Against “Realism” about the Russian Invasion of the Ukraine

by Tim Sommers

The New York Times’ columnist who thought that a good way to capture the interconnectedness of the modern world was to say that “The World is Flat” – an idea, arguably, better captured by saying that the world is round (which it is) – recently joined the chorus of pundits saying, yeah, Putin started the war in the Ukraine, but the U.S. is also to blame – or at least, “America is not entirely innocent of fueling [Putin’s] fires.”

Former Kremlin advisor Sergey Karaganov has been widely quoted (more quoted, than vetted, I think) as saying “For 25 years, people like myself have been saying that if NATO and Western alliance’s expand beyond certain red lines, especially into Ukraine, there will be a war. I envisioned that scenario as far back as 1997.” Envisioned, maybe, is not the right word. As an influential advisor to Putin, it seems he advised Putin that destroying the Ukraine was necessary to prevent NATO expansion. In an interesting turn of phrase Karaganov now says that what Russia “needs is a kind of solution which would be called peace.” Which would be called peace? Right. That doesn’t sound ominous, at all.

There are plenty of other examples of the argument that the West, the U.S., and/or NATO, share blame for the war for not making clear that they would never, ever going allow the Ukraine to join NATO – even if that would have been good for both parties (absent Russian aggression). What if anything is wrong with this style of argument? Scholars and theorists of foreign affairs call the view represented “realism”. Personally, I’m against it.

How can you be against “realism”? It’s always a good idea to give your philosophy a name that’s hard to argue with. Who’s against pragmatism, for example? Who doesn’t need at least a little idealism? (On the other hand, with moral constructivism or nonreductive materialism, you’ll have to wait to hear the arguments, probably.)

Realism has been the dominate approach to theorizing about international relations throughout the twenty and twenty-first centuries, the theoretical foundation of “Realpolitik”. Arguably the view, or at least elements of the view, can be traced back to Thucydides, Machiavelli, and Hobbes. Thucydides’ contribution was the first “scientific history”, his “History to the Peloponnesian War”. Machiavelli’s contribution was just, I don’t know, pretending that being ruthlessly selfish, obsequious, and dishonest all at the same time was some sort of philosophy. (Sorry. Someone once asked me the difference between political philosophy and political theory, and I told them political theorists read Machiavelli.)  As for Hobbes? The state of nature that is tamed by the state in the Hobbesian contract reappears when the state must deal with other states. An international war of all against all.

The most well-known modern realists were Han Morgenthau (the father of realism), Raymond Aron (who, credit where credit is due, correctly predicted that nuclear weapons would not end the need for conventional military forces), and George Kennan (Mr. X , the architect of America’s nuclear containment policy). Again, credit where credit is due, Kennan’s realist inspired thesis, that it was a mistake to interpret Soviet foreign policy through the lens of Marxist-Leninist philosophy, that instead the Soviet’s would behave pretty much the way most states do, seems to have been largely correct. (Though he also talked about the “Russian character” a lot and in unflattering ways that seem questionable, at best.)

All that being said, here is realism. (1) Foreign affairs are the interaction between nation states, which behave as collective-agents. (2) Nation states are, relative to each other, in a Hobbesian state of nature. There are no rules, or higher authority, to appeal to in conflicts. Hence, again, foreign affairs are a war of all against all. (3) States, like individuals, are egoistic. Classical realists say selfishness is just human nature, neorealists that it’s a product of the structure of the situation. But both assume egoism. Finally, (4) The sole aim of the state is to maximize its own power.

One way you could challenge this view is to deny some of its substantive claims. The state can have higher aims, can’t it? Famine relief? Humanitarian aid? Real people are not egoists. (Chimpanzee certainly aren’t). Why must nations be? Are nations states really the only actors on the international stage? NATO is not a nation state. And, specifically, in the case of Russia, is the unit of analysis the nation state or just Putin? But I have a different point I want to make.

Economists also say that people are egoistic rational utility maximizers. It “is important to recognize – though rarely it is recognized”, economist Lawrence Boland says, “that the only behavioral assumption in neo-classic equilibrium models…is that every individual recognized in the model is a maximizer – maximizing utility or satisfaction…” Which is, for better or worse, demonstrably false as a description of how people actually behave. So, what do economists say to that? Roughly, ‘We can still make useful predictions with equilibrium models if we assume maximizing behavior even if people don’t really behave that way.’ But think about how economic models actually get used. Not just to make predictions, but to give policy advice. In fact, rational decision theory, which is either a subdiscipline of economics or economics is a subdiscipline of it, tells us not that we are, but that we should be, rational utility maximizers. The conflation is hard to avoid. It’s sort of like, ‘When does the algorithm that helps you chose movies, become the algorithm that tells you what you should watch?’

In the case, of political realism and the Ukraine the conflation goes like this. That Russia may feel that the best way to sustain and maximize their power is to invade the Ukraine, becomes NATO is also at fault because they should have known that Putin/Russia would invade the Ukraine. We should have made concessions ahead of time to prevent it. Remember, as Karaganov says, Putin had been waiting for more than twenty-years for this. Think about the way “realism” allows Karaganov to sound, at least to some, wise and prescient about an invasion he was pushing for.

No one is responsible for the invasion of the Ukraine except Putin and his enablers. And it would not have been more “realistic” to give into Putin’s demands. It would have been wrong.

If you think realism is the best model for predicting the behavior of states, have at it. I mentioned a couple of successes above. But if you think the way states should behave is to follow the realist model, you’re wrong. And when we speak about the behavior of states, we should not diminish their agency or responsibility by pretending that they are simply behaving according to the realist model; that is, egoistically, amorally, and ruthlessly maximizing their power. Putin chose to invade the Ukraine. Saying the West made him invade, or is partly responsible for his invasion, reminds me of a childhood game. Well, not a game exactly… One person takes the other person’s arm and attempts to hit them in the face with it while yelling, “Why are you hitting yourself? Why are you hitting yourself?”