John J. Mearsheimer: Great Power Politics in the 21st Century & The Implications for Hungary, December 5, 2022
“The United States does not tolerate peer competitors. We do not want any other country on the planet to ever imitate us. According to our playbook, there’s only one country that’s allowed to be a regional hegemon, and that’s the United States of America… The United States, as many of you know, and probably many of you don’t know, is a ruthless great power. You never want to underestimate how ruthless the United States is, despite all the liberal rhetoric that we use to cover up our ruthless behavior. We are tough customers, and the Chinese are finding that out now.”
John J. Mearsheimer is a professor in the Political Science Department at the University of Chicago, where he has taught since 1982.
“Mearsheimer, like a good American, overestimates his country. He considers that, if for the Russians the war in Ukraine is existential, for the Americans it is basically only one ‘game’ of power among others. After Vietnam, Iraq and Afghanistan, what’s one more debacle? The basic axiom of American geopolitics is: ‘We can do whatever we want because we are sheltered, far away, between two oceans, nothing will ever happen to us.’ Nothing would be existential for America… The resistance of the Russian economy is pushing the American imperial system towards the precipice. No one had expected that the Russian economy would hold up against the ‘economic power’ of NATO… If the Russian economy resists the sanctions indefinitely and manages to exhaust the European economy, while it itself remains, backed by China, American monetary and financial controls of the world would collapse, and with them the possibility for United States to fund their huge trade deficit for nothing. This war has therefore become existential for the United States… This is why we are now in an endless war, in a confrontation whose outcome must be the collapse of one or the other.” – Emmanuel Todd, “World War III Has Begun“ (La Troisième Guerre mondiale a commencé), Le Figaro, January 12, 2023
I have a very simple theory of international politics. I start with five assumptions about the world, and then I take those five assumptions and I mix them up, and I come up with a series of behaviors involving the great powers. Let me tell you what the five assumptions are.
My first assumption about the world is that states are the principal actors. Countries are the principal actors, and there’s no higher authority that sits above states. In international relations, we refer to this as anarchy. The world is anarchic, which does not mean murder and mayhem. Anarchy is an organizing principle. The system is anarchic. There’s no higher authority.
Assumption two is that all states have some offensive military capability. Now obviously, some states have more offensive military capability than others do. The United States, for example, has much more offensive capability than Hungary, but Hungary does have some offensive military capability, as does Belgium, as does Switzerland. Then there are those countries that have a lot of offensive military capability, so the second assumption has to do with capabilities.
The third assumption has to do with intentions. When I was an Air Force officer, I was in technical intelligence, and when we looked at the Soviet Union or the Warsaw Pact during the Cold War, we always wanted to know what their capabilities were and what their intentions were… The second assumption deals with capabilities. That’s the offensive capabilities argument. The third assumption deals with intentions, and the intentions argument goes like this. No state can ever be certain as to what the intentions of other states are. You just can’t know for sure what the intentions of other states are… If you think about offensive capabilities, you can see them and you can measure them. During the Cold War, we could count how many armored division equivalents the Warsaw Pact had. We could count how many SS-8 missiles the Soviet Union had. We could count how many submarines they had. They were material things that you could see. Intentions are remarkably difficult to figure out because they’re in people’s heads, and you can’t see into people’s heads, so we could never figure out exactly what Soviet intentions were, whether Stalin was running Soviet policy, Khrushchev was running policy, or Brezhnev. It was just very hard to get inside those leaders’ heads and figure out what their intentions were.
Now if you think that’s not true and intentions are reasonably easy to figure out, not impossible, but reasonably easy, my counter argument to that is you cannot know future intentions. None of you know who will be running Russia in 20 years. None of you know who will be running Germany, or the United States in 20 years, so you can’t know Russia’s, America’s, or Germany’s intentions. So one of the fundamental assumptions underpinning my theory is uncertainty about intentions. This is not to say you can be certain that another state will have bad intentions. You just can’t be certain that it won’t have bad intentions.
So I’ve told you so far that there are three assumptions. One is the key—anarchy, no authority that sits above states. Two, all states have some offensive military capability, and three, you just can’t be certain about the intentions of other states. Now I have two other assumptions that I’m going to throw out.
The fourth assumption is that the principal goal of states is survival, and the reason is simple. If you don’t survive, you can’t pursue any of your other goals, so survival has to be the number one goal for every state in the system.
The fifth assumption is that states are rational actors. They’re basically strategic calculators. They’re good at coming up with strategies for maximizing their prospects of survival. So the fourth assumption is survival, and the fifth assumption is states are rational actors.
Those are five assumptions. I think they’re all reasonable assumptions… Mix them up, and you get a very, very competitive and dangerous world. Why is that the case? First, states fear each other. They fear each other because there may be a powerful state that has malign intentions. If you’re France after World War One, and you know you’re living next door to Germany, and you can’t know what Germany’s intentions are going to be 10, 15 or 20 years in the future, and you know that the Germans have a huge amount of latent capability, you’re going to fear them, and the French did fear them. You fear them for that reason. The second reason that states fear each other is if you get into trouble, you’re in an anarchic system which means there’s no higher authority that you can call, so fear is a constant among great powers in the international system.
The second form of behavior you get is self-help. As my mother used to say when I was a little boy, “God helps those who help themselves.” That’s the way international politics works. You do not depend on anybody else. This is not to say you can’t form alliances, but it is to say it’s a self-help world. States fear each other, and they understand that they have to take care of themselves… You figure out very quickly that the best way to survive in the international system is to be the most powerful state in the system. It’s to maximize your relative power in a world, an anarchic world, where you cannot know the intentions of other states and other states may be really powerful. The best way to survive is to be the most powerful state in the system.
I often ask American audiences, “How many of you go to bed at night worrying about Canada, or Mexico, or Guatemala attacking the United States?” It’s unthinkable. We’re Godzilla. Nobody’s going to attack Godzilla, and in an anarchic system where you cannot know the intentions of other states, you want to be Godzilla. One of the real problems that Hungary faces is it has a very small population. From Hungary’s point of view, it would be much better if you had 350 million people instead of 10 million people. You want to be really powerful because that’s the best way to maximize your chances of survival in an anarchic system.
Now let me just unpack this a bit more because it’s relevant for what I’m going to talk about with regard to China and Russia. When I talk about maximizing power, the ideal situation is to be a regional hegemon, to dominate your region of the world, number one, and number two, to make sure that no other state dominates its region of the world…
When the United States got started in 1783, it was comprised of thirteen colonies strung out along the Atlantic seaboard. We marched across the continent, and we carved out this huge and powerful state, and then with the Monroe Doctrine, we pushed the European great powers out of the Western Hemisphere, and we told them you are not welcome back here. This is our hemisphere, and you stay out. We went to great lengths to create regional hegemony in the Western Hemisphere. At the same time, we do not tolerate peer competitors. We played a key role in putting Imperial Germany, Imperial Japan, Nazi Germany, and the Soviet Union all on the scrap heap of history, and you can see the United States putting its crosshairs on China today.
The United States does not tolerate peer competitors. We do not want any other country on the planet to ever imitate us. According to our playbook, there’s only one country that’s allowed to be a regional hegemon, and that’s the United States of America. This is completely consistent with the theory that I’ve laid out to you. I gave you the logic that underpins it.
Now I just want to say a word or two more. I’ve emphasized the importance of gaining power, becoming a regional hegemon, and maximizing your power. It’s also very important to understand that states that are facing a great power that’s getting more and more powerful go to great lengths to balance against that state. States in the international system, mainly great powers, balance against rising states. They try to check states that are encroaching on them. That’s the balancing behavior that comes out of my theory, but again, the ideal situation is to be a regional hegemon…
Let’s talk about the US-China competition. Let’s talk about the US-Russia competition, and then I’ll talk about Hungary.
What’s going on with US-China competition is very simple. As a result of America’s policy of engagement with China, which started in the early 1990s, we have foolishly helped turn China into an economically powerful country. China has grown very wealthy, and it has a huge population. Population and wealth are the two foundations of military power and China has so many people and it’s now so wealthy. It’s not just a peer competitor of the United States. It’s also a potential regional hegemon… The Chinese are interested in becoming a regional hegemon. They want to dominate Asia the way we dominate the Western Hemisphere, and I want to be very clear here. I do not blame the Chinese one second. If I was in Beijing and I was running Chinese foreign policy, my aim would be to make sure that China is by far the most powerful country in Asia, and I would go to great lengths to push the Americans out beyond the first island chain and then beyond the second island chain. I’d have my own Chinese Monroe Doctrine, and I’d want to make sure the Americans are across the Pacific Ocean, just like we want to make sure, from an American point of view, the Chinese are across the Pacific Ocean.
The Chinese understand full well what happens when you’re weak in the international system. They call it the century of national humiliation. It lasted from the late 1840s to the late 1940s. China was very weak during that hundred-year period, and you know what happened to them when they were very weak. The other great powers in the system, including the United States of America, preyed upon them. They were victimized at every turn. The Chinese understand full well that if you want to survive in the international system, you want to be really powerful. Indeed, you want to imitate the United States. You want to dominate Asia the way the Americans dominate the Western Hemisphere. This is what my theory tells you. It’s what the Americans did, and it’s what the Chinese are doing.
If the Chinese want to get Taiwan back, they want to control the South China Sea. They want to control the East China Sea. They want those rocks back in the East China Sea, and there’s one simple way to do it: get the Americans out of East Asia and make sure they are the most powerful state in the system, so that’s what they’re doing.
What about the Americans? I told you about the Americans before. The Americans do not tolerate peer competitors. We’re not going to let China dominate Asia unless we absolutely have to, unless China just grows so powerful that there’s nothing we can do to stop it from dominating Asia. We’ve got our gun sights on the Chinese. And you understand there’s a military dimension and an economic dimension to our policy. We’re putting together a balancing coalition in East Asia mainly based around military forces to contain China. We’re talking about how to defend Taiwan militarily. That’s the military part of the balancing coalition, but you also want to understand… there’s an economic dimension to our strategy. We’re actually trying to roll back Chinese economic growth. We want to strangle Chinese economic growth because we understand full well that military power is largely a function of economic power, so the United States is not simply containing China. We’re talking about a rollback strategy.
The United States, as many of you know, and probably many of you don’t know, is a ruthless great power. You never want to underestimate how ruthless the United States is, despite all the liberal rhetoric that we use to cover up our ruthless behavior. We are tough customers, and the Chinese are finding that out now. In the early 1990s, I told the Chinese if you continue to grow economically, there’s going to be a fierce security competition, and you’re going to be shocked at how ruthless the United States is. They simply didn’t believe me because the United States was treating them very well at the time. I said, “What you don’t understand is that the structure is going to change, and when the structure changes, when we go from unipolarity to multi-polarity, and you’re a peer competitor, we’re going to think about you very differently than we think about you now.” And that’s exactly what’s happening.
So you see what’s happened here is you have this intense security competition between the United States, which doesn’t tolerate peer competitors on one hand, and China on the other hand which is interested in becoming a regional hegemon peer of the United States, a full peer. Why is it so dangerous? … Taiwan is the key here. Taiwan is a very dangerous situation. The United States feels that it has to defend Taiwan for security reasons, so you see the United States moving closer and closer to Taiwan. It’s very important to understand that Taiwan is sacred territory for China. The Chinese are deeply committed to making sure that Taiwan does not remain independent over the long term and that it’s incorporated back into the mainland. And we’re basically saying—”we” meaning the Americans—are basically saying that’s not happening. We’re tightening our relationship with Taiwan which means de facto Independence for the foreseeable future and this, not surprisingly, enrages the Chinese, so this is a very dangerous conflict.
Now we go to the third part of my talk and focus on US-Russian relations which revolves these days mainly around the Ukraine war. Now the conventional wisdom in the West is certainly true in the United States, certainly true in places like Poland, the Baltic states and most of Western Europe. It is that the Russians are bent on establishing hegemony in Europe. The argument is that the Russians, especially Vladimir Putin is an imperial power, and that Vladimir Putin wants to either recreate the Soviet Union, or he wants to create a greater Russia, and then once that’s done he’s going to push forward to create an empire in Eastern Europe. The argument is that he is determined, number one, to conquer Ukraine, number two, to occupy Ukraine, and number three, to make it part of a greater Russia. Then when he’s done with Ukraine, he’ll march on toward other states, Poland, the Baltic states, Romania, maybe Hungary. Who knows? “He’s an imperialist. He’s bent on regional hegemony.” In effect, that’s the argument, and if you believe this story, it looks a lot like the China story. With China, as I told you, there’s no question that what China is trying to do is establish regional hegemony.
The question is: do you think that’s what the Russians are doing? I do not think that is true. I think it is dead wrong. First of all, it’s very clear to me that there is no evidence, none, that Putin has ever said that he thought it would be a good idea to conquer Ukraine and make it part of Russia. There’s no evidence that he ever said he thought it was feasible to do that, and there’s no evidence that he ever said that. I’ve given this talk many times. I’ve corresponded with all sorts of people. I’ve had research assistants look into this. Nobody can show me where he said any one of those three things. Furthermore, Russia does not have the capability to conquer Ukraine, much less conquer other countries. By the way, there’s no evidence he ever talked about conquering any other country. That’s not surprising. If he didn’t talk about conquering and integrating Ukraine into a greater Russia, he surely wasn’t going to talk about doing that with the Baltic states or Poland. He never talked about that. There’s no evidence of that, but again, he doesn’t have the capability. You all have noticed that the Russians can barely defeat the Ukrainians in eastern Ukraine. How are these Russian forces going to conquer all of Ukraine? Have you ever looked at the number of troops that the Russians sent into Ukraine on February 24th? At the most 190,000. When the Germans went into Poland September 1st, 1939, they went in with 1.5 million troops, and in the middle of September the Soviets came in the back door. The Germans, as a result of the Molotov-Ribbentrop pact, understood full well that they wouldn’t be conquering Poland alone. They’d be doing it with the Red Army. Poland was not a formidable military state at the time. They still went in with 1.5 million troops. Putin would send 190,000 troops at the most, and he didn’t really have any reserves that could have been brought in afterwards. You’re not going to conquer Ukraine with a force that size. Ukraine is a huge piece of territory, as you all surely understand. He wasn’t interested in conquering Ukraine and incorporating it into Russia. What was he doing? It’s quite clear what he was doing? He was defending Russia against the West’s efforts to make Ukraine a western bulwark on Russia’s border.
We had a policy in the West, driven mainly by the United States, that had three prongs to it. One was NATO expansion. The goal was to bring Ukraine into NATO. The second prong was to bring Ukraine into the European Union, and the third was to foster an “Orange Revolution” in Ukraine and make it a pro-western liberal democracy. These are the three prongs of the strategy, and the overall goal was to create a Ukraine that was a Western bulwark on Russia’s border. Now NATO expansion was really the key. That’s what really spooked the Russians. Of the three elements of the strategy, it was NATO expansion. It was April of 2008 at the Bucharest NATO Summit where NATO announced when the summit ended that Georgia and Ukraine would become part of NATO. Putin, who was actually at the summit and was on friendly terms with the West at that point in time, went ballistic. The Russians made it unequivocally clear that Ukraine in NATO was categorically unacceptable. William Burns, who’s now the head of the CIA, was then in 2008 the US ambassador in Moscow. He wrote a memorandum to Condoleezza Rice, who was then Secretary of State, warning against NATO expansion into Ukraine. He said that Ukraine in NATO is the brightest of red lines for all members of the Russian foreign policy establishment, not just Putin. He said, “I’ve talked to all the knuckle draggers in the recesses of the Kremlin, and I have talked to Putin’s most ardent liberal opponents, and all of them agree Ukraine in NATO is unacceptable.”
Angela Merkel, who much to her credit, opposed making any kind of offer to Ukraine in the April 2008 Summit, said recently that the reason she opposed that idea was she understood it was the equivalent of—these are her words—”declaration of war against Russia.” this is what Angela Merkel said. Nevertheless, the United States continued to push forward. We had gotten NATO expansion through for the first time in 1999. This is when Hungary became a member of NATO in 1999, then in 2004, we had the second expansion of NATO to countries like Romania and the Baltic states. Slovenia came into the alliance. There we were in 2008 and this was going to continue into Ukraine. [In] Georgia four months later, in August 2008, you had a war over Georgia, surprise of surprises. The Russians were putting their foot down.
Nevertheless, we continued to push. Why did we continue to push? The answer is Russia was weak. Think of the century of national humiliation for the Chinese. The Americans thought they could shove another tranche of expansion to include Ukraine down Russia’s throat. We thought the Russians were weak, and you know when you’re weak, and the Americans got their gun sights on you, it’s not good. We continued to push, even after things blew up in Georgia in August 2008. And what was the end result? The end result is that on February 22nd, 2014, to be exact, the crisis in Ukraine broke out and this is when the Russians took Crimea and trouble started in the Donbass, and you effectively got a civil war in the Donbass that the Russians were involved in.
Now the question you want to ask yourself is what did the Americans do in response? You might have thought that the Americans would have backed off, seeing the trouble that they had stirred up, but the Americans did not back off. NATO did not back off. In fact, we doubled down. We then started training large numbers of Ukrainian forces. We then started arming large numbers of Ukrainian forces. We were giving them intelligence and we were helping them plan their military operations in the Donbass, in the civil war that was taking place in the Donbass. In effect, what was happening is that Ukraine was becoming a de facto member of NATO.
This is why in December 2021, this is last December about 11 months ago, Putin and Lavrov made it very clear. They wrote a letter to the head of NATO, and they wrote a letter to President Biden saying we want a written statement that says Ukraine will never become part of NATO. They had a number of other demands as well. The reason that happened was that Ukraine was becoming a de facto member of NATO, and the American response was, “We’re not changing anything. Nothing is going to change.” And the end result is on February 24th, Putin launched what was effectively a preventive war. Putin has decided that there were two possible outcomes here. One is a neutral Ukraine, which is what they preferred all along, or a Ukraine that is wrecked and is a rump state. What the Russians are now doing is wrecking Ukraine. This is a total disaster. It’s absolutely horrible. I do not want to make light of it for one second. The point is this. And the end result of our efforts—the West’s efforts, and when I say the West, I’m talking mainly about the United States—to make Ukraine a Western bulwark was Russians found this intolerable.
And by the way, I talked about the Monroe Doctrine. The Monroe Doctrine refers to when we pushed all the European great powers out and we said you are not welcome in the Western Hemisphere. I’m old enough to remember the Cuban Missile Crisis, and I can tell from looking at the crowd that there are a few other old dogs in the crowd like me who remember the Cuban Missile Crisis. The Cuban Missile Crisis was all about the Monroe Doctrine. We did not for one second like the idea of the Soviet Union putting missiles in the western hemisphere in Cuba right near the United States. I want to ask you something. If China decided to form a military alliance with Canada or Mexico, and they put Chinese troops in Toronto, or Montreal, or in Mexico City, what do you think the United States would do? Do you think the United States would say, “That’s not a big deal. We really don’t care.” I can guarantee you that would not be our response. We told Khrushchev in 1962 those missiles were going to go one way or another. We were not going to tolerate those missiles in the Western Hemisphere. My mother taught me when I was a little boy that what’s good for the goose is good for the gander. You’re surprised that the Russians don’t want a military alliance that was a mortal foe of the Soviet Union during the Cold War sitting on their doorstep? I don’t understand why so many people in the West, especially in the United States and Western Europe, can’t understand that this is one of the most provocative moves the United States could have ever pushed NATO to pursue. It’s just hard to understand. We should understand it from our own historical experience, and again Bill Burns said that he was not the only one. You heard what Angela Merkel said. I could go back into the 1990s and tell you what George Kennan said, what Bill Perry said, who was the Secretary of Defense at the time when NATO expansion first got started. All sorts of people said this is going to lead to no end to trouble. And you know what George Kennan said? Not only is it going to lead to no end of trouble; when the trouble comes, we’re going to blame the Russians, and of course, that’s exactly what has happened because we in the United States are [supposedly] never responsible for any of the world’s problems. It’s always somebody else. To basically sum up here: I laid out my theory. I explained what’s going on with China and the United States, and that one looks a lot like the cold war. And then I talked about what happened just now with regard to Russia and the United States. And my point is that’s not like the cold war. Russia is not the Soviet Union, and Russia was not trying to establish hegemony. This is balancing behavior on the part of the Russians. They’re balancing against NATO expansion and the more general policy of making Ukraine a western ally on their border, and again these are two very dangerous situations.