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Realpolitik (German: “realistic”, “practical” or “actual”; and “politics”) refers to politics or diplomacy based primarily on practical considerations, rather than ideological notions. In this respect, it shares aspects of its philosophical approach with those of realism and pragmatism. The term realpolitik is often used pejoratively to imply politics that are coercive, amoral, or Machiavellian. Realpolitik is a theory of politics that focuses on considerations of power, not ideals, morals, or principles. The term was coined by Otto Edward Leopold von Bismarck, a German writer and politician in the 19th century, following Klemens von Metternich's lead in finding ways to balance the power of European empires. Balancing power to keep the European pentarchy was the means for keeping the peace, and careful Realpolitik practitioners tried to avoid arms races.

Rodrigo Borja defines it as the principle on which nations act, in their foreign policies, driven by their own interests and not by altruism, friendship, idealism or solidarity considerations, power has a decisive role in international relations.

Realpolitik in Europe

As used in the U.S., the term is often similar to power politics, while in Germany, Realpolitik is used to describe modest (realistic) politics in opposition to overzealous (unrealistic) politics, though it is associated with the nationalism of the 19th century. Realpolitik policies were created after the revolutions of 1848 as a tool to strengthen states and tighten social order. The most famous German advocate of “Realpolitik” was Otto von Bismarck, the First Chancellor (1862-1870) to Wilhelm I of the Kingdom of Prussiamarker. Bismarck used Realpolitik to achieve Prussian dominance in Germanymarker, as he manipulated political issues such as Schleswig-Holstein and the Hohenzollern candidature to antagonize other countries, possibly with the intention of war. Characteristic of Bismarck's political action was an almost Machiavellian policy, demonstrating a pragmatic view of the real political world. One example of this is his willingness to adopt some of the "liberal" social policies of employee insurance, for example; realistically, by doing so, he could manipulate small changes from the top down, rather than face the possibility of major change, from the bottom up. Another example, Prussia's seemingly illogical move of not demanding territory from a defeated Austria, a move that later led to the unification of Germany, is one of the often-cited examples of Realpolitik. Similarly, in the German Green Party, people willing to compromise are referred to as (realists), and opponents as (fundamentalists or ideologues).

Another example of Realpolitik in use is Adolf Hitler's attempt to obtain a predominantly German region of Czechoslovakiamarker called Sudetenland in 1938. At first, Hitler demanded then president Edvard Beneš hand over that region of the country, but Beneš refused. Subsequently, British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain gave Sudetenland to Hitler in the (ultimately vain) hope of preventing a war, as codified in the Munich Agreement. Chamberlain was able to do this because Great Britainmarker wielded power over Czechoslovakia, therefore it was able to overrule Beneš' refusal.

Examples of US Realpolitik

The policy of Realpolitik was formally introduced to the Nixon White Housemarker by Henry Kissinger. In this context, the policy meant dealing with other powerful nations in a practical manner rather than on the basis of political doctrine or ethics—for instance, Nixon's diplomacy with the People's Republic of Chinamarker, despite the U.S.'s opposition to communism and the previous doctrine of containment. Another example Kissinger's use of shuttle diplomacy after the 1973 Arab-Israeli war, where he persuaded the Israelis to withdraw partially from the Sinai in deference to the political realities created by the oil crisis.

Realpolitik is distinct from ideological politics in that it is not dictated by a fixed set of rules, but instead tends to be goal-oriented, limited only by practical exigencies. Since realpolitik is ordered toward the most practical means of securing national interests, it can often entail compromising on ideological principles. For example, the U.S. under the Nixon and Reagan administrations often supported authoritarian regimes that were human rights violators, in order to, theoretically, secure the greater national interest of regional stability. Detractors would characterize this attitude as amoral, while supporters would contend that they are merely operating within limits defined by practical reality.

Most recently, former ambassador Dennis Ross advocated this approach to foreign policy in his 2007 book Statecraft: And how to Restore America's Standing in the World.

For the purposes of contrast, and speaking in ideal types, political ideologues would tend to favor principle over other considerations. Such individuals or groups can reject compromises which they see as the abandonment of their ideals, and so may sacrifice political gain in favor of adhering to principles they believe to be constitutive of long term goals.

Relation to realism

A foreign policy guided by realpolitik can also be described as a realist foreign policy. Realpolitik is related to the philosophy of political realism and can be regarded as one of its foundations, as both implicate power politics. Realpolitik, however, is a prescriptive guideline for policy-making (like foreign policy), while realism is a paradigm that includes a wide variety of theories that describe, explain and predict international relations. Realpolitik also focuses on the balance of power among nation-states, which is also a central concern in realism. Both also imply operation according to the belief that politics is based on the pursuit, possession, and application of power.

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