Where Mearsheimer’s Realpolitik went wrong

By | December 1, 2022

Fred Kaplan writes:

It may be a sign of decline in John Mearsheimer’s mental acuity that, nine months after coming off quite badly in one Q&A by the New Yorker’s Isaac Chotiner, he agreed to strap himself in for another round of grilling and emerged more battered still.

Professors of political science don’t generally cause a stir, but intellectual self-immolation is a rare spectacle. And Chotiner’s one-two torching of Mearsheimer is a barn-burner.

In the past year, to a degree rarely matched by academics in his field, Mearsheimer made a splash in the public debate. He has argued that NATO—and especially the United States—is “principally responsible” for Russia’s invasion of Ukraine; that Vladimir Putin’s aims in this war are limited to keeping Ukraine in Moscow’s orbit; that Putin has the right to make this claim; and that the U.S. should not only end the war quickly but form an alliance with Russia in broader geopolitical ventures. He is wrong on all these points, for reasons that go deeper than the obvious ones.

Mearsheimer comes to the debate with impressive credentials. His 2001 book, The Tragedy of Great Power Politics, is a classic treatise on war and peace through the lens of International Realism (also known as Realpolitik), a worthy successor to Hans Morgenthau’s Politics Among Nations and Kenneth Waltz’s Man, the State, and War.

Chotiner (who used to work at Slate) is an interviewer of deep reading and a distinctive style. His modus operandi is to rattle those he interviews by quoting a risible claim or blatant contradiction in some article they’ve written, sit back as they dig themselves into a deep hole, then flick a mot juste so stinging that they crumble on the spot, along with their reputations. (He could have been an ace prosecutor.)

Mearsheimer came under Chotiner’s sights—and those of many commentators—back in February, when the professor first started blaming the U.S. for Putin’s aggression against Ukraine. His reasoning was that the expansion of NATO into the territory of the former Soviet Union threatened Russia’s existential interests. In particular, he cited President George W. Bush’s statement in 2008 that Ukraine, right on Russia’s border, would someday be granted membership in the U.S.-led military alliance. As a result, Mearsheimer concluded, President Vladimir Putin had no choice but to invade Ukraine, to keep its neighbor from decamping to the West. [Continue reading…]

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