In times of peace, much of what anyone says about national power is guesswork. Different claims can be based on hopes, prejudices, or even simple self-interest. Analysts and experts can speak confidently about how some states are undoubtedly great powers while others are weak, that some countries are led by strategic geniuses and others by corrupt incompetents. The statements can sound eminently plausible as facts, even be downright persuasive, because there is no way of knowing the truth.
Until, that is, a war breaks out. The Russia-Ukraine war is now cutting through much of the nonsense that dominated the discussion of international power politics, posing particular challenges to blasé assumptions about what makes a state powerful, and what makes a country’s leadership effective. This reassessment doesn’t just concern the question of debatable prewar military analysis of Russia and Ukraine, or theories of international relations. Instead, it is aimed at the whole way we think about how countries interact with one another, about national power, and about leadership.
The best place to start is the widespread notion going into the war that we were witnessing a clash between a great power controlled by an experienced, savvy—some even said brilliant—leader and a small state weakened by national division and led by a second-rate former comedian. This great power–small power dynamic was accepted practically universally among a group of scholars and analysts who have proclaimed themselves “realists.” [Continue reading…]