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The Unreal Realists

medvedputin121908.jpgRealism has a lot of advantages over other schools of thought on international relations.  If, for example, you find yourself in an ardent debate over Russia, you can easily dismiss the competing approaches as being “unrealistic” – or naively optimistic – thus winning the point by the simple title of your paradigm.

The truth is that realism is making quite the comeback, and that is a negative trend.  All summer long, we braced ourselves for Henry Kissinger’s brand of realism to dominate throughout the presidential campaigns – but his sudden interest in Russia disappeared rather promptly after the invasion of Georgia (perhaps so as to not complicate McCain’s bid for the White House).  But if anything, the war brought the return of the R-word to the mainstream.

A realist argument for Russia’s invasion of Georgia was recently presented by Dmitri Simes of the Nixon Center in the National Interest.

Simes argues that the United States has severely overreacted to the war, and the military situation and sovereignty status of South Ossetia and Abkhazia are not sufficient cause for concern to justify a deterioration in U.S.-Russia relations.  He writes, “Whatever else one may say about Prime Minister Vladimir Putin, President Dmitri Medvedev and their associates, they are calculating and pragmatic leaders. They want to restore Russia’s greatness and enhance its influence, especially in its neighborhood, but not at the cost of self-isolation, economic disaster or an all-out arms race with the United States.

It is a classic realist approach.  Permit me a moment of international relations 101.  Born in the post-Westphalian world, realism developed as a response to the discrepancies between the Wilsonian idealists and the reality of the brutalities inflicted upon Europe during and after World War I.  It is an absolutist view, which conceives a unity of leader, state, and national interest.  The core assumption of realism is that the state is a rational, unitary actor, and that these rational actors will seek to maximize the exercise of their power in pursuit of survival.  Very Darwinian.

The political scientist Bruce Bueno de Mesquita, among others, has written extensively on realism, especially with its flaws in approaches to armed conflict between states.  In one 2006 paper he writes, “Contemporary international politics is characterized by interactions among autocrats, between autocrats and democrats, or between pairs of democrats. The difference in the extent to which leaders are accountable to the “national” interest as a result of domestic political arrangements means that war and peace interactions vary more today in their consistency with realist thought than they did in the past.

Likewise, Simes portrays Russia as a rational, unitary actor.  With all due respect to the accomplished Mr. Simes, I would disagree with this characterization.  What we talk about when we talk about the Kremlin, the administration, or the Putin-Medvedev tandemocracy, is a hollowed-out, anarchic vertical power, dominated by disputes between clans.  For the realists, the first thing they should understand is Lenin’s classic maxim, that Russia’s foreign policy has always been a reflection of its domestic politics – and this reflection is even more distorted given the fractious nature of today’s governing coalition.  It is thoroughly irrational, and not directed at the pursuit of the national interest – just the personal political survival of these various government members, and the maintainence of their accrued wealth.

If Russia were a unitary state and rational foreign policy decisionmaker, we would have seen the problem with Georgia taken care of with an entirely different strategy, exhausting international political remedies perhaps, and laying the diplomatic groundwork before engaging in war so as not to wreak such unnecessary economic damage on the Russian markets. 

Take the missile shield for example: the easiest way to get the Americans to compromise would be to pledge cooperation in the United Nations on Iran, thus eliminating the stated motivation for building the sites.  Instead we have a warship in Havana today.  But instead the realists praise Russia for lukewarm and unspecific offers to eventually work with the United States on Iran– instead of asking why Russian foreign policy isn’t already dedicatedto preventing nuclear proliferation in Tehran – which is squarelywithin its national interests.

The anarchic chaos of the Kremlin is visible in the doublespeak.  Literally one day the well-intentioned president gives a speech on the need for transparency in the courts, and the next day another clan is pushing bills through the duma to eliminate jury trials and broaden the definition of treason.

It seems much more unreal than realist to talk about Russia’s recentforeign policy decisions as rational and unitary.  This is a countrywith a level of corruption so high that it is on par with a low-rankingAfrican nation, a government populated by business owners and formersecurity service officers, and a byzantine network of clans operatingin a lawless context, frequently in conflict.  To pretend like thereexists a cohesive ideology and a national project guiding foreignpolicy is not plausible, and contributes to the West’s continuedfailure to understand how to deal with Russia.