Take Realist Arguments Over Russia in Good Faith


When Russian President Vladimir Putin launched his invasion of Ukraine, he upset a number of assumptions about the established post-Cold War liberal international order. In the process, he gave a new lease on life to old controversies surrounding realism in U.S. foreign policy today. (This week alone has seen multiple essays and tweetstorms taking different positions on the topic.)

Given their claim to be expressing eternal verities of international politics, any discussion of or by realists almost inevitably refers back to one or more canonical thinkers—from U.S. diplomat George Kennan to Prussian Gen. Carl von Clausewitz to Italian diplomat Niccolò Machiavelli. Perhaps the most eminent is Athenian historian Thucydides, whose history of the Peloponnesian War remains, as he hoped it would, an “everlasting possession.”

To be sure, there’s a long-running argument over just how relevant Thucydides is. Writer Nick Burns recently argued that a book from 2,500 years ago has little bearing on contemporary theoretical debates about international relations. But the history still contains an overlooked lesson on the future of U.S.-Russian relations.

When Russian President Vladimir Putin launched his invasion of Ukraine, he upset a number of assumptions about the established post-Cold War liberal international order. In the process, he gave a new lease on life to old controversies surrounding realism in U.S. foreign policy today. (This week alone has seen multiple essays and tweetstorms taking different positions on the topic.)

Given their claim to be expressing eternal verities of international politics, any discussion of or by realists almost inevitably refers back to one or more canonical thinkers—from U.S. diplomat George Kennan to Prussian Gen. Carl von Clausewitz to Italian diplomat Niccolò Machiavelli. Perhaps the most eminent is Athenian historian Thucydides, whose history of the Peloponnesian War remains, as he hoped it would, an “everlasting possession.”

To be sure, there’s a long-running argument over just how relevant Thucydides is. Writer Nick Burns recently argued that a book from 2,500 years ago has little bearing on contemporary theoretical debates about international relations. But the history still contains an overlooked lesson on the future of U.S.-Russian relations.

Of particular relevance is the speech of the mysterious Diodotus, whose name means “gift of Zeus” and who appears nowhere else in the historical record outside of the so-called Mytilenean Debate. Having executed the ringleaders of the rebellious colony of Mytilene, the Athenians reconsidered their hasty decision to have the city’s remaining adult males killed. Cleon, “the most violent man in Athens,” had already spoken in favor of maintaining the slaughter, insisting that the Mytileneans had done a great injustice to the Athenians in rebelling, and that furthermore, any Athenian who pled their case was likely seeking his own advantage at the expense of the city’s.

Diodotus had to respond along two axes: He first argued that it was intolerable to accuse an opposing speaker—even a misguided one—of dishonesty, for in doing so, Athens would only deprive itself of good counsel and good counselors. He followed by arguing that the salient question was not Mytilene’s guilt but Athens’ interests: The impulse to punish Mytilene was at odds with Athens’ long-term strategic advantage. His speech narrowly carried the day, and the Athenians voted for reprieve for the surviving Mytileneans, dispatching a ship to overtake the original vessel sent with murderous intent.

Diodotus’s domestic counsel was clear enough: Accusations that a speaker must be in some way interested or corrupt were poisonous for any functioning democracy. Even before Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, claims that various U.S. politicians and commentators were either ideologically or financially beholden to Putin had become a staple of political discourse.

Needless to say, this tendency has not improved since the invasion. Several prominent figures have gone so far as to accuse those of deviating from the party line on Russia of outright treason. Such claims credit neither the accuser nor democracy itself.

Vituperative personal attacks have already driven one prominent researcher, Boston University assistant professor Joshua Shifrinson, off social media. And another, University of Chicago professor John Mearsheimer, continues to face repeated accusations not merely that he is wrong (a perfectly legitimate charge) but that he is corrupt for criticizing U.S. policy toward Russia. Similar attacks have been levied against American linguist Noam Chomsky over an interview where he suggested that a negotiated settlement would be preferable to continued warfare.

Foreign money and influence certainly play a role in U.S. discourse. But in the absence of dispositive evidence to the contrary, democratic discourse requires mutual assumptions of good faith on the part of its speakers if it is to survive. As Diodotus put it: “The good citizen ought to triumph not by frightening his opponents but by beating them fairly in argument.”

Diodotus’s foreign counsel is more complex. He argued in favor of considering not just the immediate event but the long-term management of Athens’s imperial strategy. Thus, he did not just propose a particular policy with respect to Mytilene but argued for a certain way of thinking about international politics: “We are not in a court of justice, but in a political assembly; and the question is not justice, but how to make the Mytileneans useful to Athens.”

Yet he subtly led his audience to the following point: that rebellion—and it must be noted that for all the United States’ focus on the victimization of Ukraine, Russia’s invasion did constitute a rebellion against a U.S.-led international order—is natural, even inevitable. As such, it would itself be unjust to punish its participants excessively. In this way, Diodotus provided an elegant lesson in how to combine ethical judgments with prudent considerations of the United States’ own interests—in a way that often escapes contemporary debates.

For example, to return to Mearsheimer’s arguments, what he is really doing is making a tacit justificatory claim: It was reasonable for the Russians to push back against what they perceived as threatening encroachments into their region, and by extension, it was unreasonable for the United States to pursue policies that would trigger such a reaction. (It is not incidental that he must also downplay reports of Russian atrocities in the field.)

But this is, in its own way, a moral argument, whether he acknowledges it or not—just one that inverts the prior assumptions of most establishment liberals. In a sense, neoconservative Robert Kagan actually makes the more realist argument that after the end of the Cold War, the United States was in a position to do as it willed—and did. He too, however, still wants to be able to claim that American power is ultimately a force for good, though in a manner that avoids scrutiny of its actual practices and relies heavily on comparisons with truly odious regimes. What it avoids asking is whether it has pursued the most decent and prudent policies within the context of its established hegemony.

The irony of Diodotus’s speech is that his very hard-nosed counsel is put in the service of a decent outcome: the demonstration of mercy toward the wayward Mytileneans. And this is partly by necessity; Cleon has so poisoned the well by employing the language of justice for highly unjust ends (such as the total massacre of innocents) that Diodotus is compelled to use the language of interest for just ones.

But Diodotus’s logic also pointed to the way that judgments made with a sober eye to one’s own interests were more likely to produce just and decent outcomes than those made out of a sense of wounded justice due to the more limited character of the former. After all, the pose of moral indignation does not actually confer moral status. It is little accident that Putin’s own fulminations against Ukraine and justifications for Russia’s invasion sounded remarkably Cleon-like.

The real lesson for the world, if we read Diodotus well, is this: The United States’ moral outrage at the transgressions of other states is not easily separable from its outrage over what it perceives as potential threats to its standing. (There’s a reason that Saudi Arabia’s yearslong immiseration of Yemen has not received a tenth of the media and political coverage that Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has received). That Diodotus’s argument ultimately issues in gentle policy has much to do with the fact that he was not blinded by wrath and did not mistake his understanding of Athenian interests with morality and justice tout court.

For the United States’ part, legitimate anger at Russia’s aggression against its neighbor has generated an unprecedented economic response, both in the form of sanctions and more broadly in comprehensively isolating it from the global financial system. But to what end? As editor Jeremy Stern recently noted in Tablet, “In the wake of its partial expulsion from the global trade and financial system, Russia—with its vast supply of raw materials—is likely to become a Chinese economic dependency.” At issue is whether the evident desire to punish Putin’s Russia should weigh more in the balance than the United States’ interest in not contributing to the further consolidation of a unified Eurasian bloc against U.S. power and influence.

The United States now adopted a sweeping sanctions regime against Russia with little in the way of countervailing incentives for its leaders to pursue a negotiated settlement. Indeed, much of the United States’ official and unofficial rhetoric have seen an attendant escalation of goals to include regime change (a term that the experience of the past two decades might have dissuaded it from using). Is it the U.S. objective that Russia be shut out of the global order indefinitely?

Meanwhile, fears of de-dollarization are likely premature, but the United States is nonetheless seeing resistance by other powers—including India and Brazil—to American pressure to isolate Russia. Attempts to assert hegemonic control over third-party states always risks producing a contrary effect, indicating the limits rather than the extent of U.S. authority. And to this, the world might add the shocks to an already tenuous global economy. The indirect effects here go beyond inflationary pressures at home to include removing a plurality of the globe’s breadbasket from circulation for an indeterminate period with obvious effects on world consumption and hunger.

We should be asking Diodotus’s question: whether we can still make Russia useful to the United States and its European allies it continues to export oil and natural gas to. Barring that, the United States might consider mitigating the tensions this conflict has introduced into its relations with the world’s other powers and limiting the damage to the global economy—first and foremost, its food supply.

Of course, there are limits to what the United States can achieve, even with a clear sense of its own strategic goals unclouded by anger, and it may be that the trends described above will continue regardless of U.S. policies. Nonetheless, there are both prudential and ethical reasons to think that it is the long-term preservation and administration of U.S. primacy and not temporary moral satisfaction that is most at stake now and in the future. After all, to paraphrase Diodotus once more, what else could prove most terrible to its enemies than the United States’ own enduring success?

Source link


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Previous post Singapore’s Humanitarian Assistance for Communities Affected by the Earthquake in Afghanistan
Next post President Xi calls for peace, development, openness, innovation to build high-quality BRICS partnership