By Isaac Chotiner
March 07, 2022: Information Clearing House -- The political scientist John Mearsheimer has been one of the most famous critics of American foreign policy since the end of the Cold War. Perhaps best known for the book he wrote with Stephen Walt, “The Israel Lobby and U.S. Foreign Policy,” Mearsheimer is a proponent of great-power politics—a school of realist international relations that assumes that, in a self-interested attempt to preserve national security, states will preëmptively act in anticipation of adversaries. For years, Mearsheimer has argued that the U.S., in pushing to expand NATO eastward and establishing friendly relations with Ukraine, has increased the likelihood of war between nuclear-armed powers and laid the groundwork for Vladimir Putin’s aggressive position toward Ukraine. Indeed, in 2014, after Russia annexed Crimea, Mearsheimer wrote that “the United States and its European allies share most of the responsibility for this crisis.”
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The current invasion of Ukraine has renewed several long-standing debates about the relationship between the U.S. and Russia. Although many critics of Putin have argued that he would pursue an aggressive foreign policy in former Soviet Republics regardless of Western involvement, Mearsheimer maintains his position that the U.S. is at fault for provoking him. I recently spoke with Mearsheimer by phone. During our conversation, which has been edited for length and clarity, we discussed whether the current war could have been prevented, whether it makes sense to think of Russia as an imperial power, and Putin’s ultimate plans for Ukraine.
Looking at the situation now with Russia and Ukraine, how do you think the world got here?
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.
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You said that it’s about “turning Ukraine into a pro-American liberal democracy.” I don’t put much trust or much faith in America “turning” places into liberal democracies. What if Ukraine, the people of Ukraine, want to live in a pro-American liberal democracy?
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.
You keep saying “turning Ukraine into a liberal democracy,” and it seems like that’s an issue for the Ukrainians to decide. NATO can decide whom it admits, but we saw in 2014 that it appeared as if many Ukrainians wanted to be considered part of Europe. It would seem like almost some sort of imperialism to tell them that they can’t be a liberal democracy.
It’s not imperialism; this is great-power politics. 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, because if you take a stick and you poke them in the eye, they’re going to retaliate. States in the Western hemisphere understand this full well with regard to the United States.
The Monroe Doctrine, essentially.
Of course. There’s no country in the Western hemisphere that we will allow to invite a distant, great power to bring military forces into that country.
Right, but saying that America will not allow countries in the Western hemisphere, most of them democracies, to decide what kind of foreign policy they have—you can say that’s good or bad, but that is imperialism, right? We’re essentially saying that we have some sort of say over how democratic countries run their business.
We do have that say, and, in fact, we overthrew democratically elected leaders in the Western hemisphere during the Cold War because we were unhappy with their policies. This is the way great powers behave.
Of course we did, but I’m wondering if we should be behaving that way. When we’re thinking about foreign policies, should we be thinking about trying to create a world where neither the U.S. nor Russia is behaving that way?
That’s not the way the world works. When you try to create a world that looks like that, you end up with the disastrous policies that the United States pursued during the unipolar moment. We went around the world trying to create liberal democracies. Our main focus, of course, was in the greater Middle East, and you know how well that worked out. Not very well.
I think it would be difficult to say that America’s policy in the Middle East in the past seventy-five years since the end of the Second World War, or in the past thirty years since the end of the Cold War, has been to create liberal democracies in the Middle East.
I think that’s what the Bush Doctrine was about during the unipolar moment.
In Iraq. But not in the Palestinian territories, or Saudi Arabia, or Egypt, or anywhere else, right?
No—well, not in Saudi Arabia and not in Egypt. To start with, the Bush Doctrine basically said that if we could create a liberal democracy in Iraq, it would have a domino effect, and countries such as Syria, Iran, and eventually Saudi Arabia and Egypt would turn into democracies. That was the basic philosophy behind the Bush Doctrine. The Bush Doctrine was not just designed to turn Iraq into a democracy. We had a much grander scheme in mind.
We can debate how much the people who were in charge in the Bush Administration really wanted to turn the Middle East into a bunch of democracies, and really thought that was going to happen. My sense was that there was not a lot of actual enthusiasm about turning Saudi Arabia into a democracy.
Well, I think focussing on Saudi Arabia is taking the easy case from your perspective. That was the most difficult case from America’s perspective, because Saudi Arabia has so much leverage over us because of oil, and it’s certainly not a democracy. But the Bush Doctrine, if you go look at what we said at the time, was predicated on the belief that we could democratize the greater Middle East. It might not happen overnight, but it would eventually happen.
I guess my point would be actions speak louder than words, and, whatever Bush’s flowery speeches said, I don’t feel like the policy of the United States at any point in its recent history has been to try and insure liberal democracies around the world.
There’s a big difference between how the United States behaved during the unipolar moment and how it’s behaved in the course of its history. I agree with you when you talk about American foreign policy in the course of its broader history, but the unipolar moment was a very special time. I believe that during the unipolar moment, we were deeply committed to spreading democracy.
With Ukraine, it’s very important to understand that, up until 2014, we did not envision NATO expansion and E.U. expansion as a policy that was aimed at containing Russia. Nobody seriously thought that Russia was a threat before February 22, 2014. NATO expansion, E.U. expansion, and turning Ukraine and Georgia and other countries into liberal democracies were all about creating a giant zone of peace that spread all over Europe and included Eastern Europe and Western Europe. It was not aimed at containing Russia. What happened is that this major crisis broke out, and we had to assign blame, and of course we were never going to blame ourselves. We were going to blame the Russians. So we invented this story that Russia was bent on aggression in Eastern Europe. Putin is interested in creating a greater Russia, or maybe even re-creating the Soviet Union.
The views expressed in this article are solely those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the opinions of Information Clearing House.