It may be a sign of decline in John Mearsheimer’s mental acuity that, nine months after coming off quite badly in one Q&A by the New Yorker’s Isaac Chotiner, he agreed to strap himself in for another round of grilling and emerged more battered still.
Professors of political science don’t generally cause a stir, but intellectual self-immolation is a rare spectacle. And Chotiner’s one-two torching of Mearsheimer is a barn-burner.
In the past year, to a degree rarely matched by academics in his field, Mearsheimer made a splash in the public debate. He has argued that NATO—and especially the United States—is “principally responsible” for Russia’s invasion of Ukraine; that Vladimir Putin’s aims in this war are limited to keeping Ukraine in Moscow’s orbit; that Putin has the right to make this claim; and that the U.S. should not only end the war quickly but form an alliance with Russia in broader geopolitical ventures. He is wrong on all these points, for reasons that go deeper than the obvious ones.
Mearsheimer comes to the debate with impressive credentials. His 2001 book, The Tragedy of Great Power Politics, is a classic treatise on war and peace through the lens of International Realism (also known as Realpolitik), a worthy successor to Hans Morgenthau’s Politics Among Nations and Kenneth Waltz’s Man, the State, and War.
Chotiner (who used to work at Slate) is an interviewer of deep reading and a distinctive style. His modus operandi is to rattle those he interviews by quoting a risible claim or blatant contradiction in some article they’ve written, sit back as they dig themselves into a deep hole, then flick a mot juste so stinging that they crumble on the spot, along with their reputations. (He could have been an ace prosecutor.)
Mearsheimer came under Chotiner’s sights—and those of many commentators—back in February, when the professor first started blaming the U.S. for Putin’s aggression against Ukraine. His reasoning was that the expansion of NATO into the territory of the former Soviet Union threatened Russia’s existential interests. In particular, he cited President George W. Bush’s statement in 2008 that Ukraine, right on Russia’s border, would someday be granted membership in the U.S.-led military alliance. As a result, Mearsheimer concluded, President Vladimir Putin had no choice but to invade Ukraine, to keep its neighbor from decamping to the West.
This view was consistent, up to a point, with key tenets of Realism—that states behave according to their security interests; that peace is kept not through international law (which can’t be enforced) but by preserving a balance of power; and that “great states” (those with enough power to preserve this balance) have a right to control “spheres of influence” on or near their border.
In his 2001 book, Mearsheimer pushed this thesis farther.
Because the world is anarchic (the U.N. has no police force), he wrote, nations fear for their survival. “Great nations,” by their nature, deal with this fear by expanding their control over territory. (He called this practice “offensive realism.”) As they do so, they clash with other great nations, which are also expanding. And so, inevitably, the great nations go to war. This is “the tragedy of great power politics.” (I am simplifying his thesis a bit, but, really, not by much.)
To these points, he has said and written in several speeches and articles, that NATO expansion—and especially its courting of Ukraine—was bound to spark war with Russia. Similarly, he has argued that Beijing’s economic and military expansion in Asia—to the point where China is now a “peer competitor” with the United States—will inevitably spark a war between America and China. He goes further still and argues that, because conflict with China is the West’s main security threat, the U.S. must not only end its support of Ukraine but mend bridges and form an alliance with Putin, so that, together, Washington and Moscow can beat back China.
Back in February, when he first interviewed Mearsheimer, Chotiner challenged some of these points. What, he asked, if Ukraine wanted to join Western institutions? Too bad, Mearsheimer replied. “When you’re a country like Ukraine and you live next door to a great power like Russia, you have to pay careful attention to what the Russians think.”
He assured Chotiner—this was just days after the invasion began—that the assault wouldn’t go far. Putin, Mearsheimer said, “understands that he cannot conquer Ukraine and integrate it into a greater Russia or into a reincarnation of the former Soviet Union. He can’t do that.” And yet Putin himself now says this is precisely his goal. The fact that he is unable to follow through with it doesn’t mean that it isn’t his intention. Mearsheimer ignores the distinction; he simply brushes aside, or at times distorts, what Putin himself has said.
In his follow-up interview, published earlier this month, Chotiner recited this passage back to Mearsheimer and asked if he still agreed with it. Remarkably, Mearsheimer said he does. All Putin wants, Mearsheimer claimed, are the four Ukrainian districts that he has (unsuccessfully) annexed (in the first interview, he said Putin would want only two, but who’s counting) as well as “regime change” in Kyiv, adding that this is different from occupying a capital, conquering an entire country.
There are many such jaw-droppers in both interviews. But here I want to focus on deeper problems with Mearsheimer’s thesis—beyond the absurdities and non sequiturs that Chotiner prodded him to mutter.
The bigger problems lie in his entire concept of “great power politics.”
First, for all of Mearsheimer’s allegiance to “realism,” it is a decidedly unrealistic view of the world. It views nations as magnetic markers moving around a gameboard in a deterministic fashion, with the sole aim of maximizing power. This is a useful starting point for analysts, and even practitioners, of international politics; power structures do shape the environment of decision-making. But it only goes so far. Mearsheimer’s framework makes no place for decision-making or decision-makers, or for a nation’s domestic politics. In his scheme, it makes no difference whether a country is a democracy or a dictatorship; it doesn’t matter whether Moscow is run by Stalin, Khrushchev, Gorbachev, or Putin, or whether Beijing is run by Mao, Deng, or Xi. Great nations behave like great nations, period.
Second, Mearsheimer never really defines “great nations,” and, when it comes to discussing Russia, this is crucial. Thomas Pepinsky, the Walter F. LaFeber Professor of Government at Cornell (and something of a Realist), blogged after the first Mearsheimer-Chotiner interview, “Russia is not a great power. It is obviously a declining power … Given this, it is not NATO’s responsibility to protect Russian state security interests. It is Russia’s responsibility to give wide berth to NATO, recognizing—as every realist should—that the strong do what they will, the weak do what they must”—a famous quote from that ur-Realist, Thucydides. Finally, Pepinsky delivers the blow: “Invading Ukraine was a stupid strategic error made by a declining power that does not understand The Tragedy of Great Power Politics.”
Pepinsky overstates things, possibly for effect. Some attention should be paid by the world to Russia’s security interests, if only because, as Pepinsky notes, it is a major supplier of oil and gas and, more gravely, because Russia possesses a large nuclear arsenal. It’s also indisputable that NATO’s “enlargement,” right up to Russia’s borders, intensified Putin’s resentment and paranoia. But this is no excuse for invasion. Mearsheimer ignores the fact that, in the weeks leading up to the invasion, U.S. officials assured Putin that NATO would not offer membership to Ukraine in the foreseeable future. In early March, just two weeks after the war began, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky said he had “cooled down” on the need to join NATO. If this were Putin’s only, or even main, fear, he had plenty of chances to stop the war or avoid starting it to begin with.
Even now, after the U.S. has sent Ukraine more than $20 billion worth of weapons and is training Ukranian soldiers on how to use them, the U.S. and most other NATO nations have no desire to invite Ukraine to join the alliance (which would require them to send troops to fight and kill Russians). And while the European Union has created a Military Assistance Mission to help Ukraine in its fight, there has been no rush to accept Zelensky’s application for membership in the EU itself.
Remarkably, Mearsheimer, in his second interview with Chotiner earlier this month, still contends that Putin’s main fear is Ukraine joining NATO. He denies that Putin has any desire to conquer all of Ukraine or to restore the old Russian empire—even though Putin has said that this is his aim. He claims only that Putin wants to annex four oblasts, without acknowledging that he’d earlier said Putin wanted only two, and—more disturbingly—without allowing that there might be something wrong with simply grabbing land.
This is another oddity in Mearsheimer’s brand of Realism. He makes no distinction between how great power politics work and how they should work; he passes no judgment on even the most horrific acts committed in great-power wars because, well, what’s the point of protesting the inevitable?
Two problems stand out here. First, in his 2007 book, The Israel Lobby and U.S. Foreign Policy, Mearsheimer and his co-author, Stephen Walt, cite a “moral dimension” in America’s enabling of Israeli “crimes perpetrated against the Palestinians.” Chotiner quotes this passage, expressing surprise that the cold Realist should have moral qualms about anything. Mearsheimer replies that all foreign policy has a moral dimension, but that sometimes, strategic interests must prevail, as when the U.S. allied with Stalin to defeat Hitler. In the same way, he says, Ukrainians “run a grave risk if they alienate the Russians in a fundamental way.” It’s a remarkable statement—that it’s immoral for Israel to crush Palestinians but a fact of life for Russia to stomp on Ukrainians.
Finally, Mearsheimer’s premise that great-power expansion—a natural product of great-power politics—inevitably leads to war simply isn’t true. For nearly a half-century, to cite one of many possible examples, the U.S. and the Soviet Union collided with each other’s interests, through proxy wars and occasional near-war crises (e.g., in Berlin and Cuba), yet they never went to war with one other directly.
Mearsheimer acknowledged this fact in a 2021 Foreign Affairs article (the thesis of which was that a U.S.-China war is “inevitable”), but explained that, during the U.S.-Soviet rivalry, “both sides understood the fearsome risks of nuclear escalation,” so neither “was willing to start a conflict that would likely have destroyed his own country.” However, in the same article, he wrote:
[O]ne cannot assume that there would be no nuclear escalation should Beijing and Washington fight over Taiwan or the South China Sea. Indeed, if one side were losing badly, it would at least consider employing nuclear weapons to rescue the situation.
So, the U.S. and the Soviet Union avoided conflict because it might escalate to nuclear war—but a U.S.-China war is “inevitable,” even though it too might go nuclear?
Mearsheimer’s theory—like Realism in its various forms—help explains why war will be a fact of life as long as nation-states have offensive weapons, rivalries, and uncertainties about their security. But even these structural roots of war are less inexorable than they once were. Thanks to modern intelligence technology, leaders—especially those of “great states”—know more about what rivals are doing and don’t need to be so swayed by worst-case scenarios. Instant communications can also allay paranoid fears. (During the Cuban missile crisis, John F. Kennedy and Nikita Khrushchev sent each other telegrams, which took as long as a day to reach their destinations.) Human beings—leaders, diplomats, generals, politicians, even, in some countries, ordinary citizens—have some sway over the course of events.
They and the policies they devise may make war more or less likely, but structures don’t determine everything, nor do academic theories about those structures.
At one point in his first interview with Chotiner, Mearsheimer said, after pondering which areas Russian troops would conquer and which areas they’d hold, “Do I know what’s going to happen? No, none of us know what’s going to happen.” A bit more humility, along those lines, would be welcome in all of his pontifications.