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Realpolitik (from German: real "realistic", "practical", or "actual"; and Politik "politics", German pronunciation: [ʁeˈaːlpoliˌtɪk]) 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
The term Realpolitik was coined by Ludwig von Rochau, a German writer and politician in the 19th century. His 1853 book Grundsätze der Realpolitik angewendet auf die staatlichen Zustände Deutschlands describes the meaning of the term:
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 ended with dishonor. The great achievement of the enlightenment had been to undermine that might equals right. The mistake liberals made was to assume that the law of the strong had suddenly evaporated just because it was 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.
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.
Exemplary for this was also 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. Another example of Bismarck's Realpolitik is Prussia's seemingly illogical move of not demanding territory from a defeated Austria, a move that later led to the unification of Germany, an often-cited example of Realpolitik.
Another example of Realpolitik in use is Adolf Hitler's attempt to obtain a predominantly German region of Czechoslovakia called Sudetenland in 1938. At first, Hitler demanded then president Edvard Beneš hand over that region of the country, but Beneš refused. Subsequently, British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain gave Sudetenland to Hitler in the (ultimately unsuccessful) hope of preventing a war, as codified in the Munich Agreement. Chamberlain was able to do this because without Britain's guarantee of support Beneš couldn't hope to object.
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 forces 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.
Examples of U.S. Realpolitik
The policy of Realpolitik was formally introduced to the Richard Nixon White House by Henry Kissinger. 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.
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.
- Otto von Bismarck
- Cardinal Richelieu
- Henry Kissinger
- Monopoly on the legitimate use of physical force
- Niccolò Machiavelli
- Power politics
- Realism in international relations
- 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.
- von Rochau, Ludwig. Grundsätze der Realpolitik angewendet auf die staatlichen Zustände Deutschlands.
- Bew, John (2014). Real Realpolitik: A History. Washington, D.C.: The Library of Congress.
- Davies, Robert William "Edward Hallett Carr, 1892-1982" pages 473-511 from Proceedings of the British Academy, Volume 69, 1983 page 477.
- Byrnes, Sholto. "Time to Rethink Realpolitik". New Statesman. Retrieved 25 June 2011.
- 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