When realist theorists of foreign policy start talking about morality, it may be worth heading for the hills — or scratching your head and paying some attention. After all, the entire realist Hobbesian enterprise, which centers on the unequal distribution of power and its effects on state behavior, is profoundly, proudly and openly amoral. Like it or not, this is the way things are, realists claim, and considerations of good and evil are ultimately irrelevant.
So, when a prominent realist devotes a column in Foreign Policy magazine to the question of “what is the morally preferable course of action in Ukraine?,” we may in fact be in the presence of an oblique admission of realism’s inadequacies and, perhaps, of a last-ditch effort to salvage the approach. That alone would be worth the price of admission.
Harvard University’s Stephen Walt admits that, “At first glance, it seems obvious. Ukraine is the victim of an illegal war, its territory is occupied, its citizens have suffered mightily at the hands of the invader, and its adversary is an autocratic regime with any number of unsavory qualities. Strategic calculations aside, surely the proper moral course is to back Ukraine to the hilt.”
So far, so good. Things then get less persuasive, as Walt muddies the water with ill-founded claims. A few examples:
It is not true that the entire “war party” believes “that Western policy had nothing to do” with Russia’s decision to re-invade Ukraine in 2022. Rather, “hawks” maintain that 1) Ukraine’s chances of joining NATO were nil when Russia attacked on February 24 and everybody, including the Russians and Ukrainians, knew it; 2) the war actually began in 2014, when Russia invaded the Crimea and Donbas, when the prevalent attitude of the West toward Ukraine was one of deep “fatigue”; 3) Vladimir Putin likely made the decision to invade in March 2021, well before the Russian hullaballoo about NATO enlargement, Ukraine and security guarantees in late 2021; 4) and, although NATO enlargement did not warm Russian hearts, neither did it pose a security threat to Russia (the alliance was weak and almost moribund and everybody knew that) or in any way causally imply a genocidal war targeting civilians. So, yes, NATO enlargement did matter — but just a bit.
Nor is it the case that the war party thinks Russia is “uniquely evil.” So-called hawks do view Putin and his regime as evil — as comparably evil as the regimes of Stalin, Hitler, Mussolini and Mao Zedong. Putin and his collaborators destroyed Russia’s budding democratic institutions, constructed a fascist regime centered on his cult of personality, killed and jailed its political opponents, engaged in massive corruption, embarked on imperialist wars, and committed genocide, in both Ukraine and Chechnya. If Putin Russia’s behavior doesn’t qualify as evil, then what does? Thankfully, Walt recognizes that “it is hard to see a lot of moral virtue” in Putin’s Russia.
Walt then goes to the heart of the matter, his consequentialist view of morality: “If we are talking about human lives, we must look beyond abstract principles and consider the real-world consequences of different choices. It’s not enough to proclaim that the good guys must win; one must also think seriously about what it will cost to produce that outcome and whether it can in fact be achieved.”
All quite true. Where Walt grossly exaggerates is in implying that no one within the war party, or Ukraine, has considered the costs of the war. Ukrainians do that every day. Their hawkish supporters are also fully aware of the costs. Neither of them is engaging in what Walt calls “an abdication of moral responsibility.”
No one in Ukraine disputes the following truism: “The moral case for pursuing peace — even if the prospects are unlikely and the results are not what we’d prefer — lies in recognizing that the war is destroying the country and that the longer it lasts the more extensive and enduring the damage will be.” Where Ukrainians and the war party diverge from Walt is in two areas.
First, they worry that even realists, who claim to be realistic, can also be very naive. “It makes sense to give Ukraine enough support that Russia cannot dictate a peace,” says Walt, “but that support should be tied to a serious effort to bring the war to a close.” Who could disagree? Unfortunately, Walt fails to state just what a “serious effort” would be.
Ukraine believes, rightly, that it’s fighting a war with a regime and leader committed to the destruction of the Ukrainian state and nation. And Putin is in fact manifestly unwilling to recognize Ukraine’s existence as a separate state and nation. Moreover, Russia has officially annexed all of Luhansk, Donetsk, Zaporizhzhia, and Kherson provinces, even those parts currently held by Kyiv. Russia would need to change its constitution to de-annex them.
Just how a serious effort would address these issues is unclear. Ukrainians might be persuaded to make painful compromises, but only on condition that Putin and his regime would refrain from invading once again. Perhaps Walt believes Putin can be trusted to hold his word, but Ukrainians, understandably, view him less generously, especially in view of his genocidal rhetoric and behavior.
Second, Ukrainians and their hawkish friends worry that well-meaning realist theorists with no intimate knowledge of Russia, Ukraine, their histories, cultures and languages are not perhaps the best judges of facts on the ground. Walt compares himself to someone whose “friend wants to do something you think is ill-advised or dangerous.” One is “under no moral obligation to aid their efforts no matter how strongly committed they may be.”
Fair enough, but should the friend listen if he or she believes you’re inadequately informed about the existential issue they’re facing? Would you really take financial advice from a dentist and medical advice from an investment banker, especially if you’re on the verge of bankruptcy and have a serious illness?
Walt’s concluding paragraph mentions “the disappointing (if not disastrous) results of Ukraine’s summer counteroffensive.” The adjective in parentheses says it all. That the war is going disastrously for the Ukrainians is not what Russians on the front believe; nor is it what the Russian Ministry of Labor and Social Development believes. It just ordered 230,000 death certificates — hardly evidence of a disastrous counteroffensive.
And hardly a vote of confidence in realism’s ability to grapple with morality and reality.
Alexander J. Motyl is a professor of political science at Rutgers University-Newark. A specialist on Ukraine, Russia and the USSR, and on nationalism, revolutions, empires and theory, he is the author of 10 books of nonfiction, as well as “Imperial Ends: The Decay, Collapse, and Revival of Empires” and “Why Empires Reemerge: Imperial Collapse and Imperial Revival in Comparative Perspective.”
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