Lessons for Realists, Lessons from Realists

This week: a conversation on lessons learned during weeks of war, with international relations specialists Emma Ashford, Stephen Wertheim, and David Kang. Listen today at 2 pm, or anytime at our website.

News from the war in Ukraine has challenged at least one commonplace in international relations: Thucydides’ line that “the strong do what they can, and the weak suffer what they must.” The quote comes up often in summaries of the Machiavellian realism of IR thinkers such as John Mearsheimer; but this week David Kang — a fellow with the Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft (as is Mearsheimer)—tells us:

I say this all the time with respect to East Asian countries: the smallest ones are the toughest ones. There’s this well-overused phrase from (and I hate to bring it up) Thucydides, the Melian dialogue: “The great do what they want and the weak suffer what they must.” And I’m like, “No, that is absolutely not the case.”

Look at what Ukraine is doing. They may ultimately lose . . . we don’t know. But the idea that Russia was just going to stroll in and that Ukraine was just going to give up because on the face of it, on the numbers, they were weaker—that is absolutely not the case. And I think that so much of this discussion that we’ve seen among the eggheads, the IR people—I can’t believe how much we are debating Mearsheimer, was he right or not? No, no, he’s not.

David Kang.

Says Kang:

Many people who are restrainers or whatever count themselves as realists, and I don’t, precisely because I put a lot more emphasis on the ideas and the values and the norms and the beliefs of various peoples and what they care about. And what you see here is: clearly the Ukrainian people care about it way more than we think, and the Russian military cares about it way less.

And this is what we failed to understand in Vietnam as well. Vietnam was, you know, those people were fighting an independence war and were willing to keep fighting and dying well past the point that the United States could justify sending troops over there.

And understanding Putin’s decision to wage war, in Kang’s view, requires attention to Putin’s “values or his fears or his motivations”—to more, in other words, than the maneuvers and politics of “great powers.”

Stephen Wertheim.

Stephen Wertheim of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace argues that understanding in this case has still benefited from realist thinking:

When I think about how analysts understood the threat that Russia posed in the post-Cold War era and in the years leading up to this moment, it seems to me that quite a few realists were generally correct in saying that Russia posed a significant threat in the post-Soviet space to countries like Ukraine, but they also emphasized that Russia did not pose such a tremendous threat in conventional terms to the United States and lacked a capability to overrun Europe militarily. And if I look at all the evidence we’ve now seen over the past several weeks, that basic threat assessment seems quite correct to me.

Emma Ashford of the Atlantic Council elaborates on realist notions of great power politics, particularly in light of Putin’s choice to invade Ukraine:

One of the ways in which great powers are distinctive from other countries is simply that they have the military and financial capacity to act on some of these desires. And so yes, I think Vladimir Putin is driven to some extent by concerns about prestige, about Russian history. He clearly harbors a lot of grievances that are held over from the Soviet period. And what we’re seeing is that this is a country that has the capacity to act on that and particularly again, because it’s this nuclear armed superpower, other countries are somewhat constrained in how they can respond to it.

I am not saying that John Mearsheimer is right in all things because he’s definitely not. But he is correct in the title of his book The Tragedy of Great Power Politics. This is what it looks like in practice. Sometimes countries disagree on how the world should work, and force is how they hammer that out.

Emma Ashford.

Read: Machiavelli

If you’re curious about realism and its challenges, consider the passage below from The Prince—a foundational instance of the realist emphasis on how things are over how things ought to be.

[H]ow one lives is so far distant from how one ought to live, that he who neglects what is done for what ought to be done, sooner effects his ruin than his preservation; for a man who wishes to act entirely up to his professions of virtue soon meets with what destroys him among so much that is evil.

Hence it is necessary for a prince wishing to hold his own to know how to do wrong, and to make use of it or not according to necessity. Therefore, putting on one side imaginary things concerning a prince, and discussing those which are real, I say that all men when they are spoken of, and chiefly princes for being more highly placed, are remarkable for some of those qualities which bring them either blame or praise; and thus it is that one is reputed liberal, another miserly, using a Tuscan term [. . .]; one is reputed generous, one rapacious; one cruel, one compassionate [ . . . ] And I know that every one will confess that it would be most praiseworthy in a prince to exhibit all the above qualities that are considered good; but because they can neither be entirely possessed nor observed, for human conditions do not permit it, it is necessary for him to be sufficiently prudent that he may know how to avoid the reproach of those vices which would lose him his state; and also to keep himself, if it be possible, from those which would not lose him it; but this not being possible, he may with less hesitation abandon himself to them. And again, he need not make himself uneasy at incurring a reproach for those vices without which the state can only be saved with difficulty, for if everything is considered carefully, it will be found that something which looks like virtue, if followed, would be his ruin; whilst something else, which looks like vice, yet followed brings him security and prosperity.

Watch: Flee

Danish filmmaker Jonas Poher Rasmussen’s film is a triple threat at the Oscars: nominated for best international feature film, best documentary and best animated feature. It’s a poignant story about global migration, about the Afghanistan war and refugee crisis, and it has a new resonance with the Ukraine war in the background.

Read: Anatol Lieven

As we continue our limited-series collaboration with the Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft, we’re also continuing to read the work of Quincy’s fellows. See, for instance, Anatol Lieven on Putin’s inner circle.

This week’s ephemeral library

Kate Aronoff on Joe Manchin vs. Sarah Bloom Raskin. Rachel Kushner on skiing and nothingness. Bill McKibben on a world on fire. Chris Hedges on merchants of death. Patrick Radden Keefe on Russian oligarchs in London.




An American conversation with global attitude, on the arts, humanities, and global affairs, hosted by Christopher Lydon. chris@radioopensource.org

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Radio Open Source

Radio Open Source

An American conversation with global attitude, on the arts, humanities, and global affairs, hosted by Christopher Lydon. chris@radioopensource.org

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