Realpolitik is a system of politics based on concrete, practical goals, rather than on morality or abstract ideals. According to Merriam Webster, the term was first used in 1895. It derives from German, in which “real” means “actual” and Politik means “politics.”
The Financial Times notes that in realpolitik, “politics is about power, about maneuvering coalitions, about social forces and their capacity to influence politics, and about the power of ideas in shaping political possibilities.”
Realpolitik is often used interchangeably with “power politics.” It’s generally used in discussions about foreign policy and relationships between nations. The term is closely associated with former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger. Kissinger, who served under both Richard Nixon and Gerald Ford, supported a number of policies on the grounds that they were practical, if not ethical. Kissinger called for intensive bombing campaigns in North Vietnam; he also allied the US with dictatorial leaders like Chilean strongman Augusto Pinochet and the Shah of Iran.
Kissinger himself argued that there must be a balance between realism and idealism. The statesman once said, ruefully, that the United States was “the only country in which “realist” can be used as a pejorative epithet.” He reasoned that without a realist strategy, even the most shining values could never be brought about.
Otto von Bismarck, the German statesman who oversaw the unification of Germany in 1871, was also famous for his use of realpolitik. Bismarck was a master diplomat who was not afraid to antagonize other countries and even start wars if he thought it would help him to accomplish his long-term goals.
More recently, many analysts have argued that President Barack Obama was a realpolitik practitioner. Obama, the argument goes, was responsible for countless deaths by drone strike. He carried out widespread wiretaps of Americans. He also failed to take action in Syria against the regime of Bashar Assad. Writing in the Los Angeles Times, the Harvard historian Niall Ferguson claimed that many liberals had applied a “double standard” when judging Obama. The same people who were critical of Kissinger, Ferguson said, turned a blind eye to Obama’s human rights abuses. He added,
“There is disenchantment with Obama’s foreign policy these days. In recent polls, nearly half of Americans (49.3%) disapprove of it, compared with fewer than 38% who approve. I suspect, however, that many disapprove for the wrong reasons. The president is widely seen, especially on the right, as weak. In my view, his strategy is flawed, but there is no doubting his ruthlessness when it comes to executing it.”
Pundits have also labeled President Donald Trump a realist. Writing in Politico, Jacob Heilbrunn pointed out that Trump had shown a distaste for global governance and interventionism. As a presidential candidate, Trump pledged to rein in free trade and to put an end to humanitarian intervention in other nations.
In fact, candidate Trump’s first major foreign policy address promised to pursue an “America first” policy. He lamented that the US had been “rebuilding other countries” while neglecting its own needs. In sum, Trump pledged that he would “develop a new foreign policy direction for our country, one that replaces randomness with purpose, ideology with strategy, and chaos with peace.”