I cannot say what gnashing of teeth may have been occasioned in the halls of Foggy Bottom by the appearance in the current issue ofForeign Affairs magazine of an article by John Mearsheimer, professor of political science at the University of Chicago. However, I bear witness to the rubbing of hands in glee within the small American community of Russia-friendly online media resources. Portals which normally feature short and punchy op-ed pieces have republished Mearsheimer in full on their ‘front pages’, notwithstanding the thousands of words the author used to set out his thesis on the blindness of the West which provoked our present confrontation with Russia.
It is customary for virtually all readers of political science tracts, whether lay or professional readers, to look first and often only at where the author’s feet are pointed. In this case, it is not merely Mearsheimer’s shoes, but his whole body which is pointed in a direction 180 degrees at variance with US foreign policy on Russia and Ukraine.
The appearance of Mearsheimer’s article in Foreign Affairs was quite remarkable and damaging to the prevailing wisdom in academe, as in the mass media, that anyone trying to understand the Kremlin’s point of view must be a ‘dupe of Putin’ if not on the payroll of the FSB altogether. No such charge can possibly be made against Mearsheimer, who has no particular interest in US-Russian relations. Moreover, in the article Mearsheimer makes it clear that he is not a believer in Russia’s future. He came to his conclusions about the present crisis for one reason only: he is an exponent of the Realist School in International Relations, an heir to the traditions of Hans Morgenthau, and the policy line from Washington which got us into the imbroglio with Russia comes from the opposite camp, the Wilsonian Idealist, aka the Liberal camp, which he would oppose wherever it is applied.
In what follows I propose to move up from the bottom line to consider the content of Mearsheimer’s reasoning so as to better evaluate its limitations as well as where it marks a serious break in the ranks of the American elites.
But before doing that, I will put his FA article into the context of what appears to be a sharply delineated evolution in the thinking of the magazine’s editorial board on the Ukraine-Russia crisis from February to present. I do this in the belief that FA, as by far the largest circulation professional journal in its field, is a good marker for Establishment thinking.
Let us recall that the very first response to the overthrow of the Yanukovich government and onset of the direct crisis with Russia this past February was shocking flippancy by none other than the magazine’s editor Gideon Rose, in an appearance on the political satire television show The Colbert Report; a link to the show was featured in the magazine’s on line edition on 28 February. Tongue in cheek, Rose told the television audience that the task ahead was to get the Russians to accept their gold medal count at the recently ended Sochi Olympics as full consolation while the USA bagged Ukraine and raised its country count (http://usforeignpolicy.blogs.lalibre.be/archive/2014/03/01/foreign-affairs-magazine-as-a-cartoon-strip-the-28-february-1125531.html ).
As the months rolled on and the confrontation with Russia appeared to assume menacing proportions, the editorial team at Foreign Affairs adopted a more thoughtful tone, stepping back from the nitty gritty of the civil war in Southeast Ukraine and stroking their collective beards in erudite discussion of the philosophical implications of the conflict on the End of History narrative and possible reemergence of geopolitics as a factor to be reckoned with in International Relations theory. As I commented at the time, this was a counting of angels on a pinhead by two members of the journal’s inner circle who are rather closely positioned in the spectrum of Idealism. On the phony debate between G. John Ikenbery and Walter Russell Mead, I wrote at the time (http://usforeignpolicy.blogs.lalibre.be/archive/2014/05/16/foreign-affairs-magazine-may-june-2014-issue-the-false-deba-1130360.html). Needless to say, the essays in question offered no practical advice on how to deal with the crisis that had now landed on the front page of everyone’s daily newspaper.
It has taken till now, when we have reached what pundits are uniformly agreeing is a New Cold War, for Foreign Affairs magazine to make its precious real estate available to other schools of thought, publishing Mearsheimer’s essay. The good professor has used the opportunity well. He not only goes after the philosophical underpinnings of a policy that has led to a cul-de-sac but gives us a new reading of the factual narrative (i.e., new for mainstream media) of who did what to whom from the early ‘90s to get us where we are today with Russia. Indeed Mearsheimer gives his readers a narrative that is very close to the one Vladimir Putin first set out in his February 2007 speech to the Munich Security Conference and has been repeating with ever greater explicitness since.
The essay by Mearsheimer is the main international relations story of the September-October issue, which otherwise is dedicated, very unusually for FA, to domestic US issues. Indeed, the leitmotiv of the issue might be summed up as ‘doctor, heal thyself’ since the issue explored is the decay of US institutions, the critical dysfunctions of American democratic institutions. Of course, the two themes are not explicitly linked by the editors, who are calling for America to cure its ills so as to better go out and conquer new worlds. And, perversely, the featured author for the major content of the issue is Francis Fukuyama, who those of us with a memory that goes back further than a year or two, the usual journalistic limits, will recall was the author of the seminal work End of History. Fukuyama was the brilliant popularizer of Neoconservative ideology that otherwise is the butt of Mearsheimer’s essay. And so this issue is rich in ironic flourishes.
Mearsheimer’s argument is essentially mind over matter. Being a man of the cloth, rather than a foreign policy practitioner in Washington, he would have us believe that our politicians are guided by idealistic principles which, in the event, blind them to the nature of the challenge before them. Deeming national interests a relic of the last century, our leaders cannot fathom Putin, cannot fathom the enigma that is Russia, and lead us into confrontations which could have been avoided if they appreciated the logic of Realpolitik the way tenured faculty of the University of Chicago tend to do. A couple of short quotes set out his point with great clarity:
“Elites in the United States and Europe have been blindsided by events only because they subscribe to a flawed view of international politics. They tend to believe that the logic of realism holds little relevance in the twenty-first century and that Europe can be kept whole and free on the basis of such liberal principles as the rule of law, economic interdependence and democracy.” Or
“In essence, the two sides have been operating with different play-books. Putin and his compatriots have been thinking and acting according to realist dictates, whereas their Western counterparts have been adhering to liberal ideas about international politics. The result is that the United States and its allies unknowingly provoked a major crisis over Ukraine.”
All of this sounds rather disingenuous given Mearsheimer’s mention of the smoking guns on the US side along the way to the crisis: the 5 billion dollars disbursed on democracy promotion in Ukraine by unsavory CIA-controlled organizations including the National Endowment for Democracy and, I might add, Freedom House; our donut on the Maidan dispenser Victoria Nuland, who also plotted with Geoffrey Pyatt for replacement of a sitting President in Kiev, as Mearsheimer reminds us. The cheerleaders of the coup share not merely Neoconservative principles but are actively implementing the Neoconservative program of cutting Russia down to size, if not chopping it up altogether. I fail to see how Mearsheimer can mention Nuland and omit the fact that her spouse is the leading foreign policy thinker of the Neocons and co-chair of the Foreign Policy Initiative, a plotter of dirty tricks to the detriment of Russia.
And Mearsheimer gives us not just pin pricks, He lists the substantial actions by the US side that set the stage for the present confrontation and have added fuel to the fire as it developed. These include the whole issue of NATO expansion to Russia’s borders in Ukraine and Georgia, American designs on the Sevastopol port, American deployment of a missile shield in Eastern Europe. What we have here are actions bristling with hard power. There are the dotted lines which Mearsheimer declines to connect.
His reticence is all the more perplexing given that John Mearsheimer made his name precisely as an iconoclast who broke taboos and told us clearly what many saw but refused to say aloud. I am alluding to his work The Israel Lobby and U.S. Foreign Policy, written jointly with Stephan Walt. To anyone with eyes to see, it is clear that a still more powerful anti-Russian lobby is behind U.S. foreign policy towards Russia these past 20 years. And unlike the privately funded Israel lobby, this one feeds off of the U.S. treasury.
When asked about this important lacuna in his essay, Professor Mearsheimer pleaded lack of space to go into these matters. Let us hope that he finds the time to write a book on the subject, and to do so quickly enough to influence the next presidential electoral cycle.
As I mentioned above, in his essay Mearsheimer deals not only with political philosophy but also gives us a road map to exit the present confrontation. Curiously, his recommendation is precisely what Henry Kissinger was urging at the start of the year. And it is one that even Russian detractor Zbigniew Brzezinski had favored back then: to give Ukraine the status of a neutral buffer state enjoying good commercial and political relations with both the European Community and Russia, with the NATO card taken off the table once and for all.
.Mearsheimer advocates a neutral Ukraine in the belief that the alternative outcomes will be much worse for the West, knowing that no one is going to go to war to keep Ukraine out of the Russian sphere of influence. And he reserves the hope that by accommodating Russia’s security interests the way will remain open for cooperation on the several global hotspots including Afghanistan, Iran, Syria and….controlling the rise of China.
In sum, the publication of John Mearsheimer’s article by FAmagazine marks a turning point in coverage of the crisis by the intellectual leaders of the American foreign policy establishment. It comes in sync with the just launched initiative of the Carnegie Corporation in New York to present a platform for academic dialogue on the nature of the Putin regime, on possibilities for reducing tensions.
But all of this is very little and very late. Most commentators agree that we have entered a New Cold War. What no one wants to remember is that the original Cold War was accompanied by a permanent existential fear of nuclear Armageddon. However, the risks are there. The United States and Russia still jointly account for 90% of all nuclear warheads in the world. The possibility of miscalculation between sides that are now very wary of one another after months, indeed years of rancorous name calling is as high as at any time in the 40 years that followed the onset of the first Cold War. It is time to recognize that sad fact and redraw our foreign policy priorities accordingly.
© Gilbert Doctorow, 2014
G. Doctorow is an occasional guest lecturer at St. Petersburg State University and Research Fellow of the American University in Moscow. His latest book, Stepping Out of Line: Collected (Nonconformist) Essays on Russian-American Relations, 2008-12, is available in paperback and e-book from Amazon.com and affiliated websites worldwide.