Walt lectures us on “dispassionate” analysis — maybe he should learn to think

November 29, 2022

God help me, there’s another diatribe by Stephen Walt in his house outlet, Foreign Policy, and it’s as bad as one has come to expect. This time, the old wine of nonsense he peddles with Mearsheimer & Co. is packaged in a new bottle — a call for dispassionate analysis. The problem some of us have with Walt’s arguments isn’t passion — although we have it in spades — it’s his cavalier attitude toward facts, abominable mangling of logic, and twisting of the narrative to serve conclusions that seem immune to any new information that contradicts them.

Let’s start with passion though. I do this because, as typical of Walt & his ilk, the attack on the opposing position is the good ole’ “don’t be hysterical” these guys used to direct at women in order to dismiss what they have to say. It’s the version of “calm down” thrown in the middle of an argument when the guy — and it’s always a guy — has clearly lost and is attempting to undermine the opposing position by suggesting that it’s driven by emotion rather than logic.

Well, I’ve got some advice for Walt: don’t get emotional, man. Here’s a cold shower of logic and evidence to help you cool down and stop being hysterical.

After magnanimously granting that “war is uncertain and reliable information is sparse,” Walt proceeds to demand that we give “alternative perspectives a fair hearing,” and complains that his own take has been treated in an “unusually nasty and intolerant” manner. As a good social scientist, he’s “been trying to figure out why this is the case.” As a bad social scientist, he’s concluded that it’s because his critics have been unable to “keep a cool head.” As any brave anti-establishment type sitting in an endowed chair at Harvard, he even discerns that the government is “encouraging patriotic groupthink and marginalizing dissident views.” Yes, you read that right: Walt is, apparently, a dissident. I had to look up the definition of that word in order to make sure I did not misremember its meaning.

Having cast himself as David against the “liberal interventionist, unrepentant neoconservative, and handful of progressives” Goliath, Walt condescends a bit by letting us know that he has “a degree of sympathy” for the moral outrage we are all feeling. However, from his Olympian perch, he’d also determined that “moral outrage is not a policy,” and has some words of wisdom for the rest of us.


It could be that “giving Ukraine whatever it thinks it needs to achieve victory is the best course of action. But this approach is hardly guaranteed to succeed; it might just prolong the war to no good purpose, increase Ukrainian suffering, and eventually lead Russia to escalate or even use a nuclear weapon.”

And so we are right back to needlessly prolonging the war, which Russia must inevitably win. It certainly is possible that this could happen. But then so is that lighting would strike Walt on his way to his office one morning. The issue here is with assessment of probabilities, and what we have seen so far strongly suggests that Russia will be unable to win this war sufficiently to impose the terms that it has been demanding of the Ukrainians since the start of the invasion. Maybe the Ukrainians would not achieve their maximalist goals either, but if they deny most of what the Russians want now, the war would hardly have been “to no good purpose.” As usual, Walt & Co. simply ignore the fact that Russia is the main obstacle to peace because it controls a lot of Ukrainian territory, demands even more of it, and wants whatever remains of Ukraine to “demilitarize” and be “neutral” — that is, become subordinate to Russia. I really, really want to know what, exactly, Walt proposes that we do here. We wish to arm the Ukrainians to the teeth precisely because we want them to force the Russians to abandon their conquest plans — it seems that this very simple idea is totally beyond Walt’s comprehension. It must be “realist” in him that has concluded that Russia would get what it wants anyway, and so it’s folly to stand in its way.

Also, nukes! Just to scare you out of any rational thought on the subject.

“Putin clearly bears enormous personal responsibility for this illegal and destructive war, but if prior Western actions made his decision more likely, then Western policymakers are not blameless. To assert otherwise is to reject both history and common sense (i.e., that no major power would be indifferent to a powerful alliance moving steadily closer to its borders) as well as the mountain of evidence over many years showing that Russian elites (and not just Putin) were deeply troubled by what NATO and the European Union were doing and they were actively looking for ways to stop it.”

The second pillar of Western apologetics for Putin arrives right on schedule. Now, we can argue whether Western policymakers could have done anything to stop Russia — I don’t think so — but let’s address some glaring problems of omission and commission in this claim. Is it true that Russians detested NATO expansion? Yes, certainly. They saw it — correctly — as diminution of their influence in the region. But NATO was not expanding in order to threaten Russia — the expansion was driven by Russia’s neighbors clamoring to get under NATO’s protective umbrella in order to escape Russian domination.

Now, Walt & Co. might argue that this does not matter — as long as Russia perceived it as threatening, we should not have accepted these countries. But Walt does not like to talk what this means, so let me spell it out: the reconstitution of a Russian empire in eastern Europe. None of Russia’s neighbors can hope to stand up to Moscow on its own or even collectively unless supported by powerful Western nations. Since the Germans and most continental Europeans were busy making friends with Russia (just like they had done during the Cold War), the defensive umbrella had to be American. Contrary to all the fantasies of Walt, US foreign policy has not aimed at destroying or threatening Russia — in fact, the problem has always been that the US does not have a pressing security interest in Eastern Europe so long as Russia does not resume its march westward.

This is why Ukraine’s NATO membership was never going to happen. While the Baltics, Poland, and the other former Soviet satellites were duly admitted into NATO (they had all been conquered by the USSR in one form or another, and had their governments imposed by the Russians), the West moved quite gingerly about Ukraine precisely because of these Russian sensibilities. The lack of urgency with respect to Ukraine was driven both by lack of obvious threat from Russia, and desire not to rock the boat of the emerging relationship.

Walt sites, approvingly, a blog that summarizes what CIA Director Burns had written in his memoir, where he claims that the incorporation of these countries into NATO had been “premature at best, and needlessly provocative at worst. […] As Russians stewed in their grievance and sense of disadvantage, a gathering storm of ‘stab in the back’ theories slowly swirled, leaving a mark on Russia’s relations with the West that would linger for decades.”

Yes, the loss of empire is painful. Yes, the Russians were resentful. Yes, they thought they are being displaced from territories that are rightfully theirs to command.


You see, Walt — and people like him — basically assert that absent NATO’s “provocative” expansion, Russia would have been a content and happy member of the post-Cold War system. The evidence for this astonishing assertion, however, is utterly non-existent. What we have is a swirling chaotic post-Soviet world, in which disappointment with democracy arrived very early on, courtesy of Yeltsin, and where the idea of rebuilding the “Russian world” gained currency from the get-go. The Bolsheviks were bad because they had screwed up the empire, and the disintegration of the USSR had left Russia too weak to reconstitute it. Revanche has always been the order of the day in Moscow, it was just a matter of time. Leaving the periphery of Russia defenseless to accommodate these grievances would have merely ensured that the conquest would have started earlier.

Walt then says that “Proponents of enlargement now insist Putin and his associates were never worried about NATO enlargement and that their many protests about this policy were just a giant smokescreen concealing long-standing imperialist ambitions.”

I do not know whether Walt just does not understand plain English or is being purposefully obtuse. The argument is not that the Russians were not concerned about NATO enlargement — they were — but that their concern was not about Russian security; rather, it was about preventing Russia from achieving its “rightful place under the sun.” In other words, Walt & Co. like to talk about Russia’s security concerns and insist that NATO expansion presented Russia with an intolerable security risk — this is where they whip out maps and start pointing at invasion routes. But Russia’s military did not lose much sleep over a potential NATO attack, as the director of the All Russia Union of Retired Officers wrote in an open letter on the eve of the war. The Russians had gamed it out, they were prepared in case it happened, but it was not an imminent threat of any sort. Certainly not in the sense Walt & Co. assert it was.

The NATO threat was to the dreams of restoring Russia’s greatness by effectively shutting it out of direct influence in its immediate neighborhood. Western support for democratic reforms in these countries merely accelerated the process of separation from the Russian sphere, and Moscow was helpless to do much of anything about it because of the NATO shield under whose protection it was taking place.

Sure, the West should have expected the Russians to react to this — and they did, in spades — they meddled in politics everywhere, used the energy supply as a political weapon, and resorted to military force quite often (Russia has seen two years of peace since its inception as a new Federation in 1991). There is plenty of blame to go around for the blindness and naïveté of Western policymakers — but not for the reason Walt alleges. He thinks they should have been kinder and gentler with Russia, while I think they should have been firmer in recognizing that they would have to deal with resurgent Russia, and that it would not be pleasant.

I am not going to bother dealing with Walt’s totally bizarre allegation that “supporters of U.S. liberal hegemony” want to see military victory for Ukraine so that “failures of Iraq, Afghanistan, Libya, Syria, and the Balkans can be swept into the memory hole.” I am not sure if I belong to the camp Walt is talking about, but I certainly have no wish to pretend certain policy failures did not happen. We can still argue about the wisdom of expanding the “U.S.-led liberal order” that so horrifies Walt. Maybe he should move to live in a place where the “Russian peace” or the “Chinese special democracy” rules?

What follows is some more bland nonsense about “risks of escalation” and how “incautious efforts to spread liberal ideals helped cause this tragedy” along with “need for more flexible diplomacy” without even a trace of a suggestion about how such flexible diplomacy is going to overcome the Kremlin’s rather inflexible position without a military defeat in Ukraine. Instead, we get a lot of “what if”, as in:

“What if the war does end in a messy and disappointing compromise instead of the happy Hollywood ending most of the world would like to see? Despite the welcome progress Ukraine has made in recent months, such an unsatisfying outcome may still be the most likely result. If Russia still controls substantial amounts of Ukrainian territory a year from now, Ukraine has suffered additional damage in the interim, Putin still rules in Moscow despite the harm his war has done to Russia, and the United States’ European allies have had to absorb another influx of refugees and endure difficult Ukraine-related economic hardships, then it will be increasingly difficult for the Biden administration to spin this war as a success story.”

Is Walt proposing that we deliver this outcome to the Russians now? I mean, he must be because I do not know how else to read this paragraph. If not, then the “what if” is meaningless. So, let me then ask:

How do you convince the Ukrainians to abandon the struggle now and leave nearly 20% of their territory in Russian control? How do you get the Russians to agree that this territory is sufficient (they would have to abandon their goals of Kharkiv, Kherson, Zaporizhzhia, and Odesa)? How do you get both sides to believe that the war would not resume in a year or two when both are dissatisfied? If we try to press the Ukrainians into concessions, how do we know that they would not continue to fight, making the war even costlier and nastier? What if that encourages the Russians to attempt total conquest?

I could go on, but I trust I don’t have to.

For all his insistence on cold logic, Walt has none. He just assumes that the war can magically end when both sides are dissatisfied with the situation and have the capacity to continue to fight. It is very likely that the war will continue into the next year, that Putin will not fall from power, and that Europe would have to deal with another wave of Ukrainian refugees. But the response to that possibility is to prepare and plan for it rather than throw in the towel and abandon the Ukrainians to the Russians. The problem here is not that we are refusing to countenance the possibility of a bad outcome, it’s that we are trying to prevent an even worse one. The one that Walt & Co. are so busy advocating for from their comfortable university offices in the liberal and well armed United States.

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