Kritik Weekly Update

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We have organized and updated all of our cyberwarfare answers here —

Capitalism and profit critical to technological advancement

Mustafa Suleyman, September 2023, The Coming Wave, Suleyman is the co-founder of Deep Mind (AI company sold to Google), former Google AI Director, Co-Founder of Inflection AI (Pi).

The railway boom of the 1840s was “arguably the greatest bubble in history.” But in the annals of technology, it is more norm than exception. There was nothing inevitable about the coming of the railways, but there was something inevitable about the chance to make money. Carlota Perez sees an equivalent “frenzy phase” as being part of every major technology rollout for at least the last two hundred years, from the original telephone cables to contemporary high-bandwidth internet. The boom never lasts, but the raw speculative drive produces lasting change, a new technological substrate. The truth is that the curiosity of academic researchers or the will of motivated governments is insufficient to propel new breakthroughs into the hands of billions of consumers. Science has to be converted into useful and desirable products for it to truly spread far and wide. Put simply: most technology is made to earn money. If anything, this is perhaps the most persistent, entrenched, dispersed incentive of all. Profit drives the Chinese entrepreneur to develop moldings for a radically redesigned phone; it pushes the Dutch farmer to find new robotics and greenhouse technologies to grow tomatoes year-round in the cool climate of the North Sea; it leads suave investors on Palo Alto’s Sand Hill Road to invest millions of dollars in untested young entrepreneurs. While the motivations of their individual contributors may vary, Google is building AI, and Amazon is building robots, because as public companies with shareholders to please, they see them as ways to make a profit. And this, the potential for profit, is built on something even more long-lasting and robust: raw demand. People both want and need the fruits of technology. People need food, or refrigeration, or telecoms to live their lives; they might want AC units, or a new kind of shoe design requiring some intricate new manufacturing technique, or some kind of revolutionary new food-coloring method for cupcakes, or any of the innumerable everyday ends to which technology is put to use. Either way, technology helps provide, and its creators take their cut. The sheer breadth of human wants and needs, and the countless opportunities to profit from them, are integral to the story of technology and will remain so in the future. This is no bad thing. Go back just a few hundred years and economic growth was almost nonexistent. Living standards stagnated for centuries at unfathomably worse levels than today. In the last two hundred years, economic output is up more than three hundred times. Per capita GDP has risen at least thirteenfold over the same period, and in the very richest parts of the world it has risen a hundredfold. At the beginning of the nineteenth century, almost everyone lived in extreme poverty. Now, globally, this sits at around 9 percent. Exponential improvements in the human condition, once impossible, are routine. At root, this is a story of systematically applying science and technology in the name of profit. This in turn drove huge leaps in output and living standards. In the nineteenth century, inventions like Cyrus McCormick’s threshing machine led to a 500 percent increase in output of wheat per hour. Isaac Singer’s sewing machine meant sewing a shirt went from taking fourteen hours to just one hour. In developed economies, people work far less than they used to for far more reward. In Germany, for example, annual working hours have decreased by nearly 60 percent since 1870. Technology entered a virtuous circle of creating wealth that could be reinvested in further technological development, all of which drove up living standards. But none of these long-term goals were really the primary objective of any single individual. In chapter 1, I argued that almost everything around you is a product of human intelligence. Here’s a slight correction: much of what we see around us is powered by human intelligence in direct pursuit of monetary gain. This engine has created a world economy worth $85 trillion—and counting. From the pioneers of the Industrial Revolution to the Silicon Valley entrepreneurs of today, technology has a magnetic incentive in the form of serious financial rewards. The coming wave represents the greatest economic prize in history. It is a consumer cornucopia and potential profit center without parallel. Anyone looking to contain it must explain how a distributed, global, capitalist system of unbridled power can be persuaded to temper its acceleration, let alone leave it on the table. Suleyman, Mustafa. The Coming Wave, Crown. Kindle Edition.

Civilization will collapse without new tech, there is no alternative

Mustafa Suleyman, September 2023, The Coming Wave, Suleyman is the co-founder of Deep Mind (AI company sold to Google), former Google AI Director, Co-Founder of Inflection AI (Pi).

Technology, as in the case of food supply, is a vital part of addressing the challenges humanity inevitably faces today and will face tomorrow. We pursue new technologies, including those in the coming wave, not just because we want them, but because, at a fundamental level, we need them. — It’s likely that the world is heading for two degrees Celsius of climate warming or more. Every second of every day biospheric boundaries—from freshwater use to biodiversity loss—are breached. Even the most resilient, temperate, and wealthy countries will suffer disastrous heat waves and droughts, storms and water stress in the decades ahead. Crops will fail. Wildfires rage. Vast quantities of methane will escape the melting permafrost, threatening a feedback loop of extreme heating. Disease will spread far beyond its usual ranges. Climate refugees and conflict will engulf the world as sea levels inexorably rise, threatening major population centers. Marine and land-based ecosystems face collapse. Despite well-justified talk of a clean energy transition, the distance still to travel is vast. Hydrocarbons’ energy density is incredibly hard to replicate for tasks like powering airplanes or container ships. While clean electricity generation is expanding fast, electricity accounts for only about 25 percent of global energy output. The other 75 percent is much trickier to transition. Since the start of the twenty-first century global energy use is up 45 percent, but the share coming from fossil fuels only fell from 87 to 84 percent—meaning fossil fuel use is greatly up despite all the moves into clean electricity as a power source. The energy scholar Vaclav Smil calls ammonia, cement, plastics, and steel the four pillars of modern civilization: the material base underwriting modern society, each hugely carbon-intensive to produce, with no obvious successors. Without these materials modern life stops, and without fossil fuels the materials stop. The last thirty years saw 700 billion carbon-spewing tons of concrete sluiced out into our societies. How to replace that? Electric vehicles may not emit carbon when being driven, but they are resource hungry nonetheless: materials for just one EV require extracting around 225 tons of finite raw materials, demand for which is already spiking unsustainably. Food production, as we have seen, is a major success story of technology. But from tractors in fields, to synthetic fertilizers, to plastic greenhouses, it’s saturated in fossil fuels. Imagine the average tomato soaked in five tablespoons of oil. That’s how much went into growing it. What’s more, to meet global demand, agriculture will need to produce almost 50 percent more food by 2050 just as yields decline in the face of climate change. If we are to stand any chance of keeping global warming under two degrees Celsius, then the world’s scientists working under the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change have been clear: carbon capture and storage is an essential technology. And yet it’s largely not been invented or is still to be deployed at scale. To meet this global challenge, we’ll have to reengineer our agricultural, manufacturing, transport, and energy systems from the ground up with new technologies that are carbon neutral or probably even carbon negative. These are not inconsiderable tasks. In practice it means rebuilding the entire infrastructure of modern society while hopefully also offering quality-of-life improvements to billions. Humanity has no choice but to meet challenges like these, and many others such as how to deliver ever more expensive health care to aging populations beset with intractable chronic conditions. Here, then, is another powerful incentive: a vital part of how we flourish in the face of daunting daunting tasks that seem beyond us. There’s a strong moral case for new technologies beyond profit or advantage. Technology can and will improve lives and solve problems. Think of a world populated by trees that are longer lived and absorb much greater amounts of CO2. Or phytoplanktons that help the oceans become a greater and more sustainable carbon sink. AI has helped design an enzyme that can break down the plastic clogging our oceans. It will also be an important part of how we predict what is coming, from guessing where a wildfire might hit suburbia to tracking deforestation through public data sets. This will be a world of cheap, personalized drugs; fast, accurate diagnoses; and AI-generated replacements for energy-intensive fertilizers. Sustainable, scalable batteries need radical new technologies. Quantum computers paired with AI, with their ability to model down to the molecular level, could play a critical role in finding substitutes to conventional lithium batteries that are lighter, cheaper, cleaner, easier to produce and recycle, and more plentiful. Likewise on work with photovoltaic materials, or drug discovery, that enables molecular-level simulations to identify new compounds—far more precise and powerful than using the slow experimental techniques of the past. This is hyper-evolution in action, and it promises to save billions in R&D while going far beyond the present research paradigm. A school of naive techno-solutionism sees technology as the answer to all of the world’s problems. Alone, it’s not. How it is created, used, owned, and managed all make a difference. No one should pretend that technology is a near-magical answer to something as multifaceted and immense as climate change. But the idea that we can meet the century’s defining challenges without new technologies is completely fanciful. It’s also worth remembering that the technologies of the wave will make life easier, healthier, more productive, and more enjoyable for billions. They will save time, cost, hassle, and millions of lives. The significance of this should not be trivialized or forgotten amid the uncertainty. The coming wave is coming partly because there is no way through without it. Mega-scale, systemic forces like this drive technology forward.  Suleyman, Mustafa. The Coming Wave (p. 180). Crown. Kindle Edition.

The capitalist drive cannot be removed

Mustafa Suleyman, September 2023, The Coming Wave, Suleyman is the co-founder of Deep Mind (AI company sold to Google), former Google AI Director, Co-Founder of Inflection AI (Pi).

Engineers often have a particular mindset. The Los Alamos director J. Robert Oppenheimer was a highly principled man. But above all else he was a curiosity-driven problem solver. Consider these words, in their own way as chilling as his famous Bhagavad Gita quotation (on seeing the first nuclear test, he recalled some lines from Hindu scripture: “Now I am become Death, the destroyer of worlds”): “When you see something that is technically sweet, you go ahead and do it, and you argue about what to do about it only after you have had your technical success.” It was an attitude shared by his colleague on the Manhattan Project, the brilliant, polymathic Hungarian American John von Neumann. “What we are creating creating now,” he said, “is a monster whose influence is going to change history, provided there is any history left, yet it would be impossible not to see it through, not only for military reasons, but it would also be unethical from the point of view of the scientists not to do what they know is feasible, no matter what terrible consequences it may have.Spend enough time in technical environments and, despite all the talk about ethics and social responsibility, you will come to recognize the prevalence of this view, even when facing technologies of extreme power. I have seen it many times, and I’d probably be lying if I said I haven’t succumbed to it myself on occasion as well. Making history, doing something that matters, helping others, beating others, impressing a prospective partner, impressing a boss, peers, rivals: it’s all in there, all part of the ever-present drive to take risks, explore the edges, go further into the unknown. Build something new. Change the game. Climb the mountain. Suleyman, Mustafa. The Coming Wave (p. 182). Crown. Kindle Edition. Nationalism, capitalism, and science—these are, by now, embedded features of the world. Simply removing them from the scene is not possible in any meaningful time frame. Altruism and curiosity, arrogance and competition, the desire to win the race, make your name, save your people, help the world, whatever it may be: these are what propel the wave on, and these cannot be expunged or circumvented.

Decentralized libertarian states collapse control of AI leading to biohacking

Mustafa Suleyman, September 2023, The Coming Wave, Suleyman is the co-founder of Deep Mind (AI company sold to Google), former Google AI Director, Co-Founder of Inflection AI (Pi)., page number at end of card

Some aspects of the coming wave point toward further centralization of power. The biggest AI models will cost hundreds of millions of dollars to train, and consequently few will have ownership. But paradoxically a countertrend will play out in parallel. AI breakthroughs already make their way into open-source code repositories within days of being published in open-access journals, journals, making topflight models easy for anyone to access, experiment with, build, and modify in turn. Models down to the weights are published, leaked, and stolen. Companies like Stability AI and Hugging Face accelerate distributed, decentralized forms of AI. Techniques like CRISPR make biological experimentation easier, meaning biohackers in their garages can tinker at the absolute frontier of science. Ultimately, sharing or copying DNA or the code of a large language model is trivial. Openness is the default, imitations are endemic, cost curves relentlessly go down, and barriers to access crumble. Exponential capabilities are given to anyone who wants them. This heralds a colossal redistribution of power away from existing centers. Imagine a future where small groups—whether in failing states like Lebanon or in off-grid nomad camps in New Mexico—provide AI-empowered services like credit unions, schools, and health care, services at the heart of the community often reliant on scale or the state. Where the chance to set the terms of society at a micro level becomes irresistible: come to our boutique school and avoid critical race theory forever, or boycott the evil financial system and use our DeFi product. Where any grouping of any kind—ideological, religious, cultural, racial—can self-organize a viable society. Think about setting up your own school. Or hospital or army. It’s such a complex, vast, and difficult project, even the thought of it is tiring. Just gathering the resources, getting necessary permissions and equipment, is a lifelong endeavor. Now consider having an array of assistants who, when asked to create a school, a hospital, or an army, can make it happen in a realistic time frame. ACI and synthetic biology empower Extinction Rebellion as much as the Dow Jones megacorp; the microstate with a charismatic leader as much as a lumbering giant. While some advantages of size may be augmented, they may also be nullified. Ask yourself what happens to already fraying states if every sect, separatist movement, charitable foundation, and social network, every zealot and xenophobe, every populist conspiracy theory, political party, or even mafia, drug cartel, or terrorist group has their shot at state building. The disenfranchised will simply re-enfranchise themselves—on their own terms. Fragmentations could occur all over. What if companies themselves start down a journey of becoming states? Or cities decide to break away and gain more autonomy? What if people spend more time, money, and emotional energy in virtual worlds than the real? What happens to traditional hierarchies when tools of awesome power and expertise are as available to street children as to billionaires? It’s already a remarkable fact that corporate titans spend most of their lives working on software, like Gmail or Excel, accessible to most people on the planet. Extend that, radically, with the democratization of empowerment, when everyone on the planet has unfettered access to the most powerful technologies ever built. — As people increasingly take power into their own hands, I expect inequality’s newest frontier to lie in biology. A fragmented world is one where some jurisdictions are far more permissive about human experimentation than others, where pockets of advanced bio-capabilities and self-modification produce divergent outcomes at the level of DNA, which in turn produce divergent outcomes at the levels of states and microstates. There could then be something like a biohacking personal enhancement arms race. A country desperate for investment or advantage might see potential in becoming an anything-goes biohacker paradise. What does the social contract look like if a select group of “post-humans” engineer themselves to some unreachable intellectual or physical plane? How would this intersect with the dynamic of fragmenting politics, some enclaves trying to leave the whole behind? All of this is still firmly in the realm of speculation. But we are entering a new era where the previously unthinkable is now a distinct possibility. Being blinkered about what’s happening is, in my view, more dangerous than being overly speculative. Governance works by consent; it is a collective fiction resting on the belief of everyone concerned. In this scenario the sovereign state is pressured to the breaking point. The old social contract gets ripped to pieces. Institutions are bypassed, undermined, superseded. Taxation, law enforcement, compliance with norms: all under threat. In this scenario rapid fragmentation of power could accelerate a kind of “turbo-balkanization” that gives nimble and newly capable actors unprecedented freedom to operate. An unbundling of the great consolidations of authority and service embodied by the state begins. Something more like the pre-nation-state world emerges in this scenario, neo-medieval, smaller, more local, and constitutionally diverse, a complex, unstable patchwork of polities. Only this time with hugely powerful technology. When northern Italy was a patchwork of small city-states, it gave us the Renaissance, yet was also a field of constant internecine war and feuding. Renaissance is great; unceasing war with tomorrow’s military technology, not so much. For many people working in or adjacent to technology, these kinds of radical outcomes are not just unwelcome by-products; they’re the goal itself. Hyper-libertarian technologists like the PayPal founder and venture capitalist Peter Thiel celebrate a vision of the state withering away, seeing this as liberation for an overmighty species of business leaders or “sovereign individuals,” as they call themselves. A bonfire of public services, institutions, and norms is cheered on with an explicit vision where technology might “create the space for new modes of dissent and new ways to form communities not bounded by historical nation-states.” The techno-libertarian movement takes Ronald Reagan’s 1981 dictum “Government is the problem” to its logical extreme, seeing government’s many flaws but not its immense benefits, believing that its regulatory and tax functions are destructive rate limiters with few upsides—for them at least. I find it deeply depressing that some of the most powerful and privileged take such a narrow and destructive view, but it adds a further impetus to fragmentation. This is a world where billionaires and latter-day prophets can build and run microstates; where non-state actors from corporations to communes to algorithms begin to overshadow the state from above but also from below. Think again of the stirrup and the profound downstream effects of a single, simple invention. And then think of the scale of invention in the coming wave. Coupled with the existing pressures and fragility, sweeping change on the order of my speculation above doesn’t seem so far-out. What would be stranger is no radical change at all. Suleyman, Mustafa. The Coming Wave (pp. 252-253). Crown. Kindle Edition.

The impact of uncontrolled AI is catastrophe that kills a billion

Mustafa Suleyman, September 2023, The Coming Wave, Suleyman is the co-founder of Deep Mind (AI company sold to Google), former Google AI Director, Co-Founder of Inflection AI (Pi)., page number at end of card

VARIETIES OF CATASTROPHE To see what catastrophic harms we should prepare for, simply extrapolate the bad actor attacks we saw in chapter 10. Here are just a few plausible scenarios. Terrorists mount automatic weapons equipped with facial recognition to an autonomous drone swarm hundreds or thousands strong, each capable of quickly rebalancing from the weapon’s recoil, firing short bursts, and moving on. These drones are unleashed on a major downtown with instructions to kill a specific profile. In busy rush hour these would operate with terrifying efficiency, following an optimized route around the city. In minutes there would be an attack at far greater scale than, say, the 2008 Mumbai attacks, which saw armed terrorists roaming through city landmarks like the central train station. A mass murderer decides to hit a huge political rally with drones, spraying devices, and a bespoke pathogen. Soon attendees become sick, then their families. The speaker, a much-loved and much-loathed political lightning rod, is one of the first victims. In a febrile partisan atmosphere an assault like this ignites violent reprisals around the country and the chaos cascades. Using only natural language instruction, a hostile conspiracist in America disseminates masses of surgically constructed and divisive disinformation. Numerous attempts are made, most of which fail to gain traction. One eventually catches on: a police murder in Chicago. It’s completely fake, but the trouble on the streets, the widespread revulsion, is real. The attackers now have a playbook. By the time the video is verified as a fraud, violent riots with multiple casualties roil around the country, the fires continually stoked by new gusts of disinformation. Or imagine all that happening at the same time. Or not just at one event or in one city, but in hundreds of places. With tools like this it doesn’t take too much to realize that bad actor empowerment opens the door to catastrophe. Today’s AI systems try hard not to tell you how to poison the water supply or build an undetectable bomb. They are not yet capable of defining or pursuing goals on their own. However, as we have seen, both more widely diffused and less safe versions of today’s cutting-edge and more powerful models are coming, fast. Of all the catastrophic risks from the coming wave, AI has received the most coverage. But there are plenty more. Once militaries are fully automated, the barriers to entry for conflict will be far lower. A war might be sparked accidentally for reasons that forever remain unclear, AIs detecting some pattern of behavior or threat and then reacting, instantaneously, with overwhelming force. Suffice to say, the nature of that war could be alien, escalate quickly, and be unsurpassed in destructive consequences. We’ve already come across engineered pandemics and the perils of accidental releases, and glimpsed what happens when millions of self-improvement enthusiasts can experiment with the genetic code of life. An extreme bio-risk event of a less obvious kind, targeting a given portion of the population, say, or sabotaging an ecosystem, cannot be discounted. Imagine activists wanting to stop the cocaine trade inventing a new bug that targets only coca plants as a way to replace aerial fumigation. Or if militant vegans decided to disrupt the entire meat supply chain, with dire anticipated and unanticipated consequences. Either might spiral out of control. We know what a lab leak might look like in the context of amplifying fragility, but if it was not quickly brought under control, it would rank with previous plagues. To put this in context, the omicron variant of COVID infected a quarter of Americans within a hundred days of first being identified. What if we had a pandemic that had, say, a 20 percent mortality rate, but with that kind of transmissibility? Or what if it was a kind of respiratory HIV that would lie incubating for years with no acute symptoms? A novel human transmissible virus with a reproduction rate of, say, 4 (far below chicken pox or measles) and a case fatality rate of 50 percent (far below Ebola or bird flu) could, even accounting for lockdown-style measures, cause more than a billion deaths in a matter of months. What if multiple such pathogens were released at once? This goes far beyond fragility amplification; it would be an unfathomable calamity.

Identity politics diverts attention from correcting inequality and reifies corporate dominance
We need policy action; not virtue signaling

Eve Ottemberg, August 4, 2022, Counterpunch, How the Elites Use Identity Politics to Wage Class War,

Identity politics got a bad name in recent years. This happened because the Democratic party abandoned its base of ordinary working people for Wall Street, and as it did so, made a big fuss about its progressive cred by appointing token women, Blacks, gay and trans people to various high perches. But not surprisingly, working people of all colors and genders concluded the Dems didn’t care about them anymore and either abandoned voting, or masochistically defected to the GOP, which meanwhile started having a field day treating Dem tokenism as proof of the Great Replacement in action.

So everyone got riled up about identity politics, while the one identity never mentioned, and possibly the most important, though assiduously elided in the public sphere, is class identity. Both political parties ignored working people’s economic concerns, to the delight of their mega-corporate donors. The public’s desire for single-payer health care, increased minimum wage, affordable higher education, decent infrastructure, an end to foreign military adventures and other such social benefits couldn’t be ditched fast enough by Dems and a GOP both utterly beholden to Big Money.

The role of identity politics in any sane attempt to fight back against the power of obscene wealth is discussed in Elite Capture, a new book by Olufemi Taiwo. It asks at the outset, what is identity politics? It is, according to Dominic Gustavo at the World Socialist Web Site and quoted by Taiwo, “an essential tool utilized by the bourgeoisie to maintain its class domination over the working class by keeping workers divided along racial and gender lines.” Hard to argue with that. But then alternatively, Taiwo asks, is identity politics “as embodied in critical race theory, a dangerous ideology and threat to the established order that the powers that be aim to stamp out?”

Possibly it is both. But personally, I fail to perceive how this ideology menaces an established order that its identity-activists have unctuously and sedulously wooed. Worse, identity politics weakens worker solidarity, because it never mentions class. And class very much divides the population. There’s even a class war, being waged by a vast clan of financial titans against the rest of us hoi polio. Class consciousness usually leads to class war, but identity politics is a different animal, a chameleon happy on either side of the class divide, and quite noticeably eager to seduce the rulers of swankier realms. It pays to keep a watchful eye on this slippery ideology.

At the same time, however, one might leave the door open and say that identity politics could conceivably threaten the status quo. Conceivably. And it has certainly helped win critical rights, from the female vote to affirmative action to gay marriage and more. But in recent years, overall, in practice it rarely menaces the established order and, as far as anyone can tell, has been pretty much co-opted by our rulers. So overall, the World Socialist Web Site seems to hit closer to the truth. Identity politics splintered the working class, and it’s hard to see how to undo the damage.

What does elite capture of identity politics mean in practice? Well, Taiwo writes, “when elites run the show, the interests of the group get whittled down to what they have in common with those at the top, at best.” So feminists supporting Hillary Clinton might fret about glass ceilings, while female home health aides just worry about making the rent. When these two cohorts join in politics, the concerns of women high up on the career ladder dominate. “At worst,” Taiwo continues, “elites fight for their own narrow interests using the banner of group solidarity.” Again, to use the HRC example, at worst women might find their feminism pressed into support of, say, U.S. imperialism, toppling foreign governments that are too left-wing (Manuel Zelaya’s Honduran presidency) and advocating the murder of leaders disliked by their feminist icons in Washington – think Libya’s Gaddafi.

Or say a young progressive congresswoman like Alexandria Ocasio Cortez goes to Washington, having campaigned on Medicare For All and a Green New Deal. But well, there’s House speaker Nancy Pelosi, and the new congresswoman soon learns that it’s “my way or the highway” with centrist Dems. And so, before too long, she’s voting for billions of dollars for military aid to Ukraine, which also happens to enrich puissant defense contractors. And then maybe she yammers about freedom in Taiwan, as the military industrial complex expects her to do, while subsidized health care and the climate catastrophe slip ever further into the shadows. So what’s left? She stays passionate when it comes to bathrooms and the latest me-too tumult, but really, look at the priorities here. They seem to be that she can continue to flaunt her leftwing bona fides while ignoring other issues that just so happen to be life and death matters. And not just ignoring. In the case of Washington’s potentially globally lethal proxy war in Ukraine, she chooses the side of mass death over screaming for peace negotiations, which was, after all, the sort of thing she was elected for.

Thus goes subordination to the elites. But Taiwo’s new book, at times elliptical, highlights other oddities of identity politics. It makes clear that leftists spend far too much energy virtue signaling and not enough out there, organizing. This distracts from constructive politics. As Taiwo observes, when Flint, Michigan residents noticed that their water smelled and was yellowish brown, “in that moment what they needed was not for their oppression to be ‘celebrated,’ ‘centered’ or narrated in the newest academic parlance…What Flint residents really needed, above all, was to get the lead out of their water.” Celebrating and centering amount to deference politics. While they may have their time and place, clearly that’s not when there’s a crisis. Constructive politics, Taiwo argues, deals with the problem: it gets the lead out of the water.

It’s ridiculous that this even needs to be spelled out. But so many leftists waste so much time with well-intentioned virtue signaling that it’s no wonder so little gets done. And that’s a problem. Because there are mammoth issues out in the world that people need to address, like, to repeat that which cannot be repeated enough, the class war, and why several billion ordinary people are losing that class war.

After all, ours is a world in which “1.6 billion people live in inadequate housing (slum conditions) and 100 million are unhoused, a full third of the human population does not have reliable drinking water.” Taiwo also cites an example from Africa, where “82 million Nigerians…live on less than a dollar a day.” These people’s carbon footprints are negligible. Yet they’re the ones climate change, caused by rich countries, will kill first – with famine due to drought, or drowning in floods, or expiring from heat stroke. The only way to change this is to organize, not to quarrel over pronouns.

So yes, continue with identity politics and virtue signal if you feel so compelled. But try to keep the outcomes of politics in mind. Of course currently raging right-wing persecution of trans people is horrible and should be opposed, and of course trans rights are human rights, but the right to an abortion is a woman’s right, as is a female prisoner’s right not to be raped by her trans-woman cellmate, and if we spend all our time fidgeting and hedging over such matters, whose truth is obvious, and fighting about them, we’re doing the enemy’s work for him. Because as I’ve heard labor leaders holler at union meetings – “The enemy is strong!” Carping at feminists for using the word “woman” just makes the enemy stronger. And so does pretending that the first Black president was anything other than a tool of the billionaire oligarchy. The elites have “a big [slightly diverse] club,” as comedian George Carlin said, “and you ain’t in it!” And you ain’t in it for one main, rock-solid reason: you belong to the wrong class.

Realists oppose war

Blanchford, June 24, 2022, Dr. Kevin Blachford is a lecturer of Defense Studies, King’s College London,

Realism is a diverse approach that is too often turned into a caricature as a war-like and power-hungry paradigm. It has therefore become a cliche to see realism as an approach synonymous with power politics and little else, but there has also been a consistent strand of realist thought which has cautioned against the temptations of power and viewed war and militarism as destructive of liberal-republican values. The realist canon provides a basis for a conservatism that demonstrates a commitment to attacking moralistic foreign policy crusades while urging restraint against universalism and pursuing limited policy goals. The realist critique of imperial adventures corrupting democratic institutions at home can be seen primarily with the resistance to the wars in Vietnam and Iraq. Leading realist thinkers such as Morgenthau, Reinhold Niebuhr, and Arthur Schlesinger Jr. all criticized the Vietnam War. In the post-Cold War era, realists responded to the neoconservative aggression of the Bush Doctrine by forming The Coalition For a Realistic Foreign Policy to counter the arguments of those in favor of American primacy. Crucially, these realist warnings against wars of primacy have been coupled with concerns about the corrosive effect such conflicts can have on democratic institutions. American power in the post-Cold War has often been compared to the imperial republics of Athens and Rome. In making these analogies, realists have warned of the hubris of American military power and the previous fates of republics that suffered from military overstretch. The extent of American power and its relationship to conflicts has therefore always inspired debates within realism that represent a classical republican concern, namely, can a republican polis be commensurate with empire?

Contrary to the caricature of realism as supporting a Machiavellian Prince-like figure, Mearsheimer has warned of the “damage” a militaristic and bloated security state can cause to the “fabric of American society.”  In this sense, Mearsheimer follows the realism of Hans Morgenthau whose later career increasingly turned to discussions about the “national purpose” of the United States and the importance of American morals and values. As a political commentator, Morgenthau consistently warned against an overreliance on military power and the challenge of a bureaucratic military-industrial complex limiting democratic debate. In examining the corruption of democracy and threats to American liberty arising from the Vietnam War, Morgenthau framed his analysis using the example of Rome’s transformation from a republic into an empire. He observed how the concentration of power within Rome in “the hands of one man” resulted in the appearance of a republic, but without the “substance.” Morgenthau was aware of the Federalist authors’ fear of a Caesar-like figure, and he used this concern to critique the centralization of power and lack of presidential accountability during the Vietnam War. Niebuhr and Schlesinger made a similar critique by warning about the growth of an “imperial presidency.” Crucially, wars were seen by these thinkers as having an inherent tendency to be a source of instability and a threat to a free society that rests on a stable and balanced order.

The realist critique against wars of primacy and the threats such wars pose to domestic democratic institutions remains valid today. Liberals have broadly interpreted the invasion of Ukraine as an assault on global democracy and the liberal values of the West. Their prescription is to double down on the expansion of the European Union and NATO and to create a stronger liberal world order, with direct intervention if necessary. Mearsheimer’s provocative claim that the Ukraine crisis may have been caused by Western overreach has led to howls of rage from liberal voices, but this merely reflects the liberal frustration over the West’s limited options to respond to a nuclear-armed Russia. Advocates for no-fly zones, humanitarian corridors, escalation, and direct intervention may attack Mearsheimer for blaming the West, but they also have little response to the realist cautions against the unpredictable and corrupting nature of war. Far from being a theory that supports war, American realists have long seen war as having a degenerative effect on America’s institutions.

Attacks against Mearsheimer are a reflection of the Western experience of the post-Cold War unipolar era that has left it blind to its own hubris. Over two decades of wars of choice against rogue states and pariah regimes have led the West to believe that military force can be used to install a peaceful liberal order and that reactions against constant Western expansion are indicative of irrationality. The West has lived under conditions of American primacy for so long that it lacks a vocabulary to understand the current moment or formulate a realistic response. The sidelining of realist voices is therefore a detriment to meaningful debate which risks downplaying the dangers of the escalatory and unpredictable nature of war.

Realism is an accurate description of the world, not a normative claim; in fact, it is immoral to act out of moral principles that destroy the state

Maitra, Sumantra, 6-18, 22, Maitra is a national-security fellow at the Center for the National Interest and an elected associate fellow at the Royal Historical Society, Hatred for Realism Is an Elite Affliction,

Why do people hate realism so much? It’s a thoughtful question asked by Stephen Walt in Foreign Policy. Walt is a card-carrying foreign policy realist, his work on alliances and his theory of balance of threat influenced the theoretical framework of much such research with major explanatory power. Walt argues that at the time of realism’s triumph, as the theory predicted a conflict in Ukraine, we’re observing a withering attack on the worldview. “Much of this ire has been directed at my colleague and occasional co-author John J. Mearsheimer, based in part on the bizarre claim that his views on the West’s role in helping to cause the Russia-Ukraine crisis somehow make him ‘pro-Putin’ and in part on some serious misreadings of his theory of offensive realism,” Walt writes, adding that “another obvious target is former U.S. Secretary of State Henry Kissinger, whose recent comments urging peace talks with Moscow, a territorial compromise in Ukraine, and the need to avoid a permanent rupture with Russia were seen as a revealing demonstration of realism’s moral bankruptcy.”

Conflict of Nations

Walt concludes that there are several reasons people dislike realism. Primary among them is the idea that realism is pessimistic. “It’s not hard to understand why many people are reluctant to embrace such a pessimistic view of the human condition, especially when it appears to offer no clear escape from it.” Second, realism is “indifferent or hostile” to ethical considerations, being an amoral framework where power is the chief determinant. “There is a grain of truth in this charge, insofar as realism’s theoretical framework does not incorporate values or ideals in any explicit way,” Walt writes, “for realists, noble aims and good intentions are not enough if the resulting choices lead to greater insecurity or human suffering.” Realists do not consider any country exceptional, as their worldview argues that every country, every power will usually act in a certain way, facing a certain set of variables. That also rubs most people the wrong way, as most people tend to think in group dynamic, and any criticism of their own country’s behavior or dissent and nonconformity to the “current thing” or conventional wisdom, are considered unpatriotic.

Finally, Walt writes that realism got major questions right, and naturally got major ideological opponents on the way. Walt writes, “realism tends to be unpopular because its proponents have an annoying tendency to be right … realists were right about NATO enlargement, dual containment in the Persian Gulf, the war in Iraq, Ukraine’s ill-fated decision to give up its nuclear arsenal, the implications of China’s rise, and the folly of nation-building in Afghanistan, to note just a few examples.”

There is a lot of sense in these arguments. Realism, a framework which privileges (to borrow a word used often by the academic Left) power and national interest, is by definition a “reactionary” theory, more at home within political conservatism and hierarchy. It is fundamentally opposed to mass democracy and subsequent volatility of public passions. And while it is sternly in favor of national interest, it also favors compromises and a balance of power based on relative gains. Furthermore, being a reactionary theory, it believes in a cyclical view of history, instead of a steady arc of progress. Therefore, realism falls squarely opposed to any worldview that affirms egalitarianism or progress, whether liberalism, socialism, feminism, or Marxism, all of which are theories stemming from the enlightenment, with an egalitarianism embedded. In turn, all progressive theories, from liberalism to Marxism, are normatively opposed to any political reaction. The opposition to realism (and realists) within the academy is therefore qualitatively similar to all the progressive fanaticism about statue toppling, hierarchy, and canceling classics, a deep aversion to anything vaguely reactionary from patrimony, to authority, to national borders, an opposition which isn’t just academic or theoretical, but ideological. To borrow Peter Hitchens’ famous words, a rage by “tiny figures scuttling through cavernous halls built for much greater men.”

Realism is, of course, amoral, but not cruel or unethical. In fact, the instinct for compromise and balance of power comes from a higher ethical consideration. As Hans Morgenthau wrote,

Realism maintains that universal moral principles cannot be applied to the actions of states in their abstract universal formulation, but that they must be filtered through the concrete circumstances of time and place. The individual may say for himself: “Fiat justitia, pereat mundus (Let justice be done, even if the world perish),” but the state has no right to say so in the name of those who are in its care. Both individual and state must judge political action by universal moral principles, such as that of liberty. Yet while the individual has a moral right to sacrifice himself in defense of such a moral principle, the state has no right to let its moral disapprobation of the infringement of liberty get in the way of successful political action, itself inspired by the moral principle of national survival. There can be no political morality without prudence; that is, without consideration of the political consequences of seemingly moral action.

While realism isn’t blameless, the record of realism isn’t comparable to the democracy crusades of the last thirty years.

But to return to the original question, one must add that the framing of the question itself is flawed. The people don’t hate realism. In fact, public opinion is usually fundamentally reactionary, if channeled rightly. The majority favors national borders and opposes foreign misadventures. What could be more reactionary than that in our time? Public opinion can be volatile and appeals to emotion succeed in the short term. But overall, the public understands their interests if clearly communicated with. Consider the recent drop in support for a No-Fly Zone (NFZ) over Ukraine, the moment it was explained what an NFZ would actually entail. The hatred for realism (and any political reaction) is an elite progressive affliction, aided by an ideological academy.  What realists sometimes refuse to accept is that they are at a structural disadvantage. This isn’t the time of Metternich, nor is it the time of Yalta, or even Kissinger’s secret China visit. Realism isn’t a worldview that can succeed automatically in the age of social media, NGOs, hyper-democracy, and an activist academy and internationalist news media. To succeed in that scenario, realism and realists will need to use the inherent reactionary public instinct to their advantage, and communicate in ways that might at times go against electoral propriety, and sound like an uncouth New York tycoon. Whether it is a compromise academic realists are willing to entertain, to regain a hand in policy setting, is a key question.

Ukraine proves realism is true and international cooperation fails to prevent conflict

Poast, 6-15, 22, PAUL POAST is Associate Professor of Political Science at the University of Chicago and a Nonresident Fellow at the Chicago Council on Global Affairs,

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Among the collateral damage of the war in Ukraine is a school of thought: realism. This intellectual tradition insists that the pursuit of national interests trumps higher ideals, such as the commitment to open trade, the sanctity of international law, and the virtues of democracy. Realists focus on how states, particularly major powers, seek to survive and retain influence in world politics. As such, realism appeared well suited for explaining the imperatives and calculations behind the Russian invasion. Instead, it found itself caught in the crossfire. After realist arguments seemed to excuse the Kremlin’s actions, critics in Europe and North America have variously called prominent individuals associated with realism—and realism itself as a doctrine—irrelevant, callous, and even morally reprehensible.

The political scientist John Mearsheimer drew much of the opprobrium for his claims about the origins of the war in Ukraine. An unabashed advocate of realism, Mearsheimer has insisted that the United States and its allies are at fault for encouraging NATO and EU expansion into what the Kremlin sees as its sphere of influence, thereby threatening Russia and provoking Russian aggression. Criticism of Mearsheimer mounted after the Russian Foreign Ministry itself promoted his ideas in the wake of the invasion. The urgings of another realist, former U.S. Secretary of State Henry Kissinger, exhorting Ukraine to give up territory in order to appease Putin have also led to a barrage of attacks on the tenets of realism.

But realism’s critics should not throw out the baby with the bath water. The invective directed at realism misses an important distinction: realism is both an analytical school of thought and a policy position. The errors of the latter don’t obviate the utility of the former. In explaining the war in Ukraine, realism, like any theoretical framework, is neither good nor bad. But even when its prescriptions can seem unsound, it retains value as a prism through which analysts can understand the motivations and actions of states in an inevitably complex world.

From the 1960s to the 1990s, the field of international relations was riven by the so-called paradigm wars. Scholars feuded over the best way to think about—and how to study—international politics. These debates were nuanced, but they essentially boiled down to a clash between those who held a realist view of international politics and those who did not.

Realism comes in many hues. Some realist approaches emphasize the importance of individual leaders, others stress the role of domestic institutions, and still others focus squarely on the distribution of power among countries. There is classical realism (human nature compels states to pursue security), structural realism (the lack of a world government compels states to pursue security), and neoclassical realism (a combination of internal and external factors compels states to pursue security). These approaches have their own subvariants. For instance, structural realists are divided between a defensive camp (states seek security by preventing the hegemony of any single power) and an offensive camp (states must seek hegemony to achieve security). Some realists would disavow the label altogether: the work of the British historian E. H. Carr is clearly realist in its leanings, but he would never have identified himself as such.

Rather than being a strictly coherent theory, realism has always been defined not by what it prescribes but by what it deems impossible. It is the school of no hope, the curmudgeon of international relations thought. The first work of modern realist thought and the precursor to Mearsheimer’s own work was The European Anarchy, a short book written by the British political scientist G. Lowes Dickinson in 1916. It emphasized that states, out of fear, will seek to dominate and, indeed, gain supremacy over others. During the 1920s and 1930s, realists (although not yet referred to as such) pointed to the futility of arms control and disarmament treaties.

Realism is the school of no hope, the curmudgeon of international relations thought.

In 1942, the American scholar Merze Tate published The Disarmament Illusion, a book that argued that states will inevitably seek to retain their arms and whose ideas fit well with the claims made by the later realists Hans Morgenthau and Kenneth Waltz. In the late 1940s and 1950s, Kissinger and Morgenthau pointed to the impracticality of hoping for a single world government or even peaceful coexistence among countries. In the 1970s and 1980s, realists were primarily identified (either by others or by themselves) as those who derided the hope that international regimes, such as the United Nations, could solve global problems. By the 1990s, realists were criticizing the expectation that international institutions and the spread of democracy would usher in a golden age of global peace and prosperity troubled only by the occasional rogue state.

Realism fared quite well compared with an alternative theory that gained prominence in the 1990s and continues to receive attention in policy circles: the notion that geopolitics would become a “clash of civilizations,” as advanced by the American political scientist Samuel Huntington. Like Mearsheimer’s core realist work, Huntington’s thesis was written in the wake of the Cold War, as analysts and scholars sought to anticipate what the end of superpower bipolarity would mean for the world. While Mearsheimer focused on the return of great-power politics, Huntington claimed that it would be cultural, largely religious, differences that would drive the conflicts of the future. Huntington was, in effect, rebutting the work of Mearsheimer. In contrast to the statist emphasis of realism, Huntington’s culture-based theory predicted peaceful relations between Ukraine and Russia, countries that in his view belonged to the same overarching civilization. That prediction has not aged well.

What ultimately unifies the branches of realism is the view that states bristling with arms are an inescapable fact of life and that international cooperation is not just difficult but fundamentally futile. In essence, it is foolish to hope that cooperation will provide lasting solutions to the intractable reality of conflict and competition as countries pursue their own interests.

That is the framework that characterizes realist thought, including the work of Mearsheimer. Realism sees international politics as a tragic stage in which the persistence, if not the prevalence, of war means that governments must focus on guaranteeing national security, even at the expense of liberties and prosperity. Tate captured this sentiment well in The Disarmament Illusion: “Dissatisfied powers may not actually want war, may even dread it, and may be quite as unwilling to run the risk of an appeal to arms as the satisfied states; but in spite of this, they will not voluntarily shut off all possibility of obtaining a state of things which will be to them more acceptable than the present.”

Realism as a theory gains power by highlighting the mechanisms that constrain human agency, be they the innate nature of humans (as emphasized by Morgenthau) or the distribution of global power (the focus of Waltz). To draw an analogy, realism’s role is to continually point to the gravity that undercuts human attempts to fly. Realism can be used to explain the foreign policy choices of certain countries or why an event, such as a war, occurred. As a theory, realism can be very effective in explaining relations among states. But it becomes something different when it journeys from the realm of description to that of prescription. When brought into policy, realist theory becomes realpolitik: the position that states should balance against their adversaries and seek relative gains rather than accept supranational and institutional constraints on their freedom of action in international affairs.

The distinction between realism as theory and as policy appears in the historical debate over nuclear proliferation. In the early 1980s, Waltz argued that the spread of nuclear weapons would lead to greater peace. He cut against the conventional wisdom that insisted that only limiting the spread of these weapons would ensure a safer world (the logic behind the creation of the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty in 1970). His claim was subsequently debated by those who, to put it simply, pointed out that the proliferation of nuclear weapons would make the world more dangerous.

In making his arguments, Waltz took a descriptive and theoretically informed observation (the likelihood of war decreases as deterrent and defensive capabilities increase), applied this to nuclear weapons (nuclear weapons dramatically improve a country’s deterrent and defensive capabilities), and then deduced a recommendation for how policymakers should view the spread of nuclear weapons: that more should be welcomed, not feared.

It is in this last step that Waltz goes from describing international politics (here is why states seek nuclear weapons) to prescribing international politics (here is why states should seek nuclear weapons). One is a description, the other is a justification. They are both valid intellectual enterprises, but they should not be confused. A particular understanding of world events does not inevitably lead to a particular policy response. In this case, the same factors that led Waltz to justify the spread of nuclear weapons could have led him to offer the opposite prescription, in that a state’s security goals could be achieved without them (for instance, by sheltering under the nuclear umbrella of a major power). Realist theory helps describe the world, but such prescriptions reflect the interpretations of individuals, not the overarching theory itself.

Realism as policy also manifests itself in debates over restraint in U.S. foreign policy. Proponents of U.S. restraint aim to counter liberal internationalism, the view that the United States must be involved, militarily if necessary, in foreign arenas for the sake of promoting and maintaining a rules-based international order. By contrast, restraint calls for the United States to reduce its global footprint and avoid getting involved in issues that are marginal to U.S. national interests. As with the debate over nuclear proliferation, realism’s role in debates on how the United States should behave in international affairs must not be confused with using realism to describe U.S. foreign policy. Realism can explain why the United States finds itself in a particular geopolitical situation, but it doesn’t offer an obvious answer about how the United States should behave in that situation.


The debate regarding Ukraine has long featured realist voices. In 1993, Mearsheimer wrote in Foreign Affairs that Kyiv should retain the stockpile of nuclear weapons it inherited after the collapse of the Soviet Union because Moscow might one day seek to reconquer Ukraine. Some 20 years later, Mearsheimer wrote of how NATO enlargement and the promise of bringing Ukraine into the alliance provoked Russian aggression, namely the seizing of the Crimean Peninsula in 2014. Both pieces were focused on policy prescription: rather than simply describing what Russia, Ukraine, the United States, the European Union, and NATO were doing, they focused on what they should do.

Although one can disagree with those arguments, it is worth pointing out that they reflect realism as policy, not realism as theory. Realism as theory would have limited itself to explaining why the crisis is happening, perhaps focusing on how the desire of major powers to dominate their region means that Russia would eventually seek to militarily coerce (or even invade) its neighbors, or that conditions were conducive to a former empire seeking to reestablish itself, or that in their search for security, states can act in ways that can be perceived incorrectly as being aggressive.

None of this is to say that realism or any one theory offers the best explanation for the war in Ukraine. Alternative explanations abound, including the power of nationalism, the differences in regime types, and the traits (one might say, quirks) of particular leaders. But realism offers a useful frame for understanding this war’s onset. Indeed, the enduring power of realism is its ability to offer a clear baseline for coming to grips with why the world is and will likely remain a world full of pain and despair.

Realism immoral – it does not address evil and it would have not prevented Putin’s assault on the Ukraine

Christopher Booth, Moscow Correspondent, 4-8, 22, The Spectator, Russia ‘realists’ have very little to say about evil,

‘Every way of a man is right in his own eyes’, the Book of Proverbs says: it makes us feel good to know we’re on the side of the angels. The corollary is that other men must be in the wrong, and therefore blameworthy, and this shores up our self-regard still further. Of course, taken to extremes, the outcome is full-blown narcissism. But in certain schools of international relations, there’s a kind of especially vigorous anti-narcissism in fashion: the idea that when it comes to the sins of the world, ‘we’ in the west are almost always the guilty party (excepting those enlightened enough to perceive this truth). Ukraine is the latest conflict where self-flagellants flex a version of the argument. In short, were it not for the incautious expansion of Nato, and the half-promises made to Kyiv, none of this horror would have happened. Professor John Mearsheimer of the University of Chicago is a vocal proponent of the view, and his commentaries have notched up hundreds of thousands of views on YouTube during the war. That’s a lot of likes for an academic. So he is clearly tapping into something some people feel. ‘We have led the Ukrainians down the primrose path and encouraged them to join Nato’ he declares. At the same time, ‘we took a stick and we poked the bear in the eye’ when it comes to Russia. It is again, you see, all about ‘us’. Mearsheimer is an articulate and well-regarded thinker, and has published much learned material to great acclaim. By contrast, I’m merely a former Moscow correspondent. But having spent a decade in Russia between 1988 and 2005, and witnessed the emergence and flourishing of Putin’s way of running the country, I can’t help finding Mearsheimer’s theory of ‘offensive realism’ a poor guide to what is taking place. And in some ways, it just strikes me as plain offensive. There are lots of reasons why. Starting with the glaring iniquity that such a worldview denies Ukrainians the opportunity to choose their future. They are either obliged to accept Moscow’s ‘right’ to call the shots; or they’re painted as dumb puppets of western manipulation. The toppling of the pro-Russian government in Kyiv in 2014, which so upset the Kremlin, is described by thinkers like Mearsheimer as a ‘coup’. The choice of word is telling, because it smuggles in a value judgment. Many of my Ukrainian friends, however, would term the events a popular uprising. Not one in which they were gulled by the CIA and dark forces, but one in which they eagerly seized the hope to make a country better than the one Putin was willing to begrudge them. That may be described as ‘unrealistic’, but it at least permits Ukrainians a role in their affairs. Second, even if Nato were relevant to the choice of war by Putin, there are plenty of other causes, apart from the man’s taste for risk and violence, that could also account for the invasion. Access to natural resources and Ukraine’s littoral hydrocarbon deposits would be a strong one. Another might be the Tsar’s go-to solution for troubles at home: more than a century ago, Russian interior minister Vyacheslav von Plehve’s explanation for going to war with Japan was ‘You don’t know Russia’s internal situation. To avert a revolution, we need a small victorious war.’ Putin has greater reason to fear being overthrown at home for rampant corruption and immiseration than some far-off and thoroughly implausible Ukrainian membership of Nato. But of course, it suits him fine if analysts are keen to make it the ‘line in the sand’ which ‘we’ crossed to trigger the nightmare. Another shortcoming of the theory is that it supposes people like Putin and his entourage are motivated by statesmanlike reason. But while the Russian defence staff may have planned the war through a prism of rationality – in the event, that prism turned out to be a drastically flawed one – their commander-in-chief has demonstrated spitting anger and a bloody messianism as high among his motivations for conflict. The televised address to the Russian nation on the eve of war seemed that of a man possessed: ‘One can say with good reason and confidence that the whole so-called western bloc formed by the United States in its own image and likeness is, in its entirety, an “empire of lies,”’ Putin fumed. His public performances suggest a man seated far from sober realism as he sits with increasingly rare guests at that long, long Kremlin table. Keep in mind, when he talks about bringing ethnic Russians, or merely Russian speakers, back into the fold of his country, he means every neo-fascist word of what he says. More than that, the President of Russia habitually dives deep into the profane language of a lowlife gangster. He’s comfortable referring to the rape of women and evoking sadistic violence to illustrate what he has in mind if he takes a shine to the metaphor. ‘Sorry, my beautiful – like it or not, you’re just gonna have to take it,’ is a recent coinage. In the Russian idiom it also rhymes, for greater effect. Some might say he’s just being clever, playing to the home audience. But it’s also possible that Putin delights in using such phrases because of what they make him feel. A former British ambassador to Moscow put it to me like this: ‘The old Putin had a kind of dark wit when he spoke. He now comes across as unhinged.’ Whether or not, it’s a far cry from the lexicon of a cool-headed statesman. But there are other reasons why the ‘offensive realism’ model is morally slimy. For one thing, it doesn’t account for Putin’s choice of mediaeval tactics. You can take the idea of the west’s original guilt, if you really have to believe in it, only so far. Because it was the Russian president’s choice, not ‘ours’, to enthusiastically reduce Mariupol to rubble and give carte blanche to his troops to maraud across Ukraine, how and where they pleased. The counter-argument might perhaps be that thanks to western arms supplies and the boost to Ukraine’s defence capability, Russian generals were left no choice but to render cities to dust and send in the armed rapists. But that stretches belief. And after Bucha, it is morally grotesque to expect ‘us’ to shoulder the blame for wanton murder. (Russian troops in this regard have plenty of form – ask anyone brave enough to speak up in Grozny today about what they went through at the hands of ‘kontraktniki’, contract soldiers, and the secret policemen when Putin was just coming of age politically.) Last, the ‘realists’ have very little to say about evil. In stressing the role of purported geopolitical force majeure, and western guilt in the matter, they struggle to find a place for old-fashioned ideas like greed, vainglory and the capacity of some to take pleasure in what is now called ‘transgressive behaviour’ and what used to be known as sin. Those motivations, and no doubt many more, are characteristic of despots. They seem a particularly close fit with all we know of Putin: his thirst for wealth, his need to be feared if not loved, and his ruthless willingness to achieve such things by killing. In theorising largely in matters of abstract strategy, the realists have no explanation for the grisly calculus of evil men. In turn, it tends to absolve these appalling characters of responsibility, even of moral capacity. That is more wrong today than ever, given that we cannot claim not to know, or close our eyes to what we have seen, and that it would sign off on a dreadful blank cheque to the future.

Realism accepts dominance and ignores morality

Adam Tooze, 6-8., 22, John Mearsheimer and the dark origins of realism: Rage aimed at the eminent international relations scholar reflects liberal frustration over the West’s limited power to prevent Russia’s war in Ukraine.

“Why is Ukraine the West’s fault?” This is the provocative title of a talk by Professor John Mearsheimer – a famous exponent of international relations (IR) realism – given at an alumni gathering of the University of Chicago in 2015. Since it was first posted on YouTube, it has been viewed more than 18 million times. In 2022 Mearsheimer is still delivering his message, most explosively on 1 March in an ill-advised down-the-telephone interview to the New Yorker. Against the backdrop of the Russian invasion of Ukraine, Mearsheimer’s provocation is causing outrage. And it raises the question: what is the realism that Mearsheimer claims to espouse? On the one hand, Mearsheimer is disarmingly even-handed. The push for Nato expansion in 2008 to include Georgia and Ukraine was a disastrous mistake. The overthrow of the Moscow-backed Viktor Yanukovych regime in 2014, a revolution supported by the West, antagonised Russia further. The West should accept responsibility for having created a dangerous situation by extending an anti-Soviet alliance into what is left of Russia’s sphere of influence. And then comes the inflammatory conclusion: Putin’s violent pushback should not come as a surprise. In 2015, Mearsheimer’s stance was already controversial. Today, in light of Putin’s flagrant breach of international law, it has taken on a new life. On 28 February, when the Russian foreign ministry tweeted its endorsement of Mearsheimer’s view, it was pounced on by Anne Applebaum, the noted historian and campaigner for post-Soviet eastern European liberalism. “And there it is,” Applebaum gloated, with reference to the foreign ministry’s tweet, “now wondering if the Russians didn’t actually get their narrative from Mearsheimer et al. Moscow needed to say West was responsible for Russian invasions (Chechnya, Georgia, Syria, Ukraine), and not their own greed and imperialism. American academics provided the narrative.” Over the days that followed, Appelbaum’s denunciation attracted a flurry of support, and students at the University of Chicago launched a menacing open letter demanding to know whether Mearsheimer was on the Russian payroll. The scandal entails Mearsheimer’s refusal to see Putin’s aggression as anything other than the behaviour of a great power at bay. Unlike Applebaum, Mearsheimer has little at stake in either Russian or Ukrainian history. What he is doing is simply elucidating the implications of his favourite IR theory, known as “offensive” or “great power” realism. Russia is a great power. Great powers, the theory goes, guard their security through spheres of interest. The US does so too, in the form of the Monroe doctrine and more recently in the Carter doctrine, which extends America’s interests to the Persian Gulf. If necessary, those zones are defended with force, and anyone who fails to recognise and respect this fails to grasp the violent logic of international relations. As for Applebaum’s allegation – for which she offered no evidence – Mearsheimer would presumably shrug. After all, Applebaum isn’t claiming that Mearsheimer and his ilk – “American academics” – gave the Russians the idea. Putin doesn’t need American professors to convince him that Russia is a great power. Great powers use fair means and foul. Instrumentalising arguments from foreign academics is the least of their sins. In so far as ideas can actually influence international relations, given the determinative force that Mearsheimer accords to geography, economics and military power, the most that one can hope for is to bring decision-makers and the general public to recognise each other’s interests and spheres of influence and pull back from unnecessary confrontation. What realism means in this context is clarity about the underlying structure and a resigned acceptance of its logic. In the 2000s, it was this same stance that motivated Mearsheimer to speak out against what he thought was the undue influence of the Israel lobby over US policy. That influence muddied American policymakers’ understanding of their country’s true interests in the Middle East. In the current situation, what Mearsheimer demands is that we rid ourselves of the idea that Nato’s expansion to the East is either an irresistible trend of history or a crusade we must fight for. The implications of Mearsheimer’s view for Ukrainian sovereignty are, undeniably, grim. It will forever be curtailed by the fate of being within Russia’s sphere of influence. But as unappetising as this is, if one fails to recognise the facts of Russian power and interest, the outcome will be even worse. Ukraine risks being battered to pieces. Mearsheimer does not deny Russian aggression, he simply takes it as a given. The entire force of his polemic is directed at the EU and Nato for leading Ukraine “down the primrose path”. Given the West’s talk about eventual Nato membership and association agreements with the EU, how were politicians in Ukraine to resist the appeal of eventual inclusion? But if they succumb to that temptation they put themselves at risk of Russia’s wrath. If you ask Mearsheimer about the historical source for his lucid but dark view of the world, he will most likely tell you that it is an ancient wisdom that originates in the writings of the Greek historian Thucydides. But that is an invented tradition assembled ex-post by the discipline of IR as it established itself at American universities in the Cold War era. As Matthew Specter’s fascinating new history The Atlantic Realists (2022) shows us, a more plausible line of descent derives not from the ancients, or even from the realpolitik of the age of Bismarck, which operated within the relatively settled terrain of the 19th-century balance of power, but instead the age of imperialism. It was in the late 19th century, with the closing of the global frontier and the fashion for social Darwinism, that a vision of the world first crystallised in which over-mighty powers jostled for space on a limited planet. For Specter, a line runs straight from the expansive naval theorists and geographers of the pre-1914 period, such as Friedrich Ratzel and Alfred Mahan, to the German geopoliticians of the interwar period – notably Karl Haushofer and Carl Schmitt – and from there to the classic texts of American realism, notably the writing of Hans Morgenthau. Like Mearsheimer, Carl Schmitt, the Nazi lawyer and theorist of Grossraum, envisioned a world order based on dividing the planet between large spatial blocs, each dominated by a major power. A characteristic feature of this body of thought is its moral relativism. This relativism is not founded in philosophy so much as the pluralism of spheres of power. Like Mearsheimer, Haushofer and Schmitt envisioned Germany’s Grossraum as an equivalent to the British Empire and America’s Monroe doctrine. The same point was made by Japanese advocates of the Greater Asian Coprosperity Sphere in the late 1930s. Part of the reason why this history is obscure is that it has always been scandalous to liberals. The frank assertion of the claims of power sits poorly with an ideal of universal rights. In the Second World War, German geopoliticians like Haushofer found themselves anathematised by the Allied press and put in the dock at Nuremberg. The condemnation was confusing to them, because they openly acknowledged how much they owed to the example of America’s own expansion in the 19th century. To overcome this embarrassment, as Specter shows in a series of head-turning chapters, realism in the US had to invent a new history for itself which positioned it as a more abstract theory, detached from its imperialists roots. Specter is a Germanist. His previous book was an intellectual biography of the Frankfurt School philosopher Jürgen Habermas. Especially for an American audience, linking the kind of IR realism that is taught in American universities to dark roots in the imperialist era is a considerable intellectual coup. But it comes at the price of a narrowing of historical vision. If Mearsheimer is a typical exponent of great power realism, then his interests are defined less by the questions of late 19th-century imperialism than by the question of why the world went to war in 1914. The intellectual genealogy to which he belongs descends above all from the aftermath of the First World War and the anguished, multinational effort to make sense of what went wrong in the July Crisis. In that debate, the German-American exchange that Specter focuses on, was part of a wider argument that included figures like the historian EH Carr and philosopher Goldsworthy Lowes Dickinson in Britain, and left-wing historians of international relations like Charles Beard in the United States. There is still today an affinity between realists like Mearsheimer, and the foreign policy left, who appreciate his unflinching articulation of the logic of power.