrative organization influenced western administrative practices not later than the twelfth century, playing a significant role in the development of the modern state, including use of the examination.[19][20][21][22]

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 the 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 Reapolitikal 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 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".[19]

Main article: Qin dynasty

During the Spring and Autumn period,[21] 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.[23] For example, when Duke Xiang of Song[note 1] 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.


Michael Bacon writes that "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."[24]

According to Kenneth Paul Tan of the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy, "Chua Beng Huat (1997)[25] 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."[24]

See also


  1. Not to be confused with any Duke of the Song dynasty of a later period.


  1. Haslam, Jonathan (2002). No Virtue Like Necessity: Realist Thought in International Relations since Machiavelli. London: Yale University Press. p. 168. ISBN 0-300-09150-8.
  2. von Rochau, Ludwig. Grundsätze der Realpolitik angewendet auf die staatlichen Zustände Deutschlands.
  3. Bew, John (2014). Real Realpolitik: A History. Washington, D.C.: The Library of Congress.
  4. Davies, Robert William "Edward Hallett Carr, 1892–1982" pages 473–511 from Proceedings of the British Academy, Volume 69, 1983 page 477.
  5. Byrnes, Sholto. "Time to Rethink Realpolitik". New Statesman. Retrieved 25 June 2011.
  6. Kissinger, Henry (June 2012). "The Limits of Universalism". New Criterion.
  7. Kissinger, Henry (1999). A World Restored: Metternich, Castlereagh and the Problems of Peace, 1812–1822. London: Weidenfeld and Nicholson. pp. 312–322.
  8. Bew, John (2015). Realpolitik: A History. New York: Oxford University Press. p. 258.
  9. Bew, John (2015). Realpolitik: A History. New York: Oxford University Press. pp. 4–5.
  10. DeConde, Alexander et al., eds. (2001). "Dictatorships". Encyclopedia of American Foreign Policy, Volume 1. Simon & Schuster. p. 499. ISBN 9780684806570.
  11. Adams, Francis (2003). Deepening democracy: global governance and political reform in Latin America. Greenwood Publishing Group. p. 31. ISBN 9780275979713.
  12. McMahon, Robert J. (1999). The limits of empire: the United States and Southeast Asia since World War II. Columbia University Press. p. 205. ISBN 9780231108805.
  13. Grandin & Joseph, Greg & Gilbert (2010). A Century of Revolution. Durham, NC: Duke University Press. pp. 397–414.
  14. Chick, Kristen (14 May 2012). "US resumes arms sales to Bahrain. Activists feel abandoned". The Christian Science Monitor. Retrieved 13 August 2014.
  15. Josh Rogin. "America's Allies Are Funding ISIS". The Daily Beast. Retrieved 2014-08-10.
  16. "US support for human rights abroad: The case of Saudi Arabia". 2014-01-28. Retrieved 2014-08-10.
  17. "5 dictators the U.S. still supports". The Week. Retrieved 2014-08-10.
  18. Wealth and Power. Orville Schell
  19. 1 2 Creel, Herrlee G. (March 1974). "Shen Pu-Hai: A Secular Philosopher of Administration". Journal of Chinese Philosophy. 1 (2): 119–136. doi:10.1111/j.1540-6253.1974.tb00644.x.
  20. Van der Sprenkel
  21. 1 2 Origins of Statecraft in China
  22. "Legalism and the Legalists of Ancient China".
  23. Morton 1995, p. 26
  24. 1 2 Tan, Kenneth Paul (February 2012). "The Ideology of Pragmatism: Neo-liberal Globalisation and Political Authoritarianism in Singapore". Journal of Contemporary Asia. 42 (1): 67–92. doi:10.1080/00472336.2012.634644.
  25. Chua, Beng-Huat (1995). Communitarian ideology and democracy in Singapore (Repr. 1996. ed.). London [u.a.]: Routledge. ISBN 9780415120548.

Works cited

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