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What is Realpolitik?

Michael Anissimov
Updated May 23, 2024
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Realpolitik is an approach to politics, diplomacy, and foreign relations that strives to be non-ideological, as in doing what is best for the national interest without getting hung up on unjustified diplomatic habits or popular sentiment. An example of Realpolitik would be the United States reaching out to China in the 1970s, despite protest that America should not associate with communists. Both countries gained great economic benefit from the better relations, but certain people think it never should have happened.

The term Realpolitik comes from Ludwig Son von Rochau, a German writer and politician in the 19th century, who used it to refer to the diplomatic approach of Klemens von Metternich, German-Austrian politician and statesman who is considered the foremost diplomat of his time. Metternich was the architect of the Congress of Vienna, an important diplomatic meeting in 1814-1815 which settled many outstanding issues stemming from the French Revolutionary Wars, Napoleonic Wars, and the dissolution of the Holy Roman Empire. The Congress of Vienna, which was held after 25 years of continuous war, mostly with Napoleon, ended up serving as the framework for European international politics until 1914, when World War I broke out.

To its detractors, Realpolitik is sometimes seen as Machiavellian, based on "the ends justify the means," coercive, and amoral. To its proponents, Realpolitik is simply acknowledging reality and doing the best one can in international politics in light of obvious realities. Practicing Realpolitik can be politically difficult, and may mean defying the popular opinion. However, it contrasts with the notion of a ruler or diplomat who acts exclusively in accordance with popular whim, with little direction of his own.

In modern times, the foremost practitioner, advocate, and popularizer of Realpolitik is Henry Kissinger, who was Secretary of State under the American presidents Richard Nixon and Gerald Ford, between 1973 and 1977, and was the dominant force in American foreign policy for most of the 1970s. Kissinger was a highly controversial Secretary of State, mostly for his involvement in the Vietnam War. His critics attack him for extending the Vietnam War into Laos and Cambodia, while his supporters point out that North Vietnam had always ignored borders between all three countries, so for the United States to pretend that resupply stations were not in Cambodia or Laos would be suicidal. For the time being, it does not seem that history has come down conclusively on either side, but for better or for worse, Kissinger's actions during the Vietnam area are a standard example of Realpolitik.

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Michael Anissimov
By Michael Anissimov
Michael Anissimov is a dedicated Historical Index contributor and brings his expertise in paleontology, physics, biology, astronomy, chemistry, and futurism to his articles. An avid blogger, Michael is deeply passionate about stem cell research, regenerative medicine, and life extension therapies. His professional experience includes work with the Methuselah Foundation, Singularity Institute for Artificial Intelligence, and Lifeboat Foundation, further showcasing his commitment to scientific advancement.
Discussion Comments
By anon302218 — On Nov 08, 2012

Unfortunately, whether you call it Realpolitik or political realism, the self-interest of nations makes them interfere with efforts to advance another nation because they fear the dominance of a particular nation. This irrational fear of nations for one another creates the threat of war and aggression as a backdrop and thus leaves the poor and oppressed to their own survival in turbulent nations. Food and water and medical shortages compound the problem.

The proliferation of weapons is a derivative of this irrational and counterproductive distrust of one another. It leaves the possibility of a grave mistake that can lead to global warfare which is a grim outcome. In effect, because of mutual distrust and overzealous nationalistic leaders, we must walk on eggshells perpetually.

By umbra21 — On May 29, 2012
@croydon - The thing is, I have a problem with Realpolitik diplomacy as I think that it's too difficult to define "what the country really needs."

When it comes to political realism, the theory is that what a country really needs is to expand as much as possible, to gain as many resources as possible, and to have as much power as possible.

Although this does tend to be a default setting for humans, I don't think that's all there is to us.

Not to mention the difficulty of sorting out long term gain from short term gain.

So, when Realpolitik seems to demand that we treat with an enemy, perhaps in spite of the fact that they have committed numerous human rights violations, I don't think it's as simple as looking at the short term gains in economic power.

Not treating with them could result in long term gains in economic power. And treating with them could result in uprisings at home, or loss of international credibility.

Politics are anything but simple.

By croydon — On May 28, 2012
@bhremr - Both Realpolitik and political realism put the interests of the national state above ideological concerns, but I don't think they are quite the same.

Followers of political realism contend that all countries are constantly striving to do what is best for their own country and there cannot be any kind of real cooperation between them, as they are only interested in their own well-being. It basically says that politics is always survival of the fittest and that each country is just constantly trying to get as many resources as possible by any means necessary.

Realpolitik seems to be about doing what is best for the country, and that could mean a true alliance or submitting to the rule of an international control (like the U.N.) which political realism doesn't think is really possible.

Both ideologies are fairly complex though, and can't really be compared easily in a short comment.

By bhremr — On Mar 02, 2010

ıs it the same with political realism?

Michael Anissimov
Michael Anissimov
Michael Anissimov is a dedicated Historical Index contributor and brings his expertise in paleontology, physics, biology...
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