This isn't exactly a philosophical piece. Really it's just a cry of frustration. But I don't know where else I can say it. For reasons that will rapidly become apparent, I'm reluctant to discuss it with my friends and family under my own name.On February 24 of this year, Russian military forces invaded the Ukraine. Since then, we have seen an entire industry blossom of analysts explaining it all. What frustrates me so much is that so many of the ones I read seem to miss the important points so magnificently.
To be clear right up front, the one analyst I find most persuasive is John Mearsheimer of the University of Chicago. Mearsheimer is a foreign policy realist, who thinks in terms of the power dynamics among rivals on the international stage. Of course I understand that there can be other factors which drive international behavior as well—religion, ideology, and idealism all come to mind as examples—but I am persuaded that considerations of power and security are a baseline, and that all these other factors are built on top of them. In other words, I believe (and there are plenty of historical examples) that countries who differ in religion or ideology but who feel secure from each other at the level of power dynamics can remain at peace (though they might not always stay that way); but countries who agree on religion or ideology but who feel threatened by each other will inevitably go to war. Power and security are not everything, but they are fundamental.Mearsheimer's analysis of the current situation in Ukraine is that the West triggered it by trying to bring Ukraine into NATO. Vladimir Putin considered that the prospect of having a hostile alliance directly bordering Russia was an unacceptable threat (in the same way, and for the exact same reason, that John Kennedy considered it unacceptable for the Soviet Union to station nuclear missiles in Cuba) and responded with a military invasion. It's a simple theory, economical in its assumptions and explaining all the observable data. Also I find it very easy to believe.
But Mearsheimer's perspective is, to put it charitably, a minority view in America today. In the last couple of weeks I have read three different accounts, all by men who sound smart and well-informed, who criticize or dismiss Mearsheimer by name, and yet who seem to misunderstand Mearsheimer's remarkably simple explanation. It's frustrating.
So for example, back in March* David Remnick of the New Yorker interviewed Stephen Kotkin of Princeton University and the Hoover Institution. You can find the resulting article here. Right up front, Remnick asks Kotkin his opinion of Mearsheimer's thesis, and Kotkin replies:
John Mearsheimer is a giant of a scholar. But I respectfully disagree. The problem with [his] argument is that it assumes that, had NATO not expanded, Russia wouldn’t be the same or very likely close to what it is today. What we have today in Russia is not some kind of surprise. It’s not some kind of deviation from a historical pattern. Way before NATO existed—in the nineteenth century—Russia looked like this: it had an autocrat. It had repression. It had militarism. It had suspicion of foreigners and the West. This is a Russia that we know, and it’s not a Russia that arrived yesterday or in the nineteen-nineties. It’s not a response to the actions of the West. There are internal processes in Russia that account for where we are today.
Kotkin has changed the subject. The important question is not, How did Russia get to be the kind of place it is today? The important question is, Why did Russia invade Ukraine? All the historical analysis of Russian culture and the Russian psyche might be very interesting as background, but a country can be pathologically dysfunctional on the inside and still not invade its neighbors. North Korea** maintains a belligerent pose of threatening South Korea, but in fact the two countries haven't come to blows since the 1950's because balance-of-power politics stops them: specifically, they are restrained by their stronger allies (China and the United States, respectively). So everything Kotkin says about Russian militarism and autocracy as historical phenomena is irrelevant. The real question, which he completely fails to answer, is Why now?
Two weeks later, YouTube published a conversation where Konstantin Kisin and Francis Foster interview Andrey Illarionov, a former economic policy advisor to Putin. It's a wide-ranging discussion, but starting at about 12:02 the interviewers ask Illarionov about the Mearsheimer thesis. Illarionov replies that Mearsheimer "belongs to the class of thinkers who prefer to see empires in the world." He goes on to explain that Mearsheimer clearly believes that only certain countries have a right to exist; in particular the small ones have no right to exist independently. Illarionov concludes that this kind of thinking is appropriate for the 19th century but not for the 21st.
Again, Illarionov has changed the subject. Mearsheimer says nothing about the "right to exist." The whole realist argument has nothing to do with rights, but with what is politically prudent. To use an analogy, you have a perfect right to walk alone down a dark alley in a bad neighborhood, flashing your expensive watch and letting your wallet show out of your back pocket. But you're a damned fool if you do it. Rights or no rights, you are inviting someone to mug you and take your valuables. It's even worse on the international stage. In the dark alley, at least there's a tiny chance that a policeman will happen to wander by on his rounds at the exact same moment and protect you. But there is no international policeman, because there is no World Government.
A month after that, Nassim Nicholas Taleb published an article called "A Clash of Two Systems," in which he describes the Ukraine conflict in almost metaphysical terms. Among other things, he writes:
These sloppy thinkers such as Mearsheimer and similar handwavers conflate states with individual interests; they believe that there is only a balance of power between powers — for Mearsheimer, Putin is only reacting to undue progress by the West on its ground. But the reality is quite different: what Ukrainians want is to be part of what I would call an international “benign” order, which works well because it is self-correcting, and where the balance of power can exist but remain harmless. Putin and the “realists” are the wrong century, they do not think in terms of systems or in terms of individuals. They suffer from what I call the “Westphalia Syndrome” — the reification of states as natural and fixed Platonic entities.
What the f---?? Read that paragraph a second time: Taleb is arguing that Putin is wrong to think of states as fixed entities, when in reality he should think in terms of individuals and systems. But who cares whether his thinking is wrong in that way? If that's how he thinks, then that's how he thinks! Big frappin' deal. As long as he has thousands of nuclear weapons and over a million armed men at his command, it behooves us to take him seriously even if we disagree with the way he thinks about things. In particular, it behooves us to try to understand how he thinks rather than simply dismissing him for not thinking the way we do. It doesn't matter if he might be wrong at a theoretical level as long as he's the one holding the gun.
None of these are stupid people. None of them are ill-informed. So it baffles and distresses me to see them making such simple intellectual mistakes. It's not like the understanding of great-power politics is something so novel that they haven't heard of it yet. None of it depends on Mearsheimer himself, after all—nor on George Kennan, nor on Hans Morgenthau or Raymond Aron, nor even on Otto von Bismarck. The simplest and clearest explanation of the underlying principles that clarify the reasons behind the Russian invasion of Ukraine was spelled out for all time by the Athenian delegation to the island of Melos, as reported in Thucydides' classic History of the Peloponnesian War:***
As for the favor of the gods, we expect to have it as well as you, for we neither do, nor require anything contrary to what mankind hath decreed, either concerning the worship of the gods, or concerning themselves. For of the gods we think (in agreement with the common opinion), and of men we know for a fact, that for certain by necessity of nature they will everywhere rule over such as they be too strong for.
* Yes, I only read it this week.
** Surely high on anyone's list of "pathologically dysfunctional" countries.
*** I follow, and slightly adapt, the translation of Thomas Hobbes.