‘Realpolitik’: a Foreign Policy Using Ungoverned Power

‘Realpolitik’, also known as foreign-policy realism, relies on a country’s own strength instead of trusting to, and complying with, agreed international rules.  Rajan Menon’s article, Realpolitik or Realism? (reviewing John Bew’s 2016 book, Realpolitik: A History), described how such policies have been associated with Machiavelli and many other influential thinkers and statesmen.

Realpolitik can be coercive or defensive.  In America’s case it 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, defined The ‘Weinberger Criteria’ for The Use of Military Force (1984); these comprised six tests to be applied before America should use military force:

  • 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’s article, On foreign policy, Donald Trump is no realist, summarised a ‘realistic’ approach:

“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.  Condoleezza Rice’s speech, The Power & Promise of American Realism, quoted American President Theodore Roosevelt’s dictum: “speak softly, and carry a big stick”.  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.  The rhetoric used at the Presidential Candidate Donald Trump Rally in Sarasota, Florida, “stand up to China”, was an example of this.

The Economist article, Sea power: Who rules the waves?, described China’s projection of power in the South China Sea.  It had the strapline: “China no longer accepts that America should be Asia-Pacific’s dominant naval power”.  Donald Trump didn’t propose any realistic countermeasures against that example of Chinese realpolitik, but he did signal his willingness to use military force in a different context: with a missile strike against Syria in April 2017.  Raúl Ilargi Meijer’s article, Symbols of Strength, suggested that this was largely intended to send a message to the Chinese president – with whom he was having dinner at the time.

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.  The BBC article, Ukraine crisis: What’s going on in Crimea?, described the manoeuvre.  The West was concerned at his expansionism but was unable to prevent it and had no effective remedy other than economic sanctions.  As reported by the BBC, Crimea annexation: Putin admits sanctions ‘damaging’, Putin was quoted as saying that the measures were “not fatal, but naturally damage our ongoing work”.

A listing by The New Statesman, of its magazine on 16 August 2016, included two articles with references to Syria:

An article by John Jenkins, a former British ambassador to Syria, explained how the country has become a theatre for great-power rivalry, with Russia and Iran turning cynical opportunism into high policy: Syria – a tragedy without end.

The BBC’s world affairs editor, John Simpson, argued that if there were a Nobel prize for clever footwork, it would be awarded to Vladimir Putin: World Citizen.

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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This is a current page, from the Patterns of Power Edition 3a book, © PatternsofPower.org, 2020.  An archived copy of it is held at https://www.patternsofpower.org/edition03/6774a.htm