Should We Treat Russia With Respect? Responding to the Pariah Principle.
My favorite philosophy channel Carefree Wandering just posted a video responding to international relations scholar John Mearsheimer in regards to the invasion of Ukraine by Russia. I referenced Mearsheimer heavily in my article Liberalism and the Crusader State, and he was a critical influence for me getting serious about foreign policy in the first place. In fact, I see him as a major reason why I was personally blindsided by Russia’s invasion. Given my recent obsession with open source intelligence Twitter covering the invasion, we have an all star cast. I can’t resist responding.
Let’s start with the video, which has the very alarming title Ukraine War: De-Escalate The Destructive Dynamics NOW! I would recommend you click on the link, watch the full video, and subscribe to the channel. In essence, it’s a continuation of Mearsheimer’s argument that the West (the United States, NATO, EU, etc) are in large part responsible for Putin’s aggression towards Ukraine.
Professor Hans-Georg Moeller, star of the Carefree Wandering channel and author of the video, develops a theory of what he calls the Pariah Principle and describes how he believes forcing Russia into the role of a “pariah state” helped provoke a violent response. A pariah is an outcast on the world stage, like North Korea, that the international community has agreed not to interact with. Moeller believes that this is a reaction to appeasement prior to World War 2. Hitler was clearly an evil man and a threat to peace in Europe, but powerful nations tolerated him, allowing him to grow strong enough to commit some of the worst crimes in human history. If only we had nipped the Nazi regime in the bud, we could have prevented World War 2 from happening. So, the argument goes, it’s morally necessary to isolate and punish any regime that violates international standards of human rights.
Moeller lists three steps to the pariah principle, once a suitable country has been identified to become a pariah. First, an evil profile is curated for the country through propaganda, media, and politics. “Profile” is a concept of identity that Moeller has elaborated on extensively, but in short, it means the pariahs are painted out to be hideous monsters that need to be stopped by the good guys, namely the West. Second, the country’s political and economic ties are cut off, and their international relations and diplomatic efforts are undermined. Third, the country’s ambitions are limited within their own neighborhood. So, NATO is expanded into Eastern Europe and Ukraine is pulled away from Russia’s sphere of influence, China is blocked from incorporating Taiwan, Iranian leaders are bombed for supporting rebel factions and regimes in neighboring countries, and so on.
Moeller suggests this can be just as dangerous as appeasement. In the case of Russia, Moeller believes NATO continuously treated it as a pariah state, leading them to feel trapped and ready to lash out, like a wounded animal. For various reasons, rational and emotional, human beings feel a need for respect and recognition. Putin felt he was getting none. Assuming that he is such a maniacal dictator worthy of being ostracized, you’d expect him to react in an appropriately maniacal way. When you label someone a villain, they may just double down.
Besides leading to the tragic invasion, Moeller fears that continual support of Ukraine by NATO and the increasing pariah status of Russia may lead to Putin “snapping” even further. As a leader of a major power with thousands of nuclear weapons, this is potentially extremely dangerous. Per Mearsheimer’s argument, which he quotes extensively, Russia sees Ukraine as a core strategic interest. As the West grows more emboldened and close-knit in the face of this struggle against a rampaging Russia, the Putin regime will feel more threatened, potentially to the point of using their nuclear weapons. Not only will they be able to withstand any economic sanctions placed against them, since security trumps economics, they may become more cruel and erratic.
Moeller fears that when a leader or country has nothing to lose, they may be capable of anything. To prevent a nuclear catastrophe, he argues we need to pull a page from the Cuban Missile Crisis and defuse the crisis with a mutual, rational, face-saving compromise. Specifically, he pulls journalist Robert Wright’s idea that countries ought to vote on who they want to be aligned with and solve issues through international law. Unfortunately, since no one is currently willing to vote with Russia at the UN security council, it may be necessary for China to act as an intermediary between Ukraine and Russia. This too is complicated by the pariah principle, since China is not seen as a neutral arbiter, but rather as a pariah itself. Ultimately, before anything can be done, the West needs to deescalate and pull back from the pariah principle.
There are many people saying that the Russians are going to go on a rampage, they’re going to try to reestablish the Soviet Union or a Greater Russia… That’s not going to happen. Putin is much too smart for that. You remember what happened when the Russians invaded Afghanistan? You remember what happened when we invaded Afghanistan?… You want to stay out of these places. In fact, if you really want to wreck Russia, what you should do is encourage it to try and conquer Ukraine. Putin, again, is much too smart to do that. — Mearsheimer
Ultimately, I think that Mearsheimer and by extension Moeller are partially correct about the situation between Ukraine and Russia. The invasion has been a complete disaster for both countries, and it will continue to get worse. In fact, the invasion has been going much worse for Russia than I think anyone could have anticipated. Evidence is pouring out that both Russian civilians and soldiers are repulsed by the prospect of killing Ukrainians, and that supply lines were not properly prepared, to the point that special forces have been caught raiding grocery stores and tanks have run out of fuel. There is even a twitter account mostly dedicated to abandoned Russian tanks and artillery being captured by the Ukrainians. It appears the attack may have been more of a surprise for the Russian army and civilian population than it was for Western intelligence sources.
I have been alarmed and frankly flustered at the recklessness and lack of a clear exit strategy on the part of the Russians. The West, especially the United States, appear to have taken boots on the ground military assistance off the table precisely to avoid massive retaliation, which could turn nuclear if the Kremlin feels its survival is under direct threat. There are currently negotiations going on in Belarus, with Ukraine demanding a ceasefire and withdrawal and Russia being silent about their own aims. Nobody wants war, and the best case scenario is that a compromise can be reached quickly that ends hostilities between the two countries in the long term. If this means bringing in “neutral” arbiters like China, that’s all for the better.
That’s about where my agreement ends. Let’s start with Mearsheimer, who provides the groundwork for Moeller’s analysis. I think this conflict has done a lot to poke gaping holes in Mearsheimer’s reductionist, “realist” analysis of world politics. For one, his assumption that countries are essentially unified, rational actors has been blown apart. Russia is torn internally between the needs of average people, the oligarchs, and the Kremlin. We don’t even know if there’s substantial cohesion within the Kremlin. I have a sneaking suspicion this conflict is driven in large part by Putin’s personal sentimentality about bringing “little Russia” back into the fold, to the detriment of the Russian national interest. Putin did not act rationally, and there’s a possibility he’ll even be deposed, considering how little the levers of power in his country appear to be behind him.
At a higher level, Mearsheimer’s prescription that the United States ought to move most of its resources away from Europe and into containing China is also being thrown into doubt. Besides Putin being far more aggressive and irrational in its invasion of Ukraine than Mearsheimer ever hoped to entertain, he also recently threatened Finland and Sweden with “serious military-political consequences” if they attempt to join NATO. Far from being a potential member of a balancing coalition against China, Russia is an active threat to stability in Europe and growing increasingly dependent on China for support, as per Moeller’s pariah principle. Some have also argued that a strong response to Putin’s invasion of Ukraine is a potential deterrent to Chinese expansion and aggression towards Taiwan. If Russia can act in impunity in Ukraine, why wouldn’t China feel it can do the same in the South China Sea?
Now, we get into a number of contradictions between Moeller’s prescriptions and Mearsheimer’s analysis. Moeller summarizes Mearsheimer’s solution for the crisis as Ukraine becoming a neutral buffer state between Russia and NATO with good relations between both. This directly conflicts with Robert Wright’s idea that countries should be able to vote on who they want to align with. Ukraine has been building its relationship with NATO since the 90s and applied to the NATO Membership Action Plan in 2008. Its efforts to join NATO were rebuffed however, because of protestation from Russia and “realist” concerns over the balance of power in the region. Ukraine was not allowed to freely decide on who it aligned with so that it could continue to act as a neutral buffer state. The plans were mutually incompatible.
Next, we have the idea that issues ought to be solved within the purview of international law. I think this is a great idea. I am in favor of a rules-based international order, going so far as openly advocating for American war criminals to be tried in the Hague. The problem with law, as political scientist Kenneth Waltz addresses at length in his book Man, the State, and War, is that you need some way to enforce it. In an ideal world, we’d be able to devise a system by which everyone voluntarily agrees to follow the rules and treat each other with respect. We haven’t figured that out yet, which is why we have police.
On the international stage, as Mearsheimer loves to point out, we don’t have police. So, how are we supposed to make sure people follow the rules? Obviously, war is off the table. According to Moeller, it appears that sanctions, containment, and severe condemnation are also off the table. Is our enforcement mechanism simply to respect Russia so much that they agree to follow the rules? If that isn’t appeasement, I don’t know what is.
Ultimately, I am in favor of how the international community has reacted to the Ukraine crisis so far. Ukraine’s existence is under threat, Russia is acting far outside the realm of legitimate action, and the future security and stability of Europe is in the balance. If there had been an international coalition that responded to the United States’ illegitimate invasion of Iraq with the same vigor we’re currently using to oppose Russia’s irredentism, maybe up to a million Iraqis would still be alive and ISIS would never have crystallized.
This is an exceedingly delicate situation. We should be careful not to push Putin into a corner, and leave him with some diplomatic options to leave Ukraine while still saving face. Maybe that involves giving the Donbas region the option to vote over seceding from Ukraine. Maybe China needs to get involved. That’s up to the negotiators from Ukraine and Russia to decide.
Ultimately, our values should revolve around providing all human beings with the capacity to decide their own destinies. That means Russia doesn’t get to dictate how the people of Ukraine ought to live, in the same way the United States shouldn’t be allowed to dictate how people in South America or the Middle East get to live. If the ultimate goal is to reach a multilateral world order based on self-determination and international law, I think the response so far has been compatible with those values. Слава Україні!