Political Realism and Realpolitik

Research output: Chapter in Book/Report/Conference proceedingChapter


This chapter examines the origins of the German term ‘Realpolitik’ and traces its influence on the English-speaking ‘realist’ tradition of the 20th century. It shows that the meaning of such terms has repeatedly changed, depending on historical context, to make the broader point that notions of ‘the real’ in international affairs are highly contingent on time and place. The chapter begins by tracing the emergence of the neologism ‘Realpolitik’ in the mid-19th century at the hands of a liberal writer, August Ludwig von Rochau, in 1853. It then discusses the distortion of the word in Germany as it was purloined by the followers of Bismarck, then damagingly conflated with Machtpolitik and Weltpolitik. The second half of the chapter discusses the arrival of realpolitik into the English language during the Anglo-German antagonism, when it was treated with alarm, as the distinguishing mark of a dangerous new rival and a direct affront to the liberal internationalism of the early 20th century. Too much has been made of the influence of Germanic realpolitik on the various tributaries that have flowed into American realism. In fact, postwar American realism has mostly been
distinguished by its insistence on restraint and a tone of righteous despair that the American nation was fated to ignore its prescriptions.
Original languageEnglish
Title of host publicationThe Edinburgh Companion to Political Realism
EditorsRobert Schuett, Miles Hollingworth
PublisherEdinburgh: Edinburgh University Press
ISBN (Electronic)9781474423298
ISBN (Print)9781474423304
Publication statusPublished - Nov 2018


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