Prince Klemens Von Metternich (1773-1859) was an Austrian diplomat in the nineteenth century, especially during the Napoleonic wars. He was not a scholar and did not write great books. His path to historical remembrance is his political realism. He is an adept at practicing political realism.
Let us therefore discuss the concept of political realism and use this dull Austrian of questionable talents as an illustration of the idea.
Political realism is rooted in Machiavelli’s conception of politics and Hobbes perception of human nature. According to this realistic view, people are motivated by self interests. Nations, like people, are motivated by national interests. Each person and each nation is in politics for what it can get from it; each wants to serve its interests, not to serve other peoples good. In dealing with other political actors the political actor calculates what serves his interests, with no feelings involved. He makes alliances that he believes would serve and enhance his interests. In this sense there are no permanent alliances, no permanent friends or enemies just temporary alliances and friends that currently serve ones interests. If there is a change of political actors one examines them and selects those who are most likely to serve ones interests and aligns with them and dumps older ones that no longer serve ones interests.
At the international level nations who practice real politics understand that powerful nations suck it to weaker ones. If a nation has superior military weapons it would not hesitate using it to subjugate weaker ones to its will. Therefore, realistic nations attempt to obtain whatever weapons their rivals for power have. This is called Balance of Power. It is said that if power is balanced in the international system that nations are unlikely to attack each other and the chances of war are minimized? But if some nations are strong and others weak, the chances of war increases.
In the nature of things, not all nations can have the power to balance others. Consider the current international system. In terms of credible power and resources to maintain it only a few nations can compete for power, the large nations, such as the USA, Russia, China, Brazil, India (and the second tier countries like Britain, France, Germany etc). The rest of the nations of the world cannot compete with the giants just mentioned. What the smaller and weaker countries, such as Austria, can do is form alliances with the powerful nations. Clearly, Austria cannot go to war with Russia or the USA for the later has enough weapons to obliterate it in a day; what it can do is attach itself to either USA (as it does) or some one else to protect it. Real politics requires her to do so without her entertaining the illusion or delusion that she can compete with the big boys of the international system
Let us summarize. Real politics means been brutally honest about human nature, the acceptance of the fact that the powerful dominate the weak, that stronger nations control weaker ones and the perpetual struggle for dominance in the international system and making of geopolitical alliances that serve ones interests.
Von Metternich understood this reality and as the Austrian Foreign minister and later Prime Minister aligned Austria to political and military powers that is likely to benefit her. He aligned Austria with Brittan and Russia in their efforts to bring Napoleon down. He coordinated the various European concerts that attempted to maintain balance of power in Europe.
The major countries of Europe of his time: France, and Brittan (and up to a point Prussia) checked each others power. Austria and her partner in the so-called Austro-Hungary Empire carefully assessed her power and recognized her weakness and ameliorated that weakness by allying with strong powers.
When Otto Von Bismarck unified Germany in 1870 and Germany became the strongest continental power, Austria quickly allied herself with Prussia (Germany). The amazing thing is that Prussia did not bring little Austria into the German fold. It took vigorous and clever diplomacy to retain Austrian independence. This included persuading other European powers that Germany would become too powerful hence dis-balance the balanced power of European nations if it expanded to incorporate Austria.
I will skip the specifics of what Von Metternich did and or his life history for those is only relevant in historical considerations, which is not our present interest.
Palmer. Metternich: Councilor of Europe. London: Orion 1977.