John Mearsheimer and the dark origins of realism

“It should be acknowledged that his approach offers real insight. Indeed, though it is not stated out loud, Mearsheimer’s diagnosis of the Ukraine crisis is shared de facto by a large part of the US foreign policy establishment. The promise of Nato membership bounced through by the Bush administration in 2008, was an act of hubris. The West will not abandon Ukraine, but nor will it intervene militarily. Part of the rage against Mearsheimer is deflected frustration on the part of liberals who recognise in his frankness with regards to the actual limits of Western commitment – and there are good reasons for those limits. A direct confrontation with Russia is something that Nato has always tried to avoid. The US made it clear to Putin that there would be no military participation. Emergency weapons deliveries go a long way towards blurring that line. A no-fly zone would be lethally dangerous.

But for all that, to claim this as an intellectual victory for Mearsheimer’s realism would be perverse. He is no doubt right about the underlying causes of tension. But that is not the same as actually explaining war, any more than gesturing to imperialism is an adequate explanation for why the Kaiser gave the Austrians a blank cheque in July 1914. The realist model is grossly underspecified and fails to grasp the qualitative shift implied by the opening of hostilities. The Prussian general Carl von Clausewitz may have said that war is the extension of policy by other means. But that still raises the question of why anyone, great power or not, would resort to such a radical and dangerous means.

In Moscow itself, none of the serious foreign policy establishment – all devotees to Russia’s future as a great power – believed that Putin would go to war. They were incredulous not because they do not understand the logic of power, but precisely because they do. They saw no good reason for Russia to risk employing the means of all-out war, with all its hazards, uncertainties and costs. Events are proving them right.

Morality and legality are one reason for opposing war. The other is simply that over the last century at least, it has a poor track record for delivering results. Other than wars of national liberation, one is hard pressed to name a single war of aggression since 1914 that has yielded clearly positive results for the first mover. A realism that fails to recognise that fact and the consequences that have been drawn from it by most policymakers does not deserve the name.”

“If we want to understand what happened in the Kremlin to precipitate the criminal folly of the invasion, what we need are not platitudes about the security dilemmas of great powers, but a forensic account of an epic failure of decision-making and intelligence.”

“adopting a realistic approach towards the world does not consist in always reaching for a well-worn toolkit of timeless verities, nor does it consist in affecting a hard-boiled attitude so as to inoculate oneself forever against liberal enthusiasm. Realism, taken seriously, entails a never-ending cognitive and emotional challenge. It involves a minute-by-minute struggle to understand a complex and constantly evolving world, in which we are ourselves immersed, a world that we can, to a degree, influence and change, but which constantly challenges our categories and the definitions of our interests. And in that struggle for realism – the never-ending task of sensibly defining interests and pursuing them as best we can – to resort to war, by any side, should be acknowledged for what it is. It should not be normalised as the logical and obvious reaction to given circumstances, but recognised as a radical and perilous act, fraught with moral consequences. Any thinker or politician too callous or shallow to face that stark reality, should be judged accordingly.”