Kritik Weekly Update

See Also: Capitalism Daily Update

Realists oppose war

Blanchford, June 24, 2022, Dr. Kevin Blachford is a lecturer of Defense Studies, King’s College London,

Realism is a diverse approach that is too often turned into a caricature as a war-like and power-hungry paradigm. It has therefore become a cliche to see realism as an approach synonymous with power politics and little else, but there has also been a consistent strand of realist thought which has cautioned against the temptations of power and viewed war and militarism as destructive of liberal-republican values. The realist canon provides a basis for a conservatism that demonstrates a commitment to attacking moralistic foreign policy crusades while urging restraint against universalism and pursuing limited policy goals. The realist critique of imperial adventures corrupting democratic institutions at home can be seen primarily with the resistance to the wars in Vietnam and Iraq. Leading realist thinkers such as Morgenthau, Reinhold Niebuhr, and Arthur Schlesinger Jr. all criticized the Vietnam War. In the post-Cold War era, realists responded to the neoconservative aggression of the Bush Doctrine by forming The Coalition For a Realistic Foreign Policy to counter the arguments of those in favor of American primacy. Crucially, these realist warnings against wars of primacy have been coupled with concerns about the corrosive effect such conflicts can have on democratic institutions. American power in the post-Cold War has often been compared to the imperial republics of Athens and Rome. In making these analogies, realists have warned of the hubris of American military power and the previous fates of republics that suffered from military overstretch. The extent of American power and its relationship to conflicts has therefore always inspired debates within realism that represent a classical republican concern, namely, can a republican polis be commensurate with empire?

Contrary to the caricature of realism as supporting a Machiavellian Prince-like figure, Mearsheimer has warned of the “damage” a militaristic and bloated security state can cause to the “fabric of American society.”  In this sense, Mearsheimer follows the realism of Hans Morgenthau whose later career increasingly turned to discussions about the “national purpose” of the United States and the importance of American morals and values. As a political commentator, Morgenthau consistently warned against an overreliance on military power and the challenge of a bureaucratic military-industrial complex limiting democratic debate. In examining the corruption of democracy and threats to American liberty arising from the Vietnam War, Morgenthau framed his analysis using the example of Rome’s transformation from a republic into an empire. He observed how the concentration of power within Rome in “the hands of one man” resulted in the appearance of a republic, but without the “substance.” Morgenthau was aware of the Federalist authors’ fear of a Caesar-like figure, and he used this concern to critique the centralization of power and lack of presidential accountability during the Vietnam War. Niebuhr and Schlesinger made a similar critique by warning about the growth of an “imperial presidency.” Crucially, wars were seen by these thinkers as having an inherent tendency to be a source of instability and a threat to a free society that rests on a stable and balanced order.

The realist critique against wars of primacy and the threats such wars pose to domestic democratic institutions remains valid today. Liberals have broadly interpreted the invasion of Ukraine as an assault on global democracy and the liberal values of the West. Their prescription is to double down on the expansion of the European Union and NATO and to create a stronger liberal world order, with direct intervention if necessary. Mearsheimer’s provocative claim that the Ukraine crisis may have been caused by Western overreach has led to howls of rage from liberal voices, but this merely reflects the liberal frustration over the West’s limited options to respond to a nuclear-armed Russia. Advocates for no-fly zones, humanitarian corridors, escalation, and direct intervention may attack Mearsheimer for blaming the West, but they also have little response to the realist cautions against the unpredictable and corrupting nature of war. Far from being a theory that supports war, American realists have long seen war as having a degenerative effect on America’s institutions.

Attacks against Mearsheimer are a reflection of the Western experience of the post-Cold War unipolar era that has left it blind to its own hubris. Over two decades of wars of choice against rogue states and pariah regimes have led the West to believe that military force can be used to install a peaceful liberal order and that reactions against constant Western expansion are indicative of irrationality. The West has lived under conditions of American primacy for so long that it lacks a vocabulary to understand the current moment or formulate a realistic response. The sidelining of realist voices is therefore a detriment to meaningful debate which risks downplaying the dangers of the escalatory and unpredictable nature of war.

Realism is an accurate description of the world, not a normative claim; in fact, it is immoral to act out of moral principles that destroy the state

Maitra, Sumantra, 6-18, 22, Maitra is a national-security fellow at the Center for the National Interest and an elected associate fellow at the Royal Historical Society, Hatred for Realism Is an Elite Affliction,

Why do people hate realism so much? It’s a thoughtful question asked by Stephen Walt in Foreign Policy. Walt is a card-carrying foreign policy realist, his work on alliances and his theory of balance of threat influenced the theoretical framework of much such research with major explanatory power. Walt argues that at the time of realism’s triumph, as the theory predicted a conflict in Ukraine, we’re observing a withering attack on the worldview. “Much of this ire has been directed at my colleague and occasional co-author John J. Mearsheimer, based in part on the bizarre claim that his views on the West’s role in helping to cause the Russia-Ukraine crisis somehow make him ‘pro-Putin’ and in part on some serious misreadings of his theory of offensive realism,” Walt writes, adding that “another obvious target is former U.S. Secretary of State Henry Kissinger, whose recent comments urging peace talks with Moscow, a territorial compromise in Ukraine, and the need to avoid a permanent rupture with Russia were seen as a revealing demonstration of realism’s moral bankruptcy.”

Conflict of Nations

Walt concludes that there are several reasons people dislike realism. Primary among them is the idea that realism is pessimistic. “It’s not hard to understand why many people are reluctant to embrace such a pessimistic view of the human condition, especially when it appears to offer no clear escape from it.” Second, realism is “indifferent or hostile” to ethical considerations, being an amoral framework where power is the chief determinant. “There is a grain of truth in this charge, insofar as realism’s theoretical framework does not incorporate values or ideals in any explicit way,” Walt writes, “for realists, noble aims and good intentions are not enough if the resulting choices lead to greater insecurity or human suffering.” Realists do not consider any country exceptional, as their worldview argues that every country, every power will usually act in a certain way, facing a certain set of variables. That also rubs most people the wrong way, as most people tend to think in group dynamic, and any criticism of their own country’s behavior or dissent and nonconformity to the “current thing” or conventional wisdom, are considered unpatriotic.

Finally, Walt writes that realism got major questions right, and naturally got major ideological opponents on the way. Walt writes, “realism tends to be unpopular because its proponents have an annoying tendency to be right … realists were right about NATO enlargement, dual containment in the Persian Gulf, the war in Iraq, Ukraine’s ill-fated decision to give up its nuclear arsenal, the implications of China’s rise, and the folly of nation-building in Afghanistan, to note just a few examples.”

There is a lot of sense in these arguments. Realism, a framework which privileges (to borrow a word used often by the academic Left) power and national interest, is by definition a “reactionary” theory, more at home within political conservatism and hierarchy. It is fundamentally opposed to mass democracy and subsequent volatility of public passions. And while it is sternly in favor of national interest, it also favors compromises and a balance of power based on relative gains. Furthermore, being a reactionary theory, it believes in a cyclical view of history, instead of a steady arc of progress. Therefore, realism falls squarely opposed to any worldview that affirms egalitarianism or progress, whether liberalism, socialism, feminism, or Marxism, all of which are theories stemming from the enlightenment, with an egalitarianism embedded. In turn, all progressive theories, from liberalism to Marxism, are normatively opposed to any political reaction. The opposition to realism (and realists) within the academy is therefore qualitatively similar to all the progressive fanaticism about statue toppling, hierarchy, and canceling classics, a deep aversion to anything vaguely reactionary from patrimony, to authority, to national borders, an opposition which isn’t just academic or theoretical, but ideological. To borrow Peter Hitchens’ famous words, a rage by “tiny figures scuttling through cavernous halls built for much greater men.”

Realism is, of course, amoral, but not cruel or unethical. In fact, the instinct for compromise and balance of power comes from a higher ethical consideration. As Hans Morgenthau wrote,

Realism maintains that universal moral principles cannot be applied to the actions of states in their abstract universal formulation, but that they must be filtered through the concrete circumstances of time and place. The individual may say for himself: “Fiat justitia, pereat mundus (Let justice be done, even if the world perish),” but the state has no right to say so in the name of those who are in its care. Both individual and state must judge political action by universal moral principles, such as that of liberty. Yet while the individual has a moral right to sacrifice himself in defense of such a moral principle, the state has no right to let its moral disapprobation of the infringement of liberty get in the way of successful political action, itself inspired by the moral principle of national survival. There can be no political morality without prudence; that is, without consideration of the political consequences of seemingly moral action.

While realism isn’t blameless, the record of realism isn’t comparable to the democracy crusades of the last thirty years.

But to return to the original question, one must add that the framing of the question itself is flawed. The people don’t hate realism. In fact, public opinion is usually fundamentally reactionary, if channeled rightly. The majority favors national borders and opposes foreign misadventures. What could be more reactionary than that in our time? Public opinion can be volatile and appeals to emotion succeed in the short term. But overall, the public understands their interests if clearly communicated with. Consider the recent drop in support for a No-Fly Zone (NFZ) over Ukraine, the moment it was explained what an NFZ would actually entail. The hatred for realism (and any political reaction) is an elite progressive affliction, aided by an ideological academy.  What realists sometimes refuse to accept is that they are at a structural disadvantage. This isn’t the time of Metternich, nor is it the time of Yalta, or even Kissinger’s secret China visit. Realism isn’t a worldview that can succeed automatically in the age of social media, NGOs, hyper-democracy, and an activist academy and internationalist news media. To succeed in that scenario, realism and realists will need to use the inherent reactionary public instinct to their advantage, and communicate in ways that might at times go against electoral propriety, and sound like an uncouth New York tycoon. Whether it is a compromise academic realists are willing to entertain, to regain a hand in policy setting, is a key question.

Ukraine proves realism is true and international cooperation fails to prevent conflict

Poast, 6-15, 22, PAUL POAST is Associate Professor of Political Science at the University of Chicago and a Nonresident Fellow at the Chicago Council on Global Affairs,

Request Reprint Permissions 

Among the collateral damage of the war in Ukraine is a school of thought: realism. This intellectual tradition insists that the pursuit of national interests trumps higher ideals, such as the commitment to open trade, the sanctity of international law, and the virtues of democracy. Realists focus on how states, particularly major powers, seek to survive and retain influence in world politics. As such, realism appeared well suited for explaining the imperatives and calculations behind the Russian invasion. Instead, it found itself caught in the crossfire. After realist arguments seemed to excuse the Kremlin’s actions, critics in Europe and North America have variously called prominent individuals associated with realism—and realism itself as a doctrine—irrelevant, callous, and even morally reprehensible.

The political scientist John Mearsheimer drew much of the opprobrium for his claims about the origins of the war in Ukraine. An unabashed advocate of realism, Mearsheimer has insisted that the United States and its allies are at fault for encouraging NATO and EU expansion into what the Kremlin sees as its sphere of influence, thereby threatening Russia and provoking Russian aggression. Criticism of Mearsheimer mounted after the Russian Foreign Ministry itself promoted his ideas in the wake of the invasion. The urgings of another realist, former U.S. Secretary of State Henry Kissinger, exhorting Ukraine to give up territory in order to appease Putin have also led to a barrage of attacks on the tenets of realism.

But realism’s critics should not throw out the baby with the bath water. The invective directed at realism misses an important distinction: realism is both an analytical school of thought and a policy position. The errors of the latter don’t obviate the utility of the former. In explaining the war in Ukraine, realism, like any theoretical framework, is neither good nor bad. But even when its prescriptions can seem unsound, it retains value as a prism through which analysts can understand the motivations and actions of states in an inevitably complex world.

From the 1960s to the 1990s, the field of international relations was riven by the so-called paradigm wars. Scholars feuded over the best way to think about—and how to study—international politics. These debates were nuanced, but they essentially boiled down to a clash between those who held a realist view of international politics and those who did not.

Realism comes in many hues. Some realist approaches emphasize the importance of individual leaders, others stress the role of domestic institutions, and still others focus squarely on the distribution of power among countries. There is classical realism (human nature compels states to pursue security), structural realism (the lack of a world government compels states to pursue security), and neoclassical realism (a combination of internal and external factors compels states to pursue security). These approaches have their own subvariants. For instance, structural realists are divided between a defensive camp (states seek security by preventing the hegemony of any single power) and an offensive camp (states must seek hegemony to achieve security). Some realists would disavow the label altogether: the work of the British historian E. H. Carr is clearly realist in its leanings, but he would never have identified himself as such.

Rather than being a strictly coherent theory, realism has always been defined not by what it prescribes but by what it deems impossible. It is the school of no hope, the curmudgeon of international relations thought. The first work of modern realist thought and the precursor to Mearsheimer’s own work was The European Anarchy, a short book written by the British political scientist G. Lowes Dickinson in 1916. It emphasized that states, out of fear, will seek to dominate and, indeed, gain supremacy over others. During the 1920s and 1930s, realists (although not yet referred to as such) pointed to the futility of arms control and disarmament treaties.

Realism is the school of no hope, the curmudgeon of international relations thought.

In 1942, the American scholar Merze Tate published The Disarmament Illusion, a book that argued that states will inevitably seek to retain their arms and whose ideas fit well with the claims made by the later realists Hans Morgenthau and Kenneth Waltz. In the late 1940s and 1950s, Kissinger and Morgenthau pointed to the impracticality of hoping for a single world government or even peaceful coexistence among countries. In the 1970s and 1980s, realists were primarily identified (either by others or by themselves) as those who derided the hope that international regimes, such as the United Nations, could solve global problems. By the 1990s, realists were criticizing the expectation that international institutions and the spread of democracy would usher in a golden age of global peace and prosperity troubled only by the occasional rogue state.

Realism fared quite well compared with an alternative theory that gained prominence in the 1990s and continues to receive attention in policy circles: the notion that geopolitics would become a “clash of civilizations,” as advanced by the American political scientist Samuel Huntington. Like Mearsheimer’s core realist work, Huntington’s thesis was written in the wake of the Cold War, as analysts and scholars sought to anticipate what the end of superpower bipolarity would mean for the world. While Mearsheimer focused on the return of great-power politics, Huntington claimed that it would be cultural, largely religious, differences that would drive the conflicts of the future. Huntington was, in effect, rebutting the work of Mearsheimer. In contrast to the statist emphasis of realism, Huntington’s culture-based theory predicted peaceful relations between Ukraine and Russia, countries that in his view belonged to the same overarching civilization. That prediction has not aged well.

What ultimately unifies the branches of realism is the view that states bristling with arms are an inescapable fact of life and that international cooperation is not just difficult but fundamentally futile. In essence, it is foolish to hope that cooperation will provide lasting solutions to the intractable reality of conflict and competition as countries pursue their own interests.

That is the framework that characterizes realist thought, including the work of Mearsheimer. Realism sees international politics as a tragic stage in which the persistence, if not the prevalence, of war means that governments must focus on guaranteeing national security, even at the expense of liberties and prosperity. Tate captured this sentiment well in The Disarmament Illusion: “Dissatisfied powers may not actually want war, may even dread it, and may be quite as unwilling to run the risk of an appeal to arms as the satisfied states; but in spite of this, they will not voluntarily shut off all possibility of obtaining a state of things which will be to them more acceptable than the present.”

Realism as a theory gains power by highlighting the mechanisms that constrain human agency, be they the innate nature of humans (as emphasized by Morgenthau) or the distribution of global power (the focus of Waltz). To draw an analogy, realism’s role is to continually point to the gravity that undercuts human attempts to fly. Realism can be used to explain the foreign policy choices of certain countries or why an event, such as a war, occurred. As a theory, realism can be very effective in explaining relations among states. But it becomes something different when it journeys from the realm of description to that of prescription. When brought into policy, realist theory becomes realpolitik: the position that states should balance against their adversaries and seek relative gains rather than accept supranational and institutional constraints on their freedom of action in international affairs.

The distinction between realism as theory and as policy appears in the historical debate over nuclear proliferation. In the early 1980s, Waltz argued that the spread of nuclear weapons would lead to greater peace. He cut against the conventional wisdom that insisted that only limiting the spread of these weapons would ensure a safer world (the logic behind the creation of the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty in 1970). His claim was subsequently debated by those who, to put it simply, pointed out that the proliferation of nuclear weapons would make the world more dangerous.

In making his arguments, Waltz took a descriptive and theoretically informed observation (the likelihood of war decreases as deterrent and defensive capabilities increase), applied this to nuclear weapons (nuclear weapons dramatically improve a country’s deterrent and defensive capabilities), and then deduced a recommendation for how policymakers should view the spread of nuclear weapons: that more should be welcomed, not feared.

It is in this last step that Waltz goes from describing international politics (here is why states seek nuclear weapons) to prescribing international politics (here is why states should seek nuclear weapons). One is a description, the other is a justification. They are both valid intellectual enterprises, but they should not be confused. A particular understanding of world events does not inevitably lead to a particular policy response. In this case, the same factors that led Waltz to justify the spread of nuclear weapons could have led him to offer the opposite prescription, in that a state’s security goals could be achieved without them (for instance, by sheltering under the nuclear umbrella of a major power). Realist theory helps describe the world, but such prescriptions reflect the interpretations of individuals, not the overarching theory itself.

Realism as policy also manifests itself in debates over restraint in U.S. foreign policy. Proponents of U.S. restraint aim to counter liberal internationalism, the view that the United States must be involved, militarily if necessary, in foreign arenas for the sake of promoting and maintaining a rules-based international order. By contrast, restraint calls for the United States to reduce its global footprint and avoid getting involved in issues that are marginal to U.S. national interests. As with the debate over nuclear proliferation, realism’s role in debates on how the United States should behave in international affairs must not be confused with using realism to describe U.S. foreign policy. Realism can explain why the United States finds itself in a particular geopolitical situation, but it doesn’t offer an obvious answer about how the United States should behave in that situation.


The debate regarding Ukraine has long featured realist voices. In 1993, Mearsheimer wrote in Foreign Affairs that Kyiv should retain the stockpile of nuclear weapons it inherited after the collapse of the Soviet Union because Moscow might one day seek to reconquer Ukraine. Some 20 years later, Mearsheimer wrote of how NATO enlargement and the promise of bringing Ukraine into the alliance provoked Russian aggression, namely the seizing of the Crimean Peninsula in 2014. Both pieces were focused on policy prescription: rather than simply describing what Russia, Ukraine, the United States, the European Union, and NATO were doing, they focused on what they should do.

Although one can disagree with those arguments, it is worth pointing out that they reflect realism as policy, not realism as theory. Realism as theory would have limited itself to explaining why the crisis is happening, perhaps focusing on how the desire of major powers to dominate their region means that Russia would eventually seek to militarily coerce (or even invade) its neighbors, or that conditions were conducive to a former empire seeking to reestablish itself, or that in their search for security, states can act in ways that can be perceived incorrectly as being aggressive.

None of this is to say that realism or any one theory offers the best explanation for the war in Ukraine. Alternative explanations abound, including the power of nationalism, the differences in regime types, and the traits (one might say, quirks) of particular leaders. But realism offers a useful frame for understanding this war’s onset. Indeed, the enduring power of realism is its ability to offer a clear baseline for coming to grips with why the world is and will likely remain a world full of pain and despair.

Realism immoral – it does not address evil and it would have not prevented Putin’s assault on the Ukraine

Christopher Booth, Moscow Correspondent, 4-8, 22, The Spectator, Russia ‘realists’ have very little to say about evil,

‘Every way of a man is right in his own eyes’, the Book of Proverbs says: it makes us feel good to know we’re on the side of the angels. The corollary is that other men must be in the wrong, and therefore blameworthy, and this shores up our self-regard still further. Of course, taken to extremes, the outcome is full-blown narcissism. But in certain schools of international relations, there’s a kind of especially vigorous anti-narcissism in fashion: the idea that when it comes to the sins of the world, ‘we’ in the west are almost always the guilty party (excepting those enlightened enough to perceive this truth). Ukraine is the latest conflict where self-flagellants flex a version of the argument. In short, were it not for the incautious expansion of Nato, and the half-promises made to Kyiv, none of this horror would have happened. Professor John Mearsheimer of the University of Chicago is a vocal proponent of the view, and his commentaries have notched up hundreds of thousands of views on YouTube during the war. That’s a lot of likes for an academic. So he is clearly tapping into something some people feel. ‘We have led the Ukrainians down the primrose path and encouraged them to join Nato’ he declares. At the same time, ‘we took a stick and we poked the bear in the eye’ when it comes to Russia. It is again, you see, all about ‘us’. Mearsheimer is an articulate and well-regarded thinker, and has published much learned material to great acclaim. By contrast, I’m merely a former Moscow correspondent. But having spent a decade in Russia between 1988 and 2005, and witnessed the emergence and flourishing of Putin’s way of running the country, I can’t help finding Mearsheimer’s theory of ‘offensive realism’ a poor guide to what is taking place. And in some ways, it just strikes me as plain offensive. There are lots of reasons why. Starting with the glaring iniquity that such a worldview denies Ukrainians the opportunity to choose their future. They are either obliged to accept Moscow’s ‘right’ to call the shots; or they’re painted as dumb puppets of western manipulation. The toppling of the pro-Russian government in Kyiv in 2014, which so upset the Kremlin, is described by thinkers like Mearsheimer as a ‘coup’. The choice of word is telling, because it smuggles in a value judgment. Many of my Ukrainian friends, however, would term the events a popular uprising. Not one in which they were gulled by the CIA and dark forces, but one in which they eagerly seized the hope to make a country better than the one Putin was willing to begrudge them. That may be described as ‘unrealistic’, but it at least permits Ukrainians a role in their affairs. Second, even if Nato were relevant to the choice of war by Putin, there are plenty of other causes, apart from the man’s taste for risk and violence, that could also account for the invasion. Access to natural resources and Ukraine’s littoral hydrocarbon deposits would be a strong one. Another might be the Tsar’s go-to solution for troubles at home: more than a century ago, Russian interior minister Vyacheslav von Plehve’s explanation for going to war with Japan was ‘You don’t know Russia’s internal situation. To avert a revolution, we need a small victorious war.’ Putin has greater reason to fear being overthrown at home for rampant corruption and immiseration than some far-off and thoroughly implausible Ukrainian membership of Nato. But of course, it suits him fine if analysts are keen to make it the ‘line in the sand’ which ‘we’ crossed to trigger the nightmare. Another shortcoming of the theory is that it supposes people like Putin and his entourage are motivated by statesmanlike reason. But while the Russian defence staff may have planned the war through a prism of rationality – in the event, that prism turned out to be a drastically flawed one – their commander-in-chief has demonstrated spitting anger and a bloody messianism as high among his motivations for conflict. The televised address to the Russian nation on the eve of war seemed that of a man possessed: ‘One can say with good reason and confidence that the whole so-called western bloc formed by the United States in its own image and likeness is, in its entirety, an “empire of lies,”’ Putin fumed. His public performances suggest a man seated far from sober realism as he sits with increasingly rare guests at that long, long Kremlin table. Keep in mind, when he talks about bringing ethnic Russians, or merely Russian speakers, back into the fold of his country, he means every neo-fascist word of what he says. More than that, the President of Russia habitually dives deep into the profane language of a lowlife gangster. He’s comfortable referring to the rape of women and evoking sadistic violence to illustrate what he has in mind if he takes a shine to the metaphor. ‘Sorry, my beautiful – like it or not, you’re just gonna have to take it,’ is a recent coinage. In the Russian idiom it also rhymes, for greater effect. Some might say he’s just being clever, playing to the home audience. But it’s also possible that Putin delights in using such phrases because of what they make him feel. A former British ambassador to Moscow put it to me like this: ‘The old Putin had a kind of dark wit when he spoke. He now comes across as unhinged.’ Whether or not, it’s a far cry from the lexicon of a cool-headed statesman. But there are other reasons why the ‘offensive realism’ model is morally slimy. For one thing, it doesn’t account for Putin’s choice of mediaeval tactics. You can take the idea of the west’s original guilt, if you really have to believe in it, only so far. Because it was the Russian president’s choice, not ‘ours’, to enthusiastically reduce Mariupol to rubble and give carte blanche to his troops to maraud across Ukraine, how and where they pleased. The counter-argument might perhaps be that thanks to western arms supplies and the boost to Ukraine’s defence capability, Russian generals were left no choice but to render cities to dust and send in the armed rapists. But that stretches belief. And after Bucha, it is morally grotesque to expect ‘us’ to shoulder the blame for wanton murder. (Russian troops in this regard have plenty of form – ask anyone brave enough to speak up in Grozny today about what they went through at the hands of ‘kontraktniki’, contract soldiers, and the secret policemen when Putin was just coming of age politically.) Last, the ‘realists’ have very little to say about evil. In stressing the role of purported geopolitical force majeure, and western guilt in the matter, they struggle to find a place for old-fashioned ideas like greed, vainglory and the capacity of some to take pleasure in what is now called ‘transgressive behaviour’ and what used to be known as sin. Those motivations, and no doubt many more, are characteristic of despots. They seem a particularly close fit with all we know of Putin: his thirst for wealth, his need to be feared if not loved, and his ruthless willingness to achieve such things by killing. In theorising largely in matters of abstract strategy, the realists have no explanation for the grisly calculus of evil men. In turn, it tends to absolve these appalling characters of responsibility, even of moral capacity. That is more wrong today than ever, given that we cannot claim not to know, or close our eyes to what we have seen, and that it would sign off on a dreadful blank cheque to the future.

Realism accepts dominance and ignores morality

Adam Tooze, 6-8., 22, John Mearsheimer and the dark origins of realism: Rage aimed at the eminent international relations scholar reflects liberal frustration over the West’s limited power to prevent Russia’s war in Ukraine.

“Why is Ukraine the West’s fault?” This is the provocative title of a talk by Professor John Mearsheimer – a famous exponent of international relations (IR) realism – given at an alumni gathering of the University of Chicago in 2015. Since it was first posted on YouTube, it has been viewed more than 18 million times. In 2022 Mearsheimer is still delivering his message, most explosively on 1 March in an ill-advised down-the-telephone interview to the New Yorker. Against the backdrop of the Russian invasion of Ukraine, Mearsheimer’s provocation is causing outrage. And it raises the question: what is the realism that Mearsheimer claims to espouse? On the one hand, Mearsheimer is disarmingly even-handed. The push for Nato expansion in 2008 to include Georgia and Ukraine was a disastrous mistake. The overthrow of the Moscow-backed Viktor Yanukovych regime in 2014, a revolution supported by the West, antagonised Russia further. The West should accept responsibility for having created a dangerous situation by extending an anti-Soviet alliance into what is left of Russia’s sphere of influence. And then comes the inflammatory conclusion: Putin’s violent pushback should not come as a surprise. In 2015, Mearsheimer’s stance was already controversial. Today, in light of Putin’s flagrant breach of international law, it has taken on a new life. On 28 February, when the Russian foreign ministry tweeted its endorsement of Mearsheimer’s view, it was pounced on by Anne Applebaum, the noted historian and campaigner for post-Soviet eastern European liberalism. “And there it is,” Applebaum gloated, with reference to the foreign ministry’s tweet, “now wondering if the Russians didn’t actually get their narrative from Mearsheimer et al. Moscow needed to say West was responsible for Russian invasions (Chechnya, Georgia, Syria, Ukraine), and not their own greed and imperialism. American academics provided the narrative.” Over the days that followed, Appelbaum’s denunciation attracted a flurry of support, and students at the University of Chicago launched a menacing open letter demanding to know whether Mearsheimer was on the Russian payroll. The scandal entails Mearsheimer’s refusal to see Putin’s aggression as anything other than the behaviour of a great power at bay. Unlike Applebaum, Mearsheimer has little at stake in either Russian or Ukrainian history. What he is doing is simply elucidating the implications of his favourite IR theory, known as “offensive” or “great power” realism. Russia is a great power. Great powers, the theory goes, guard their security through spheres of interest. The US does so too, in the form of the Monroe doctrine and more recently in the Carter doctrine, which extends America’s interests to the Persian Gulf. If necessary, those zones are defended with force, and anyone who fails to recognise and respect this fails to grasp the violent logic of international relations. As for Applebaum’s allegation – for which she offered no evidence – Mearsheimer would presumably shrug. After all, Applebaum isn’t claiming that Mearsheimer and his ilk – “American academics” – gave the Russians the idea. Putin doesn’t need American professors to convince him that Russia is a great power. Great powers use fair means and foul. Instrumentalising arguments from foreign academics is the least of their sins. In so far as ideas can actually influence international relations, given the determinative force that Mearsheimer accords to geography, economics and military power, the most that one can hope for is to bring decision-makers and the general public to recognise each other’s interests and spheres of influence and pull back from unnecessary confrontation. What realism means in this context is clarity about the underlying structure and a resigned acceptance of its logic. In the 2000s, it was this same stance that motivated Mearsheimer to speak out against what he thought was the undue influence of the Israel lobby over US policy. That influence muddied American policymakers’ understanding of their country’s true interests in the Middle East. In the current situation, what Mearsheimer demands is that we rid ourselves of the idea that Nato’s expansion to the East is either an irresistible trend of history or a crusade we must fight for. The implications of Mearsheimer’s view for Ukrainian sovereignty are, undeniably, grim. It will forever be curtailed by the fate of being within Russia’s sphere of influence. But as unappetising as this is, if one fails to recognise the facts of Russian power and interest, the outcome will be even worse. Ukraine risks being battered to pieces. Mearsheimer does not deny Russian aggression, he simply takes it as a given. The entire force of his polemic is directed at the EU and Nato for leading Ukraine “down the primrose path”. Given the West’s talk about eventual Nato membership and association agreements with the EU, how were politicians in Ukraine to resist the appeal of eventual inclusion? But if they succumb to that temptation they put themselves at risk of Russia’s wrath. If you ask Mearsheimer about the historical source for his lucid but dark view of the world, he will most likely tell you that it is an ancient wisdom that originates in the writings of the Greek historian Thucydides. But that is an invented tradition assembled ex-post by the discipline of IR as it established itself at American universities in the Cold War era. As Matthew Specter’s fascinating new history The Atlantic Realists (2022) shows us, a more plausible line of descent derives not from the ancients, or even from the realpolitik of the age of Bismarck, which operated within the relatively settled terrain of the 19th-century balance of power, but instead the age of imperialism. It was in the late 19th century, with the closing of the global frontier and the fashion for social Darwinism, that a vision of the world first crystallised in which over-mighty powers jostled for space on a limited planet. For Specter, a line runs straight from the expansive naval theorists and geographers of the pre-1914 period, such as Friedrich Ratzel and Alfred Mahan, to the German geopoliticians of the interwar period – notably Karl Haushofer and Carl Schmitt – and from there to the classic texts of American realism, notably the writing of Hans Morgenthau. Like Mearsheimer, Carl Schmitt, the Nazi lawyer and theorist of Grossraum, envisioned a world order based on dividing the planet between large spatial blocs, each dominated by a major power. A characteristic feature of this body of thought is its moral relativism. This relativism is not founded in philosophy so much as the pluralism of spheres of power. Like Mearsheimer, Haushofer and Schmitt envisioned Germany’s Grossraum as an equivalent to the British Empire and America’s Monroe doctrine. The same point was made by Japanese advocates of the Greater Asian Coprosperity Sphere in the late 1930s. Part of the reason why this history is obscure is that it has always been scandalous to liberals. The frank assertion of the claims of power sits poorly with an ideal of universal rights. In the Second World War, German geopoliticians like Haushofer found themselves anathematised by the Allied press and put in the dock at Nuremberg. The condemnation was confusing to them, because they openly acknowledged how much they owed to the example of America’s own expansion in the 19th century. To overcome this embarrassment, as Specter shows in a series of head-turning chapters, realism in the US had to invent a new history for itself which positioned it as a more abstract theory, detached from its imperialists roots. Specter is a Germanist. His previous book was an intellectual biography of the Frankfurt School philosopher Jürgen Habermas. Especially for an American audience, linking the kind of IR realism that is taught in American universities to dark roots in the imperialist era is a considerable intellectual coup. But it comes at the price of a narrowing of historical vision. If Mearsheimer is a typical exponent of great power realism, then his interests are defined less by the questions of late 19th-century imperialism than by the question of why the world went to war in 1914. The intellectual genealogy to which he belongs descends above all from the aftermath of the First World War and the anguished, multinational effort to make sense of what went wrong in the July Crisis. In that debate, the German-American exchange that Specter focuses on, was part of a wider argument that included figures like the historian EH Carr and philosopher Goldsworthy Lowes Dickinson in Britain, and left-wing historians of international relations like Charles Beard in the United States. There is still today an affinity between realists like Mearsheimer, and the foreign policy left, who appreciate his unflinching articulation of the logic of power.