How to fake a scholarly argument — Abrahms in The Atlantic

March 8, 2023

This article caught my eye because its author, Max Abrahms, charges that there is “frequent disconnect between international-relations scholarship and common espoused views in Western media about the war.” Now, I do not know why common views should reflect IR scholarship necessarily, but I do have an issue with the claim that analyses of the war have been atheoretical. My own writings on this have been thoroughly dependent on my understanding of IR, and I can point to numerous other IR scholars who write and talk about the war (e.g., Hein Goemans, Dan Reiter, Eliot Cohen, Lawrence Freedman, Phillips P. O’Brien, to name a few), and whose explanations are very much grounded in IR theory.

But let’s see what Abrahms says we’ve been missing.

Offensive Realism (OR). Yes, that’s the point of departure. The “theory” that Mearsheimer has peddled for years, and which he himself does not actually apply to the Ukrainian case. Let’s see if Abrahms could make better use of it.

The poverty of Offensive (or any) Realism

We’ll start with OR’s “core assumptions” of (1) international anarchy — no central authority to prevent war; (2) all countries/alliances have offensive capability and are potentially dangerous to others; (3) countries can never be certain others won’t harm them; (4) countries value national survival; (5) countries try to promote that goal. From these assumptions, we are told, follows that “countries not only to fear other countries, but to compete against them—sometimes in violent, immoral ways.”

First of all, for a scholar to take one school of thought (OR is NOT a theory in any meaningful sense) and then assert it as THE way the world works is, frankly, shoddy reasoning. There are numerous alternatives of OR and critiques of it, and one cannot simply brush them away because “Mearsheimer said so.” We are already in intellectual la-la land here if one wants to claim the scholarly high ground. Let me just point out a few obvious issues, starting with the assumptions.

To begin with, there is a good argument to be made that the international system is not anarchic but hierarchical (David Lake has made it), and that countries are not free to pursue whatever goals they have by violating international norms with impunity (the International Society school). The hierarchical relationships in which security is sometimes traded for autonomy are pervasive, and not necessarily coercive (as it could be beneficial to both sides to participate in such “contracts”). There’s a reason small and medium-sized states have always existed in the international system, and it’s not because they have been fending for themselves against powerful neighbors. One look at Western Europe today should make one aware of the ludicrous nature of this argument: no state there is pursuing “survival” foreign policies because it is fearful of its neighbors. Neither is Canada deterring an American invasion, as far as I know. One problem with the “anarchy” argument is that it implies a whole lot more conflict in the world than we actually see. Moreover, the sort of conflict that OR people are often fond of discussing — among Great Powers — is extraordinarily rare. In fact, if one tries to do a statistical analysis of state interactions to predict factors that might be associated with war, one would have to use special techniques because the overwhelming majority of interactions are peaceful and so the usual statistical approaches can’t uncover any correlations. The problem with realism is that it over-predicts conflict.

The fact that there is uncertainty about intent also does not have unambiguous implications. First of all, intent without capability is not a problem. You can be plotting my demise to your heart’s content but as long as you don’t have the means to do it at an acceptable to you cost/risk, I really could not care less. It does no good to assert that “all countries possess at least some offensive military capability” to magically wave this away. Most countries do have offensive capability but precious few have the means to destroy an opponent or threaten their existence. I would like to hear an argument from OR about Switzerland’s neighbors deterring the Swiss from invasion, or Malta’s plans for amphibious attacks on Italy, or maybe Canada’s designs on Greenland. Using military force is a very, very difficult policy to execute with good chances of success, and as a result it is rarely the first, second, or even twentieth option that policy-makers would consider. The problem with realism is that it assumes capabilities sufficient to threaten the existence of opponents, when in reality almost no country actually has them.

This leads us to the vacuous assumption about “national survival.” This is such an extreme threat that I can’t readily think of enough cases to even illustrate it. Perhaps OR “theorists” mean state or government survival? This will give us some more cases to work with but it’s not at all clear to me that losing a government somehow necessarily threatens the nation. Heck, even an extreme case of losing the state — like Poland did, more than once — does not mean that the nation got wiped out. The issue with setting the bar so high is that almost no policy actually aims to achieve anything like that, which means that international interactions are not characterized by a struggle for survival. Waltz — the person who invented structural realism on which Mearsheimer’s offshot is based — was very explicit about this when he argued, vehemently, that these sorts of structural theories are NOT theories of foreign policy. They are practically devoid of any content that one could apply except in very superficial ways. Pick up any study of foreign policy, be it economic or security, and try to find some application of something that looks like OR. You won’t find it. The best you can hope for is what Paul Schroeder did in his magisterial “The Transformation of European Politics,” where he discussed structural realism over dozens of pages, said he was going to use it to explain post-1815 European history, and then proceeded to do a study that had no more than a tangential relationship with the “theory.” Offensive realism (and not just it) is pitched at such a high level of abstraction that it has no practical significance in explaining foreign policy.

This is why the assumption that states would try to promote national survival is also vacuous. It’s just not a “thing” — and so nobody worries about that most of the time.

Suppose you want to defend OR by saying that perhaps it only applies to Great Powers, and specific instances of their interactions. (We are going to ignore A.J.P. Taylor’s famous conclusion that while the object of being a Great Power is to fight another Great Power — in the sense, the ability to do so is what defines one as such — the actual fighting of such a war is the surest way of ceasing to be a Great Power.) We are told that the core assumptions “lead countries not only to fear other countries, but to compete against them.” You might be surprised to discover that these core assumptions do not actually lead to anything like that. How do we know that? The late Bob Powell has a great article about this, where he shows that in a world where the use of force is an option, and where one could convert resources to military capabilities (butter into guns), peace is sustainable through mutual deterrence as long as the peacetime costs of such deterrence do not exceed the expected costs of war. In most cases, this means that deterrence can be sustained indefinitely since he shows that there are optimal low allocations that are sufficient to deter attempts to move to higher ones (arms races). In other words, even if one were to assume the dog-eat-dog world that OR does, the conclusion simply does not follow from the premises. Note further that Powell showed this in a standard world where there is no way to divide the contested benefit through negotiations. As is well known in IR theory, at least since Fearon and Morrow wrote articles about it, given the costliness and riskiness of conflict, there always exist negotiated settlements that both sides prefer to war, and the real problem is not so much with uncertainty about intent as with overcoming over-optimistic expectations about war, inability to credibly promise not to renegotiate the deal in the future, and so on. Interestingly, the presence of uncertainty in the latter case might actually be peace-inducing rather than conflict-provoking because it leaves open the possibility that one would not have to make painful adjustments in the future by avoiding war today. So even uncertainty does not have the triggering effect OR assumes.

So much for the “theory.” There’s a good reason you won’t see OR “used” anywhere except in a classroom or to conduct often sterile debates about its assumptions in academic journals. For the most part, Realism and its offshoots are “schools of thought” that were developed in response to the Idealist ideas of the early 20th century in order to counter the admittedly ridiculous idea that one could simply wish power away in international interactions. The fact that power is a critical element of many such interactions, however, does not lead to anything like the extreme assumptions OR has about national survival and constant struggle to secure it. (As a side note here, I would also recall R. Harrison Wagner’s observation that one should not be able to start with the same set of assumptions, as all Realists claim to do, and then reach divergent conclusions — quick, do states struggle to avoid being wiped out or do they strive to dominate? — there must be something wrong with either the assumptions or the logic when this happens.)

Trying to apply Offensive Realism to the war in Ukraine

Let’s now turn to the attempt to apply whatever OR is to the specific case here.

“Offensive realism suggests that NATO enlargement eastward since the Iron Curtain fell has indeed been viewed by Russian leaders as inherently threatening, and played a significant role in the invasion.”

There are THREE fundamental problems in this one sentence alone: (1) it portrays the ascension of Eastern European and Baltic states as “NATO enlargement”; (2) it asserts that Russian leaders found it “inherently threatening”; and (3) it asserts that it was a significant cause for the invasion. All three are wrong.

A few notes on NATO Enlargement

The NATO enlargement bit is a favorite of Mearsheimer & his followers, but it is a rhetorical sleight of hand (usually followed by a map showing Russian “encircled by NATO countries”). NATO does not “enlarge” in the sense of existing members recruiting or coercing others into joining it (unlike the Warsaw Pact, I might add). Membership is voluntary and at the request of a candidate state, and it is only granted with the unanimous approval of existing member states. The unification of East Germany with West Germany immediately presented the USSR with the fact that NATO was going to “expand” in the sense that once the Eastern territories were incorporated into Germany, they would become NATO territories by default. At this point, the US worked out a deal with Gorbachev: in exchange for not opposing the unification, NATO promised not to station non-German forces there, a promise that has been kept. In all agreements with the USSR, whenever NATO was mentioned, it was always to explicitly confirm the right of other states to seek membership without restrictions. All Eastern European countries and the Baltic states almost immediately sought the protection of the NATO alliance against what many believed would be a revival of Soviet (or, later, Russian) power and a revisionist attempt to impose on them policies desired by the Kremlin. The fundamental reason NATO membership expanded was fear of Russia, and it was driven by Russia’s neighbors frantic efforts to escape Moscow’s sphere of influence. They could not do this on their own, and so naturally they turned to the only alliance that could provide them with some protection. The OR people for some reason gloss over all of this, blithely assuming that it’s alright for Russia to be throwing its weight around, it being a “Great Power” and all, and they always completely disregard the smaller nations against whom such behavior is often directed.

None of this, of course, proves that Russians did not see NATO as a threat, so let’s turn to the second assertion.

Does Russia see NATO as an existential threat?

Abrahms follows Mearsheimer in assuming that Russians were feeling threatened because their theory says they should have been. The “argument” boils down to the following: “Offensive realism says everyone should always be suspicious of others, therefore Russia was suspicious of NATO.” The obvious problem with this is that whether Russian leaders were worried about NATO is an empirical question, not something one can assume based on his own theory of how the world works. So let us see what evidence we have about Russia seeing NATO as a threat.

Did Putin and other important Russian leaders talk about NATO being a threat? Yes, they sure did, and they still do. Now, Mearsheimer himself is on record saying that leaders lie a lot less often than many assume, and I do think this is probably true. But this does not mean they never lie. In the absence of direct evidence that none of us have, we need to ask ourselves a simple question: “Does Putin have incentives to say that NATO is a threat even if he did not believe that to be the case?” The answer to this is clearly YES. It’s clear because Putin has a dominant strategy to portray NATO as a threat irrespective of the true state of the world because it could plausibly give him what he wants if the other side believes it. That is, if the other side believes that you view NATO as a threat, then there’s a chance it would make concessions to prove that it is not or to avoid escalating a conflict that it might believe would come because of how you would react to such a belief.

I have taught the origins of the Cold War from such a perspective for two decades, and it applies here as well. Imagine a world in which Putin has imperialistic ambitions to control the Russian near-abroad, at the very least — we shall call this the “expansionist type” — and another world in which he is just worried about Russia’s security and has no inherent desire to take new land or control other governments. Suppose now we are uncertain about that type. Presumably, we could also be an aggressive “expansionist type” that wishes to contain/destroy Russia or we could be a “security-minded type” that can live with Russia as long as it is not the expansionist type. In other words, suppose both sides are willing to accommodate each other as long as they are security minded but prefer to oppose the other if it is the expansionist type. In this world, claiming to be the security-minded type has clear advantages because it could potentially allow Putin to lay claim to controlling Eastern Europe “because of security issues”, and if we believe that, we would agree to it unless we have aggressive intent ourselves. Note that the advantage would accrue irrespective of whether Putin is really expansionist or not — both types would say this — the security type because it genuinely believes that this control is necessary to ensure the safety of Russia and the expansionist type because it wants to control these territories even though not doing so is no threat to Russia.

Abrahms says, “Whether Russian leaders wish to reclaim some former Soviet territory for national power is orthogonal to Vladimir Putin and his predecessors repeatedly characterizing NATO expansion as a threatening provocation.” This is an extraordinary claim to make — it is designed to dismiss the argument I just gave you, an argument grounded in IR theory, which Abrahms so wishes us to use, simply because it is an inconvenience that undermines his claims. It is wildly naive to think that “wishing to reclaim” territory — note again the sleight-of-hand insistence that somehow this territory sort of belongs to Russia — and claiming to be threatened by NATO are not related. I mean, does anyone actually believe this? I have trouble believing that Abrahms himself does.

Distinguishing between the two types is very difficult, and depends on how interactions unfold, what risk assessments are being made, and so on. (Interested readers should take a look at Andy Kydd’s book about this from a theoretical perspective and my lecture notes on the Cold War to see how the interactions over the first two years after the end of WW2 led both sides to adopt the view that the other is the expansionist type that could not be trusted.) At any rate, without further belaboring this, IR theory explains why it is not possible to take such a statement at face value. If every type is likely to claim security reasons, there is no reason to believe that this claim is genuine.

We must, therefore, look for indirect evidence. One potential source would be statements or actions by others who might have different incentives than Putin. In this situation, the Russian military seems a particularly good candidate for examination. On the one hand, many high-ranking personnel are committed to ensuring Russia’s domination, at least regionally, so they do share an important goal with Putin. On the other hand, they are the ones that are tasked with ensuring the security of the country, so what they do about that can tell us a whole lot about what kind of threats they imagined they would have to deal with.

And here, the Mearsheimer/Abrahms assertion runs into very serious problems. There can be no doubt that the Soviet military saw NATO as its primary opponent — it prepared to wage war on an unimaginable scale, both with nuclear and conventional weapons. (In fact, the remnants of those preparations fuel Russia’s current war in Ukraine.) The Russian military, on the other hand, reinvented itself through a series of reforms into becoming a rapid deployment force designed for small wars in its near abroad. (Read Putin’s Wars by Mark Galeotti about the reforms.) Russia, lacking the capabilities of the Soviet Union, was forced to rethink its expenditures, and it is telling that what they chose to focus on was this format. They essentially rely on a nuclear deterrent against NATO — the conventional one, which had always been the traditional advantage of the USSR, is long gone. (This means that the conventional logic about defending through the Polish/Ukrainian buffer is already in trouble, but more on that later.)

Why would they do such a thing if NATO is an existential threat? They would not — and statements like the open letters published before the war began by senior officers connected to the General Staff also show that while the Russian military considers NATO a strategic adversary, it does not view it as an imminent threat of any kind. They were explicit about this, as I have documented on several occasions.

What does it mean to be a strategic adversary. It means several things, none of which are remotely connected to worries that your national existence is at stake. For example, it is true that many Russian analysts saw NATO enlargement as a threat, but here we have to be careful to distinguish the nature of the threat. Contrary to Mearsheimer & Abrahms, the Russians were not worried about national survival but about their ability to maintain their status and influence in the region. It is obvious that NATO membership would make these neighbors more independent of the Kremlin — after all, that was the primary purpose of joining — and as a result, Moscow quickly saw its ability to influence politics wane, reducing Russia to at most a regional power. They used the energy supply as a political weapon, with some success, to counter this, but the decline was unmistakable. This would mean loss of lucrative contracts because of Western competition, and so on. So yes, inability to easily coerce one’s neighbors was definitely cause of resentment in Russia.

The step from this sort of reasoning (which the US applies to China, for example) to having your existence threatened by that opponent is extraordinarily large, and I have seen no evidence to support the notion that the Russian leadership has taken it. Therefore, I am not inclined to grant Abrahms the assertion that Russians view NATO as an existential threat.

Was belief that NATO is an existential threat a cause of the war?

Suppose that Putin did believe that NATO were such a threat. What follows from this? Mearsheimer/Abrahms vaguely gesture to maps and history to tell us that Russia’s “sense of insecurity is compounded by the distinct military history of Ukraine, which, unlike current NATO countries, was traversed by Napoleonic France, imperial Germany, and then Nazi Germany to attack Russia.” Now, it’s obviously false that current NATO countries were not “traversed” by Napoleonic France, imperial Germany, and then Nazi Germany — Poland comes to mind — among several others. The “traversal” argument actually applies to Polish territories much more than to Ukrainian ones since an invasion from the West almost invariably goes through the bottleneck in Poland between the Baltic Sea and the Carpathian mountains. It is true that Russian/Soviet security interests have always sought to subjugate Poland, in part in order to provide a more readily defensible border there. If Abrahms is advocating for expelling Poland from NATO, he should say so. The Russian/Soviet interests have also sought control of the Turkish Straits, against for security reasons, so if Abrahms is advocating for expelling Turkey from NATO, he should say so. This leads me to the first point: the fact that Russia finds something detrimental to its security interests is not, in itself, sufficient reason to agree that Russia should have at it.

Abrahms and “realists” like him always ignore the wishes of the citizens in the smaller countries that they so nonchalantly wish to sacrifice in order to make Russia feel less vulnerable. They also constantly ignore the fact that these nations have their own governments that can act in ways that neither Russia nor the West can control, and so often “realists” are in the really silly position of having a lot of their predictions overturned because some such “insignificant actor” took action that really screwed up the plans of the Great Powers. Ukraine’s Maidan in 2014 comes to mind as a decent illustration of that problem.

The deeper issue, however, is to ask whether it was reasonable for Russia to feel vulnerable in this traditional sense in the 21st century. This is where historical analogies are not helpful at all. Unlike all previous instances cited by Abrahms, Russia was not merely integrated with the West in a very profitable (for its elites anyway) relationship but no power in Europe could threaten Russia with a conventional invasion of any sort. Which army or combination of armies would march across Poland (or Ukraine) to invade Russia? The Germans, who can barely scrape a hundred tanks? The French? The British? The Poles? I mean this very seriously: what European force could have possibly done anything to threaten Russia’s existence? The Europeans have been completely reliant on the USA for their own defense, a source of constant irritation to American policymakers who have always tried to get them to spend more on that, unsuccessfully.

So it has to be the US. Note that it can’t really be NATO because the alliance is not designed as an offensive instrument, and it would be well-nigh impossible to get it to attack Russia first. But the US had absolutely no interest in attacking Russia (it does not have any such interest now either). For the past decades, and for the foreseeable future, all US administrations have been laser-focused on China, and any reasonable observer would have known that. For what purpose would one want to invade Russia anyway? The West was happily trading with Putin for years, closing its eyes to all sorts of bad behaviors by the Kremlin in the name of that profit. What could one possibly gain by attacking Russia?

All this talk about “distinct military history” is just bogus as it accounts neither for the capability distribution nor the motivation of the relevant actors. Russia had absolutely nothing to fear from US/NATO/West when it came to its own national security or existence.

Another problem for this “insecurity” argument is that Ukraine was not going to become a NATO member anytime soon, if ever. Merkel had vetoed it, but there was no genuine appetite to admit Ukraine anyway. One reason was because the West was aware that Russians wanted influence in Ukraine, and Ukraine simply was not worth upsetting the Russians or endangering the cozy trade relationship with them. Ukraine and Russia both had the same status within NATO until Putin decided to pull Russia out. If the Kremlin was so worried about Ukraine becoming part of NATO, it’s not at all clear why this could not be resolved with an agreement similar to the one for East Germany — no non-Ukrainian NATO troops there, so no immediate conventional threat to Russia. (I am not talking about nuclear threats because the West does not need bases close to Russia for its nuclear deterrence, so this is a non-issue to begin with.) Heck, even after 2014, the West did very little to upgrade Ukraine’s military. We sent a few hundred Javelins, and even then asked the Ukrainians not to use them in Donbas. The true upgrading did not begin until a month after Russia invaded Ukraine, it did not precede it.

The Lessons of Munich

Abrahms then shift gears and argues against the notion that “concessions to Russia would encourage future land grabs.” Of course, everyone invokes “Munich” as an example of failed appeasement, but Abrahms is careful to tell us that “historical analogies provide a bad foundation for decision making.” The irony of saying this after peddling bad analogies about security threats to Russia from 1815 through 1941 just a few paragraphs above is palpable. But, since I also believe that analogies are not arguments, let’s delve into his specific claims.

Abrahms asks, “Is Russia realistically poised to steamroll through Europe into Paris when it struggles to take Kharkiv, just 20 miles from the Russian border?”

Presumably, we are meant to infer that Paris has nothing to fear from Russia. But this is not what the anti-appeasers are saying. The fear is that if Russia succeeds in Ukraine, it will turn its sights on other territories, Baltics and Poland among them. Note that under Mearsheimer/Abrahms own reasoning about security incentives, Putin absolutely would have to go after Poland and the Baltics, at the very least. The problem is that these countries are NATO members, so now the question becomes whether Putin would challenge the alliance directly, having triumphed indirectly in Ukraine. If he attacks, say, Estonia — are we sure that NATO would invoke Article V (it’s not automatic)? Are we sure that we would want to go into a shooting war ourselves with Russia? The cold truth is that nobody knows whether NATO’s Article V commitment is credible. One could see that it might be when it comes to Paris or London, but not when it comes to Tallinn or Warsaw. Certainly, the Poles seem hell-bent on building a military sufficiently strong to defend against Russia without NATO, if need be. Our worry is that if Putin is emboldened to take on NATO on its periphery, we will either end up in a direct military confrontation with Russia or we will abandon the ally under some pretext, which will seriously undermine our security in Europe.

Abrahms also conveniently overlooks the fact that the reason the Russians are not in Kharkiv today has very much to do with how the West reacted to the invasion, which is contrary to what Mearsheimer and Abrahms advocated. In other words, one cannot take as evidence of one’s own rightness a fact that would not have occured had one been right. If these so-called OR types have had their way, half of Ukraine would have been in Russia now — including Kharkiv — and the other half would be torn by guerilla war against a Moscow-supported puppet regime in Kyiv. Right now, the West has to scramble to produce enough ammunition to help Ukraine fight off the Russian invasion, so this idea that somehow the Russians were never really a threat just does not hold any water.

Having made an absolute hash of one analogy, Abrahms reaches for another: the nuking of Japan. Apparently, NATO is somehow using the war in Ukraine to warn China about Taiwan in the same way that American dropped nuclear bombs to keep the Soviets out of Japan. Again, we can quibble a lot with the interpretation of the historical case: it was never really an option not to use the nukes the moment they became available — at the time it looked like a way to shorten the war and avoid having to assault the home islands, which was expected to be quite costly given the dogged Japanese defense of Okinawa — and yes, the hope was that the end would come before Stalin’s planned invasion (per previous agreement, he was to intervene on the US side to help out) and the inevitable demand to participate in the division of the spoils of victory — in the event, Stalin accelerated his plans and the USSR broke the non-aggression pact with Japan after the first nuke was dropped. So it wasn’t a way to “showcase” American power, it was literally to end the war before the Soviet intervention could give them a claim. (It worked for Japan, although not in Korea.) While it is a valid concern what inferences China would make if the West abandons Ukraine, this is much more remote than the immediate concerns I listed above. I am not quite sure what Abrahms intended to illustrate with this analogy except to somehow impugn American motives by suggesting we are using Ukrainians to make a statement to the Chinese. Perhaps Abrahms needs to be reminded that it is the Ukrainians who are doing the actual fighting. Moreover, in the world of Offensive Realism, shouldn’t America do precisely what it can to dissuade China from doing something aggressive? I can’t keep these OR arguments straight, I am afraid. Or maybe they apply to all countries except the US, which is definitely not allowed to do anything out of its own self-interest.

Having run the course of absurdity with another historical analogy, this time the US provoking Osama bin Laden by stationing troops in Saudi Arabia after the 1991 Gulf War, Abrahms suddenly turns around to tell us that it was all a ruse: he was being facetious and just wanted to illustrate how history is polysemous — that is, it can be picked willy-nilly by anyone who wishes to make a point. Sort of like he had done. Except the arguments he made are actually made with a straight face all the time by people peddling the narrative he favors.

Will more Western aid to Ukraine deter or provoke Russian aggression?

Seeing that we are already in the midst of a full-blown Russian aggression, this seems like a silly thing to ask, but since Abrahms asked it, let’s look at the answers.

First of all, most analysts who argue for more Western aid to Ukraine — I am in this category — do not view it as a means to deter Russia but as a means of inflicting a military defeat on the Russian forces in Ukraine. It’s curious that Abrahms just does not talk about this, preferring instead of engage with the rather nebulous concept of deterrence. What, pray, does he think we would be deterring Russia from or provoking Russia into by supplying more arms to Ukraine. He does not say, and I do not know. What he does say is that “classical deterrence theory… is at odds with the spiral model.” He cites Van Evera, but this is a very bad place to go for theory. Instead, let me just point out that the spiral model — where “punishment may actually elicit worse behavior from an adversary and lead to mutual escalation” — is totally agent-less when it comes to the decision to initiate hostilities. That is, it’s like these old models of arms races where acquiring arms provokes the other side to do so, which in turn gives one incentives to continue, and so on… the models invariably end at the “so on” without telling you what happens next. It could be that the escalation/race settles at some level, it could be it goes down, it could be someone attacks. Nobody knows because the models don’t represent that last move. I’ve always found them quite lacking because of that. In other words, I do not know what to make of a statement in the form that if I escalate my effort, the other side might escalate theirs. The statement is doubtless true, but its implications are unclear. In the current example, people like me believe that if Ukraine escalates its military preparation it can inflict a defeat sufficiently bad on the Russian military to cause its leadership to abandon its expansionist aims in this war.

It simply won’t do to end, as Abrahms does, by noting that model B says something different from model A. A lot more work would have to be done to determine which of the models might be more applicable, and that’s even assuming they are both logically coherent and consistent. (And as I said, the spiral model has known deficiencies.)

Will escalation spare Ukrainian lives?

Abrahms then chides Western analysts who argue that giving more weapons to Ukraine would prevent civilian deaths, the idea being that it would speed up the end of the war. Abrahms disagrees and cites research by Downes, which shows that states stuck in a war of attrition are more likely to resort to victimization of civilians (presumably in an effort to undermine morale or just for lack of other options). Abrahms seems unaware that he just cited findings that support the argument he is trying to refute. The people who want to send a lot more aid to Ukraine now want to do this precisely to avoid a war of attrition that would strain Western unity, give Putin hope that he could prevail, and therefore lengthen the war, which would also increase civilian fatalities. In other words, the argument is that without suffering a serious military defeat, the Kremlin will not stop the war, and so the effort should be toward enabling the Ukrainians to inflict such a defeat.

Whether the Russians would escalate to kill more civilians remains an open question. Although they have displayed callous disregard for civilians and have engaged in deliberate genocide when it comes to “pacifying” conquered territories, their attacks on the civilian infrastructure harmed civilians more as a consequence of them being very bad at targeting rather than specifically as a goal. They have arguably exhausted the means to inflict massive harm in this way (and the Ukrainians have gotten better at air-defense), and so such a strategy might simply be beyond their capabilities short of using nuclear weapons.

Abrahms then concludes with another astonishing paragraph: “Whether civilian victimization pays remains contested, but the strategic logic is not—to sap the morale of an adversary’s population or undermine the enemy’s ability to resist.” Now, it is true that we are not sure whether targeting civilians undermines the opponent’s ability/will to resist — there are even more examples of contradictory findings that one can cite. In fact, these findings suggest that the answer is “it depends,” or, as scholars would say, “more research is necessary.” In this case, the more research requires a better theory because, contrary to what Abrahms says, the “strategic logic” is not at all straightforward. In fact, it is precisely because the theory is not well-specified that we do not know the conditions under which targeting civilians “works” and when it “backfires”. My own hunch is that the missing variable is how civilians view the role of their own government in their victimhood. When they support its goals and see the struggle as justified, getting bombed by the enemy will tend to increase one’s resolve and strengthen the war effort (bombing backfires), but when it blames the government for either failing to protect them or engaging in a war it should not, then bombing may very well increase incentives to sabotage the war effort (bombing works as intended). I have not studied this enough to be confident of this, but analyzing several cases has led me to believe that Russia’s targeting of Ukrainian civilians is more likely to increase their resolve to see Russia defeated than cause them to call for negotiations with Putin.

The case of not even reading the abstract of a paper one cites

Finally, and one has to pause to appreciate the nonsense that we are being served, Abrahms goes on to cite a paper on civil wars that argues that “As a conflict actor weakens relative to its adversary, it employs increasingly violent tactics toward the civilian population as a means of reshaping the strategic landscape to its benefit.” He takes this to mean that “Contrary to the conventional wisdom, scholarship suggests that Ukrainian citizens may paradoxically benefit from us supporting them less.”

Oh my, how I wish he had continued to read at least the abstract that he cited. You see, the authors of said paper explain why the actor begins to target civilians: “First, declining capabilities increase resource needs at the moment that extractive capacity is in decline. Second, declining capabilities inhibit control and policing, making less violent means of defection deterrence more difficult.” In other words, in the model the authors use, the declining actor needs to increase his resources to compensate for his weakness, and he needs the population to produce these resources (the context is civil war, remember?), and since declining capacity is also assumed to result in less control of that population, the actor compensates this by increasing coercive means (that is, engages in more violence). This model has nothing whatsoever to say about Russia targeting Ukrainian civilians.

If anything, the model actually says that the Russian government is likely to start repressing its own population as the effort to squeeze more resources for the war intensifies. I agree with that assessment completely. The Kremlin isn’t extracting resources from the Ukrainian civilians in Kyiv or Lviv or Odesa, and so the mechanism the paper studies has absolutely nothing to say about whether Putin will lob more missiles at these cities. That Abrahms uses such sloppy reading of an abstract to derive a policy implication that we should support Ukrainians less is nothing short of abhorrent.

The answer to Abrahms’ final question, “How can international-relations scholarship inform U.S. policy over Ukraine?” is “by learning said scholarship first, then learning some of the history, then learning some research design, then learning not to have your conclusions before your arguments, and finally, by please, for God’s sake, not publishing pompous nonsense in magazines for the general reader.” This has done a tremendous disservice to the image of our profession.

2 thoughts on “How to fake a scholarly argument — Abrahms in The Atlantic

  1. A very effective and much-needed academic demolition of the Potemkin pseudo-theories currently being deployed to shore up some people’s pre-determined geopolitical world views that recent events have evidently stressed beyond the yield point.

    Liked by 1 person

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s