Focus: Ukraine and Political Realism
2022 (44) Issue 2
It is an issue of debate as to which side did more to breathe new life into political realism within the menu of international relations theories: whether or not Putin’s war has been effective against Ukraine, or John Mearsheimer’s accusation that, since 2014 at the latest, ‘the West’ would be responsible for a war. Certainly, the Russian invasion in terms of its style, propaganda and accompanying drama looks as though its initiators tried to enact the most straightforward, brutal and si...
Table of Contents
Focus: Ukraine and Political Realism
Title: Mearsheimer, Realism, and the Ukraine War
Author: Nicholas Ross Smith and Grant Dawson
The usefulness of ‘realism’ in explaining Russia’s decision to invade Ukraine has become a keenly contested debate not only in International Relations but in wider public intellectual discourse since the onset of the war in February 2022. At the centre of this debate is the punditry of John J. Mearsheimer, a prominent offensive realist who is a Professor of International Relations at the University of Chicago. This article argues that although Mearsheimer is indeed a realist, his offensive realism is but one of many different realist theories that can forward an explanation of the Ukraine War. Beyond the apparent hegemony of structural realism (the branch of realism to which Mearsheimer’s offensive realism belongs), it is argued that classical and neoclassical realist frameworks can provide more nuanced and, ultimately, convincing arguments as to why Russian President Vladimir Putin decided to invade Ukraine. This is because both classical and neoclassical realism can incorporate insights from non-realist studies—such as the concepts of civilization and ontological security—and combine them into an overarching power politics framework. Although neither classical nor neoclassical realism is flawless in their explanations, they demonstrate that realism does not just have to be about international power structures but can offer multivariate accounts of why a state, like Russia, decided to act, such as invading Ukraine.
Title: Realism, the War in the Ukraine, and the Limits of Diplomacy
Author: Felix Rösch
Since the outbreak of the war in the Ukraine, realism has made a comeback in public discourses but it is not clear what realism actually means as it seems to stand for everything: from supporting the Ukraine against Russian aggression to the war is the West’s fault. This is the result of decades of not distinguishing between neorealism and classical realism and implicitly acknowledging neorealist storytelling of having systematized classical realist thought. The present paper is a further intervention to carefully distinguish between both theoretical perspectives to uncover what they can add to current world political problems. It finishes by asking if neorealist scholars like John Mearsheimer have a point that it is the West’s fault and a diplomatic solution needs to be found. They often refer to Hans Morgenthau not least because he was one of the most outspoken critics of the Vietnam War.
Title: The End of Open Society Realism?
Author: Robert Schuett
Does the ‘Zeitenwende’ herald the beginning of a new and as yet undefined open society realism? The present essay argues this question requires critical discussion of nature and value of realist political theory, particularly at a time where international society is accelerating to somewhere which is itself as yet unclear. Adding to revisionist research on political realism in International Relations (IR) theory I sketch how a political vision I call open society realism may be developed out of Classical realism, in sharp distinction to academic IR neorealism for methodological and political reasons. To strip foreign policy realism from Continental philosophy, law, and history risks that we become what political liberalism ought to avoid: a closed society with a good conscience retreating from world politics, hiding behind the ‘national’ interest as if strategic great power management is a methodic function of structure rather than the politics of an ethically conscious diplomacy.
Title: Realism after Ukraine: A Critique of Geopolitical Reason from Monroe to Mearsheimer
Author: Matthew Specter
This article seeks to historicize both the Russian invasion of Ukraine in 2022 and the debate on realism occasioned by Russian aggression in Ukraine since 2014. Using the research of Gerard Toal on Russia’s construction of its security interests in the post-Soviet spaces that include Ukraine, the article argues that neorealist geopolitical explanations fail to do justice to the roles of contingency and culture in setting Russia’s so-called ‘red lines.’ It also identifies an agency problem in realism: realists not only fail to do justice to the agency of small states like Ukraine in this conflict but elide the moral and practical agency of decisionmakers like Russian President Vladmir Putin. The article also suggests that the current realism debate is the tip of an iceberg: realism has long had a problem specifying the relation of its theory to its practice. The article concludes by discussing the long shadow of 19th century imperial history over contemporary discussions of spheres of influence and great power status.
Discussion: Andreas Reckwitz and the Society of Singularities
Title: The Society of Singularities—10 Theses
Author: Andreas Reckwitz
The article summarizes the content of Andreas Reckwitz’s book The Society of Singularities in 10 theses and briefly links it to the author’s overall work. The Society of Singularities applies a practice theory approach in order to outline a theory of Western (late-)modernity which recognizes in it a basic rivalry between two logics of social evaluation: a social logic of the general and a social logic of the particular/ singular. The question arises which historical causes for the surge of the social logic of uniqueness since the 1980s can be discerned, which structural features this type of society unfolds and which social and political consequences it has.
Title: Does Practice Theory Work? Reckwitz’s Study of the ‘New Middle Class’ as an Example
Author: Andreas Pettenkofer
‘Practice theory’—a theory program that connects the goal of offering non-rationalist explanations to a strong focus on everyday routine activities, and builds on the work of Bourdieu but tries to gain a less narrow perspective—is being used more and more widely in the social sciences. Its advocates often argue that, since practice theory is a heuristic for doing empirical work, discussing it without addressing this empirical work cannot do justice to it. Therefore, this article analyses Reckwitz’s recently translated book on The Society of Singularities, which its author presents as an example of the advantages of (one dominant version of) practice theory. As will be shown, the book demonstrates that this version of practice theory does not fulfil its promises. Looking at its difficulties is instructive, however, because it helps see more clearly how the goal of an integrative ‘theory of practice’ could be achieved.
Title: Self-Realization and Disappointment in the ‘Society of Singularities’
Author: Austin Harrington
This contribution focuses on Andreas Reckwitz’s considerations on phenomena of ‘exhausted self-realization’ and ‘disappointment’ in The Society of Singularities, as well as in his follow-up volume, The End of Illusions. Under discussion is the range of analytical distinctions that tend to come into play in this area between what one might call a generally primordial concept of self-realization and more derivative articulations of the concept that exhibit various aspects of instrumentalization—variously termed ‘self-maximization’ or ‘self-optimization’. The paper argues that while Reckwitz’s work offers great resources for an understanding of how and why ‘self-realization’ so frequently appears to take on an instrumentalizing character in late-modern social behaviour, the extent to which his work attributes this tendency to a wholly immanent cultural-cognitive logic of lifestyle singularization is open to criticism. The reasons must also be sought from within the more directly economic contexts of diminished material security and solidarity typical of contemporary societies shaped by neoliberal economic governance orders at the level of policy.
Title: The Theory of Everything: A Sympathetic Critique of Andeas Reckwitz’s The Society of Singularities
Author: Patrick Baert
After situating Andreas Reckwitz’s The Society of Singularities within the broader context of the tradition of social theory, we discuss in detail the obvious strengths of this book, notably its impressive range and originality. Subsequently, we elaborate on two limitations of Reckwitz’s argument. Firstly, we argue that Reckwitz’s use of categories such as ‘singularity’ and ‘universality’ is too allembracing, lacking the clarity and focus needed to sustain a productive line of inquiry. Secondly, and related to the previous point, we contend that Reckwitz’s claims about the recent trend towards increasing singularity are so broad that they are difficult to refute empirically. Further, we discuss briefly contemporary political developments to demonstrate why the core societal issues at stake cannot be explained through all-inclusive categories such as singularity. Finally, we maintain that existence theory can provide an alternative fruitful perspective on some of the phenomena discussed in this book.