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The Communist revolutionary, shaking hands with a lifelong 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 page you were linked from. Thank you.

"If we see that Germany is winning we ought to help Russia, and if Russia is winning we ought to help Germany, and that way let them kill as many as possible."
Senator Harry Truman, June 1941 note 

If you ask a diplomat who is not an ideologue why their country is behaving in a ruthless or manipulative manner, and you can blast your way through all the skillful deflections and rhetoric, they will usually respond with something like this: "We're protecting our interests. Every other country is doing it, and we'd be foolish not to do so too. My Country, Right or Wrong."

Realpolitik is conducting politics based on objectively-existing considerations rather than moral or ideological ones. The term is often used as shorthand for "acting ruthlessly yet pragmatically". This line of cynical philosophy is essentially Nice Guys Finish Last among states, and has been around since two groups 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 states out there committing Gambit Pileups against each other, and that if you try being nice, your rivals will simply exploit this at your expense. 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 countries 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 and Enlightened Self-Interest, where countries act to benefit each other in order to advance their own interests. Contrast Machiavelli Was Wrong, as well as Personal Hate Before Common Goals, in which enemies let their feelings take priority over a common interest. Proxy Wars are a specific execution of realpolitik.

Example subpages:

Other examples:

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    Comic Books 
  • As much as every super-hero in the Marvel Universe agrees that the Kingpin is pure evil, they realize that completely removing him from power would create a struggle for control of the New York City underworld that would get even more innocent lives hurt or killed in the process than leaving him where he is. So the Kingpin stays in power, and the city's heroes try to thwart his criminal activities one operation at a time.
  • Fury: My War Gone By explores and ultimately deconstructs this trope. US foreign policy, frequently based on cynical and self-serving ends that obscure the noble ideals it claims to represent and which led to various atrocities and (arguably) unnecessary conflicts, reduces the glorious and beloved heroes of World War II to the corrupt and bloodthirsty schemers behind Vietnam, Cuba and Nicaragua. Fury himself is initially convinced of the necessity of the brutal, cynical and terrible actions the US is involved in, such as backing oppressive regimes, using Nazi war criminals, assassinating world leaders, performing illegal actions in other countries and more in order to oppose communism. By the end, however, he realizes that everything he did in the Cold War was essentially pointless and unnecessarily harmful and didn't really improve anything, and that if there'd been more good idealists like Hatherly running things, the world might have been a lot better.

  • Downfall: After failing to convince Hitler to negotiate with the Allies, Heinrich Himmler unilaterally reaches out to the British Army to offer his surrender. He seems to be operating under the assumption that the Allies would still prefer propping up the Nazi regime so they could use Germany as a counterweight to the communist Soviets. Subverted because Himmler Cannot Comprehend Good — despite the rest of the Allies having ideological differences with the Soviets (and recognizing that conflict with the Soviet Union is more or less inevitable after the war), nobody with a normal moral code would consider siding with the Nazis for a second. This is especially true as the war is nearly over and there is ample evidence for Nazi atrocities all across Europe.note 
  • In Hackers, The Plague claims to espouse this worldview.
    The Plague: Dade, I know how you might feel about narking on your friends, but, we're hackers. For us, there's no such thing as family and friends. We're each our own country, with temporary allies and enemies. I'd like to make a treaty with you.
  • Lord of War:
    • During the 1980s Yuri Orlov tries to ingratiate himself with Simeon Weisz, an established and influential Arms Dealer. Weisz rebukes him, pointing out that Weisz doesn't sell arms just for profits or to anyone, but for political reasons. (By implication, a pro-Capitalist, pro-American, pro-Israel agenda.) When Orlov points out that Weisz sold weapons to both the Iraqis and the Iranians during the Iran-Iraq War, he counters by stating that he wanted both sides to lose in that conflict. The end of the Cold War causes no small amount of disillusionment and discomfort to Weisz, since the new arms dealers who come to dominate the era are only interested in profit and don't care who they sell to.
    • At the very end of the movie this saves Yuri from spending the rest of his life in jail. When Agent Valentine finally busts Yuri after chasing him for more than a decade, Yuri calmly informs Valentine that at least some of his arms dealing is actually him acting as a middleman for the US Government, allowing them maintain Plausible Deniability while supplying arms to forces that it would be politically embarrassing or hypocritical to supply. As a result he is useful and the government will not allow him to be sent to jail. Yuri is proved right, but he's also aware of the flip side of this trope, and knows that someday they may decide that it's not worthwhile to keep employing him.
  • Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country: Kirk is among the more skeptical officers when it came to the Klingon peace treaty, but is volunteered by Spock to lead the first diplomatic envoy. The fact Kirk was anti-Klingon was being used to give legitimacy to the peace talks, a more compliant officer would have made the Klingons question their commitment and the Federation would worry about being too submissive. When Kirk objects, Spock quotes an Old Vulcan Proverb "Only Nixon could go to China," making it absolutely clear what the movie was trying to reference.
  • Wonder Woman (2017): Field Marshal Haig opposes Steve's idea to attack General Ludendorff's gas ammunition factory in Belgium because the Armistice is almost signed and he doesn't want it to be disrupted, disregarding the potential victims of Dr. Poison's gas doing so.


    Tabletop Games 
  • BattleTech runs off this trope. Multiple star empires fighting for control of Terra and each other. Word of God is that the setting will never see sentient alien life because a hostile non-human force would break the dynamic too much.
  • The tabletop game Diplomacy runs on this. The whole idea is to keep your nation intact or on top and to hell with everyone else. If that involves saying you'll ally with another player and stabbing them in the back to side with their more powerful enemy three turns later, so be it.
  • The Eberron setting for Dungeons & Dragons downplays the realpolitik elements of the setting in the core book but still plants the seeds for any Game Master who wants to use them, mostly to subvert Character Alignment tropes in the rulers of the various nations, who just got out of a long and bloody war with one another:
    • The nation of Breland is probably least interested in it — King Boranel is an old Chaotic Good adventurer at heart — and can get away with it thanks to the riches of Xen'drik that funnel through their land, but the laid-back attitude and fantastic wealth leave the nation rife with corruption and plagued by political factions lead by people who do not shy away from realpolitik.
    • On the other end of the spectrum you have Aundair, whose Neutral Good Queen Aurala is The High Queen for her own people, but is working hardest behind the scenes to prepare for and get a jump on everyone else for the next big war she sees on the horizon, because it would be best for her people to be ready. But also because she thinks it would be best for everyone if she really did lead them all.
  • 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.
  • Star Trek Adventures: A Fictional Document from the Zakdorn Defense Institute (dating to circa 2360) recommends against Federation intervention in the Occupation of Bajor, arguing that ejecting the Cardassians from Bajor would require a proper war that the Federation can't afford, and that Gul Dukat's appointment as prefect is likely to stiffen the Bajoran Resistance and let them force the Cardassians out on their own. At which point the Federation can swoop in and provide humanitarian aid to bring the Bajorans in on their side.
  • In Warhammer 40,000 this is the basic approach the Imperium of Man takes in regards to the T'au 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 T'au 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 T'au 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 T'au eventually, they generally refrain from taking direct offensive action against them, except to try and liberate Imperial worlds that the T'au have annexed, preferring instead a policy of trying to contain the T'au Empire's expansion. This is in part because of the huge drain of military resources that would be required to completely rout the T'au, but it is also because the T'au 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 T'au Empire exists, it will distract other potential threats away from Imperial worlds, and the Imperium is only too happy to let that happen. On the flip side, both nations are more than willing to cooperate in the face of major regional threats, such as when Hive Fleet Kraken invaded in 992.M41.

  • In Hamilton, "The Room Where it Happens" is an ode to political scheming and backroom deals. And Burr wants in on it. Especially evident in the lyrics where Burr realizes that when Hamilton traded away New York's position as the U.S. capital in order to get his bank plan passed, he lost absolutely nothing.
    HAMILTON: 'Cuz we'll have the banks. We're in the same spot.
    BURR: You got more than you gave.
    HAMILTON: And I wanted what I got.

    Video Games 
  • BattleTech (2018): Is your Mysterious Backer from House Centrella helping you restore the rightful heir to the Aurigan throne because it's a nice thing to do? Hell no, they're doing it 'cause the current ruler is allied with the backer's enemy, and if your side gets to power, Auriga becomes an ally. It's all a proxy war.
  • Not well-followed by Lord Regent Burrows in Dishonored. The Empire of the Isles wanes in power under his rule because his decision-making is based mostly on his severely neurotic need for order, rather than on what will strengthen the country. This is largely his motivation for staging the coup that gets him into power in the first place. He later blames his ineffectiveness on the inability of everyone else to do as they're told.
  • The main quest of The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim features a quest that involves complex negotiations between the two Civil War factions (unless the Player Character has already resolved the war in Skyrim). Tullius was seen ready to behead Ulfric at the beginning of the game, but then is seen negotiating with him because the dragon threat is too large for either side to ignore anymore. Elisif and Galmar are both miffed at the idea of just freely giving away territory, but Tullius and Ulfric both see the value. The player can influence these negotiations, though favoring one side too heavily will make the other side dislike you more.
  • 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.
  • Downplayed in Just Cause 1 and 2, and comes to a head in Just Cause 3. The protagonist, Rico Rodriguez, is a "dictator removal specialist" working for The Agency, which is basically a parody of the CIA that destabilizes countries mainly through car-surfing and Stuff Blowing Up. In the first game, Rico deposes a bloodthirsty nuclear-armed dictator by helping mostly-decent rebels as well as a not-so-decent drug cartel. In the second game, he again deposes a bloodthirsty nuclear-armed dictator by helping the local crime syndicate, hypocritical Dirty Communist rebels, and ultra-nationalist thugs. And in the third game, The Agency outright refuses to let Rico go to his homeland and depose yet another bloodthirsty nuclear-armed dictator, because he possesses a very powerful new type of Unobtanium, and that makes him The Agency's best goddamn friend — prompting Rico to strike out on his own and work with the local rebels to free his homeland.
  • 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.
  • You can easily fall into this way of thinking in games developed by Paradox Interactive, which often have you play as a single nation through a turbulent part of history.
    • This is especially the case when playing multiplayer with real people, since wars in Paradox's games tend to heavily favour those who mobilize their troops first. And due to the excessive costs of having your troops at full maintenance during peacetime you'll find most people having minimal maintenance during peacetime. Thus, he who mobilizes and attacks first gets the upper hand, by gaining several victories before the opposing side gets to a comparable level of mobilization. Due to this multiplayer games often devolve into people legitimizing their declarations of war by saying "We're only attacking you so as not to have our nation wiped out in case you decided to attack us..."
  • Likewise possible in Kaiserreich: Legacy of the Weltkrieg. Probably the most notable is during the Second American Civil War: if things are going badly for the CSA and AUS against the US federal government then Jack Reed and Huey Long can form a desperate Enemy Mine despite being on opposite sides of the political spectrum and absolutely hating each other as people. Once the US is defeated, the CSA-AUS alliance immediately falls apart.
  • Rise of the Third Power:
    • Many in the Tariqqi senate are reluctant to back Princess Arielle's claim to the Cirinthian throne because they can't confirm her identity and they risk a war with Arkadya if they do so. While President Ihsan is sympathetic to Arielle's cause, she admits the naysayers in the senate have valid concerns and that she can't override the slow democratic process.
    • After Gage is rescued, Arielle can't completely forgive him for his complicity in Noraskov's crimes. She still marries him because doing so is the only way for her to be seen as legitimate as the eldest surviving princess of Cirinthia.
  • Ruina: Fairy Tale of the Forgotten Ruins: Duke Kamur didn't want to execute Paris's mother, but the government forced him to do so because she adopted a baby that West Siwa wanted dead. If he refused, West Siwa would have declared war on the Kness Dukedom. However, he spares her adopted children, fakes their deaths, and refuses to kill them even when they later try to go after him for revenge.
  • It's a chronic issue for the Republic in Star Wars: The Old Republic. The Empire caught them with their pants down due to Revan's complete lack of a warning, and so they make alliances with the Hutts (mob bosses), terrorists (like the Consular's companion Zenith), criminals (the entire Smuggler class), and openly corrupt governments like the junta on Ord Mantell because those factions dislike the Empire for their own reasons. The Empire makes a selling point over being open with the fact their "government" is a theocratic cabal of Ax-Crazy Sith with day to day operations run by the military. Their Only Sane Employee is the Intelligence Services, which knows how to play this, but gets little in the way of respect. Come the expansions, the Alliance becomes this, with the Outlander recruiting former Jedi, wayward Sith, pirate factions, refugees, and possibly the very man who imprisoned the Outlander for five years against an Omnicidal Maniac.

    Web Animation 
  • Analyzed and discussed at length by CGP Grey in "Rules for Rulers", which in turn, is distilled from ''The Dictator's Handbook: Why Bad Behavior is Almost Always Good Politics".

  • Girl Genius has a lot of politics causing problems in the setting. The cliffnotes:
    • The Empire is run by Baron Klaus Wulphenbach, who is from a minor house but still managed to conquer via sheer power. He rules rather fairly after a vassal state joins, allowing all states freedom for their rules to rule as they see fit unless they posses forbidden Other technology or try to start a war. His "Pax Transylvania" is noted to mostly mean "don't make me come over there." Klaus' general paranoia, borne of running this empire and teaching with the Other, have left him unable to view Agatha as anything but a threat.
    • There's also the Storm King conspiracy, which intends to unseat Klaus by putting forward some member of the Sturmvoraus family (initially Tarvek but Gambit Pileup and the outcome of the Battle of Mechanisburg both led to more contenders). A major idea of the conspiracy was that the nobles would prefer a king with the proper lineage to a lesser noble like Klaus who simply has power.
      • As part of the the Storm King conspiracy we found out that Tarvek's father was a servant of the dead Lucrezia Mongfish (potentially the Other) and intended to resurrect her into her daughter, Agatha, so she could rule by using mind control. This clashed with another plan that had Zola pretend to be Lucrezia's daughter to try and take over Mechnisburg, the seat of the House of Hetrodyne (of which Agatha is heir).
    • Tarvek mentions rules had to be put on bringing people back to life and how that affected succession so things didn't spiral out of control.
    • After Klaus' disappearance and a timeskip the massive wars across Europa have killed off over forty of the fifty ruling noble families. Seffie (a von Blitzenguard related to the Sturmvoraus family) insists that the best bet to end this is for her and Klaus' son Gil to marry, as leader of the two largest factions still involved. Gil hates that she has a point.
      • Its gotten so bad to where the Storm King conspiracy has done a 180; they're gonna ensure that Gil gets back on top (though they do have a back-up plan with Tarvek, albeit one done in such a way he is refusing against).
    • When Martellus meets Rerich, an old Jäger, they have a lenghtly conversation about what this trope entrails.
  • In the The Order of the Stick prequel story How the Paladin Got his Scar, Hinjo's attempts to diplomatically request the assistance of the hobgoblin Supreme Leader in tracking down the renegade Sapphire Guard members that had recently attacked hobgoblin villages proves ineffective, as they were distrustful of his reasoning (in the Azurite teachings of the inherent dignity and worth of sapient life). O-Chul employed this trope in order to spin their position in a way that was easier for them to understand:
    O-Chul: We parley with you because it is in our strategic self-interest to do so. As your advisor said, a military conflict would be costly, and our long-term interests would be better served deploying our forces elsewhere. Since a mounting death toll among your people would be the primary cause of such a conflict, saving hobgoblin lives saves human lives.
    Hobgoblin Supreme Leader: Ah! At last, someone who makes sense! I was beginning to think your king had sent a madman to speak for him!
    Hobgoblin General: 'Inherent dignity'-ha! Pull the other one, why don't you!
    O-Chul: [whispering to Hinjo] A man that does not care about those who are different is always suspicious of a man that does. Easier to provide an explanation that fits their worldview that has the virtue of also being true.
  • In We Are The Wyrecats, the Big Bad is trying to keep humanity in a cycle of constant engineered wars to control the population.


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Room Where It Happened

Aaron Burr is shocked -- and jealous -- about the quid pro quo struck between Alexander Hamilton, Thomas Jefferson, and James Madison.

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Main / Realpolitik

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