American idealism did not cause the Ukrainian crisis

In his latest article, FP columnist Stephen Walt traces the roots of the Russian-Ukrainian crisis to a single cause: American arrogance. The conflict would not have occurred, he wrote, “if the United States and its European allies had not succumbed to hubris, wishful thinking, and liberal idealism.” By overplaying its game, the United States has now placed Russia in a position where it has no choice but to defend its interests.

Realists are sometimes criticized for ignoring the agency of weaker states, but Walt takes the argument to its absurd conclusion by denying the agency of everyone but American policymakers. It is American officials who make the choices that matter – the wrong ones – while the rest of the world, including Russian President Vladimir Putin, merely enacts the eternal laws of history.

This is not just an academic dispute over isms. It’s about how Russia and the United States got into this situation and how to fix it. During the Cold War, debates raged over who was to blame for sparking the conflict between the superpowers. To simplify a complex set of arguments, the responses fell into three categories: traditionalists, who blamed the Soviet Union; the revisionists, who blamed the United States; and the post-revisionists, who blamed not the actions of any one party in particular, but the uncertainty and mutual suspicion created by the anarchy of international politics.

In his latest article, FP columnist Stephen Walt traces the roots of the Russian-Ukrainian crisis to a single cause: American arrogance. The conflict would not have occurred, he wrote, “if the United States and its European allies had not succumbed to hubris, wishful thinking, and liberal idealism.” By overplaying its game, the United States has now placed Russia in a position where it has no choice but to defend its interests.

Realists are sometimes criticized for ignoring the agency of weaker states, but Walt takes the argument to its absurd conclusion by denying the agency of everyone but American policymakers. It is American officials who make the choices that matter – the wrong ones – while the rest of the world, including Russian President Vladimir Putin, merely enacts the eternal laws of history.

This is not just an academic dispute over isms. It’s about how Russia and the United States got into this situation and how to fix it. During the Cold War, debates raged over who was to blame for sparking the conflict between the superpowers. To simplify a complex set of arguments, the responses fell into three categories: traditionalists, who blamed the Soviet Union; the revisionists, who blamed the United States; and the post-revisionists, who blamed not the actions of any one party in particular, but the uncertainty and mutual suspicion created by the anarchy of international politics.

Policymakers are now resurrecting those debates, but instead of asking who started the Cold War, the question has become who reignited it. Walt takes the equivalent of the revisionist side – America did it, period. It makes sense as a counter-argument to the conventional wisdom of Washington – that Putin did it, period. This view—while refusing to treat the United States as anything other than a force for good—has contributed to foreign policy mistakes in Afghanistan and Iraq, so it’s understandable that Walt takes issue with it. It would be nice to have more voices within the foreign policy establishment doing the same. But by blaming a state, Walt deprived his argument of the strategic context that the realists themselves are rightly fond of pointing out.

As a result, focusing on the United States not only ignores the role played by others, but contradicts Walt’s own theory. Realists argue that regional powers always seek primacy in their neighborhood. By this logic, a recovering Russia would seek to restore regional hegemony regardless of US actions. Western accommodation would have only speeded up the process. It is inconsistent for Walt to claim that liberal illusions caused the Russian crisis while asserting that regional powers naturally seek to control their neighborhood. Rising tensions would be expected unless Washington abandons interest in the region.

This inconsistency extends to the explanation of Putin’s motives. A key realistic principle is that states should not go to war unless it serves their national interests. This is why realists have admirably opposed American adventurism in Vietnam, Iraq and elsewhere, noting that none of these places have ever posed a threat to the United States. If you want to invade, you better have a good reason.

But such high standards for triggering conflict disappear when applied to other regimes. According to the realists, what national interest is Putin serving by intensifying this crisis? What is the existential threat he faces that justifies war and tens of thousands of casualties? Even if NATO is a concern, it is difficult to portray it credibly as an immediate danger, especially since Russia’s concerns focus on an expansion that has not happened and does not seem likely to occur. If you argue that Putin is merely reacting to Western pressure and that his reaction is understandable and expected, you are also arguing that his decision to go to war is justified on realistic grounds. Which is, sorry to say, a questionable way to explain a war of choice, fabricated and continued for unknown reasons.

A better realistic story might look like this. Great powers always seek to establish regional primacy, be it the United States or anyone else. When the Soviet Union collapsed, its successor state lost its regional primacy and the West was able to take hold. The United States sought a global sphere of influence and called it the liberal order. But it was unsustainable, and now Russia is trying to regain its regional primacy. History suggests that trying to stop this process can lead to conflict, especially between great powers. Russia cares more about primacy in its immediate region than the United States, and it will fight for it. The West should therefore not intervene.

Instead, Walt blames liberal American policymakers for a resurgence of Russian regional primacy, which his own theory predicts should happen. And the American behavior he denounces – the ruthless expansion into the sphere of influence of a former rival – is actually more in line with the tenets of offensive realism than the liberal internationalism he condemns.

A parallel to Russian foreign policy that realists may find useful is Russian, and then Soviet, foreign policy in the faltering years of 1917-1924. Around this time, a sudden collapse and loss of regional primacy created new states along the imperial periphery of Russia. As in 1991, Western observers misinterpreted the movements emerging from this imperial collapse as democratic revolutions rather than national liberation movements. The result in 1917 and 1991 was high hopes placed in the new democracies, followed by swift disappointment. And in both cases, as the center rebounded, Russia increasingly sought to reclaim its regional sphere of influence by bringing new states back into its fold, by force if necessary.

Are the regional spheres of influence that marked Russia’s recovery after 1917 and much of Europe’s history still necessary to maintain peace between the great powers? This is the question, often unacknowledged, that lurks in many debates about US foreign policy toward Russia and China.

Note the uncomfortable trade-offs involved here. To treat spheres of influence as inevitable or conducive to peace is to condone what the great powers do there. This has already been the case for the United States, which has had a free hand to influence or overthrow regimes without provoking great power conflict. But the same is not true for Russia. So the morally honest position of Walt’s opponents, the warmongering anti-Russians who dominate Washington, is to say, “I am willing to risk great power conflict, even devastating war, because oppression is inexcusable and the aggression must be deterred.

Likewise, the morally honest position for a realist like Walt is to say, “I am willing to risk the conquest and oppression of small states because war between great powers is worse and brings much more suffering.” It’s not a statement that everyone will agree with, but it’s a more defensible claim than pointing fingers.

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