Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has made an unlikely celebrity of Professor John Mearsheimer. His 2015 lecture — “Why is Ukraine the West’s fault? — has now racked up 28mn views on YouTube.
In that lecture, and in later articles and talks, the University of Chicago academic argued that the west had provoked a war in Ukraine — by pursuing policies that Russia saw as an existential threat. In particular, Mearsheimer has repeatedly argued that it was folly for the US to promise to bring Ukraine into Nato. He predicted that Russia would not tolerate this and that “the end result is that Ukraine is going to get wrecked”.
Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine last year has made Mearsheimer look prophetic. But he is more popular in Moscow and Beijing than in the corridors of power in Washington or Brussels, where he is often labelled as an apologist for Putin.
Mearsheimer’s liberal critics accuse him of playing footsie with the world’s strongman leaders. His articles have been tweeted out by the Russian foreign ministry. He also recently held a meeting with Viktor Orbán, Hungary’s prime minister — a champion of “illiberal democracy”, otherwise known as autocracy. Rather than being cowed by these criticisms, the professor seems to enjoy his notoriety. His website features a portrait of him dressed up as Machiavelli.
The charge that Mearsheimer is simply a pro-Russian apologist is undermined by the fact that in 1993, he was one of the few scholars to advise Ukraine not to give up its nuclear weapons, arguing that “Ukrainian nuclear weapons are the only reliable deterrent to Russian aggression.” Many Ukrainians would now agree with that.
A more telling charge against Mearsheimer is that his theory of international affairs is amoral, ahistorical and deterministic. These arguments are made in a recent book by Jonathan Kirshner called An Unwritten Future that critiques “offensive realism”, a theory developed by Mearsheimer, which holds that all great powers seek to dominate their regions, so as to ward off threats to their own security.
Kirshner argues that by assuming that all great powers behave identically, Mearsheimer becomes incapable of distinguishing between the actions of, for example, Weimar Germany and Nazi Germany. But the character of a state, and of its leaders, do matter. A Germany run by Hitler or a Russia run by Stalin is likely to act differently from when those countries were led by Angela Merkel or Mikhail Gorbachev.
To Kirshner’s critique, I would add that Mearsheimer’s theories, while presented as an unblinking description of harsh global realities, often seem to stand reality on its head. The argument that the US bears responsibility for the war in Ukraine ignores a principle fundamental to both morality and law — that the responsibility for a murder, or a murderous invasion, lies with the person who pulls the trigger or gives the command.
Preventive wars are sometimes regarded as acceptable — but only if a rival nation is poised to strike. Ukraine was obviously not in that position last year. By blurring this point, Mearsheimer does become an unwitting apologist for Putin’s war of aggression.
This is not to deny that his theories can be a powerful analytical tool, which provides insights not just into Russia’s behaviour, but also into China. As long ago as 2001, Mearsheimer was arguing that efforts to integrate China into a liberal world order were doomed to fail — and that Beijing would inevitably seek to dominate its own region, making war with the US likely. Those arguments also look prescient today. But dig deeper into Mearsheimer’s work and it sometimes bears the hallmarks of an academic too in love with his own theoretical constructs to accept that there are some facts that do not fit the theory.
In his famous 2015 lecture, Mearsheimer dismissed the idea that Russia would ever try to “conquer Ukraine” — arguing that “Putin is much too smart for that”. His view was that the Russian leader would stick with the goal of wrecking Ukraine as a state, to prevent it aligning with the west. Today, Mearsheimer is still arguing that Russia never intended to conquer Ukraine — an argument that seems hard to square with the columns of Russian tanks heading towards Kyiv last February.
The professor also continues to insist that Putin was being sincere when he made statements before the war claiming to accept Ukrainian independence. In a more recent lecture, Mearsheimer even claims that “Putin does not have a history of lying to other leaders”. This will come as news to the foreign leaders to whom Putin has variously claimed that Russia had no hand in the shooting down of flight MH17 over Ukraine in 2014; or that the Kremlin had nothing to do with the attempted murder of the Russian opposition activist Alexei Navalny in 2020.
Those brutal acts, covered up by lies, are not mere details. They say something important about Putin’s Russia — suggesting that it is impossible to separate the internal character of a state from its external behaviour. Think of North Korea.
Mearsheimer’s insistence that all great powers behave identically is even belied by his own life. In the US, he is an honoured public intellectual. In authoritarian great powers like Russia or China, dissident professors like John Mearsheimer tend to end up unemployed, in exile — or worse.