Transcript: John Mearsheimer On Handling Russia And China
The foreign policy realist talks about the possibility of wars and "minor incursions" in Ukraine and Taiwan.
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. (I subsequently spoke with Anne Applebaum and Edward Luttwak, and Fiona Hill is scheduled for the end of the month.)
We recorded the long conversation with Mearsheimer on January 27, 2021 and aired it the following day. (You can listen to it here.) We talked 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. A few of his money quotes:
“So what has happened is the United States created a peer competitor [in China]. This is probably the greatest strategic blunder in modern history.”
“The Chinese today, of course, think we’re encircling them. The Russians think we’re encircling them. We, of course, think we’re just containing them. This is the classic security dilemma.”
“My argument is that a liberal foreign policy — liberalism abroad — undermines liberalism at home.”
For those of you new to Mearsheimer, he’s been a professor of political science at the University of Chicago since 1982. 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, and his other books and prominent essays are listed here.
Andrew: Hello, and welcome to The Dishcast. This week, we’re going to talk Russia, China, foreign policy. It’s amazing to me how really attenuated the discourse is on those questions and an understanding of where we’ve been on foreign policy for the last 30 or even 70 years, and where we go from here. And I can’t think of anyone I’d rather talk to about this than the guest who has agreed to come on and talk — his name is John Mearsheimer, a legend in the study of international affairs.
John is a scholar of international relations and is one of the most famous — and I think rightly famous — proponents of the realist school in foreign policy. He’s 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. John has written six books. The latest is titled “The Great Delusion: Liberal Dreams and International Realities.” What a wonderful subtitle. You could redeploy that in any number of contexts, but, John, thank you so much for coming.
John: Thank you for asking me, Andrew. It’s my pleasure to be here.
Andrew: I start these podcasts by asking people to tell me how they came to be who they are. And so can you tell me a little bit about where you grew up and what your formative influences were and why you became interested in foreign policy and gravitated towards realism? Where were you born?
John: I was born in Brooklyn, New York on December 14, 1947, many moons ago, and we lived in New York City until I was about eight years old. And then we moved to Westchester County right above the city, and my father, of course, commuted into New York every day for work. So I grew up in New York City and in Croton. And then after graduating from high school, I spent one year as an enlisted man in the Army and then I went to West Point for four years. And as you said, after graduating from West Point, I went into the Air Force.
Now what happened to me, Andrew, was when I was at West Point, I was a terrible student. When I tell people that I was in the bottom one-third of my class at West Point and I wasn’t even the top man in the bottom one-third, they find that hard to believe because they think I came out of my mother’s womb reading Clausewitz, but nothing could be further from the truth. I was really sort of your classic screw-off until I took a course in my junior year at West Point on international relations and I fell in love with the subject. Why? I don’t know, I just fell in love with it. And then I took a number of international relations courses in my senior year, I did very well and I decided that, come hell or high water, I was going to get a PhD in political science. Not because I wanted to become an academic, but just because I loved the subject and I wanted to do that for the rest of my life. So I got out of the Air Force and I went to Cornell University and I got a PhD there.
And I think what happened to me at Cornell is that it became quite clear to me and to my professors that I was really good at the enterprise. It’s like sports. Some people can hit 100-mile-an-hour fastball, they can see the stitches on the ball, they can hit it. Other people can’t even see the ball. When you go to graduate school, some people have it and some people don’t. It’s hard to say exactly why, but for some reason, I was very good at doing scholarship and I did very well at Cornell. And I wrote about military affairs. I wrote about conventional deterrence as a graduate student.
And in doing that, I slowly but steadily got interested in the bigger questions about international relations, questions about how the world works. And my reading of the historical record told me that realism tells you a great deal about how international politics works. It doesn't tell you everything. No theory tells you everything because theories, of course, are simplifications of reality. But I thought realism was a really useful lens for looking at the world. And slowly but steadily —
Andrew: So let me just hold for one second because I think a lot of listeners who may not have gone through graduate school or even be aware: define what realism means to you as a term in foreign policy.
John: Realism is a theory that basically says states care about the balance of power above all else. States want to make sure that they have as much power relative to other great powers as possible. It’s a theory that pays little attention to individuals and pays little attention to domestic politics. Now most Americans believe that there’s a fundamental difference between democratic regimes and autocratic regimes when it comes to how they behave in the international system. Realists believe there’s effectively no difference — that autocratic regimes and democratic regimes behave the same way because the structure of the system forces all states to behave in similar ways and that similar way is to pursue power. So I think that, in capsule form, is what realism is all about.
Andrew: And if you do look at the long-term history, at least when I went through it all, I found that to be the most persuasive school that really helped explain much — most — of what I saw happening. And so let’s bring that to the present or recent present. We’ve lived, in your lifetime particularly, through extraordinary change in world affairs. I grew up, you grew up, in the context of an ideological Cold War between the Free West and the Soviet Union and its satellites. And then of course we won, or they lost — whatever way you want to put it — and America then was a unipolar power in some ways.
I remember being at The New Republic and editing a piece that you must have loved, by Charles Krauthammer called “The Unipolar Moment.” And we had lots of options: “How do we deal with Russia? How do we deal with China now? What do we do with Eastern Europe? What do we do with Germany?” — all these questions. And I want to go back to that moment, the moment of decision in the late ‘90s and early 2000s with respect to Russia and China. What were the key mistakes you think the West made in that moment? First, let’s talk about Russia.
John: Let me just start off by talking about the great transition that took place. I look at it slightly different than you do.