The Realist Case for a Ukraine Peace Deal

Conflict resolution isn’t just for woolly-headed idealists.

Walt-Steve-foreign-policy-columnist20
Stephen M. Walt
By , a columnist at Foreign Policy and the Robert and Renée Belfer professor of international relations at Harvard University.
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky speaks during a press conference in Kyiv on March 3, 2022.
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky speaks during a press conference in Kyiv on March 3, 2022.
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky speaks during a press conference in Kyiv on March 3, 2022. SERGEI SUPINSKY/AFP via Getty Images

Putin’s War

War is on everyone’s lips and laptop screens these days. Each day, we pore over the latest news from Ukraine, read opinions from real (or imagined) experts, and try to figure out who’s winning on the ground and in the air. Not surprisingly, it’s easy to find both optimistic and pessimistic forecasts.

All the attention on the fighting is understandable, but what matters in the end is how the conflict is resolved. It may be emotionally satisfying to proclaim that the only acceptable outcome is Russia’s capitulation, regime change in Moscow, and Russian President Vladimir Putin’s prosecution for war crimes, but none of those outcomes is likely. Making these goals our war aim is also a good way to prolong the fighting and raise the risk of escalation even higher.

If we care about Ukraine, our immediate goal should be to end the war before even more damage is done. There are thoughtful pieces by Thomas Graham and Rajan Menon, Michael O’Hanlon, Anatol Lieven, and others that begin to wrestle with this difficult topic, but they all recognize that getting there will not be easy. Moreover, the ultimate goal should be conflict resolution—not just an end to the fighting but a political arrangement that makes a replay later on less likely.

War is on everyone’s lips and laptop screens these days. Each day, we pore over the latest news from Ukraine, read opinions from real (or imagined) experts, and try to figure out who’s winning on the ground and in the air. Not surprisingly, it’s easy to find both optimistic and pessimistic forecasts.

All the attention on the fighting is understandable, but what matters in the end is how the conflict is resolved. It may be emotionally satisfying to proclaim that the only acceptable outcome is Russia’s capitulation, regime change in Moscow, and Russian President Vladimir Putin’s prosecution for war crimes, but none of those outcomes is likely. Making these goals our war aim is also a good way to prolong the fighting and raise the risk of escalation even higher.

If we care about Ukraine, our immediate goal should be to end the war before even more damage is done. There are thoughtful pieces by Thomas Graham and Rajan Menon, Michael O’Hanlon, Anatol Lieven, and others that begin to wrestle with this difficult topic, but they all recognize that getting there will not be easy. Moreover, the ultimate goal should be conflict resolution—not just an end to the fighting but a political arrangement that makes a replay later on less likely.

You might think that a realist would regard conflict resolution as a naive and idealistic notion popular among woolly-headed academics and largely divorced from real-world concerns. After all, doesn’t realism emphasize the competitive tendencies that are hard-wired into an anarchic political order? Yes, but it’s a mistake to think that realists see no interest in resolving conflicts when one can. Properly understood, there is a hard-nosed realist case for resolving conflicts whenever possible. Let me lay it out for you.

The most obvious reason for great powers to try to resolve ongoing conflicts is to remove existing problems from the current foreign-policy agenda. Realists recognize that new troubles are always lurking around the next corner, and every problem or conflict that you can shut down now is something you won’t need to worry about when a new crisis erupts.

The nuclear deal with Iran is an obvious case in point. When it was in effect, the United States did not have to worry very much about Iran’s nuclear potential and didn’t have to devote a lot of time or bandwidth to negotiating a new agreement. So long as Iran remained in compliance (and the International Atomic Energy Agency repeatedly certified that it was), the problem could be left on the back burner. By leaving the agreement, however, then-U.S. President Donald Trump put Iran’s nuclear program back near the top of America’s foreign-policy agenda. Not only did his blunder fuel regional violence in ways that undermined U.S. interests, but leaving the nuclear deal forced the Biden administration to devote time, energy, and bandwidth to negotiating a new agreement to reverse Iran’s renewed progress toward a bomb. I’ll bet President Joe Biden, Secretary of State Antony Blinken, National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan, and the rest of their team wishes they didn’t have to spend a minute on this issue right now.

A second reason to resolve conflicts is to protect allies and friends who are involved in a regional dispute or likely to get drawn into one. By making them more secure, they will be in a better position to help you in other ways. It’s a win-win, especially for a country such as the United States, which has partners in many places and defines its interests broadly.

Third, by definition, resolving conflicts reduces the risk of unwanted escalation. When any war is underway, there is always a chance that third parties will enter it voluntarily or get drawn in as the protagonists try to prosecute the conflict more effectively. The Congo wars in Africa eventually involved nearly all the states bordering the Democratic Republic of the Congo; the Vietnam War expanded into Laos and Cambodia (with especially horrific effects on the latter); and the Iran-Iraq War led to attacks on foreign oil tankers and eventually led the United States and others to respond militarily. Stopping the fighting made that problem disappear virtually overnight.

Moreover, wars invariably produce a lot of nasty unintended consequences, even for the winners. Supporting the Afghan mujaheddin against the Soviet Union during the 1980s may have seemed like a great idea at the time, and one can argue that it was worth it to bring the Soviet empire down. But it also sowed the seeds of the terrorist movements that attacked Americans from the 1990s onward and eventually provoked the United States into the long and disastrous global war on terrorism. And it certainly did nothing positive for the people of Afghanistan, who have endured more than 40 years of near-constant warfare. Instead of fueling the conflict, maybe doing more to settle it way back then would have left everyone—including the United States—better off.

Fourth, helping to stop an ongoing war is an ideal way for a great power to demonstrate its influence and its ability to work for the greater good. In the first decade of the 20th century, for example, President Theodore Roosevelt’s successful mediation of the Russo-Japanese War enhanced America’s status as a newly influential actor on the world stage. Seventy years later, President Jimmy Carter’s stewardship of the Camp David Accords and Egyptian-Israeli peace treaty had similar effects. By contrast, the repeated failure to broker a final Israeli-Palestinian peace deal under the Clinton, Bush, and Obama administrations undermined America’s image as a competent and objective mediator.

From this perspective, we may one day look back on Russia’s war in Ukraine as a giant missed opportunity for Chinese President Xi Jinping. Imagine the prestige China might have garnered if Xi stepped in and got the Russians and Ukrainians to come to terms. Not only would this action have reinforced Chinese aspirations to be the leading global power of the 21st century, but it would also have underscored its stated commitment to the principle of national sovereignty. Beijing could have boasted to others that the war had demonstrated that decadent and declining great powers such as the United States, its European allies, and Russia simply couldn’t handle their disagreements without fighting, while China’s approach to world affairs could deliver peace. Xi’s failure to seize this opportunity suggests he simply cannot admit that backing Putin so strongly over the past several years was a bad bet. If so, he is displaying the same self-defeating rigidity that helped bring the war about in the first place.

Fifth, a world where conflict and war are endemic is a world where trade and investment cannot flow as safely or as freely. Just look at what is happening now, as the war in Ukraine accelerates the retreat from globalization that was already underway. As my colleague Dani Rodrik told the New York Times, the war has “probably put a nail in the coffin of hyperglobalization.” Liberals often argue that economic interdependence promotes peace—and there is some evidence for that proposition—but it may be even more accurate to say that peace facilitates interdependence. Countries at war are generally not attractive investment opportunities, and they must divert resources away from enhancing their citizens’ lives and pour them onto the battlefield instead. Realism’s emphasis on the conflictive elements of world affairs does not preclude it from seeing the material benefits of more integrated global economy, and reaping these benefits requires a world with less war.

Last but by no means least, resolving conflicts is desirable because it reduces human suffering and enhances human dignity. Nothing in the realist approach to foreign policy says these things are unimportant, even if states often ignore such concerns when vital interests are at stake. But realists see this situation as part of the tragedy of power politics and welcome practical steps to mitigate it. Conflict resolution is one of the most obvious.

These points are not an argument for “peace at any price.” Nor do they prescribe accepting settlements that are just an intermission until the next act of violence, although temporary cease-fires can allow civilians to escape and facilitate humanitarian relief. And to be fair, sometimes fomenting conflict, baiting adversaries into costly quagmires, or otherwise playing geopolitical hardball can make another country more secure. To recognize the virtues of conflict resolution is not to deny that states sometimes benefit from the opposite.

And as I’ve noted before, the United States has a greater interest in conflict resolution than any other major power. America’s position in the world is still extraordinarily favorable despite the self-inflicted wounds of recent years, and the only things that can really damage it are misguided policies and poisonous politics at home, climate change, and really big conflagrations abroad. From a hard-nosed, selfish, flag-waving perspective, peace is almost always in the U.S. national interest.

And as George W. Bush learned to his sorrow and Putin may—repeat, may—be discovering today, rolling the iron dice of war can take a nation into situations its leaders never intended or imagined. There’s no shortage of potential trouble in the world, and wiser leaders try to avoid it, to settle conflicts where and when they can, and to enter conflicts only when necessary and only after much thought, a careful weighing of alternatives, and with considerable trepidation.

What does this mean for the war in Ukraine? Now that Russia has been denied the swift victory it expected going in, the war is likely to turn into a grinding and costly stalemate that won’t end until the protagonists realize that they cannot achieve all their original goals and will have to accept a less-than-ideal outcome. Russia won’t get a compliant Ukrainian satellite or a Moscow-centered “Eurasian empire” that includes it. Ukraine won’t get Crimea back or full membership in NATO. The United States will have to give up trying to bring other states into NATO someday. But the real trick will be to devise a settlement that the parties will be willing to live with in perpetuity and not seek to overturn at the first opportunity. That is a formidable challenge, and the sooner smart people start trying to figure out what such an agreement might entail, the better.

Stephen M. Walt is a columnist at Foreign Policy and the Robert and Renée Belfer professor of international relations at Harvard University.

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