Realism Is an Attitude, Not a Doctrine

August 24, 2015 Topic: Politics Tags: RealismInternational PoliticsPower

Realism Is an Attitude, Not a Doctrine

Realists agree that power is what drives international politics, but they disagree about exactly when and where it should be unleashed or husbanded.


Ukraine’s neutralization would amount to what was once called “Finlandization” during the Cold War. Finlandization was a pejorative term. Realists, however, would see it as quite a good deal considering the alternative. Finland accepted a loss of independence in foreign policy but retained independence in its domestic political order, remaining a robust democracy. And what was the alternative? In fact, it was remarkable that Finland avoided what happened to Poland, Hungary, Czechoslovakia and the Eastern European countries corralled into the Communist camp, considering that the Finns had fought alongside Germany against the Soviet Union—but having the realistic good sense to make peace in 1944 rather than fighting to the end. In comparison with the fate of Eastern Europe, Finlandization was an impressive success for Finland.

Then there is Syria. It presents an even more forbidding set of complications and choices. There is consensus in the West that the Assad regime must be overthrown because it is murderous. And since its radical Islamist opponents are also frightening, the pressure has grown to provide aid to the “moderate” opponents of the government, those associated with the Free Syrian Army. As long as the target is the Assad regime, however, aid to the moderate opposition is less likely to end in replacing the regime with a better one than it is to empower elements worse than Bashar al-Assad.


The moderate opposition may be the right side in Syria, but that is less relevant than who is the main enemy. Is it Assad or is it the radical opposition factions such as the Islamic State, Al Qaeda or the Nusra Front? For too many of the Sunni Arab governments, the answer seems to be Assad. For the West, however, the answer should be all or any of the radical opposition. Paradoxically, supporting the moderate opposition closest to the West does not necessarily work against these main enemies. The radical groups fight among themselves, but if Assad falls, what will replace his regime? It is hardly likely that it will be the moderates, by all accounts the weakest of all the factions. If the West helps the moderates, their strengthened hand may tip the balance of power against Assad and contribute to his overthrow. In the aftermath, however, the moderates are almost certain to be shoved aside by the stronger radicals. If the Nusra Front—or, worse, the Islamic State—ends up in power in Damascus, the assistance to the moderates in the campaign against Assad will in effect have been help to the radicals. The sensible line for the West would be to aid in toppling Assad only after the radical jihadists have been eliminated—something unlikely to be accomplished.


THE IDEA of deliberately helping the Assad regime survive is more than most decent people can stomach, even if it is the lesser evil. If the option of supporting Assad’s government is out, yet helping the worse evil indirectly by strengthening the moderate rebels fighting Assad should also be out, realist policy in this case should be to avoid military engagement altogether except for whatever can do direct damage to the Islamic State and Al Qaeda.

For Ukraine, seeking negotiated neutralization and regional autonomy in the eastern area as the price for Russian withdrawal should be easier for decent people to stomach, even if it means accepting the Russian reincorporation of Crimea. Some overwrought antirealists see compromise on Ukraine as no less than another Munich. Eliot Cohen breathlessly described the situation as

a foundational crisis in an early stage whose potential for menace is as great as the crises that enveloped our civilization in the century past...when the high civilization of the West trembled before the onslaught of totalitarian enemies....We are in some ways beyond the level of danger of most of the Cold War crises.

Ukraine was, he declared, a “manifestation of something more deeply gone wrong in the West.” If Vladimir Putin is a budding Hitler, Cohen could be right. Otherwise, the best bet is that the risks and mistakes of 1914 are a better guide than those of 1938.

If negotiation does not work to defuse the Ukraine crisis, the new little cold war will fester. If so, realists will emphasize how much better the West’s position is this time around. The newly ornery Russia has indeed recovered from its prostrate status after the Cold War, and has rejuvenated some of its military capability while NATO’s atrophied a bit. Russia is still far weaker in the overall balance of power, however, than the old Soviet Union was.

The danger lies in the particular new military vulnerability NATO created for itself when it rejected realist arguments against expansion and admitted the Baltic countries into the alliance despite the technical difficulty of defending them in the event of war. While most realists opposed NATO expansion from the beginning, there is no definite realist position on how to deal with the problem now, since the addition of these members in the east is a fait accompli. Those most worried about the security dilemma will oppose provoking Moscow again by deploying allied military forces forward in the Baltics and triggering an escalating series of military reactions. Other realists, however, could worry that inflamed Russian nationalism and the continuing urge to reverse the long post–Cold War period of humiliation could make Moscow’s ambitions grow if its muscle flexing in Georgia, Crimea and eastern Ukraine succeeds. Indeed, Putin might double down if he fastens onto polls showing that Western publics oppose honoring NATO’s Article 5 commitment to defend the Baltics. Disorder in, say, Estonia could look to him like an opportunity to expose NATO as a paper tiger and break it. These realists would see the threat as Russian aggression no less than the security dilemma, and military reinforcement of the Baltics with allied NATO forces as a necessary deterrent.

Realists may disagree on how to combine accommodation and deterrence in Europe now, but they all have to place a high premium on walking back the new cold war there. Otherwise, the odds of a more established Sino-Russian alliance grow, and the balance of power is always the highest-priority concern of realists of all stripes. The rise of China is ultimately a more serious security challenge than Russian reassertion, and a united front of those two adversaries would weaken the West. In the 1970s, realists welcomed American rapprochement with Mao Zedong’s China because it weakened the more formidable adversary, the Soviet Union. Today, the relative power positions of Russia and China are reversed, so realists should hope for a way to achieve a U.S. rapprochement with Russia.

That concern for improving the balance of power does not answer the question of whether realists should recommend accommodation with China, recognizing an expanding sphere of influence as the country approaches superpower status, or containment and deterrence, seeking to keep China from dominating East Asia and controlling a greater share of world order. If the question is the same as for Russia, accommodation—or appeasement, to critics—would seem to be the answer. But the question is not the same. The argument against NATO expansion after the Cold War was that Russia was drastically weakened, had capitulated to the West and no longer needed to be deterred, and should not be kicked when it was down since it would eventually reenter the ranks of major powers. The argument today for combining accommodation on Ukraine and reinforced deterrence in the Baltic region is that Russia is still weak in the overall power balance, but should not be allowed to miscalculate the West’s resolve to honor its new alliance commitments, even if making the commitments was a mistake. In contrast, China is strong now, getting stronger and showing that its ambitions are growing in tandem with its power.

There is no realist catechism to dictate choices between compromise and containment in any of these cases unless evidence of aggressive military intent becomes unambiguous. This is unfortunate, especially in regard to the principal challenge, China, since realists do not offer a corporate alternative to policies endorsed by liberals or neoconservatives. A clearer majority of realists tilt in favor of restraint in regard to Iran, since it is a respectable middle power but not a major one, has no military allies of consequence, has not evinced suicidal behavior so far, faces an overwhelming imbalance of capability and is unlikely to think that it could get away with overt military aggression at an acceptable price. What separates these realists from more confrontational critics is a clearer focus on the high costs to our own side of the alternative to restraint, containment and deterrence of a nuclearized Iran: preventive war. There is barely any disagreement of significance among realists, or between them and any other strategic clique, about how to handle the greater threat of North Korea, an unambiguously aggressive regime against which strong deterrence has been institutionalized over more than six decades.

So there is little point in any effort to pose realism as a coherent prescription for specific choices today as long as judgments about the nature and intensity of adversary intentions vary. There will always be a point, however, in reminding policy makers to apply two realist principles to their analyses as they decide: focus not on acting against evil, but on which options will result in the least evil outcomes; and choose options supportable by the power at hand, not ones whose success requires adversaries to capitulate because they realize they are in the wrong.