I asked Carlo if he would consider writing another guest post on Ukraine, and he graciously agreed.
War in Ukraine: Get Real
by Carlo Graziani
In typical potted-history examples drawn from great-power conflict that are used for realist case histories, these issues always seem very clear-cut. Interest is about territorial acquisition, or access to resources, or to convenient littoral real estate; national security is about territorial defense, or alliances, or integrity of national boundaries.
But what happens when the powers in question violently disagree on what constitutes their own interests and those of their rivals? What if their controlling historical narratives are so incompatible as to preclude a common calculation of rational interest in the cold, realist mode?
(break here so we can put the full post under the fold)
The Full Post
Recently, I was trying to boil down the problem with the realist outlook on international relations when I was suddenly reminded of a joke from the mid-2000s:
Why do Prius drivers have higher accident rates than other drivers?
Because it’s hard to drive while patting yourself on the back.
That actually captures a great deal of how realism is failing as an analytic framework as applied to the war in Ukraine. Its most prominent practitioners are busy congratulating themselves on their prescience while scolding their critics for mushy thinking, while their intellectual blinders prevent them from noticing that their policies are crashing into unpredicted realities at staccato cadences.
Since the onset of the Russian onslaught against Ukraine, there has been a noticeable patter from the self-validating back-patting of the realist school of international relations, which has not been slow to set up its customary contrast between, on the one hand “formal”, “process-based”, “hard-headed” calculation of invariant national interest, and on the other, “moralizing”, “emotional”, “irrational”, “impulsive” action leading to inevitable national self-harm.
John Mearsheimer never went away, of course, and lately has been articulating oddball theories stating that Russia and the US ought to really be natural allies against China, as a background lament in support of his thesis that NATO expansion caused the war in Ukraine. Tanner Greer, writing in the Opinion pages of the New York Times under the headline “Realism Must Guide Our Reaction to Russia’s Invasion” (paywalled) delivers himself of chin-strokers such as “Americans should be particularly sensitive to the dangers of moral fervor and intuitive judgment overwhelming the slower, more bureaucratic processes behind most foreign policy”; decidedly odd historical analogies such as one between Western sanctions on Russia and…some kind of unspecified pressure on Hitler that apparently drove him to launch Operation Barbarossa so as to “…forestall decline”; and builds to a peroration in which he…no, I can’t. Read it yourselves:
This is not a simple problem. Our desire to punish Mr. Putin for the evil he has unleashed in Ukraine must be carefully balanced against the lives that will be lost the longer this war lasts, the real risks of military escalation, the long-term security needs of Europe and the second-order effects a new iron curtain might have on other parts of American foreign policy—such as U.S. security commitments in East Asia and the health of the dollar as the world’s reserve currency. To meet this challenge, we must keep our policy firmly rooted in the “logic of consequence.” Americans living generations from now will be grateful that in this moment of crisis, our policy was guided by careful calculation instead of emotional reaction.
Got all that? In that one paragraph we go from a perfunctory acknowledgment of “lives that will be lost” to the core of realist concerns, not least among which is the the dollar’s status as a reserve currency—which, incidentally, if you should catch some sideband noise from shouty financial market pundits, as I happen to occasionally for reasons not worth belaboring, is a hot topic among people who believe that Chinese open and transparent institutions of governance ideally position the Renmimbi to displace the US dollar as the global reserve currency because inflation, or irresponsible Federal Reserve policy, or some other crisis du jour. And he fondly anticipates the gratitude of future American generations for this wise counsel.
I should break off from this intemperate screed, because I don’t actually think that the realist program as a whole is worthless. Of course there is a place for calculation of rational self-interest in international relations. And there are some academic realists who have been capable of articulating more nuanced discussions of the Ukraine crisis. Emma Ashford is one example—she gave a good interview on the Ezra Klein show recently.
Also, with that kind of lead-off, I may be giving the impression that my problem with realists is their smug and patronizing tendency to view any dissent from their outlook as being somehow overwrought and irrational. That is annoying, but for the most part ignorable (although Mearsheimer is a such a flagrant case of academic backpfeifengesicht that I personally know a few people who have met him whose fists he has caused to itch).
Realism is a framework in which nation-state actors act efficiently on the basis of rational choices to further their strategic interests and protect their national security. It is a structural theory, which makes it amenable to analysis and policy choice for defusing conflict. There’s an unacknowledged problem here, though, that realists always glide right past without slowing down. The realist program buries an unexamined assumption in plain view, right in its definition: how do we know what strategic interests or national security considerations are? How can we be sure that different nation state actors will define them in the same way, or that they will define them consistently for themselves and for their rivals?
In typical potted-history examples drawn from great-power conflict that are used for realist case histories, these issues always seem very clear-cut. Interest is about territorial acquisition, or access to resources, or to convenient littoral real estate; national security is about territorial defense, or alliances, or integrity of national boundaries. The picture always seems to be something out of Metternich’s Concert of Europe, or very like. All the powers basically agree on what their values are, and on priorities: they just disagree a bit on which rivers should constitute national boundaries.
But what happens when the powers in question violently disagree on what constitutes their own interests and those of their rivals? What if their controlling historical narratives are so incompatible as to preclude a common calculation of rational interest in the cold, realist mode? This is, after all, the situation as it exists in the Ukrainian conflict. The Putinist narrative conflates a Romantic and quasi-Messianic view of Russian exceptionalism colored by overtones of ethnic, linguistic, religious, and racial intolerance and a sense of Russian imperial destiny with deep grievance born of coerced post-Cold-War Russian retrenchment in the face of dominant Western economic power. The Western narrative, on the other hand, is embedded in a reality where such a mentality does not even register on any part of the broadest spectrum of mentally healthy views of how the world works. I’m sorry? In 2022, we’re in an international security dialog with a character who thinks he’s the second coming of Peter the Great?
The point is not that “true strategic interests” don’t exist, or that nations that ignore them don’t eventually come a cropper. The point is that the entire reason for being of the realist framework as a structuralist program is that it simplifies the analysis for defusing conflict. But if the entire analysis is based on grotesquely incorrect premises, shouldn’t we at least re-examine the implications of the framework for policy?
Here we come to the real problem with the realist approach to the Ukraine war. You hear a great deal about what a bad idea it is to “poke” or “trap” a bear—in implicit contradistinction to what a great idea it is to make some kind of a deal with the bear. But the realists who make the bear-poking-or-trapping analogy are usually careful not to be specific about the deal that they propose to make. And there are very good reasons for that caution. That deal does not exist.
In Ukraine the deal does not exist, because nobody has the right to concede to Putin the territorial gains that his 19th-century mentality has prepared him to feel entitled to, but which the entire Ukrainian nation, with a unanimity that cannot be gainsaid in academic colloquia, has risen up to deny him. Even were some great-power deal made behind the back of this heroic resistance—I do not believe for a moment that this is possible—the resulting Russian occupation of Ukraine would, I believe, receive a rougher handling than was meted out to the Wehrmacht by Yugoslavian partisans in World War II. And those guys could have taught the Afghan resistance a thing or two.
Outside Ukraine, in the West, and in the US in particular, we have been actually dealing with Putin and Putinism as a direct adversary for over a decade. We have been slow to understand the challenge, and to rise to it. But re-read the Mueller Report now. Understand the challenges that Putin has been issuing to our democracy, and the admittedly brilliant low-cost investments that he’s made in people like Trump, or Manafort. Vladimir Putin, and the Idea that he represents, came very close to ringing down the curtain on American democracy with the January 6 shitshow. That was his investment working its way nearly to the core. Trump can only get partial credit for that. Trump doesn’t really have the cognition to understand what he did—in the larger picture, he’s a glove puppet with Putin’s hand up his ass. Why would we make a deal with the Bear that allows Putin to regroup, and invest in another Trump, or perhaps in a newer, shinier, later-model Tucker Carlson, now that too many people can see the puppet strings stretching up from the current, somewhat soiled one?
I have no idea what the likes of Mearsheimer were doing, or thinking, on January 6, but they clearly were not doing intellectual due-diligence, or taking the trouble of marking their beliefs to market. If they had been doing so, they would have behaved in a much more chastened manner when the Ukraine war began. It seems completely clear to me, in any event, that realist counsel in this war is to be totally disregarded now. There can be no compromise with Putinism. Vladimir Putin started this fight. Whatever it takes—weapons and intelligence aid to Ukraine, sanctions piled upon sanctions for Russia, containment or rollback for international Putinism—we, in the West, had better finish it. The correct framing is not coming to an understanding with Putin over Ukraine: It is coming to an understanding with Russia over ending Putinism. Even another Cold War would be worth gaining that end.
Thank you, Carlo, for the terrific posts!