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Look Close -- Putin Is a Pragmatic Realist

Putin's beliefs have not conformed to what the Western politicians and opinion leaders think they should have been. But the error is their own, not Putin's. They are not the realists that they think they are, because projecting one's wishful thinking onto "the Other" is not pragmatic realism. It is idealism.

The post-Cold War era didn't end with the Russian invasion of Crimea. It ended a decade ago. It is only now that Western politicians and opinion leaders have lost the possibility of continuing to deceive themselves.

This is not the first time that this story has repeated itself. It goes at least as far back as U.S. diplomacy after World War One, when President Woodrow Wilson sought to establish the League of Nations and "make the world safe for democracy." That did not work out as planned, because the world at large did not conform to Wilson's beliefs about what their beliefs should be.

In the same say, Putin's beliefs have not conformed to what the Western politicians and opinion leaders think they should have been. But the error is their own, not Putin's. They are not the realists that they think they are, because projecting one's wishful thinking onto "the Other" is not pragmatic realism. It is idealism.

Well over a half-century ago, the Swiss-American Yale professor Arnold Wolfers tried to explain: "[D]istribution of power, geographical location, demography, and economic conditions place ... [go] far in defining [a state's] and in determining, thereby, the outcome of the rational calculus of interest on [foreign-policy] choices."

It is Putin who is the pragmatic realist, just with a different agenda. Listen to his speech on Crimea from a week ago: "Today, it is imperative to accept ... [that] Russia is an independent, active participant in international affairs [with] ... its own national interests." Can you get more realist than that?

To be sure, his interpretation of history is skewed. "The infamous policy of containment," he said, "led in the 18th, 19th and 20th centuries, continues today." But "containment" (George Kennan's famous policy) began only after the Second World War.

Putin's view is blind to Russia's founding role in several of the international systems since the 1713 Treaty of Utrecht unified the European States-system. It ignores Russia's participation in European alliances over all those centuries.

Nevertheless, Putin has understood international realities better than the idealists who have been directing foreign policy in Washington and Brussels. "The situation in Ukraine," he said, reflects the fact that "after the dissolution of [Cold War era] bipolarity on the planet, we no longer have stability."

When I was in Moscow on academic exchange in late 1982, the wise Harvard professor Stanley Hoffmann, still alive today, was passing through town and held a small seminar. During the time of greatest superpower tension, right at the time of the Soviet shoot-down of Korean Air Lines flight KAL007 and the launch of President Reagan's "Star Wars" program, he told us: "The question is not whether Reagan will become a realist. Americans always come around to realism. The question is how long it will take."

President Jimmy Carter needed the 1979 invasion of Afghanistan. President Barack Obama needed the 2014 invasion of Ukraine. The condemnation in the speech by U.S. Ambassador to the U.N. Samatha Power was especially articulate and direct, because Putin has proven some cherished academic Western theories of international relations to be wrong. Force still matters, it can still matter more than ideas, and sometimes it matters a lot more.

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