Discover more from The Detox with Neil Abrams
On I.R. and Terrible Ukraine Takes: A Response to My Critics
Qualifying my latest missive, to a point
The last edition of The Detox triggered quite a reaction. Many of the criticisms were reasonable. A few weren’t. And others were the result of certain misconceptions about what I was saying, something for which I take full responsibility.
The essay was entitled “Dear Illustrious Professors of International Relations: STOP. TALKING. ABOUT. UKRAINE.” It was meant as a rebuke to a group of famous academics who routinely take to the pages of highly-visible publications to argue that the West should force Ukraine and Russia into a land-for-peace deal.
Thanks for reading The Detox with Neil Abrams! Subscribe for free to receive new posts and support my work.
My main gripe with these writers is that they never, ever consider the most elementary objections to their proposals: Namely, that a negotiated settlement will give way not to “peace” but rather horrendous atrocities against any Ukrainians who end up trapped inside an expanded Russian state.
There are other problems I could have mentioned but which, in the interest of brevity, I chose not to, the main one being that past experience has rendered Russia’s word completely worthless when it comes to fulfilling its end of any “peace” agreement.
Debating people who aren’t deranged conspiracy theorists is…nice, actually
Before moving on, I want to note how refreshing it was to engage with serious people, as opposed to the “Ukraine did Bucha to themselves” contingent with whom I normally interact. I genuinely appreciated the thoughtful pushback I received, especially from academic-IR folks.
I’ll begin with what I regard as an unreasonable critique. Some readers interpreted my essay as an attempt at academic gatekeeping against International Relations (IR) on behalf of Area Studies or Comparative Politics.
To be clear, I couldn’t care less about these intra-academic turf wars even in normal circumstances, much less during a war of extermination against a country I care deeply about.
My one and only concern is the millions of lives being jeopardized, in my view, by some very prominent pundits and their thoughtless musings on the need for “peace.”
Others interpreted my post as an attack on the entire field of IR, or, at the very least, IR-realism. I can see why many readers came away with that impression. But it’s not what I intended. I was actually criticizing a select group of notable authorities in the field (hence my inclusion of the qualifier “illustrious” in the title). While their influence is immense, they are few in number.
In fact, it was wrong to single out IR at all. As others pointed out, one finds plenty of these awful takes outside of the discipline.
In short, I should have been much more explicit about who I was criticizing and who I was not.
In truth, I believe the field of IR has a lot to bring to the table in understanding this war. For one thing, there are plenty of smart, knowledgeable IR specialists who provide regular commentary on the subject. Two of the best examples that come to mind are Paul Poast of the University of Chicago and Branislav Slantchev of the University of California, San Diego.
The works of numerous IR theorists are also helpful in framing the war. For instance, in How Wars End (Princeton, 2009), Dan Reiter, a professor at Emory, offers a framework to explain why some wars end in negotiated settlements and others in the total victory of one side. He finds peace settlements are less likely when a given belligerent (1) perceives the other as having high resolve and (2) doesn’t see the enemy as a trustworthy negotiating partner due to its past behavior. In these circumstances, one or both sides is likely to opt for total victory over negotiations even if the costs of doing so are very high.
Reiter’s study, I think, explains much about this war and holds important implications for the (in)feasibility of a negotiated peace.
Another scholar whose research is instructive is…are you sitting down?...John J. Mearsheimer. Long before he slipped into a prolonged hallucinatory trance about Russia and its supposedly benign foreign policy aims, Mearsheimer wrote a book entitled The Tragedy of Great Power Politics (Norton, 2001). In it, he advanced a theory called Offensive Realism. Offensive Realism conceives of a world where states seek to dominate their neighbors and avoid getting dominated by them.
As Paul Poast discusses in one of his many informative Twitter threads, Mearsheimer’s theory can account for Russia’s post-Soviet quest to reestablish its empire. It likewise explains the vigorous pursuit of NATO membership by Russia’s former imperial subjects. (That said, Offensive Realism does have serious limits in this regard, as Jochen Kleinschmidt, a professor at Universidad del Rosario in Colombia, has shown.)
So, yes, the field of IR is vast and contains much of value for understanding the war. My contempt is reserved for a small group of commentators both within and beyond the field. I should have made that clear. Regretfully, I did not.
Moving on, many took issue with my hostile tone. The individuals I’m attacking are respectable academics, after all, and are generally acting in good faith. Being an asshole is not going to help.
Fair enough. I was writing from a place of immense anger and frustration. These people hold real influence in Western policy circles and yet continue to advance proposals which, in my opinion, are ignorant and harmful. But I do concede my tone was counterproductive.
Writing in Foreign Affairs? Address basic counterarguments
Others have faulted me for the following statement, which appeared not in the essay itself but in the Twitter thread introducing the essay:
Considering the stakes, there is one and only one morally-defensible stance one can take: Give Ukraine what it needs to win, and give it to them now. If you’re not prepared to acknowledge this basic truth, do yourself and the world a favor and keep your mouth shut.
It is unfair, some argued, to posit one and only one position that is morally-justified while casting all other points of view as beyond the pale of acceptable debate. And I’ll admit: The statement I made in that tweet was extreme and not the kind I have a habit of making. I acknowledge it was unreasonable to demand that others either accept the truth as I see it or shut up.
But here’s where I do stand: If you’re arguing in a public forum that the West should force Ukraine to make territorial concessions, you have a responsibility to grapple with some very obvious objections. None of the authors I referenced did so. That’s inexcusable, considering the stakes.
The specific objections are as follows:
Does Russia’s previous record not suggest that a territorial partition would subject hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of Ukrainians to large-scale crimes against humanity even after the fighting ended?
Being that Russia has violated its numerous past pledges to respect Ukraine’s sovereignty and also failed to comply with the 2014-15 Minsk accords, whose very existence was occasioned by such transgressions, can we reasonably expect Moscow to abide by a new peace deal?
Would it be just or practical for the West to try and compel Ukraine to agree to territorial partition when Ukrainians themselves overwhelmingly reject the idea?
Anyone who argues in favor of a coerced-peace has a duty to address these points. The people I criticized did not.
But suppose they had. What would the prescriptions of a Charles A. Kupchan or Richard N. Haass look like if they were actually informed by an acknowledgement of Russia’s past conduct? To my mind, they would have to resemble the following:
“Yes, a land-for-peace deal would consign Ukrainians to mass-killings, ethnic cleansing, rape, cultural erasure, and savage repression. But the benefits still outweigh the costs.”
“Sure, going by its past record, Russia will almost certainly trash any new agreement and eventually launch another invasion. Still, an agreement would be worthwhile.”
“While it’s true that Ukrainians almost uniformly oppose a land-for-peace deal, the West should force them to sign one anyway.”
You can argue any of these points from the perspective of America’s national interests—not that I’d agree if you did, but it can be done. But to assert their validity from a moral standpoint? I don’t think it’s possible. That said, you are free to try and make the case.
Worried about nuclear war? A “peace deal” is not the answer.
There’s one argument in favor of a forced-peace which I have not yet addressed: The risk that continued war will lead to armed confrontation and possibly nuclear conflict between Russia and the West.
To be sure, much of the discussion on this issue amounts to uninformed hysteria. But the core concern is valid—even if, in my view exaggerated. There are two claims one can make in this regard, and I’ll consider each in turn.
First, there is a possibility that the war will escalate due to unintentional actions by either side, such as an errant Russian missile hitting a NATO country. That risk, while certainly not zero, is overstated. These sorts of mistakes have happened repeatedly over the past 70-odd years, including during the present conflict. As Slantchev has explained, policymakers on both sides have responded to such incidents not by rushing headlong into war but rather by seeking out opportunities to deescalate. Indeed, it is difficult to imagine Putin reacting to a stray NATO missile by saying “screw it, let’s nuke the West.”
But unintentional escalation is not the only risk. There is also the possibility that a cornered Putin, back-against-the-wall, will decide to launch a nuclear attack on Ukraine or, worse, a NATO member state. Either scenario would likely trigger Western military intervention.
Again, the risk is probably far lower than many presume—not least since it would achieve the opposite of the intended result. Far from causing Ukraine or the West to back down, a nuclear strike would only increase the resolve of both to see Russia’s defeat through to the bitter end. It would be the height of irrationality for Putin to even consider the option.
Alas, Putin is not entirely rational. If he were, he would not have invaded Ukraine in the first place. So we cannot discount the possibility that he would order a nuclear attack. This is one issue on which proponents of a forced-peace have a point.
But consider the implications of trying to stave off a Russian nuclear strike by coercing Ukraine into a peace-deal. Rewarding nuclear blackmail would signal to other potential aggressor states that they may as well do the same to their own neighbors. Not only that, it is very likely that Russia will eventually violate any peace agreement and resume its invasion, thus putting us right back where we started.
Another obstacle to a deal, and one I don’t see mentioned often enough, is that the Ukrainian government might not even be capable of abiding by its terms. Sure, Zelensky can go ahead and sign one. But the majority of Ukrainian society would almost certainly reject it. Zelensky would lose power to someone intent on tearing up the agreement. Worse, we’d quite possibly see the rise of a pro-Ukrainian insurgency that refuses to lay down its arms against Russia.
(And before some tankie seizes on the last statement as an admission that the Ukrainian state is feckless and beholden to “Nazis,” no, that is not what I’m saying. I’m merely acknowledging the reality that few states, however strong, are capable of pushing through measures that engender massive, society-wide resistance. Think what would happen if the U.S. government tried to force everyone to marry their sibling. Could it pull this off, even with all the coercive resources at its disposal? No, it could not.)
So, while understandable, concerns about potential escalation, nuclear or otherwise, are exaggerated. What’s more, it is doubtful a peace deal would even solve the problem.
We now have yet another objection with which any proposal for a forced-peace must contend:
“Sure, giving into Putin’s nuclear blackmail will likely trigger a cascade of similar threats around the globe and probably won’t even bring about a stable peace in Ukraine. Still, we should try it anyway.”
Is anyone prepared to make that argument? If so, knock yourself out. But I’m not holding my breath.
Thanks for reading The Detox with Neil Abrams! Subscribe for free to receive new posts and support my work.