International politics is often divided into two policy fields: high politics cover security matters, whilst low politics emphasize economic and socio-cultural affairs. European low politics has enjoyed unparalleled prominence since the end of the Cold War: in the absence of fierce geopolitical competition, Europe has had the privilege of prioritizing such issues as regional integration, international development, and climate change. The Russian invasion of Ukraine, however, heralds the return of European high politics. It is the first major European war in over seventy-five years, the first extensive European conflict since the Yugoslav Wars, and the first significant nuclear saber-rattling in decades.
Drawing on eight simple rules, realist international relations theory offers a concise framework for understanding high politics. Moscow’s newfound hostility warrants a review of these rules.
First, high politics unfold in conditions of international “anarchy.” No central mechanism stringently coordinates state behavior within international politics: instead, individual sovereign states are the highest form of authority. These states may empower supranational organizations, like the United Nations, but they can similarly withhold power from them. For example, after the Russian invasion, Ukraine’s representative instructed the UN Security Council, “It is the responsibility of this body to stop the war.” Within hours, the Security Council voted 11-1 in favor of demanding Moscow’s withdrawal: however, as a permanent member of the council, Russia single-handedly blocked the resolution.
International anarchy is often mischaracterized, as a free-for-all arena. Even in anarchy, the state system still provides individual states with constraints, or general guidelines of practical and acceptable behavior. For example, the European system has a balance-of-power mechanism, that discourages states from trying to dominate the continent. Since anarchy lacks binding rules, states may contravene their constraints, but as John Mearsheimer notes, “such foolish behavior invariably has negative consequences.” Correspondingly, countervailing coalitions have formed to pushback and punish each potential European hegemon since 1648. This notion of informal constraints similarly explains the punitive response to Russian hostility. Although international anarchy allows unprovoked aggression, the state system strongly discourages it. By invading Ukraine then, Moscow either willfully ignored or inadvertently misperceived its constraints – thereby provoking a countervailing Western coalition. Wary of their own constraints though, these states have sought to minimize escalation risk – by limiting their response to diplomatic condemnation, economic sanctions, and arms transfers.
Anarchy is a constant feature of international politics, but its importance hinges on the nature of states’ strategic environment. Anarchy principally encourages states to ensure their own survival. Therefore, it has minimal consequence in permissive environments, where threats are neither apparent nor imminent. Since survival is relatively assured here, states can “kick security down the road” and pursue their low political objectives. Conversely, anarchy is paramount in restrictive environments, where clear and pressing threats leave survival unassured. This distinction explains the ongoing shift in European security policy. Following the Cold War, Europe enjoyed a largely permissive environment – such that between 1989 and 2020, Western European defense spending fell by 49% (as a percentage of GDP). The invasion of Ukraine has since fostered a restrictive environment, by marking Russia as a rival peer competitor. Correspondingly, Europe is prioritizing survival again. Thirteen states – including France, Germany, and Italy – have already announced intentions for increased defense spending, and support for NATO membership has surged in neutral Finland and Sweden. Poland offers the starkest example: wary of its precarious geography, Warsaw has increased defense spending, announced near-term plans to double its military size, and steadfastly supported the Ukrainian defense.
Second, states must help themselves in high politics. Since the international system lacks central authority, there is no metaphorical 911 to call for rescue. The UN cannot respond, without a mandate and military resources from members states. Such approval has only been granted once: in 1950, Washington sought full-scale intervention in South Korea; and both Moscow and Beijing were absent from the Security Council. Likewise, “international goodwill” is scant in restrictive environments: as the ongoing crisis demonstrates, anarchy only encourages states to help others while helping themselves. Correspondingly, while 27 Western states have armed Ukraine, they have also rebuffed each of Kyiv’s requests that might incite major war – such as instituting a no-fly zone or granting emergency EU membership. Self-help can be collective, but this similarly requires mutual benefit. For example, NATO aggregates the capabilities of its 30 members, to provide a more robust defense against the common threat of Russia expansion. However, Ukraine remains excluded – because some NATO members do not consider its resources worth antagonizing Moscow.
The corollary also applies – in high politics, dependence is detrimental. When states forsake self-help, they ultimately become reliant on those who are helping themselves. Such dependence can prove catastrophic. For example, Warsaw neglected its defenses throughout the mid-1700s, believing that the European powers valued Poland as a weak buffer state. Austria, Prussia, and Russia preferred its territory instead, and in 1795, they partitioned Poland out of existence. More commonly, dependence opens vulnerabilities – that inhibit states from best helping themselves. The EU, for instance, cannot impose crippling sanctions on Russia’s lucrative oil and gas industry – because its members are dependent on Russian energy imports. As realism would expect though, Brussels has unveiled near-term plans to drastically reduce this energy reliance.
Third, states are fundamentally self-interested. Since states exist in a self-help environment, they cannot afford to subordinate their interests to those of other parties. Doing so, amidst anarchy, inherently risks their security and survival. This propensity for egoism is evident in the Ukraine crisis. Washington, for instance, has four implied objectives: 1) defend its rules-based order, 2) deter Russian aggression against NATO, 3) preserve Ukrainian sovereignty, and 4) avoid major war. Accordingly, the Biden administration has limited its response to imposing sanctions on Russia, bolstering allied defenses in Europe, and arming Ukraine. Moscow, by contrast, wants to rebuild its former security buffer at Eastern Europe’s expense. Correspondingly, it pledged to de-escalate the crisis – if NATO agreed to reject future Ukrainian membership, and halt all military activity in the former Soviet Republics. After NATO refused, Russia began “demilitarizing” Ukraine – and has since threatened Finland and Sweden with “serious military consequences,” should they pursue NATO membership.
Fourth, force is the ultimate arbiter. Amidst anarchy, force provides the only definitive mechanism for settling competing self-interests. States use force to directly impose their will on adversaries – by disarming, disabling, or destroying them outright. Russia, for example, seeks the “demilitarization and denazification” of Ukraine: because its diplomatic pressure has repeatedly failed to keep Kyiv onside. States can also leverage the prospect of harm to compel concessions. For instance, by placing its nuclear forces on “special combat readiness,” Moscow aims to deter increased support for Ukraine and “hostile moves” from NATO. Without prohibitions on its use, force remains an ever-present specter in anarchy – to which, Kenneth Waltz notes, “Force serves not only as the ultima ratio, but indeed, as the first and constant one.”
Fifth, force capabilities are empowering. Since force arbitrates high politics, states derive power from their capacity to harm other states. “It is the ultimate ability of each state to use its military instrument,” Robert Art notes, “that disciplines the diplomats.” Correspondingly, Moscow has demonstrated considerable power: its armies are attacking Ukraine; its nuclear reminders have muted EU-NATO responses; and its arms exports have prevented diplomatic encirclement. EU-NATO members, by contrast, have proven relatively powerless: they cannot intervene without risking war; their arms transfers have been hampered by ongoing fighting; and economic sanctions take time to erode military capability. Kyiv cannot significantly harm Russia either: its forces are effectively fighting a strategic delaying action; and its valuable nuclear deterrent was surrendered in 1994.
Sixth, relative “power” is the currency of high politics. Amidst anarchy, states revert to the primal organizing principle of “might makes right.” Correspondingly, by having more power than others, states have greater capacity to advance their own self-interests – and block those of rivals. In short, “the strong do what they can, and the weak suffer what they must.” Moscow is demonstrating a similar attitude, because it outclasses Kyiv. By the numbers, Russia holds a 9:1 advantage in gross domestic product, a 3:1 advantage in population, a 10:1 advantage in military spending, a 4:1 advantage in active forces, and a 2:1 advantage in military reserves. This disparity also explains Ukraine’s ambitions towards NATO and the EU: Kyiv understands that in high politics, it takes a great power to resist another.
Seventh, relative gains are the prize. Since states are self-interested actors competing in a self-help world, they generally exploit opportunities to gain relative power. Doing so not only improves their capacity to advance self-interests – but it also precludes others from making gains at their expense. By invading Ukraine, for example, Moscow simultaneously aims to remove a “military threat” – and preclude NATO expansion. States are careful power-maximizers though: as rational actors, they understand that relative gains cannot have prohibitive costs. Correspondingly, Russia has gone after the easier gains in Eastern Europe: Ukraine is a weak neighbor without external protection; whereas NATO is a nuclear-armed adversary with greater wealth, population, and military resources than Russia. NATO states are behaving similarly: rather than intervention in Ukraine – which risks war, they are using arms transfers to bloody Russia’s nose.
Eight, geography still matters. In high politics, each state operates from a fixed territory with unique geographic attributes. Their base functions are also territorial: to survive, states must defend their territory, and to wield power, they must project force against other territories. Correspondingly, physical geography has an inescapable influence on both functions. Regional location and frontier terrain largely shape territorial defense. To this end, the US holds an enviable position: it is far away from the other great powers – and surrounded by “fish and weak neighbors.” Conversely, force projection hinges on the intervening distance and terrain. Honduras, for instance, cannot project force against Australia: however, it has repeatedly sent soldiers into neighboring countries. As the Russian invasion has demonstrated, Ukraine occupies a fundamentally indefensible position: it lies next to, a revisionist great power, on an open steppe. Kyiv cannot change this – “For,” as Nicholas Spykman notes, “geography does not argue. It simply is.”
These eight simple rules broadly explain the Ukraine crisis – and general patterns of state behavior over the last four-hundred years. Even still, they should be applied with a grain of salt. Foreign policy decisions ultimately result from leaders assessing the anarchic environment – and making calculated choices with imperfect information. Leaders, for example, struggle with accurate power assessments. To this end, William Wohlforth notes that each European power held a competing perception of Russia’s capabilities prior to World War One. Likewise, during the Cold War, he finds that the superpowers held different conceptions of their balance, with Washington conceiving power in economic terms – and Moscow, military capabilities. Leaders experience similar difficulty in assessing self-interests: because they are self-determined by other states, can and do change over time, and may or may not be communicated truthfully – if at all. Correspondingly, leaders must make foreign policy decisions based on their perceptions of power and others’ self-interest. This, in turn, opens the door for miscalculation and unexpected foreign policy decisions.
Overall though, realism and its eight simple rules are much like the North Star: they offer a steady, albeit very general guide to navigating the jungle of high politics.