The Ethics of Realism

The Ethics of Realism

We must understand Russia’s invasion of Ukraine not to justify it, but to better find a resolution to the conflict.

Russian servicemen stand on shore in front of a Ukrainian ship in Sevastopol on March 18, 2014 during Russia's annexation of Crimea. (Pierre Crom/Getty Images)

The following is part of an argument on realism and the left. Read Matthew Specter’s “Realism’s Imperial Origins” here.

States, and the interests of states as defined by state establishments, are central to every variety of realism in international affairs. A concentration on state interests allows the leader or analyst to distinguish between what another country’s establishment sees as its secondary and vital interests—in other words, those interests on which it will be willing to compromise, and those on which it will never compromise, and for which in the last resort it is prepared to fight.

Understanding how another state’s establishment sees its country’s vital interests requires intense study, leading to empathy—something that the great realist thinker Hans Morgenthau declared to be a fundamental ethical duty of the statesman. This does not necessarily mean sympathy, either with the interests themselves or with how they are defended. It does, however, mean that a statesman possessing this capacity for empathy will only challenge the vital interests of another state, and thereby risk war, if they are confident of two things: first, that to do so is truly essential, politically and morally; and second, that this challenge has a reasonable probability of achieving its goal.

Realist ethics find their clearest expression in Max Weber’s distinction (in Politics as a Vocation) between an ethic of conviction or sentiment (Gesinnungsethik) and one of responsibility for consequences (Verantwortungsethik). Weber stated that the first might be appropriate to a private individual (like the sincere pacifist), but a public official or elected representative has a duty to consider the wider results of their actions: first and foremost for their own country, but also—as great realists like Morgenthau and Reinhold Niebuhr taught—for international peace and the general interest of humanity.

Realist considerations give us important insights with regard to Russia and Ukraine. Every U.S. official with a deep understanding of Russia (like former ambassadors George F. Kennan, Jack F. Matlock Jr., Thomas Pickering, and William J. Burns), and every intelligent U.S. realist (like John Mearsheimer and Stephen Walt), has understood that, for the Russian establishment, preventing Ukraine from joining a hostile military alliance is a vital interest for which it might be prepared to go to war. Linked to this are two other issues of vital importance to Russia: holding onto the Russian naval base at Sevastopol and maintaining a key role for the Russian language in Ukraine.

To say this is not to justify Putin’s actions toward Ukraine. They have been grossly immoral, not to mention disastrous for Russia’s own interests. It is, however, to say that before embarking on the project of turning Ukraine into an ally, the U.S. establishment should have recognized that war was a very likely result.

One may make a legitimate comparison here with America’s Monroe Doctrine, which continues in a modified form to this day. Central American governments have a perfectly legitimate right to seek Chinese investment. If, however, they sought a military alliance with China, they—and the Chinese government—would have to do so in the full awareness that the United States would mobilize its resources and act with extreme ruthlessness to overthrow those governments and block that alliance, resulting in not only dreadful human suffering but the probable failure of the alliance project.

What would it look like if the U.S. establishment had been guided by a realist approach in the case of Ukraine? First, there would have been consideration of whether the United States was really prepared to fight to defend Ukraine. This goes back to the realist distinction between vital and secondary interests. Because Ukraine has never been a vital U.S. interest for which the United States is prepared to go to war with Russia, the proposal of NATO membership for Ukraine was always vacuous and politically and morally irresponsible.

Second, if the United States wanted to respond to the wishes of Ukrainians that their country develop in a Western direction, it also needed to respect the view (not only of Moscow but of many Ukrainians, at least until this war) that this should be combined with the maintenance of close and friendly relations with Russia. In other words, the offer of NATO membership should have been dropped in favor of economic and political reform, and trade agreements between the West and Ukraine should have been crafted in such a way as to permit the continuation of trade with Russia.

An ethical realist approach to the war today dictates a search for a peace settlement that would safeguard Ukrainian sovereignty, and its ability to move toward the West, while giving Russia enough in territorial terms to allow Putin to claim victory and end the war. For Ukraine to try to reconquer the areas that Russia has held since 2014 would mean endless war, with only very limited chances of success; while the United States is deeply unwilling to fight for Ukraine, an indefinite continuation of the war runs the serious risk of escalating an international conflict, with potentially catastrophic results for Ukraine, the United States, and humanity as a whole.

Nobody should pretend that these are easy issues to resolve, either politically or morally. But as Morgenthau once wrote, “We have no choice between power and the common good. To act successfully, that is according to the rules of the political art, is political wisdom. To know with despair that the political act is inevitably evil, and to act nonetheless, is moral courage. To choose among several expedient actions the least evil one is moral judgment.”


Anatol Lieven is a senior fellow of the Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft and author (with John Hulsman) of Ethical Realism: A Vision for America’s Role in the World.


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