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10 March 2022

What realists get wrong about Putin

To understand Russia's war in Ukraine we must consider more than strategic calculation.

By Nick Burns

After news of a Russian invasion of Ukraine – described by Moscow as a “special operation” to “de-nazify” the country – broke across the West, the unanimous response was shock and outrage at an unprovoked attack on a sovereign nation. The widespread sense, as tanks moved across the Ukrainian border and sanctions uprooted the Russian economy, was despair at how much death and misery could be unleashed by the expansionist folly of a single man – Vladimir Putin.

In this context John Mearsheimer, a longstanding critic of US foreign policy who comes from the “realist” school of international relations, caused a stir with his assertion that the US and its allies share much of the blame for the Russian invasion. For Mearsheimer, only the strategic interests of major powers matter in the conduct of foreign relations, not moral considerations – and the US has ignored this at great cost to others. “Russian leaders have adamantly opposed Nato enlargement,” Mearsheimer wrote in 2014. “They have made it clear that they would not stand by while their strategically important neighbour turned into a Western bastion.”

In an interview in the New Yorker on 1 March, Mearsheimer reiterated his view that from the Russian perspective, “turning Ukraine into a pro-American liberal democracy… is an existential threat”. The US, by refusing to rule out Ukrainian admission to Nato and by funding pro-Western organisations within Ukraine, had challenged Russia’s strategic interests in its own sphere of influence – and now Ukrainians were bearing the terrible consequences.

Many in the liberal mainstream of American foreign policy found this stance to be shockingly callous, morally backwards to the point of perversity. “No one has done more to illustrate the amorality and the illogic of realism than John Mearsheimer,” wrote the Atlantic’s Tom Nichols on Twitter. “It’s all pieces on a chess board” to Mearsheimer, said MSNBC’s Chris Hayes. How could one blame the US for the bloodshed when it was Putin ordering the shelling of Ukrainian cities? And in any case, the argument went, the cause of democracy required Ukrainians to make their own decision about which power to align themselves with. In electing Volodymyr Zelensky as president in 2019, they had chosen a pro-Western leader.

Mearsheimer is a leading theorist of “offensive realism”, a sub-variant of realism emphasising the incentives for great powers to seek hegemony as a means of ensuring their own survival. More pessimistic than other realist theories, he believes competition on the international stage is inevitable and war a constant possibility. But most realists forbid such considerations as democracy and moral outrage at the killing of civilians. For inspiration, realism looks to thinkers such as Machiavelli and the ancient Greek historian Thucydides who are understood to reduce the importance of morality in politics.

The Melian dialogue, a passage from Thucydides’ History of the Peloponnesian War is typically understood to capture succinctly the realist view: “The strong do what they can, while the weak suffer what they must.”

But the text itself makes a far more complicated point than that quote suggests – one that might shed more light on the war in Ukraine than does Mearsheimer’s theory.

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[see also: What the Thucydides Trap gets wrong about China]

In Thucydides’s history, the Melians live on a small island that has stayed neutral in the ongoing war between Athens and Sparta. When the Athenians come to demand that the Melians join their alliance and pay tribute or else face death, the Melians refuse, saying they love their freedom and hope the Spartans will save them. The Athenians are shocked that the Melians would do something so manifestly against their interests and try to explain to them what a terrible mistake they are making, and why the Spartans are not going to save them. But the Melians are steadfast.

The episode ends tragically: the Spartans don’t come to save the Melians, whose men are all killed by the Athenians, their women and children sold into slavery. Mearsheimer might say, along with the Athenians: what a terrible mistake; if only the Melians had understood their interests and surrendered, they would still be alive.

But Thucydides’s purpose in describing the episode is something different: to show why, repeatedly over the course of human history, states make decisions seemingly against their interests. One reason is the force of natural human emotions – in the Melians’ case, hope and a sense of justice.

Thucydides believed that humans are naturally unreliable calculators of their own interests, and the more of them involved in political decision-making, the worse the outcome. War and plague further amplify the oscillations of collective passion and their distorting effect on the rational assessment of advantage. At the crucial moment, any such evaluation will be inevitably distorted by fear, greed, hope, or concerns about justice – or, most likely, all of them jumbled together.

At many other moments in Thucydides, we see the Athenians debating among themselves in their democratic assembly, trying to decide the wisest and the most just course of action. Popular emotions whipsaw back and forth, while elite speakers try to stay abreast of the changing mood and take any opportunity to attack each other when the time seems ripe. (In his close attention to these shifting currents, it’s tempting to see Thucydides as a proto-analyst of the dynamics at play on Twitter.) Most often, the Athenians cannot find the answer, and end up harming their own interests, acting criminally, or both.

To survive in the rough world of war between nations, Thucydides seemed to say, it’s not a correct assessment of national self-interest that’s needed so much as a truly gifted leader who can counteract the vacillations in popular passions – a Pericles, or perhaps a Zelensky? – but even then, such a leader can die at any point and leave a state helpless.

The world, in a word, is a much more complicated place than the realists project in their simple formulas of a rational computation of interest. So often accused of pessimism, Mearsheimer is, in a strange way, too optimistic in believing that Americans (or for that matter Ukrainians or Russians) should simply make decisions according to a clinical, dispassionate evaluation of their interests. Regardless of whether it is desirable, such an evaluation is impossible in practice. A full understanding of the war in Ukraine, its causes and its consequences must pay attention to the emotions of the participants – Putin’s ambition, the West’s outrage, Ukraine’s hope – in their human aspects too, and not merely as strategic calculation.

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