During a May 2022 debate on the conflict in Ukraine, John J. Mearsheimer—one of the world’s most prominent political scientists and international relations theorists—vehemently denied that Vladimir Putin’s invasion of the country is an imperialist war of conquest: “There is absolutely no evidence to support that argument,” he told the crowd. “There’s no evidence that he thinks that’s desirable. There’s no evidence that he thinks that’s feasible. And there’s no evidence in the public record that he’s ever said that that’s what he intends to do.” This was an odd claim in the spring of 2022 after Putin had ordered 190,000 soldiers across the border to conquer Ukraine.
These remarks were not exceptional—Mearsheimer regularly contends that the annexation of Ukrainian territory is not imperialist in nature and that Russia merely wants to address its own perfectly legitimate security concerns. This view seems so obviously contrary to observable reality that it is tempting to simply dismiss it out of hand. And yet, Mearsheimer’s analysis has been seized upon and energetically promoted by those—on the “anti-imperialist” Left and postliberal Right alike—attracted by its narrative of NATO culpability and implicit demand for America to abandon Ukraine. So, it is worth trying to understand the intellectual architecture that supports it.
Mearsheimer is a foreign policy “realist,” which is to say that he is primarily concerned with how power is distributed in the international system. Realists believe that states (especially great powers) are the most important actors in that system, constantly vying to maximize their relative power in the absence of a centralized global authority. This purely mechanistic understanding of international relations leaves little room for the ways in which history, political culture, domestic politics, ideology, and the personalities of individual leaders shape the characteristics of states and their behavior. In Mearsheimer’s view, there is nothing distinctive about Putin at all—any leader of a great power in his position would behave as he has over the past decade and a half.
When Russia invaded Georgia in August 2008, Mearsheimer determined that NATO’s declaration four months earlier that Ukraine and Georgia could eventually become members of the alliance was the trigger. When Putin invaded and annexed Crimea in 2014, he wrote an essay for Foreign Affairs titled, “Why the Ukraine Crisis Is the West’s Fault,” in which he argued that the “taproot of the trouble is NATO enlargement.” And when Putin invaded the rest of Ukraine in early 2022, Mearsheimer argued that the “West, and especially America, is principally responsible for the crisis...” In support of this view, he has pointed to NATO’s embrace of Ukraine’s aspiration for membership in the alliance; the EU-Ukraine Association Agreement; the ouster of the kleptocratic Moscow-backed former Ukrainian president, Viktor Yanukovych (which preceded the annexation of Crimea); and the sale of defensive weapons to Kyiv and joint military exercises with NATO forces.
These apparently unpardonable outrages combined with the structure of the international system—in which Moscow feels hemmed in by the West, particularly as a consequence of NATO expansion—made Russian violence not just predictable but inevitable. Realism purports to offer a hardheaded analysis of the way the world actually works, and Mearsheimer claims that Western officials shouldn’t be surprised when Moscow behaves in ways consistent with the realist worldview. That Western leaders were surprised is simply evidence of the naivety and hubris of their “liberal delusions,” illustrated by US Secretary of State John Kerry’s response to the annexation of Crimea in 2014: “You just don’t in the twenty-first century behave in nineteenth-century fashion by invading another country on [some] completely trumped-up pretext.”
Mearsheimer is fond of quoting diplomats and scholars who warned that NATO expansion was a “fateful error” (in the words of George F. Kennan). In this sense, realists see the Russian invasion of Ukraine as a form of vindication. Western leaders failed to anticipate or understand Russia’s behavior because “the two sides have been operating with different playbooks,” Mearsheimer wrote in his 2014 Foreign Affairs essay. “Putin and his compatriots have been thinking and acting according to realist dictates, whereas their Western counterparts have been adhering to liberal ideas about international politics.”
Mearsheimer’s particular school of thought is known as “offensive realism,” which holds that great powers seek to “maximize their relative power because that is the optimal way to maximize their security. In other words, survival mandates aggressive behavior” [italics added]. This theory is not simply descriptive, it is also prescriptive. In his 2001 book, The Tragedy of Great Power Politics, he examines cases in which states failed to observe the tenets of offensive realism, and finds their conduct wanting. “Such foolish behavior,” he claims, “invariably has negative consequences.”
In 1905, Germany was the most powerful state in Europe, though checked by France and Russia. When the latter was defeated in the Russo-Japanese War that year, it presented what Mearsheimer describes as an “excellent opportunity for Germany to crush France and take a giant step toward achieving hegemony in Europe.” He calls the decision not to invade France in 1905 “foolish” because Germany would later go to war in much less favorable circumstances in 1914. “In short, if they want to survive,” he concludes, “great powers should always act like good offensive realists.”
So, has Putin been acting like a good offensive realist? Mearsheimer certainly seemed to think so when he annexed Crimea in 2014. And Putin still seems to have been “thinking and acting according to realist dictates” when he decided to invade the whole country last year. The power imbalance between Russia and Ukraine in early 2022 seemed to present the chance to seize Ukraine in Moscow’s quest for regional hegemony. Western liberals saw an act of unprovoked imperial aggression, but the offensive realist saw an opportunity Putin would have been foolish not to exploit.
The upshot has been a disaster for Russia’s stated aims. The tension between Moscow and Washington over NATO expansion has become a full-blown proxy war that Russia looks increasingly likely to lose. And despite the self-serving sense of urgency that Putin manufactured out of thin air, the prospect of Ukraine’s NATO membership was exceedingly remote in early 2022. Now, the Baltic states and other countries in Russia’s immediate “sphere of influence” are among Ukraine’s most vocal supporters. States like Kosovo (in which Russia has maintained a longstanding interest) are now pleading to join NATO. Finland and Sweden submitted their official applications to join the alliance three months after the invasion, and the accession protocols for both countries were signed in July. Germany is drastically increasing its military spending, and Washington and Berlin are now sending tanks to Ukraine. Even the viability of Putin’s rule at home is threatened.
Today, the war looks a lot less like a vindication of realist theory than it did 12 months ago.
“Realists,” Mearsheimer writes in The Tragedy of Great Power Politics, “tend not to draw sharp distinctions between ‘good’ and ‘bad’ states, because all great powers act according to the same logic regardless of their culture, political system, or who runs the government. It is therefore difficult to discriminate among states, save for differences in relative power.” The argument that Germany ought to have crushed France at the beginning of the 20th century demonstrates that realists aren’t detained by moral considerations, either. Naked imperial violence may be justified so long as it serves the balance of power and the interests of regional stability in an otherwise anarchic international system.
In his 2018 book, The Hell of Good Intentions, realist Stephen Walt (a frequent Mearsheimer collaborator) argues that the United States was right to support Saddam Hussein in the 1980s. The barbaric nature of Iraq’s Ba’athist regime is irrelevant to the realist calculation—US support was necessary simply to check Iranian power. Similarly, several years into the ongoing Syrian Civil War, Walt and Mearsheimer observed that, “Democratic and Republican presidents have a rich history of working with the Assad regime,” and so the “United States should let Russia take the lead” in the country, despite Moscow’s brutal air war against civilians. Mearsheimer often describes the amorality of his analyses as “pessimistic” or “gloomy,” but this isn’t an admission. On the contrary, it’s a boast that only realists are capable of facing hard geopolitical truths and understanding the world as it actually is.
But when Mearsheimer argues in The Tragedy of Great Power Politics that it “does not matter for the theory [of offensive realism] whether Germany in 1905 was led by Bismark, Kaiser Wilhelm, or Adolf Hitler, or whether Germany was democratic or autocratic,” I have to wonder if he’s serious. Does he really mean to say that, under the same geopolitical conditions, Germany would behave in the same way under Hitler as it would under Olaf Scholz or Helmut Kohl? Or that the German imperialism of the early 20th century was interchangeable with Nazism? Hitler’s genocidal obsession with creating a thousand-year Reich led him to invade his neighbors and commit atrocities on a scale unprecedented in human history. But offensive realism has nothing to say about Hitler’s doctrines. It is silent about his bitter resentment over the German defeat in World War I and the poisonous consequences of his paranoid antisemitism. And it is incapable of comprehending how modern German political culture has been shaped by the historical memory of Nazism.
Mearsheimer acknowledges that “omitted factors” such as ideology “occasionally dominate a state’s decision-making process” and explains that these exceptions merely demonstrate that there’s a “price to pay for simplifying reality” into theory. But offensive realism doesn’t just simplify the reality of Nazi Germany, it distorts it by ignoring the totalitarian pathologies that caused World War II and produced the Holocaust. If Nazi ideology dominated Germany’s decision-making process in 1939 in a way that conventional great power politics doesn’t capture, it surely calls the explanatory power of realism into question.
This failure to appreciate how the internal characteristics of regimes can alter their behavior explains Mearsheimer’s confusion about the war in Ukraine. This isn’t just an analytical blunder—he finds it necessary to misrepresent the historical record to make his case. A few months after the May 2022 debate in which Mearsheimer denied Russia’s imperial agenda, he gave an interview to Isaac Chotiner at the New Yorker. Chotiner pointed out that Putin has compared himself to Peter the Great and declared that he was “taking back and reinforcing” territory, just as his imperial predecessor had done. Mearsheimer countered that Putin “did not make any comments of those sorts before February 24th. And the only such comment he has made since February 24th is the Peter the Great comment.”
But Putin didn’t suddenly start using the language of empire and irredentism on February 24th, 2022. He has spent years making a strenuous case for the restoration of a Greater Russia, and Ukraine has always been the centerpiece of that project. In a much-discussed July 2021 essay titled, “On the Historical Unity of Russians and Ukrainians,” Putin observed that the “wall that has emerged in recent years between Russia and Ukraine, between the parts of what is essentially the same historical and spiritual space, to my mind is our great common misfortune and tragedy.” He emphasized the cultural, religious, and linguistic ties between Ukraine and Russia. He argued that Ukraine was “entirely the product of the Soviet era” and established “on the lands of historical Russia.” He claimed there is “no historical basis” for Ukrainian autonomy (an echo of his observation to George W. Bush that Ukraine is “not even a country” during a NATO summit in 2008). He declared that “Ukraine and Russia have developed as a single economic system over decades and centuries.” And he described Ukrainians who fought for the Soviets during World War II as defenders of their “great common Motherland.”
Only an abnormally inattentive analyst could fail to notice that Putin is obsessed with the idea that Ukraine was amputated from Russia by a series of historical blunders and betrayals, for which he blames Ukrainian nationalists, foreign governments, and incompetent Soviet planners. But Mearsheimer ignores all this and argues instead that Russia’s stated security concerns—particularly NATO’s eastward expansion, but also Ukraine’s integration with Western political and economic institutions—provide a full explanation of its aggression. It is true that Putin has complained about Western policies for many years, and that Russian officials have long threatened dire consequences should these complaints go unaddressed. But it’s strange to take these explanations at face value while dismissing Putin’s imperialism as a pretense.
There are, on the other hand, good reasons to doubt Putin’s sincerity when he describes Russia’s invasion of Ukraine as a defensive war. First, according to Mearsheimer, Moscow believed the prospect of Ukraine joining NATO “could be eliminated only by going to war and turning Ukraine into a neutral or failed state.” But when Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky announced, in March 2022, that he was willing to discuss neutrality, the offer went nowhere with Moscow.
Second, although the Ukrainian military has performed surprisingly well against Russian forces, the idea that Ukraine posed a military threat to Russia prior to February 2022 (or now, for that matter) is self-evidently ludicrous. The reverse is more obviously the case—Ukraine would not have sought membership of NATO’s defensive alliance had it not felt threatened by Russia. NATO members were desperate to avoid a war in early 2022, and Ukraine’s desire for protection has been decisively vindicated by Putin’s invasion.
Third, Putin has every incentive to lie about the purpose of the invasion to maintain domestic support. The idea that the war is an existential confrontation with NATO—and not just part of a grand imperial plan to conquer Ukrainian territory—likely makes the Russian people more willing to accept its costs.
Finally, the Russian security interests that Mearsheimer and other realists urge the West to respect are, for the most part, products of Putin’s personal ideological fixations and anxieties. During the address he delivered on the day of the invasion, he decried the “modern absolutism” of the West and compared NATO expansion to Hitler’s invasion of the Soviet Union. He said Russia had already prevented a “genocide of the millions of people” living in the Donbas. He announced that NATO countries were supporting “far-right nationalists and neo-Nazis in Ukraine” and warned that these elements wanted to acquire nuclear weapons. And he declared that the United States and its allies had somehow crossed a “red line”—a transgression that left no room for negotiation.
“It is not our plan to occupy the Ukrainian territory,” Putin declared as Russian troops and tanks rolled across the Ukrainian border. “We do not intend to impose anything on anyone by force.” To call this brazen lie merely propagandistic would be an understatement given the wreckage to which parts of Ukraine have been reduced by Russian bombardment in the months since. But it is to statements like these that Mearsheimer insists we pay closest attention. “We have been treating all new post-Soviet states with respect and will continue to act this way,” Putin solemnly vowed. “We respect and will respect their sovereignty.” Mearsheimer explicitly directed his critics to those words three months into a war launched by their author to bring Ukrainian sovereignty to an end.
In The Tragedy of Great Power Politics, Mearsheimer frequently compares the behavior of states to that of billiard balls. The analogy offers a vivid demonstration of the realist conviction that international relations are simply a process of brute cause-and-effect in which institutions, ideas, leaders, histories, and cultures don’t matter. But states aren’t billiard balls, and this should become evident if we compare Russia and Germany today.
While Russia regards itself as a humiliated great power standing outside the European community, Germany has attempted to become the anchor of that community. Russia is aggressive and unilateral, while Germany is oriented toward consensus and integration. There’s a clear connection between the past 75 years of history and the contemporary political cultures of each respective state. While Putin justifies his imperial aggression by invoking the nobility of Russia’s “Great Patriotic War” against the Nazis, the shameful memory of World War II drove German political culture toward pacifism and European cooperation. That is why Germany’s decisions to arm Ukraine and increase military spending immediately after the Russian invasion were described by Chancellor Olaf Scholz as his country’s zeitenwende, or “turning point.”
In The Tragedy of Great Power Politics, on the other hand, Mearsheimer observes that German reunification at the end of the Cold War alarmed the UK and France: “Despite the fact that these three states had been close allies for almost forty-five years, both the United Kingdom and France immediately began worrying about the potential dangers of a united Germany.” He offers this as evidence that alliances aren’t based on ethereal things like principles or systems of government, but rather on cold calculations of self-interest: “Alliances are only temporary marriages of convenience,” he writes, “today’s alliance partner might be tomorrow’s enemy, and today’s enemy might be tomorrow’s alliance partner.”
The stubborn refusal to acknowledge that shared values such as democracy play an important role in state relationships and behavior frequently leads Mearsheimer to make spectacular misjudgements. In August 1990, he published an essay in the Atlantic titled, “Why We Will Soon Miss The Cold War,” in which he argued that the bipolarity between the United States and the Soviet Union provided a level of stability that was about to disappear. International affairs, he predicted, would quickly revert to the “untamed anarchy” that existed in the first half of the 20th century. The “new Europe,” he wrote, “will involve a return to the multipolar distribution of power that characterized the European state system from its founding, with the Peace of Westphalia, in 1648, until 1945.”
But that is not what happened. Instead, political and military integration in Europe accelerated after the Cold War and NATO expanded. Mearsheimer also predicted that, in the absence of NATO and the Warsaw Pact, “Germany, France, Britain, and perhaps Italy will assume major-power status,” and that Europe would surely “suffer the problems endemic to multipolar systems.” That has not happened, either. And he believed that Eastern European states would eventually get nuclear weapons, which they didn’t. He even envisioned “scenarios in which Germany uses force against Poland, Czechoslovakia, or even Austria,” and warned that Germany would acquire nuclear weapons “as the surest means of security.” It has not done so (though Berlin allows the US to station these weapons on its territory).
About the looming prospect of German military aggression, he offered these speculations:
Is it not possible, for example, that German thinking about the benefits of controlling Eastern Europe will change markedly once American forces are withdrawn from Central Europe and the Germans are left to provide for their own security? Is it not possible that they would countenance a conventional war against a substantially weaker Eastern European state to enhance their position vis-a-vis the Soviet Union?
Even more incredibly, Mearsheimer argued that Moscow “could play a key role in countering Germany and in maintaining order in Eastern Europe,” and he recommended that the United States side with Russia against Germany if necessary. It’s difficult to imagine a US president aligning with Putin to counter the militaristic ambitions of Angela Merkel or Olaf Scholz. But Mearsheimer believed such an outcome was now conceivable because the Soviet threat to Europe “goes far in explaining the absence of war among the Western democracies since 1945.”
In The Tragedy of Great Power Politics, Mearsheimer argues that France, West Germany, Italy, Japan, and the UK only aligned with the United States during the Cold War because they “considered the Soviet Union, not the United States, to be the most powerful state in the system.” Despite the United States’ “significant advantage in naval forces, strategic bombers, and nuclear warheads,” these states “feared the Soviet army, not the American army” because its land forces could more easily be deployed in Europe than those of the United States:
The Soviet Union is the only superpower that can seriously threaten to overrun Europe, and the Soviet threat provides the glue that holds NATO together. Take away that offensive threat and the United States is likely to abandon the Continent; the defensive alliance it has headed for forty years may well then disintegrate, bringing an end to the bipolar order that has kept the peace of Europe for the past forty-five years.
NATO almost doubled its membership in the decades after Mearsheimer’s essay was published, and continues to expand. This is not what you would expect from a “temporary marriage of convenience.” By reducing the Western alliance against the Soviet Union to a simple matter of military logistics and leaving out the role of communism, democracy, and Soviet totalitarianism, Mearsheimer again demonstrated that realism isn’t just gloomy and pessimistic, it’s fundamentally unrealistic. Prediction is, admittedly, a tricky business. But Mearsheimer has proven to be maddeningly obdurate in the face of all these errors.
His realism cannot account for the enduring alliance between the US and Israel, either. In a March 2006 essay for the London Review of Books, Mearsheimer and Walt seem to acknowledge this problem, as they puzzle over the intelligence cooperation, military aid, and diplomatic support the US provided to the Jewish state: “This extraordinary generosity,” they write, “might be understandable if Israel were a vital strategic asset or if there were a compelling moral case for US backing. But neither explanation is convincing.” They argue that the partnership has “complicated America’s relations with the Arab world” and undermined its security interests.
They might well have scratched their heads. The United States’ support for Israel calls the most basic realist assumptions into question. Walt and Mearsheimer use words like “steadfast,” “unalloyed,” “unqualified,” and “unwavering” to describe it, none of which is consistent with the idea that “today’s alliance partner might be tomorrow’s enemy.” The only explanation for this alliance, they conclude, is “the Lobby”—a nebulous coalition of interest groups, think tanks, journalists, and other “individuals and organisations who actively work to steer US foreign policy in a pro-Israel direction” and who privilege Jerusalem’s interests over those of Washington.
When their controversial essay was subsequently expanded into a 2007 book titled, The Israel Lobby and U.S. Foreign Policy, many commentators accused its authors of trafficking in sordid antisemitic tropes about Jewish financial muscle and dual-loyalty. But the theory is also simply bad analysis. After all, there’s a less nefarious and more parsimonious explanation for the US-Israeli alliance: a large, bipartisan majority of American voters support Israel because it’s a young liberal democracy that reflects their own values.
Mearsheimer’s analysis arises from a more fundamental set of beliefs about human nature, the limits of reason, and what he regards as flawed liberal assumptions about how the world operates. In his 2018 book, The Great Delusion: Liberal Dreams and International Realities, he attempts to anchor his familiar realist arguments in a more basic set of principles.
Mearsheimer’s central claim is that efforts to spread liberal values and institutions abroad are destined to fail because reason cannot help people “arrive at a universal, or even widely shared, understanding of the good life.” He argues that values around the world are simply too different to allow any consistent norms and standards to emerge, and that moral disagreement is “all a matter of personal preference or opinion.” Beyond the liabilities of using reason to demonstrate the futility of reason, Mearsheimer’s case that moral disagreement is eternally irreconcilable is belied by a long process of convergence on certain moral norms and practices.
In his 1981 book, The Expanding Circle: Ethics, Evolution, and Moral Progress, Peter Singer explains how our moral communities have grown over the millennia: while humans used to live in extremely tight kin-based bands or tribes, these groups grew into larger political units such as chiefdoms. The pressures of geography and war—as well as economic growth and consolidation—eventually led to the creation of states, which required a sense of solidarity and social cohesion among a much larger number of people. Singer argues that we’re beginning to recognize that our moral responsibilities extend to all people, and he emphasizes the evolutionary traits that allow us to cooperate beyond our kin groups, such as reciprocal altruism.
Rationality is a critical part of this evolutionary inheritance, as it allows us to recognize that our interests don’t arbitrarily outweigh the interests of others. What Singer describes as the “escalator of reason” allows us to see that ethical principles can be applied more and more broadly. If fellow citizens have certain rights and privileges, even when they fall outside our immediate circle of family and friends, fellow humans have rights and privileges when they fall outside larger political communities such as states.
Mearsheimer, on the other hand, ignores the common standards and institutions that have been established in recent decades and centuries, especially since 1945. The second half of the 20th century saw successive waves of democratization, including the dissolution of the Soviet Union and what Putin now laments as the “parade of sovereignties” in Eastern Europe. We hear a lot about the global democratic “recession” today, but there was a much greater global authoritarian recession during the 1970s, ’80s, and ’90s. Even autocrats like Putin have found themselves forced to use the language of democracy and freedom as the demand for self-determination has rapidly spread around the world.
With the collapse of communism, there was no longer an economic alternative to capitalism. While governments vary significantly in terms of industrial policy, social spending, and so on, we are unlikely to see another large-scale shift toward command economies. Just as there has been significant universalization of political and economic systems, many states and societies have fallen into alignment on a wide range of ethical norms. The number of countries that abolished the death penalty began to surge in 1970 and continued accelerating in subsequent decades. A similar trend is visible with the decriminalization of homosexuality and gay rights. Over a longer timespan, states abolished slavery, gave women the right to vote, and banned inhumane forms of punishment (a major cause of the Enlightenment, advanced by figures such as Cesare Beccaria).
For Mearsheimer’s argument to make any sense, we would have to assume that this process of universalization has come to an end, but he provides no evidence that it has. Liberals aren’t delusional for recognizing the universal appeal of democracy, human rights, and market economies—if anything, the past several years have strengthened the case made by Francis Fukuyama in The End of History and the Last Man that liberal democracy is the most sustainable political system. The inept invasion of Ukraine has exposed Russia’s incompetence and brutality. China’s economic stagnation and disastrous Zero-COVID policy catalyzed the largest protests against the CCP in decades. And in recent months, Iran has experienced its most sweeping protests since the 1979 revolution after Mahsa Amini died in the custody of the morality police.
But Mearsheimer believes that liberal values can only spread so far—partly because there are powerful countervailing forces which will prevent universal liberalization, and partly because he thinks liberalism is detached from human nature. “The first problem with liberalism,” Mearsheimer writes in The Great Delusion, “is that it wrongly assumes that humans are fundamentally solitary individuals, when in fact they are social beings at their core.”
This definition ignores a vast range of (often competing) values and philosophical systems which fall under the heading of liberalism. The social welfare state which has been formed and sustained on the basis of what Mearsheimer describes as “progressive” liberalism is now ubiquitous in the developed world—there isn’t a liberal democracy on Earth that doesn’t spend a significant proportion of its GDP on social programs, which often enjoy broad popular support. Mearsheimer describes the psychologist and author Steven Pinker, the philosopher John Rawls, Fukuyama, and the legal scholar Ronald Dworkin as the “most prominent progressive liberals over the past fifty years,” yet none of them believed or believes that humans are “fundamentally solitary.”
Mearsheimer argues that the great counterpoint to liberalism is nationalism, which “wins every time” whenever the two conflict. He notes that the working-class solidarity between Marxists in Europe dissolved at the onset of World War I, as social class isn’t “in the same league as nationalism, which tends to fuse classes together by providing them with a higher loyalty.” This is an echo of George Orwell’s observation about the “overwhelming strength” of national loyalty in his 1941 essay, “England Your England”: “As a positive force there is nothing to set beside it. Christianity and international Socialism are as weak as straw in comparison with it.”
While it would be a mistake to deny the power of nationalism, there are significant problems with Mearsheimer’s nationalism-versus-liberalism dichotomy. “Nationalism,” he writes, “is more in sync with human nature than liberalism, which mistakenly treats individuals as utility maximizers who worry only about their own welfare rather than as intensely social beings.” Nationalism is “all about community and members’ responsibilities to the collectivity,” while liberalism “does not simply fail to provide the bonds to keep a society intact; it also has the potential to eat away at those bonds…” He continues:
The taproot of the problem is liberalism’s radical individualism and its emphasis on utility maximization. It places virtually no emphasis on the importance of fostering a sense of community and caring about fellow citizens. Instead, everyone is encouraged to pursue his own self-interest, based on the assumption that the sum of all individuals’ selfish behavior will be the common good.
This description of liberalism would be unintelligible to most liberals. Outside the most extreme libertarians, who constitute a small fraction of the liberals in the United States and an even smaller fraction in Europe, the idea that liberalism seeks the total atomization of society and rejects any form of social solidarity and support is a caricature that conflates selfish individualism with the liberal commitment to individual rights. This leads to a contradiction at the heart of The Great Delusion. While Mearsheimer imagines that liberalism is inward-looking and self-interested, he also admits that liberals want to build a global order which secures human rights and democracy as broadly as possible. This is hardly the ideology of the selfish liberal utility maximizer Mearsheimer invents in the passage above.
It’s especially mystifying that Mearsheimer would publish a book in 2018—well into an era of resurgent nationalist authoritarianism in the United States and Europe—which presents nationalism as a great unifying force. After Mearsheimer’s recent three-hour discussion with Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán, the latter tweeted: “The #liberals have got it all wrong—that’s the bottom-line of our great conversation with Prof Mearsheimer today.”
While a meeting isn’t an endorsement, it’s no surprise that Orbán is a fan of Mearsheimer—of all the leaders of the Western alliance against Russia, he’s the one most suspicious of Kyiv and most sympathetic to Moscow. And like Mearsheimer, Orbán believes that Russia will eventually win the war. “It’s Afghanistan now,” Orbán recently observed in reference to Ukraine. “The land of nobody.”
Given Mearsheimer’s contempt for liberalism and affection for nationalism, it is hardly surprising that he has also been embraced by a number of America’s most prominent National Conservatives. The priorities shared by realism and nationalism are conspicuous. Both ideologies emphasize a narrow and amoral conception of national interest which counsels against protecting human rights abroad. Both believe that the international system works best when all states jealously guard their own national interest and pursue their own goals. And both have a bleak view of the prospects for human progress.
Nationalism is familiar to realists: an engine of raw power politics, a force multiplier when the billiard balls collide and scatter. Realists believe that states behave according to geopolitical forces that might as well be mindless physical laws, and they dismiss liberalism because liberals are capable of comprehending a world in which this is no longer the case—a world which is already in formation.
The Ukraine conflict has merely demonstrated that Mearsheimer’s realism is as ineffective at understanding the present as it has been at predicting the future or explaining the past. Fitting Putin’s misbegotten imperial adventure into a realist framework requires a conception of international relations that awards Western democracies the power of choice but reduces their enemies to victims of circumstances. And it demands an understanding of Russian aggression so indulgent that it is indistinguishable from appeasement.
Realism masquerades as a rigorous approach to the analysis of international relations, but it’s really just an aging reactionary ideology: blind to human progress, indifferent to human rights, and contemptuous of those who believe that the power of ideas and principles can forge an international order not ruled by fear and brute power. We can thank John J. Mearsheimer for making this distinction clearer than ever over the past year.