Realism in Foreign Policy: ‘Realpolitik’

Realism in foreign policy, also known as ‘Realpolitik’, negotiates political settlements that allow for relative military and economic power

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 who had “a cold-eyed, unsentimental approach to statecraft”.  The article summarises the concept as:

“the centrality of power, the destructive effects of absolutist ideologies and utopian thinking, the importance of judicious compromise, politics as a struggle among rival forces and stability as an equilibrium based on accommodations among them, and the importance of savvy statesmanship.”

The key to this definition is the choice of pragmatism over absolutist ideology.

When practising realism in foreign policy, it must 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.

As an illustration of the thinking behind a decision to make an armed intervention, President Reagan’s Secretary of Defense, Caspar Weinberger, defined The ‘Weinberger Criteria’ for The Use of Military Force (1984):  

●  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 mostly political viewpoint – rather than taking a moral stance on a ‘just war’ ( or solely analysing the likelihood of military success (7.4.1).  He didn’t consider international law (5.3.6).

Robert D. Kaplan’s article, On foreign policy, Donald Trump is no realist, summarised realism in foreign policy:

“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, a country’s values can give it soft power and the ability to influence others without resort to military force.

John Mearsheimer’s analysis of Who Started the Ukraine Crisis? made the case for prudence and realism in foreign policy, recognising the interests of other major powers and the threats that they might represent:

“When the United States and its allies take note of Moscow’s concerns, as they did during the early years of the reset, crises are averted and Russia cooperates on matters of mutual concern. When the West ignores Moscow’s interests, as it did in the lead-up to the Ukraine crisis, confrontation reigns.”

The reckless neoconservative policy of NATO expansion was seen by Russia as threatening (, and President Putin’s anger and frustration led to his invasion of Ukraine: as described in a blog post on this website.  The outcome of this invasion is likely to be a major geopolitical reset, as described in a BBC article Ukraine war: Putin has redrawn the world – but not the way he wanted, appearing to revitalise the West and isolate Russia – but it wasn’t over then.

In practice, the geopolitical map of the world is redrawn at moments which reflect the balance of power after a crisis, when suppressed political pressures had burst out into violence.  The resulting settlements are then the very essence of realpolitik: negotiated compromises that reflect the raw power of the parties involved.  The above BBC article lists six previous such moments in history:

1789: French Revolution. Monarchy overthrown, republic founded

1815: Congress of Vienna redraws map of Europe, restores balance of power and ushers in decades of peace after the upheaval of the Napoleonic wars

1848: A wave of liberal and democratic revolutions across Europe

1919: Treaty of Versailles. New independent sovereign nation states replace old multi-national empires

1945: Yalta – great powers agree to partition Europe into Western and Soviet “spheres of influence”. Iron Curtain falls across the continent

1989: Democratic revolutions in Soviet-dominated Eastern Europe tear down the Iron Curtain. The Soviet Union collapses two years later. Vladimir Putin calls this the “greatest catastrophe of the 20th Century””

Following the Second World War, the United Nations was founded on realpolitik.  It allocated most of the power to the five permanent members of the Security Council (the P5), who were the victors in that war and who are nuclear armed: America, Britain, China, France and Russia.  Some P5 members – principally America and Russia – have undermined the UN’s effectiveness, though, by ignoring it when they felt that it was convenient to do so.  Ideology and domestic politics have triumphed over their responsibility to maintain world peace.

Russia’s invasion of Ukraine is just the latest example of a major breach of international law by a member of the P5.  America has made several expensive and mostly unsuccessful interventions in other countries since the UN was founded – including Korea, Vietnam and the 2003 invasion of Iraq – followed by periods of retrenchment, as described in Joseph Nye’s essay, Where in the World Are We?

Other countries have also been using coercive realpolitik.  An Economist article, Why medium-sized autocracies are projecting more hard power abroad, lists various reasons for why some leaders are behaving aggressively towards other countries: security concerns, domestic popularity, profit and to support each other against the international community.  These are the political calculations which the leaders of Iran, Turkey, Saudi Arabia, Pakistan, Belarus and Cuba have made when deciding to use Ungoverned Force.  As the article observed, “None of this is good for global stability. …Each case is different, but most of these newly assertive countries will find that the costs of adventurism outweigh the benefits. Wielding hard power is expensive, and hard to do effectively.”

The next chapter describes the use of military power – “hard power” in various forms (7.3) – and itemises several reasons why that rarely leads to a stable outcome (7.4).



This page is intended to form part of Edition 4 of the Patterns of Power series of books.  An archived copy of it is held at https://www.patternsofpower.org/edition04/6774a.htm.