Ukraine and IR theory

I was discussing Ukraine with my US Political Parties class yesterday and trying to recall the IR theory I learned from Timothy Lomperis 23 years ago.  Realism, baby!  Anyway, can’t say I remember all that much, but I really enjoyed Bill Ayer’s post looking at different strains of realism and how none of them at all suggest we are seeing “a new cold war” as many less astute commentators have been suggesting.  I particularly enjoyed him singling out John McCain, as I read his op-ed thinking, “man an actual IR scholar would surely be able to fine 100+ ways this is just crap.”  Ayers:

There’s been a lot of talk in the media in the last few days, as the Crimea crisis works its way towards a de facto annexation by Russia, about a “new Cold War” between Russia and the US. John McCain, eager to criticize Obama on almost anything, seems positively slavering over the prospect. But what McCain wants to call a “return to Realism” is anything but, and those journalists who want to make parallels between today’s geopolitics and the Cold War need to go back to school…

Here’s the problem – none of this applies to today’s relationship with Russia. Any similarities are entirely superficial – the fundamental variables have all drastically changed. So talk of a new “Cold War” is not just premature – it’s foolish. Consider:

– Today’s Russia is not a superpower equal to the US. It’s not even close. The Russian economy has shrunk drastically since its Soviet days, as has its military might and reach. The Russian army taking over Crimea is roughly like the US military invading Tijuana – it’s right there, the locals are vastly overmatched, and there are no nearby counterbalancing powers. Morgenthau understood that power declines with distance; apparently McCain has forgotten that lesson. So recent events notwithstanding, we are not dealing with a bipolar world with power divided between the US and Russia. China and Europe arefar larger things than Russia is.

– Whatever you think of Vladimir Putin’s intentions, and whatever imperialist motives you want to attribute to the Russia psyche, they are not out to take over the world…

All of this, of course, is IR Theory 101. Russia would have to get a lot more powerful and (depending on your view) its motives would have to change drastically in order for there to be the potential of a new “Cold War”. Absent those factors – which don’t seem anywhere on the horizon – let’s drop the silly historical comparisons and focus on what is. If you want to be a Realist in making US foreign policy, you need to deal with the real world of today. [emphasis mine]

See the whole post for a nice explanation of the different strains of realism and how they don’t apply.

Also, I really like how Big Steve has been emphasizing the asymmetry of interests, which certainly strikes me as fundamental to understanding the situation:

There is one remaining aspect of today’s reality that we must address—there is damned little that the U.S., Canada, and Europe can do to reverse this annexation.  Bargaining and coercion are all about stakes and interests, and Russia has far more skin in this game than anyone else.  Plus distance matters.  This is Russia’s backyard, and our fence starts at Poland’s borders.  We simply cannot risk World War III for Ukraine and Crimea.  Russia’s energy resources and Europe’s dependence on those resources make it very hard to punish Russia.

There’s just not that much we can do.  What we can, Obama is doing.

About Steve Greene
Professor of Political Science at NC State http://faculty.chass.ncsu.edu/shgreene

One Response to Ukraine and IR theory

  1. Mike from Canada says:

    I was a little surprised to read that Russia has a GDP only a little larger then Canada’s GDP, even with Russia’s almost five times larger population.

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