Jan 28

John Mearsheimer On Handling Russia And China

The foreign policy realist talks about the possibility of wars and "minor incursions" in Ukraine and Taiwan.

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Unafraid conversations about anything

The question of how to deal with a resurgent Russia and a new super-power in China is now an urgent one to think through. At the Dishcast, we’re going to air various views over the coming months. But I couldn’t think of a better person to kick off this debate than John Mearsheimer, a titan in the field of international relations, and the most eloquent defender of realism in foreign policy I know. We talked yesterday about Putin, Xi, the errors of the post-Cold War triumphalists, and what the hell we should do now. I was riveted. John is never boring, and always clear.

For those new to him: Prof. Mearsheimer has taught political science at the University of Chicago since 1982, and before that he served five years in the Air Force as a West Point grad. His latest book is The Great Delusion: Liberal Dreams and International Realities.

You can listen to the episode right away in the audio player above (or click the dropdown menu to add the Dishcast to your podcast feed). Read the full transcript here. For two clips of our conversation — on what the US should do about Putin’s pressure in Ukraine, and how the US accidentally created its greatest rival, China — head over to our YouTube page.

That page contains clips from every episode of the Dishcast, including last week’s with Roosevelt Montás:

A reader loved the episode:

Thank you for the wonderful conversation with Professor Montás. It reawakened the same spirit I had 28 years ago when I walked on the campus of Columbia University as a freshman. I remember being bored by the Iliad, stymied by The Republic, infuriated by Hobbes, and feeling overmatched by Nietzsche and Freud. I often hated the workload and the two-year campaign that asked me to read, think, engage, and discuss with my professors and classmates. 

But I could never deny that it asked me to do something important and novel: wrestle with the ideas of others. I was not permitted to dismiss them out of hand or avoid the hard work by pointing to false controversy. I had to grapple with difficult ideas and develop the analytical skill and tools of language to explain why an idea did or did not make sense. And the value of that struggle has never left me. 

Since then, during the two tech-focused decades we have experienced, it’s been easy to forget about ancient wisdom. I have fallen victim to the ever-growing pressure to look to circuits and microchips for new solutions to the problems of life. That effort is futile. In my calmer moments, when I sit in a quiet room, I remember what I learned with those great books, and how to find peace in the effort of seeking truth with the words of those who fought the same battle many centuries and even millennia ago.

The episode made me feel like a 19-year-old student again, and that was glorious. In fact, I stopped at a bookstore to buy Augustine’s Confessions before the episode was even over.

Excellent. Another reader gently prods me:

I so enjoy the Dishcast, largely because of your openness and honesty to share your ideas and opinions that have been informed by rather rough-hewn life experiences and a robust library of worldly books. You are indeed a good friend to humanity. Would it be possible to give a wider breadth to your guests to finish their thoughts, uninterrupted? We get to know you well over the weeks and months of listening to the podcast but we only hear your guests once, usually.  

I know. I definitely try to keep out the way — but I also think of these podcasts as conversations rather than interviews, which, sadly, might mean more of me than you want at times. When you’re not in the same room, and there’s a slight gap between your words and your interlocutor’s, it can also be hard to judge when a person has said all they want to. And I also need to keep the chat moving.

Another reader looks to our recent episode with Chris Rufo:

I’m just now listening to your conversation, but I think there is an unarticulated and very important point yet to be made. Rufo doesn’t seem to realize the extent to which he is himself a poster child for precisely the kind of education that embraces conflicting perspectives. The whole reason why he is so well spoken on issues of CRT is because of the intellectual diversity of his past and the fact he dug so deeply into CRT and modern-day versions of it in K-12 curricula. How could he possibly have become this successful if he hadn’t become a de facto expert on current curriculum trends (with which he disagreed)?

Rufo asked in the episode, “What’s wrong with California teaching one thing and Texas teaching another?” The America he imagines is one where half of the country learns one thing, the other half of the country learns another — with little common understanding. Far from leading to productive pluralism, this will instead lead to ideological segregation and a total inability to articulate (and thus engage with) contrary or conflicting positions. This is already happening.

For the United States to function well, people need to learn to critically think, engage in productive debate, and not shut out surprising or confronting ideas as “dangerous.” Rufo’s analysis of our current state of affairs is cogent and well worth hearing, but his solution is dead wrong.

On my column last week centered on Biden and the Dems’ first year, a reader dissents:

You wrote:

And how many more columns in the MSM do I have to read by people who believe the next election will be our last if the Republicans win? I remember when Norm Ornstein and Ron Brownstein, for example, were solid pillars of centrist conventional wisdom. Now, they both appear to believe it’s 1933 in Weimar, and without a federal takeover of elections, our democracy is over. Our democracy isn’t over. It’s our liberal democracy that’s under threat, and this kind of morally pure Manicheanism is one reason why.

In May 2016, you wrote that the election of Donald Trump would represent an “extinction-level event” for liberal democracy. A few hours after he won office that year, with 47% of the vote (the same percentage Mitt Romney got four years earlier), you wrote that the American people had effectively “repealed” our republic.

I think your characterizations of 2016 were right — proven right by a four-year desecration of our institutions culminating in a violent attempt to preserve Trump’s power — but they were, you must admit, breathless characterizations at the time. It is rather churlish of you now to accuse other writers of hyperventilating about 2024, particularly since you must know that they are not worried about just any GOP victory but the prospect that Trump — not, say, Glenn Youngkin or Nikki Haley — will steal the office for real if he gets a second chance. You must know, like them, that this time Trump gave us a good idea of how catastrophic and criminal another Trump administration would be. Indeed you must know that Ornstein, Brownstein, et al., are, like you, writing about Trumpism’s threat to American liberal democracy. What other stripe of democracy could they be talking about?

I hate to see that you’ve fallen in line with the MSM’s predictable first-year retro-feeding on the inevitable failures of a new administration. They do this every time: a moist honeymoon in the spring, followed by the sobering shortfalls of daily governance in the fall, followed by dark and wintry wondering at how it all went so wrong in just a year. How many more of those boilerplate columns do we have to endure? This has become such a tired ritual that a new president might get worried if he isn’t showered with correctional clichés from Chuck Todd and Eugene Robinson on his paper anniversary.

We ought to remember what Joe Biden ran on and was elected to do: evict Donald Trump from the White House. Pussy Grabber is not president anymore. For now, that is plenty good enough for me. Every Trumpian thing Biden does not do — no more simpering alongside Vladimir Putin in a foreign capital or obstructing justice in plain sight or abusing his office to prop up his tacky insolvent hotels — amounts to a banal success compared to the relentless obscenities of the reality-presidency. We really ought to enjoy this while it lasts.

I have never regarded voting access as central to the future of liberal democracy for the simple reason I think it’s way overblown. On Trump, I completely agree, but most of my criticism of Biden has been designed to fend off a Trump revival.

Another Biden booster:

I’m a big fan of Joe Biden and have been cheering him on during his first difficult year as president. My news is also skewed toward MSNBC and the Washington Post. That’s exactly why I read the Dish, even though most of the time it makes steam come out of my ears. I trust you to give me the other side of the argument, even if it pisses me off, because I know I need to hear it.

Having said that, I have a couple of comments on your take on Biden’s press conference. You seem to dismiss a little too cavalierly what’s going on with voter suppression/nullification in this country. You’re correct in pointing out that the nullification part is a much more serious problem, but I disagree that simply reforming the Electoral Count Act will fix the problem. The Republicans have figured out that in order to stack the deck in their favor, they need to replace local non-partisan election officials with people who believe the Big Lie and are willing to give their state legislatures the power to overrule voters. I don’t see how this can be contained without a national statute that sets some kind of minimal standards for how votes are counted. I think that’s what Biden was referring to when he made reference to the legitimacy of future elections — though I agree that this was a mistake, in that it simply made him sound like Trump.

I may be wrong. But if anything has changed in elections recently, it’s the mass expansion of the vote and record turnouts that seem more pertinent than voter suppression. And the redistricting process has turned out to be a bit of a wash by most accounts.

Another reader suspects Biden is being more canny than conventional wisdom tells us:

Joe Biden is a longstanding legislator, with an intuitive understanding of political reality and winning votes. He must recognize that the majority of influential Dems and the majority of his congressional colleagues are considerably to his left. He obviously knows that he cannot pass legislation without either unanimity of Senate Dems or a bipartisan coalition — extraordinarily difficult to achieve in this era.

So I suggest that Biden has concluded he is only going to get that unanimity if he begins each legislative goal with an over-the-top package designed to appeal to the Sanders/Warren crowd. The consequent objective failure, each time, then provides him with a brief window during which he can get the left wing of his party to agree to the kind of “consolation prize” that he may have actually wanted in the first place. If I’m correct, his uber-progressive rhetoric is mainly designed to hide his true intent.

The benefit of this analysis is that we can test it in this coming year. Another reader expands on one of the main dissents in this week’s issue — that the Democrats’ hands are tied when it comes to smaller pieces of legislation:

Manchin is correct that enacting a few permanent programs is preferable to passing a large number that will expire at a time when in all probability the GOP will control at least one and probably both houses of Congress. At that point, they wouldn’t even have to act to kill the programs — just let them expire. In hindsight it’s clear that Biden should have called Manchin’s bluff and accepted his $1.8-trillion-dollar offer on Build Back Better. Then we would have seen if he was bargaining in good faith. It is interesting to note that Manchin has since almost entirely backtracked on this.

Two other points: the left did not try to ram through their wish list. They compromised much more than either Manchin or Sinema did.

But my main issue with your lambasting of Biden is your casual dismissal of the role of GOP obstructionism. Biden and the Dems entire approach is framed as a response to the playbook McConnell established in 2009. If you remember on healthcare reform, even with a filibuster-proof majority, Senator Baucus (D-Montana) worked for months with Grassley, Snowe, and Enzi only to have them pull the rug out from under him and completely renege.

This time, Democrats were not going to be fooled by this running-out-the-clock strategy. This left reconciliation as the only path open to them. The Democrats are very limited and cannot cut BBB into many little pieces if they expect any of it to pass, as this would need 10 Republican votes.

You say work with Romney on childcare assistance. I ask you: how many Republican politicians have come out in favor of his proposal? Imagine how many more would sign on if it had Biden’s support. Answer again: 0. Manchin, himself, offered his own version of a much narrower voting rights bill. Stacey Abrams supported this. How many Republicans did? One — Murkowski. By my count, that’s nine short. 

So, tell me again how Biden is supposed to reach out to these people when they have never shown any inclination to seriously engage on any of these issues. McConnell did allow 13 Republican senators, himself included, to vote for the infrastructure bill, but that seems to have been a ploy to decrease the moderate Democrats’ support for the second, bigger package — and to convince Manchin and the public that bipartisanship is possible. Clearly, McConnell has succeeded.

Since then, what has he or any other Republicans done on any individual portion of Build Back Better or voting rights to make you think there are 10 of them willing to join with Democrats for passage? Why are Biden and the Democrats chiefly to blame for this nihilism? Why should we accept that this is business as usual in the Senate when it clearly wasn’t prior to 2009?

Yglesias puts a lot of blame at the feet of a craven Chuck Schumer. Let’s hear from a few nonpartisan readers who are wavering on Biden:

I voted for Biden, but now I have regrets — not enough to vote for Trump, but maybe somebody else. I’m an independent voter, and the Democratic Party is completely off the rails. No reasonable party should be suggesting to stack the Supreme Court, remove the filibuster, suggest elections might be suspect, pursue McCarthy-style inquiries, attempt to control what people are allowed to say on social media, or let woke minorities alienate whole swaths of the electorate. I’m technically trans, and even I think they’re insane. (I like Dave Chappelle and JK Rowling, so maybe I’m an outlier.)

Another writes:

Interestingly, President Biden pops up in Reagan’s diaries, where the Gipper refers to him as “pure demagog[ue].” I was surprised when I first read this — lovable Uncle Joe as demagogue? But seeing how he has occasionally behaved as president, particularly in his voting rights speech, it seems Reagan may have been on to something. I’m sharing this more in sorrow than in anger, since I like Biden as a person and deeply want him to succeed as a moderate.

Another dissent directed at me:

The entire Republican Party continues to either openly support, or refuse to condemn, an attempted coup fomented by a sitting president and enabled by sitting members of Congress, and you’re worried about people saying “Latinx”? 

We just learned that Trump’s lawyer sent many slates of fake electors to election commissions to challenge the real electors’ legitimacy, and the Republican party isn’t even making pretend noises of outrage. 

Texas has deputized citizens to inform on their neighbors in the hope of receiving a bounty, and you’re concerned about “woke” language? 

School districts are making it a crime to teach verified historic facts if knowledge of such facts might make white people “uncomfortable.” Laws to censor the teaching of history that doesn’t comply with the party line (more than an echo of Stalinism) are being passed by Republican legislatures. 

And yes, the voting laws that are being passed in Republican states will absolutely allow governments to selectively make it harder to vote and selectively easier to reject votes from specific precincts that are likely to vote against the Republican candidate. And you can’t possibly believe they weren’t written to do exactly that! But you diminish the systemic damage these laws will do to the legitimacy of our fragile democracy.

I’ve often disagreed with you, but your arguments always felt to me like they came from a place of dispassionate reasoning and an absolute fealty to the classical notions of liberal democracy. But your current attacks on Biden and the Democrats as ideologically far left, coupled with your dismissiveness about the wildly anti-democratic, insurrectionist, obstructionist and just insane conspiracy-theory fueled GOP, doesn’t seem like the result of dispassionate observation and a love of classical notions of liberal democracy. The idea that Biden — a classic Roosevelt Democrat — is the one being pulled too far by an irrational base is just ludicrous.

I get my reader’s concerns. I’m agonized over getting the balance right — see my new column. But my reader is mischaracterizing some anti-CRT efforts, although, as I note today, this kind of populist revolt can so easily get out of hand.

Another reader notes, “An example of how the Biden administration has moderated its stance on racial issues was Education Secretary Cardona abandoning CRT and the 1619 Project in a new grants program last summer.” Another reader looks across the Pond:

It seems to me the simplest and most effective way to enshrine an anti-CRT law that allows full debate on all racial issues would be to craft state or local laws that mirror the directives of Nadhim Zahawi, the Education Secretary in the UK. As laid out here, Zahawi warns UK teachers they should not teach “white privilege” as “established fact.” They can discuss it, but they have to remain neutral in their presentations on the subject.

Lastly, a reader looks to the future and how Biden might be able to lead us there:

As a center-left independent who voted for Biden and — like you — want him to succeed, it is dismaying to see his multiple failures of omission (capitulation to the far left on nearly all social and policy issues, absenteeism from the bully pulpit) and commission (blowing it on Covid testing, messy Afghanistan exit, hyperbolic voting rights speech in GA, not taking Manchin’s BBB deal). To be fair, his first year featured a number of successes (efficient vaccine rollout, infrastructure bill, actually leaving Afghanistan, fully assisting Congress in the Jan 6 inquiry, prolifically appointing lower court judges).

But let’s be honest: if Biden doesn’t massively course correct, not only will the Dems lose the House and possibly the Senate this November, but the country will flounder and fail. We elected Biden to do a job. He is seriously underperforming in this job.

Your prescriptions for the actions he should take are spot on. I agree with them all.  But let me offer another, one that overarches everything: Biden needs to formulate a plan to lead us out of the Covid crisis — and then actually lead us out of it. Biden and his team need to develop and clearly message the timetable and milestones to lead us to endemic normalcy. This is within our grasp.

Lockdowns, masks, social distancing, flattening the curve to help out the medical system, etc. were logical and essential in 2020. They no longer are. (I say this as a person who believes in science, who is vaxxed and boosted, and has high confidence in Dr. Fauci.) With vaccines, oral drugs, monoclonal antibodies and other treatments, we have the tools to resume normal life. We also have the obligation to demand a resumption of normal life. For those of us who believe in the vaccines — and the evidence proving their efficacy is overwhelming — avoiding public places and masking everywhere is both unnecessary and irrational.  

Biden needs to make “return to normalcy” his sole focus in 2022. Trumpers and anti-vaxxers aren’t going to change their minds, so stop whining about their resistance.  Public health experts have only one lens — public health — so don’t let them control all policy decisions. Biden needs to be out front — boldly leading and cheerleading us along the Covid off-ramp. If he doesn’t, Republican politicians will rightly criticize him and the Dems for keeping the country paralyzed in a state of perpetual fear. (This cautionary warning applies to blue-state governors also — looking at you Gavin Newsom, JB Pritzker, Kathy Hochul and Jay Inslee.)

Getting from pandemic to endemic is the single most important key to bringing down inflation, rationalizing supply chains, achieving equilibrium in the job market and boosting consumer confidence. We cannot hope to achieve normal on these metrics unless and until everyday life looks and feels normal.

Agreed on all counts. I was particularly heartened that after I urged Biden to go to New York City and talk crime with the new mayor, the White House announced just that. Coincidence in all likelihood. But good news nonetheless.