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Samizdata quote of the day – There is still nothing ‘realistic’ about ‘Russia realism’

The Ukraine conflict has merely demonstrated that Mearsheimer’s realism is as ineffective at understanding the present as it has been at predicting the future or explaining the past. Fitting Putin’s misbegotten imperial adventure into a realist framework requires a conception of international relations that awards Western democracies the power of choice but reduces their enemies to victims of circumstances. And it demands an understanding of Russian aggression so indulgent that it is indistinguishable from appeasement.

Matt Johnson

28 comments to Samizdata quote of the day – There is still nothing ‘realistic’ about ‘Russia realism’

  • Chester Draws

    And it demands an understanding of Russian aggression so indulgent that it is indistinguishable from appeasement.

    I don’t think it is appeasement. It is the idea that if Russia is allowed to do whatever it likes in Ukraine, then the US can do whatever it likes in the Americas. And of course, China is free to do what it wants in Asia.

    China and Russia have already signed up to this conception of the world. It is the US, NATO, Japan and Korea which are the sticking points from it being implemented. Mearsheimer wants the West to sign on, so that we can once more plunder other countries.

    If countries are free to push their own profit, just because they can, how does that differ from the worst of colonialism?

  • bobby b

    Never a big Mearsheimer fan – too much evidentiary picking and choosing for realism – but Johnson here seems to discard too many bits of that same realism. I’m thinking there’s some meld of the two approaches that get us closer than either one individually.

  • Kirk

    The left has always been a creature of the Soviets and Russia. When you stop an analyze what they’ve been saying about the sainted “Russian Sphere of Influence”, what they really mean is that they believe the Russians have the right to maintain their Empire at the cost of all the colonized peoples and nations.

    Show me where they say this about any other nation or former empire extant in the world. These people are not “anti-imperialists”, they’re objectively imperialists, and not for anyone other than the Russians.

    Neat trick, that.

    Every other empire and set of national associations is illegitimate and “colonizing”. Not Russia. Never Russia. You don’t see anyone starting up irredentist movements inside the Russian “sphere of influence” the way they do here in the US and Canada, or anywhere else. The Russians are legitimate with their conquests, just as are the Muslims. Nobody else has legitimacy or a right to their conquests the way the Russians have one.

    This is how you know that these people are frauds. There will never be any university protests on behalf of sovereignty for any of the conquered peoples of the Russian imperial pretense; they’re all sacrosanct, permanent things that no right-thinking person could possibly ever question.

    This is also how you tell that most Western intelligence organizations are essentially incompetent, because if they were competent, they’d be chipping away at all the fracture lines along the various captured ethnicities and former independent nations of that “penitentiary of nations”. They aren’t, so you can tell they are either complicit, or just plain stupid. I’d vote for “both”.

  • Paul Marks

    I support an independent Ukraine – neither under Mr Putin, who is a murdering gangster, or under “the West” (the E.U., the United States and so on), people such as Susan Rice and Samantha Power, which has betrayed all its traditional principles and now stands for such things as “Trans Rights” for four year old children.

    The Ukraine should be independent, it should govern itself (govern itself – not be governed by the rules-based-international-order and sustainable-development-goals) – in the interests of Ukrainian people, Ukrainian culture.

    The defenders of Mr Putin (who I think are delusional – as I have said before they are like a drowning man clutching at a poisonous snake) insist that great Russian armies are about to sweep to victory – that is odd as all the Russians I know of do not see the point of the war and think that Mr Putin has lost-the-plot. Still I may be wrong – and if great Russian armies do sweep to victory I will admit I was mistaken.

    It would be good for the Russian Army to go home, take Mr Putin out into Red Square – and shoot him.

    As for the Ukrainian government – I am told that President Z and co are just telling the Westerners (the Biden regime, the E.U. and so on) what these terrible people (and they are terrible people) want to hear, that do not really mean what they say in their speeches. I hope that is true – after all in war, to get weapons and ammunition one sometimes has to say things that please people whom one privately despises.

    Now I am told that Mr Biden (who “got 81 million votes” in a “fair and free election”) is visiting Kiev – hopefully he will NOT be sexually mutilating any children during his visit, nor telling the Ukrainians how much they would be “enriched” and “strengthened” by adopting policies that would lead to Ukrainians eventually being outnumbered in Ukraine. Abd how Ukrainian independence “really” means being told what their laws must be by various international bodies and corporations.

    Smile at Mr Biden, take the money and weapons – and then ignore his long term orders, or rather the long term orders of Susan Rice, Samantha Power and the rest of the “international community”.

  • mickc

    And I would prefer the UK to likewise be independent…instead of a US vassal.
    The UK has no vital interests in who rules Ukraine.

  • The UK has no vital interests in who rules Ukraine.

    Sure, just like the UK had no vital interest in who ruled Czechoslovakia in 1938. That really ended well, didn’t it? Fortunately yours is very much a minority opinion, which means the situation is Ukraine is less likely to be a precursor to WW3 and far more likely to end in Ukraine.

    And far from being a vassal of the US, UK was well out in front of US in support for Ukraine at the start.

  • mickc

    Seriously? You can’t take a contrary view?

  • Steven R

    I figured out a long time ago that the academic experts in Political Science and Current Affairs and International Relations know even less than the the talking heads that have them as guests on their news programs. Far too many of them simply ignore facts that run contrary to their view of the world, yet continue to pump out books and teach and never leave their cushy jobs in academia and intelligence organizations like CIA despite having track records in accuracy on par with the local weatherman.

  • Seriously? You can’t take a contrary view?

    Sure, but it really is a daft contrary view, one far more likely to lead to a wider conflict a few years hence than if Russia gets unambiguously repulsed in Ukraine. This truly has been another 1938 moment, and much to my surprise the Western world’s dismal leaders have kinda sorta risen to the occasion, rejecting notions like yours of how the world works. Even that undead twit Biden has more of less got it right.

  • Snorri Godhi

    And far from being a vassal of the US, UK was well out in front of US in support for Ukraine at the start.

    And Scholz came around to Trump’s views on defense and energy security within days of the invasion, while “Biden” still has not reversed his pro-Putin energy policy.

    I strongly suspect that “Biden” supports Ukraine only because

    A. After 5 years of Democrats blaming Putin for Trump, they have started to believe their own propaganda. (And the less sane among Trump supporters are still in tune with some Dem.propaganda on Putin.)

    B. After Boris and Scholz took a position, it would not look good for “Biden” to do nothing.

  • Kirk

    You’ll note that all the sort like our mickc always, always come down on the side of convenient despotisms like Russia and Putin. Same ilk as which supported Hitler’s adventures in Eastern Europe, right up until he got big enough to be a threat. How many of those Oxford debate types died in WWII, and rued the day that they’d stood up in ’33 and said that they would not fight for King or country?

    Of course, you also have to wonder how many of them went on to betray England and her allies to the Soviets, in later years.

    I don’t have a particular brief for Ukraine, but I do note the fact that all they’re asking for is weapons and money. I’ll support that, and their fight against a much bigger and much more historically abusive neighbor. If nothing else, then for all those who died in Stalin’s Holodomor, which paid for an awful lot of rich people’s mansions here in the West, with blood money traded for industrial gear like the plant at Mariupol. I think we owe them, having enabled the Holodomor and given Stalin an incentive to do it… Blood debt, as it were. Likewise, for having enabled Hitler’s visitations upon the Eastern bloodlands. The UK owes both Poland and all the other eastern nations after Czechoslovakia, and it seems to me as though at least that lesson has been learned. Had Hitler been crushed in his cradle, which he likely would have been if Czechoslovakia hadn’t have been betrayed at Munich, well… WWII would have looked very, very different. Likewise, without the West enabling Stalin and his “forced-draft industrialization”, then, too, so would the war have looked very, very different. The peoples of Eastern Europe are at least owed a debt of aid in fighting for their own right to self-determination. All I wish is that the profiteers that got the benefit of all of Stalin’s rampant thievery were the ones paying the bills, but you can’t have everything. Y’all voted for Chamberlain, you get the bills for cleaning up his mess… Just like you get the bills for all that heavy industrial tat that our ancestors sold Stalin, to make the Soviet Union what it was. Had he had to do all that on his lonesome self? Well, let’s just point out that they’d be both better off for having done it on their own, and way worse off for not having the factories and other tools. The world might be a better place, had we not propped up the Stalins and the Hitlers for our own convenience.

    Also, don’t leave off the facts that having built up Stalin and his industries via the purchase of his stolen foodstuffs, we then were “forced” to support Hitler’s rise as a counterpoint to Stalin’s ambitions in Western Europe. Rather like one of those jokes about having a mouse problem that led by successive iterations of predators into a gorilla problem… Had people in the 1920s simply eschewed making their millions by selling to Stalin and his thieving minions, we’d have been left out of that entire Communist/Nazi problem, and Hitler might have wound up running a fringe party of limited political power and zero real impact on history.

    But, some people had to go and make themselves wealthy at other’s expense, and here we are.

    What cracks me up is how these asshole partisans of the tyrants never seem to recognize the self-fulfilling nature of their varied and sundry interventions on their behalf. Why, pray tell, do we give a f*ck about “Russian Security”? What have the Russians ever done to deserve such consideration? Is it the way they rape and impoverish all their neighbors, going back to the days when they turned the northern neighbors into economic serfs. Novgorod and its surrounding regions are a good example of what happens to “clients” of Moscow… They wind up impoverished shadows of their former selves, rotting while all their wealth and labor is transferred to Die Fürstenstadt, St. Petersburg, then Moscow in succession.

    Kamil Galeev has some interesting historical facts about all this, highlighted over on his Twitter pages. He does an excellent job of connecting the dots for what a parasite Moscow has been, down the centuries, and all the varied and sundry crimes of the regime towards its victims like Ukraine. Enlightening read, for those so inclined.

  • The UK owes both Poland and all the other eastern nations after Czechoslovakia

    I don’t really see it that way. I see UK as having a strong geopolitical interest in keeping Russia a peripheral threat, not allowing it to destabilise Europe by once again bordering with Romania & Slovakia with interior supply lines. And that is best achieved by seeing a crushing Russian defeat in Ukraine rather than allowing it to move west (Moldova would fold given it has no meaningful army).

    In short, UK interests are served by not repeating the mistake made in 1938, which was thinking appeasing an aggressive state with territory buys lasting peace.

  • Snorri Godhi

    It seems to me that the institution that is most indebted to Ukraine, and indeed to most if not all former or presently communist countries, is the NY Times.

    I trust that i do not have to expand on that.

  • Kirk

    I’d point out that when the New York Times was broadcasting the lies-by-omission of one Walter Duranty, the US was hardly the most influential power involved. The UK financial markets provided a lot of the operating capital for the Communist’s industrial expansion after the war, from what I remember of my reading on the matter. Lots and lots of financial types made bank with the loans taken out to finance American industrial interests to build factories and steel mills across the Soviet Union, and they weren’t all operating out of Wall Street. The major financial markets of the era were in London and Paris, as I recall…

    The NYT has a lot of moral culpability for it all, but the really major players resided elsewhere.

  • Snorri Godhi

    A more prilosophical comment on the concept of ‘realism’.

    There is good realism and bad realism.
    I have not read anything by Mearsheimer, but it seems that he is badly wrong both on Israel and Ukraine: bad realism.

    Good realism could perhaps be reduced to this:

    Political writers have established it as a maxim, that, in contriving any system of government, and fixing the several checks and controuls of the constitution, every man ought to be supposed a knave, and to have no other end, in all his actions, than private interest. By this interest we must govern him, and, by means of it, make him, notwithstanding his insatiable avarice and ambition, co-operate to public good. Without this, say they, we shall in vain boast of the advantages of
    any constitution, and shall find, in the end, that we have no security for our
    liberties or possessions, except the good-will of our rulers; that is, we shall have
    no security at all.

    It is, therefore, a just political maxim, that every man must be supposed a knave: Though at the same time, it appears somewhat strange, that a maxim should be true in politics, which is false in fact. […]

    That is from David Hume’s essay: Of the Independency of Parliament.

    But do not give Hume too much credit for it, because his starting point is little more than a translation from Machiavelli (beginning of chapter 3, book 1, of the Discorsi).
    And i am not the first to notice Hume’s plagiarism: Hayek, and probably others, did before me; and i probably would not have noticed without Hayek.
    (Machiavelli himself plagiarized Polybius in the Discorsi.)

  • Kirk

    TBH, Snorri… I think it is unpleasantly easy to work that whole “every man’s a bastard, with bastard filling and a bastard-dipped cover…” premise out from first principles. Doesn’t require a hell of a lot of scholarship, really; I’d worked that crap out before I started school, strictly from observing my father just within our little nuclear family-group. Nothing I saw or experienced afterwards ever did anything to change my mind.

    You try and count on the “innate good in people”, and you’re going to suffer endless disappointment. Count on their innate and essential bastardy, and you’re at least going to be pleasantly surprised, now and again.

    The trick with any social mechanism in any society is that you have to figure out a way to weaponize this bastardy, and make it work for you. The minute you lose sight of that, and start fantasizing about people doing good for the sake of doing good, you’re starting down a path of delusional thinking that’s almost certain to end in failure.

    You can count on consistent bastardy; you can’t count on consistent “good deeds”. Base your assumptions and institutions on the former, not the latter. The minute you start with an assumption of everyone’s essential good nature and altruism, you’re doomed.

  • bobby b

    “You try and count on the “innate good in people”, and you’re going to suffer endless disappointment.”

    Oh, I dunno. I’ve done that all my life – seen the innate good in people, I mean – and it’s served me well and left me a mostly happy guy.

    It would be different if I was tasked with devising a system of mutual-and-agreed governance. There, you devise the rules so that no one is stuck depending on that innate goodness from others – you have checks and balances that make that unnecessary, just to keep all honest.

    But, people are mostly okay.

  • Kirk

    Hmmm. Strikes me that you’re either incredibly lucky, or you’re not being honest with yourself.

    If you truly go through life seeing and counting on the “innate good” in people in general, then we must assume that you don’t lock your doors at home or abroad, trusting your fellow man not to rob you blind while you’re in the store. If you take any security precautions like locking your door and having cameras up, then you’re not really telling yourself the truth about your faith in your fellow man in general terms.

    Actually exercising that worldview in your typical urban environment these days would also imply that you’d be discounting any and every threat signal your subconscious pushes out, because there’s really no way you can blithely walk by a cluster of “urban yout” safely, while making such assumptions. If you’re still alive, then you’ve been fortunately sheltered from the consequences of your worldview, or you’re not admitting the truth of it to yourself.

    Pragmatism and survival means treating people as potential threats until they prove otherwise. Fifty, a hundred years ago in most American and European communities, you could have gotten away with that mentality you say you follow. Today? It’s a miracle you’re alive, if you’ve lived near any Democrat-dominated urban area. Some places in the countryside, you can still maintain the fantasy, but even there? I’d advise against it; you never know what refugees from a Democrat enclave you might run into.

    Unpleasant realities, but there they are. I wish we were in another place, but those decisions were made by other people a long time ago; I merely recognize the reality around me. Which is mostly humanity at its feral worst.

  • Chester Draws

    I have cameras for my home, but it’s not for people. It’s for the one-in-a-hundred thieving bastards. Most people aren’t going to wander in and take stuff, ever.

    Most people will behave as long as their actions are, at least potentially, visible. Not simply due to punishment, but because most people want to be seen to be good. The alternative is that you have to have a self-image in which you are a bad person, which isn’t a pleasant state (and why most bad people work via rationalisation — I only steal because I am poor, for example — rather than just admit that they are shits).

    As they get older, people tend to get better too. Partly because they realise that their earlier rationalisations were poor attempts to disguise bad behaviour.

    With people I don’t know, I may err on the side of caution, but I don’t spend my whole time watching them, just in case.

  • If you truly go through life seeing and counting on the “innate good” in people in general, then we must assume that you don’t lock your doors at home or abroad, trusting your fellow man not to rob you blind while you’re in the store

    Up to a point, Lord Copper. I think it depends on context. Some societies are higher trust than others & it varies within societies. Where I currently live, even at a time of stratospheric egg prices, there are eggs for sale in untended roadside stalls: sign indicates the price, take some eggs, leave the cash. Would I expect to see this as a viable business model in London? No. But it works just fine in Wiltshire.

    I think one can strike the balance between “trust everyone and hope for the best” and “always have a plan to kill everyone in the room” 😉

  • Martin

    In fairness to Neville Chamberlain, he did vastly increase defence spending while he was PM. That’s clearly not evident with the current British government, and by all accounts they’re stripping the cupboards bare providing what they have done to Ukraine. I know there’s talk about defence spending going up to 3pc GDP but I’ll believe it when I see it (given the complete economic mess Britain is in, there’s the risk defence cuts will be imposed by the Treasury). Makes it hard to take the wannabe Churchill/Thatcher posturing of Boris, Liz Truss, Sunak etc entirely seriously.

  • Paul Marks

    Snorri – an example of the careful approach is the the Constitution of Alabama (1901), it is so long precisely because it was written by people who assumed that many people in politics in the future would be knaves (because they themselves were knaves – they did not think politicians in the future would be more morally decent than they were).

    When John Adams was asked about some of the vague bits of the United States Constitution he replied that it was written for a “moral and religious people” – as anyone who has been involved in politics (at any level) knows, that was a sadly awful reply. A document, or parts of a document, that relies on people being good – is problematic (to put the matter mildly). Always assume that everyone in politics, including Supreme Court Justices, is a SCUMBAG – and write legal documents so they are as clear as possible, to make it more difficult for said-scumbags to twist them via “interpretation”.

    As soon as the Constitution of Alabama was amended to give more “flexibility” to some local government politicians the folly of such “flexibility” was graphically exposed – the county that contains Birmingham (the largest city in Alabama) engaged in wild Wall Street speculation – because it seemed easier than raising taxes or doing without government spending. The speculation went wrong (it always goes wrong) – and the county went bankrupt.

    It is much the same in the north – for example the Constitution of Indiana (1851 if memory serves) forbids public pensions – “how primitive and old fashioned” thought modern reformers, and amended the Constitution to allow a pension scheme to be set up for government employees (rather than allowing each employee to deal with the matter of retirement income for themselves – by investing some of their pay).

    No surprise that the public pensions set up in Indiana are underfunded – OF COURSE they are underfunded, that is precisely what one should expect. Handing out pension promises is popular, paying for the promises is not popular – therefore the promises will be underfunded (Mr Hume would certainly not be shocked by that).

    It is much the same in the United Kingdom – as soon as local council (district, country, whatever) gets “creative” – RUN AWAY.

    Full disclosure – local politics is my “trade”.

  • Paul Marks

    Lawyers who write legal contracts (and a Constitution is a contract – or should be) know how terrible vagueness “flexibility” is.

    It is especially bad in financial and banking contracts. Even the relatively conservative William Howard Taft came to exactly the WRONG conclusion regarding the crash of 1907 – declaring that there should be more “flexibility” in the financial and monetary system, when it was precisely “flexibility”. i.e. lending out “money” that did-not-exit, legalised fraud, that was the problem, and more “flexibility” would make the problem worse and worse – which it did. Snorri may jump in here and say “David Hume said that centuries ago” – and Snorri would be correct, he did. So did Richard Cantillon and others.

  • Paul Marks

    Martin – as you may know, a major problem if the policy of Prime Minister Chamberlain is that the German military was getting stronger at a faster rate than the British military was.

    The Chamberlain rearmament was slower than the Hitler rearmament – so delaying standing up against Mr Hitler made things worse, not better.

    Even as late as 1938 the German Army was not ready for war – not till the Czech factories were handed over to them.

    So the old opinion (so mocked by Peter Hitchens and others) is actually CORRECT – the Munich Agreement was a disaster, Prime Minister Chamberlain should have said NO to Chancellor Hitler and stuck to NO.

    The argument over recent years has been that eastern Ukraine should not be handed over to Mr Putin – as this is where the industrial strength of Ukraine is.

    To allow Mr Putin to take to take eastern Ukraine would give him the industrial strength – and the agricultural west of Ukraine would follow. Adding both together would give Mr Putin domination of Europe. Real economic strength being about food, energy and manufacturing – not playing with Credit Bubbles which is all London and New York really do.

    “You are saying that Putin is Hitler” – NO I am NOT saying that.

  • Snorri Godhi

    I think one can strike the balance between “trust everyone and hope for the best” and “always have a plan to kill everyone in the room”

    I don’t see the 2 propositions as incompatible at all!
    As long as the plan remains just a plan…

  • Martin

    Martin – as you may know, a major problem if the policy of Prime Minister Chamberlain is that the German military was getting stronger at a faster rate than the British military was.

    My point really was that by during the peacetime years of Chamberlain’s premiership defence spending increased about 250pc, whereas despite a lot of rhetoric about increases, the current UK government appears to be struggling to keep defence spending up with inflation and appear to be still planning to cut army personnel. It’s nothing new. From at least the first Gulf War onwards, British governments have often tended to talk like the Churchill of the 1930s but their military budgets have had more in common with the years Churchill was Chancellor of the Exchequer in the 1920s.

  • Paul Marks

    Martin – good point.

    Of course, Prime Minister Churchill in 1942 regretted the decision of Chancellor Churchill in the 1920s not to fund the proper landward side fortification of Singapore – and to fail to provide tanks (“tanks will be no good in the jungle” – there were ROADS in Malayia, the British should have known that, as the British built the roads) or provide anti tank guns.

    However, in the 1920s no one at all was arguing for the proper funding of defence – it was indeed the first time in British history when domestic “Social Reform” spending was higher than the entire military budget.

    In the 1930s you are quite correct that Winston Churchill changed his tune on military spending – due to the expansionism of Imperial Japan and National Socialist Germany, but by then he was out of office.

    As for the British government of today – it is so enmeshed in a vast administrative system (in both national and local government) that elected politicians have limited power, although elected politicians do have some influence – at the margin.

    Politicians, at least in the United Kingdom, serve, at least in part, a public relations function (elections, and so on, allow the public to think they decide policy – which is a comfort to the public) – rather than actually being “in power” in a full sense. Although, I repeat, elected politicians do have some influence – at the margin.

    One problem is that under the British system no politician really has a secure position – any politician (including the Prime Minister – ask Liz Truss) can be removed at any time, if they step out of line (out of line with international policy).

    It is not like an American State Governor who can say “I am elected for four years by the people – I am in charge of the Executive Branch of Government of this State, and I say we will NOT have a Covid lockdown” (or whatever the international policy is).

    A British minister who spoke like that – would be laughed at, before being removed from office so fast their feet would not touch the ground.

  • Kirk

    What you have is a contrast in strengths and weaknesses between the parliamentary system and the US system. Anyone think Biden would still be president, under a UK-style parliamentary system? How long would Trump have lasted?

    Honestly, the real problem we have isn’t necessarily with how we set up the legislatures; it’s out in the weeds, where the permanent bureaucracy dwells, these days.

    There’s an incredible amount of power that has leached out away from the organs of democraticly organized states, out into the supporting bureaucracies and corporations. Also, NGOs, quangos, and everything else.

    My personal belief is that any politician seeking to set up anything that’s going to take power away from the legislature ought to be taken out and shot by his electorate. You vote for a bureaucratic solution that’s beyond the influence of any voter? You’re failing your constituents. Of course, a lot of them do such things because they’re both lazy and venal; if they set up the beyond-control bureaucracy, then they’ve got a permanent place interceding on behalf of the very constituents they victimized in the first damn place.

    The California Coastal Commission is a perfect example of this. Nobody living on the coast gets to vote for any of the members or their policies in any meaningful way; they’re just like the European Parliament, beyond direct control by the people they lord it over.

    At some point, all of these homeowner association-like organizations are going to go, and probably at the head of a mob coming to lynch them. If you’re familiar with the abuses perpetrated by the CCC, you’ll have to agree that putting anything out of the reach of the electorate is unworkable in the long run.

    Some things can work like that. Some things need to be difficult for the electorate to get at, but nothing should be beyond their reach once sufficiently enraged.

    Of course, when you’ve really got them pissed off, nothing is effectively beyond reach. I imagine that a sufficiently abusive judge would find themselves targeted fairly quickly.