Reclaiming Agency: The Problem with Prescriptive Realism

Photo Credit: CSIS

Despite being one of the most influential scholars of international relations theory, John Mearsheimer took considerable flak for his comments on the war in Ukraine.  Mearsheimer’s interview with the New Yorker last month resulted in an upswell of opposition, moral outrage, and debate for blaming the conflict on the U.S. and NATO.  Regardless of the recent controversy, Mearsheimer’s theories of war and peace have long enjoyed wide support.  Over the past 20 years, offensive realism gained an extensive following due to its broad explanatory power and simplicity.  That states maximize power to guarantee their security in an anarchic environment is both logical and parsimonious.  The premise that states aggregate power until they achieve hegemony is likewise persuasive.  Further, historical and contemporary conflict analysis provides abundant examples of states acting in accordance with these principles.  However convincing Mearsheimer’s theories may be in explaining why states go to war, it does not follow that his policy recommendations are equally sound. 

Assigning Blame

Putin’s motivations for invading Ukraine may be rooted in legitimate fear of NATO influence on his western flank.  This theory is logical and may reflect historical Russian anxieties regarding their European border.  One may accept Russia’s invasion is at least in part motivated by security concerns and simultaneously reject Mearsheimer’s conclusion that the U.S. and NATO are to blame.  The question of Western culpability for the war in Ukraine comes down to a single factor.  Namely, whether one believes that a state has the right to self-determination.  It is in this regard that Mearsheimer’s realism falls flat.

To doubt the efficacy of soft power and international institutions is a reasonable position for Mearsheimer’s brand of realism.  Critics of realism point out that those very factors motivate the Western alignment of former Soviet states.  But motivations for alignment are largely irrelevant.  More relevant for prescription are how theories acknowledge that even smaller actors desire autonomy and may be willing to risk their security to that end.  When Mearsheimer asserts Western encroachment is to blame for Russian aggression, he denies agency to the people and states of Eastern Europe.  The idea that Ukrainians should not make policy choices based on their national interests strains credulity.  It is at this point that Mearsheimer lost the audience.  While theories such as constructivism can more aptly recognize the interests and agency of all actors, it does not take a constructivist scholar to recognize the lack of appeal in Mearsheimer’s argument.  If this is the best policy that realism can offer, then it should come as no surprise to Mearsheimer that it is largely rejected.

The Tragedy

The visceral opposition to Mearsheimer’s interview has little to do with his diagnosis and everything to do with his prescription.  Many can accept that concerns over spheres of influence and security often drive conflict but are not willing to deny a state’s essential agency.  Mearsheimer exhorted us to consider that because Ukrainians live “next door” to Russia, they must consider the fact that Russians take interest in their policies and may react strongly to policies that demonstrate a preference for the West.  But Ukraine also lives “next door” to the former Soviet satellite states that make up NATO’s eastern flank.  There is no doubt that security concerns were a factor in motivating Ukraine to throw their lot in with the West, but economic, social, and institutional interests likewise played a role – factors for which realism has little explanation.  Our common neighbor, assessing the prospects to their east and west, decided unequivocally with whom they prefer to align based on their interests and with an intimate understanding of the security risk Russia poses. 

None of this suggests NATO or the U.S. should extend collective defense rights to any nation regardless of their domestic stability or ability to contribute to the common cause.  Neither does it propose that the West should indiscriminately antagonize rivals.  Contrary to Mearsheimer’s dogma, however, the international community largely agreed that a state cannot be forever consigned to a sphere of influence, regardless of their own political desires, simply to appease a volatile rival.  This constructivist recognition is far from the unrealistic, vague ideology that realists label it.  Evolving identities and interests motivate every aspect of Ukraine’s foreign policy.   When Mearsheimer tells us that, “in an ideal world, it would be wonderful if the Ukrainians were free to choose their own political system and to choose their own foreign policy,” he dismisses as unrealistic niceties the national aspirations and right to self-determination of a sovereign state.  This insistence that “the weak suffer what they must” fails to explain how smaller states sometimes overcome their seemingly more powerful rivals.  He disregards factors such as identity that are every bit as relevant to international relations as power and security.  A constructivist perspective, on the other hand, recognizes the enduring repugnance of life under Russia’s thumb for Eastern Europeans, and the power of nationalism when guided by self-determination.  Just as the international community rejected Mearsheimer’s prescriptions, the Ukrainians reject the idea that they are pawns in a game in which only great powers have agency.

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