Living on the Real World: the ultimate realpolitik.

Realpolitik (from German: real “realistic”, “practical”, or “actual”; and Politik “politics”, German pronunciation: [ʁeˈaːlpoliˌtɪk]) is politics or diplomacy based primarily on considerations of given circumstances and factors, rather than explicit ideological notions or moral and ethical premises.


Today’s topic: reflecting on humanity’s relationship with the Earth we live on as a form of diplomacy – in this case, realpolitik.

The motivation? It’s the political context at the close of 2016. News and social media are agog about the fresh directions that U.S. foreign policy may take under the new administration. The president-elect and his team are signaling that things will be different soon. China (the president-elect’s phone chat with the leader of Taiwan has made the Chinese techy), Russia (the president-elect has been singing Mr. Putin’s praises despite the latter’s track record as a despot, clearly hostile to U.S. interests), Israel (where present and future U.S. administrations appear to disagree on Israel’s handling of the Palestinian issue), and Mexico (here the subject is immigration and commerce – and maybe a wall), to name a few, have been under discussion.

Over-arching much of the talk is the idea of realpolitik, a concept that has been around forever but known under that label for only the last 160 years. We’re told the term Realpolitik was coined by Ludwig von Rochau, a 19th-century German writer and politician, in his 1853 book Grundsätze der Realpolitik angewendet auf die staatlichen Zustände Deutschlands:

“The study of the forces that shape, maintain and alter the state is the basis of all political insight and leads to the understanding that the law of power governs the world of states just as the law of gravity governs the physical world. The older political science was fully aware of this truth but draw a wrong and detrimental conclusion—the right of the more powerful. The modern era has corrected this unethical fallacy, but while breaking with the alleged right of the more powerful one, the modern era was too much inclined to overlook the real might of the more powerful and the inevitability of its political influence.”

The continuing, age-old conversation on realpolitik is a rich one, worth exploring, if you have time[1]. You can get started with this brief 2014 article by John Bew and this more extended 2014 discussion by Robert Kagan. For purposes here, and to keep it short, even at considerable risk of butchering the idea: in diplomacy, we can’t hope or expect to change the other party’s basic values and culture; we can only expect to accomplish more limited goals of mutual accommodation and elementary forms of collaboration. We must accept things as they are, not as we might wish them to be.[2]

Now to our relationship with the Earth we live on. Note first that the Earth and the way it works once used to be familiar to all of us. We lived on the land, and we drew our continuing existence straightforwardly from the land. Today, most of us live in one or two degrees of separation from such direct, personal experience. We live in the artificial environment of cities, and within that artificial environment, we spend most of our time in a virtual environment that makes the city itself recede into the background. The real world intrudes only occasionally, in the form of a food price spike of some type, a severe storm and accompanying power outages, or a smog episode[3]. To get in touch with this real world where everything that sustains life  comes from requires tourism (visits to the seas, the mountains, the deserts, the woods…) and establishing diplomatic relations to underpin that experience.

Note second that this relationship is threefold. Much like any diplomatic relationship with another country, we depend on the Earth for natural resources – food, water, energy, and more (in analogy to international trade and commerce). We occasionally sense the threat and suffer the hurt of natural hazards – flood and drought, storms, earthquakes, volcanic eruptions, etc.  (Earth declares war on us). And occasionally the Earth suffers environmental degradation at our hands – wholesale clearing of natural habitat, air and water pollution, etc. (our own “military intervention” in Earth’s affairs).

So what might “diplomacy” with this “foreign” partner, the Earth look like? What are our prospects of changing its culture and values? In fact, what is that culture? What are those values? Just as we rely on intelligence to answer such questions about other countries and their peoples, so we rely on environmental intelligence to provide insights here.

That environmental intelligence remains a work in progress, but so far here is what we’ve learned. In a nutshell: this Earth we live on holds no values. It is wholly apolitical. It has no self-interest. It harbors no grudges, or animosity; nor does it show us any real love. It lacks ambition, dreams, and vision. In fact, and these are the important bits: (1) Earth is a responder, and (2) it “lives” totally in the present moment. Instant by instant, it is reacting in a self-consistent way to conditions and forcing prevailing, both locally and globally. That starts with the gravitational pull and heat and light of the sun, and the activity and impacts of all forms of life – especially, in these years of the Anthropocene, seven billion people. Of course, those conditions and that forcing are themselves the accumulated sum of all past conditions and forcing and their impacts over all previous instants, dating back to the Big Bang. So the present moment matters, but how we got to the present moment (the hysteresis of the universe, if you will) also matters.

We have some idea of what the Earth will do next, but to some extent its “intent” is mysterious. That too mirrors our diplomacy with nations. The future actions of China, or Russia, or Israel, Or Mexico are also enigmatic. But the reasons are different. As for nations, their leaders are looking at us and drawing inferences based on their own intelligence, and they act deliberately, and in some cases deliberately furtively, in ways that show free will and self-interest and are subject to change as their views of us and what best serves their purposes evolves. As for the Earth itself, it’s what scientists call a chaotic system. The smallest details (all-too-often unmeasured) determine the path of typhoon Nock-ten in the Philippines, or when and if the current California drought will end, or whether that long-dormant Italian volcano, Campi Flegrei, will catastrophically erupt, or merely simmer, and then simmer down. We don’t know what the Earth will do next, until almost the very moment it acts – not because it’s trying to hide something but just because that’s its nature.

Realpolitik teaches us this. We might wish for Chinese society to become democratic and free. We might hope that Russia would not use cyber-means to tamper with our politics. We might desire that Muslims, Jews, and Christians could find mutual acceptance across the Middle East, and that Sunni and Shia sects would get along. But we accept the fact that unless we use coercion or force, or even if we use all the leverage at our disposal, these circumstances on the ground will change on other nations’ own timing and not in response to what we want or do. What’s more, we can’t simply turn a blind eye to these international realities. We have to acknowledge they exist. Pretending that genocide is not underway in Syria doesn’t make it so. Fantasizing that China’s trade with the rest of the world mirrors the behavior and ethics of other World Trade Organization members doesn’t mean it does. Failing to recognize the dependence of aging nations of the west on immigrant labor doesn’t do away with our need for help.

If in our conduct with nations, we acknowledge and accept their culture and values as established, immutable fact, we might well do the same when it comes to the Earth itself. It does no good to complain that new floodplain maps “put our river-view and oceanfront homes in the floodplain when they weren’t before” when national flood losses continue to rise. It does little good to pretend that human beings are having no influence on climate when melting polar ice caps, sea level rise, increasing ocean acidity, and elevated global temperatures are telling a different story. At the same time, if we tried to put the carbon-dioxide genie back in the bottle, we’d find that climate still varied. It’s equally misplaced to assume that human activity is the whole climate story. And so on.

In our diplomatic relations with other countries, intelligence, though valuable, is of limited help. Others can in some cases see, and in other cases sense, what we’re up to. Even as we learn, they’re free and able to confound that learning through policy change or simple out-of-the-box action. By contrast, environmental intelligence always has a payoff. The Earth isn’t free to change its nature. The more we learn about how it works, the fewer the surprises we’ll have in store, the more time we’ll have to anticipate and to react to what’s coming.


[1]President Nixon and his Secretary of State Henry Kissinger (pictured) certainly did.  

[2]Realpolitik even applies to marriage: “Men marry women with the hope they will never change. Women marry men with the hope they will change. Invariably they are both disappointed.” – Albert Einstein (Really? I’m skeptical, but on-line sources I was able to check insisted on this source)

[3] as covered in this blog, and in the book, Living on the Real World.

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