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On the battlefields of Ukraine, Idealism is laying waste to Realism

Russian tank trapped after Ukrainians demolished a bridge in Kalynivka on 2 March 2022. Image: Wikimedia Commons

Truth, they say, is the first casualty of war. But perhaps this time, it is a lie that has been killed. 

The lie I am talking about is a big one: the theoretical framework called “realism” which has long been the dominant school in foreign policy. Realism is essentially a self-fulfilling prophecy. It is based on the premise that all states want to do is to advance self-interest and take advantage of everybody else. In terms of policy prescriptions, it amounts to little more than the idea that since everyone is going to do nasty things, we better hurry up and be even nastier first. Or alternatively, when we don’t think the cost benefit analysis favours aggression, to cower, and cede ground to brutish displays of force. 

According to realism, all states want is to advance self-interest

Democracy, freedom, morality, international law, these are just pretty ideas, they don’t matter. What matters is tanks, soldiers, planes and pipelines. Champions of this school include John Mearsheimer, the R. Wendell Harrison Distinguished Service Professor at the University of Chicago, who Wikipedia says “has been described as the most influential realist of his generation.” 

The alternative approach to realism in International Relations theory is idealism. This was the position taken by perhaps the most famous strategist of all time, Sun Tsu, in his ancient masterpiece The Art of War. He lists “five constant factors, to be taken into account in one’s deliberations, when seeking to determine the conditions obtaining in the field.” First and most important of these is “The Moral Law” which “causes the people to be in complete accord with their ruler, so that they will follow him regardless of their lives, undismayed by any danger.”

Following the Russian invasion of Ukraine, protests erupted worldwide. Image: Protest in Helsinki on 26 February 2022. Source: Wikimedia Commons

One way of understanding this is the difference between power and legitimacy. Putin has the power. Zelenskyy has the legitimacy. 

On the eve of the invasion, and in the early days of the way such thinkers were certain of an imminent Russian triumph. Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Gen. Mark Milley – who studied security and international relations at Princeton, the Naval War College, Columbia and MIT, reportedly said that Russia would win within 72 hours. As the 72 day mark approaches, describing this as foolish seems an understatement. 

Realists said Ukraine has no chance. They got it wrong.

Clint Ehrlich, a commentator whose opinions have been featured in Foreign Policy, the Washington Post,  Fox News, the BBC and Dateline NBC, tweeted: “The world will be shocked by the swiftness of Russian victory. We’re about to witness a Sputnik moment.”

Newsweek reported, on the day of the invasion, that three high ranking US officials expected “Ukraine’s capital Kyiv to fall to incoming Russian forces within days, and the country’s resistance to be effectively neutralized soon thereafter.” CNN reported that “US intelligence officials are concerned that Kyiv could fall under Russian control within days,” The UK’s Independent didn’t even give them days, running a headline which warned “Kiev ‘could fall to Russians within hours.’” Nearly two weeks into the war Sky News ran a segment called “Kyiv falling to Putin is ‘inevitable,’” quoting Benjamin Hall, the State Department correspondent from their sister company, Fox News.  

Australian commentator Andrew L. Urban thought he was being supportive of the Ukrainian resistance when he penned a piece called “Kyiv falls: then what?” in which he speculated about the problems faced by “Putin’s eventual puppet regime in Kyiv.”

In this video at, Austin Mackell walks you through the research he has done to write this article and makes additional comments

How did they all get it so wrong? 

Considering this question earlier this month James Jay Carafano wrote for the Heritage foundation,

The Kremlin’s expectation was that when Ukrainians found themselves leaderless and overmatched, the country’s armed forces and its people would not put up much of a fight. After that, it would be merely a matter of occupation and annexation.

The Kremlin was not alone in this expectation. And here we see the fundamental weakness of realism exposed. International Relations, like all politics, is about people, and the choices they will make. Realism has no place for the human spirit, for loyalty, for love, for freedom. Instead they see only narrowly defined “rational” interests – as if no person or nation had ever chosen to stand on principle, as if no one ever showed courage in the face of overwhelming odds. 

Realism has no place for the human spirit, for loyalty, for love, for freedom

It’s not that material factors don’t matter, the supply of cutting edge weapons to Ukraine for example has been key, but would not have mattered if there were not soldiers willing to fight. And where did these weapons come from? Democracies like the United States, which consistently out perform, out supply, and out maneuver the dictatorships, because dictatorships are stupid. There are no effective feedback mechanisms. This absence undermines accountability, meritocracy and therefore performance. Corruption flourishes, which leads to unpredictable and shocking failures (when money goes into overseas bank accounts, rather than buying spare parts for your tanks). You might get one or even a few effective leaders in a row, but that luck doesn’t last forever, and when things go wrong, they go all the way wrong. They are going all the way wrong for Russia now. 

Foreign policy, like all politics, must be a values-first affair. If nations decide to start with the amoral consolidation and maximization of power for its own sake, they have already made a value judgment, just a terrible one. The pretense that they have shaken off ideology is in fact an embrace of nihilism as ideology. To proceed without a big picture vision is to follow a path of least resistance to nowhere

This is the path the world has been on at least since the 2013 coup in Egypt, followed by similar disruptions in Thailand, then Ukraine, as well as lawfare driven bloodless coups like those in Brazil. Since 2013, democracy has been in retreat, because the West, led by the United States, signaled a lack of will, a lack of belief in the principles they espouse.

Democracy and human rights are only pursued when it is in the United States’ interests. And critics of United States’ foreign policy seem mostly to think that this is too often, often citing realist logic, about, for example, it being “unrealistic” to expect democracy to flourish in “Russia’s backyard.”

Autocrats like Putin fear the power of ideas

But this implicitly acknowledges the importance of ideas in global politics. Autocrats like Putin fear the power of ideas.  As Robert Person and Michael McFaul argue convincingly in Journal of Democracy rebuking realist claims, Putin’s decision to wage a full-scale war against Ukraine, a war that is a blatant violation of international law and makes him an obvious war criminal, did not originate in realist security concerns related to NATO expansion but in the intention to stop democracy from fledging right across the border of his autocracy. 

The question of Realism vs. Idealism will define the future world order. The realist approach would be like that advocated in recent days by China where an amoral balance of power defines “a global security architecture” – where might equals right, and the best we can hope for is, to borrow from George Orwell, “an epoch as horribly stable as the slave empires of antiquity.”

This is the same principle manifested in the veto power given to the P5 permanent members of the UN Security Council – that their military power somehow entitles them to control, not just over military affairs, but over all business that goes before the UN.  

An idealist approach would start with the abolition of this obscene privilege and continue with the creation of a world parliament, which would be the kernel of a world order based on the ideals of human rights, democracy, freedom and the rule of law – where power is subordinated to legitimacy, and not the other way around. 

Austin G. Mackell
Austin Mackell is a former journalist and the founder of Stone Transparency
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