“The West is leading Ukraine down the primrose path, and the end result is that Ukraine is going to be wrecked.” — John J. Mearsheimer 2015
The devastation now befalling Ukraine didn’t have to happen, and the fact that it did is the fault of the West generally and of the United States particularly.
That is the view of John Mearsheimer, perhaps the preeminent academic proponent of the “realist school” of international relations.
A seventy-four-year old professor at the University of Chicago, Mearsheimer has suddenly become the most talked about critic of the American foreign policy of the post-Cold War era. He is the author of six books and numerous articles in leading journals of his field. Two of the books elaborate on the importance of a lead role for the realist position in foreign affairs: The Tragedy of Great Power Politics (2001, 2014) and The Great Delusion: Liberal Dreams and International Realities (2018).
Liberalism and Realism
Realists such as Mearsheimer are a minority among political scientists who specialize in international relations. The field is dominated by an approach variously called “liberalism”, “liberal internationalism” or, at times, “Wilsonianism”. This mainstream view stresses the desirability of American national and allied international structures to foster liberal values abroad, such as the universal rights of individuals, the rule of law, free trade, popular sovereignty and democratic electoral politics. Liberal internationalists are keen to see democracy spread globally, since it is an article of their faith that liberal democracies do not war with each other, thus bringing a “peace dividend.”
Realism, according to political scientist Robert D. Kaplan, is “more a sensibility than a guide to action in each and every crisis.” Realists believe in the following:
• Order comes before freedom
• Work with the material at hand
• Think tragically to avoid tragedy
• Not every problem has a solution
• Interests come before values
• American power is limited
• Passion and good policy often don’t go together 1
Realists are seen by many to be cynical and reluctant to intervene when human rights are being violated abroad. Realists maintain that they tell hard truths about international politics that most people (and especially many Americans) do not want to hear. As can be seen in the list above, realism is rooted in a more pessimistic view of human behavior that few find well-fitted to the American spirit.
What is Mearsheimer’s “lament” and what does it have to do with Ukraine?
Mearsheimer’s critique begins with the end of the Cold War, when the Soviet Union broke apart and the structure of international power went from “bi-polar” to ”unipolar”, with the United States the sole superpower. Mearsheimer’s realist bent tells him that world politics are anarchic, that there is no “night watchman” or superior power above the nation-state to keep order. Furthermore, the uncertainty about the intentions of other nations sows fear among the “actors” (primarily nation-states). This fear forces each nation to seek as much power as possible and overwhelming power, or “hegemony”, in one’s region. The global system’s regulating mechanism is the “balance of power” wherein each state tries, by shifting alliances, to prevent any one state from domination of any of the major areas of contention: Europe, Eurasia, or the Western Hemisphere.
During the forty year Cold War between the West and the Soviet Union, a bipolar equilibrium became the status quo. Neither side could prevail against the other. Both sides had nuclear weapons. Mutual assured destruction (MAD) kept the two superpowers from direct confrontation, so proxy wars were fought in the “Third World”. But, suddenly (in historic terms), the United States was unopposed atop world power rankings, going from being a status quo power to a revisionist power.
I recall well the euphoria and relief of that time, when “the end of history” was nigh, democracy was on the march and a “new world order” was being born. The older, nineteenth-century balance of power mechanism was thought to be now outmoded. 2 By 1991, Russian power was substantially reduced and China not yet a peer rival. Meanwhile, Vladimir Putin, having just resigned from the KGB, was starting his career in politics in his home city of St. Petersburg (the former Leningrad).
In Mearsheimer’s estimation, this shift in the basic structure of world politics presented a dangerous temptation for the only hegemon, the United States. He termed this temptation “aggressive liberalism”. With no peer power to constrain it, American power was free to be guided by the impulse to propagate liberal values in many places—even by force, if necessary.
The result was that American military power went abroad “seeking monsters to destroy” 3 in Libya, Kosovo, Iraq, Afghanistan, and Syria. The phrase “necessity of regime change” was heard often, but American foreign policy managers in time learned an older phrase: “you break it, you own it.” That is, none of these forays turned out positively, on balance, and all of them created power vacuums into which flowed forces antithetical to liberal values.
This is the heart of Mearsheimer’s lament, that unipolarism led the United States to crusades untethered from realist constraints. In Putin’s view, these crusades were evidence of the bitter fruits of unipolarism for the Russian nation, which stood silent and humiliated.
NATO moves East
As the Warsaw Pact was breaking up, Soviet leaders were fearful that NATO would take the place of Russian power in her former client states. According to newly declassified documents, in 1990-1991, Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev was repeatedly given assurances by several Western leaders that if the USSR would stand aside and allow the reunification of Germany, NATO would not move “one inch” east of the reunited German state. U.S. Secretary of State James Baker said this directly to Gorbachev on several occasions. Top diplomats from Germany and the United Kingdom also gave such assurances.4
This agreement held until 1999, when the Clinton administration reneged and NATO admitted the Czech Republic, Hungary and Poland. In 2004, Bulgaria, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Romania, Slovakia and Slovenia entered, followed later by Albania, Croatia, Montenegro and North Macedonia. Both Russian Federation President Boris Yeltsin and then President Putin complained loudly about both the 1999 and 2004 tranches, but Russia was too weakened internally to do much about it.
The admission of the Baltic states especially rankled Putin, since they were the first former Soviet Socialist Republics to join NATO, thereby potentially putting NATO military units on the border of the Russian Federation. Putin has cited the breaking of the“promises” made by Western leaders not to expand NATO into Russia’s “near abroad” as evidence of what he sees as the arrogance of the unipolar hegemon, the United States and her European subordinate client states.
The so-called “color revolutions” following the demise of the USSR—especially the “rose” Revolution in Georgia (2003) and the “Orange Revolution in Ukraine (2004-5)—were undoubtedly seen by Putin as harbingers of his own fate in Russia. A key event in the narrative leading up to the invasion of Ukraine this month was the 20th NATO summit meeting in Bucharest, Romania (April 2-4, 2008). In the final report, it was stated that both Georgia and Ukraine would be in NATO at a future date. Four months later, Russia launched a “peace enforcement” operation in Georgia.
In a famous speech given on September 25, 2015, Mearsheimer said that if Putin were to voice his overall demand to the West, it would sound something like this: “You (the West, led by the United States) must stop trying to peel Ukraine away from Russia. If you don’t, I will wreck it before I see it become part of your bloc.”5 But an ongoing debate about Russia-Ukraine asks “is Russia really threatened by NATO or is Putin claiming it is to cover (a) his own failures to build a prosperous Russia or (b) his imperial designs over the former Soviet space?”
One of the principles of realist theory is brought to bear here. All nations have geo-strategic interests that are more or less fixed. In the anarchic world of power competition between nations, it is imperative to know what your opponent’s interests are, and particularly important to know what their vital interests are—that is, the interests for which they are willing to fight. Nations do not respond well to an opponent who says “we do not accept that this is a vital interest of yours.”
Some posit that Ukraine is a sovereign state, free to join any alliance that suits them. This is de jure true, a legal claim derived from the principle of self-determination. But sovereign rights are always de facto constrained by the power to effect them in the real world. For example, Finland has not exercised her de jure sovereign right to an independent foreign policy since 1941, yet she is a stable, prosperous country. Cuba could not exercise her sovereign right to house nuclear weapons on her territory in 1962. If a nation hostile to the United States were to enter into an military alliance with Canada or Mexico, the vital interests of America, buttressed by her power, would override either nation’s sovereign right to do so.
The multiple invasions of Russia via the North German Plain—through Poland and Ukraine and then into the heartland of Russia proper—is “Russian Fear of the West” 101. This history alone is sufficient to warrant Russian insecurity vis-a-vis the politics of the table-top flat territory of Ukraine. This fear is built into Russia’s geography and national consciousness, Putin or no Putin, according to Mearsheimer’s theory.
But we do have the man Putin in charge. Is he just inventing the threat from the West for his own ends? True, Putin may indeed be expressing legitimate historical fears and also calculating that his personal fate and that of his regime depend on his diverting attention from domestic political-economic weaknesses. But he has been complaining about NATO’s encroachment since day one of his rule, the first eight years of which saw a sizable increase in the Russian standard of living and sky-high personal popularity. So he was concerned about NATO’s movement eastward even when things were going well for him. That fact would support Mearsheimer’s realist belief that geostrategic structural conditions, not individual leaders, control.
It must also be noted that the United States is the most secure nation in the history of the modern era. With two vast oceans east and west and weaker, friendly nations on our northern and southern borders, we are not, by experience, scarred by the fears and memories of constant threats to our well-being. This benign history can induce us to discount the claimed vital interests of others.
What would Mearsheimer do now about the status of Ukraine? Fundamentally, he believes that Ukraine must be removed from the Russia-NATO confrontation. He would prescribe that Ukraine return to a neutral position, not in NATO but built up economically. That prescription is out of date now, since the existence of any kind of sovereignty for Ukraine is questionable. Mearsheimer’s critique is still useful in an analysis of how we got to this point, and the lessons derivable from that. (He may have more robust opinions about the immediate future for Ukraine that I am not aware of at this writing.)
The Realist Creed ignored
Mearsheimer clearly states that we have drifted into this mess because of insufficient attention to four of the principles of realism listed above.
The first is “work with what you have.” In this case, “what we have” is a newly sovereign state whose geography puts her inside the vital defensive perimeter of a great power. What we have is a former Soviet civilization, lacking the socio-political-cultural dispositions upon which a democracy is built. Nepotism and many other forms of corruption are still problems.Yes, at least some of her people aspire to be “Western”, but these things take time to develop.
Secondly, “think tragically to avoid tragedy.” Obviously, the ultimate tragedy has come. Were we ignoring the odds against our policies? Did we, with the best of intentions, do what Mearsheimer said we did, and lead Ukraine down the primrose path?
Third, American power is limited.” Yes, we can sanction the aggressor after the fact. But even if it’s successful, what cold comfort would it be to the millions of stateless, displaced, injured, or killed Ukrainians? Bluntly put, the fate of Ukraine is of vital national interest of Russia, but not of the European Union or the United States.
And lastly, “passion and good policy often do not go together.” It is hard not to be passionate about a people under the gun, desiring something other than the life they were born into. This is where critics of realism lay on a bitter accusation of heartlessness and abandonment.
But could Ukraine ever be a stable, successful state neutral in foreign policy between Russia and the West? Mearsheimer seems to think so, but I have my doubts. I do not think Putin (or any leader of the Russian Federation possible under present conditions) could risk a democratic, prosperous Ukraine because economic ties with the West would fan her aspirations for cultural, social, and finally, political affinity. If that happened, it would expose the kleptocratic-autocratic conditions in Russia that would be unfavorably compared to life “next door”, where so many Russians visit and have relatives.
What can we learn? We can remind ourselves that wars are major scramblers of order across the board, and that realists favor the order that a balance of power brings. Socially, economically, culturally, politically and even psychologically, things change for the combatants as well as for the non-combatants, and new problems rush into the vacuums.
Belarus is now closer to being an integrated part of Russia than she has been. This changes things for Poland, Lithuania, and Latvia, since Putin has said he will not be removing Russian armed forces from Belarus. Russian air and army units will now be directly on the borders of those countries.
NATO also faces new questions: Will Putin be satisfied with neutralizing Ukraine? Will he move on Moldova, or resume hybrid war tactics in the Baltic States? Will there be an ongoing insurrection in Ukraine?
The European Union, and especially Germany, may have to reorient their system-wide energy policies. The global economy will be disrupted, and for an unknowable period. And on and on.
Enter the blame game and a lesson relearned
In the coming debates about the Ukrainian invasion, we’ll surely hear from both the liberal internationalist and realist schools.
One side will say that the West caused the war by not including Ukraine in NATO in 2008, the West should have better armed the Ukrainians years ago, and should establish a “no-fly” zone in Ukrainian airspace even now. Realists such as Mearsheimer will remind us to think in balance of power terms, what he calls “nineteenth-century man” modes, and eschew “twenty-first century” contemporary globalist-liberalism, “new world order” assumptions. The rise of China to a peer position has already put an end to the unipolar temptations of American global hegemony.
Finally, to the degree to which the West, led by the United States, bears responsibility for the carnage and rubble that has been visited on Ukraine (and clearly, there is some), we should relearn that while all nations must, to some degree, fashion their foreign policies to reflect their deepest felt values, the harder, darker constraints of an anarchic and contentious world must always be the bedrock of our striving beyond our shores.
2 Francis Fukuyama, The End of History and the Last Man, 1992. A work of political philosophy that posits the end of ideological struggles due to the triumph of Western liberal democracy.
3 John Quincy Adams. In a speech before the United States House of Representatives on July 4, 1821, Adams praised the political wisdom of the nation, saying of The United States that “…she goes not abroad in search of monsters to destroy.” This quote is one of many that stress the need to focus on America’s internal development and avoid moral crusades abroad.
5 John Mearsheimer, from a speech delivered on September 25, 2015 at the University of Chicago.
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