Realpolitik

I regularly get accused of conducting Realpolitik. I don’t think I have ever used that term.”1

Realpolitik Realpolitik

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    So said Henry Kissinger, the U.S. Secretary of State and national security advisor.

    Realpolitik is the type of politics that is practical and realist, rather than focusing on idealistic issues such as morality or ideology.

    Realpolitik is typically associated with diplomacy in the 19th and 20th centuries as well as the present. Its critics underscore its apparent disconnect from ethics.

    Age of Realpolitik, Congress of Berlin (July 13, 1878) features a number of statesmen, including Otto von Bismarck, by Anton von Werner, 1881. Source: Wikipedia Commons (public domain), StudySmarter.

    Congress of Berlin (July 13, 1878) features statesmen, including Otto von Bismarck, by Anton von Werner, 1881. Source: Wikipedia Commons (public domain).

    Realpolitik: Origin

    The origins of Realpolitik depend on historic interpretation. The term "Realpolitik" was invented in the mid-19th-century, first used to describe the Austria and German States' position toward the Crimean war of 1853.

    Thucydides

    Some scholars go all the way to ancient Greece and discuss the Athenian historian Thucydides (ca. 460 – ca. 400 BCE) as an early example of Realpolitik. Thucydides was known for his focus on impartiality and evidence-based analysis. For this reason, he is often considered the source of political realism in the realm of foreign policy and international relations.

    Niccolò Machiavelli

    In Early Modern Europe, Niccolò Machiavelli (1469–1527) is usually viewed as an important example of Realpolitik before the introduction of the term.

    Machiavelli was an Italian writer and statesman who resided in Florence. At this time, the Medici family had a significant impact on the political developments in that Italian city. Machiavelli wrote a variety of texts, but he is best known for his work on political philosophy, especially his book, The Prince. Machiavelli’s work in this field focused on political realism. For this reason, some historians trace the origin of Realpolitik to the Renaissance.

    Age of Realpolitik, A Portrait of Niccolò Machiavelli, Santi di Tito, 1550-1600. Source: Wikipedia Commons (public domain), StudySmarter.

    A Portrait of Niccolò Machiavelli, Santi di Tito, 1550-1600. Source: Wikipedia Commons (public domain).

    The Prince (1513) was published in 1532 after Machiavelli’s death. The text is a manual for a prince—or any type of ruler—about the way that he or she should conduct politics. For example, the author differentiated between established, hereditary rulers who follow the traditional politics in their respective states and new rulers who must hold on to power while proving themselves adequate.

    Cardinal Richelieu

    Armand Jean du Plessis, better known as Cardinal Richelieu (1585–1642), was a high-ranking member of the clergy as well as a statesman. Within the Catholic Church, Richelieu became a bishop in 1607 and rose to the rank of cardinal in 1622. At the same time, from 1624, he also served as the chief minister to King Louis XIII.

    Some historians refer to Richelieu as the first Prime Minister in the world. During his tenure, Richelieu used pragmatic politics to consolidate and centralize the power of the French state by subordinating the nobility to the king.

    Did you know?

    Machiavelli's texts on statecraft were available in France at this time, although it is unclear whether Richelieu read them. The way in which the minister practiced politics reveals that he was likely familiar with Machiavelli's key ideas. For example, the Cardinal believed that the state was an abstract notion rather than a political entity that depended on the specific ruler or religion.

    Age of Realpolitik, Portrait of Cardinal Richelieu, Philippe de Champaigne, 1642. Source: Wikipedia Commons (public domain), StudySmarter.

    Portrait of Cardinal Richelieu, Philippe de Champaigne, 1642. Source: Wikipedia Commons (public domain).

    In practice, Richelieu believed France would benefit from a chaotic Central Europe to limit the power of the Austrian Habsburg dynasty in that region. To do so, France supported small Central European states, harming Austria. Richelieu's plan was so successful that it was not until 1871 that a united Central Europe, in the form of a unified Germany under Otto von Bismarck, emerged.

    Did you know?The Habsburg Dynasty was one of the main dynasties that ruled Europe (15th century-1918). This dynasty is usually associated with Austria and the Austro-Hungarian Empire.

    Ludwig August von Rochau

    August Ludwig von Rochau (1810–1873), a German statesman and political theorist, introduced the term Realpolitik in 1853. The term appeared in his text called Practical Politics: an Application of its Principles to the Situation of the German States (Grundsätze der Realpolitik, angewendet auf die staatlichen Zustände Deutschlands). According to Rochau, politics is subject to a certain set of laws of power, just like the world is subject to the laws of physics. Understanding the way in which the state is formed and altered offers additional insight into the way political power operates.

    The concept became popular among German thinkers and statesmen alike. It was especially closely linked to the German Chancellor Otto von Bismarck because of his achievement of unifying Germany in 1871. However, as time went on, the meaning of the term "Realpolitik" became more malleable.

    Realpolitik: Examples

    Because the term Realpolitik has turned into a broadly interpreted concept, the statesmen who subscribe to this concept are quite diverse.

    Realpolitik & Otto von Bismarck

    Otto von Bismarck (1815 – 1898) is, perhaps, the best-known example of a 19th-century statesman to use Realpolitik during his political tenure. Between 1862 and 1890, Bismarck was the Prime Minister of Prussia (East Germany). His greatest achievement was unifying German-speaking lands, except Austria, in 1871, of which he was the first Chancellor (1871–1890). He held multiple political positions at the same time, including being the Minister of Foreign Affairs (1862–1890).

    Unification of Germany

    In order to carry out the unification of Germany, Bismarck fought against Denmark, Austria, and France between 1864 and 1871. Bismarck was also known as a highly skilled diplomat using Realpolitik who worked toward German interests and prevented a large-scale European war.

    Age of Realpolitik, Otto von Bismarck, German Chancellor, Kabinett-Photo, ca. 1875. Source: Wikipedia Commons (public domain), StudySmarter.

    Otto von Bismarck, German Chancellor, Kabinett-Photo, ca. 1875. Source: Wikipedia Commons (public domain).

    Domestic Policy

    In domestic politics, Bismarck was also pragmatic. He was a conservative with strong links to the monarchy. Bismarck introduced many measures that historians describe as precedents of today’s welfare states. These were social reforms for the working class which included old-age pensions, healthcare, and accident insurance. Bismarck’s program was a way to minimize any potential for social unrest.

    Henry Kissinger

    Henry Kissinger (born in 1923 as Heinz Alfred Wolfgang Kissinger) is one of the most famous examples of Realpolitik in the 20th century. Kissinger is an American statesman and scholar. He served as the U.S. National Security Advisor (1969–1975) and a Secretary of State (1973–1977) during the Nixon and Ford administrations.

    Age of Realpolitik, Henry Kissinger, U.S. Secretary of State,  1973-1977. Source: Wikipedia Commons (public domain), StudySmarter.

    Henry Kissinger, U.S. Secretary of State, 1973-1977. Source: Wikipedia Commons (public domain).

    Cold War

    Kissinger's successes with Realpolitik in the 1970s involved his separate, but related, policies toward the Soviet Union and China in the context of the Cold War.

    • The Cold War was the conflict that arose after 1945 between the former WWII Allies, the United States, and the Soviet Union. The conflict was, in part, ideological, in which capitalism and socialism, or Communism, clashed. As a result, the world was split into two spheres, aligned with the United States and the Soviet Union, respectively. This division was known as bipolarity. One of the more dangerous aspects of the Cold War was the existence of nuclear weapons.

    Sino-Soviet Split

    The Soviet Union and China were America's ideological rivals. Kissinger's policy was to exploit a rift between them, known as the Sino-Soviet split, and to separately pursue an improved relationship with each country. As a result, the United States and the Soviet Union were in a period of détente—an easing of political tensions—in the 1970s.

    Between the late 1960s and early 1970s, the two Cold War rivals pursued setting limits to nuclear weapons, such as the discussions held in the context of the Strategic Arms Limitation Talks, SALT. One of their most important results was the Anti-Ballistic Missile (ABM) Treaty (1972) which limited each of the two sides to having access to only two deployment areas for anti-ballistic missiles.

    Age of Realpolitik, Henry Kissinger and Chairman Mao and the first Premier Zhou Enlai, Beijing, the early 1970s. Source: Wikipedia Commons (public domain), StudySmarter.

    Henry Kissinger and Chairman Mao and the first Premier Zhou Enlai, Beijing, the early 1970s. Source: Wikipedia Commons (public domain).

    At the same time, Kissinger made a secret trip to China in 1971. This trip was followed by a significant improvement in relations with China, in which Nixon was the first U.S. President to visit China after decades of an essentially frozen diplomatic relationship.

    Realpolitik: Significance

    Realpolitik remains an influential aspect of the practical application of politics, especially in the international arena. Today, the term has a broader and more malleable meaning than its initial usage in the 1850s.

    Realpolitik and Political Realism

    Realpolitik and political realism are related, although not identical, concepts. Scholars usually describe Realpolitik as a practical application of political ideas. In contrast, political realism is a theory that explains the way international relations work. This theory presupposes that different countries, each, have their own interests, and they pursue them by using Realpolitik. In other words, the relationship between political realism and Realpolitik is that of theory and practice.

    Age of Realpolitik - Key Takeaways

    • Realpolitik is a pragmatic way of conducting politics, especially in diplomacy, divorced from morality and ideology.
    • The term "Realpolitik" was introduced by the German thinker August Ludwig von Rochau in 1853.
    • Historians find examples of Realpolitik, or its theoretic counterpart, political realism, throughout history before the introduction of the term, including Machiavelli and Cardinal Richelieu.
    • There are many statesmen who used Realpolitik in their work in the 19th and 20th centuries as well as in the present, such as Otto von Bismarck and Henry Kissinger.

    References

    1. Kissinger, Henry. Interview with Der Spiegel.” Der Spiegel, 6 July 2009, https://www.henryakissinger.com/interviews/henry-kissinger-interview-with-der-spiegel/ accessed 20 June 2022.
    Frequently Asked Questions about Realpolitik

    Who originated Realpolitik?

    The term "Realpolitik" was introduced by the German thinker Ludwig August von Rochau in the mid-19th century. However, some historians find earlier sources for the principles, though not the term, of Realpolitik. These examples include the Renaissance period and texts like Machiavelli's The Prince. 

    What is Realpolitik?

    Realpolitik is the type of politics, especially in foreign policy, that is practical and realistic instead of idealistic.

    What is the best definition of Realpolitik?

    Realpolitik is the type of politics, especially in foreign policy, that is practical and realistic instead of idealistic.

    Who used Realpolitik?

    Many statesmen used Realpolitik. In the 19th century, German Chancellor Otto von Bismarck was known for using Realpolitik to advance German interests. In the 20th century, American statesman Henry Kissinger often applied the principles of Realpolitik in his work as a national security advisor and a Secretary of State. 

    What is an example of the Realpolitik concept?

    An example of Realpolitik is the period of détente between the US and the USSR that took place in the 1970s. The two superpowers focused on pragmatic matters to ease ideological tensions.

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