The Ukrainian War Viewed from Theories of International Politics

Matake Kamiya


This article, entitled "The Ukrainian War Viewed from Theories of International Politics," attempts to provide an interactive examination of the relationship between international political theories and the Ukraine war. In other words, the purpose of this paper is to discuss the Ukraine war from the perspective of international political theories, as well as what the actual development of the Ukraine war suggests about international political theories. It should be noted that the following discussion is tentative since the Ukraine war is an ongoing event that had been unfolding for three months or so as of this writing.

1. Reconfirmed Validity of the Realist Theory

What the Ukraine war illustrates most eloquently about international political theories is that the realist theory of international politics is valid in many respects.

(1) Worldview of Realism

First, let us take a look at the worldview of realism. Realism is a theory that believes that the most fundamental characteristic of international society is its anarchy, and consequently, international politics must presuppose the struggle for power among nations. Realism has long occupied a mainstream position in the scholarship of international politics.

In domestic society, there is a central government (the state) as a public authority over its members, such as individuals and groups, which prevents or punishes violations of the rules by those members. The central government is also expected to prevent and punish the private use of violence by individuals and groups. Meanwhile, international society has no central government (world government) that stands above the states. This signifies the absence of an entity that can prevent or punish violations of the rules by states, and in particular, no entity to prevent or punish the private use of force by states.

As a result, in international society, a state cannot expect redress by a superior entity when its rights are unjustly violated by other states or when its survival or prosperity is threatened. The United Nations is an amalgamation of sovereign states acting in their national interests; it does not stand over the states and therefore cannot act as a world government. Nor can a state expect other states to help it as a matter of course; a state must ultimately protect its rights, survival, and prosperity through self-help. Since self-help requires power, a state is bound to take a strong interest in its relative power relations with other states, especially those perceived to pose a threat against it.

(2) Limits of Laws and Rules

Based on this worldview, realism underscores the limits of the efficacy of laws and rules in international society because there is no entity in it that can guarantee compliance by the states with laws and rules. In domestic society, one can expect remedies by the government or its institutions such as the police, courts, and armed forces for acts that trample on laws and rules by brute force; similar remedies cannot be available in the international society.

In international society, therefore, there are limits to the effectiveness and enforceability of rules including international law, and a powerful state often ignores the rules and acts by power, without being checked. The only way for a state to defend itself against such an act is through the exertion of power. In particular, it is essential to use military force to respond to the illegal use of violence (use of armed force).

(3) Limitations of Problem Solving through Dialogue

According to the realist worldview, there are limits to attempting to resolve inter-state disputes through dialogue. Dialogue can produce some results only if all the parties concerned are willing to solve problems through it. In domestic society, the parties concerned will be urged to sit at the negotiation table under the pressure of government power in the form of, for example, trials. But international society is under anarchy and lacks such an entity as a government.

(4) Development of the Situation after February 24, 2022 --- Endorsing the "Correctness" of the Realist Theory

Looking at the development of international relations surrounding the Ukraine war since February 24, 2022, we can find the following facts that support the validity of the realist theory as discussed above.

When Ukraine was invaded by Russia, we became once more aware that: there is no superior entity in international society to rescue Ukraine. The United Nations is an amalgamation of sovereign states acting in their own national interests and is not a substitute for world government. Even though Russia's invasion of Ukraine is an apparent violation of the UN Charter, the United Nations has thus far played only a limited role in resolving this issue. On March 2, the UN General Assembly held an emergency special session based on the "Unity for Peace" resolution adopted by the General Assembly on November 3, 1950 and adopted a resolution entitled "Aggression against Ukraine." Declaring that Russia's invasion of Ukraine was a violation of Article 2.4 of the UN Charter, the resolution condemned "the 24 February 2022 declaration by the Russian Federation of a ‘special military operation' in Ukraine" and demanded "that the Russian Federation immediately cease its use of force against Ukraine"; "that the Russian Federation immediately, completely and unconditionally withdraw all of its military forces from the territory of Ukraine within its internationally recognized borders." 1 It was the first time in this century that the UN General Assembly held an emergency special session. Furthermore, the resolution's passage by an overwhelming majority of 141 to 5 was indeed a milestone. Meanwhile, it should not be overlooked that 35 countries abstained from the voting. In addition, the resolution has no legally binding force and is barely effective.

The United Nations has, to date, adopted several other resolutions related the Ukraine war, including one to suspend Russia's membership in the Human Rights Council. However, not a small number of countries abstained from or opposed these resolutions due to considerations of their national interests. The Security Council is not able to fulfill its designed function due to Russia's use of veto power.

As a result, Ukraine had no alternative but to fight against Russian aggression through self-help. Western countries have, so far, sent Ukraine no troops, which Ukraine eagerly awaits. 2 Moreover, assistance to Ukraine from the international community, mainly from Western countries such as the United States, European countries, and Japan, is not based on any UN resolution but is rather more a form of self-help in nature in the sense that the donor countries are providing the assistance they deem necessary.

International law has exposed its weak responsiveness in the face of Russia's illegal use of force, which once again highlights the reality of international society that the only way to address the unlawful use of force is to confront it also by using force. As of this writing, 100 days have passed since the Ukraine war began; we have become accustomed to seeing that a small Ukraine is fighting well against a giant Russia. However, the atmosphere at the beginning of the war in which the world then found itself was different. There was widespread speculation that the capital city of Kyiv would surrender in only a few days. The United States and European countries discussed how to support a Ukrainian government in exile. But Ukraine still maintains its independence, to which international law has contributed nothing. This is because Ukrainians are fighting Russian aggression by force and at the risk of their life.

In the meantime, the United States, Europe, and other countries did not send their troops to Ukraine but supported the Ukrainians' armed resistance by providing military equipment and supplies. This also demonstrates the reality of the world that the only way to confront the illegal use of force is by the use of force.

Furthermore, the developments during the past 100 days show once again that it seems illusory to expect to reach a solution through dialogue in cases of aggression like the current war. The many twists and turns in the ceasefire talks suggest Russia's lack of intention to resolve relevant issues through dialogue; neither is there an actor who can urge Russia to solve the problems through dialogue.

Some actors have attempted to do so. French President Emmanuel Macron and UN Secretary-General António Guterres, through diplomatic and mediation efforts, have urged Russian President Vladimir Putin to take proactive steps to resolve the issues through dialogue but this proved to be in vain.

Finally, the Ukraine war has proved that, under anarchy, a state takes a strong interest in relative power relations with those perceived to pose a threat to it. The ongoing Russian invasion has made many European countries aware that Russia is an imminent threat to them; they are now seeking to improve their relative power balance with Russia. It was precisely such awareness that prompted Germany, France, and other countries to declare substantial increases in their defense spending in the wake of the Russian invasion. Sweden and Finland were likewise motivated to break away from their neutral positions and to apply for accession to NATO.

2. Exposed Limitations of the Liberal Theory

The "correctness" of the realist theory, as elaborated above, suggests more clearly than anything else the limitations of the liberal theory as the most influential rival school to the realist theory. 3

(1) Liberal Worldview and the Limitations of the Liberal Theory

Although the ideas of liberal international political theory are diverse, the underlying recognition among them is that international relations do not always evolve, as realism claims, based on interstate competition and confrontation under anarchy.

Liberalism acknowledges that the current international system is in a state of anarchy, that owing to this situation, interstate relations contain potential competition and confrontation, and that military power plays some critical role in international politics. At the same time, however, it also believes that with human ingenuity and effort, it is possible to eliminate or at least mitigate interstate competition and conflict and to transform the world into a more peaceful and safer place. The origins of such a line of thinking can be traced back to the Enlightenment optimism of the 18th century that deemed it possible to improve the world through reason. The ingenuity, of particular importance in this connection, includes the development of international law and rules, the development of international institutions, and the furtherance of economic and other forms of interdependence.

But what the current situation has clarified is the reality that neither international law and rules nor international institutions alone have been able to stop or to address Russia's aggression against Ukraine. Some suggest that economic interdependence also failed to stop Russian aggression. 4

(2) Factors Responsible for the Limitations of the Liberal Theory

The liberal theory of international relations cogently explains why order among states who embrace liberal values and ideas tends to be peaceful and stable. It also provides concrete proposals as to what is needed to make the interstate order more peaceful and stable among such states --- further development of international rules, improvement of international institutions, and advancement of interdependent relations among states.

However, liberalism cannot answer the question of how to achieve a peaceful and stable international order in the presence of major powers unwilling to accept liberal values and ideals. What is needed to answer the question is a power-based "prescription" for peace that realism advocates. To persuade the states unwilling to do so to accept liberal values and ideas, persuasion backed by power and, sometimes, pressure are necessary. However, this point of view tends to be overlooked from the perspective held by those who adhere to the liberal theory of international politics.

The Liberal theory is by no means useless in considering issues of peace and international order. Liberalism admits that the present international system is in a state of anarchy, which makes it hard to eliminate competition and confrontation from interstate relations, and that military power plays a vital role in international politics. If liberals strive to use human ingenuity while fully addressing this reality, liberalism will certainly help to further promote peace. Yet, liberalism tended to fall into the illusion that this reality could be overcome solely through human ingenuity, instead of fully looking into the reality that power, including military force, is essential to achieve peace under anarchy.

In other words, the primary weakness of the liberal theory of international politics is that it seeks measures not based on power so much that it often downplays the indispensability of power-based measures to achieve peace under anarchy. The recent war in Ukraine highlights this shortcoming of liberalism.

3. The Significance of Liberal International Order Based on Rules

The above discussion does not deny the necessity of efforts to improve through human ingenuity the situation in which international peace and order are brought about solely by power. Then, what measures should be taken to pursue the achievement of peace under anarchy, but with less dependence on power, while without losing sight of the limits of human ingenuity? The quest for answers to this question should be the most crucial objective of the study of international politics.

In the post-World War II world, international society has been attempting to find an answer to the above question in a "liberal rules-based international order." As we have already seen, rules are unconditionally followed in domestic society but are not so in international society under anarchy. Powerful states could, if they so choose, do what they want to do to a considerable extent by using power in defiance of rules.

Over the past several decades, this situation has improved to a significant degree under the order maintained under the leadership of the United States --- the liberal rules-based international order. The United States, the most powerful state in the world, based on liberal values and ideals, thought that every state, large or small, should make it a principle to respect international rules and to refrain from exercising brute force. The liberal democracies, including Japan, agreed with this idea, which had a prodigious impact on the international order. As a result, today, we have usually been able to live barely conscious of the fact that international society is an arena of struggle where power clashes with power, and military power ultimately prevails.

An important fact is that even a liberal rules-based international order cannot be stable unless it is supported by power, including military power. Thanks to the stability of this order, we have been accustomed to living for many years without noting that international society is an arena for power struggle among states. This order has been stable for a long time because the United States has led its formation, and many influential states, such as Japan and European nations, have cooperated with it. At the root of the recent disruptions in this order lie the relative decline in the influence of these states due to changes in international power balance. In order to maintain an order that normally does not require our thinking much about the issue of power, there must exist substantial power to sustain it.

The shock of Russia's invasion of Ukraine, combined with China's earlier move to change the status quo by force in the Indo-Pacific, slighting international rules, has plunged the rule-based liberal international order into an unprecedented crisis. The countries forming and maintaining this order, such as the United States, Japan, and Europe, are aware that it is in their vital national interests to protect this order. They hold no illusion that they can maintain this order without resorting to power. While they seek a rules-based order restraining any states from acting by brute force, they share a clear understanding that if some states do not agree to the rules-based order, they must undertake it upon themselves to confront those states by power, including military force, and demand that they comply with that order and rules.

In this sense, the idea of a liberal international order based on rules bridges --- without falling into fanciful idealism --- the gap between anarchy or the reality of international politics, unsurmountable by human ingenuity, and the desire to achieve peace with less dependence on power even under anarchy.

4. Narrowness of the Realist Theory

The discussion in this paper began by stating that the Ukraine war after February 24, 2022, has demonstrated the validity of the realist theory of international politics in many ways. However, the current situation in Ukraine also highlights problems with realist theory. Due to the theory's narrow perspective, realist analyses of the current situation and recommendations derived from them are not exempt from fault.

(1) Narrow Concept of National Interests

Realism focuses on how a state competes with other states over power, mainly military power, and ensures its survival under anarchy; it argues that the national security interests of each state are solely defined from this perspective. For this reason, realism fails to recognize that the promotion of measures to mitigate the struggle for power under anarchy can also constitute a vital national security interest. This is evident from the fact that leading realist commentators such as John J. Mearsheimer and Stephen M. Walt fail to consider the implications for the national interests of countries such as the United States, European countries, and Japan of shaking of the liberal rules-based international order by Russia's invasion of Ukraine. 5

(2) An Inappropriate Analogy between the Ukraine War and the Iraq War?

Mearsheimer and Walt discuss Russia's invasion of Ukraine as an analogy with the Iraq War; they argue that it is inconsistent to condemn Russia's actions in the Ukraine war without accusing the United States' actions in the Iraq War. However, their criticism seems to stem from their failure to recognize that the formation and the maintenance of a liberal rules-based international order may be considered a significant national interest for some countries.

There were indeed many problems with US actions in the Iraq War. But the underlying US motivation was to promote a liberal, rules-based international order. The United States believed that its actions met the interest of international society as a whole, while advancing at the same time its national interest. Quite a few countries, including Japan and the United Kingdom, accepted this view in principle.

Therefore, the United States did not attempt to conceal its intention to start a war against Iraq and rallied in advance international support and cooperation for its actions. It also sought to have its actions approved by the UN Security Council. Moreover, the US post-war objective was not the long-term domination of Iraq. The United States envisaged the creation of a democratic Iraq. It planned to help Iraq be reborn into a new nation by endowing the country with the right to self-determination --- though US actions were in many ways based on some fanciful optimism and one-sided prejudice.

What about Russia in the Ukraine war? Russia's goal in the war is to expand its sphere of influence; it lacks the initiative to advance the interest of international society through its war efforts. Supposedly, this is why Russia's intention to start a war with Ukraine was kept secret. Russia made no effort to obtain UN Security Council approval for the initiation of the war. Russia seems to have envisioned a postwar Ukraine as deprived of its right to self-determination over its basic foreign and security policy or as a country that will stay under the domination of Russia.

When comparing the two wars in the light of what the countries that launched the wars aimed at and what they considered to be their national interest, it is not appropriate to discuss Russia in the Ukraine war in the same manner as the United States in the Iraq war. Realist theorists, such as Mearsheimer and Walt, lack this perspective.

(3) Major Power-Centric Theory

Realist analyses and recommendations on the Ukraine war are not free from the drawback that they are excessively major power-centric. Realism is characterized by its emphasis on power, particularly military power, therefore emphasizing major-power centricity. Nonetheless, it is undeniably problematic that Mearsheimer and Walt's argument about the current war in Ukraine does not consider the will and wishes of the smaller countries of Central and Eastern Europe. Their discussion appears to ignore even the intentions and hopes of Ukraine, a protagonist in the current war.

Mearsheimer and Walt assert that the expansion of NATO's expansion eastward led by the United States, ignoring Russian opposition, was the cause of the current war. But there is no mention in their argument about the fact that NATO expansion complied with the wishes of most countries in Central and Eastern Europe. The reason why NATO, a legacy of the Cold War, expanded rather than disappeared after the Cold War --- contrary to the predictions of some realists like Mearsheimer --- is that many countries were attracted to the fact that the NATO zone turned into a vast non-war zone for the first time in European history, and these countries therefore sought accession to NATO. It is not because the United States forced Central and Eastern European countries to join it.

Mearsheimer and Walt's argument ignores the aspirations of these small and medium countries in Central and Eastern Europe. Consequently, their argument is as if to say that these small- and medium-sized countries should follow the will of the United States, Russia, and at most other major powers such as the United Kingdom, Germany, and France and that those small and medium-sized countries have no right to self-determination on the questions of diplomacy and security.

(4) A Billiard-Ball View of International Politics

Finally, one problem concerning the realist analysis of the Ukraine war is its conspicuous tendency to regard Russia as the single rational decision-maker. Since it is apparent that various miscalculations and misperceptions committed by "Russia" or by "Putin" matter a great deal in this war, we must analyze the psychology of decision-makers in order to accurately understand various aspects of the war. However, because of its billiard ball-type view of international politics, the realist theory seems to be unable to pay sufficient attention to the question of such miscalculations and misconceptions.

Although we cannot have a detailed discussion due to limitations of space, it seems highly likely that the phenomenon of "groupthink" advocated by Irving L. Janis is taking place in the Russian leadership undertaking the current war. This is theory that when a small number of people similar in ideas and perspectives make decisions under a strong leader, objections are rarely communicated, inconvenient information disregarded, and alternative options given perfunctory consideration --- all these combined result in a deteriorated quality of their decision making. 6 Janis alerts us to the fact that once a decision has been made it becomes harder to change, and over-optimism about the future is more likely to ensue. He attributes many of the fiascoes committed by past US administrations to the "groupthink" --- the decision to "Go North" in the Korean War, the Bay of Pigs invasion, and the escalation of the Vietnam War.

This theory of Janis' appears to well apply to the decision-making by Putin and the Russian leadership over the current war. Yet, such work of analysis is outside the scope of realism.

In Lieu of Conclusion

The Ukraine war has revealed the validity and, at the same time, the narrowness of the realist theory of international politics. It also betrayed the limitations of the liberal view of international politics while highlighting the importance of a liberal rules-based international order as a means to pursue the achievement of peace even under anarchy --- with less reliance on power and without losing sight of the limits of human ingenuity.

To fully understand the Ukraine war and to obtain appropriate policy implications, we should first admit that the realist theory of international politics has many "correct" insights and then compensate for its shortcomings and weaknesses with other relevant theories. This is a tentative conclusion of the above analysis of this essay.

(Professor, the National Defense Academy)

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