Mearsheimer Revisited: How Offensive Realism’s Founder Is Inconsistent on the Ukraine-Russia War

In his September/October 2014 essay in Foreign Affairs and March 2022 editorial in the Economist, John Mearsheimer argues that the 2014 occupation of Ukrainian territory by Russian forces and subsequent full-scale invasion in 2022 was the result of misguided attempts by the West (namely the United States via NATO expansion and bilateral relations) to spread democracy. Mearsheimer states that the expansion of Western institutions, informed by liberal principles, eastwards towards Ukraine ignorantly disregards the offensive realist realities by which the international system operates.

However, Mearsheimer’s claims about the Ukraine crisis are inconsistent with his theory of offensive realism in two ways. First, offensive realism does not possess a set of criteria or another means of making value judgements about where fault lies regarding interstate conflicts. Second, in taking the liberal reasoning for NATO’s expansion into Ukraine at face value, Mearsheimer fails to acknowledge that Western expansion into Ukraine can be sufficiently explained by offensive realist theory, and in fact may even qualify the US as a “good” offensive realist. 

Offensive Realism’s Theoretical Bounds

The fundamentals of offensive realism are laid out by Mearsheimer in his 2001 magnum opus, “The Tragedy of Great Power Politics“, which remains to this day the most authoritative text on offensive realism. Offensive realism extends the bounds of realism by offering an alternative explanation for how the international system works while operating on several of the same assumptions found in classical and defensive realism. However, what offensive realism does not offer is a moral compass.

Characterized as cold and clinical, offensive realism seeks to explain the causes of conflicts and security competition as well as predict the likelihood of their occurrence. Mearsheimer himself explicitly states this as such: “It should be apparent from this discussion that offensive realism is mainly a descriptive theory. It explains how great powers have behaved in the past and how they are likely to behave in the future. But it is also a prescriptive theory. States should behave according to the dictates of offensive realism, because it outlines the best way to survive in a dangerous world.”

While offensive realism allowed its adherents to attempt to predict the outbreak of the Ukraine crisis as well as explain its causes, the theory does not provide a source of justification when placing the onus of a conflict on any state(s). Anarchy and balance of power serve as the root causes of war in offensive realism, yet neither have been designed as a medium for offensive realists to use to determine which state(s) should bear responsibility for causing a conflict.

While Mearsheimer feels that he is in the right to blame the West for forcing the Ukraine crisis while operating on a naïve liberal-informed philosophical basis, offensive realism does not give him the theoretical toolbox to determine whose fault the Ukraine crisis is. 

Superficial Liberalism, Veiled Realism 

Mearsheimer frames the West’s embrace of Ukraine as a fool-hardy attempt to promote liberal values in Russia’s backyard, in turn violating Russia’s bona fide, offensive realist-grounded security interests. However, Mearsheimer fails to take his own advice by accepting the West’s liberal rhetoric as entirely genuine while not realizing that NATO’s actions vis-à-vis Ukraine and Russia are perfectly explainable via offensive realism’s logic.

Mearsheimer claims that liberal principles (e.g. rule of law, political representation) make for a far more appealing explanation to the public of a state’s action as opposed to realist truths. Yet, according to Mearsheimer, leaders and states almost always behave as realists. Concerning the US, he notes that those “who make national security policy speak mostly the language of power, not that of principle, and the United States acts in the international system according to the dictates of realist logic. In essence, a discernible gap separates public rhetoric from the actual conduct of American foreign policy.”

However, Mearsheimer doesn’t even question the sincerity of the liberal justifications used by Western leaders for expanding into Ukraine. On the contrary, he provides a list of evidence why the eastern expansion of NATO was fundamentally liberal, while tersely limiting realist objections to eastern expansion as an unnecessary provocation of a declining great power. Yet realism provides a perfectly good explanation of Western institutions’ eastward expansion.

Post-Cold War Pursuit of Power

According to Mearsheimer, the US and Russia, the only two great powers in Europe after the fall of the Soviet Union, remain in a bi-polar balance of power. While stable, neither power is going to leave the balance as is, given that in offensive realism, great powers are power-maximizing. This zero-sum game is relentless, and encourages constant offense. With Russia’s economy and internal politics in turmoil after the fall of the USSR, what better time for the US to even further shift the European distribution of power in its favor?

Mearsheimer asserts that the US is the only regional hegemon in modern history. According to offensive realism, regional hegemons strongly prefer to remain the only regional hegemon, and will seek to prevent the rise of regional hegemons outside of their own, serving as “offshore balancers.” Over the last century, the US has played this role multiple times in Europe (during both World Wars, and the Cold War). In the periods where the US served as an offshore balancer in Europe, it did so out of necessity because: “Regional hegemons prefer that there be at least two great powers located together in other regions, because their proximity will force them to concentrate their attention on each other rather than on the distant hegemon.”

Without another great power in Europe to rival Russia, the US has been forced to bear its Cold War mantle and remain in Europe. NATO’s eastward expansion increased the concentration of power in the US’s hands at the expense of Russia. In doing so, the US maximized its power and while decreasing Russia’s without incurring major costs/losses. Per offensive realism, the US was increasing its chances of survival by further ensuring that Europe would not be dominated by a regional hegemon in the form of Russia. To act otherwise would be irrational in offensive realist logic.

The late 2000s provided strong evidence that the US was not misguided in maximizing its power in Europe. Russia, awash in funds from fossil fuel exports and having found relative domestic calm by suppressing North Caucus separatism, became more vocal and forceful in its foreign policy stances under the leadership of Vladmir Putin. While Russian conventional military power remained subpar, Moscow was becoming the guarantor of Europe’s energy security, a source of immense non-military leverage over Europe.

In order to gain more power in a bipolar Europe at the state level, both the US/NATO and Russia would have to ally with minor powers in the absence of great powers in what is termed as “eternal balance.” Ukraine, being one of the few Eastern European countries not in NATO, made for a logical candidate for the US to encourage to seek NATO membership. 

While Mearsheimer frames Ukraine’s situation as a liberal blunder, it can just as easily be reframed as a realist victory for the US. Without having diminished US power, the Russian invasion and annexation of Ukraine territories reinforced NATO’s legitimacy amongst its members as well as the need for US troops on continental Europe to contain a resurgent Russia. The Russian invasion dispelled European illusions that Russia would remain a benign energy supplier, and gave the US grounds to convince its allies to join it in retaliating against Russian aggression.

Moreover, Ukraine became more decisively oriented towards cooperating with NATO and the EU given that it could no longer look to Russia as an economic and security partner. Even in a counter-factual scenario where Russia doesn’t invade, and Ukraine maintains its sovereign territory and becomes a member of NATO, US power in Europe would still increase. As a good offensive realist, the US has been successfully maximizing its opportunities to consolidate power in Europe vis-à-vis Russia.

In sum, John Mearsheimer’s analysis of the Ukraine-Russia war is inconsistent with offensive realism in that it 1. makes normative judgements on who bears fault for starting the conflict, which is outside the theoretical bounds of offensive realism as explicitly stated by Mearsheimer himself; and 2. assumes that the liberal rational used to justify the eastward expansion of NATO is genuine, and therefore discounts the possibility of its eastward expansion as being sufficiently explainable and complicit with offensive realist logic.

[Image of Mailtoanton, via Wikimedia Commons]

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author.

How Assyrians Became Caught in the Crossfire in Various Wars Throughout the Middle East

Assyrians are one of the oldest continuous ethnic groups in the world today and their ancient civilization played a major role in the foundations...

Can Bangladesh Surpass China in Apparel Exports?

In the last couple of decades, Bangladesh and China formed an exemplary alliance defined by mutual trust, respect, and affinity. Cooperation between China and...

Towards a Reset in Bangladesh-UK Relations?

The past years witnessed a flurry of UK delegation to Bangladesh and heralded a new epoch of bilateral partnership. In such context, British Minister...