Realist theories of international relations and history were vindicated by the Russian invasion of Ukraine. Naturally, they will increasingly facecondemnation from an increasingly paranoid liberal-internationalist edifice.
‘How did the war come about? We are caught in the crossfire between major geopolitical players: NATO has been expanding eastwards, and Russia has become less and less comfortable with that. The Russians made two demands: that Ukraine declare its neutrality and that NATO would not admit Ukraine. These security guarantees were not given to the Russians, so they decided to take them by force of arms. This is the geopolitical significance of this war. The Russians are redrawing the security map of the continent. Russia’s security policy vision is that, in order to feel safe, they must be surrounded by a neutral zone. Hitherto they have seen Ukraine as an intermediate zone and, having failed to make it neutral by diplomatic means, they now want to make it neutral by military force.’ These words could have been uttered in the exact same phrasing or sentiment over the course of the past twenty years by any number of foreign policy realists, including, but not limited to Robert McNamara, Bill Bradley, Gary Hart, George Kennan, Henry Kissinger, John Mearsheimer, Jack Matlock, William Perry, William J. Burns, Stephen Cohen, Robert Gates, William Ruger, and Zbigniew Brzezinski, not to mention the countless number of international relations scholars from the realist school. And yet, these were the words of Viktor Orbán, darling of the realist right and nemesis of the internationalist left, who added that ‘at the same time, Hungary must make it clear that war is not an acceptable path to any goal, and Hungary unequivocally condemns those who choose that path’.1
In an earlier era, Orbán would have been studied as an old-school statesman straight out of Medici-era Florence, deftly balancing various power blocs within a system and calling for restraint on all sides. Instead, in our binary and ideological era, he is considered not a Hungarian realpolitiker squarely focused on the narrow national interest, but a reactionary appeaser opposed to the liberal order and democracy itself, where democracy is increasingly synonymous with liberal internationalism. He is not the only one. The Russian invasion was supposed to be a tailor-made moment for a realist restoration within the academy. A theoretical framework is as valid as its predictive power, and nearly every single realist analysis has been vindicated in the last few weeks. Realism argues that regardless of institutions and norms, at the end of the day, great powers are the primary actors in international anarchy and often go to great lengths at great cost to neutralize what they perceive as existential threats, even when it might be unsustainable in the long run, and that threat perceptions are based on geographic proximity and aggregate power, asper the ‘balance of threat’ theory.2 The theory concludes that an encroaching military alliance enlargement (regardless of intention) towards the border of a great power usually results in that great power lashing out, and while that particular great power might also subsequently face immense problems and costs in conquering large parts given their structural issues, the spiral would lead to a security dilemma and an extremely delicate situation if there is an added nuclear risk. ‘Russia would counter-escalate, taking away any temporary benefit Kiev might get from American arms’, John Mearsheimer wrote half a decade before this current crisis, adding that ‘Great powers react harshly when distant rivals project military power into their neighbourhood, much less attempt to make a country on their border an ally. This is why the United States has the Monroe Doctrine […]. Russia is no exception in this regard.’3 Great powers are, as we speak, deciding the fate of smaller powers, thereby (much though one might not like it) re-establishing realist theories.
Realist theories also argue that interests and not ideology, governance, or regime types dictate alignments
Realist theories also argue that interests and not ideology, governance, or regime types dictate alignments. One look at India, China, Brazil, and Mexico either remaining neutral towards Russia or tacitly supporting it, should make an individual question the relentless media-pushed democracy versus autocracy narrative. Realism also argues that deterrence goes both ways, which partly explains why NATO is reticent about a no-fly zone (not for lack of trying by some apocalyptic ideologues) and that we are not in the Third World War, at least for the time being. Realism suggests that war theatre defence is easier than offence, and offence, while overwhelming, often entails a far greater cost.4 Russia is currently facing a quagmire of its own choice. Realist theories argue that states often bandwagon with rival powers, rather than balancing if they somewhat perceive the outcome of a conflict and the post-conflict balance of power is predetermined.5 One can observe rumblings within higher Chinese strategic circles, about throwing Russia under the bus if the conflict continues longer.6 Classical realism argues that realist rhetoric needs to match the (usually mostly reactionary) electorate, and we have seen Joe Biden’s Cold War equilibrium instincts often at odds with his own activist cabinet and base.7
And yet, one can see realist theoreticians hounded on Twitter for questioning American interest in Ukraine. ‘As a woman covering foreign policy, and simply as a woman in society who sees regular justification of male violence, in this case it’s Putin’s toxic masculinity against Ukraine—but Mearsheimer’s position isn’t just a “take”, it is morally deplorable and based on misogyny’, tweeted Melissa Chan, writer for Foreign Policy and The Washington Post, adding that ‘Mearsheimer’s argument is basically the “she wore a short skirt” justification’.8 One can observe relentless propaganda about how everyone from Tucker Carlson to J. D. Vance is a Russian apologist because they do not want NATO involved in a nuclear war over Ukraine. Students in prestigious universities are attempting to ‘cancel’ John Mearsheimer for apparently supporting ‘Putinism’ and promoting ‘anti-Ukrainian ideology’. The twenty-first-century dislike for realism, often from fanatical universalists and liberal ideologues, appears to be the same as that of the nineteenth century; the ‘rage of Caliban seeing his own face in the glass’ as Oscar Wilde put it.9
Every philosophical battle has academic roots. An interesting paper in this context, by Maliniak et al. from 2008 charted the differences in paradigms, studied at various international relations departments, and provides some answers. ‘Fully half of female IR scholars devote between 6% and 25% of their introductory course to discussing constructivist arguments, while a little over one third of male IR scholars discuss this paradigm to the same extent. More than one third of women report spending between 6% and 25% of the class discussing feminism, whereas only one sixth of men spend a similar amount of time on the paradigm. It is interesting to note that women also give more class time to Marxism than do men—even though women and men are equally unlikely to identify themselves as Marxists (3% and 2%, respectively).’10 At the risk of simplification, for various reasons, men prefer to study realism and liberalism much more than women do. The divergence is not just in theoretical frameworks. It is also reflected in further research and teaching. ‘Higher percentages of women than men teach international organization (15%), human rights (7%), global development (6%), and environmental politics (6%). Although women made up only 23% of the sample, 40% of the respondents who said they teach courses on human rights were women; 34% of the respondents who teach global development were women; and 33% of the respondents who teach international organization were women. Significantly higher percentages of men teach US foreign policy (17%), international security (10%), and IR theory (6%).’11 None of that indicates that there are no female historians or international relations scholars who are realists or security studies experts, or there are no male theoreticians who are constructivists or feminists, or human rights specialists. Dividing anything by gender lines can be considered inherently problematic and foolish, even when there might be visible patterns because the reason those patterns are visible might not be due to gender difference, and there are usually many more variables at play.
What they do however indicate, is that some fields of study will automatically have more analytical validity and policy relevance, while others might be more academic exercises, important and interesting though they might be. Constructivist, critical, or feminist theories of foreign policy, for example, lack the degree of day-to-day explanatory power that theories of realism or liberalism possess.12 The very fact that in times of actual geopolitical crisis or war, we are left debating Michael McFaul vs John Mearsheimer, liberalism vs realism/ conservatism, intervention vs balance of power, shows that when push comes to shove, most international relations research other than the two main philosophical worldviews— one based on a pre-war and narrow form of conservatism and nationalism, and the other on a more universalist liberalism—is irrelevant from a broader policy perspective. The two main paradigms, therefore, naturally translate to policy formulation, while the others are purely academic frameworks. Interesting, but limited in utility and often irrelevant.
Yet the Western academy, like a bloated Byzantine behemoth, rewards such research. The scholars of the activist frameworks are not jobless, they go on to hold high positions within the NGOcracy, and are often cited as ‘experts’ in the media, while the relentless push for an activist and interventionist foreign policy is partly causally related to this over-production of mediocre elites. It is not uncommon to see the same ‘disinformation experts’ calling entire theoretical frameworks ‘illiberal’. The same activist forces who argue for urgent measures against ‘illiberalism’, also quite obviously see ‘illiberalism’ everywhere as their professional survival depends on it. There is no nuance, no compromise, no grey shade in their worldview, everything is ideological and black and white, every battle is existential, and the survival of ‘liberal democracy’ depends on a global war everywhere.
It is not uncommon to see the same ‘disinformation experts’ calling entire theoretical frameworks ‘illiberal’
Older, narrower, interest-oriented statecraft is by definition reactionary and illiberal in their eyes. Naturally, realists appear to have won the paradigm wars with their theories and worldview vindicated by history, only to have lost where it counts the most in this hyper-democratic age, personnel and propaganda, and are powerless in the face of intellectual midgets trying to ‘cancel’ a much more rigorous and profound theoretical framework with which they cannot compete. The attempted silencing of John Mearsheimer and others on the charges of anti-Ukrainian ‘heresy’ by two-penny activists and academics are similar to, to use the timeless words of Peter Hitchens, ‘tiny figures scuttling through cavernous halls built for much greater men’.13
Some broader questions should be asked about how unsound the study of history and international relations has become, and how unipolarity twisted strategic thinking, to the extent that all the instincts of restraint and wisdom from the Cold War equilibrium are now gone. What changed? It is clear how close we are to disaster on both sides, with fanatical democracy promoters close to power who want to start a nuclear conflict because the only part of history they ever paid even cursory attention to was about a Wikipedia level understanding of Munich and appeasement. It is a failure of the discipline of history (and historians) that we have arrived at this stage, and fail to even contemplate that the Second World War was an outlier, an abnormal point in time, and that it was far more amoral in reality—the US waited until it was attacked before joining, Britain delayed the second front and ignored the eastern empire to prioritize the European front, and Britain and the US aligned with Joseph Stalin. But the simple binary world of good and evil was a unique moment in history that rendered moral trade-offs easier.
The more appropriate framework, for now, is a slow steady roll of great powers towards the First World War, which is often understudied
The more appropriate framework, for now, is a slow steady roll of great powers towards the First World War, which is often understudied. The issue at hand is not how the globe is arguably divided between good and bad, democracy and autocracy, because that is a simplistic framework to assess reality, but how hectoring and evangelical small states can drag big powers to conflict and how chain-ganging leads to major wars.14 Wars did not start because some Edwardians romanticized martial glory and were sentimental about spending four years in blood, dirt, and mud for a once-in-a-lifetime noble cause. One should never again question war hysteria because this is precisely how it looks.15 Great powers perish due to hyper-democracy and goodwill often cynically exploited by a section of the moralist and universalist elites and their ‘we must do something!’ instinct that results in unbridled public passion, where prudence, restraint, equilibrium, and realism are considered reactionary instincts from a bygone era, opposed to the progressive forces of liberalism and feminism. The need to return to national interest, realism, restraint, balance of power, and Westphalian non-intervention is perhaps the most tragic and urgent lesson that must be learned from this war.
1 Interview with Prime Minister Viktor Orbán in the political weekly Mandiner, translated online by About- Hungary, 2 March 2022.
2 Stephen M. Walt, ‘Alliance Formation and the Balance of World Power’, International Security (1985).
3 John J. Mearsheimer, ‘Don’t Arm Ukraine’, The New York Times (8 February 2015).
4 Charles L. Glaser and Chaim Kaufmann, ‘What Is the Offense-Defense Balance and Can We Measure It?’, International Security (1998).
5 Walt, ‘Alliance Formation’.
6 Hu Wei, ‘Possible Outcomes of the Russo-Ukrainian War and China’s Choice’, US–China Perception Monitor (12 March 2022).
7 Sumantra Maitra, ‘A Grand Strategy of Restraint Needs a ‘Counter Elite’, The National Interest (2022).
8 Melissa Chan, archived at Twitter (26 March 022), https://web.archive.org/web/20220326132735/https://twitter.com/melissakchan/ status/1507710734112800769.
9 Oscar Wilde, preface to The Picture of Dorian Gray (London: Ward, Lock and Company, 1891).
10 Daniel Maliniak, Amy Oakes, Susan Peterson, and Michael J. Tierney, ‘Women in International Relations’, Politics & Gender (2008).
11 Maliniak et al., ‘Women in International Relations’.
12 Sumantra Maitra, ‘Whither Goest Thou, International Relations?’, Academic Questions, National Association of Scholars (2022).
13 Peter Hitchens, ‘The Making of a Reactionary’, UnHerd (21 October 2019).
14 Thomas J. Christensen and Jack Snyder, ‘Chain Gangs and Passed Bucks: Predicting Alliance Patterns in Multipolarity’, International Organization (1990).
15 ‘Open Letter Opposing a No-fly Zone in Ukraine’, Politico (March 2022).