John Mearsheimer and the Dark Origins of Realism

tags: foreign policy, Russia, Ukraine, international relations, Realpolitik, John Mearsheimer

Adam Tooze is a New Statesman contributing writer and the author of Shutdown and Crashed.

“Why is Ukraine the West’s fault?” This is the provocative title of a talk by Professor John Mearsheimer – a famous exponent of international relations (IR) realism – given at an alumni gathering of the University of Chicago in 2015. Since it was first posted on YouTube, it has been viewed more than 18 million times.

In 2022 Mearsheimer is still delivering his message, most explosively on 1 March in an ill-advised down-the-telephone interview to the New Yorker. Against the backdrop of the Russian invasion of Ukraine, Mearsheimer’s provocation is causing outrage. And it raises the question: what is the realism that Mearsheimer claims to espouse?

On the one hand, Mearsheimer is disarmingly even-handed. The push for Nato expansion in 2008 to include Georgia and Ukraine was a disastrous mistake. The overthrow of the Moscow-backed Viktor Yanukovych regime in 2014, a revolution supported by the West, antagonised Russia further. The West should accept responsibility for having created a dangerous situation by extending an anti-Soviet alliance into what is left of Russia’s sphere of influence. And then comes the inflammatory conclusion: Putin’s violent pushback should not come as a surprise.

In 2015, Mearsheimer’s stance was already controversial. Today, in light of Putin’s flagrant breach of international law, it has taken on a new life. On 28 February, when the Russian foreign ministry tweeted its endorsement of Mearsheimer’s view, it was pounced on by Anne Applebaum, the noted historian and campaigner for post-Soviet eastern European liberalism.

“And there it is,” Applebaum gloated, with reference to the foreign ministry’s tweet, “now wondering if the Russians didn’t actually get their narrative from Mearsheimer et al. Moscow needed to say West was responsible for Russian invasions (Chechnya, Georgia, Syria, Ukraine), and not their own greed and imperialism. American academics provided the narrative.”

Over the days that followed, Appelbaum’s denunciation attracted a flurry of support, and students at the University of Chicago launched a menacing open letter demanding to know whether Mearsheimer was on the Russian payroll.

The scandal entails Mearsheimer’s refusal to see Putin’s aggression as anything other than the behaviour of a great power at bay. Unlike Applebaum, Mearsheimer has little at stake in either Russian or Ukrainian history. What he is doing is simply elucidating the implications of his favourite IR theory, known as “offensive” or “great power” realism. Russia is a great power. Great powers, the theory goes, guard their security through spheres of interest. The US does so too, in the form of the Monroe doctrine and more recently in the Carter doctrine, which extends America’s interests to the Persian Gulf. If necessary, those zones are defended with force, and anyone who fails to recognise and respect this fails to grasp the violent logic of international relations.

As for Applebaum’s allegation – for which she offered no evidence – Mearsheimer would presumably shrug. After all, Applebaum isn’t claiming that Mearsheimer and his ilk – “American academics” – gave the Russians the idea. Putin doesn’t need American professors to convince him that Russia is a great power. Great powers use fair means and foul. Instrumentalising arguments from foreign academics is the least of their sins.

Read entire article at New Statesman

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