Strange Unanchored Pragmatism
In yesterday’s Financial Times, Janan Ganesh signs a strange column. He wonders why no political theory of international relations explains the war in Ukraine: not the optimistic “democratic capitalism” of Francis Fukuyama’s The End of History, nor the tribal (“cultural and religious”) ideal of “nations,” nor the “realist” theory of state interests. Only a “pragmatic,” “case-by-case” approach, that is, no theory at all, can make sense of Vladimir Putin’s behavior, he suggests (“No Grand Theory Can Explain the Ukraine Crisis,” April 12, 2022). Throw a dice, flip a coin, or read tea leaves.
This is puzzling. Hasn’t Mr. Ganesh ever heard of Leviathan as a model of the state? One of the most recent and, in my opinion, the most useful of such related theories is the economics of public choice and its philosophical-political dimension that you find in the works of James Buchanan (or Buchanan and Tullock). Friedrich Hayek’s theory would be also a candidate. Anthony de Jasay stands on the liberal-anarchist wing of non-random explanations of the state.
In this perspective, Vladimir Putin is not difficult to explain. Grant unrestrained power to any individual or group of individuals—whether it is Putin or Volodymyr Zelensky, Donald Trump or Joe Biden—and the ruler’s own interests will soon push him into growing a full-fledged Leviathan, whether of the Brave New World type or the 1984 type. (What often saves us is that the more powerful a dictator, the more inefficient he is, at least for those who are not his direct subjects.) We only have to look at Putin’s own interests as he evaluates them, with due concern for rewarding the most weighty of his supporters, and the Leviathan model of the state shows all its usefulness.
This is why restraining the state and understanding the reasons for the chains is so important. Instead of Ganesh’s “democratic capitalism,” an expression which is at best meaningless (and, incidentally, does not appear in Fukuyama’s The End of History), liberal or constitutional democracy (emphasizing “constitutional,” as Buchanan says) and its underlying values would seem to both solve domestic problems and understand foreign tyrants.