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Realpolitik
The Communist revolutionary, shaking hands with a life-long commie hater? Thank this trope.

"Realpolitik" is one word. If you were redirected to here and it says "Real Politik" or something similar, please change it on the original page you linked from. Thank you.

Politics is the art of the possible.

Great powers have no principles - only interests.
Att. Henry Kissinger

If you ask a diplomat exactly why his country is behaving in a ruthless or manipulative manner, he will usually, if you can blast your way through all the skillful deflections and rhetoric, respond with this argument: "We're protecting our interests. It is what every other nation is doing, and what every nation should be doing. My Country, Right or Wrong."

This line of cynical philosophy is essentially Nice Guys Finish Last among nations, and has been around since two groups of people got together and decided that there were issues which could only be resolved by one side getting what they wanted at the expense of the other. If you ask The Empire, "Why are you taking over our country?" they will respond, "To make sure the other empire doesn't first."

Proponents of this way of thinking would say that there are a lot of big, nasty nations committing Gambit Pileups against each other out there, and that if you try being nice, your rivals will simply exploit this, so you must always further your interests where you can as no one else will. Besides, if you try to "help", you could be accused of interfering with the business of other nations to further your own influence. Critics would, of course, point out that it is this kind of thinking which perpetuates Chronic Backstabbing Disorder among nations, and that it is essentially "Might Makes Right" as a political philosophy.

A more benevolent follower of this philosophy would be content to be nothing more than A Hero To His Hometown.

Compare Hobbes Was Right, Well-Intentioned Extremist, The Empire, My Country, Right or Wrong, Gambit Pileup. Contrast Machiavelli Was Wrong.

Examples:

    open/close all folders 

     Literature  
  • This is what The Prince is actually about — not about tyranny and cruelty, but about unfettered pragmatism and realism.
  • The Tau in the Ciaphas Cain novel For the Emperor use this as their justification for occupying sections of the planet. Cain points out that the Imperium have used exactly the same rationale to then seize said planets soon after.
  • In another Robert A. Heinlein novel, Have Space Suit - Will Travel, the Three Galaxies organization of many alien races puts Humanity on Trial. Our hero Kip says this is unjust. The alien moderator responds that the Three Galaxies don't bother trying to understand "justice" but are a defense organization that destroys any race that will be a threat.
  • One of the post-Asimov Foundation authors claimed that aliens never showed up because robots killed them to protect humans.
  • The Andermani Empire in the Honor Harrington series is known for determining all foreign policy by realpolitik, which is unsurprising, since they model themselves after Prussia. In a subversion of how this trope is usually portrayed, they are just as famous for expanding their empire by rescuing planets in trouble, for entirely pragmatic and selfish reasons — a tradition that started with Gustav Anderman's rescue of Kuan-Yin, now known as Potsdam.

     Live Action TV  
  • In Stargate Atlantis the "heroes" are put on trial for their previous actions. Shepard basically argues that they aren't fighting for right or wrong, but rather they are fighting for themselves.
  • On Babylon 5, this is the philosophy espoused by most of the Centauri (except for Vir, who is the Token Good Teammate, and Emperor Cartagia, who is The Caligula).
  • On Star Trek: The Original Series, in the episode "Wolf In the Fold", Kirk explicitly refuses the suggestion that he help Scotty escape the planet on which he had been charged with murder. While he does his best to, and eventually does, get Scotty cleared of murder, Kirk says that he'll allow Scotty to be jailed and executed if he's found guilty—even if Kirk believes him innocent. Why? Because the planet is a strategically vital port, and helping Scotty escape its justice would sour them against the Federation.
  • A friendlier version than most is seen in relations between the Russian Federation and the United States in Stargate SG-1. The two are officially allies and by later seasons the Russians operate their own SG team under the auspices of Stargate Command. In "Disclosure," though, Col. Chekov notes that part of the reason Russia is willing to take a backseat to America is because that way, the United States foots most of the bill for adapting Imported Alien Phlebotinum, then Russia can turn around and build from American blueprints for a fraction of the cost.
    • In "Crusade", when the Russian Federation briefly supports the People's Republic of China bid for control of the Stargate, Chekov later admits that it was simply a ploy by his government to leverage plans to build their own Daedalus-class battlecruiser. While the Russians have long-desired to run the Stargate program, they're content (for now) with the arrangement to simply loan the Gate to the Americans and make them pay through the nose to use it. Both Landry and Chekov admit that their governments would rather maintain the deal than let another nation take control of offworld affairs, especially not the Chinese.
  • In Game of Thrones, Robb Stark is great at battle tactics, but when it comes to politics he made two MAJOR political mistakes that would eventually cost him dearly, all because he refused to play Realpolitik.
    • His Arch-Enemy, Tywin Lannister, is the embodiment of Realpolitik. He forges an alliance with the Tyrells(via Littlefinger), the second most powerful family in Westeros, who help him crush Stannis Baratheon. He offers Roose Bolton (Robb Stark's second-in-command) the title of Warden of the North and Walder Frey (a potential Stark supporter) the lord paramount title of the Riverlands. Robb Stark is murdered by these two soon after.
    • Petyr "Littlefinger" Baelish gives several speeches embodying this perspective. He also practices it, creating alliances between the Tyrells(who had supported a rival claimant Renly Baratheon) and the Lannisters and managing to negotiate for himself a sweet position as Lord of the only region in Westeros that hasn't participated in the war. He gives a "World of Cardboard" Speech to this effect, noting that the Kingdom, the traditions of honor and chivalry, even the Iron Throne are essentially fictitious constructs that embodies the values of order rather than enforces it and the realm actually functions on an elaborate deception.
    Littlefinger: "The realm. Do you know what the realm is? It's the thousand blades of Aegon's enemies, a story we agree to tell each other over and over, until we forget that it's a lie."
    Lord Varys: "But what do we have left, once we abandon the lie? Chaos? A gaping pit waiting to swallow us all."
    Littlefinger "Chaos isn't a pit. Chaos is a ladder. Many who try to climb it fail and never get to try again. The fall breaks them. And some, are given a chance to climb. They refuse, they cling to the realm or the gods or love. Illusions. Only the ladder is real. The climb is all there is."
  • In JAG, this way of reasoning is often used by Clayton Webb and other CIA characters to justify their actions.

     Tabletop Games 
  • In Warhammer 40,000 this is the basic approach the Imperium of Man takes in regards to the Tau Empire and vice versa. For example, in the wake of the Damocles Crusade, many Imperial worlds were stripped of their defenders in order to make a stand at Macragge against the tyranids of Hive Fleet Behemoth. The Tau expanded their empire in the wake of the Imperial muster, going into now-defenseless systems and offering to protect them in exchange for annexation rights. Those who would not accept the deal were simply curb stomped as most of their defenses were already removed. The Tau defend their aggressive actions by saying that if they had not "expanded defensive interests" to those Imperial worlds, then other, less benevolent powers would have taken them anyway before the Imperium could build its forces back up to keep them.
    • On the other side, while the Imperium of course wants to be rid of the Tau eventually, they generally refrain from taking direct offensive action against them, except to try and liberate Imperial worlds that the Tau have annexed, preferring instead a policy of trying to contain the Tau Empire's expansion. This is in part because of the huge drain of military resources that would be required to completely rout the Tau, but it also is because the Tau Empire functions as a bulwark against Tyranid hive fleets, Orks, and other local powers around the Eastern Fringe where the Imperium's power is limited. As long as the Tau Empire exists, it will distract other potential threats away from Imperial worlds, and the Imperium is only too happy to let that happen.
  • The trope name would be an entirely legitimate alternate title for the Spycraft D20 system. While not necessarily a spy in the literal sense, every player is an agent, tasked with achieving an objective with few restrictions on methods and many restrictions on exposure.
    • All major forms of diplomacy, negotiation, and some forms of combat can be replaced by a large wallet and a highly-developed "bribe" mechanic.
    • Combat is intentionally designed to favor people that play dirty, set up traps, and hit weak points. Unlike other d20 games, it's almost unheard of for combat to move past 5 or 6 rounds— someone will have found a weak point and exploited an instant-kill long before then. You also mostly use combat to remove troublesome civilians and diplomats, so that you can replace them in a disguise.

     Video Games  
  • You can easily fall into this way of thinking in games developed by Paradox Interactive, most all of which have you play as a single nation through a turbulent part of history.
  • The example right above applies to any 4X and Grand Strategy games, regardless of settings or degree of realism. Why would you ally with a power that decimated your people or offends your sensibilities? Because there are bigger, nastier powers out there gunning on both of you.
  • In Mass Effect, most of the major galactic powers engage in this, especially the Citadel Council. In Mass Effect 3, Humanity is left to fight the invasion of Earth alone because their fellow Council Races would rather concentrate on the Reapers encroaching on their borders first. This is also the reason why the Asari refused to share their intact Prothean Beacon with the rest of the galaxy, despite writing the laws that made sharing Beacon knowledge mandatory for all other races, as data-mining it was the only way they maintained their position as the dominant race in the galaxy.

     Real Life  
  • Richard Nixon made his political career being a stalwart anticommunist, yet he and Henry Kissinger (his Secretary of State) were the ones who established formal diplomatic ties with the People's Republic of China - both held mutual distrust and suspicion of the Soviet Union at the time.
    • This was also to help leverage better relations with the Soviet Union, intending to goad the USSR into becoming an ally out of jealousy of China's situation. (i.e. "Hey, China is Communist like us, and they're being friendly with the US while getting some benefits from doing so. Why can't that be us?")
  • Charles de Gaulle summed this attitude up nicely: "France has no friends, only interests."
    • Palmerston said it better in the nineteenth century: "Therefore I say that it is a narrow policy to suppose that this country or that is to be marked out as the eternal ally or the perpetual enemy of England. We have no eternal allies, and we have no perpetual enemies. Our interests are eternal and perpetual, and those interests it is our duty to follow." The phrase "Perfidious Albion" - referring to England's history of foreign affairs infidelity - has been recorded in use since at least the 13th Century.
  • Alexander III of Russia once said: "Russia has two allies: the Army and the Navy". His reign of peace earned him the name of Peacemaker.
    • Like The Stuarts for Charles I, all Alexander III really did was sweep the country's burgeoning problems under the rug and hope they would go away (forever). This just retarded the country's ecoonomic development and modernisation and made the shock of Nicholas II's reign (when everything seemed to happen at a break-neck speed) all the greater.
  • The Melian dialogue in Thucydides' account of the Peloponnesian War. The Athenians asserted their dominance over the Melians due to the fact that they had far stronger military force, and could blackmail the Melians into accepting either submitting peacefully or being killed. The idea was that "the strong will do what they will and the weak will accept what they must".
  • During the Cold War, Finland was in the awkward situation of being a liberal democracy with a mixed economy but also very vulnerable to direct attack by the Soviet Union. Or should we say, renewed direct attack by the Soviet Union, since the Soviets had actually tried to conquer Finland before (to the point where Helsinki was desperate enough to turn to Nazi Germany for help). As a result, Finland had every reason to want to join the West...but also every reason to not piss off the East. The result was a policy of doing everything in their power to avoid unnecessarily offending Moscow while trying to maintain good relations with the West; President Urho Kekkonen defined this policy as art of bowing to East without mooning to West, and stated Find your friends near and your enemies far. Nevertheless, the policy was criticized in some anti-Communist circles, to the point where Willy Brandt's Neue Ostpolitik ("New Eastern Policy", i.e. detente with the Soviet bloc in general and East Germany in particular) was derogatorily called "Finlandization" by many members of the CDU/CSU.
    • A staggering example of this occured during The Seventies, when the Soviet Union asked Finland to help them find a way to invade Norway. Finland obliged, but decided to work so slowly that the whole thing was stalled, and the Soviets eventually forgot about it.
  • One of the most well-known examples of this was the Western Allies allying with the Soviet Union during WW2. On one side, you had a group of largely democratic Western nations who had a strong history of anti-Communisim. On the other, you had a totalitarian Communist dictator who did not have the greatest track record in regards to human rights. What brought them together—some might say the only thing that brought them together—was a common Enemy Mine in the form of Those Wacky Nazis. While this did lead to beneficial co-operation between the two powers, it also lead to things such as what some have called the Western Betrayal. Winston Churchill, a vehement anti-Communist, rather famously summed it up as:
    If Hitler invaded Hell, I would make at least a favorable reference to the devil in the House of Commons.
    • Joseph Stalin was also one hell of a pragmatist - firstly, he organized mutual aid with Weimar Germany, as they were both troubled pariah states, despite Germany being capitalist republic. He also abandoned Lenin's ideas of world revolution, focusing on "Building socialsim in one country" and hijacked Trotsky's ideas of hyper-industrialisastion. After Hitler's takeover he still traded with Germany, then, he tried to ally with Entente against Hitler, after seeing their reluctance to stop him, he negotiated with Hitler, despite his rabid anti-communism, while re-arming and organizing army. During World War II he united Russians with ideas of succession betwwen Tsarist Russia and USSR, gloryfying old-time heroes like Alexander Nevsky or Admiral Ushakov, painting old invaders like Napoleon Bonaparte or Teutonic Knights as A Nazi by Any Other Name. After the war, despite anti-semitic politics, he lobbied creation of Israel in UN.
  • During the Cold War, the rationale for the democratic US to prop up, support, and aid autocratic strongman regimes and dictatorships with dubious, if not outright brutal and horrific human rights records just to fight Communism, even overthrowing democratic regimes to make way for such autocracies, was based upon realpolitik. Whether it worked or was effective or not, or whether more humane decisions could have been made to fight Communism (ie: letting the countries remain democratic and try to work with them) is a very controversial topic when examining US history, and let's leave it at that. The U.S. has pursued a similar policy (and this Wiki will use similar tact) in their dealings with the Middle East, with the goals being (a) keeping oil prices reasonable, and (b) minimizing overt hostilities between Israel and her neighbors.
  • This also happens in domestic elections, where (most) candidates, if they're losing in the primaries, will graciously bow out so as not to "fracture the party" and allow someone who they'd vehemently disagree with win over someone they only partially disagree with. Not doing so is what led to Theodore Roosevelt causing Taft's defeat to Woodrow Wilson, and is largely credited as being a main factor in the 2000 US election, where Ralph Nader split the vote from Al Gore.
  • An example from the present day: facing the loss of a key European ally, Ukraine, due to a popular revolution, Vladimir Putin's Russia decided to invade the eastern region of Crimea. This act demolished what little democratic credibility Russia had in the West, attracting worldwide condemnation and threats of economic sanctions. However, Putin evidently believed that these diplomatic drawbacks would be less damaging than the alternative, which would be the collapse of Russian influence in Eastern Europe. As of the time of writing, the crisis is still ongoing, so it's too early to say whether Putin's gamble paid off...

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