IR Theories, Political Discourse and Ukraine, …and War Rages On

After 28 days and 5 rounds of failed Russia-Ukraine military-level talks since the Kremlin launched “Special Military Operation” on Ukraine, it is business as usual for everyone, including the UN. While scholars and analysts are preoccupied with applying theories to explain why the “unthinkable” war was started by Russia in the first place. Big powers are typically either engaged in “instigating” Ukraine to keep fighting or behaving as neutral, unaffected bystanders. And the war wages on…  

It is fooling oneself to think that a war once started can be short, less bloody, less destructive, and decisive. At the same time, it is no less a folly to conclude within days or weeks of a war beginning what theories are vindicated on the war’s origin, which side is winning and emerging victorious, and so on. Both the above views are typical attributes of the realists. No wonder, in a recent article “An International Relations Theory Guide to the War in Ukraine,” the authors analyse which theories have been vindicated and which have fallen flat. As was expected, the authors of the Foreign Policy (FP) essay, despite acknowledging its inadequacy in explaining to us the whole story of the war in Ukraine, have anyway declared “realism” to be the best overall “guide to the grim situation we now face.”

Most IR theories, realism being no exception, uphold actions like war to be necessary tools of statecraft. Likewise, the FP essay while reaffirming the enduring relevance of the realist perspective of international politics justifies Eastern European states wanting to get into NATO, but the essay or the realist theory as advocated by the essay’s authors does not even bother to question the raison d’etre for the continuous existence and/or even speedy expansion of the North Atlantic alliance. At the same time, the essay is self-contradictory in stating on the one hand that realist theory depicts a “security dilemma” forcing states –especially great powers – to worry a lot about their security and therefore compete for power. While on the other hand, they also claim “to see events in Ukraine through the lens of realism is not to endorse Russia’s brutal and illegal actions.” [My emphasis]  

A glaring example of how bankrupt a realist perspective can be, closely linked with the ongoing war in Ukraine is the British government’s irrational decision to tighten screws of sanctions upon Moscow by stopping all imports of Russian oil by the end of this year. As some critics have argued, this decision will further increase the sufferings of the British consumers who are already torn between “heating or eating” due to energy prices continuing to soar. But more significantly, various interest groups and industrial lobbies have already started pushing the British government to reconsider its decision of “no changes in the current policies on fracking.” It is quite apparent those pushing for fracking as a way to detox from the current ‘addiction’ to Russian gas which is said to help fund war crimes in Ukraine, are actually ready to throw aside Net Zero goals for making huge profits from the shale gas. “Under this so-called realist perspective Britain is faced with the binary choice of either: energy security with fracking or the current road to decarbonisation supported by immoral energy purchasing. It supposedly can’t be both,” observed a critic recently.   

At another level, three authors of the FP essay cited above have demonstrated by upholding at least two realist concepts to justify normative foreign policy actions – external threat and security dilemma, respectively. Therefore, it is assumed as quite natural human nature that the two “insecurities” inevitably lead local, regional, and global powers to compete for power (aka go into a war). Interestingly, this realist worldview that war is “normal” finds popular acceptance among the anthropological community who reckon “war is an evolutionary, inborn tendency of humans.” As historical anthropologist R. Brian Ferguson has observed: “Anthropologists had not really been much interested in the study of war before Vietnam. The Vietnam War made a big difference. The anthropology of war as an academic discipline really grew from there and different perspectives developed. Some held that war has always been with us; some said it was a biological instinct; some said that war was a cultural product, and a relatively late development.” Thomas Hobbs in Leviathan talked about war will happen naturally unless there is a system to stop it, but he [Hobbs] didn’t know about genes and Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution, explains Ferguson. 

Furthermore, now we know that there is pushback to the narrative that war is innate to humanity. Thanks to evolving new anthropology of war perspectives, we are now also aware that “a war-centred narrative paints an incomplete picture of human history – and human nature.” According to April M. Short “there is a growing consensus for a human history that predates war altogether and further points out that war is not innate to human nature. Instead, war is a social and cultural development that begins at certain points around the globe.”    

Finally, as with most wars down the centuries, Putin hopefully must have realized by now what someone had said: “causes of a war are revealed not in how a war begins but in how it develops and to what it leads to.” As was bound to happen, as one international politics analyst has rightly observed, “Few invasions have foundered so swiftly and spectacularly as Putin’s ‘special military operation’ in Ukraine.” Besides, if Putin’s real mission in destroying Ukraine was to prevent Europe’s largest state from moving into the orbit of the West, by invading Ukraine he has ended up doing just the opposite. However, sadly, the powers who were determined in using Ukraine as collateral damage to get at Russia, instead of making any efforts towards bring an end to the latest war tragedy, are “by widening the war through no-fly zones and by sending aircraft from Nato states” turning the Russia-Ukraine war into a war between Russia and Nato. Three cheers to the concept of realist theory of international politics!  

Hemant Adlakha
Hemant Adlakha
Hemant Adlakha is professor of Chinese, Jawaharlal Nehru University in New Delhi. He is also vice chairperson and an Honorary Fellow, Institute of Chinese Studies (ICS), Delhi.