Ignoring International Relations Scholars is Leading the US to Mistakes on UkraineRoundup
tags: Russia, Ukraine, international relations
Max Abrahms is a professor of political science at Northeastern University and author of Rules for Rebels: The Science of Victory in Militant History.
By day, I teach Introduction to International Relations to undergraduate students at Northeastern University. By night, I consume the latest punditry about Ukraine. What strikes me is the frequent disconnect between international-relations scholarship and commonly espoused views in Western media about the war. Although other scholars would surely highlight different findings, I believe the most relevant ones urge greater caution in America’s approach to countering Russia.
Perhaps because they view NATO as a benign—even benevolent—force in the world, many Western commentators argue that Russia was primarily motivated to conquer Ukraine for offensive purposes as part of its “colonial venture” to reconstitute the Soviet Union. The controversial international-relations luminary John Mearsheimer overstates the case that there is “no evidence” of Russian imperial ambitions to gobble up Ukraine. But his work on “offensive realism” suggests that NATO enlargement eastward since the Iron Curtain fell has indeed been viewed by Russian leaders as inherently threatening, and played a significant role in the invasion.
Building off G. Lowes Dickinson’s analysis of World War I, after the Cold War Mearsheimer developed an influential variant of structural realism. This offers a pessimistic view of world politics based on several assumptions: (1) The world is “anarchical” in the sense that it is made up of independent countries with no central authority above them to prevent war; (2) all countries (and alliances) possess at least some offensive military capability and are therefore potentially dangerous to one another; (3) countries can thus never be certain that other ones will refrain from using their military capabilities to harm them; (4) countries attach foremost value to national survival, (5) and will try to promote this goal.
Together, these core assumptions about the “structure of the international system” lead countries not only to fear other countries, but to compete against them—sometimes in violent, immoral ways. Add to these standard assumptions about world politics America’s particular history of foreign intervention, backing of democratic movements including in Ukraine, unrivaled conventional military power, and growing alliance with other anti-Russia countries east of the Iron Curtain, and it becomes harder to dismiss Russian claims of geopolitical apprehension. This sense of insecurity is compounded by the distinct military history of Ukraine, which, unlike current NATO countries, was traversed by Napoleonic France, imperial Germany, and then Nazi Germany to attack Russia.
Whether Russian leaders wish to reclaim some former Soviet territory for national power is orthogonal to Vladimir Putin and his predecessors repeatedly characterizing NATO expansion as a threatening provocation. Even prominent American military strategists—such as the Cold War architect George Kennan—have been deeply critical of NATO expansion since the 1990s because of how it’s seen in Moscow.
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