Russia and Realism Properly Understood
There are still those who oppose halting aggression in the strategic heart of Europe, and some of them are even in the party of Reagan and Trump.
In December 2017, President Donald Trump issued his National Security Strategy (NSS), a landmark document that clarified the state of international relations. It recognized that the world had returned to its natural state of great power competition. In truth, great power competition never left, though the collapse of the Soviet Union had created what seemed like a new liberal order where the traditional tenets of realism no longer applied. The NSS noted that this unreal moment had passed and that “after being dismissed as a phenomenon of an earlier century, great power competition returned.”
President Joe Biden’s NSS, released in November 2022, continued this vision, stating: “the post-Cold War era is definitively over and a competition is underway between the major powers to shape what comes next.” Biden’s NSS was dressed up as a contest between democracy and autocracy, but it still contained all the elements of realism, from strengthening America’s defense industrial base and expanding alliances to managing the security aspects of trade and waging new kinds of war.
America’s rivals were clearly identified in Trump’s NSS: “China and Russia want to shape a world antithetical to U.S. values and interests. China seeks to displace the United States in the Indo-Pacific region, expand the reaches of its state-driven economic model, and reorder the region in its favor. Russia seeks to restore its great power status and establish spheres of influence near its borders.” China received more attention in the 2017 NSS because it is the stronger of the two rival powers, with an economic base larger than the Soviets ever had. Beijing’s break from Communism after its failure in the Soviet Union set it on a vigorous path of growth. But China was also aided by the naïve actions of American corporations fostered by the nostrums of liberal intellectuals who placed hope above history (which was supposedly ending). As Trump’s NSS observed, “[f]or decades, U.S. policy was rooted in the belief that support for China’s rise and for its integration into the post-war international order would liberalize China. Contrary to our hopes, China expanded its power at the expense of the sovereignty of others.”
As to Moscow, the 2017 NSS said, “Russia aims to weaken U.S. influence in the world and divide us from our allies and partners,” adding that “the combination of Russian ambition and growing military capabilities creates an unstable frontier in Eurasia, where the risk of conflict due to Russian miscalculation is growing.” We are in the midst of one of those “miscalculations” in Ukraine. As his invasion enters its second year, President Vladimir Putin appears determined to reverse the outcome of the Cold War and reestablish the Soviet Russian empire, whose collapse he believes was the worst tragedy of the twentieth century.
Trump’s NSS foresaw the danger that Biden is confronting. “Although the menace of Soviet communism is gone, new threats test our will. Russia is using subversive measures to weaken the credibility of America’s commitment to Europe, undermine transatlantic unity, and weaken European institutions and governments. With its invasions of Georgia and Ukraine, Russia demonstrated its willingness to violate the sovereignty of states in the region. Russia continues to intimidate its neighbors with threatening behavior, such as nuclear posturing and the forward deployment of offensive capabilities.” Trump pushed for NATO members to increase their defense spending to the 2 percent of GDP level they had promised President Barack Obama. He took the issue public and got results. In 2019, NATO secretary-general Jens Stoltenberg stated, "I can report on the good progress on burden sharing … European Allies and Canada will have added much more than $100 billion since 2016.”
Trump also authorized the sale of "lethal" military equipment to Ukraine to combat Russian-armed separatists. Though the Ukraine Freedom Support Act of 2014 provided for such aid (after Russia had seized Crimea), Obama refused to send weapons to Kyiv, fearing that helping Ukraine defend itself would escalate the conflict. This is the old appeasement view that blames war not on aggression, but on resistance to aggression. Biden initially took an even more pacifist approach to the Russian threat in Europe. As Putin marched his troops around Belarus to test U.S. resolve, Biden assured him that Ukraine was outside the NATO defense perimeter and there would be no military response to Russian aggression. “Unprecedented” sanctions did not deter Moscow any more than they did after Obama declared that Putin’s seizure of Crimea “would not stand.”
The Russian military rolled through the open door, only to be stopped by valiant Ukrainians determined not to lose their freedom to Moscow again. This changed the moral and strategic situation, and the United States and NATO reacted, albeit slowly, to support Kyiv’s resistance. Yet, there are still those who oppose halting aggression in the strategic heart of Europe, and some of them are even in the party of Reagan and Trump. They claim they are “realists,” helping to hijack that term along with left-wing opponents of “imperialism” who want Americans to cease trying to shape the world to its advantage.
Hans J. Morgenthau’s declaration in Politics Among Nations that “international politics, like all politics, is a struggle for power” is considered the core of realism. As Morgenthau elaborated, “the struggle for power is universal in time and space and is an undeniable fact of experience. It cannot be denied that throughout historic time, regardless of social, economic and political conditions, states have met each other in contests for power.” In this history, he denounced Neville Chamberlain's appeasement policies, which “helped to make the Second World War inevitable, and to bring untold miseries to millions.” Yet, like so many liberal intellectuals, Morgenthau could not face the application of his theory in the real world. He came out against the Vietnam War (and the Cold War of which it was a part) and, in so doing, engaged in “radical rethinking” to redefine realism as abstaining from the “struggle for power.” This is called prudence, caution, or restraint by its proponents, but in the proper understanding of realism as the international struggle for power, it should be called impotence. Morgenthau advised, "Never put yourself in a position from which you cannot retreat without losing face, and from which you cannot advance without great risks." But what passive position does this permit that could have any chance of influencing events?
Rep. Bob Good (R-VA) was one of the “Gang of 20” who delayed Rep. Kevin McCarthy’s (R-CA) election as speaker of the House. He was also one of thirty-five Republicans who joined forty-five Democrats in voting against the 2023 National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA), which passed with 350 bipartisan supporters. The NDAA authorized an increase of $80 billion in defense funding and contained a number of specific measures aimed at China and Russia. In his dissent, Good claimed that “we are sending billions of dollars of military equipment and weaponry to Ukraine with no plan or exit strategy.” The congressman knows the plan. Biden’s NSS states that “we will continue to stand with the people of Ukraine as they fight back against Russia’s naked aggression” and will “make Russia’s war on Ukraine a strategic failure.” These are solid, traditional realist objectives. Good’s desire is clearly for an exit strategy without reference to the war’s outcome.
In reaction to such putative conservatives who have gone wobbly on national security policy (and whose minority views are nevertheless spreading on outlets such as Fox and Newsmax), Douglas Murray wrote in National Review: “If you oppose sending American troops around the world, and you oppose arming countries fighting for their own survival, then do you have any remaining foreign policy at all? And if not, for how long do you expect America to remain the dominant power in the world?” In other words, how can you fulfill the proper mission of realism to prevail in great power competition?
And it is a global competition. As NATO’s Stoltenberg recently noted, China is watching the war in Ukraine closely. Chairman Xi Jinping is not happy that the quick victory promised by Putin has failed to materialize. Yet Beijing is testing the resolve of the U.S.-led alliance system not only with intensified military threats against Taiwan and Japan but also with its continued alignment with Moscow. China held joint naval exercises with Russia in September and December, and another is planned for February with the addition of South Africa. Beijing flew a joint “patrol” of strategic bombers with Russia in November that menaced both Japan and South Korea (and the U.S. forces stationed in both countries). China is supplying Russia with computer chips, drones, and other supplies that support Putin’s war effort while buying Russian oil to help finance it. Any wavering of Western resolve that allows Russia to advance in the struggle for power in Europe will have serious repercussions for peace and the balance of power in Asia. That is how the real world works.
William R. Hawkins is a former economics professor who served on the professional staff of the U.S. House Foreign Affairs Committee. He has written widely on international economics and national security issues for both professional and popular publications.