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Title: Realpolitik  
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Subject: Realism (international relations), Henry Kissinger, Power politics, Containment, Criticism of the United States government
Collection: International Relations, Political Realism
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Realpolitik (from German: real "realistic", "practical", or "actual"; and Politik "politics", German pronunciation: ) 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.


  • Origin of the term 1
  • Realpolitik in Europe 2
  • Examples of U.S. Realpolitik 3
  • Examples of Realpolitik in other countries 4
  • Relation to realism 5
  • See also 6
  • Notes 7
  • References 8

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 powers 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.

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 practical and ruthless statecraft in unifying Germany. By 1890, usage of the word realpolitik was widespread, yet increasingly detached from its original meaning.[3]

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 almost Machiavellian 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 "liberals" 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.

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.

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. Detractors would characterize this attitude as amoral, while supporters would contend that they are merely operating within limits defined by practical reality.

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.

Examples of Realpolitik in other countries

Mao Zedong's Three Worlds Theory is described as Realpolitik by his critics, including Enver Hoxha, who point out that it was not based on a strong ideological grounding, being used only to justify China's alignment with the West rather than the Soviet Union.


Kenneth Paul Tan of the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy states:

"Chua Beng Huat (1997)[6] 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. 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."[7]

"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."[7]

"A major source for this legitimizing work has, therefore, been pragmatism, a complex and dynamic ideological formation through which different and not necessarily compatible meanings are articulated hegemonically. Its internal contradictions make it inherently fragile, particularly in practice."[7]

"The pragmatist in Lee Kuan Yew displayed contempt for the rigid and uncompromising pursuit of ideals, high principles and timeless values. He regarded this as a debased quality associated with childish naivete, the academic ivory tower built from elaborate concepts and theories, the unrealistic expectations of the inexperienced, the quixotic ramblings of the irresponsible of the egotism and hypocrisy of high-mindedness. Politically, this- at times boorish -dismissal of ideals has been useful to the PAP government for deflecting cricism or opposition based on specific ideals, such as freedom, equality, democracy and human rights, even if some of these ideals are represented in national symbols and foundational rhetoric like the pledge. Opposition parties that canvas on the platform of making Singapore a more genuine multiparty democracy in practice are described as being out of touch with that the people are really interested in - the "bread-and-butter" issues - or else as stooges of foreign interests who hope to see Singapore fail (Chee 2001).[8] Foreign and local critics who wish for more accountability and transparency in the business of government - even if they tactically avoid framing them in liberal democratic language - are dismissed as uninformed about or insensitive to Singapore's special circumstances which render such ideals irrelevant, unsuitable and even dangerous

"Anti-Utopian pragmatism dismisses the social, cultural and political value of being able to imagine alternative realities and better worlds, and to formulate strategies of transitioning from the status quo to these better realities and worlds. Chan and Evers (1978)[9] argue that the PAP government of newly independent Singapore - in spite of its own social democratic party foundations -rejected a "progressive identity" based on ideological and Utopia foundations such as socialism, in favor of an "ideology of pragmatism." In fact, in response to criticism from other social democratic parties around the world, the PAP leadership put together a highly polemical book of essays in 1976 defending their "socialism that works" - a supposedly pragmatic approach that was consistent with a non-communist and democratic Singapore (Nair, 1976)

"Pragmatists are willing to adopt any means as long as the ends are successfully achieved through these means. The ends justify the means, is the basic principle behind Singapore's results-orientated policies and decisions. Often, this means that the focus is on exercising technical and instrumental reason to formulate and implement solutions, while the outcomes and goals are kept beyond the horizon of critical reason."

"One implication of this is that the most important public administrators will be economists or those who think like economists, involving choices based on a calculus of cost and benefit, and assuming that people will respond rationally to reward and threat. A second implication is that public administrators should be selected, deployed and promoted on the basis of their mastery over the tools and techniques of policy making; they should approach policy making as technocratic problem-solvers whose job is to provide seemingly "value-free" technical solutions, and not to get mired in metaphysics and ethical questioning. When combined with an attitude among the elite that Ezra Vogel (1989) [10] described as "macho-meritocracy," this technical mastery that many policy makers believe they firmly possess often translates into an arrogant intolerance of laternative views expressed by the general public and even independent experts whose opinions, they also believe, should count for less since they cannot see the "big picture." A third implication is that value-neutral techncrats may find that they may have to dress up their policies with ideals, values and principles that enjoy popular appeal, in order to gain widespread acceptance of these policies and to ensure their successful implementation. This pick-and-choose approach to policy making has extended beyond the use of economic tools, as Ian Austin (2001)[11] argues, to the appropriation of culture as political-economic resource. Culture can be seen as a synthetic technology for capitalism that motivates, supports and justifies the desired productive and consuming behaviors. It is pragmatism, then, that explains the government's interest in constructing and re-constructing an offical culture and value system - a Singapore "ideology" as it were. They do this by appropriating "Western values" such as rugged individualism and "Asian values" such as thrift, diligence, group orientation and respect for authority that are imagined and strategically drawn up to describe the ideal Singapore worker-consumer-citizen. The state also excluides unsuitable values, such as "Asian" surreptitiousness, Confucian contempt for merchants and soldiers..."[7]

Relation to realism

Realpolitik is related to the philosophy of political realism, and both suggest working from the hypothesis that it is chiefly based on the pursuit, possession, and application of power. (See also power politics) Realpolitik, however, is a prescriptive guideline limited to policy-making (like foreign policy), while realism is a descriptive paradigm, a wider theoretical and methodological framework, aimed at describing, explaining and, eventually, predicting events in the international relations domains.

See also


  1. ^ Haslam, Jonathan (2002). No Virtue Like Necessity: Realist Thought in International Relations since Machiavelli. London: Yale University Press. p. 168.  
  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. ^ Chua, Beng-Huat (1995). Communitarian ideology and democracy in Singapore (Repr. 1996. ed.). London [u.a.]: Routledge.  
  7. ^ a b c d 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.  
  8. ^ Juan, Chee Soon (2001). Your future, my faith, our freedom : a democratic blueprint for Singapore. Singapore: Open Singapore Centre.  
  9. ^ Evers, edited by Hans-Dieter (1980). Sociology of South-East Asia. Kuala Lumpur: Oxford University Press.  
  10. ^ Management of success : the moulding of modern Singapore (1. reprint. ed.). Singapore: Institute of Southeast Asian Studies. 1989.  
  11. ^ Austin, Ian Patrick (2001). Pragmatism and public policy in East Asia : origins, adaptations, and developments. Singapore: Fairmont Internat.  


  • John Bew: "The Real Origins of Realpolitik", The National Interest, 2014
  • John Bew: "Real Realpolitik: A History", The John W. Kluge Center at the Library of Congress, April 10, 2014. Accessed July 29, 2014.
  • David Robertson: The Routledge Dictionary of Politics. Routledge 2004. ISBN 978-0-415-32377-2, p. 420 (restricted online copy, p. 420, at Google Books)
  • Hajo Holborn: History of Modern Germany: 1840-1945. Princeton University Press 1982, ISBN 978-0-691-00797-7, p. 117 (restricted online copy, p. 117, at Google Books)
  • Ruth Weissbourd Grant: Hypocrisy and integrity: Machiavelli, Rousseau, and the ethics of politics. University of Chicago Press 1997, ISBN 978-0-226-30582-0, p. 40-41 (restricted online copy, p. 40, at Google Books)
  • Frank Whelon Wayman (ed.), Paul Francis Diehl (ed.): Reconstructing Realpolitik. University of Michigan Press 1994, ISBN 978-0-472-08268-1 (restricted online copy at Google Books)
  • Federico Trocini: L’invenzione della «Realpolitik» e la scoperta della «legge del potere». August Ludwig von Rochau tra radicalismo e nazional-liberalismo, il Mulino, Bologna 2009
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