A Realist, Liberal, and Constructivist Walk into a Bar…

I. Which of the theories of international relations better describe the ideological schools in Russia and how?

It was a warm Saturday night in Russland and all schools of thought have gone out for a drink at the Russian Bar of Thinking. Raymond the Realist strolled through the door to see a group of his buddies threatening the bartender for more drinks. It almost appeared as if they would try to take over the bar if their beers did not come any faster. Maybe they felt that their security was threatened? Lisa the Liberal and her gang of idealists crowded the couch and gossiped about the unjust way the realists were treating the bartender. They believed his civil liberties were being threatened and that they should do something to contain the realists. Playing pool away from all the commotion, Charlie Construct and his boys were evaluating the situation from both sides. They were trying to understand the effectiveness of power while also considering the importance of shared ideas.

Already sitting at the bar were the three Russian Schools of Thought. Sofia the Statist was impressed by the way the realists were using power to impose their will. Wasilei the Westernizer is sickened by the way the realists were acting and wanted to stand up for the bartender. In the darkest corner of the bar, you have Cesar the Civilizationist  puffing on cigarette. Humored by the realists actions, he ignored the liberal commotion and fantasized about the superiority of Russian values over the West. He also thought the realists’ actions were petty as he intended to take over not only the bar, but the parking lot as well.

The realist group acted fast. From their perspective, the bar was in anarchy. They had to act sooner rather than later to ensure their survival. When the bartender was not looking, they hopped over the counter, hit him over the head and started serving drinks to themselves. They set their own price and only served those that supported them. The Statists immediately started flirting with the realists behind the counter. The statists and the realists have very similar viewpoints. From the realist point of view, a show of power and national security is of top priority. To have both economic and military superiority over regional groups/other pub customers is their ultimate goal. Everything should be competitive and global powers should compete for “great power status.” Hans Morgenthau once said, “international politics is the struggle for power…the struggle for power is universal in time and space”. Therefore, the realists believe that they must retain their power over those in the bar to protect their national security and thus promote survival.

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The Statists of Russia find these beliefs extremely attractive and because of this flirt with those realists that had just taken over the bar. Since realists’ usually need a strong military to impose their will, the state often has the most power regarding decision making. Statists believe that one must support the state’s ability to govern and recognize it as the most influential. Although both realists and statists disagree with the beliefs of the West, they are not “anti-Western” per say, but simply desire recognition through the emphasis of economic and military strength as argued by Tsygankov. Since the focus of the state for both statists and realists emphasizes security; human rights and other freedoms are not priorities.

From the perspective of the bar, the realists are simply competing for “great power status” over the rest of the customers to ensure their own security. This action is most likely state driven and therefore, favorable in the eyes of the Russian statists.  However, it should be noted that within the Statists, there is a divide between the social and liberal activists. The social statists believe in the firm control of the state under the Communist party to address the “capitalist threat”. Nevertheless, in favor of a balance of power, these groups prefer a “coexistence with the West” (Liberal) despite the dangerous implications of the capitalist way. On the other hand, the liberal statists believe in the construction of a strong state via a market economy and political democracy. This group does recognize the historically proof that a strong state is effective, and therefore, refuses to sacrifice the values that Russia stands for under the idea of “great power status.” Realism and Statism are incredibly similar regarding the importance of power and state security in an anarchic world. Thus, realism describes the concepts of statism. As parents say “boys will be boys!” And “power will be power”! Realists tend to disregard any change that alters the international scene.

The liberals at the bar are fed up with the realists’ actions against the bartender. Idealistically, for them the world (pub) would not be in anarchy and the idea of economic/military superiority would be overridden via democratic ideals (free market, civil liberties, democracy). For them, securing the necessary civil liberties and natural rights for all is the most important aspect of liberalism.

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Russian Westernizers emerged during Peter the Great’s reign as he desired to mirror the Western perspective in Russia to reverse its backwardness as stated by Tsygankov. The belief at the time was to adopt Western technology and institutions to therefore make Russia a stronger player in an evolving Europe. The Westernizers and Liberals essentially come from the same school of thought as they both value the importance of constitutional freedom and political equality. Russian Westernizers struggle to prove to the statists and civilizationists the value of adopting Western values because it would either threaten Russia’security or challenge traditional cultural values. Post-USSR historians argue that men like Gorbachev tried to reverse the “distortion of Stalin’s reign” and purify the nation through the implementation of democratic ideals. Only then, as Westernizers argue, could Russia reverse its backwardness in the world. The backwardness that was birthed upon the October Revolution in 1917. Idealistically, as Gorbachev portrayed, a “common European home” could be created where all nations could live under the successful ideology of social democracy. To put it simply, the Westernizers are basically the adopted children of the liberal school of thought. Unfortunately for them, these two schools tend to ignore the concept of power which is why they never get along with the realists.

The social Constructivists are a very interesting group. As opposed to placing the school of thought on the state, this school focuses on the individual as a means of influencing social identities through ideas, norms, and discourses. They tend to identify the problems with both liberals and realists and reason that it is better to respect the beliefs of both to promote cooperation. In the case of the bar, Charlie would act as a middle man of sorts and prevent them from throwing chairs at one another. Instead of looking at the opposition from one’s own perspective, identify what the actor is thinking from his or her perspective. Only from here, can an individual make a rational choice on how to proceed that would cause little provocation. The idea that the international environment constructs state actions and interests helps better explain the global situation between power and democracy. Since social constructivism is so new in the international school of thought, it is not easy to compare it to a Russian school of thought.

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The typical Russian Civilizationist is essentially an extreme realist with a very strong anti-Western sentiment. Dating back to the age of Ivan the Terrible, a civilizationist believes that Russian values are critically different from that of the West. These ideas and beliefs must be spread in order to challenge the Western system. For example, Lenin-Trotsky’s plan to spread communism globally was a civilizationist point of view. It is a radical school of thought and emphasizes the importance of “culturally distinctiveness” from the West. You can compare bits of the realist ideology to the civilizationist school of thought in regards to power and expansionism, but not in regard to its distaste for Western culture. One could argue that social civilizationists like Lenin could have slight constructivist beliefs in regards to the spread and shaping of ideas. Other than that, this school of thought is very independent from the rest hence why Cesar is sitting alone in the darkest corner of the bar plotting his next move.

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Why it matters: Understanding how the contemporary IR schools of thought relate or compare to their Russian counterparts is the key to understanding the Russian perspective in world affairs. Using this knowledge, diplomats and other high level officials can properly address Russian actions based on whether it is a statist, western, or civilizationist response. There is a problem though. Those who are unfamiliar with Russian schools of thought most likely immediately label Putin as a realist (which he is)…BUT they treat him as realist instead of a statist which leads to continued friction in places like Ukraine and Baltic States. If they understood that he just wanted recognition for his economic and military power, then potential solutions may be addressed. If they could identify what kind of statist he is, (social or liberal?), the West may be able to compromise.

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As of today, I believe that constructivism in IR theory will provide a universal and comprehensive understanding and approach when dealing with the struggle between realists and liberals. A constructivist can also provide an overview of better understanding regarding the Russian schools of thought because of its ability to examine both sides of the spectrum respectively from that actor’s perspective.

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At this point in time, I conclude that understanding the similarities between IR schools and Russian schools of thought are of utmost importance to understand the global positions and “competition” between the West and Russia. By knowing what nation or individual (constructivist) follows what school, decision makers will be able to predict how their counterpart will respond to certain events and therefore, plan for future interaction in the international community. In times where tensions are high as they are in Ukraine now, policy makers must return to the roots of the schools of thought before making any rash or regrettable decisions. Russia’s action in Ukraine are most likely a form of statism and realism in which Putin has the power to make essential decisions while imposing his will amongst his neighbor as a show of great power pragmatism. With NATO’s continued expansion, a realist Russia feels that its national security is threatened and in order to survive in must expand and strengthen its diminishing buffer zone between it and the West. Although his actions seem purely offensive, in a sense it is also defensive which is what the west fails to comprehend. As a statist, Putin is not anti-Western, but merely wants to maintain Russia’s national security by whatever means necessary. His approach may not be sound, but this is why policy makers must understand the differences between the schools of thought. If Obama, Ivan the Terrible, Putin, Peter the Great, and Donald Trump all met up at a bar do you think anything would be agreed upon? Probably not. So now you know… if all the schools of thought show up at the pub, its time to leave and go to the club.

 

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