The situation in Ukraine is bad and getting worse. Russia is poised to invade and demanding airtight guarantees that NATO will never, ever expand farther to the east. Negotiations do not appear to be succeeding, and the United States and its NATO allies are beginning to contemplate how they will make Russia pay should it press forward with an invasion. A real war is now a distinct possibility, which would have far-reaching consequences for everyone involved, especially Ukraine’s citizens.
The great tragedy is this entire affair was avoidable. Had the United States and its European allies not succumbed to hubris, wishful thinking, and liberal idealism and relied instead on realism’s core insights, the present crisis would not have occurred. Indeed, Russia would probably never have seized Crimea, and Ukraine would be safer today. The world is paying a high price for relying on a flawed theory of world politics.
At the most basic level, realism begins with the recognition that wars occur because there is no agency or central authority that can protect states from one another and stop them from fighting if they choose to do so. Given that war is always a possibility, states compete for power and sometimes use force to try to make themselves more secure or gain other advantages. There is no way states can know for certain what others may do in the future, which makes them reluctant to trust one another and encourages them to hedge against the possibility that another powerful state may try to harm them at some point down the road.
Liberalism sees world politics differently. Instead of seeing all great powers as facing more or less the same problem—the need to be secure in a world where war is always possible—liberalism maintains that what states do is driven mostly by their internal characteristics and the nature of the connections among them. It divides the world into “good states” (those that embody liberal values) and “bad states” (pretty much everyone else) and maintains that conflicts arise primarily from the aggressive impulses of autocrats, dictators, and other illiberal leaders. For liberals, the solution is to topple tyrants and spread democracy, markets, and institutions based on the belief that democracies don’t fight one another, especially when they are bound together by trade, investment, and an agreed-on set of rules.
Read the full article in Foreign Policy.