"Russia Always Plays the Heavy:" European Security, the War in Ukraine, and Institutional Resilience

This Feature appears in vol. 75, no. 1, "Insecurities: The 75th Anniversary Issue, 1947-2022" (Fall/Winter 2022).

An Interview with Paul Poast

Paul Poast is an associate professor in the Department of Political Science at the University of Chicago, where his research focuses on international relations and quantitative methodology. He is also a frequent guest on the podcast circuit and, since the Russian invasion of Ukraine in February 2022, has taken that opportunity to inform audiences of both the ongoing war and his work. The Journal spoke with Professor Poast to discuss his willingness to share his work with both academic and lay audiences, the most recent developments in Ukraine and the larger shockwaves emanating throughout politics and institutions, and why big crises don’t always generate the big changes one might expect.

Journal of International Affairs (JIA): Before we discuss your research and the state of the conflict in Ukraine, it’s worth noting that you’ve been very active on the podcast circuit and on Twitter. In a strange way, the war has brought your work to a much wider audience.

Paul Poast (PP): It’s always this very awkward Catch-22. Because it’s great to have that outreach. At the same time, it’s because something really horrible is happening. So that’s the Catch-22 of academics in my area of work. I think it’s the curse, as they like to say: May your research always be relevant. And that’s very much the case now.

JIA: You have demonstrated a willingness to take your work to a broader non-academic audience. Where does that come from? Is it a willingness to respond to solicitations, or does it come internally from yourself?

PP: I’d say it’s absolutely a little bit of both. You’d be surprised by the number of people who are not willing to say yes to an interview to talk to people. There are quite a few folks who would rather not do that, and I’m someone who is willing to do that. It’s the old saying: 80% of success is just showing up. Then that leads to the more fundamental question, which is, why is it that I’m willing to say yes? And for that, I do think that there is a responsibility for at least somebody in academia to do this. I do think that there is a responsibility for academics as a whole, and hence for some individuals who feel inclined to do it, to be able to inform the public. I do think that there is a responsibility for us to do that, and this is something that I personally enjoy doing. I feel like maybe I even have an ability to do it, a skill at it, and that’s become evident through the response that I’ve received over the years to my engagement on Twitter. And so, as a result, I do take this as a responsibility to be someone who tries to inform the public about international politics, how scholars think about international politics, and also do that in a way not just to help the public, but also to help my academic discipline. To show the value of studying international politics from an academic perspective. So often, people see world events, or they hear about a professor of international politics, and they think, “Don’t they just watch CNN all day, and then just comment on it?” They don’t realize what it means to actually do academic research. And then why is it even relevant? This is something that our discipline as a whole has gone through kind of a moment trying to think about. This led to a whole initiative called “Bridging the Gap,”[i] for example, trying to make our research more relevant to the public, and even more specifically to policymakers.

And so that is really where this comes from: I do have a desire to inform the public, to bring that forward, and to use my platform as a professor at the University of Chicago to help inform things. But I also recognize that I have an ability to do that. Not everybody does, not everybody has a desire to do that. Because of that, that’s what really drives me to do this.

JIA: Regarding your work, what are some of the things that you’re currently thinking about? And how do those relate to what’s going on in the world right now? Put another way, have you had to pivot what you’re thinking about in your own work over the last year or so, or has it actually aligned quite well?

PP: it’s aligned almost too well. And what I mean by that is, I’ve been going around, since 2019, giving a talk at various seminars, universities, institutes, and so forth. Even in my own class, I’ve been giving a talk, and the title of that talk is, “Man, Russia, and War.” That title, first of all, is a play on the title of the famous book by Kenneth Waltz—of course, famous in our discipline. I don’t know how famous it is more generally, but it’s a very well-known general book by Kenneth Waltz titled “Man, the State, and War” published in 1959.[ii] What I argue in this talk that I’ve been giving, which is going to become a book manuscript, is the idea that when we study international conflict we have to ask ourselves a very fundamental question: Are we actually coming up with generalizable ideas about international politics, or are we just simply explaining Russian foreign policy? And the reason why I say that is because if you really start to think about the major security events over, say, the past 200 years, what you start to realize is that there is a constant in all of those, and that is Russia. As a friend of mine, who’s also a colleague, said when I was first telling them about this project, “Well yes, Russia always plays the heavy.” The idea is that the Russia is always there. Someone’s always worried about them. And yes, of course, other countries have played maybe even more prominent roles in their national security affairs—the British in the nineteenth century, Germany in the early to middle twentieth century, and, of course, the United States since then—but you always have to ask yourself, who are they countering? Who are they most concerned about? And in all three cases, it turns out, Russia is very prominent in that. And so that’s something that I had been going around talking about.

I actually had a very well-received Twitter thread back in 2019 with this argument. And then, all of a sudden, Russia invades Ukraine. At that point, I even had some people reaching out, asking, “Aren’t you writing a book about Russia and war? How does this change your thinking on this?” In many ways, it’s kind of the epitome of this academic curse I was talking about, may your research always be relevant. On the one hand, part of me is kicking myself for not having that book already done, because I’m thinking, “Wow, if that book had already been done in this year, look at it, it would have been amazing.” It wasn’t because I, like many people, have had Covid disrupt various things and slow down the process of what would normally be going on. When I was starting this project in 2019, I didn’t anticipate a pandemic starting in 2020. But also, I’ve come to realize that maybe it’s a good thing, because everything that we’ve been talking about this past year—and it’s kind of sad to say that it’s going to be over a year since the invasion started, and it’s going to go longer than that—everything we’ve been talking about, and by we, I mean not only myself, but many, many other people I follow on Twitter and in the media, has really informed my thinking about this project. And it has really enhanced my thinking about this project. And I think ultimately this project, the book that’s going to come out of this, is going to be much better because of it. So on the one hand, yes, of course it would have been great had that book come out in the winter of 2022. What great timing! But, on the other hand, I actually think it’s going to enhance my research, because I’ve become even more familiar with more experts on Russia. And this has led me to even think more about this process, and it’s even in many ways been an example of the exact process that I’ve been talking about in this research.

JIA: You made it sound like you started out with an interest in arriving at a generalized model of how politics works, and you ran up against the Russian Goliath. Many people have an interest in Russia or Eastern European affairs and then realize that they’re actually quite involved, historically. But it sounds like you were the opposite, where an interested in politics generally came up against the reality of Russia’s foreign engagement.

PP: That’s exactly right. In fact, when I would give this talk, I would even start off the talk by saying, “I am not a Russia scholar. I’m not a Russia expert. But in many ways, that’s exactly the point.” Instead, my area of expertise is—probably the best label to be used to describe myself as a scholar, and the kind of scholarship I do, is in the peace science tradition, as epitomized by the Journal of Conflict Resolution, the quantitative study of conflict. What that meant was exactly what you just described: is that by studying conflict in general, studying war, studying alliances—I’ve done a lot of research on alliances—studying the data on these things, what I started to notice was this constant. I started to notice that Russia really shows up a lot in these data. I teach a course here at the University of Chicago titled “Quantitative Security,” and I’ve taught it for a number of years. I always make this joke during the class. I would say, “If you’re doing quantitative analysis of conflict, say, looking for general patterns, and you’re using regression and statistics to be able to test it, and if you include a variable for Russia, it basically wipes out any results.” That was a joke I would make.

You’re trying to say, well, there’s a democratic peace. Democracies don’t fight each other. Or you’re trying to say, the balance of power leads to stability, and it turns out that any analysis you do, I would joke, just account for Russia, and it basically accounts for everything. Is that truly the case? Now, there’s variations on it. But nevertheless, there would be this comment I would make, and after a while I started to realize that maybe there’s a there there with this content. Maybe it’s not just a joke. Maybe there actually is something more fundamental there.

I started to then notice, looking through our data on wars, looking through our data on conflicts, that are less-than wars, but still militarized. Again, looking at alliances, looking at negotiations to form alliances, all these various types of security measures that we have, I started to notice the dominance of Russia in it. And that is what led me on this project. And so in many ways, to me, that’s what makes the project more powerful: I’m not someone who has spent my career studying Russia. Then, you would say, “Well, of course you’re going to make the argument that Russia matters, because that’s what you do.” No, actually it’s something that more inductively has become apparent to me by the fact that I study conflict more generally.

JIA: In February 2022, information comes out from US intelligence indicating that invasion is imminent, and that intelligence was ultimately borne out. The administration has attempted to claim a great deal of credit here. Presumably you don’t have that same access to intelligence, but as someone who studies this and does have access to certain primary materials or sources, how do you think about the run-up to the invasion, what we knew and what we didn’t know?

PP: First of all, I would go on the record. I did also predict that Russia was going to invade, and it’s out there on Twitter. I have a Twitter thread, probably posted about two weeks beforehand, where I said that Putin is not bluffing. He’s going to invade. I was also on a local newscast about the week before the invasion, and I said he’s likely going to invade.

Now I wouldn’t pat myself on the back for two reasons. First, why did I think that? Well, not because I was privy to any type of special intelligence, not at all, but because of looking at the behavior of Putin, looking at the amassing of troops there, and then matching that with what we know from international relations scholarship about how states signal, and what they’re trying to accomplish, when they’re mobilizing forces. And to me, it all pointed towards invasion. Now, having said that, the other reason why I can’t take credit here is that I was not expecting him to authorize the type of invasion that actually came about, meaning going for all of Ukraine. I was expecting something more limited. I was expecting an authorization of those forces to go across the border into the eastern provinces—essentially where Russian forces currently are. I basically said that that’s what they’re going to do. They’re just going to move the forces in there and take control of that. And in some ways, that probably would have been the right thing to do. If they had just done that from the beginning, they may very well have been able to consolidate their position and actually have control of that much more than they do now. But for various reasons, they decided to go bigger than that—try to overthrow the government, try to even annex the entire country.

Having said all that, it still was apparent to me, just looking at behavior, that Putin was going to invade. And so again, that was something that points to the power of our scholarship: it can actually inform us of something. I also have to say that it was something that we could predict, but another point that I’ve also made is that if there was ever going to be another war in Eastern Europe involving Russia, it was probably going to be Russia and Ukraine. That was another point that I had brought up, I think, back in January. I wrote a Twitter thread about how scholars since the end of the Cold War have been saying, if there is one flash point we should be paying attention to, it’s Ukraine and Russian relations. And they’ve been saying that since the moment Ukraine became independent.

The scholarship on deterrence and signaling pointed to the immediacy of how the invasion was going to happen. But there was a host of scholarship from area experts to IR scholars going back to the early 1990s. They had said, keep an eye on Russian-Ukraine relations, because that’s the flashpoint to be paying attention to. And of course, it’s also important to keep in mind that this isn’t coming out of nowhere. Russia had already invaded Ukraine. They took, of course, control of the Crimean Peninsula back in 2014 and have been supporting lower-level, insurgent-type fighting, separatist fighting, in the Eastern provinces since that time, since 2015. So it wasn’t like this came out of completely nowhere. Instead, it was an escalation, a major escalation, of an already existing policy that Russia had vis-a-vis Ukraine.

JIA: Every couple of months since February, there has been a conversation around the state of the conflict, and usually it’s that Ukraine is doing quite well, Russia not so much. Ten months on, Ukraine is hitting targets significantly into Russian territory. Its president Volodymyr Zelenskyy is Time Magazine’s Person of the Year. Based on where things are right now, where do you see the state of the conflict? Has it changed significantly in the past couple of months, or are we still at that point where there isn’t as much movement?

PP: This has been the key thing to be paying attention to, and this has indeed been part of why I’ve appeared on different podcasts a few times, is to take stock. It’s been several months. Let’s take stock of where we are. I was on a podcast in September, which was right after Ukraine had launched its major offensive and counter offensive. And what I said at that time, which is still what I think now, is that during the summer, it very much looked like there was going to be a drawn-out stalemate. And then, all of a sudden, Ukraine launches this counter offensive, and maybe they’ll be able to actually win this, and win it more quickly, than expected. Now having said that, quick still meant, at the earliest, 3 months after that. So it was not as though they’re going to win this in a few weeks, even though some of the rhetoric at the time back in September was like this. This is sudden collapse, and with Russia, what’s likely to happen? What is going to be the response?

The response is exactly what we saw, which is that Putin starts mobilizing. That was something I even brought up at the time, bringing in more troops. Potentially there was even the nightmare scenario of would he escalate things further? Could there be the use of nuclear weapons? That seems to have stabilized. But even under the most optimistic scenario, If everything went Ukraine’s way, you’re still looking at months of fighting this war, before Russia could actually be fully pushed out. That would have been under the most optimistic scenario. And then again, there were extreme nightmare scenarios of Russia using nuclear weapons, or even the scenario—I think I labeled it a catastrophic success—which is that Ukraine is actually being so successful to get ahead of themselves, and they get trapped. That was actually something they were concerned about: if your forces are pushing too far too fast, you can actually stretch out your supply lines, and even if you’re a superior force, you can be trapped, and then you have to surrender. So there was concern about that. But of course, those scenarios haven’t happened, neither the most optimistic scenario nor the dire scenarios from Ukraine’s perspective.

Instead, what we’ve seen is, again, a stabilization of the situation, definitely a stabilization that favors Ukraine. As you mentioned, they’re making incursions, strikes into Russia. They are pushing back against Russian forces. But what we’ve seen is since the mobilization, Russia has started to hunker down, and they’re now in a situation, going back to what I was saying a little bit ago, where they seem to be able to hold the territory that maybe they should have just taken from the beginning, that they probably should have just limited themselves to taking: the far-eastern portion of territory. They seem like they’re in a position where they could actually hold that, even though militarily they’re going to continue to take punishment. They’re going to continue to take losses. But as I’ve pointed out, that’s par for the course when it comes to Russian military doctrine. They are not built on efficiency. They’ve never been built on efficiency. The Russian military model is to take punishment and basically fight for a Pyrrhic victory. “We took territory. Yes, we incurred a lot of costs. Yes, a lot of deaths. But ultimately, we gained this territory, and that’s what we’re about.” That’s been the Russian model for a long time.

So that’s currently where we are, where there’s still very much the recipe for a protracted conflict. We are going to hit a one-year anniversary mark with this conflict. We’re going to go well into 2023 with this conflict. Could it go longer than that? That is still on the table. Will it go to the extreme of the example I’ve used in other cases, the Iran-Iraq War in the 1980s that went on for eight years? I don’t know if we are going to go that long. But we are in a situation where it’s not going to be ending immediately.

JIA: Here in the US, we just had the 2022 midterm election, and the results—as well as dynamics from the campaign trail—indicate that additional financial and military support may not be so easily forthcoming. Just how important has U.S. military support in particular, and Western economic and humanitarian support in general, been for the Ukrainian side?

PP: It’s been essential. In fact, it’s been determinative. The reason that Ukraine has done so well against Russian forces is first and foremost Ukraine itself. The Ukrainian forces, the Ukrainian population. This is a big reason that Zelenskyy is Time’s Person of the Year. There’s a now-famous phrase that’s been attributed to him, which is, “I don’t need a ride. I need ammunition.” That very much set the tone, the idea that we’re going to fight back. And that morale, that determination, is key. And, indeed, many people have pointed to that as a key difference between the Ukrainians versus the Russians. A lot of the Russian forces are asking themselves, “Why are we here? What are we doing?” Whereas Ukraine is fighting for their home. So that’s a big part of it.

But having said that, that only gets you so far if you don’t have the material, if you don’t have the ammunition that Zelenskyy said. “We need the ammunition, and specifically we need that from the West.” That has been critical to the success of Ukraine, receiving the heavy weaponry. That’s been a big part of what Zelenskyy’s been doing. That’s been his job this whole time, to continue to push for more and more of this aid. Greasing the political wheels, if you will, to receive that aid, and he’s done that by flat out calling out the Western countries. He’s done that in NATO. “Are you going to support us?” He’s done this at the UN. “Is this body dysfunctional?” He has done this both by trying to be friendly, but also calling out Western countries, NATO countries, when he feels like they’re not giving the kind of aid that he feels like they need.

And indeed, for that counteroffensive back in September, the aid and assistance provided specifically by the United States was extremely important to the success of that, both in terms of the weaponry they were able to use and even more precisely the bombardments that they were able to use. Part of the reason why that September counter offensive was so successful is for the weeks leading up to it, the Ukrainians were bombarding the Russian lines, but they were using the heavy Western artillery that was being provided to do that. And then also it appears (and the reason why I say appears is because DoD Officials have admitted as much) that they helped with the planning of that counter offensive as well.

So, it’s really a situation where, more generally, it’s hard not to see that this isn’t so much a war between just Ukraine and Russia. It is. It is indeed Ukrainian forces fighting Russian forces, but it’s really a war broader war than that, and that is Ukraine with a massive amount of assistance from, in particular, NATO countries—and when you’re talking about NATO countries, you really mean the United States, against Russia. And now some people have taken that to the extreme, saying, “Well, it’s really a proxy war between the two,” but that suggests that the motivation behind the war and the fighting in the war is really the United States against Russia. But no, it is a war between Ukraine and Russia. Though, Ukraine would not be able to achieve what they’re achieving without the kind of assistance that they’re receiving from NATO and the United States.

JIA: The next question was going to be the depth and breadth of that Western involvement in Ukraine, which suggests that maybe that there’s an ulterior motive there. But you seem to be pushing back against that, reaffirming that it really is a conflict between Ukraine and Russia. How then should we think about European, NATO, and US involvement in Ukraine if it really is a bilateral conflict? How should we conceptualize of all of this support flowing into Ukraine if the war has not, in fact, become a proxy conflict against Russia?

PP: To me, I think it really comes down to the idea of motivation and intent, and even causality, if you will. I think when people use the phrase “proxy war” to describe what’s happening, what they’re really saying is that there’s these behind-the-scenes machinations by the United States, by the Biden administration, to try to fight this war against Russia, and they are using Ukraine to do that. That’s really the motivation, and that’s an extreme view. But I think a lot of times when you see the phrase proxy war being used, they’re not using it in like an analytical sense. They’re using it to imply that it’s really a war between the United States and Russia, and the US is using Ukraine to do that.

The difference, though, is if you instead view it as the intent by the West, and the United States, to say, “Look. Russia being allowed to take over Ukraine is a threat to us, and it’s a threat to us because of a whole host of reasons.” Number one. Where would Russia stop? That was even something I had pointed out at the very beginning of the war. What direction could this go? I had said that one scenario was that if this was very easy for Russia, Putin may have very well been emboldened to go further, and by going further, not just, say, other former Soviet republics that are not part of NATO, but even ones that are part of NATO, like the Baltic States. That would be of direct interest to the United States, and of course, NATO, to prevent. So that’s one reason why stopping Russia was important.

The other reason why was the broader precedent. And this really gets to the heart of, to me, the debates about negotiating a settlement, about how the West should be pressuring Ukraine to negotiate a settlement. I’ve been saying from the beginning of this war that I can’t see a scenario where the Biden administration would find it in their interest to encourage Ukraine to settle for some sort of territorial concessions, to basically say to Russia, “You can have this part, you can have the Donbas, you can keep Crimea, as long as you stop fighting.” I don’t see the Biden administration wanting to encourage them now. Ultimately, that’s up to Ukraine to do, but I don’t see them pressuring Ukraine to want to do that, because what kind of precedent does that set? It’s a precedent that if you use military force to gain territory, you will be rewarded with that territory. It might be a Pyrrhic victory. But again, from the perspective of someone like Putin, does it really matter?

And then what does that mean for, say, other territorial disputes around the world? What does that mean for China vis-a-vis Taiwan, if the U.S. shows that they’re willing to back down, they’re willing to pressure Ukraine to say, “Why don’t you just go ahead and give up that territory?” Could that, then, have implications that Beijing interprets as well: “If we put enough pressure on Taiwan, maybe the US will back down there?” Would North Korea interpret the same thing with respect to South Korea? And so.

I think that that is the other reason why it’s in the U.S. interest to stop Russia in this case. That’s a different motivation. It’s not saying that the U.S. is using Ukraine. Instead, it’s a recognition that Russia is attacking Ukraine, but the U.S. has interest in wanting to help Ukraine fight back against Russia.

JIA: Another way that this conflict has been conceptualized is as one between liberal democracies and authoritarian regimes. And you see this in who is supplying Ukraine, the US and NATO and European neighbors, but also who is supplying Russia, mostly Iran and China. Is this, like the proxy war theory, not a useful framing?

PP: I do think there’s something to it. I do think that this is an example of where, again, we’re potentially seeing some support for the idea of a democratic peace. Democracies don’t fight each other, but they do fight other autocracies. Of course, the big commonality here: is that a general trend, or does it go back to my research? Is it just because the autocracy tends to be Russia? On the one hand, we absolutely are observing this pattern. There’s no doubt about that. Yes, the countries that are largely sanctioning Russia are democracies and the countries that are largely supporting Russia are non-democracies. We are seeing that divide and we’re observing it. The question is, is that causal? Is it truly a conflict between democracy and autocracy? Or is it, again, that Russia just happens to be a non-democracy and is fighting Ukraine, which is a fledgling democracy.

I think that’s a key thing to keep in mind, that the perception of Ukrainian democracy has improved a lot throughout the war. Prior to the war, there was always quite a lot of corruption there. And then, since the war, there’s been a lot of raising the stature, if you will, of the perceptions of the viability and health of Ukrainian democracy. So I think that yes, we do observe this divide, but I don’t think that divide is causal.

Having said that, one thing that I’ve really been thinking a lot about, and that I’m coming around to more, is that this conflict underpins a key idea related to liberal democracy, and that is the idea that was put forward by Francis Fukuyama regarding the end of history. Of course, others, myself included, have dumped on this and said, “It’s not great.” I did. You know that was very premature to say. Now, what am I referring to? I’m referring to this essay back in 1989 titled “The End of History,” and then it became a book in 1992.[iii] Fukuyama was a Soviet analyst for the State Department. That is what he studied and focused on, and he predicted that the Soviet Union was going to collapse. What he then went on to say is, this is essentially going to establish that the best governing system that humans can come up with is democracy. That’s not to say democracy is perfect, but it’s going to be the best governing system, because all the others have these fatal flaws to them. And since then, there’s been a lot of back and forth, and people reading that as him suggesting that democracy is all great. Yet he’s not so much saying that, he’s just saying the kind of the Churchillian idea of Democracy is the worst form of government, except for all the others. And that’s kind of the idea. And lately Fukuyama, as well as others, have pointed out that there might be something to that, that the autocratic system that is within Russia, enabled Putin to do something like this—to shut out other information, he wants to invade, and he’s going to do that.

And then we’re also seeing the challenges that Beijing is having, including most recently, with the protest over the COVID lockdown and so forth. We’re seeing where they were also making a lot of seemingly strange decisions during COVID, where there was actually an opportunity for China to develop a lot of what we would call soft power, because of the fact that the Trump administration was mishandling it and it was truly one of the situations where, as they say, “Don’t stop your enemy when they’re making a mistake.” Well, China did. They decided to go ahead and make their own mistakes, even though they had an opportunity to say, “Since the US is not going to take the lead on this. We’ll take the lead on this.” But they didn’t do that. And again, you could say that a big reason why that happened was because of the way that their governing systems became more and more centralized around President Xi. And he didn’t personally want to do that, so therefore China didn’t take advantage of this opportunity.

But I think those would be cases that Fukuyama would point to and say, “That’s what I’m talking about: these systems have these inherent flaws to them that don’t allow them to make good decisions, ultimately.” It’s not, say, democracies are always going to make the best decisions. But again, kind of another favorite Churchillian phrase, this time about the United States specifically, is, You can always trust the United States to make the right decision after trying everything else right. It’s a democratic system that allows you to do that, whereas these autocratic systems don’t. This, in a very macro sense, is how I think about what this war tells us about the Autocracy-Democracy dynamic.

JIA: Let’s take a step back and think about this in the broader, historical perspective. Considering some of outcomes that have taken place so far, ranging from Sweden and Finland in the process of joining NATO to Ukraine moving closer to ascension to the EU to Russia burning through equipment and personnel, how should we, while we’re still in it, contextualize what an event like this means in the broader, historical narrative? Can we make sense of how this will change things, or how it is actively changing things? Or do we still need to wait before we can make sense of a real shift in trajectory?

PP: This is the key question. The same thing was asked when the COVID-19 pandemic really came to the fore in 2020. People were saying, “This is changing everything, there’s going to be this new phase of international politics.” But what we’ve seen is that it didn’t really end up changing a whole lot in terms of the trajectory of things. It was really more of an expression of the trajectory, in terms of the idea that the U.S. and China didn’t cooperate to be able to help prevent this pandemic from becoming worse than it was. Well, that was in large part due to patterns and trends that were already in place prior to the pandemic.

That’s the same with this conflict. You could look at this conflict as it might change everything. And obviously, if it were to ultimately lead to the complete collapse of Russia—this is something people have been talking about, if Russia could dissolve, and instead of being this one large political entity, suddenly break up into all of these smaller political entities, that would be a significant change to the international system. But short of that, it is hard to say. To what extent will this war itself be a change versus this war being an expression of patterns that were already unfolding? For example, one pattern that was already unfolding during the pandemic was a kind of return of multipolarity. The end of the unipolar moment. The return of great-power politics is how people refer to it.

That’s not to say the U.S. is suddenly diminished in a dramatic way. Not at all. There’s still debate. They’re still trying to figure out how big is the U.S. economy relative to the Chinese economy? There are still a lot of questions about that. Obviously, the U.S. military is still massive compared to any other military in the world. But just because you’ve returned to a multipolar system doesn’t mean it’s fully equal. You could still have one country that’s much larger than the others. But you still have other countries that are able to exert influence in their regions and even challenge the other great power, in this case the United States, in those regions. And that’s what we’re seeing, that’s what we have been seeing over the past decade with the rise of China, with the reassertion of aggressive intentions by Russia.

In many ways, you could say both kind of go back to 2008. 2008 may ultimately be the year that people point to as the beginning of a multipolar era. Why? Number 1, 2008 is when Russia actually invaded Georgia. So that was when Russia started to reassert itself aggressively in its sphere of influence. Number 2 is the financial crisis. The financial crisis is something that really diminished Western economies, including the United States. But China actually was able to continue growing during that, even when other countries are being harmed by it. 2008 is also when the Beijing Olympic Games happened, and the government of China was using those Games deliberately as a way to showcase—”Look, here we are on the world stage!” I remember seeing those games and thinking, Wow, this is super impressive. The Chinese Government was very deliberate by wanting to do that, as if to say, “This is our stepping out onto the world stage as a major power.” So those things all were 2008, and even by 2013, when John Kerry was President Obama’s Secretary of State, John Kerry even said that we’re no longer in a world like the Cold War, or even the immediate post-Cold War. We’re in a world that looks much more like the nineteenth century and even eighteenth century in terms of multiple major powers all jostling for position. And that was John Kerry. People associate these great-power politics with the Trump Administration. But no, that was during the Obama Administration. He recognized that this was the trend. So in some ways, you could say that COVID-19 and this war are just reflections of that reemergence of multipolarity in the international system and a continuation of these trends that have really been happening for over a decade.

JIA: Is that an idea that you’ve sort of arrived at slowly? Or is it a framework that you’ve been using for a while now, locating that moment all the way back in 2008?

PP: It’s really something that’s been on my mind, especially since 2016, when Donald Trump became president. And the reason why is because I made the argument then that as much as people were shocked by President Trump being elected, he was truly a reflection of the exact same processes that led to Barack Obama being elected, which was a desire amongst the American public to do something different. If you look since the beginning of the unipolar moment who had been president, it was either a Bush or a Clinton, that was it. It was either a Bush or a Clinton throughout the entire unipolar moment, and my sense was that within the American public, there was a view of, “What has that gotten us? We have this financial crisis, we’re in these endless wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, and it seems like it’s time for something different.” Who did Obama beat to become president? He beat Hillary Clinton. That was really his big competitor in the primaries, Hillary Clinton. Then he goes on to beat kind of a very mainstream candidate in John McCain. Then, if you look at Trump, who did Trump beat to become president? Well, in the primary, his main competitor was a Bush, Jeb Bush. He beats out Bush because people don’t want Bush anymore. And then, of course, in the presidential election he beats Hillary Clinton. Again, my sense is that the American public just wanted something different. “We want something new.” Remember, Obama’s campaign was “Hope and Change.” We’re going to do something different. He perceived more as an outsider compared to the Bush and Clinton establishment figures.

So for me, that pointed to, within the United States, a recognition that things are changing and we need to move to something different—a desire for something different. And to me, what then gets reflected in this desire in the United States for something different is a reflection of what was happening internationally. Economic hardships because of the rise of China and the “China Shock” that various workers would experience, the dissatisfaction with the endless wars the United States was in, the financial crisis that was causing these hardships, not just in the United States but globally. I think that’s really what started to inform my thinking about 2008 marking the beginning of this shift to a multipolar system.

JIA: When you put it as Bush and Clinton versus the field, that seems like a useful framing for understanding U.S. domestic politics over the last 15 years. Yet how do you see the health of some of these multilateral institutions? Obviously COVID was a significant stressor on the U.S. The EU is additionally challenged by this war-caused energy crunch. How are you thinking about the strength of some of these institutions?

PP: One way to look at it is, NATO was not looking all that good prior to this war. And now, all of a sudden, this is like NATO’s moment. “This is what we were built for. This is why we exist.” To have countries like Finland and Sweden join it, or to even look at joining, is another reflection from the United States’ standpoint, the vote to authorize them joining NATO. Each country has to sign off on this because you’re basically amending the treaty, and that means the democratic processes within each country have to unfold. That means the Senate has to agree to that. The vote was 95-1, which I think is affirmative vote ever for anybody to join NATO. In an era of polarization and so forth. But that’s really something to have both Democrats and Republicans being almost unanimous that yes, NATO is important, and we think it’s important that these countries join. So that really points to the strength of these institutions.

The EU is a more interesting case. As you know, the EU is one where, at first, I very much viewed this war as something that could change the trajectory of the EU to become even more of a security provider versus a security consumer. That would be providing military aid, seeing a strengthening of the EU. What we’ve seen since is a little bit more of a fracturing; it hasn’t quite manifested itself in that way. You’ve seen more of the individual EU countries go their respective routes with this, giving the kind of aid that they want to give: lot of the consternation with Germany—are they contributing to enough? Accusations that France is basically giving irrelevant levels of aid to Ukraine. But of course, there are also countries like Poland, which are right on the front line, being very supportive of Ukraine, but then seeing everything in between as well. What this points to is that the things that were reflected also in 2016, with Brexit, haven’t gone away. The EU, unlike NATO, has not solidified.

And this also points to things to keep an eye on within those countries, too. One thing that I’ve been concerned about—I wouldn’t say concern, but more analytically, I’ve been wanting to follow, is how are the sanctions going to be maintained? What I mean by that is, we were already talking about all these countries, a lot of European countries and Western countries have these economic sanctions placed on Russia. But economic sanctions are based on self-harm. I am willing to do damage to my own economy in order to make this political point or to change your behavior. That’s the idea of sanction: I’m going to cut this off. Now, when you’re doing this with a smaller country, you don’t have the same harm, but with Russia it’s totally different, because we’re talking about the energy that’s coming from there. But you’re willing to go without this energy in order to make this political point. As we’ve been entering winter, this is becoming already a little bit of a dicey issue, and the question is, would the need for energy supplies, the harm caused by inflation, lead to domestic political effects that then induced domestic political changes that lead to a weakening of the sanctions? And that’s the key thing to keep track of.

Now bringing it back to United States. That, to me, was why those elections that we just had November were so significant, because we didn’t see it. People were expecting the Republican Party to do very well in these elections, largely for this reason: there’s a lot of economic harm being done by this war. And then also it’s the midterm, and typically the party that’s holding the presidency doesn’t do as well. That didn’t happen at all. Yes, the Republicans have gained control of the House, but just barely, and actually the Democrats increased their control in the Senate, and that goes very much against the expectation you would have if all of this harm was going to lead to these dramatic domestic political changes. So that’s another way to think about the dynamics of this is. There are certain institutions that have strengthened—NATO, for example—and then there are other ones where it’s not clear that it’s really had the effect that we thought it was going to have, the EU for example, and then we can also look at that domestically in other countries. That’s going to be the key thing to keep track of: how does this affect domestic politics within a lot of these countries that are imposing sanctions on Russia?

JIA: To conclude, a recent Twitter thread of yours is worth addressing. It posed a question asking what would happen if genocide, and not war, was the defining question of international relations. It’s worth asking because our discussion has largely been focused on Russia, Europe, and essentially the Global North. Partly, it is your area of expertise. But with this question, you seem to be engaging with how other places get incorporated into these questions. Take us through how you developed the question and some final thoughts as to its importance or how you would attempt to generate a response.

PP: There are a couple of ways to approach it. First of all, you can approach it from the context of what we’ve been talking about, the war in Ukraine. This is actually something that a host of individuals, political leaders, analysts from the Global South have pointed out. Ukraine is getting all this attention, but there’s been war happening everywhere—it’s not like war is new. It’s just that this is getting all of this attention because of the fact that it’s happening in Europe. It’s involving Russia, and indeed that’s even led to very, let’s be honest, very offensive remarks by journalists, saying, “Well, this can’t happen here. This is Europe. We don’t have wars like this. That happens in other places in the world.” First of all, that’s just an offensive comment. Second, it’s not an accurate comment. There’s been plenty of war in Europe over the past century, some of the biggest wars we ever had. In fact, the biggest wars we’ve ever had. Even since the end of the second world war, there’s been plenty of war and fighting in Europe. So I don’t think that’s even an accurate statement. But what it shows is this kind of Eurocentrism that we have when we think about conflict and violence. We basically say, “Since there hasn’t been another World War II in Europe, that must mean everything’s peaceful.” This goes to the heart of the decline of war claim, that war, as a whole, is in decline. That there’s been a long peace. No, there just hasn’t been another World War in Europe. That’s really all we’re talking about here. That’s kind of a way to draw this question to what we’ve just been talking about.

But to go more directly to your question of what spurred this thought experiment: what if we hadn’t been focused on explaining war, but instead explaining internal state-sponsored violence against its own citizens. First of all, that was recognition that although the field of international relations definitely existed prior to World War I, the war absolutely marked a watershed for the discipline. The reason why it marked a watershed for the discipline was because of the scale of World War I. It led to, to be honest, massive amounts of money going into this field. You had the establishment of a host of centers around the world, including, here in Chicago, the Chicago Council on Foreign Relations, you had the Council on Foreign Relations in New York, and this was when Chatham House came about in the UK. You had the founding of various academic departments and schools, all in the early 1920s, as a response to World War I and wanting to understand the international politics that led to that war and then understanding if the League of Nations could prevent that kind of war. That’s really what drove then the modern discipline of international relations.

What I point out is, I draw on a piece that was written during World War I. It was written by W.E.B. DuBois, the sociologist—saying he’s a sociologist is limiting him, he was a social scientist par excellence. He spoke on all sorts of issues. But he wrote a piece[iv] in 1917 where he was pointing out that the world is shocked by this war in Europe, but it seems like people have forgotten about all the other violence that happened leading up to this, all the colonial wars that had been fought. In particular, he highlighted Belgium because of the fact that World War I was very much focused on this notion that the reason why the interventions happened was because it was a violation of Belgium neutrality by Germany. That’s what brought in the British, etc. etc. And DuBois says, “Yes, that’s terrible. But let’s not forget what was happening in Belgian-controlled Congo during the late nineteenth or twentieth century.”

That then led me to put forward to my students a thought experiment: What if we had done what DuBois was saying? What if we, instead of allowing World War I to be this transformative event—leading to all of this funding going into the study of this discipline—what if it had been a realization of the atrocities in the Congo in the late nineteenth century, early twentieth century that had instead spurred that kind of study? It absolutely spurred an awareness of these horrendous atrocities and genocide that was happening there. But what if it had instead led to academic focus? What if it had led to all of this money being poured into founding centers and schools to study and prevent colonial violence and genocide? How different would the field of international relations have been?

And I think that there’s a lot of ways we could focus on that, but one of the big ones, going back to what I was just talking about when people talk about the war in Ukraine, is that we probably would not have had this idea of a long peace. We wouldn’t have had this idea of the decline of warfare since World War II. Because that wouldn’t have been the focus. It would have been about internal conflicts. And, if anything, since the end of World War II, there’s been plenty of internal conflicts, internal conflicts sponsored by external powers, and that even took off after the end of the Cold War with the civil wars and genocides and mass atrocities that have happened. So that whole conversation of the long peace, the decline of war, would just not even exist if our focus had been not on an event like World War I but instead on events like genocide, internal state-sponsored violence, or internal violence within a state because of a civil war.

That’s an example of what I was getting at. How much different would our thinking be about international politics, the nature of international politics, if we had taken DuBois’ challenge seriously. What would have happened if the atrocities in Congo had become our focus instead of the massive war in Europe, World War?

JIA: If we actually take DuBois’ question seriously, then it’s a question of, at that time, the British Empire, the French Empire, the Belgians, even the U.S. presence in the Philippines. It raises many more uncomfortable questions that unsurprisingly weren’t asked.

PP: Exactly.

[i] “Bridging the Gap Project,” https://bridgingthegapproject.org/.

[ii] Kenneth Waltz, Man, the State, and War (New York: Columbia University Press, 1959).

[iii] Francis Fukuyama, “The End of History?” The National Interest 16 (1989): 3-18; Francis Fukuyama, The End of History and the Last Man (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1992).

[iv] W. E. Burghardt Du Bois, “Of the Culture of White Folk,” The Journal of Race Development 7, no. 4 (1917): 434-447.