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 realpolitik is pragmatism.  Without an enforceable rules-based international order, geopolitical outcomes are determined by the military and economic power of countries and their allies.

Pragmatism is to be applauded, and it needs to be applied to the use of military force.  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 armed forces as a form of deterrence to reduce the risks of being harmed by an aggressive rival.

It is prudent for a country to be able to defend itself, but the use of military force in any other circumstances without UN authorisation is a breach of international law.  As an illustration of the thinking behind a political 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”.

It has been too easy to meet the ‘Weinberger Criteria’ to start a war, without fully assessing how long it is likely to last and what could go wrong.  The “support of the population” wanes if a war goes badly, as noted previously (6.3.6).  And American presidents can overturn the policies of their predecessors (, in the absence of a bipartisan foreign policy.  The criteria don’t include considerations of whether a military intervention is a ‘just war’ (, or whether it complies with international law (5.3.6).

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.”

NATO’s eastward expansion was seen by Russia as threatening, and President Putin’s anger and frustration led to him invading Ukraine – as described on this websiteThe Ukraine war is part of a major geopolitical reset, as described in a BBC article, Ukraine war: Putin has redrawn the world – but not the way he wanted.  The article compares the Ukraine war to 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””

On each occasion, the resulting settlement was the very essence of realpolitik: a negotiated compromise that reflects the raw power of the parties involved.  For example, the United Nations (UN) was formed in 1945, and it reflected the power of the countries who were victorious in the Second World War.  The end of the Cold War in 1989 ushered in a period of U.S. hegemony.

Russia and China resented American domination and found it threatening – especially when NATO bombed Serbia in 1999 without UN authorisation.  Russia and China realised then that the UN was not able to fulfil its function and that America was no longer complying with international law.  That moment, rather than the invasion of Ukraine in 2022, was the beginning of the latest geopolitical reset.

Russia and China responded to the new situation by setting up the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO) in 2001, with four ex-USSR States on Russia’s southern border, as described earlier (  It has since grown, with more members and ‘dialogue partners’ who manage their own security rather than deferring to what they see as America’s coercive realpolitik – although it also signed an agreement in 2010 to cooperate with the United Nations: Cooperation Between UN, Shanghai Cooperation Organization Dynamically Expanding, in Shared Quest for Peace, Prosperity, Says Secretary-General, in Message.

The SCO is still growing, and it affects international security – which is a topic explored more fully in the next chapter (  A Reuters report in March 2023, China’s Xi arrives in Russia to meet Putin over Ukraine war, showed how the organisation strengthens Russia’s position in that conflict.



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/edition04/6774f.htm.