‘Devoted Realism’

By Peter Turchin May 4, 2014 2 Comments

Dominic Johnson and Monica Duffy Toft wrote a very interesting article. I applaud the explicitly evolutionary approach that they bring to Political Science. I also agree with their emphasis on territory, “the only thing that lasts.”

Nevertheless, I don’t agree with everything they say in the article. Johnson and Toft employ insights from game theory to understand why states, the principal actors on the international arena, pursue different courses of action in different circumstances (again, an approach with which I heartily agree). However, they suggest that under some circumstances international actors play the ‘dove’ strategy, while in other circumstances they could play a ‘hawkish’ or ‘bourgeois’ strategies. I think this approach muddies theoretical waters.

My alternative proposal is that all modern states play essentially the same strategy, which I will call ‘Devoted Realism’ for reasons given below. What differs is the relative amounts of geopolitical power each player possesses and the nature of resource (territory) the conflict is over. As any other theoretical model, Devoted Realism, naturally, oversimplifies the situation. States are not really unitary agents, they are composed of various interest groups that may cooperate, or be in conflict with each other. The configuration of the international arena also plays a role. There are many other factors that could affect the behavior of the players, but let’s keep things simple and explore the implications of the basic model.

My Devoted Realism model is simply an elaboration of the Offensive Realism of John Mearsheimer and others that includes the ideas of Scott Atran relating to the importance of Sacred Values in influencing the behavior of individuals, interest groups, and whole polities. In Atran’s terminology, agents motivated by Sacred Values are called ‘Devoted Actors.’ (Thus, ‘Devoted Realism’).

As in Offensive Realism, I postulate that states are involved in a single-minded pursuit of geopolitical power. The principle resource they vie for is territory, for reasons explained by Johnson and Toft (see also my Aeon article). Different pieces of land, however, vary in their value. The value of territory is affected by its ability to generate taxes for the state treasury and recruits for the state army, its mineral and natural endowments, and its role in the economic division of labor (for example, containing industries that provide some key products for the rest of economy). Other benefits include the ability to project geopolitical power, or deny this ability to potential rivals.

Territories also impose costs. They may have restive populations or even separatist groups that need to be suppressed. They may be located far away from the center, imposing a significant logistical burden on the state. And possessing them may be costly or dangerous because of other actors on the international arena (e.g., the sanctions imposed by the US and the EU on Russia following its annexation of Crimea).

So far we are solidly within Offensive Realism. In deciding whether to grab or let go a piece of territory, states weigh its utility (benefits minus costs) and its own power relative to that of its opponents. ‘Power’ here means not only material factors (army size, armaments, the state of the treasury), but also the degree of political unity and the willingness of the elites and population to spend treasure and blood for the sake of obtaining (or keeping) the territory.

All we need to do now is to realize that the ‘utility function’ of territory includes not only its material advantages—natural, economic, and geopolitical endowments—but also its Sacred Value. Sacred Value can vary from zero to some intermediate values (so that overwhelming material costs may trump it) to essentially infinity (when it trumps any considerations of material advantage).

How does land become Sacred? Partly it is a result of mere possession. States are very reluctant to give up any territory that they already possess, no matter how worthless and costly to defend. It’s simply bad form. It also gives ideas to other actors that the state lacks commitment to defend what’s its own. The importance of possession is illuminated by the hawk-dove game, which Johnson and Toft discuss, in which the dominant strategy is ‘bourgeois’ who fight to keep their property, but don’t attempt to take the property of others.

Incidentally, I dislike the term ‘bourgeois,’ which confuses rather than illuminates the theoretical issues. Furthermore, the bourgeois strategy is an overly simplistic description of the strategy that real states pursue, for two reasons. First, as Offensive Realism shows, states will grab territory that they don’t own if the balance of benefits versus costs is favorable. As an example, when Mexico became devastated by internal fighting and persistent Comanche raids in the 1840s, the United States went to war with it and acquired New Mexico and California. The disappearance of the Soviet Union in 1991 left a similar ‘geopolitical black hole’ into which the NATO expanded. As Offensive Realists, including Mearsheimer, pointed out at the time, there was very little geopolitical advantage to be gained from this expansion (and it broke the explicit promises made to Gorbachev as a condition of his approving the German Reunification). Nevertheless, this expansion proceeded because its costs were minimal, since during the 1990s Russia was powerless to prevent it.

Second, possession is not all or nothing. Two or more states can claim the same territory and at the same time assign very different value to it. This is why we need a continuous variable that measures the non-materialistic aspects of territory’s value.

Clearly, the length of possession increases the Sacred Value of a territory to the state. For example, Taiwan has been owned by the Chinese Empire since the seventeenth century, and just by virtue of such long ownership it has become a Sacred Value for the Chinese, who explicitly justify their insistence that eventually Taiwan must be re-unified with the mainland China by referring to it as their Sacred Land.

Other factors, however, can be even more important in making territory Sacred than the length of possession. I have explored such factors in the case of Crimea in the Aeon article. A general rule, which I have called the coevolution of geopolitics and Sacred Values, is that geopolitically important areas tend to be defended more fiercely—initially, because of their geopolitical value. But with time, such lands also acquire a Sacred value, because they are sites of numerous wars, battles, and sieges resulting in ‘heroic deeds’ that are deposited into the collective memory.

Because Sacred Values are a cultural phenomenon, locations also gain “Sacredness” by being associated with writers, composers, political statesmen, and military heroes. Thus, birth places and burial sites (e.g. mausoleums) of various notables are definitely part of the Sacred Landscape.

Most of this commentary has been devoted to theoretical issues—extending the Offensive Realism model by adding a Sacred Value dimension to it. But the theory has practical applications. In the context of the Ukrainian crisis, for example, the Devoted Realism model suggests that there is a big difference between Crimea and eastern Ukraine, when considered from the point of view of Russia.

Crimea is of immeasurably higher geopolitical and cultural significance to Russia (see my Aeon article for details) than the Donetsk and Lugansk regions. Crimean annexation brought two ‘Hero Cities’ into the Russian fold: Sevastopol, the third most Sacred city for the Russians (after Moscow and St. Petersburg), and Kerch. Eastern Ukraine has no Hero Cities. Until recent events, most Russians would be hard pressed to locate Lugansk on a contour map.

Crimean population was staunchly in favor of unification with Russia. Characteristically, the Russian President Putin admitted that they ran secret polls in Crimea on this question before committing to the referendum and annexation. In eastern Ukraine, as best as we can tell from the polls, the majority of the population, while rejecting the “illegitimate” Kiev authority, is probably not going to support entering Russia.

Geographically Crimea is essentially an island, which is easy to defend, It’s an “unsinkable aircraft carrier” that allows Russia to project power into the Black Sea and the eastern Mediterranean . On the other hand, there is no obvious boundary between eastern Ukraine and the rest of Ukraine.

Absorbing Crimea into Russia economically is already going to be very costly, but the cost of doing the same for Donbass is clearly prohibitive.

Finally, annexing Donbass is sure to trigger much more severe sanctions from the United States and the European Union, and create a rift with other BRICS countries, which so far have refrained from criticizing Russian actions.

In short, the balance of costs and benefits (including its low Sacred Value) is such that annexation of eastern Ukraine is simply not a rational strategy. There are a number of indicators that the Russian leadership understands this calculus very well. For example, the Donbass activists, to whom the Western Press usually refers to as “separatists,” are called “supporters of federalization” by the official Moscow. This is a clear sign that Moscow has currently no desire to enter into the quagmire of eastern Ukraine. And, I would argue, the reason why it is so different from Crimea can be seen by considering the Sacred Landscape of Russia.

Published On: May 4, 2014

Peter Turchin

Peter Turchin

Curriculum Vitae

Peter Turchin is an evolutionary anthropologist at the University of Connecticut who works in the field of historical social science that he and his colleagues call Cliodynamics. His research interests lie at the intersection of social and cultural evolution, historical macrosociology, economic history and cliometrics, mathematical modeling of long-term social processes, and the construction and analysis of historical databases. Currently he investigates a set of broad and interrelated questions. How do human societies evolve? In particular, what processes explain the evolution of ultrasociality—our capacity to cooperate in huge anonymous societies of millions? Why do we see such a staggering degree of inequality in economic performance and effectiveness of governance among nations? Turchin uses the theoretical framework of cultural multilevel selection to address these questions. Currently his main research effort is directed at coordinating the Seshat Databank project, which builds a massive historical database of cultural evolution that will enable us to empirically test theoretical predictions coming from various social evolution theories.

Turchin has published 200 articles in peer-reviewed journals, including a dozen in Nature, Science, and PNAS. His publications are frequently cited and in 2004 he was designated as “Highly cited researcher” by Turchin has authored seven books. His most recent book is Ultrasociety: How 10,000 Years of War Made Humans the Greatest Cooperators on Earth (Beresta Books, 2016).


  • Richard says:

    No, Putin has little intention to annex the Donbass.
    Putin will just keep inciting there to keep Ukraine weak and off-balance (essentially using the same playbook it has in Georgia . . and Azerbajian to a smaller extent). It may seek to do the same in the Baltics. Putin’s endgame is to keep a buffer of pliant and/or weak states between it and the West in Europe.

  • I would like to contact you. I am interested in collaboration. My email is,

    I have a few documents online;

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