AskDefine | Define realpolitik

Dictionary Definition

realpolitik n : politics based on practical rather than moral or ideological considerations [syn: practical politics]

User Contributed Dictionary

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From Realpolitik.


  1. Pragmatic international government policy concerned with perceived interests of the nation.


government policy
  • Finnish: reaalipolitiikka

Extensive Definition

Realpolitik (German: real ("realistic", "practical" or "actual") and politik ("politics")) refers to politics or diplomacy based primarily on practical considerations, rather than ideological notions. The term realpolitik is often used pejoratively to imply politics that are coercive, amoral, or Machiavellian. Realpolitik is a depiction of foreign policy that should be based on considerations of power, not ideals/morals/or principles. Henry Kissinger believed that this should be how U.S. conducts foreign policy.

Origin and use of the term

The term was coined by Ludwig August von Rochau, a German writer and politician in the 19th century, following Klemens von Metternich's lead in finding ways to balance the power of European empires. Balancing power to keep the European pentarchy was the means for keeping the peace, and careful Realpolitik practitioners tried to avoid arms races.
As used in the U.S., the term is often similar to power politics, while in Germany, Realpolitik is to describe modest (realistic) politics in opposition to overzealous (unrealistic) politics, though it is associated with the nationalism of the 19th century. The most famous German advocate of “Realpolitik” was Otto von Bismarck, the First Chancellor (1862-1870) to Wilhelm I of the Kingdom of Prussia. Bismarck used Realpolitik to achieve Prussian dominance in Germany, as he manipulated political issues such as Schleswig-Holstein and the Hohenzollern candidature to antagonize other countries and possibly with the intention of war. Characteristic of Bismarck's political action was an almost Machiavellian policy; he acted with little regard to ethics, morals or legalities. Prussia's seemingly illogical move of not demanding territory from a defeated Austria, a move that later led to the unification of Germany, is one of the often-cited examples of Realpolitik.
Similarly, in the German Green Party, people willing to compromise are referred to as Realos (realists), and opponents as Fundis (fundamentalists or ideologues).

Realpolitik in contrast to ideological politics

The policy of realpolitik was formally introduced to the 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 the U.S.'s opposition to communism and the previous doctrine of containment. Another example is Kissinger's "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, the U.S. under the Nixon and Reagan administrations 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.
In contrast, political ideologues tend to favor principle over all other considerations. Such groups often reject compromises which they see as the abandonment of their ideals, and so may sacrifice political gain in favor of adhering to their principles.

Relation to realism

A foreign policy guided by realpolitik can also be described as a realist foreign policy. Realpolitik is related to the philosophy of political realism and can be regarded as one of its foundations, as both implicate power politics. Realpolitik, however, is a prescriptive guideline for policy-making (like foreign policy), while realism is a paradigm that includes a wide variety of theories that describe, explain and predict international relations. Realpolitik also focuses on the balance of power among nation-states, which is also a central concern in realism. Both also imply operation according to the belief that politics is based on the pursuit, possession, and application of power.
realpolitik in Catalan: Realpolitik
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realpolitik in Finnish: Reaalipolitiikka
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realpolitik in Chinese: 现实政治

Synonyms, Antonyms and Related Words

Machtpolitik, Tammany Hall, bossism, career politics, confrontation politics, consensus politics, economics in action, empirical politics, kid-glove politics, machine politics, partisan politics, partisanism, peanut politics, petty politics, politics, polity, pork-barrel politics, power politics, practical politics, pressure-group politics, reform politics, silk-stocking politics, ward politics
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