The German word for political realism, generally referring to the advancement of the national interest unrestrained by ethical or ideological concerns, more specifi cally a foreign policy based on pragmatic concrete goals rather than theory or ideals, the latter being Idealpolitik. Otto von Bismarck is often credited with having coined the term, following Count Metternich’ s tradition in balance-of-power diplomacy, but it was fi rst used by the historian August Ludwig von Rochau who, in 1853, published The Principles of Realpolitik, Applied to the Political Conditions of Germany.
The ancient Greek historian Thucydides, who wrote the History of the Peloponnesian War, is often cited as an intellectual forbearer of Realpolitik. One of the most articulate proponents of the doctrine was Niccolò Machiavelli (1469–1527), best known for The Prince, and Rochau’s work was in substance a neo-Machiavellian doctrine of the natural law of power. The tradition of Realpolitik was further refi ned and transmitted by Richelieu’s raison d’état. Bismarck’s foreign policy adhered to Realpolitik in its clear-headed consciousness of Prussia’s, then Germany’s, “conditions” with as much attention given to its limitations and inherent vulnerabilities as to its considerable capabilities. Under Wilhelm II, Realpolitik was abandoned in favor of a Weltpolitik disdainful of Bismarck’s caution. It paved the way for an intense European arms race, increasing tensions between alliances, and World War I.
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