The Great Delusion, by John Mearsheimer
I am trying to understand the Ukraine War.
The West's emphasis on the psychology of Russian leader Vladimir Putin – who gave the order to invade Ukraine – certainly resonates, but it is also not entirely satisfying. I am not convinced, for example, that if somebody else besides Vladimir Putin was president of Russia that the invasion would not have happened. Indeed, the invasion might have happened even sooner if somebody else had been at the helm in the Kremlin.
John Mearsheimer is perhaps America's, if not the world's, premier living spokesperson for the 'Offensive Realism' paradigm of international relations and global geopolitics. Mearsheimer's take on the Ukraine War offers a compelling argument that Putin and the Russian political establishment are operating from a realist balance-of-power playbook that is steeped in European history. In contrast, he argues that the West is operating from a playbook that has diverged from history – and reality.
The Great Delusion, published in 2018, argues that the United States and the West are pursuing a foreign policy program that promotes liberal democracy, the rule of law, and social engineering, but which is disengaged from historical reality.
One must understand that the Soviet Union, the bulk of which comprised Russia, suffered more than 26 million dead in World War Two, what Russians call the Great War. Some Russian scholars estimate over 40 million deaths directly and indirectly related to the Nazi invasion of the USSR and Russia beginning in June 1941, or nearly a quarter of the country's population at the time.
And then there were the invasions by Napoleon's France almost a century and a half before in 1812. Both Napoleon's and Hitler's invasions of Russia came from the west. Some six hundred years earlier, a Mongol invasion came from the east and subjugated the Rus (pre-cursors to modern Russia) for over 250 years.
Because of the geography of Europe – there are no real physical landscape barriers between the Atlantic Ocean in the west and the Pacific Ocean in the east – Russia has been subject to sweeping invasions from Western Europe on the one hand, and from the steppes of Siberia in the east on the other.
The political elites of Russia live in fear: fear of utter destruction. Modern Russia is a vast area of land – the world's largest – and is a tapestry of ethnicities and nationalities. The movement of peoples across the expanse of Eurasia through millennia have created this mosaic of cultures across a geographic expanse.
America and much of Europe – while ethnically diverse – are not largely defined by geographical divisions that could spinoff into a multiplicity of ethnic and linguistic-based territories to form nations of various sizes. Moscow barely keeps the lid on ancient ethnic tensions, and it has largely done so through autocratic rule. That is, strongman rule by Russia's Tsars and the USSR's Politburo – and post-Soviet leaders like Boris Yeltsin and Vladimir Putin – have managed to keep the country together and harness its vast resources to build and maintain a militarily (and, for a time, an economically) powerful empire. Any form of external pressure – the threat of war, for example – could lead to the unraveling of Russia and the emergence of myriad ancient ethnic states.
Paranoid thinking? Not really. When the USSR broke apart, Chechnya declared its independence from Russia, sparking the First Chechen War in 1994. Russia cracked down on Chechnya in fear that multiple other regions would declare their independence and leave Russia as a weakened, rump state a fraction of its size.
Russia lost that first war. Russia's very existence in its current form was questionable.
Meanwhile, the United States and the West gloated in victory over the Soviet Union in the Cold War and immediately worked to expand the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) – a defense alliance against the no-longer existing Soviet Union – eastward to include much if not all of the newly democratic Eastern European countries and peel them away from Moscow's orbit.
Mearsheimer doesn't note it, but NATO's and the EU's expansion eastward were realist moves. The Clinton administration and EU officials sought to prevent the emergence of ancient passions and grievances in Eastern Europe after the fall of the Berlin Wall as what happened in the former Yugoslavia. The Soviet sphere of influence had collapsed, leaving a security vacuum. The US, EU, and NATO filled that vacuum by expanding NATO and the EU eastward.
But not without quid pro quo. In order to extend security guarantees in the form of NATO and promise economic integration via entrance into the European Union, the countries of Eastern Europe had to implement reforms by guaranteeing minority rights, establish democratic norms, and follow the rule of law.
This is where Mearsheimer's overall critique of US foreign policy comes in. Mearsheimer argues that, since end of the Cold War, the US has embarked on a foreign policy crusade to remake the world in its own image: that is, to spread democracy and the rule of law. American policymakers argue that a world of democracies, the rule of law, and integrated economies reduces the criteria that often lead to war and increases global security. A foreign policy that is, Mearsheimer forcefully contends, based on fantasy. This activist foreign policy pits the US against autocratic regimes around the world and leads to more instability as the US seeks to isolate and cutoff such governments from global trade. Furthermore, it has led the United States into unnecessary (and failed) wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and (failed) armed interventions in Syria and Libya. Mearsheimer argues that pursuing political liberalism abroad has the unintended affect of promoting ill-liberalism at home in the form of a powerful national security state and military-industrial complex. Wars abroad have also undermined America's mission: documented torture at Abu Gharib prison in Iraq, black prison and interrogation sites throughout Afghanistan and the Middle East, and a policy of rendition – snatching suspects off the streets of allied nations and flying them to other countries whose interrogation practices fall outside the rule of law. The use of the American navy facility in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, was designed to operate outside of domestic American law and has left hundreds of prisoners in limbo. All of this, in turn, has led to more government secrecy and prosecutions of whistleblowers.
America's and the West's policy of spreading democracy completely ignores the role of powerful forces like nationalism and fear. US policymakers argue that these are outdated world views that have no place in the Twenty-first Century. Never mind that Russia is fearful of geography. Germany – the enemy in the Great War that killed 40 million Russians and Soviets eighty years ago – is, today, a fully pacified and functioning liberal democracy, integrated and at peace with its neighbors. There is no threat against Russia from the West.
But Russia does fear the West. And others.
Russia is a declining power. Its economy collapsed after the fall of the Soviet Union, and its transition to capitalism was chaotic and disastrous for many. Russia faced separatism in Chechnya and elsewhere. China is rising on its southeastern flank and is a nuclear-armed superpower. Islamism is rampant on its southern flank in Afghanistan and Iran. NATO and the European Union are encroaching on Russia from the west. Further, Russia's population is aging and in decline, and six million Russians found themselves in a foreign country when the USSR dissolved.
Rather than acknowledging Russian security fears and negotiating a comprehensive diplomatic security arrangement, the US and the West press on. For example, Mearsheimer argues that Ukraine, Moldova, and Belarus could be a neutral buffer zone between NATO/EU and Russia and aligned to neither side. This would assuage Russian fears of nuclear-armed NATO/EU encroachment on its borders.
The US and the West argue that these countries have a right to self-determination and the right to choose their allegiances. NATO and the EU will welcome them into their fold if they choose to align with the West. That includes Georgia, by the way, way down in the Caucasus on Russia's southern border.
Mearsheimer argues that, in an ideal world, yes, that should be the case. But Russia is a nuclear armed power and neither Washington nor Brussels determine Russia's security concerns. Besides, the Financial Crisis of 2008-10 showed just how fragile the EU can be. The whole thing threatened to come apart. Nationalism came right back to the fore in Germany, France, Italy, Hungary, and the UK (Brexit). Russian fears may seem unreasonable to the West now, but who's to say what the world will look like in fifty years, or even ten years?
Nationalism, after all, played a key role in the breakup of the USSR itself, including in Russia and Ukraine.
Russia and Ukraine have historically deep cultural ties. Russia has been warning the West since 1991 that Ukraine was off-limits. Russia warned that it would act militarily, if necessary, to prevent Ukraine from joining NATO and otherwise integrating with the West.
A war in Ukraine would further weaken a declining Russia. So why would Russia take such drastic action knowing that it could even hasten its decline?
Because of fear. War is unpredictable, and it can change the dynamic.
I should note that this book was published in 2018, four years before Russia's invasion of Ukraine in February 2022.