Foreign policy realists are being seen through the prism of gender
Much has been angrily made of statements by the scholar of realist foreign policy John Mearsheimer that Nato bears most of the responsibility for Vladimir Putin’s decision to invade Ukraine. Over the weekend, US foreign policy journalist Melissa Chan upped the stakes with a liberal feminist gloss on this condemnation, declaring that his view is ‘basically the “‘she wore a short skirt’ argument”.
Instead of doing the geopolitical equivalent of slut-shaming, she says, we should take her word — “as a woman covering foreign policy and simply as a woman in society who sees regular justification of male violence” — that Mearsheimer’s views are not just wrong but noxious in a wider sense too.
What we’re seeing is in truth “Putin’s toxic masculinity against Ukraine”. Mearsheimer’s position “isn’t just a ‘take’, it is morally deplorable and based on misogyny.” What’s at stake here is not just a war over who gets to control Ukraine, but also a war within the West over which of two irreconcilable world-views is accepted as the default account of reality.
Foreign policy realism views international relations as fundamentally anarchic and amoral. Realists understand states to pursue often competing interests based on an ever-shifting calculus of strategic priorities, ability to control resources, military strength and wider alliances.
Against this, Melissa Chan has transposed wholesale onto geopolitics the idealist perspective core to liberal feminism. This worldview understands ‘toxic masculinity’ — a cocktail of misdemeanours in which the central feature is overt aggression — as central to the world’s ills. Inculcated by millennia of patriarchy, it’s nonetheless capable of being undone, for men and women would be fundamentally the same in behaviour and outlook were it not for the imposition of harmful stereotypes. And the un-doing means challenging overt aggression at every turn.
There’s no disputing the overtness of Putin’s aggression. But Chan is angry at Mearsheimer for offering an explanation of this aggression based in an assumption that aggression as such can’t be eliminated. In the field of international relations, from the realist viewpoint, military aggression can be explained, contained, directed or occasionally suppressed by opposing violence. But it can’t simply be ended. To anyone proposing to do so, realists might offer the classic schoolyard retort: “You and whose army?”
This in turn has troubling implications for the theory of ‘toxic masculinity’. If geopolitical aggression can’t be contained save by countervailing pressures, backed up ultimately by someone’s army, what of aggression directed in the social field against women? We may try and explain, contain, direct or violently suppress it, but can we eradicate it?
It’s a core tenet of liberal feminism not only that we can, but that pessimism on this front makes you part of the problem, as a water-carrier for ‘toxic masculinity’. Thus, from her perspective, Mearsheimer’s worldview is not just wrong but actively harmful on the home front too. For while (to my knowledge) he has nothing to say about sexual assault, his explanation of Russian aggression in realist terms is based on his prior assumptions about the anarchic, amoral and power-based nature of geopolitics. As such, it assumes the futility of liberal feminism’s central objective — abolishing overt aggression — and is thus not just bad but ‘based in misogyny’.
There isn’t space in this short piece to discuss the plausibility of eradicating overt aggression from interpersonal relations between men and women, and I leave it to the reader to consider the plausibility of doing so internationally. History will decide which worldview, Mearsheimer’s or Chan’s, has greater explanatory power in the context of the current conflict.
But we should be in no doubt that Chan’s is the stance which currently holds greater sway among journalists and the laptop classes. And we should be in no doubt that a premise as fundamental — and as fundamentally metaphysical — as the possibility and moral urgency of eradicating overt aggression from the world is one with profound policy implications. Up to and including, perhaps ironically, the deployment of someone’s army in order to enforce its beliefs.