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Op-ed on false realism in foreign policy

Le Monde, July 13, 2022

War in Ukraine : ’Those who persist in ignoring moral issues should not be called realists, but simply cynics’

To call both Russia and Ukraine ’rational actors defending their interests’ would be ’false realism,’ says international relations expert Jean-Baptiste Jeangène Vilmer

OP-ED Le Monde, July 13, 2022

The war in Ukraine has accentuated the already persistent tendency to caricature what "realism" is in foreign policy. Many analysts claim this label when they call for moderation in the face of Russian aggression. Criticism over a "lack of realism" relates as much to the alleged origins of the conflict as to its conduct and the prospects for an exit.

Before the war, it was the absence of "realism" that allegedly allowed the expansion of NATO, which allegedly "provoked" President Vladimir Putin, who was allegedly only defending his interests when he attacked Ukraine, for which he is, therefore, almost excused. During the war, it is still in the name of "realism" that one should not support the Ukrainians too much and give the Russians an honorable way out. And, after the war, the same "realists" will invite us to quickly normalize our relations with Moscow.

In this sense of the word, the realist is a kind of impartial observer of the balance of power, for whom there is "neither good nor bad." They dismiss Russia and Ukraine without pronouncing in favor of either. The two are just rational actors defending their interests. Denouncing how people have become "hysterical" in the way they debate the matter, wanting to embody reason against passion, this realist makes a point of excluding moral issues from their analysis.

’Moral questions are part of reality’

Except that this position is not realism. It is what, more than half a century ago, the philosopher Raymond Aron (1905-1983) called "false realism" – that is to say, cynicism. Realism certainly shares several features with this attitude : taking into account the constraints of reality, recognizing positions of power, distrusting abstractions and judging the value of a proposal by its feasibility, without having any illusions about the will or the capacity of the actors to respect the principles they invoke, understanding that states seek to maximize their national interest and are more often in conflict than in harmony, etc.

But, and this is a major difference, realism is not amoralism. Ignoring or underestimating moral questions is not realism, since these questions do arise and are part of "reality." In fact they arise more and more, because the normative pressure on the perpetrators of international relations (states, organizations, companies, individuals) is constantly increasing : on the conduct of war, arms sales, nuclear weapons, human rights, greenhouse gas emissions...

This may seem paradoxical at a time when we are witnessing the barbaric war in Ukraine, but there is a real moralization of international relations, in the sense that actors on the world stage are increasingly invoking moral and legal arguments to justify their actions, or condemn those of others. Not because they are more virtuous than before (states and the men and women who make them up still act out of self-interest, because selfishness is part of human nature) but because they feel that they must appear to be more virtuous.

Preferable versus detestable

Far from excluding all moral considerations from their analyses, true realists are simply careful that these considerations are not isolated from the constraints of reality. The realist ethic is that of the lesser evil. "It is never the struggle between good and evil," said Aron, "it is the preferable against the detestable." And as such, it is tragic. But it is no less an ethic.

Under these conditions, those who persist in ignoring or underestimating moral issues should not be called "realists," even if they claim this label without understanding its meaning, but simply "cynics." If we now return to Ukraine, what would the true realist say ? On the causes of the war, he would denounce the pretext of Western "provocation" and recall that Mr. Putin himself – comparing himself to Peter the Great – recognized that it was purely and simply a war of imperial conquest.

To be realistic is not to deny this reality. On the conduct of the war, the true realist would understand that reducing support to Ukrainian forces ostensibly to push them to accept a ceasefire and thus stop the war (a laudable intention) would have exactly the opposite effect. If Mr. Putin wins (or feels he is winning, because victory is a matter of perception) he will not stop there. He will use the negotiations to buy time, regroup his forces and accomplish what remains his goal : to topple President Zelensky and take control of the entire country. If he is confident, he may even go beyond Ukraine’s borders.

Defending our values

The only way to stop him is to make him understand that he has too much to lose by continuing, and this is not achieved by laying down one’s arms, but rather by intensifying support of Ukrainian forces, thus increasing the cost for the Russian forces, while obviously remaining open to discussions when they are constructive.

To be realistic is to believe in the balance of power and deterrence. It also means not making the same mistake twice : the false realists should remember that, until February 24, they swore that Mr. Putin would never invade Ukraine – or rather, would never launch a major offensive, since the fact is that he had already invaded in 2014. The same people promise today that he will never go further.

Finally, on the post-war period, the true realist will not recommend the rapid normalization of relations with Moscow, unless, by then, the regime has fallen. On the one hand, non-normalized relations are a deterrent. Not only for the Kremlin but also for the rest of the world, first and foremost for Beijing, which is watching the situation closely to see what it would risk in a similar scenario with Taiwan.

In addition, whatever the outcome of the conflict, European strategic autonomy necessarily depends on reducing dependence on Russian fossil fuels. Being realistic also means knowing how to defend our interests and our values in the long term.

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