A month ago Freddie Sayers of Unherd interviewed John Mearsheimer on the current state of geopolitics, considering open conflict in Ukraine and tension in Asia concerning Taiwan. For who prefer reading the commentary, I provide a transcript from the closed captions, lightly edited to form the text below. I found the discussion well worth the time, both enlightening and somewhat unsettling. FS refers to talk from Freddie Sayers and JM to John Mearsheimer.
FS: Hello and welcome to UnHerd. I’m Freddie Sayers. Every so often, usually only a few times in a generation, figures from the world of academia become figureheads of a whole worldview that starts attracting mass attention. My guest today is one such individual. He is the most famous proponent of the realist school of foreign policy. And his stance on Ukraine, which has been strongly critical of the US and NATO, laying most of the blame for the crisis at their door has been highly controversial.
He is the Wendell Harrison Distinguished Service Professor at the University of Chicago. And he joins me in the studio here in London to talk Ukraine, China, the world and what should happen next. Welcome, John Mearsheimer.
JM: Glad to be here, Freddie.
FS: So, the history of how we got to this point at Ukraine has been quite well rehearsed. And I know that your lectures on that subject, detailing how you argue missteps by the West forced Russia into some kind of action, have attracted literally tens of millions of views on YouTube. So I don’t think we should spend the whole time on that. But for those viewers who might not be familiar, could you just sort of lay out for us, as succinctly as possible, what the argument is of how the West forced Russia into this position?
JM: My basic argument is that the West- and here I’m talking about the United States, because the United States drives the train-is principally responsible for the Ukraine crisis, which of course, has now turned into a war. The West had a three-pronged strategy involving Ukraine, all of which was designed to make that country a Western Bulwark on Russia’s border. And the three-prong strategy first called for bringing Ukraine into NATO; second, bringing Ukraine into the European Union and three, promoting a colour revolution, an orange revolution in Ukraine that would turn Ukraine into a pro-Western liberal democracy. So there was this three-pronged strategy that the Russians unsurprisingly viewed as an existential threat.
And what’s happened since April 2008, when the United States forced NATO to say that Ukraine would become part of NATO is that this situation has gotten worse and worse. And the crisis first broke out on February 22 2014 and then, of course, we had a war starting on February 24th of 2022.
FS: So let’s just talk about what we’ve learned for a moment since February the 24th 2022. Has anything about the progress of that war, from the original multipronged invasion of Ukraine by the Russians right through to their gradual retreat to smaller regions within Ukraine, as any part of that surprised you?
JM: I think that I have been surprised by the fact that the Russians performed poorly. You want to remember that the Russians went to war in Georgia, in August of 2008. And the Russian army, although it won that war rather quickly performed very poorly, and the Russians set out to reform their military so that the next time they fought, they’d perform much better. And I think almost everybody thought the Russian army, especially, would do well in Ukraine. And it has not done well, it has struggled. There’s no question about that. So I’ve been surprised by that.
FS: And what what should we learn from that philosophically, if anything? I mean, is that is there any wider lesson from the underperformance of the Russians do you think in terms of how we should treat the next crisis or what we should have known all along?
JM: Well, I think what it shows is, you never know how a military will perform until you get into the fight. If you think of the situation regarding Taiwan, China has not fought a war since 1979. That was a long time ago. And the question of how the Chinese military would perform in a war over Taiwan is really unclear in the extreme because they haven’t fought a war in a long time. And as we know, from this Ukrainian case, and the Russian military performance, sometimes you think military is going to perform very well and it doesn’t, and vice versa, by the way.
So it just shows you how much uncertainty there is when it comes to going to war. In many ways, anytime you go to war, you’re rolling the dice. And the Russians, I think, understood they were rolling the dice. I think all the evidence is, running up to when the war started, that Putin did not want to invade Ukraine. He was working mightily to try to avoid that outcome, because I think he understood that it would be very messy. And of course, it has proved to be very messy.
FS: I want to come on to the idea of what the Russian end goals are. But let me put a couple of arguments to you, which people have said, in opposition to your more realist worldview and see what you make of them. One of them is that your whole premise is that the Russians were acting rationally, realistically, they were defending their sphere of influence, it was intolerable for them to have NATO coming so close to their borders. And this was a sort of act of self defence in some way.
But if they’ve shown to be so much weaker than, certainly we and perhaps even they realised, were they acting realistically? Is there actually an argument that they’ve now learned, and the world has shown them, the Russian side, that they had an unrealistic estimation of their own power of their own sphere of influence, and that reality has now adjusted?
JM: Well, I think you have to understand that when countries think they’re facing an existential threat, and they become desperate, they’re willing to roll the dice. They’re willing to pursue incredibly risky strategies. And the best example of this is, when Japan attacked the United States at Pearl Harbour on December 7th 1941. It’s very important to understand the Japanese understood full well that they were attacking Godzilla. The United States had 10 times the gross national product that Japan had. It had the capability to build a much more formidable military.
And the Japanese had no illusions that they would win the war, they thought there was a sliver of a chance they would win, but they would most likely lose. But nevertheless, they attacked. And the reason they attacked is they were desperate. The United States was economically strangling Japan at the time, and it was threatening to knock Japan out of the ranks of the great powers, and the Japanese felt they just had to do something.
So you want to understand that when great powers are desperate, they are willing to take extreme measures. This, by the way, is one of the reasons we should worry greatly about the Russians using nuclear weapons, if the Russians are losing the war in Ukraine. If they’re losing the war in Ukraine, to NATO and to its Ukrainian allies, they will certainly be in a desperate situation. And when states, great powers especially, are in desperate straits, they tend to use extreme measures to try to rescue the situation.
So I think what happened on February 24th is that Putin concluded that he really had no choice- if he was going to prevent the West from turning Ukraine into a Western Bulwark on Russia’s borders-than to attack and that he did.
FS: I want to come on to this nuclear question as well. Let me throw one other argument at you, which is that this relative strength and the relative performances of the Ukrainian side and the Russian side, of course, is partly explained by resourcing and military training and backing. But is there not also a component which tends to be absent from the realist worldview, which is a kind of moral righteousness or sense of idealism that is more present on the Ukrainian side because they feel their homeland has been invaded. And because they are so committed to it, which is absent or at least, there a lot less within the Russian military who are evidently less committed to it. And that partly explains the Ukrainian success so far, repelling the Russian incursion. Do you think what we’ve seen here, in a way, is the opposite of a realist outcome?
JM: What we’ve seen is the little guy, the plucky little guy, because Ukraine is so idealistic and so determined to defend themselves, outperforming against the odds. Well, I think the key word here is nationalism. There’s no doubt that when the Russians invaded Ukraine, that nationalism came racing to the fore, and that Ukrainian nationalism is a force multiplier in this case. And there’s also no doubt that nationalism is not part of the realist theory of international politics that I have, but nationalism is consistent with realism. So nationalism and realism fit together rather neatly.
But you want to remember the point that nationalism is also at play on the Russian side. And the more time goes by, and the more the Russians feel that the West has its gun sights on Russia, and is trying to not only defeat Russia, but knock Russia out of the ranks of the great powers, the more Russian nationalism will kick in.
You want to be very careful not to judge the outcome of this war at this particular juncture. This war has got a long time to go and it’s going to play itself out in ways that are hard to predict. But I think there is a good chance that in the end, the Russians will prevail. I’m not saying that will happen. But you don’t want to say at this point in time, Ukraine has won–Russia has lost. That remains to be seen.
Just watching the events that are happening now in Ukraine, it’s quite clear that the Russians are destroying the infrastructure in Ukraine. This is going to have huge consequences. Furthermore, the Russians are mobilising more and more troops. And they have three times as many people and they have much greater wealth than Ukraine does. Of course, you might counter that the West is backing Ukraine to the hilt, and therefore compensating for those disadvantages that Ukraine has in terms of wealth and in terms of manpower. And there is an element of truth in that. But let’s see how long the West remains deeply committed to Ukraine. So all I’m saying is, let’s not judge too soon how this one is going to end.
FS: You mentioned a moment ago, the nuclear threat. What is in your view, the correct way to treat that threat? What is the realist answer to a country such as Russia that has nuclear power, because if they could always brandish it, and to threaten them, or come up to them in any way, is just to to risk some kind of nuclear conflict, then they can do whatever they like. At what point do we have to stand up to people even if they do have nuclear weapons?
JM: The question is, are you willing to be incinerated, to stand up to the Russians over Ukraine and push them to the brink? That’s the question you have to ask yourself. It was the question that John F. Kennedy and his lieutenants had to ask himself during the Cuban Missile Crisis. For me, and in most of my realist friends, we fully appreciate that you have to be extremely careful when you’re dealing with a rival great power that is armed to the teeth with nuclear weapons that are aimed at you.
And that you cannot back that great power into a corner. You cannot put it in a situation where it’s desperate. You cannot threaten its survival because in those circumstances, there is a reasonable chance they will use nuclear weapons. And if they use nuclear weapons, you understand there’ll be no more London. There’ll be no more Europe if we get into a general thermonuclear war. And my principal goal is to avoid that.
And what I find quite remarkable at this point in time, is how few people seem to understand that danger. There is all sorts of talk in the West about defeating Russia inside Ukraine, wrecking its economy, causing regime change, and maybe even breaking up Russia the way the Soviet Union was broken up. This is a country that has thousands of nuclear weapons. If its survival is threatened, it’s likely to use them.
So we have this perverse paradox here that most people don’t seem to realise, which is that the more successful NATO and Ukraine are against Russia, the more likely it is that the Russians will use nuclear weapons and circumstances like that, I would go to great lengths to try and work out some sort of arrangement to put an end to this war as quickly as possible.
I think what JFK did during the Cuban Missile Crisis was exactly the right thing. Kennedy understood full well that the last thing we needed was a general thermonuclear war between the United States and the Soviet Union. Where’s JFK today? I can’t find him. And I find instead, all sorts of people in the West, in the public, talking about public intellectuals, commentators, journalists, and so forth and so on. And even foreign policymakers talking in rather cavalier ways about defeating the Russians. I think this is foolish.
FS: So you talked about you and your realist friends there, what is the line for you, then? Clearly, you don’t think that the eastern parts or even perhaps the whole of Ukraine is of core strategic interest to the United States and maybe not even to Western Europe. What is, of course strategic interests? So, at what point do you think we would have to resist a Russian aggression? Would that be the Baltic States, for example? And you may well say there’s no evidence that Putin has the Baltic states in mind. But let’s play the theoretical game; were here to invade one of those countries, do you think at that point, you would support proper full to-the-hilt defence?
JM: Well, the Baltic states are in NATO. Poland and Romania are in NATO, they have an Article Five guarantee. If the Russians were to attack those countries, we would have to come to the defence of those countries, there’s no question about that.
FS: And you would support that? I would support that. Up to and including nuclear war?
JM: Well, I’m not talking about using nuclear weapons to defend those countries. What you would use are conventional forces. And if you were losing the basic strategy, or the basic doctrine is that you would countenance using nuclear weapons. What I would do in the event is hard to say. But the key point here is defending the Baltic states, defending Poland, defending Romania against a Russian invasion- which is not going to happen, by the way, this is a figment of the Western imagination. The Russians can’t even win in Ukraine, much less countenance attacking and conquering all those other countries.
But let’s hypothetically, talk about what would happen if Russia attacked those countries; the United States would come to their defence. That’s a very different issue than talking about defeating the Russians in a particular country, wrecking their economy, causing regime change, and maybe even breaking Russia up. There is a fine line out there that you don’t want to cross. Some people refer to that as a red line, you just want to be very, very careful when you’re dealing with a country that has nuclear weapons. That’s not to say you don’t want to defend yourself if that country attacks you or attacks an important ally. But there are limits to how far you can go in terms of threatening that nuclear armed adversary. That’s my point.
FS: On the specifics of Ukraine, then, what should we have done? Do you think I mean, if we consign to the history books, all the events that led us up to February 24th 2022, at the point of the invasion- whatever the rights and wrongs of what had happened prior to that- what do you think a wise response by the West would have been?
JM: Well, first of all, in April 2008, when NATO said Ukraine would become part of NATO and the Russians made it clear that that was an existential threat and that was unacceptable to them, we should have backed off right then. We should have done nothing more. Then the crisis broke out on February 22nd 2014, we should have recognised the severity of the situation and we should have backed off and worked with the Russians to create some sort of modus vivendi where the Russians felt that they weren’t threatened by NATO in Ukraine, and that Ukraine could remain a neutral state.
But instead, what we did was, we doubled down. Okay. Then over the course of 2021 the situation deteriorated. And on December 17th 2021, the Russians sent the letter to NATO and to President Biden, demanding that they get in writing that Ukraine would not become part of NATO. What we should have done then is backed off and tried to work out some sort of modus vivendi where the Russians were satisfied with the situation in Ukraine and the threat of war was taken off the table.
Instead, we told the Russians, nothing is going to change. We are going to bring Ukraine into NATO. And we were working very hard to do that, despite the conventional wisdom in the West, which says we were not. We were working to bring Ukraine into NATO.
FS: What options are available in this post-conflict period or mid-conflict period? What are the realistic options now?
JM: There are no realistic options. We’re screwed.
FS: I mean, what does that mean? Practically though, we’re screwed. It means you believe the conflict is now destined to escalate or just destined to grind on?
JM: Well, both. It’s destined to grind on and both sides will continue to escalate, they have been escalating, they have been escalating. And where it all leads, it’s very hard to say. There’s no deal on the table that can be worked out here. There’s all this talk about the need for diplomacy. And I think diplomacy is a very important element of foreign policy and many American policymakers seem to have forgotten that and many people in the West now equate diplomacy with appeasement, which is remarkably foolish.
So I’m in favour of diplomacy in principle. But the question you have to ask yourself in this particular case, is if you do diplomacy, can you work out a deal? And my opinion is there’s no deal to be worked out. And both sides are going to fight this one out.
FS: Why? If John Mearsheimer is, by some miracle, appointed Secretary of State and you are in charge of negotiating a peace settlement, why can there not be some deal? The Russians are clearly suffering, they’re losing a lot of soldiers. It’s costing them dearly. They probably would like there to be some settlement that didn’t look too humiliating. Is there not still something along the lines of neutral zones or administered regions, some guarantee not to join NATO by Ukraine? Even though the Zelensky government would definitely not endorse that at the moment, is there not still, in theory, a peace deal to be done?
JM: Not really. There are two big issues here. One is neutral Ukraine. And then the other issue is the territorial one. The Russians have now annexed four oblasts in Ukraine. That’s a big chunk of Ukrainian territory. The Russians now believe that that territory belongs to them. Do you think the Russians are going to be willing to abandon that territory, in addition to Crimea? I don’t think that’s happening. I think the Russians have no intention of abandoning that territory. Certainly not all of it. The Ukrainians, for their part, insist on getting that territory back.
And the Americans would not be willing to concede that territory to the Russians, because it would appear to be a defeat for the West. The United States and its allies are in this one to win. We are deeply committed. For us to back off and give the Russians any major concessions is just unacceptable at this point.
That’s the territorial issue, then there’s the question of whether or not Ukraine is neutral. The Russians insist that Ukraine has to be neutral. The Ukrainians are now saying we’re willing to be neutral but we need a guarantee for our security from someone. Well, the only someone that can get her to Ukrainian security is really NATO, and specifically the United States.
Well, if the United States- China? No, that’s not in the cards. The Chinese are not a good guarantor of Ukraine’s security. That’s just too far fetched. And furthermore, they don’t have the military capability to do it. It’s the United States and its European allies. Right. But then Ukraine is a de facto member of NATO. And that’s unacceptable to the Russians. So there’s no way you’re going to get a truly neutral Ukraine that’s not affiliated with the West, it’s not going to happen. And the Russians are not going to accept that.
So what the Russians are going to do instead is they’re going to create, if they can, a dysfunctional rump state, and that’s what they’re doing now. That’s why they’ve taken all that territory, number one, and number two, that’s why they’re wrecking Ukraine.
FS: What’s quite frightening about what you’re saying is that actually, if there is no deal to be done, and the logic is that the conflict will just carry on, and eventually more doubling down. More escalation. More escalation. It seems from what you’re saying that you think we are headed towards some kind of escalated conflicts between the West and Russia. Whether that’s nuclear or not, he logic would seem, if neither side finds the current status acceptable, and both sides are refusing to concede that a bigger, much more dangerous conflict is inevitable.
JM: Inevitable is too strong a word. Likely is more correct. But I think your description of the present situation is right on the money. And the the two outcomes that we have to worry greatly about are one where the Russians use nuclear weapons. And two, where the United States comes into the fight, or the West comes into the fight, because then you have a great power war. The United States and Russia are actually fighting each other, and as Avril Haines, the Director of National Intelligence in the United States, told the Senate this past spring, the most likely scenario is for the Russians to use nuclear weapons if NATO comes into the fight. So this is very dangerous.
FS: So do you now think that some kind of nuclear event is likely?
JM: Likely is too strong a word. The rhetoric I like to use is there’s a non-trivial chance that nuclear weapons will be used here. And let me tell you why I think that’s the case. If the Russians were to use nuclear weapons, the most likely scenario is that they would use them in Ukraine. And Ukraine does not have nuclear weapons of its own. So the Ukrainians would not be able to retaliate against the Russians with their own nuclear weapons. So that weakens deterrence.
Furthermore, if the Russians use nuclear weapons in Ukraine, the West, and here we’re talking mainly about the United States is not going to retaliate with nuclear weapons against Russia, because that would lead to a general thermonuclear war.
FS: Is it certain? You think if Putin detonated an actual nuclear bomb within Ukraine, there would be no retaliation by the West?
JM: No, there would be no nuclear retaliation. Macron has said that, by the way. We would not retaliate with nuclear weapons. The great danger is that if the Russians used nuclear weapons in Ukraine that the West would retaliate with a massive conventional attack against Russian forces. David Petraeus, General Petraeus, has said that if the Russians attack with nuclear weapons inside Ukraine, we should take our conventional forces, NATO’s conventional forces and slam Russian conventional forces inside of Ukraine and Russian naval forces in the Black Sea.
If we were to do that, we would then have a great power war. NATO would be at war against Russia. And as Avril Haines, the Director of National Intelligence said, that is likely to lead to a nuclear war, because the Russians would not be able to stand up to the Americans and their allies.
FS: So what would you be advising, in the very unhappy event that Russia does launch some kind of nuclear strike within Ukraine, what do you think the wise response is?
JM: The wise response and I think the likely response is we would go to great lengths to immediately shut down the conflict. I think the use of nuclear weapons is what would shut down the conflict. It’s the only possibility. I’m not saying that would axiomatically happen. But it would become so clear, at that point in time, that we were in danger of creating a nuclear war between the superpowers that we would go to great lengths to shut it down.
That would focus the mind in ways that are hard to imagine in the current context. I mean, that’s a risk that we hope we don’t need to take. But we’re actually making it more and more likely. It’s very important to understand that the more successful that NATO and the Ukrainians are at defeating the Russians inside of Ukraine, and wrecking the Russian economy, the more successful we are, the more likely it is that they will use nuclear weapons.
And again, you do not want to underestimate what great powers will do when they’re desperate. I’ll just give you another example to highlight that. In late summer of 1945, the United States had defeated Japan. Japan was finished in the summer of 1945. And the United States was unable to get the Japanese to surrender. And we felt that there was a serious possibility we would have to invade the Japanese home islands with amphibious forces. And given the casualties we had suffered at Iwo Jima and Okinawa, the last thing the Americans wanted to do was to invade the Japanese home islands. So given how desperate we were to avoid that outcome, invading the Japanese home islands, we were willing to drop two nuclear weapons on Japan. And of course, we were willing to do that, because Japan had no ability to retaliate with its own nuclear weapons against us.
The situation is somewhat analogous to the one that the Russians face in the circumstances where they are losing in Ukraine, and they are becoming desperate, they could think about using nuclear weapons in Ukraine against Ukraine, and not have to fear nuclear retaliation, because Ukraine does not have nuclear weapons of its own.
FS: I think you’re more sanguine than I would be that Western leaders would treat a nuclear event as cause to make peace and and de-escalate. I mean, you among Western leaders at the moment is all very moral. It’s very much about teaching lessons. And I find it unthinkable that they would allow exploding a nuclear device to be a way to win a war. You know, here in the UK, we’ve had three prime ministers in less than six months. And each one has recommitted to the Ukraine conflict, has immediately gone to see President Zelensky. It’s become very much a kind of Article of Faith of being a good person in politics. Now. Have you observed that? And how do you square that with the idea that they would be realistic in the event of a nuclear strike?
JM: Well, I understand exactly what you’re saying. And you may be correct, that Western leaders will retaliate with massive conventional attacks, or even with nuclear weapons, in the event that Russians use nuclear weapons inside Ukraine. I’m not saying you’re wrong, I’m right. It’s very difficult to predict where this war is headed. So I think there’s a serious chance that you’re right. And that scares me even more.
But the point I would make is that once nuclear weapons are used, it will become clear, I think, I hope, to all the policymakers in the West, that we have crossed a dangerous threshold, and that what has to be done now is that this war has to be brought to an end immediately before it spins out of control. I mean, you want to think about what the consequences are here. The consequences are that cities will be incinerated. We’re talking about a general nuclear war. That’s a possible outcome.
You just go back to the Cuban Missile Crisis, and think about how JFK thought about dealing with the Soviets, and how the Soviets thought about the situation themselves. Both Khrushchev and Kennedy understood that this one had to be immediately shut down. We’re talking about the possibility of a war escalating to the nuclear level involving two countries, the United States and Soviet Union that have massive nuclear arsenals aimed at each other. Both leaders understood full-well, this conflict had to be shut down immediately.
What do we have today, we have a situation where there’s a war taking place where the Russians are deeply involved. And NATO is doing everything but pulling the triggers and pushing the buttons, this is a very dangerous situation. We should be doing everything possible to shut it down. But that’s not happening.
FS: What role do you feel that the UK has played in that because most of your focus is the US as the big gorilla in the room? But the UK has been a big part of the defence of Ukraine and and has been really leading the charge more than Germany, more than France and has been perhaps the most robust within Europe. Do you have any comment on the UK response? I think it’s been the most robust within Western Europe.
JM: In Eastern Europe, you have the Poles and the Baltic states, which have been every bit as enthusiastic about this war as the British have been. No, I think the British are major cheerleaders. They’re pushing the United States to continue its policies with regard to Ukraine and they’re strong allies in this enterprise. I think the British are being remarkably foolish, just like I think, the Poles, the Baltic states, and the Americans are being remarkably foolish.
FS: Let me ask you about Sweden and Finland. Would you have foreseen that they would ask to become members of NATO after this crisis, and do you think it’s a good or bad idea for them to do it?
JM: I didn’t foresee it, simply because there was no threat to them. The conventional wisdom in the West, is that the Russians were bent on conquering Ukraine, occupying Ukraine, and incorporating it into a greater Russia. And then when the Russians were done with Ukraine, they were going to conquer countries in Eastern Europe, like the Baltic states, Poland, Romania, so forth and so on. Putin is basically an imperialist in this story.
There is no evidence, zero evidence that Putin was interested in conquering Ukraine and absorbing it into a greater Russia. There is no evidence that he was interested in conquering any other country in Eastern Europe. Furthermore, if you look at Russian capabilities, what they’ve done in Ukraine, there is no reason to think that they had the capability or the intention of conquering Finland or Sweden or the Baltic states. This is a figment of the West’s imagination.
FS: So do you think it makes it more or less safe for Sweden and Finland to be within NATO?
JM: I think it makes it more dangerous. And the reason is that you’re encircling the Russians. There are three great powers in the world; the United States, China and Russia. China is a peer competitor of the United States. China is the real threat to the United States. That’s why we talked about a pivot to Asia. Russia is the weakest of those three great powers by far. Russia is not a threat to conquer Eastern Europe, to dominate all of Europe, the way the Soviet Union was after 1945. Russia does not equal the Soviet threat, period, right?
Therefore, you want to be very careful that you don’t put the Russians in a situation where they think their survival is threatened. They think that they’re being encircled, they understand that they are the weakest of the three great powers. And they understand that NATO has its gun sights on them. So when you bring Finland and Sweden into the Alliance, you bring Ukraine into the Alliance, right? You’re giving the Russians a sense that their survival is at risk, that they’re facing an existential threat. And that’s going to put them in the situation where they may feel desperate, and they may lash out in ways that lead to serious trouble.
So if anything, what we should be doing is backing off and working out some sort of modus vivendi. But instead, we’re doing exactly the opposite. There’s no reason for Finland and Sweden to join NATO. Except that they want to.
FS: The people in Sweden are frightened of Russia. They are very conscious of their proximity to Russia, there’s always fears of sightings of U-boats in Stockholm harbour and so on. It’s a big part of Swedish imagination and sense of their place in the world. And now they see what’s happened in Ukraine, they are seeking greater defence and that’s their reality. Would you say we should say no, to Sweden and Finland as NATO?
JM: I would say no, but that’s not going to happen. We have an open door policy. That’s what’s gotten us into trouble over Ukraine. We believe in the West that any country in Europe has the right. And that’s a very important word ‘has the right’ to join NATO. And we have been bringing in more and more countries since 1999. The first big tranche of course, was in ’99. The second big tranche was in 2004. That’s when the Baltic states, Romania, Bulgaria, Slovenia and a handful of other countries came in. And then in 2008, that’s when we began to talk about the third big tranche, that’s when Georgia and Ukraine were gonna come in. Right, and we haven’t given up on that. And at the same time, now we’re talking about bringing Finland and Sweden in.
You know, the Americans have the Monroe Doctrine. I don’t know what you know about the Monroe Doctrine but the Monroe Doctrine basically says the Western Hemisphere is our backyard and no distant great power, which means no great power from Europe or from Asia is allowed to put military forces in the Western Hemisphere. No great power from Europe or Asia is allowed to form a military alliance with another country in the Western Hemisphere because from the American perspective, it’s intolerable to have a distant great power on our doorstep.
Well, the same basic logic applies to the Russians and to the Chinese by the way. From a Russian perspective, the idea that you’re going to have NATO right on your doorstep, and NATO is bringing in more and more countries that are part of this alliance, is going to be unacceptable to them. The Russians couldn’t stop NATO from expanding in ’99. They couldn’t stop it in 2004, because they were too weak.
And you know what happens as a good realist when you’re weak in international politics, other great powers take advantage of you. This is what happened to China in the late 1840s, to the late 1940s. The Chinese refer to this as their century of national humiliation. When you’re weak, other great powers take advantage of you. This is exactly what the Americans did with the Russians. Russia was weak after the Soviet Union broke apart in 1991. And we took advantage of the Russians, we shoved NATO expansion down their throat and ’99, we shoved it down their throat and 2004.
And we decided we were going to shove it down their throat again after 2008. Because we thought they were too weak to prevent it. Right. But the fact is, the Russians viewed this, eventually, as an existential threat, the idea of Ukraine in NATO was the brightest of all red lines for the Russians. And you see what is happening now. And if you think about the Monroe Doctrine, you should not be surprised how the Russians are reacting to what’s going on in Ukraine.
FS: I have two very quick questions, finally, for you on Ukraine, and then I’d love to talk about China for a moment. The first is, in the scenario that the West is currently talking about, which is what they say a good end goal looks like, which is essentially Russian retreat, some kind of non-escalation, humiliation of some kind, which Russia accepts. Maybe there’s a treaty, maybe there isn’t. But in other words, an ending that doesn’t lead to an escalation doesn’t lead to nuclear conflict and ends with a weakened Russia, with a bloody nose, sort of retreating to try and look after internal divisions and sort itself out. If that happens, will you then stand up and say, I was wrong? The West strategy, from a realist point of view has been successful.
JM: Of course. I want to be very clear here. I’m not arguing that I have the truth, that I am right. Nor is there absolutely no chance that this war won’t end the way you just described. International Politics operates in a world of what I would call radical uncertainty. It’s very hard to figure out what the future looks like, it’s very hard to make predictions. And that’s why when people say how likely is it that Russia would use nuclear weapons, and some people will say there’s a 30% chance or a 50% chance. There’s no way you can put precise numbers on the likelihood of nuclear use. You just can’t do it. We don’t have enough data to come up with precise predictions like that.
So I think, having said all that, that there is a possibility that the Russians will cave at some point. I think there’s a small possibility. I also think there’s a non-trivial chance that this will lead to nuclear war. And when you marry the consequences of nuclear war with the possibility, in my mind, that means you should be remarkably cautious.
And let me illustrate this by this analogy; If I have a gun, and the barrel has 100 chambers, okay. And I put five bullets in that barrel. And I say to you, Freddie, I’m gonna pull the trigger and put the gun up to your head, and I’m gonna pull the trigger. But don’t worry, there’s only a 5% chance that I will kill you. It’s only a 5% chance, or let’s assume I put one bullet in. And I tell you Friday, there’s only a 1% chance I’m going to kill you. And then I spin the barrel and I get ready to pull the trigger. The question you have to ask yourself is, are you going to be nervous? Are you going to be scared stiff? And the answer is you’re going to be scared stiff, even if there’s only one bullet and certainly if there are five bullets, right? So there’s a small probability that you will be killed. But given the consequences, you’re killed, you’re scared.
The consequences here involve nuclear war. So there only has to be a small probability that John is right. There can be an 80% probability that Freddie is right– that the West is right. That the West is right, and that the Russians will back off and surrender. It’s still not worth the risk. Of course not. This is what Kennedy and Khrushchev understood during the Cuban Missile Crisis. You can only push a great power armed with nuclear weapons so far.
This bothers many people in the West, they think they should be free to do whatever they want to the Russians. We should be free to wreck the Russian economy; make them pay a god awful price for what they have done. You can’t do that, because they have nuclear weapons. You might not like that. But it’s a fact of life that they have nuclear weapons and the threat of nuclear war is ever present.
FS: My final question on Ukraine before we move on, in a sense, it takes us back to the beginning, which is that moment, on February 24, when Russia invaded Ukraine, from the north, towards Kiev from the south, up from Crimea from the east, was shocking and stunning to many observers. A lot of your realist colleagues said it wouldn’t happen. There was a sense that this was an act so far beyond what we consider to be acceptable on the European continent, that the response had to be appropriate.
And then you say things like there is zero evidence that Russia wanted to conquer Ukraine. How do you square those? Most people observing that moment felt pretty confident that Russia wanted to conquer Ukraine, why are they wrong? Is invading it from all corners and headed towards the capital not the signs and pretty good real life evidence of someone who wants to conquer a country? Isn’t that how you do it?
JM: No, you can’t conquer a country the size of Ukraine with 190,000 troops. They didn’t try to conquer all of Ukraine. They surrounded Kyiv and they invaded in the east and in the south. What do you think they were trying to do at that point? I think they were trying to get the Ukrainian government to basically change its policy vis-a-vis the West. They were trying to coerce the Ukrainian government into abandoning its policy of becoming a Western Bulwark on their border.
FS: Do you think they were hoping that the government would flee and fall in some way and they could work out some more friendly, puppet government?
JM: I don’t know for sure. I think that there’s evidence that they were negotiating shortly after the invasion, this is after the invasion. They were negotiating in Istanbul with the Ukrainians. And the issue that was on the table was Ukrainian neutrality. And it’s quite clear that what happened is that the United States operating through Boris Johnson made it clear to the Ukrainians that we didn’t want them to cut a deal with the Russians, because by late March, we were quite confident that we could beat the Russians in Ukraine. And the idea of cutting a deal, especially a deal that involved in neutral Ukraine, which is anathema to the West, was unacceptable to us.
FS: So you maintain now still, that there was no, there was no even hope for a kind of quick fall of the Ukrainian government in some kind of easy win.
JM: The Russians were not even hoping for a full conquering of that country. It’s very important to separate the different issues out here. The Russians invaded Ukraine with 190,000 troops at the very most, they made no effort to conquer all of Ukraine. They didn’t even come close. There is no way they could have conquered Ukraine with 190,000 troops. And they didn’t have the troops in reserve to do that. When the Germans invaded Poland, in 1939, they invaded with 1.5 million troops. That’s the size army you need to conquer a country like Ukraine, occupy it and then incorporate it into a greater Russia. You need a massive army.
This was a limited aim strategy. This was not a strategy that was designed to conquer Ukraine. I mean, it’s very hard to make that argument in the West at this point in time, because the propaganda, which says that Russia was intent on conquering all of Ukraine and absorbing into a greater Russia is so pervasive. But anybody who knows anything about military operations, knows that you couldn’t conquer and absorb Ukraine with 190,000 troops.
And so that issue has to be clearly established what they wanted, what the Russians have said they have wanted from the beginning is a neutral Ukraine. And if they can’t get a neutral Ukraine, what they’re going to do is create a dysfunctional rump state. And there’s no evidence that you’re going to get a neutral Ukraine, and what the Russians are doing is creating a dysfunctional rump state. They’ve taken a huge swath of territory in the east, these four oblasts, they’ve annexed those oblasts that are now part of Russia. And at the same time, they’re destroying Ukrainian infrastructure. They’re wrecking the Ukrainian economy. It’s sickening to see what’s happening to Ukraine.
And I want to make one final point on this. My argument is that if NATO had not expanded or tried to expand into Ukraine, if we in the West had not tried to make Ukraine a Western bulwark on Russia’s borders, then today, Ukraine would be intact, there’d be no war, and Ukraine would be fine. There was no war in Ukraine before 2008. There was no problem of Russia conquering Ukraine before 2008 Even before 2014 Vladimir Putin came to power in the year 2000.
The crisis broke out on February 22nd 2014. Over those 14 years, nobody in the West was making the argument that Vladimir Putin was an imperialist. And that he was bent on conquering Ukraine and then conquering other countries in Eastern Europe and creating a greater Russia. Who was making that argument? That was an argument that we invented after February 22nd 2014. We in the West, we invented the argument that he’s an imperialist that he’s bent on conquering Ukraine. Why did we invent that argument, because a major crisis broke out on February 22nd 2014 and we were not going to blame ourselves, we had to blame him. So the story that we created was that he was an imperialist, and he is responsible. And we are the good guys. And they are the bad guys.
FS :Let’s turn our attention eastward, towards what is not yet a crisis, but many people think might be a crisis on the horizon, around Taiwan and China. Learning what we’ve learned from this conflict, what would you like to see the West’s approach to that issue be?
JM: Well, I have a fundamentally different view on China than I do on Russia. And therefore, my thinking about Taiwan is different than my thinking about Ukraine. I believe that China is a peer competitor of the United States, and that it is a threat to dominate Asia the way the United States dominates the western hemisphere. And the United States does not tolerate other regional hegemons, we’re a regional hegemon in the western hemisphere.
And over time, we have gone to great lengths to prevent countries like Imperial Germany, Imperial Japan, Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union from dominating either Europe or Asia. From an American point of view, that’s unacceptable. And I think that’s correct. I think the United States should not want China to dominate Asia, the way we dominate the western hemisphere. So we’re going to go to great lengths to contain China. And for purposes of containing China, it is important for us to defend Taiwan.
And from a Chinese point of view, this is categorically unacceptable. Taiwan from a Chinese point of view, is sacred territory. And the fact that the West is preventing China from reincorporating Taiwan into its body politic is a cause of anger, real anger. So what’s happening here is that as the security competition between China and the United States ratchets up in East Asia, the United States becomes more committed than ever, to defending Taiwan, to keeping Taiwan allied with the United States and its other allies in East Asia, infuriating the Chinese more and more.
FS: So you have this intense security competition setting in and at the heart of that intense security competition is this potential point of conflict, Taiwan, that threatens to escalate and cause a war? But I think viewers or listeners might be surprised to hear you on that, because in a sense, is the opposite of your view of the Russia question. That even though China is a regional hegemon and Taiwan is whether they consider it part of Greater China or whether it’s just too close to have allied with a foreign power, there is a parallel to Ukraine and Russia, that in that example, you think it would be worth… It is in the strategic interests of the US to actually send forces, risk a greater escalation, and actually go to a war if necessary, to defend Taiwan.
JM: Yeah, I think the situation with China is a lot like the situation with the Soviet Union during the Cold War. I believe the United States had a deep-seated interest in preventing the Soviet Union from dominating all of Europe and dominating all of Asia. For sure, the Soviet Union was a peer competitor of the United States. And I think the United States has a vested interest in making sure that it is the only regional hegemon of the planet and that the Soviet Union, not dominate Europe.
With regards to Russia today, as I said earlier, Russia is by far the weakest of the three great powers, it is no threat to dominate all of Europe or Asia, and therefore, the United States doesn’t have to pay much attention to Russia. China, on the other hand, is a peer competitor. It’s not a regional hegemon yet. What the United States has to do, in my opinion, is prevent it from becoming a regional hegemon. And the problem that we face is that Taiwan is of enormous strategic importance to us. We have a deep-seated interest in defending Taiwan for strategic reasons. And the Chinese, on the other hand, again, view this as sacred territory, and this is what makes this such a dangerous situation.
But I think about China much differently than I think about Russia. So in fact, philosophically, then it’s not the kind of realism that you espouse. It’s not a kind of shrug your shoulders, real politik; there’s lots of different poles of power and they will be competing for interest and we need to just minimise conflict.
FS: You actually think this Russia adventure is a distraction from the core threat to United States power. So it’s not that you’re kind of anti-war guy. You’re actually saying, let’s not waste resources on this distraction or potential new threat when we’ve got a bigger one in the form of China.
JM: You’re exactly right. But it’s worse than that. Not only are we focusing great attention on Eastern Europe, when we should be pivoting to Asia in a serious way, we are also driving the Russians into the arms of the Chinese. If you think about the fact that we live in a world where there are three great powers today, the United States, China and Russia, and you think about the fact that China is the peer competitor, what the United States should be doing is aligning itself with Russia against China.
And the Russians, when I have gone to Russia in the past, have always wondered why we were antagonising both the Russians and the Chinese when they thought it was in our interest to be allies, the Russians and the Americans against China. I of course, agree with them. But what we have foolishly done, we meaning the Americans, is we have driven the Russians into the arms of the Chinese. At the same time, we have gotten bogged down in Eastern Europe, when we should be focusing instead on East Asia.
FS: And do you think that Russia plus China pole, if indeed that becomes a kind of new centre, is an existential threat to the US? I mean, do you think China with Russia attached to it in some way, fundamentally changes the calculus and makes the US supremacy less likely?
JM: Not really. I think what concerns me more than anything, is China dominating Asia. I think my great fear is that if China continues to grow economically, and it dominates in the development of cutting edge technologies, that it will become at least as powerful, if not more powerful than the United States, will end up dominating Asia, and will cause the United States all sorts of problems around the globe.
FS: Do you think the US will realise some of this in time? And do you think there’s a chance that kind of pivot of attention happens anyway? And that this sort of level of commitment to the situation in eastern Europe dwindles over time as more voices are becoming anxious about China? Do you think that’s a likely outcome?
JM: I argued before February 24th, that was a likely outcome. I’m not sure I believe that anymore, to be honest. The United States is now so deeply committed to the war in Ukraine, that it’s hard to see it backing off anytime soon. And there’s another dimension to this that links the China threat with the Russia threat. If the United States were to lose the war in Ukraine, if the Russians were to prevail, it would be a devastating defeat for America’s reputation. And this would have consequences in all likelihood, in East Asia, it’s hard to say what those consequences would be. But the Chinese would see that the Americans lost against Russia, which is far weaker relative to the United States than China is relative to the United States.
And there’s a possibility that would cause us real trouble in East Asia. So the reputational costs of losing in Ukraine, make it likely that we will stay till the bitter end. This getting back to our earlier discussion is one of the reasons I think it’s going to be so difficult to shut this war down. One of the reasons it’s hard to see what a diplomatic solution to the Ukraine war is, because you want to remember any meaningful diplomatic solution that the Russians accept, will appear to be a Russian victory to people in the West and to people in Ukraine. And the the perception of a Russian victory has again reputational consequences in East Asia.
FS: You recently visited Hungary. I read a recent interview where someone brought this up and you weren’t so keen to talk about it. Am I okay to ask you about it? Oh, sure. Why did you go to Hungary? You spend some time with Viktor Orbán there, why did you go and what did you learn?
JM: Well, my last book, The Great Delusion has been translated into Hungarian. And I was invited to Hungary by the publisher to talk about the book. And so I agreed to do that. And then before I went, I got a note from the publisher set that said that the Viktor Orbán would like to talk to me, would I be willing to talk to him? And I said, of course, I’d be willing to talk to him. So I went to Hungary, I gave a public lecture on the book. I did another event on the book. And then I met with all sorts of people, including Viktor Orbán, the prime minister, and the President of Hungary and other policymakers when I was there.
It was actually quite interesting to be there. Just to go to Viktor Orbán for a second, I was very interested in talking to him for two reasons. One, I was interested in hearing his views on Ukraine, and how he thinks about Ukraine, and how his views compare to the views of other European leaders and where he thought this was all headed. But I was also very interested in talking to him about nationalism and liberalism, the relationship between those two ‘isms’, this is one of the central themes in my book, The Great Delusion. And it’s a subject I plan to write more on.
What I have in common with Orbán is he thinks nationalism is a very important force, obviously, and I agree with him. But where I disagree with him is I think that liberalism is a very powerful force, and it’s all for the good. He, on the other hand, detests liberalism. So what he sees is liberalism and nationalism as polar opposites, and he favours nationalism, and wants to crush liberalism. I, on the other hand, see nationalism and liberalism as two ideologies that differ in important ways, but nevertheless, can coexist.
And I live in liberal America. Nationalism is alive and well in the United States and liberalism is alive and well in the United States. So I think those two ‘isms’ can coexist. He thinks they’re polar opposites. So I was very interested in exploring that issue with him. And then finally, I was interested in just sort of figuring out, when I went to Hungary, where Europe is headed, because if you look at what’s happened in Europe, over the past decade or so, you see lots of evidence that illiberal democracies are beginning to come to the fore.
Such as in Hungary, such as in Poland. If you look at the recent vote in Sweden, the recent vote in Italy. So, you want to sort of understand where Europe is headed, I think is very important issue. And, and I think that, you know, talking to someone like Viktor Orbán for three hours is very enlightening about all these different subjects.
FS: On Ukraine? Because he sort of seems to have shifted somewhat on Ukraine. In the beginning, I think people were surprised how strongly he rejected the Russian incursion, and there was just absolutely unambiguous opposition to it. And he now seems to have evolved into positioning himself more as a kind of potential deal maker with Russia. Is that fair? Do you think?
JM: Well I think, yes. I think in the beginning, he was very nervous about the possibility of Russian expansion into Hungary. Given Hungary’s experience with the Soviet Union during the Cold War, you can understand why the Hungarians and indeed every country in Eastern Europe was initially very nervous about the Russian attack into Ukraine on February 24th. But my sense is, and this is just my sense, is that he quickly understood that the Russians were not going to conquer all of Ukraine. They were not going to conquer Hungary, and that this war was going to end up doing great damage to Hungary and to Europe in general. And I think he’s correct on that.
FS: Does he see himself as a potential peace-maker? Was there any talk of what a deal might look like?
JM: No, I had no sense that he saw himself as a potential deal-maker, or that he knew exactly what might work. He may think there is a diplomatic solution. I don’t think there is a diplomatic solution. I think it’s clear that he is in favour of diplomacy. I mean, if you think about the situation in Poland and the situation in Hungary, the Polish government and the Hungarian government have had very friendly relations until recently. And what changed it was the Russian invasion of Ukraine, because the poles are remarkably hardline on the Ukrainian war. And the Hungarians are not. The Hungarians want to put an end to this.
FS: They’re much less likely to blame the Russians for the problem and more prone to blaming, NATO in the West? Do you worry at all about your own reputation in this, from being a purely an academic or an investigator or commentator? If you now have meetings with Prime Ministers, such as Viktor Orbán who are thought of as being much more pro-Russian than other European leaders? Do you worry that people might start thinking of you more of an actor, slash activist in this, rather than just an observer?
JM: Well, I’m not an activist, I’m an academic, I’m a scholar. And this, in a very important way, is part of my research, right? My goal is to understand what’s going on in Europe, what’s going on in places like Ukraine, and explain to people what my theories say about events, so that we can think smartly about these issues and make smart policies. So I don’t see why anybody would object to me talking to Viktor Orbán. I’m not condoning Viktor Orbán’s policies or condemning them. I’m simply talking to him to understand what is going on in his mind and what is going on in Hungary and what is going on in Europe more generally.
If you’re a journalist, and you decide that you’re going to write a major article for a major newspaper on illiberal democracies, and you have an opportunity to talk to Viktor Orbaán for three hours, are you as a journalist not going to do that? Of course, you jump at the opportunity to talk to Viktor Orbán because it would make your research and your article that much better. So as a scholar, an opportunity to talk to Viktor Orbán about subjects that are of great importance is an opportunity that you should jump at, and I jumped at it.
So I talk to all sorts of people. I have graduate students, I had two brilliant graduate students in the past, who studied the Taliban, and who studied ISIS. And both of them, or each of them, talk to the Taliban and ISIS members, respectively. This makes perfect sense. Would you say that those graduate students who are working on the Taliban or working on ISIS shouldn’t talk to people in the Taliban, shouldn’t talk to people in ISIS? Of course, you wouldn’t argue that.
And the fact that people are trying to sort of smear me because I talked to Viktor Orbán is hardly surprising in the context that we now operate, because people are really not that interested these days and talking about facts and logic. What they prefer to do is to smear people who they disagree with. So I’m hardly surprised that people, not many people, but a few people went after me for talking to Viktor Orbán, but that’s the price you pay when you operate in the fast lane in the West at this point in time.
FS: Let me ask you to sum up if we could here and we we’ve covered a huge amount of ground and thank you so much for your time today. If we zoom out, it looks like we are headed towards a much more multipolar world in the coming decades, the coming generation, the era of the, so called, end of history era, the era of unipolar American global dominance, the sense that liberal democracies were expanding forever outwards is decisively passed or on the way out. Do you think this new, more multipolar world is here to stay? And do you think it’s a good thing?
JM: I think it’s definitely here to stay. And I think it’s more dangerous than the Cold War was. Let me tell you how I think about this. I was born and raised during the Cold War, and the world was bipolar at that point in time. Then in 1989, with the end of the Cold War and certainly in December 1991, with the collapse of the Soviet Union, we went from a bipolar world to a unipolar world. Then around 2017, we transitioned from a unipolar world to a multipolar world, right?
So during the Cold War, we had the United States in the Soviet Union. During the Unipolar Moment, you just had the one pole the United States. And today, you have three great powers, the United States, China, and Russia. Now, you could not have great power politics in the unipolar world, because there was only one great power. And by definition there were no two great powers that could compete with each other.
What we have today, with the US-China competition in East Asia, and the US-Russia competition, mainly over Ukraine, is we have two conflict dyads. In very important ways, they’re separate conflict dyads US, China, US Russia. No conflict is in the Unipolar Moment, and one conflict dyad during the Cold War: US-Soviet, involving great powers.
I would argue that not only do you have two instead of one, each one of those dyads is more dangerous than the conflict dyad in the Cold War. As we’ve talked about today, the United States and Russia are almost at war in Ukraine, and we can hypothesise plausible scenarios, where the United States ends up fighting against Russia, in Ukraine.
And then we talked about the US-China competition and the problems associated with Taiwan. And Taiwan is not the only flashpoint in East Asia. There’s also the South China Sea, the East China Sea, and the Korean peninsula. Right. So you can imagine a war breaking out between the United States and China in East Asia, and a war breaking out in Ukraine involving the United States and Russia, I think more easily than you could imagine a war breaking out during the Cold War in Europe, or in East Asia involving the United States and the Soviet Union.
So I think we live in more dangerous times today than we did during the Cold War, and certainly than we did during the unipolar moment. And I think, if anything, this situation is only going to get worse for reasons that you and I have talked about regarding Ukraine, as well as Taiwan.
FS: Professor John Mearsheimer, thank you so much for your time today. That was Professor John Mearsheimer of the University of Chicago, the now world famous foreign policy realist, defending his view that the war in Ukraine is primarily the fault of the US and the West, and giving a pretty bleak forecast of how it might all play out. I tried to push back on occasion, but ultimately, as always, it’s up to you to decide if you found his arguments, convincing or not. Thanks for tuning in. This was UnHerd.