12 March 2022   1 comment

Professor John Mearsheimer is one of the most distinguished scholars of international relations in the United States. He is also a very consistent political realist, a body of thought which emphasizes the priority of interests over values in the conduct of foreign policy. I will confess that there are parts of political realism which inform my own analysis of world affairs even though, on the whole, my world view is mostly idealist. For example, Professor Mearsheimer wrote, along with Professor Stephen Walt, a book entitled The Israel Lobby which critiqued the ability of the state of Israel to influence American foreign policy to the detriment of US interests.

Mearsheimer sparked a great deal of controversy when he delivered a lecture in 2015 which sharply criticized the US and NATO for the expansion of NATO into former Warsaw Pact countries because he argued that the resultant Russian insecurity from those actions led Russia to annex Crimea and parts of eastern Ukraine. That lecture can be seen in the video below (it is one hour and 15 minutes long, but very worthwhile).

Mearsheimer’s argument has been revived by the recent Russian invasion of Ukraine, igniting an even greater controversy. Indeed, Mearsheimer’s argument has been reproduced by the Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs as a defense of Russian actions. The crux of the argument is that, after the dissolution of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR), Russia was promised that NATO would not expand to the east. At a press briefing on 25 February 2022, the Russian spokesperson point out:

Question: German Foreign Ministry spokesperson Christopher Burger said during a briefing that treaties with Russia did not contain any promises not to expand NATO the east. What would be your comment on the statement by your German colleague?

Maria Zakharova: At first, NATO member states denied the very fact that the West had made promises not to expand NATO to the east. However, when the officials who took part in those events and negotiations started publishing their memoirs, they could no longer deny facts or claim that nothing had happened. Instead, they started saying that even if there had been some verbal promises, there were no official written documents. This collective amnesia is astonishing. However, the article published by Spiegel magazine, a German media outlet by the way, showed that this position is also at odds with reality.

Declassified archival documents showed that following the February 2, 1990, talks in Washington, Vice Chancellor and Foreign Minister of the Federal Republic of Germany Hans-Dietrich Genscher and United States Secretary of State James Baker said that they “were in full agreement that there is no intention to extend the NATO area of defence and security towards the East. This holds true not only for GDR, which we have no intention of simply incorporating, but that holds true for all the other Eastern countries.” During 2+4 talks involving the German Democratic Republic, the Federal Republic of Germany, France, the USSR, Great Britain, and the United States, the representative of the Federal Republic of Germany, Jürgen Chrobog, said: “We had made it clear during the 2+4 negotiations that we would not extend NATO beyond the Elbe. We could not therefore offer membership of NATO to Poland and the others.” Let me remind you that this meeting took place in Bonn, on March 6, 1991. Since then, NATO has accepted 14 countries as its new members.

NATO contests this interpretation and it would be bootless to try to parse out the large volume of statements made at the time of a great transformation in world politics–no one really knew what the future would bring. What is undeniable is that the eastern European countries who had been part of the Soviet bloc for so many years feared that Russia remained a serious threat to their territorial integrity and sovereignty. Patrick Rhamey points out the more powerful dynamic underlying the expansion of Western influence in eastern Europe:

“Mearsheimer’s arguments deprive Ukrainians of any agency. He consistently ignores, both in the Ukraine talk and his recent interview with the New Yorker, the possibility that Ukrainians might choose democracy and seek membership in the EU on their own volition (in this, he echoes Kremlin talking points). He draws a false equivalence between a liberal, wealthy economic bloc on the one hand and an authoritarian petrol state on the other. For Mearsheimer, both sides are motivated exclusively – or at least ultimately – by power politics. ‘Freedom’ and ‘Prosperity’ are rhetorical weapons in a contest between great powers. The aspirations of the majority of Ukrainians don’t factor into this analysis.

“Instead of focusing on ‘the West,’ Mearsheimer should consider the distinct possibility that Russia’s long history of attempted dominance over Ukraine helped drive many Ukrainians toward the EU. The Euromaidan protests that toppled Viktor Yanukovych, after all, were sparked by his decision – under pressure from Putin – to walk away from negotiations. Putin’s explicit use of irredentist language, seizure of Crimea, and role in the Ukrainian civil war have clearly shifted public opinion on the question of NATO membership; a majority now favor joining the alliance.

David Remnick, in an interview with Stephen Kotkin in the New Yorker, amplifies the point in a balance of power framework:

We’ve been hearing voices both past and present saying that the reason for what has happened is, as George Kennan put it, the strategic blunder of the eastward expansion of NATO. The great-power realist-school historian John Mearsheimer insists that a great deal of the blame for what we’re witnessing must go to the United States. I thought we’d begin with your analysis of that argument.

I have only the greatest respect for George Kennan. John Mearsheimer is a giant of a scholar. But I respectfully disagree. The problem with their argument is that it assumes that, had nato not expanded, Russia wouldn’t be the same or very likely close to what it is today. What we have today in Russia is not some kind of surprise. It’s not some kind of deviation from a historical pattern. Way before nato existed—in the nineteenth century—Russia looked like this: it had an autocrat. It had repression. It had militarism. It had suspicion of foreigners and the West. This is a Russia that we know, and it’s not a Russia that arrived yesterday or in the nineteen-nineties. It’s not a response to the actions of the West. There are internal processes in Russia that account for where we are today.

I would even go further. I would say that nato expansion has put us in a better place to deal with this historical pattern in Russia that we’re seeing again today. Where would we be now if Poland or the Baltic states were not in nato? They would be in the same limbo, in the same world that Ukraine is in. In fact, Poland’s membership in nato stiffened nato’s spine. Unlike some of the other nato countries, Poland has contested Russia many times over. In fact, you can argue that Russia broke its teeth twice on Poland: first in the nineteenth century, leading up to the twentieth century, and again at the end of the Soviet Union, with Solidarity. So George Kennan was an unbelievably important scholar and practitioner—the greatest Russia expert who ever lived—but I just don’t think blaming the West is the right analysis for where we are.

There are other considerations to take into account as we assess the accuracy of Mearsheimer’s analysis. Realists make the assumption that analyzing interests is the only way to understand not only the actions of states but also human nature. Hans Morgenthau, a pre-eminent political realist in the US right after World War II, was unequivocal on this matter: “Political realism believes that politics, like society in general, is governed by objective laws that have their roots in human nature”. Thus, political realists easily believe that Thucydides observation of how the Athenians regarded their interests in the Peloponnesian War remains true in 2022: “The strong do as they will, and the weak suffer what they must”.

In this respect, political realists miss out on an awful lot of what has happened between 431 BCE and 2022, most notably the liberation of the individual in the Enlightenment. Nick Burns, writing for the New Statesmen, summarizes the significance of this crucially important change:

“The world, in a word, is a much more complicated place than the realists project in their simple formulas of a rational computation of interest. So often accused of pessimism, Mearsheimer is, in a strange way, too optimistic in believing that Americans (or for that matter Ukrainians or Russians) should simply make decisions according to a clinical, dispassionate evaluation of their interests. Regardless of whether it is desirable, such an evaluation is impossible in practice. A full understanding of the war in Ukraine, its causes and its consequences must pay attention to the emotions of the participants – Putin’s ambition, the West’s outrage, Ukraine’s hope – in their human aspects too, and not merely as strategic calculation.”

Mearsheimer is in some respect correct: NATO underestimated how threatening its eastern expansion was viewed by Russia. But Russia also miscalculated how powerful the idea of personal freedom became in the countries it once dominated by force. Ultimately, and sadly, one side will be proven correct–the side that wins. Right now, I put my money on the Ukrainians.

Posted March 12, 2022 by vferraro1971 in World Politics

One response to “12 March 2022

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  1. I needed this!

    Liked by 1 person

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