Real Questions for the Realist

Twenty questions this hour on the war in Ukraine. For starters: will the war end in April? May? Maybe June? Who gets to announce the good news? An essay question: Can a war look more grotesquely cruel week to week, and look at the same time like a war without end? Can you have a war without a winner? Assume Putin and Company have lost this war in hearts and history; then, count the damage also to Ukraine in thousands of innocent lives lost, and some loss of territory too. Whose idea was this war, anyway? Multiple choice: the war will turn finally on A: NATO weaponry; B: the human spirit; or C: the sanctions on Russian business. Who gets to convene the war crimes trial, to punish the atrocities in this war, and who gets the defendants to show up?

Stephen Walt.

The war in Ukraine, so far, is our subject this hour. The angle of observation is “realist,” so-called: it’s a way of thinking about world affairs that is founded on the vital interests of nation states—like security and survival—in an often tragic arena of rise-and-fall competition. Steve Walt, from the Kennedy School at Harvard, is among the most respected and quoted of realists. He’s been coaching us in conversation for 20 years, since George W. Bush prepared to invade Iraq. “Not in the US interest,” Steve Walt and the realists declared flatly. The war in Ukraine has been more complicated. “Not in Russia’s interest, or Putin’s,” Steve Walt thought before it happened. Since then the question has been whether realist thinking ever caught up with what Putin was doing and why: was he really feeling threatened by NATO’s expansion toward Russia? Was Putin bent on a new Slavic empire? Was he out of touch with reality?

This week’s show is the latest installment of In Search of Monsters, our limited-series collaboration with the Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft.

Guest List
Stephen Walt
Professor of international affairs at Harvard.
Reading List
The Soft-Power Politics That Exploded Into War
Isaac Chotiner and Mykola Riabchuk

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