President of Ukraine Volodymyr Zelensky visited the front positions of the army in the Donetsk region, February 17, 2022 (Photographer RM /
An International Relations Theory Guide to the War in Ukraine

The world is infinitely complex, and by necessity we all rely on various beliefs or theories about “how the world works” to try to make sense of it all. Because all theories are simplifications, no single approach to international politics can account for everything that is taking place at any given moment, predict exactly what will happen in the weeks and months ahead, or offer a precise plan of action that is guaranteed to succeed. Even so, our stock of theories can still help us understand how the tragedy in Ukraine came about, explain some of what is happening now, alert us to opportunities and potential pitfalls, and suggest certain broad courses of action going forward. Because even the best social science theories are crude and there are always exceptions to even well-established regularities, wise analysts will look to more than one for insights and retain a certain skepticism about what any of them can tell us.

Given the above, what do some well-known international relations theories have to say about the tragic events in Ukraine? Which theories have been vindicated (at least in part), which have been found wanting, and which might highlight key issues as the crisis continues to unfold? Here’s a tentative and far-from-comprehensive survey of what scholars have to say about this mess.

Realism and Liberalism

I’m hardly an objective observer here, but it is obvious to me that these troubling events have reaffirmed the enduring relevance of the realist perspective on international politics. At the most general level, all realist theories depict a world where there is no agency or institution that can protect states from each other, and where states must worry about whether a dangerous aggressor might threaten them at some point in the future. This situation forces states—especially great powers—to worry a lot about their security and to compete for power. Unfortunately, these fears sometimes lead states to do horrible things. For realists, Russia’s invasion of Ukraine (not to mention the U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003) reminds us that great powers sometimes act in terrible and foolish ways when they believe their core security interests are at stake. That lesson doesn’t justify such behavior, but realists recognize that moral condemnation alone won’t prevent it. A more convincing demonstration of the relevance of hard power—especially military power—is hard to imagine. Even post-modern Germany seems to have gotten the message.

Regrettably, the war also illustrates another classic realist concept: the idea of a “security dilemma.” The dilemma arises because the steps that one state takes to make itself more secure often make others less secure. State A feels unsafe and seek any ally or buys some more weapons; State B gets alarmed by this step and responds in kind, suspicions deepen, and both countries end up poorer and less safe than they were before. It made perfect sense that states in Eastern Europe wanted to get into NATO (or as close to it as possible), given their long-term concerns about Russia. But it should also be easy to understand why Russian leaders—and not just Putin—regarded this development as alarming. It is now tragically clear that the gamble did not pay off—at least not with respect to Ukraine and probably Georgia.

Read the full article in Foreign Policy.

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