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 simple form of realism, as depicted in any of the books by Thucydides or Clausewitz or Schmitt. But if we look a bit closer and take into account the historical and cultural context, the ongoing events seem less easy to explain, and the reasons and causes of the war become even more vague as the landscape leading to the war spreads out more fuzzily. Mearsheimer’s analysis, which appears at first sight to be strikingly fitting to the brutal act, becomes less convincing upon closer inspection.
The inconsistencies begin in his so-called ‘offensive realist’ international relations theory and create doubts. His theory impresses us at first for its parsimoniousness, something scientifically advisable in any case, and particularly in its capability to match the official side of Putin’s own declared logic. Great powers, according to Mearsheimer’s variant of realism, try to achieve hegemony in their region. The pending expansion of NATO into Ukraine made it seem like an unavoidable necessity to start strategic activities against that expansion and so being unable to stop the Western encroachment into the East, Putin’s only alternative was a war, or so the story goes.
Now, some observers are doubting whether or not the premise of this explanation can hold up, whether NATO was indeed a ‘threat’ for Russia, or whether it’s expansion was seen as a threat and whether this was the most important cause for the development. But even if the explanation would hold up, it leaves open the question as to why NATO did not move itself into Ukraine during the 1990s, at a time when Russia would have had little resistance to put up against it. And even more pertinent, why did the West pressure Ukraine to get rid of its Soviet nuclear weapons and send them back to Russia? Mearsheimer himself recommended strongly to Ukraine, in 1993, to hang on fiercely to its nuclear arsenal. Such a piece of advice is consistent with an imperial logic. But the facts prove differently. NATO and the West showed a reserved and status-quo oriented politics for Ukraine, while always maintaining a compromising eye towards Russia.
Mearsheimer’s theory has drawn fire from most of his colleagues in the IR community, especially along the lines of its being too simple, one-sidedly power-struck or psychologically and historically insensitive. The criticism along these lines also can be found in the articles of the present issue. To some extent this critique has been mitigated by the strength of Mearsheimer’s longterm interest in the details of the Ukraine-Russian development and his thorough grasp of the historical genealogy of the conflict. In his June 16th lecture in Florence this year, he was able to trace the year-after-year descent into the present war-state—based largely on a series of historical facts and some crucial suppositions only, and not making direct use of his official realist theory, even if somehow looming in the background.
Among the suppositions in this lecture which range as outstandingly important the existence of an ‘existential threat’ for Russia through Ukraine’s development, the reciprocal point that the Monroe Doctrine would never allow a comparable situation for a US neighborhood, as well as the ‘de facto NATO status’ of Ukraine. But Mearsheimer’s reliance on several of Putin’s speeches, his acceptance of Putin as an outspoken, never ever prevaricating strategist, and his neglect of Russia’s historical nationalism reopen his fact-based argument to criticism as well, not because of being an overblown theory but more due to his treatment of the historic detail.
Somehow Mearsheimer seems to do the job of representing the Kremlin more rationally than the Kremlin itself. Besides his persistent objection to quite a number of acclaimed ‘truths’ within Western politics he especially—although largely non-intentionally—directs attention to a more deeply-seated political conflict, the one between the Western democracies and the Russian autocracy. Both are struggling over the democratic transformation of Ukraine. Russia, in this real and theoretical function is also a placeholder for a larger number of autocratic states, especially that of China looming on the horizon. So, one might say, alas, the present struggle is a sort of real-life experiment throwing light on how democratic and autocratic states will arrange themselves in the future—whether or not and how they will clash, or whether or not and how they may find a kind of world order that is beneficial to both sides. The earlier capitalism/socialism competition seems to be playing itself out once again, if only now more so on the level of political instead of economic systems. Will the democracies be able to make good the completion of Fukuyama’s bold 1989–92 claim that democracies will win such contests, since they can offer the most extensive form of ‘social recognition’ to its people? Or instead, will this claim be defeated, and the events following the war will endanger even the democratic systems at home? In any case the history of this war and its consequences are of enormous importance for our Western democracies.
These are the points of interest for a philosophical journal like Analyse & Kritik, which has its focus on meta-theoretical and normative aspects within ambiguous social and political developments. We have to bypass the myriad of details of the ongoing war and its pre-history, world-wide militaristic, economic and social consequences. Instead, we will concentrate on the more principled teachings or lessons to be learned from the war, its most basic forces, internal conflicts, and transferrable logics. Merging into this field of expertise is the inherent normative message of political realism, its—certainly contestant—suggestion of political relations being seen as unavoidably ‘tragic’ burdens. Political realism through its historical representatives like Niebuhr, Morgenthau and most recently Mearsheimer underscores the message of tragedy which humans as such must learn to live with. Not least of all this philosophical, and partly theological, background realism shifts into the focus of not only specialists for international relations, but into that of the more general theorists and readers of human affairs. The pros and cons over political realism should be of significance for the conditions of life which humans have to live, in their social and political circumstances.
Analyse & Kritik began offering perspectives on the war against Ukraine in the last issue with a contribution by Richard Lebow. Lebow opposes political realism, and a structural realism shorn of any domestic politics on the occasion of the war in a wholesale manner, suggesting instead an explanation based on an anthropological psychology of recognition, introduced long ago by the classical Greeks. The contributions to this issue also focus in a different scope and depth on realism, and especially on Mearsheimer’s brand of it. All of them contrast the narrow approach by Mearsheimer with their more versatile tradition of so-called ‘classical realism’, represented by the writings of Hans Morgenthau.
Perhaps the most affirmative type of classical foreign-policy realism, while at one and the same time highly critical of neorealism, in this issue is that of Robert Schuett, who self-identifies as a political realist, albeit coming out of the intellectual context of ‘open society’ ideals. To him, nothing is ever all over in world politics, no Utopia is in sight, and so what we are left with is to make uneasy political and moral choices. The strongest opposition to realism in this selection of articles comes from Matthew Specter. According to him realism offers either under- or overdetermined explanations, so seeing this as an unavoidable problem of applied science. What remains possible in the face of something like a war is—much more modestly—a historical elucidation, not an explanation. The better end is to make the contingency visible, instead of fruitlessly trying to prove the necessity of a country’s specific behavior.
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.