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Ivan Timofeev

PhD in Political Science, RIAC Director of Programs, RIAC Member, Head of "Contemporary State" program at Valdai Discussion Club

The second reason is that realism is simple. By focusing on survival, security and domination, realism discards everything else. Economics, for example, is important to the extent that it can help address security issues and establish political dominance. The same goes for ideology. At best, for realists, it is a means of “information war”. At worst, it is not even included in the analysis. Other realists challenge ideology, claiming, not without reason, that it interferes with pragmatic foreign policy. The state itself is a “black box”. For a realist, it doesn’t matter what happens inside the state. What matters is exactly what it does. That is, the “inputs” and “outputs” are important—national interests and steps to implement them. At the same time, in the view of realists, the state acts rationally. It strives to minimise damage to its security and maximise its dominance and influence in international affairs. Such a set of variables is as simple as a Kalashnikov assault rifle. A minimum number of parts, basic assembly, reliability and unpretentiousness. Even a slow-witted new recruit straight off the farm can master it in a couple of hours.

Realism is a convenient platform for international dialogue. It allows you to discuss high politics, but not to sink into the grime in the corners of the kitchen where such politics is being prepared. From an image-building point of view, realism is a win-win strategy. A stern military man, an experienced diplomat, a wise scientist. In general, a person who guards national interests, respected at home and abroad, staying away from uncomfortable topics.

It is hardly surprising that realism then emerged as the platform for the revival of Russia as a great power. Against the background of fermentation and the painful transformations of the 1990s, the realist’s weighty word was perceived as a breath of fresh air as well as a hope for lost pride and national prestige. Realism has become not only an influential, but also a fairly effective doctrine. Almost all foreign policy achievements of the past twenty-odd years are rooted in its basic concepts.

It would seem that Russian foreign policy has at last arrived at the long-awaited gold standard. However, history, as you know, does not tolerate the “end of history”, and it’s not so important who exactly pretends to give the final answer and put an end to it. It will continue to grind any gold standard that seemed unshakable before. Sooner or later, such a fate will be prepared for realism. Like the good old Kalashnikov, it will be replaced by a more advanced and modern system. The main advantage of realism—the simplicity of its construction, where the internal dimensions of a state are disregarded, risks becoming a weakness. Here again, the question arises why the fashion for realism in Russia might fade away, relegating it to becoming a recognised, albeit not particularly influential doctrine.

The Russian community of international relations professionals and pundits is strongly influenced by political realism. Being a realist is a good rule of thumb when it comes to mainstream approaches to international affairs. “Enemy” liberalism, “freaky” constructivism, “obsolete” Marxism—these are all marginal alternatives. It is more difficult to make a career with them, or even simply to be understood correctly. Let’s try to figure out why this is happening, and how the philosophical fashion of Russian foreign policy thinking can be transformed further.

There are several reasons for the popularity of realism. First, realism is real. It is unlikely that anyone would think to doubt the presence of a destructive principle in human nature. It is just as difficult to refute the assumption that international relations are anarchic. Ensuring security by balancing the strength of another with your own strength in order to contain possible aggression is normal behaviour in such an environment. The big fish eat the little ones as all strive for domination. The weak must either become strong or join a coalition sufficient to contain the stronger players. Anarchy breeds ambiguity of intentions and potentials. “The Fog of War” is a companion of anarchy. It is quite possible to describe both the behaviour of modern great powers and the actions of smaller players in realistic terms, manoeuvring between the “poles of power”.

The second reason is that realism is simple. By focusing on survival, security and domination, realism discards everything else. Economics, for example, is important to the extent that it can help address security issues and establish political dominance. The same goes for ideology. At best, for realists, it is a means of “information war”. At worst, it is not even included in the analysis. Other realists challenge ideology, claiming, not without reason, that it interferes with pragmatic foreign policy. The state itself is a “black box”. For a realist, it doesn’t matter what happens inside the state. What matters is exactly what it does. That is, the “inputs” and “outputs” are important—national interests and steps to implement them. At the same time, in the view of realists, the state acts rationally. It strives to minimise damage to its security and maximise its dominance and influence in international affairs. Such a set of variables is as simple as a Kalashnikov assault rifle. A minimum number of parts, basic assembly, reliability and unpretentiousness. Even a slow-witted new recruit straight off the farm can master it in a couple of hours.

The third reason is that realism is global. The neorealists have turned it into a systemic theory of international relations. It allows you to operate with holistic concepts such as world order, polarity, structure, etc. Realism satisfies the needs of those who would not like to tinker with the “small issues” of international relations, preferring to tackle immediately the “big and serious topics”.

The fourth reason is that realism is comfortable. The realist does not enter inside the state. Thus, he relieves himself of the threat of offending someone, discussing public policy, economic efficiency, social conflicts and other issues of inner life. Moreover, you can remain a good guy both from your own perspective and from that of others. After all, the realist does not stoop to “interference in the sovereign affairs of foreign states”. By and large, he does not care who is a scoundrel abroad and who is a saint. Therefore, realism is a convenient platform for international dialogue. It allows you to discuss high politics, but not to sink into the grime in the corners of the kitchen where such politics is being prepared. From an image-building point of view, realism is a win-win strategy. A stern military man, an experienced diplomat, a wise scientist. In general, a person who guards national interests, respected at home and abroad, staying away from uncomfortable topics.

In the Soviet Union, realism began to gain popularity during the years of the Brezhnev stagnation period. Then it was a kind of elitist and at the same time informal stream of thought, in full swing under the heavy arches of ideological attitudes. By that time, the deadness of ideological guidelines was becoming more and more obvious. Realism was a fresh and useful alternative. It developed rapidly in the United States, a key adversary and at the same time a model for hidden admiration. It was much more convenient to find a common language with American interlocutors precisely in terms of realism, having made a few critical remarks about the decay of capitalism and getting in response the usual reprimands about human rights and freedom. In the United States, realism was also far from the only doctrine and went hand in hand with the “good old-fashioned” version of liberalism for external consumption. In addition, relations with ideological partners brought more and more disappointment to the Soviet Union—aggravation with China, conformity among the socialist parties in Western Europe, the cynicism of the “spongers and fiery revolutionaries” in Eastern Europe and many other corners of the planet where individual countries decided to follow the socialist path, taking Soviet supplies and loans.

The short-lived rise of liberal idealism in Russia at the end of the Cold War quickly crashed into the realities of that very world, in which there is no place for the weak, and the resulting vacuum of power and domination is quickly occupied by stronger players. It is hardly surprising that realism then emerged as the platform for the revival of Russia as a great power. Against the background of fermentation and the painful transformations of the 1990s, the realist’s weighty word was perceived as a breath of fresh air as well as a hope for lost pride and national prestige. Realism has become not only an influential, but also a fairly effective doctrine. Almost all foreign policy achievements of the past twenty-odd years are rooted in its basic concepts.

It would seem that Russian foreign policy has at last arrived at the long-awaited gold standard. However, history, as you know, does not tolerate the “end of history”, and it’s not so important who exactly pretends to give the final answer and put an end to it. It will continue to grind any gold standard that seemed unshakable before. Sooner or later, such a fate will be prepared for realism. Like the good old Kalashnikov, it will be replaced by a more advanced and modern system. The main advantage of realism—the simplicity of its construction, where the internal dimensions of a state are disregarded, risks becoming a weakness. Here again, the question arises why the fashion for realism in Russia might fade away, relegating it to becoming a recognised, albeit not particularly influential doctrine.

The first reason is the permeability of the borders of domestic and foreign policy. Autonomous foreign policy is an abstraction. Taking it seriously means being trapped in an intellectual ivory tower. As beautiful as it is far from reality. Russian politics is no exception. The nation’s foreign policy is increasingly acquiring the features of public policy, which, by the way, is not uncommon in terms of world practice. In addition, the demand for foreign policy to retain some ideological context is growing in Russia again. The paradox is that some of our realists are also calling for a new ideology, apparently realising the exhaustion of its model for the current historical stage. So far, such a content seems to be rough and poorly thought out. For a full-fledged political theory (and ideology as its derivative), it is not enough just to oppose the liberal and at the same time “decaying” West, referring to some “traditional” values, which, moreover, are also Western. Such an “ideology” has few prospects. It is similar to an attempt to replace foreign words in the language with “native” ones. Inevitably one discovers that there are too many such words, and their “primordial” substitutes are absurd. The problem, however, is different. The West, willingly or unwillingly, is indeed throwing down a serious normative, political, philosophical and ideological challenge to the modern Russian state. The value model of the conventional West is not going anywhere, and will be a factor in Russian politics, a challenge to the stability of its modern structure. It is not easy to answer it with the naked pragmatism of realism. Even the most far-sighted Russian realists understand this much.

Incidentally, many Russian international experts proceed from the idea that a growth of conflict in the international environment is inevitable. Some believe that the growth of conflict is the prerequisite for the demand for realism. If the world is approaching a war, then it should be studied with a theory that operates with the appropriate concepts. However, the historical experience of the next two global conflicts shows that everything was not so simple. The First World War is difficult to consider outside the context of the crisis of statehood of at least three empires and the explosion of social movements within key participants. And World War II—as a continuation of this process, which greatly increased the influence of ideology on foreign policy.

The second reason is the multidimensionality of international relations. Many critics of realism have written about it and the essence of the argument is clear. In international relations, not everything boils down to power. This argument, however, must be used with caution. At certain points, history collapses due to security issues. War often devalues the everyday life of all other spheres, subjugating them to itself. It’s hard to be an “innovative entrepreneur” when machine guns are rattling in your yard. However, it is also true that such inevitable moments in history are relatively short-lived, and in peacetime the success and prosperity of a state becomes a much more complex matter. There is no doubt that a long war has become a daily routine for a number of states. They are torn apart by internal conflicts and in their lives there is nothing but war. But, thank God, this is not the case for Russia. The luxury of peace is one of the achievements of Russian politics over the past twenty years. Moreover, for many years, conditions have been created for waging war against Russia to become the least likely option for its counterparties to pursue. New nuclear missiles and conventional weapons, as well as a relatively successful experience reforming the armed forces, are still guaranteeing peace for Russia.

At the same time, however, a reality has emerged which can no longer accommodate realism. Having won peace for itself, Russia will be forced to embrace more diverse international relations. No matter how the modern world order “crumbles”, the dimensions of the modern world cannot be reduced to mere security issues. It is symptomatic that it was the Russian realists who put forward proposals atypical for realism. These include, for example, proactive climate and environmental policies. There is a new economy, technology, human capital, and interdependence here. However, from a conceptual point of view, this is no longer realism. Because it is simply impossible to reduce the climate topic to mere national interests and security, tearing it away from society and the economy.

Russian foreign policy thinking is about to change. The worst-case scenario would be the creation of an artificial semblance of ideology. Then realism would seem like a golden age and a concentration of common sense. The best scenario would be the pursuit of more flexible intellectual schemes suitable for the understanding of contemporary international relations. The good old “Kalashnikov” and a couple of “spam cans” can be kept as a keepsake. Just in case.

First published in the Valdai Discussion Club.

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  1. In your opinion, what are the US long-term goals for Russia?
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