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.

Area Studies and Comparative Politics: Who Won the Area Studies Wars After All?

Back in the early 2000s, graduate students in political science often read about the so-called “area studies wars” of the 1990s (link, link, link, link, link). These were portrayed as a battle between country specialists who favored qualitative methods, on the one hand, and “rational choice theorists” who favored mathematical models of the social world, on the other. The general sense among the older generation of comparative politics specialists was that the hegemonic political science mainstream defeated area studies. Depending on one’s orientation to mainstream political science, this was seen as either a good thing (yay, science wins!) or a bad thing (boo, reality loses!).

Fast forward two decades. One doesn’t much hear about “rational choice theory” anymore. Mathematical theoretical models of comparative politics remain a small part of the subdiscipline.* And The Monkey Cage—formerly a blog, now run by a stellar team of political scientists for The Washington Post—provides rapid, high-quality commentary by political scientists on current events. There is nothing more current right now than the Russian invasion of Ukraine, and the Monkey Cage has published a couple of excellent pieces on the conflict:

Although what caught my eye was the shout-out to my colleague Bryn Rosenfeld, in reading the pieces linked here, I come to the position that perhaps the area studies wars had a rather different outcome than many PhD students of the 2000s were led to believe by their mentors who fought in the trenches.

The great result of a half century of intradisciplinary squabbles about the role of theory, research design, and quantitative data in studying politics around the world is that generally speaking, comparativists seem to have become eager consumers of country-specific knowledge, and eager participants in current debates about how our research informs public debates about important issues like, say, the Russian invasion of Ukraine, or the movement for abortion rights in Latin America, or the future of the European Union, or democratic backsliding and citizenship around the world.

It is not hard to find political scientists studying comparative and international politics who are doing public-facing work on these and other issues. What’s more, and once again generally speaking, public-facing work is viewed by tenure committees and the discipline more generally as self-evidently valuable. Public-facing work and public engagement cannot replace peer-reviewed scholarship. But it’s not a distraction, nor an indulgence, to write for The Monkey Cage or to contribute to contemporary policy debates.

A hypothetical world in which area studies had defeated the highfalutin theorists in gaining control of the subdiscipline would look awfully similar to this world we live in right now.

One might push this argument even further. As Director of Cornell’s Southeast Asia Program, a Title VI National Resource Center, I have the privilege of engaging with country, region, and area specialists from across the humanities and social sciences who share a common interest in at least one part of one country within Southeast Asia. I have learned that political scientists have developed a practice of public-facing scholarship that responds very nicely to the argument of previous generations of area specialists, that area studies insights are absolutely essential for making social science research relevant to current events. Other disciplines, in various ways, have difficulty embracing public-facing area-focused scholarship. And others have their own contested relationships with area studies too—especially the critical social sciences and humanities. In the words of one colleague who is not a political scientist, the “death of area studies” (their term) occurred years ago!

I’ll close by dutifully rehearsing all the necessary caveats. There is a lot of internal critique of country-specific research in comparative politics right now as technically sophisticated but substantively vacuous. I’ve made such arguments myself (PDF). And political scientists must reckon with how quantitative empirical scholarship has displaced qualitative empirical scholarship in comparative politics. Much is lost in this shift. And one must never forget the colonial, imperial, Cold War, mercantilist, and national security roots of area studies as practiced and institutionalized for hundreds of years, not only in the United States but anywhere where area studies centers or programs exist.**

But here’s the thing: most comparativists I know are pretty receptive to these points, willing them to take them on board even if they are unwilling to abandon area studies altogether in response. Area studies lives on today in political science, and it’s getting exactly the public attention that previous generations would have hoped for. Who would have believed it?!?


* Statistical models of empirical phenomena, of course, are ubiquitous in comparative politics. But as many people my generation find ourselves patiently explaining to our colleagues from different disciplines, statistics is not the same as rational choice theory.

** This is a strong claim! But I challenge anyone to name an example of a successful area studies institution—anywhere in the world—without any connection to colonialism, imperialism, mercantilism, or national security.