No grand theory can explain the Ukraine crisis

Because the word is more often applied to eveningwear, modernist furniture and a certain kind of footballer, we forget that academic theories can also be “elegant”. If one seems to explain a lot with a little, if it has few moving parts but great sweep, it can be so beautiful as to leave readers wishing it were true. “The a priori reasoning is so entirely satisfactory to me”, wrote Charles Darwin’s brother of On the Origin of Species, “that if the facts won’t fit in, why so much the worse for the facts.”

The past couple of months have been embarrassing for intellectual elegance. Of the neatest and most famous attempts to capture international relations in theoretical form, none can explain the Ukraine crisis.

Witness, for at least the second time this century, Francis Fukuyama’s idea of liberal convergence. The End of History is often unfairly traduced. It never said that “events” would stop. In fact, a generation before Brexit and the Trump presidency, it foresaw a reaction against the ennui of politics in a too-stable west. Still, there is no ignoring its core claim that democratic capitalism had seen off all comers as the “final form” of government. Confronted with the violent dissent of Vladimir Putin, the best it can say is that he is a detour on the road of Whiggish teleology. The same was presumably true of al-Qaeda, and again now of the Chinese Communist party. There are getting to be a lot of detours.

Those who thought Fukuyama naive often found their way to the bleak essentialism of Samuel Huntington. Nations don’t answer to this or that ideology, he said, but to their cultural and religious identities. His division of the globe into nine mostly contiguous civilisations is the picture of lucidity. But then so is the Tube map. It still misrepresents the chaos and contradiction of London. Huntington cannot explain why two members of broadly the same civilisation (that is, Orthodoxy) are at war today. Or why two different ones (the west and Japan) are so aligned on sanctions. Or by what logic China (the “Sinic” civilisation) broke with Russia in the 1960s but succours it now.

For that, it is necessary to weigh a nation’s particular interests and experiences, among other contingent variables. Citing its eternal culture, as though it determines everything, is all elegance and no function, like a Bauhaus chair that is a pain to sit on.

As much as they vie on op-ed pages, the followers of Fukuyama and Huntington are ultimately of a piece. Each side believes that ideas are what drive the world. The disagreement is over which ones. Chortling away at both theories, or what is left of them, are the supposedly harder heads of foreign policy “realism”. For them, all states are more or less the same. All have interests rather than values. Trapped in an “anarchic” world, which means one without a central global authority, all seek to maximise their security. If one encroaches on another — by expanding Nato, say — it should brace itself for a counterpunch.

No theory of international relations is more academically august. None stands more superficially vindicated today. And yet think of the intellectual sleight of hand here. A strict realist wants you to believe that Putin would now be no trouble if only Nato hadn’t moved east. Holding domestic values cheap, realism can’t explain why the sanctioning countries are almost all democracies. It can’t explain why Ukrainians want to face west in the first place.

When Putin himself cites culture and values, a realist must diagnose him with false consciousness, and stress that what really moves him is the dry calculation of the chessboard. At least Erasmus Darwin had brotherly love as an excuse for discounting observable facts.

When theories are wrong, the results are more than academic. At least in part, the Iraq war was launched out of overconfidence in democracy as the whole world’s destiny, which just needed some nudging along. For realist reasons, the west too often stayed its hand when faced with preventable bloodshed in the 1990s. In Washington and beyond, the overly messianic and the excessively cynical did harm that a case-by-case pragmatism, however inelegant, might have reduced.

And still the theories proliferate. Only three of the grandest have been mentioned in this column. Airport bookshelves creak under the weight of others heralding a “G-Zero” world, or a “Eurasian” one, and so on. We are left to conclude that people will take a framework, any framework, over the alternative: a world that makes no sense. F Scott Fitzgerald remains correct that first-class minds can handle ambiguity and contradiction. The rest of us need structure.

Letters in response to this column:

Blind will makes Putin choose the worst options / From Andrew Palfreman, Hull, East Yorkshire, UK

In the clash of civilisations, all claim to have a theory / From David Parker, Political Economist, San Francisco, CA, US