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Realism and ‘Realism’

The distinction between realism and its pretenders is not an academic exercise.

Ukranian military medical staff have lunch in a stabilization hospital near the front line in Donetsk region on 17, 2023. (Photo by IHOR TKACHOV/AFP via Getty Images)

This magazine found its first reason to be in opposing the Iraq invasion, and realism in foreign affairs has remained essential to its message ever since. The American Conservative has been—no one here is tired of saying yet—right from the beginning, a fact partly confirmed by the triumph of a Donald Trump campaign that promised to put America First and start no stupid wars. But this has meant that somewhere along the line in the last eight years, “realist” became an enviable label. It has been about five years since sad dad rock band The National encapsulated popular contempt for liberal idealist triumphalism, sarcastically citing an apocryphal relic of the Bush White House in “Walk it Back”: 

People like you are still living in what we call the reality-based community. You believe that solutions emerge from your judicious study of discernible reality. That's not the way the world really works anymore. We're an empire now, and when we act, we create our own reality. And while you are studying that reality—judiciously, as you will—we'll act again, creating other new realities, which you can study too, and that's how things will sort out. We're history's actors, and you, all of you, will be left to just study what we do.


Whether or not anyone ever said this, it is impossible to imagine anyone saying it with a straight face today. 

No, now the Atlanticists and the liberal internationalists claim that they too live in the reality-based community. If you have been following the Ukraine war with anything more than passing interest, reading not just our own but others’ coverage and analysis, then you have no doubt seen these new “realist” arguments. They often take a cost-benefit form, suggesting that American support for Ukraine is cheap. TAC friend and alumnus Michael Brendan Dougherty summarized these arguments thus in a typically thoughtful and careful rejoinder: “This view holds that for pennies on the dollar, the U.S. has been able to preserve a democracy threatened by an authoritarian regime, cripple a rival military, strengthen the NATO alliance, prevent Vladimir Putin from an inevitable invasion of NATO territory, and scare off Xi Jinping from ever messing with Taiwan.” When put that way it does sound like a pretty good deal. 

As Dougherty demonstrates in his essay, though—read the whole thing—none of it is so simple as that if we think in terms of five and ten years instead of election cycles. Moreover, and more importantly, while this sort of argumentation might sound pragmatic, it is not realism, which analyzes international relations in terms of national interests. Dougherty writes,

Ukraine is peripheral to U.S. interests, and the depth of the American people’s commitment to its defense is shallow, which is why war hawks constantly minimize the current financial costs and don’t bother talking about the long-term liabilities of making Ukraine a financial and security dependent of the West. It is also dear to Russian interests, which means Russia is willing to take mighty gambles and endure mighty sacrifices to bring it to heel.

It is just a fact that, more than the U.S. ever will, Russia cares deeply about its own near sphere of influence in Eastern Europe and securing—in what remains for now an age that still relies on mechanized infantry and armored battalions—its front door

This distinction between realism and its pretenders is not an academic exercise. If anyone involved approaches the Ukraine question with an academic attitude it is the hawks, who are unwilling to question the premises of the situation; they proclaim the realism of their means to hide the full import of their ends. To discuss this conflict as if it was created ex nihilo by Vladimir Putin last year is, at best, to employ disingenuous rhetoric for the sake of marshaling American moral outrage. At worst it reveals a profound temporal and ideological myopia. The trans-Atlantic alliance system, and especially NATO, was created in a particular historical moment to further American interests; the world was bipolar and we possessed unrivaled industrial capacity. This arrangement is contingent, and changing historical conditions—including other nuclear powers acting in the system with interests of their own—and unchanging geographic realities demand this arrangement be reviewed. Realism is a framework for such a review. For ends, it points us back to considerations of core national interests (for example, securing borders) and recognition of the limits of our actions (very close indeed). For means, it makes allowances for both the known unknowns and unknown unknowns reality has a nasty habit of hiding.

Arguments stronger than the pennies on the dollar one exist. The typical Ukraine war hawk, speaking in simplistic terms of heroes and villains, is caught in a rhetorical bind wherein Russia is both profoundly strong and profoundly weak: The Bear is to be confronted at every turn lest there be goosestepping in Poland, yet she has a soft underbelly and is prone to bleeding out by proxy war. But the case can be made, and might be made if you discuss the war with an Army man (Navy men like to talk about Taiwan), that the focus of cold realpolitik here is hardly Russia as such at all. In this telling, we are tidying Europe away for the foreseeable future and modernizing a military apparatus atrophied by decades of counterinsurgency in the Middle East. Ukraine and its breadbasket are the pivot of the Eurasian landmass, to echo Halford John Mackinder’s heartland theory; that region united represents the only serious demographic and economic rival to a healthy North America. Keeping Western Europe, and Germany especially, tied to the United States and at odds with Russia prevents the reemergence of a continental power that can threaten us in conventional terms. With a war in Ukraine, the Pentagon can test out old war plans and new systems and trade in expiring munitions for fresh weaponry; it gets the Germans back on American gas, or at least off Russian; it keeps the E.U. in line and NATO relevant, shoring up a flank before the Navy men get their moment. 

It is not a nice story, from the perspective of our allies in Europe. (Of course, the Brits like it, since it keeps France and Germany dependent on the Anglosphere). But it is also much too nice a story, considering an American military establishment that bungled so badly in Afghanistan. With the Ukraine war grinding on nearly a year later, the hawks can tell a just-so tale about how all this and that really does work out in the U.S.’s favor, and hint they always meant it to be so, in the national interest. But recall the lead up to invasion day and you will remember that American officials appeared as sure as Putin that Russian troops would roll right up to Kiev. And this “realist” version of liberal internationalism still depends on two deadly serious known unknowns working out for all of us: Will a proxy war with a nuclear power not escalate into another general war in Europe? And will China operate on our timeline, and let us regroup, rearm, and reposition before all eyes turn from Ukraine to the Pacific? 


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