Here’s Why Mearsheimer’s Realist Take is So Exasperating

Isaac Chotiner recently interviewed John Mearsheimer, one of the most prolific realist international relations theorists of our time, on the Russian invasion of Ukraine. His analysis has turned a lot of heads. Here are just the first two paragraphs of Mearsheimer’s commentary:

I think all the trouble in this case really started in April, 2008, at the nato Summit in Bucharest, where afterward nato issued a statement that said Ukraine and Georgia would become part of nato. The Russians made it unequivocally clear at the time that they viewed this as an existential threat, and they drew a line in the sand. Nevertheless, what has happened with the passage of time is that we have moved forward to include Ukraine in the West to make Ukraine a Western bulwark on Russia’s border. Of course, this includes more than just nato expansion. nato expansion is the heart of the strategy, but it includes E.U. expansion as well, and it includes turning Ukraine into a pro-American liberal democracy, and, from a Russian perspective, this is an existential threat….If Ukraine becomes a pro-American liberal democracy, and a member of nato, and a member of the E.U., the Russians will consider that categorically unacceptable. If there were no nato expansion and no E.U. expansion, and Ukraine just became a liberal democracy and was friendly with the United States and the West more generally, it could probably get away with that. You want to understand that there is a three-prong strategy at play here: E.U. expansion, nato expansion, and turning Ukraine into a pro-American liberal democracy.

There is a lot to unpack here, and a lot more at the link above. Most everyone who I know expresses something between exasperation and outrage at Mearsheimer’s stance that it is the US and NATO which bear the blame for Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. There are too many responses to tally them all.

My take is going to be a bit different. I will not offer any defense of NATO or US decisionmaking on ethical grounds, nor a criticism of Russian invasion on humanitarian grounds (although I’d happily do both of those things somewhere else). I think the core problem with Mearsheimer’s analysis is that realism, as a paradigm of international relations theory used by scholars and policymakers to make sense of geopolitics, conflates description with prescription. People want realism to be a theory of how the world actually works, a theory of how the world should work, and a theory of what should we do given how the world works, all at the same time. Mearsheimer confuses these perspectives too, perhaps deliberately, perhaps unwittingly.

This is why smart and well-meaning people ask Mearsheimer, and his theories, to evaluate questions like “who is responsible for the Russian invasion of Ukraine?” and look for responses which are different than “Vladimir Putin, the person who ordered the invasion.” Realism promises an analysis of objective material capabilities, state interests, and structural incentives that suggests that there are deeper causes of things than individual decisions made by state leaders. Vladimir Putin ordered the invasion, in this analysis, because he “had to,” because something “forced him” to do this.

Enter Mearsheimer. He argues that Russia has core security interests, and that the United States and its NATO allies (together with EU)* threatened those security interests when they could have chosen instead to maximize Russian security by ceding to Russia the right to make decisions that it saw as compatible with its own security interests. To the extent that the logic of Russian existential security includes “neighboring countries cannot be liberal democracies” then we should not have provoked Russia on this point. Doing so is our mistake. Putin follows incentives derived from state interests; the Allies deviated from how the world actually works, ignoring Putin’s incentives, and making NATO/EU enlargement decisions based on some other set of non-realist considerations. The result is war. That is Mearsheimer’s argument.

And it is a cogent argument, as far as it goes. We can query the analytical system that Mearsheimer constructs, asking “who is responsible for this war,” and we can get an answer: “the Allies, not Russia.” And a policy prescription: “don’t try to mess with Russia’s sphere of influence, and you will avoid war.” But this is an analysis that is only so good as its portrayal of the objective reality of the past thirty years.

I have a different interpretation of what a realist should conclude about the Russian invasion of Ukraine and its antecedents. I start from a different premise: Russia is not a great power. It is obviously a declining power, objectively so. Its only claims to global power status are its petroleum reserves, its nuclear arsenal, and our collective memories of the Cold War. Take those away, and Russia is no more a great power than Turkey was in 1935.

The Soviet Union lost the Cold War decisively. Its empire fell into pieces, its regional alliance disappeared, and most of its former allies joined NATO. Russia lost, and the Western alliance won. 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. Russian proclamations that it gets to prioritize Putin’s individual political survival over the logic of international relations are nothing more than idealist fantasies.

Objectively, no one wants to invade or destroy Russia, there are not and have never been plans for a NATO conquest of Russia. Russia had a good deal: they got to sell their petroleum and defend their territorial integrity with their aging nuclear arsenal. Invading Ukraine was a stupid strategic error made by a declining power that does not understand The Tragedy of Great Power Politics. In the immediate short run, Ukrainians will pay the prices for Russia’s strategic errors, but in the long run, Russia will bear the consequences. It has demonstrated clearly the limits of its force projection capabilities, and united NATO and the EU and a bunch of other hard-hearted neutral states at the same time. As I like to say, if you’ve lost Singapore and Switzerland….

See how this works? One goes quickly from a different premise about what the objective facts of the realist world are, and reasons through the questions of “how should the world work?” and “what should a policymaker do.”

Lots of people object to realist analyses because they lack a clear moral position on violence and individual liberty. I share these views. But I also despise this realist way of thinking because it is so indeterminate, and because it leads to statements about what states’ security interests which are, I think, either vacuous or hopelessly subjective.** And that is why Mearsheimer’s take is so exasperating.


* I think a good term that refers generically to NATO, the EU, Japan, and other leaders of the effort to punish Russia for its invasion is “the Allies.”

** In what possible sense is the level of democracy in Ukraine a threat to Russian state interests? It is a threat to Putin himself. Putin is not the state, as Waltz would have put it.

Comments 9

  1. Kocher March 3, 2022

    As usual, a very cogent essay, Tom. My feeling is that the alternative broad “schools” of IR thought are, if anything, less determinate than realism. Not only that, but should we really expect a general paradigm or approach to be that determinate? Isn’t this like saying that you hate game theory because some particular instance of game theory failed to capture the important features of the empirical situation in question? Mearsheimer’s specific theory in Tragedy is fairly determinate, and I think one could argue (along the lines of what you’re saying here) that Mearsheimer should go re-read his own book and pay close attention to what he says about the foundations of national power in the economy. If he did, he might conclude exactly as you do here that Russia can’t support a realpolitik initiative of the sort it appears to want to execute.

  2. Charles March 3, 2022

    In answer to one aspect of your exasperation: “** In what possible sense is the level of democracy in Ukraine a threat to Russian state interests? It is a threat to Putin himself.”

    I might be mistaken, but I believe you’ve misunderstood Mearsheimer. His issue wasn’t “liberal democracy” it was a “pro-American liberal democracy”. From what I understand he was saying that the US and EU should have been supporting Ukraine’s economy, while making crystal clear that EU and NATO membership was off the table.

    From the part of his words you quoted: “If there were no nato expansion and no E.U. expansion, and Ukraine just became a liberal democracy and was friendly with the United States and the West more generally, it could probably get away with that”.

    He pretty consistently adds “pro-American”.

    I think the cause of a lot of exasperation is from two things. Firstly, Mearsheimer accurately predicted the invasion, and that Ukraine would get “wrecked”, even though it’s possible to pick holes with his method. Secondly, he’s saying “the Allies caused this” and a lot of people feel that all the blame should obviously lie with the invaders. I think a middle ground is probably right. The Allies had an obvious path to help prevent this, and chose for its own geopolitical reasons not to take it, but ultimately blame should lie with Putin et al.

    • mindstalk0 March 8, 2022

      It’s only an “obvious path” if Putin wouldn’t have invaded Ukraine anyway, to rebuild his vision of the USSR and a strong Russia. Seems to me that Putin is most offended by Ukraine being independent and not a Russian puppet.

  3. stearm March 4, 2022

    Yes, your critique of Mearshemeir is right, as a declining Russia is overstretching from a realist perspective, that is, try to win a war which was already lost for a structural reason.
    But then China enters into the picture, that is, the rising hegemon which may have an interest in isolating Russia and destabilizing Europe.
    The real hegemonic war is between US and China.

  4. Robert Andrews March 14, 2022

    Interesting and well written argument that that it is Russia’s fault for not recognizing that the Soviet Union lost the cold war and therefore Russia should have submitted itself to the reality that it was weak, and the stronger West should and will get its way. In essence you are agreeing with Mearsheimer’s geopolitical theory that it is about power politics and strength, not sovereignty and rules. The only difference is that you flip the argument and say Russia should have behaved itself, recognized it was weak and submitted. Fair enough. (By the way, simplistically, this is not that far from the view that James Baker, III had, namely, that the USSR lost the cold war and the U.S. did not need to bend if it did not want to.)

    I would prefer to frame it as all sides could have prevented this war with Ukraine, but no party wanted to for reasons of power politics, as well as ideological reasons. This is the reality as I see it.

    Trouble is this war is potentially terribly reckless. Usually, when the bulls fight only the grass suffers, but with nuclear weapons in the equation the wisdom of this ethnic proverb is no longer applicable.

    I would argue that as long as Russia has nuclear weapons and the means to deliver them when and where it wants to, then descriptively speaking Russia has not lost the cold war in the ultimate sense and maintaining a strategic balance of power is the appropriate prescription.

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  6. Anne March 19, 2022

    Perhaps I’m missing something, but as I re-read this essay, it struck me that Mearsheimer is advocating an updated version of appeasement. It didn’t work when Chamberlin tried it and I see no reason why it would have worked now. Interestingly, Mearsheimer is emulating Putin to some degree; he has a point of view and is impervious to all arguments contrary to that point of view. So far, Mearsheimer has been almost totally wrong in every prediction, but he refuses to back down even one iota. Unfortunately, his insistence only serves to provide ammunition to those who would undercut our own democracy.

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