‘Realpolitik’: a Foreign Policy Using Ungoverned Power

(This is a current page, from the Patterns of Power Edition 3 book contents.  An archived copy of this page is held at https://www.patternsofpower.org/edition03/6774.htm)

‘Realpolitik’, also known as foreign-policy realism, relies on a country’s own strength instead of trusting to, and complying with, agreed international rules.  It has been associated with Machiavelli and many other influential thinkers and statesmen.[1]  It can be coercive or defensive.

American realpolitik has been coercive: America has not been directly attacked by another country since its war of independence.  President Reagan’s Secretary of Defense, Caspar Weinberger, articulated six tests to be applied before America should use military force:[2]

  • it should be vital to the national interest;
  • it should be prepared to provide sufficient resource to win;
  • it should have defined political and military objectives;
  • the resources provided “must be continually reassessed and adjusted” as the situation changes;
  • the action should have the support of the population and of Congress;
  • and “combat should be a last resort”.

These are tests from a political viewpoint – rather than taking a moral stance on a ‘just war’ ( or merely analysing the likelihood of military success (7.4.1).  He didn’t even mention international law (5.3.6) as a consideration.

Both Iran and North Korea have been exercising defensive realpolitik in their foreign policies.  George W Bush directly threatened both countries, in his ‘axis of evil’ speech, so they both pursued nuclear programmes as a deterrent against American aggression – as described later (

Robert D.  Kaplan summarised a ‘realistic’ approach:[3]

“the realist knows that he must work with … elemental forces rather than against them, he also knows, for example, that order comes before freedom and interests come before values.  After all, without order there is no freedom for anybody, and without interests a state has no incentive to project its values.”

Whilst it seems reasonable to agree with the proposition that order comes before freedom, the use of the word ‘interests’ begs the question of where a country’s interests lie.  A realistic foreign policy has to take a prudent view of coercion (, recognising that it might not work for very long and that it would undermine the country’s soft power (  Although Kaplan puts interests before values, it is the latter which give a country its soft power and its ability to project influence without resort to military force.

When choosing a foreign policy, and particularly when considering the use of military capability, it has to be recognised that ‘rogue States’ exist – so it seems prudent to plan for the best but be prepared for the worst.  American President Theodore Roosevelt famously said “speak softly, and carry a big stick”.[4]  Speaking softly allows a country to maintain its soft power, whilst it can rely on its military power as a form of deterrence to reduce the risks of being pushed to one side by an aggressive rival.

Authoritarian populist politicians ( propose aggressive foreign policies as a way of appearing strong, to seduce a demoralised electorate.  Donald Trump’s campaign rhetoric – “stand up to China” – was an example of this.[5]  He didn’t propose any realistic countermeasures against China’s projection of power in the South China Sea,[6] but he did signal his willingness to use military force in a different context – Syria – in April 2017 during a visit by the Chinese President Xi Jinping.[7]

President Putin is perhaps the most notable exponent of realpolitik in the early 21st century.  He didn’t sound noisily aggressive, like Donald Trump, but nonetheless annexed Crimea – presenting it as carrying out the wishes of its inhabitants as expressed in a referendum.[8]  The West was concerned at his expansionism but was unable to prevent it and had no effective remedy although, as reported by the BBC, Crimea annexation: Putin admits sanctions ‘damaging’.  His popularity was increased by the annexation of Crimea.[9]

It is comparatively easy to present this recent use of realpolitik as successful, but much harder to assess the long-term cost of undermining international organisations ( and thereby perpetuating global security problems.


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[1] John Bew’s 2016 book, Realpolitik: A History, was reviewed on 22 August 2016 by Rajan Menon in an article that was available in April 2018 at http://newramblerreview.com/book-reviews/political-science/realpolitik-or-realism.

[2] Caspar Weinberger’s six tests for entering into war were available in April 2018 at http://cf.linnbenton.edu/artcom/social_science/clarkd/upload/Weinberger%20Criteria,%201984.pdf.

[3] An article by Robert D.  Kaplan, entitled On foreign policy, Donald Trump is no realist, was published on 12 November 2016 and was available in April 2018 at https://www.washingtonpost.com/opinions/on-foreign-policy-donald-trump-is-a-fake-realist/2016/11/11/c5fdcc52-a783-11e6-8042-f4d111c862d1_story.html.

[4] Condoleezza Rice, the U.S.  Secretary of State, addressed the Economic Club of New York on 7 June  2007.  Her speech was entitled The Power & Promise of American Realism, and described Teddy Roosevelt’s foreign policy; it was available in April 2018 at http://www.realclearpolitics.com/articles/2007/06/the_promise_of_american_realism.html.

[5] Donald Trump used these words during his rally in Sarasota, Florida on 7 November 2016 (21 minutes into his speech).  A video of it, a summary of extracts and a full transcript were available in April 2018 at https://www.c-span.org/video/?418206-1/donald-trump-campaigns-sarasota-florida.

[6] On 17 October 2015, The Economist published an article entitled Sea power, subtitled Who rules the waves?  It had the strapline “China no longer accepts that America should be Asia-Pacific’s dominant naval power”, and it explained the situation in the South China Sea in some detail.  The article was available in April 2018 at http://www.economist.com/node/21674648.

[7] Raúl Ilargi Meijer posted an article on 7 April 2017, entitled Symbols of Strength, which suggested that Trump’s strike against Syria was largely intended to send a message to the Chinese president – with whom he was having dinner at the time.  The post was available in April 2018 at https://www.theautomaticearth.com/2017/04/symbols-of-strength/.

[8] On 12 August 2016, the BBC published an article entitled Ukraine crisis: What’s going on in Crimea?  This gave an overview of Russia’s annexation of Crimea and the political background to it; it was available in April 2018 at http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-europe-25182823.

[9] On 31 August 2016, The New Statesman published an article by John Simpson entitled World Citizen in which he listed some of President Putin’s foreign policy achievements and described his resulting increased domestic popularity.  The article was available in April 2018 at http://www.newstatesman.com/politics/uk/2016/09/how-putin-conned-us-thinking-russia-superpower-again.