The concept of realpolitik arose in the 19th century in Bismarck’s Germany. Realpolitik consists of putting national interests first, using economic, military and diplomatic power to do so.
This concept, coined by the German journalist and politician Ludwig Von Rochau, implied that Germany acted pragmatically on the European continent to protect its interests as a country.
Great references of realpolitik
Although the term realpolitik dates back to the 19th century, it is possible to find antecedents in the ideas of the Italian philosopher and diplomat Nicholas Machiavelli. Thus, the Italian thinker maintained in his work “The Prince” that every ruler, for the good of his State, must retain power, beyond ethical and moral issues.
Authors from ancient Greece such as Thucydices or the chinco strategist Sun Tzu, also affirm that, in order to succeed in the political arena, it is necessary to put moral scruples aside.
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Faced with political idealism that advocates politics as a means to achieve the common good, realpolitik is presented as hard, realistic and pragmatic to achieve political objectives.
However, the one who put this way of doing politics into practice was the German Chancellor Otto von Bismark during the Second German Empire. It was in the second half of the 19th century when Germany became a predominant state over the rest of Europe.
Thus, Germany, seeking to protect its interests, carried out alliance systems to be safe from possible anti-German coalitions. In this way, she protected herself from French ambitions and possible territorial claims.
Through realpolitik, they sought to avoid a major conflict in Europe, establishing Germany as the main European power. All of this led Germany in 1881 to sign alliances with the Austro-Hungarian Empire and with Russia. The purpose was to avoid collaboration between Austria and France, since both nations had been militarily defeated by Prussia in 1866 and 1871 respectively. A second coalition was forged in 1882 with the Italians and Austro-Hungarians, although without actually breaking relations with Russia.
Bismarckian diplomacy seemed to ensure peace in Europe, while serving to settle colonial conflicts between the great powers. Thus, Germany consolidated itself as the engine of European diplomacy, maintaining good relations with Great Britain and holding back France, which was growing thanks to its colonial expansion. In turn, Germany stood as a great support of the Austro-Hungarian Empire against the Turks.
End of Bismarckian realpolitik
Towards the end of the 19th century, in the 1890s and under the reign of Kaiser Wilhelm II, Germany reformulated its political and diplomatic strategy. The rivalry was increasing with Great Britain and the German Empire went from realpolitik to what was called weltpolitik.
This political turn meant not only isolating France, but also challenging Britain’s leadership. To do this, Germany embarked on ambitious militarization plans, creating a strong army and a powerful navy. Only in this way could they compete with the British in a colonial and military race. This was how German militarism, among many other reasons, would end up leading Europe into the First World War.
Realpolitik in the 20th century
The concept realpolitik has been used on numerous occasions throughout the 20th century. The American political scientist Hans Morgenthau referred to realpolitik as a tool to achieve greater international influence.
Therefore, the conflict between political realism and political idealism continued to simmer throughout the 20th century. Faced with international cooperation posed by political idealism, realpolitik arose, which described international relations as a stark struggle between states trying to monopolize power.
Precisely, during the Cold War, in the tense duel for world supremacy between the United States and the Soviet Union, prominent statesmen such as the US Secretary of State Henry Kissinger or the US diplomat George Kennan, also acted in accordance with the principles of the realpolitik.