Realist Dilemmas and Biblical Tangents

This week: realist international relations scholar Stephen Walt answers questions about and challenges to realism. Listen today at 2 pm, or anytime at our website.

We’re back to questions about realist foreign policy, which focuses on the pursuit of national interests over, for example, morality. “The problem with putting morality first,” the realist Stephen Walt says on this week’s show, “is that immediately inclines you, or puts you on the slippery slope, to wars to eliminate evil—to unlimited wars.”

De-emphasizing morality has its own war problem, too. Realist Richard Nixon’s bombing campaign in Cambodia, for example, has been estimated to have caused around 50,000-150,000 civilian deaths. Greg Grandin has written about realist icon Henry Kissinger: “A back-of-the-envelope count would attribute three, maybe four million deaths to Kissinger’s actions, but that number probably undercounts his victims."

Kissinger and Nixon.

And in this week’s conversation, Walt describes something other than moral ambition in America’s war in Vietnam: the presidents behind the war, Walt says, “were driven by a set of concerns about what losing Vietnam might mean for America’s overall security and geopolitical position.” (With that war in mind, we recently considered possibilities for a “moral realism.”)

Stephen Walt.

Walt sees realistic security concerns behind a more recent war, as well. “I think there was a legitimate set of security concerns animating what Putin was doing,” he says, in this week’s discussion that also covers Russia’s view of NATO expansion, “even if, of course, the response to those security concerns was both immoral, illegal, wrong, and ultimately, I think, counterproductive.”

Much of the debate involving realists in recent months has circled around the motivations for Russia’s attack on Ukraine. Putin’s stated rationale has included claims beyond security concerns, such as his idea that Ukraine isn’t a real country, and that it’s “an integral part of our own history, culture, spiritual space.” Mykola Riabchuk has said in a New Yorker interview:

Neither Ukraine nor Georgia, nor even NATO threatens Russia, and I believe Moscow knows that NATO is not a threat. It’s just rhetoric. It’s just an attempt to justify some imperialist, expansionist policy. Of course, I understand the essence of this rhetoric: NATO is a threat to Russian imperial ambitions.

The 2022 Realism Debate ranges to whether the Russian invasion should be viewed in terms of imperialism or as a matter of realist “great-power politics,” as John Mearsheimer has argued. Emma Ashford (also a realist) said on Open Source that Mearsheimer 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.

Then there’s the question of “this-is-just-how-the-world-works” thinking about war. Adam Tooze, in a recent critique of realism, writes that “to postulate the future as an endless repetition of the hyped-up militarism of 1914 is to deny any capacity for collective learning. And it is counterfactual, especially in an age of nuclear armaments.”

If tragedy requires anagnorisis, or recognition, maybe something—a moral, even—can be learned from the realists’ tragedies. Walt says:

Realists are very mindful of the tragic nature of politics, the unpredictability of war itself, the destructive qualities of war. So while we recognize that war is always possible, we’re also well aware of the consequences and therefore that you should not be waging them for anything other than absolutely vital interests.

Gustave Moreau’s Oedipus and the Sphinx.

Listen: The Cosmic Library’s Hebrew Bible

Producer Adam Colman’s Cosmic Library podcast from Lit Hub is back for a new season, and this time it’s a five-episode series on the Hebrew Bible. The guests: MacArthur genius Peter Cole, the novelist Joshua Cohen, New York Times poetry columnist Elisa Gabbert, neuroscientist Lisa Feldman Barrett, and Tom DeRose of the Freud Museum in London.

The show follows tangents from massive books, and this season those tangents will sustain conversations on language and its psychological dramas—find it at Lit Hub, or wherever podcasts exist.

Read: Parul Sehgal

In a new interview at The Oxonian, the critic Parul Sehgal explains, in an artfully punctuated paragraph, a changing and changeless punctuation strategy:

Writing a weekly newspaper column reordered my relationship with punctuation. We read newspapers differently than we do books or articles, or at least I do. My eye and ear want to move quickly, to peck and rove. I fell in love with the brio of a crisp, clipped sentence; the sudden transition; the use of parenthesis to puncture self-seriousness. That said, I continue to be a longtime abuser of the em-dash, especially when writing by hand. It’s like the piano’s damper pedal; it gives the mind such a sense of velocity and permission — and results in total unintelligibility. I cull them in the end, the little pests. I had to tweeze a dozen from the paragraph above.

This week’s ephemeral library

Lydia Moland and Linda Hershman on lessons from abolitionist women. Trita Parsi, at the Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft, on “Why Non-Western Countries Tend to See Russia’s War Very, Very Differently.” Can technology shape dreams? Arthur Goldhammer with Isaac Chotiner re: Macron’s centrism. Lydia Kiesling on disturbing rags-to-riches stories.




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

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

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