- New Issue
- Books & Reviews
- About Us
Conference Call with John Mearsheimer on the Ukraine Crisis
As the NATO summit began in Wales, John Mearsheimer, R. Wendell Harrison distinguished service professor of political science at the University of Chicago, joined Gideon Rose, editor of Foreign Affairs, to discuss the unintended effects of NATO expansion. Mearsheimer argues in the September/October 2014 issue of Foreign Affairs that the West is to blame for the Ukraine crisis.
A transcript is available below:
ROSE: Hi, everybody. Gideon Rose here, editor of Foreign Affairs. Delighted to have this call. We are lucky to be joined today by John Mearsheimer, the R. Wendell Harrison Distinguished Service Professor of Political Science at the University of Chicago and one of the country's most distinguished political scientists. John, of course, is not just a leading IR theorist, but also a noted controversialist who always follows his extremely agile mind wherever it goes and says whatever he is thinking, which makes him a notorious bull in a china shop.
One of the things that's fun about John, of course, is that he always is a little bit puzzled by the controversies he creates, because he just thinks that what he's doing is following logic where it goes and rarely is -- you know, annoyed or aware at the fact that it's dramatically different from what everybody else is thinking.
So with that, let's get to his latest argument, which has caused I think is fair to say quite a stir. It's an article in Foreign Affairs called "Why the Ukraine Crisis is the West's Fault." And it links the current Ukraine crisis to Western policy towards NATO and Russia since the end of the Cold War.
Now, John, NATO is meeting right now to discuss what its future is, what -- how it should respond to Russia and deal with the Ukraine situation. You have a distinct take on this. Why do you think NATO is responsible at least in part for this crisis? Conventional wisdom has it that Putin is just an aggressive tyrant and that he has decided to sort of seize Ukraine. Why do you think that's not the whole or the full story?
MEARSHEIMER: Well, I think that the (inaudible) of the problem here is NATO expansion. And, of course, NATO expansion is part of a broader strategy on the part of the West, which is designed to peel Ukraine away from Russia's orbit. It's designed to make Ukraine a Western bastion right on Russia's doorstep. And NATO expansion is really one of three elements in the West's strategy. The other is E.U. expansion. And then the third is the promotion of democracy. In promoting democracy, basically what we're trying to do is put in place leaders in countries like Ukraine who are pro-Western, and that, of course, will make possible to turn Ukraine into a part of the West.
The Russians, on the other hand, have said from the very beginning that NATO expansion was unacceptable. And although they couldn't stop the first two tranches after 2008, when it became clear that NATO had its eyes on Ukraine and Georgia, the Russians made it unequivocally clear that this was unacceptable and that they would not tolerate it.
The West, of course, refused to hear what the Russians had to say and insisted, instead, that NATO expansion was a benign move on the part of the West and was not directed at Russia. But, again, the Russians refused to accept this.
And then you had the February 22nd coup earlier this year, and that was the straw that broke the camel's back. And Putin then went into action and, first of all, took Crimea and then, secondly, mobilized forces opposite the border with eastern Ukraine, and has made it clear that he will wreck or destroy Ukraine before he will let it become part of NATO.
ROSE: Now, you act as if that this is the West's driving this situation. Don't the Ukrainians have agency? I can imagine a lot of people responding to your comments there by saying, if only we had a policy of aggressive attempts to take Ukraine in. Certainly the Ukrainian liberals would have wanted that. But hasn't this crisis been driven by the fact that the Ukrainians want what the Poles have gotten and essentially want to move forward up and out of the Russian orbit and their stagnant corruption and vassal status? And if that is the case that they are driving some of this, are you saying essentially that we should turn our backs on Ukrainian aspirations?
MEARSHEIMER: Well, there's no question that the Ukrainians are interested in becoming part of NATO and being protected by the United States and the West more generally. And who can blame them? But the fact of the matter is that this is a prescription for disaster and that what the West should have told the Ukrainians is that incorporating Poland or the Baltic states into NATO was possible, but trying to incorporate Ukraine and Georgia into NATO would be a bridge too far. And what would happen is we would end up precipitating the crisis, and that crisis would lead to the destruction of Ukraine. And that is obviously not in Ukraine's interest.
This is what we should have told the Ukrainians. We should have just stopped with NATO expansion and given up on the idea of incorporating Ukraine into the West and instead said that what we're interested in doing is maintaining a neutral Ukraine that effectively serves as a buffer state between NATO on one side and Russia on the other.
ROSE: So we should have been cruel to be kind in the right measure and basically sort of let them realize that their aspirations were not going to be fulfilled and that they had to make the best of the fact that they are a small state on the border of a big, large, nasty, powerful state?
MEARSHEIMER: Yeah, I think the truth is, Gideon, that went people talk about states having rights and acting as if a country like Ukraine can just do anything that it wants, they're living in a fool's paradise. If you're a state that happens to be in the neighborhood of a great power, it is imperative that you pay very careful attention to what that great power's interests are and how your behavior affects that great power's actions towards you.
Just take the United States in the Western Hemisphere. We have this policy called the Monroe Doctrine, and the Monroe Doctrine basically says that no distant great power -- either European great power or an Asian great power -- can move military forces into the Western Hemisphere, that no country in our hemisphere can form a close military alliance with a distant country. We just won't tolerate that.
Basically, the same logic is at play with regard to Russia. Russia is basically saying that Ukraine and Georgia are on our border and there's no way we're going to allow an alliance that was once a formidable foe of ours to move up into those countries and threaten us. This should be understandable to people in the West. I don't understand why most Americans don't understand this.
If China became really powerful and threaten to form an alliance with Canada and Mexico, and maybe even station military forces in those countries, it would drive the United States crazy. We would not tolerate that. It would be a violation of the Monroe Doctrine.
Well, again, the same basic logic is at play here. This is geopolitics 101. And why Western leaders don't understand this befuddles me.
ROSE: Would that same logic suggest -- well, we can get into this later, if you want -- but wouldn't that same logic suggest that the whole -- the conflict should be handled in a sort of somewhat quasi-appeasing way, including giving Taiwan back to the Chinese or things like that?
MEARSHEIMER: Well, our policy on Taiwan reflects this basic logic. We make it very clear that Taiwan is not an independent country and in no way shape or form are we going to promote Taiwan -- Taiwanese independence, because we know full well what the consequences would be with regard to China. China has made it very clear that if Taiwan is to declare its own independence, China will go to war against Taiwan immediately, even though this will have severe economic consequences for China. The United States fully understands that, and therefore, the United States walks on eggshells when it deals with this very issue.
Again, the same basic logic applies to Ukraine, as it does to Canada and Mexico with regard to a potential Chinese alliance down the road.
ROSE: Twenty years ago, you argued in Foreign Affairs that Ukraine should be allowed to keep its nuclear weapons precisely in order to ensure peace and stability, because some kind of Russo-Ukrainian rivalry was kind of inevitable and would be dangerous if they didn't have a nuclear deterrent. How did that kind of view play into what's happened recently?
MEARSHEIMER: Well, I think there's no question if Ukraine had nuclear weapons the Russians would not be sending ground forces into eastern Ukraine. I think the nuclear weapons would have not prevented Russia from taking Crimea, in large part because the Russians were already there.
Many people say that the Russians invaded Crimea and conquered it. They didn't invade Crimea. They were already there. They had an agreement with Ukraine that they could station up to 25,000 troops in Crimea. So they were there. And nuclear weapons would not have prevented Ukraine from losing Crimea.
But with regard to the Russians invading eastern Ukraine, I think it's extremely unlikely they would have done that if Ukraine had nuclear weapons, because as you know, when a state's survival is at stake, that's the one circumstance under which it might use its nuclear weapons. One might say the likelihood of Ukraine using nuclear weapons if Russia invaded eastern Ukraine is not very great, but it doesn't have to be very great. The likelihood can be actually quite small, but given the consequences, the Russians I think would have stayed out.
So I think it would have been in Ukraine's interest today, and certainly over the long term, to have nuclear weapons.
ROSE: Is -- is it possible to -- does the manner in which Russia has pursued its interests in this case, sending troops in, subverting another country, being conniving with its propaganda and other kinds of things, in terms of the shoot down of the plane, is there something here that Russia has done that needs to be punished? Or do you just have to basically suck up what Russia has done because they're powerful enough to force us to do so?
MEARSHEIMER: I understand why people would like to punish Russia, given what's happened. It's completely understandable. But the question you have to ask yourself is, what are the consequences of punishing Russia? What are the consequences of putting more and more sanctions on the Russians? What are the consequences of having military exercises in countries like Ukraine and moving forces into countries like Poland and the Baltics?
And the answer is that it's just going to make a bad situation worse. It's going to further cause -- it's going to cause further trouble in Ukraine itself. It's going to give the Russians added incentives to wreck that country. It's going to poison relations between the United States and Russia. And, in fact, we need Russian help with regard to the Iranian nuclear issue, with regard to Syria, and with regard to the movement of troops out of Afghanistan.
So it's in our interest to have good relations with Russia, not to have bad relations. And, of course, it's in the Russians' interests to have good relations with us and with Ukraine. So if we continue to pursue the present policy, things are just going to get worse and worse, and it's going to be a lose-lose-lose situation.
So even though it's understandable that people want to punish the Russians for what happened, it makes no sense.
ROSE: Is there anything that the Russians could do at this point that would change that calculus for you and make them somebody you need to punish or wouldn't want to deal with?
MEARSHEIMER: Not that I can think of, to be honest.
ROSE: If you were advising Obama now, what would you tell him to do, how to get out of -- and aside from, you know, not -- given that the past is the past, what would you be telling him to do right now on Ukraine?
MEARSHEIMER: I think at this point that we have to drastically change course and stop thinking about punishing the Russians and, instead, working out some sort of diplomatic deal, the centerpiece of which is a neutral Ukraine.
Our principal goal here should be to create a Ukraine that is neutral, that is a buffer state that sits between NATO on one side and Russia on the other side and is not aligned in any meaningful way with either Russia or the West. And to facilitate that, I think the first thing we have to do is take NATO expansion off the table in a very public way. I think it's also important to take E.U. expansion off the table.
And I think in addition to that, we should work with the Russians, with the IMF, and with the West Europeans to do everything we can to facilitate the rescue of Ukraine's economy and do what we can to turn it into a prosperous state, and then even promote democracy there. Of course, we don't want to promote democracy so that it leads to a state that views itself as part of the West and anti-Russian.
But there's no reason, once it's clear that this is going to be a neutral state, it's going to be a buffer state, that that state can't prosper. The Russians have a vested interest in having a prosperous Ukraine on their border, and, of course, the Ukrainians themselves do. I don't understand why the Ukrainians are so insistent on continuing to pursue a policy that leads to them becoming part of the West when the end result is they're going to be destroyed as a functioning society.
The Russians have made that very clear. Many people say that Putin is a bully, he's evil, he's willing to do terrible things. Well, if that's all true, the last thing you want to do is provoke him, because he has the levers to wreck Ukraine. What you have to do is work out some sort of accommodation. That may be distasteful, but the alternative is even worse.
ROSE: So is the general negative connotation of appeasement in Western foreign policy something we just need to get over? Or should we just basically follow appeasement policies under a different term, because that term is no longer politically acceptable, even if the substance of policy is what we should be doing?
MEARSHEIMER: Well, I've not heard anybody use the word appeasement up to this juncture. And it is a loaded term, because it's associated with Munich and what we did with Hitler. Obviously, the West made a huge mistake in the fall of 1938 in appeasing Hitler. And if you use the word appeasement in this context, it implies that Putin is the second coming of Adolf Hitler and Russia is the second coming of Nazi Germany and you're appeasing someone who should not be appeased.
But I don't think that's what's going on here. Putin is not a serious threat to conquer more territory in Eastern Europe. In fact, if you really wanted to wreck Russia, what you would do is invite it into Ukraine and let it try and conquer the whole country and swallow it. As I said in the article, it would be like swallowing a porcupine. The Russians surely know from their experience in Afghanistan, from watching us in Afghanistan, from watching us in Iraq that the last thing they want to do is try and conquer and absorb Ukraine. It just wouldn't make any sense. And the same goes for almost all the other countries on their border. It's just not in the cards.
Furthermore, this is a country that's going to decline in terms of relative power over time, largely for demographic reasons. So this is not the Soviet Union. This is not Nazi or Imperial Germany. And what we ought to do is just back off and try to create a neutral Ukraine, which, again, will be good for Ukraine, good for the Russians, and good for us.
ROSE: So the argument is that we can afford to accommodate and it's wise to accommodate on this particular issue, precisely because it's not a step down a slippery slope towards a lot of other aggression and precisely because Russian relative power is declining, and it's a question of sort of getting past the point at which their aspirations are so aggressive and ambitious?
MEARSHEIMER: I think that summed it up very nicely. I wouldn't disagree with anything you said there.
ROSE: OK. So how do you then, if you're NATO, reassure, let's say, the Estonians and the Latvians and the Lithuanians that you are, indeed, going to protect them without, you know, overly -- without creating a moral hazard for the Ukrainians in which you signal to them that you're going to more than you might actually be prepared to do?
MEARSHEIMER: Well, I think you have to make it very clear to the Russians and to the Eastern European countries that are now members of NATO that the United States is fully committed to defending them if they're attacked. And you may want to increase the number of exercises you have there and do a number of other -- take a number of other small steps to reassure them.
But I don't think you have to do much more than that, because I don't think that Putin is seriously interested in threatening any of those countries. Again, I think the principal cause of this crisis was NATO expansion. The idea that Putin was planning to go on a rampage for a long period of time and that NATO expansion was designed to contain him is belied by the facts.
Before the February 22nd coup, there was no evidence that anyone thought that Putin was going to take Crimea. There's no evidence that anyone thought that he had imperial ambitions in terms of conquering territory on his borders. It was not until after the February 22nd coup earlier this year that that all happened.
Moreover, if you look at the rationale for NATO expansion, up until very recently, it was never phrased in terms of containing the Russians. This is why someone like Mike McFaul will tell you that he reassured Putin and other high-level Russian policymakers on countless occasions that NATO is not directed at Russia, it was not designed to contain NATO. He was speaking the truth in terms of how he and his colleagues thought about NATO expansion.
They thought that they were expanding this European security community eastward. They didn't think that they were containing Russia, because nobody thought that Putin was going to go on a rampage, up until February 22nd. It was only after that that we changed our rhetoric and began to portray him as the second coming of Adolf Hitler.
ROSE: The -- in Western Europe, it seems like we've been able to get past the sort of zero-sum traditional offensive realist logic and create, as you say, a security community and so forth. Do you ever envision a time when we'll be able to approach questions in Eastern Europe like that, without the sort of traditional old-fashioned logic of sphere of interest and war and so forth coloring policy there?
MEARSHEIMER: That's a great question. My view on Western Europe is that the reason you have what in effect looks like a security community there, the reason that France and Germany don't worry about each other, is not because of the E.U. It's because of NATO. And that's another way of saying it's because of the American military presence in Western Europe and now in Central Europe.
The United States serves as the pacifier. As long as we are there, there's no way that any of the European countries can end up fighting wars against each other. And what we were trying to do in expanding NATO eastward was to put the American security umbrella over more and more countries so that in the end that security community would grow.
The problem that we ran into was that from a Russian point of view, this was unacceptable, because the Russians did not think that they would ultimately be in that security community, and because that security community was run by NATO and really run by the United States, they viewed it as a threat.
So what happened here is in 1999, we took the first big step eastward and included countries like Poland and Hungary and the Czech Republic in NATO, and then in -- I think it was 2007, we took the second big step forward and included a handful of other states, including the Baltic states, and we got away with that, in part because Russia was very weak, but also because we were not talking about Ukraine and Georgia.
But in 2008, when we began to talk about expanding NATO further east and, in effect, expanding that security community further east, the Russians put their foot down. And by the way, we first announced that Georgia and Ukraine would become part of NATO in April 2008 at the Bucharest summit. That was a big NATO summit, April 2008.
And it's not surprising that in August 2008, you had a war between Georgia and Russia over this very issue. The Russians were deeply concerned about the prospect of Georgia becoming part of NATO, and Georgia did want to become part of NATO. And I believe that was the main cause of that war.
So the Russians early on sent a signal, a very clear signal to us with this conflict that the incorporation of Georgia and Ukraine into NATO, or into the West more generally, was unacceptable.
ROSE: I've got lots more questions that I could ask, but we have a large and passionate audience that would love to get in on this discussion, as well. So I'm going to turn it over at this point to Q&A with our participants. Have at John Mearsheimer, and you can have back at them.
OPERATOR: Thank you. At this time, we will open the floor for questions. Our first question comes from Joseph Marks with Politico.
QUESTION: Hi, thanks very much for taking my question. One thing NATO leaders are going to be doing this week in Wales is articulating that a cyber attack could invoke Article 5 under certain circumstances. And cyber attacks are happening at a comparably low level right now in the Ukraine conflict. So I was hoping, Professor Mearsheimer, you could talk about how cyber war and cyber attacks -- which are happening every day on a nation-state level -- differ from conventional and nuclear attacks, because the bar is so low and attribution so difficult, and how should NATO and the U.S. be thinking about that?
MEARSHEIMER: Well, I'm not an expert on cyber warfare. I've thought a little bit about it. My view is that, if there are cyber attacks on NATO members and they come from the Russians, the key is to make sure that when we retaliate, it doesn't escalate. The key point you want to keep in mind is that Russia has nuclear weapons, and the United States has nuclear weapons, and it's very important that any form of cyber war remain a cyber war and not turn into a conventional war that might ultimately lead to nuclear escalation.
So I think that we have to be smart about cyber warfare, and there will be circumstances where we want to retaliate, but we want that retaliation to be measured because of the dangers of escalation.
QUESTION: Thank you.
MEARSHEIMER: You're welcome.
OPERATOR: Thank you. Our next question comes from Andrei Sitov with TASS Russian News Agency.
QUESTION: Hi, thank you for doing the call. Thanks to the Foreign Affairs and thank you to Professor Mearsheimer. Obviously, to the Russian eyes and ears, the arguments that you are making are eminently reasonable. And the Russians themselves have been making those similar arguments over a long time and never got any real response.
The question here is, in your opinion, sir, the American government, the American authorities do not understand the arguments or do not want to understand the arguments, what is more likely? And then, secondly, I also wanted to ask you about the new plan or the schedule peace plan that President Putin offered yesterday for Ukraine? How, again, realistic it looks to you?
MEARSHEIMER: OK. With regarding to your first question, I think the key to understanding why Western policymakers did not listen to the Russians is that the two sides were operating according to very different logics. NATO and the policymakers in Washington thought about expansion. They thought about NATO enlargement in terms of what I would call a liberal worldview. They did not view NATO expansion as threatening to Russia.
If you were to talk to Mike McFaul, Mike McFaul, who was the ambassador to Russia, believes fervently that NATO expansion was a benign form of behavior. He believes that the United States is a benign hegemon and that moving the alliance eastward is not directed at Russia and it is not at all linked to sort of geopolitical thinking.
The Russians, on the other hand, approach this issue in a completely different way. They were operating with a different playbook. The Russians thought about NATO expansion in terms of geopolitics 101. They viewed NATO expansion as a serious threat.
But the Americans and the Europeans operating according to this liberal playbook simply didn't hear what the Russians were saying. They thought geopolitics was something that had been killed and buried with the end of the Cold War. So they, therefore, ignored what Putin and other Russians said, which I find quite remarkable.
But in the end, you had this crisis. And when the crisis came, starting after February 22nd, people in the West, people in the White House were shocked by what happened. And the reason that they were shocked was because they were playing by this liberal playbook, and according to the liberal playbook, this should have never happened. But if you were playing according to the geopolitical 101 rulebook, which I play by, this is hardly surprising at all. And this is why people like George Kennan, who was a realist par excellence, said in 1999 that this is what would happen.
With regard to your second question about Putin's peace plan, I think it's a promising start, but it really doesn't address in detail all of the big issues that have to be ironed out here. So I think there are going to have to be many more meetings and many more discussions before we work out a viable solution.
ROSE: Let me follow up -- sorry.
QUESTION: Yeah, if I could follow up on this, after the people at the White House and the State Department, they were shocked, as you say, by what's happened, did this shock them into considering the arguments that they ignored previously? Have you heard from any official source in response to your argument -- to your argument?
MEARSHEIMER: I think all of the evidence is that they did not change their thinking at all. And, in fact, if you look at the policy that the West has been pursuing since the February 2014 coup, what we are, in effect, doing is just doubling down. So there's no evidence, at least out in the public domain, that leaders in the United States or in Western Europe have changed their thinking.
ROSE: So, John, let me do a follow-up on -- this is Gideon -- let me do a follow-up on that for a second, which is, even if everything you're saying was correct, is there some cost aspect to this that now that we're in the state we're in, there's a reason to maintain the policy and make him back down a little bit? Presumably, if you were advising him, you might be advising him to be a little bit less aggressive, as well, Putin, I'm saying? And is there -- is accepting -- even if you didn't do something -- even if you did something you shouldn't have done, is accepting a complete retreat something that is politically and geopolitically sensible for the U.S. and the West at this point?
MEARSHEIMER: I think that it's going to be extremely difficult for us to reverse gears at this point in time, for the reasons that you just stated. I think that any Western leader, especially Obama, who begins to try and go in the direction that I'm prescribing, is going to pay a significant cost, political cost. There's no doubt about that. Because as you point out, the sunk costs are great at this point in time.
I often say that when you change foreign policy on a big issue, it's like turning an oil tanker around in the water. You just don't do it on a dime. It takes time. And it's going to take us time to dig ourselves out of this hole.
And my great hope is that the Germans see the light on this one, because I think if there's any one country that holds out the prospect of understanding the basic logic I laid out, it's the Germans. You want to remember, at the Bucharest conference, the Bucharest NATO conference in April 2008, the reason that NATO did not move forward on NATO expansion into Georgia and into Ukraine at that point in time, in a really concrete way, was because of German and French resistance.
So I think the Germans kind of understand the basic logic that I'm laying out. And hopefully they'll fully grasp it and begin to lead the way in getting us to turn the oil tanker around.
ROSE: So you think the Germans are sensible, not just venal? Or do you think they're sensible because they're venal?
MEARSHEIMER: I'm not sure what the word "venal" means.
ROSE: Well, in this case, having economic-based interests in their foreign policy and wanting not to disrupt relations with Russia for purely self-interested economic reasons.
MEARSHEIMER: Well, I think you make an important point when you use the word "interests," because I think what we have to do here is we have to figure out, what is the policy that is in the interests of all the players? And my argument is that creating a neutral Ukraine is in the interests of Russia, it's in the interests of Ukraine, and it's in the interests of the West, including Germany. Germany has no interest in getting involved in a game of sanctions versus counter-sanctions and then escalating up the ladder. This is going to have dire consequences for the E.U. economies. This is just not good.
And what's happening is not good for the Ukrainian economy. It's not good for the Russian economy. So everybody has an interest in trying to figure out how to get out of this mess. And the point that I'm trying to make is that if you double-down on the policy that got us into this situation, you're only going to make a bad situation worse.
And, of course, I fully understand your point, Gideon, that there are sunk costs here. And therefore, reversing direction at this point in time is going to be extremely difficult, especially for President Obama. And, of course, that's why I was saying I hope the Germans can take the lead, because I think it's easier for Merkel to do this than it is for Obama.
And I also think that the Germans have been smarter on this issue than the Americans have been since 2008, which is not to say the Germans have been especially smart, but they've been smarter than the Americans.
OPERATOR: Thank you. Our next question comes from James Kitfield with National Journal.
QUESTION: Thanks for doing the call, Professor. I'm curious, what do you say to the argument that, you know, given everything that you've said, isn't it a good thing that we expanded NATO, because you have millions of Eastern Europeans in the Baltics and Poland and the Czech Republic who are not likely to be threatened by Putin, and that this was an inevitable sort of Russian blowback, so the more people you get under the Western security tent, the more people you sort of allow to live, you know, by their own designs, rather than in Moscow's?
MEARSHEIMER: Well, I think you can definitely make the argument that it is good that we expanded NATO to include countries like Poland and the Baltic states, because their security is virtually guaranteed, as long as NATO is in existence or as long as the United States is in Europe with its military forces.
The problem is that when we thought about incorporating Ukraine and Georgia, we went too far. It was a bridge too far. And the Russians have kicked back and we now have this present crisis.
We, in effect, had an open door policy. And we saw really no limits to NATO expansion. And that was foolish. We should have stopped after the 2007 expansion into Eastern Europe and just left Ukraine and Georgia alone. And this would not have been a case of selling the Georgians and the Ukrainians out, because trying to incorporate those two countries into NATO is just going to end up doing egregious damage to each of them. It would have been in their interest and the interest of Ukraine and in the interest of Georgia not to flirt with NATO and E.U. admission and not to flirt with the idea of becoming part of the West.
OPERATOR: Thank you. Our next question comes from Igna Scherzni (ph) with PAP.
QUESTION: Thank you very much. I am the correspondent for the Polish Press Agency. Professor, the NATO is expected to announce during this summit the increase of NATO presence in Eastern countries. They're not talking about permanent presence, but they are talking about persistent rotating presence, rotating exercises, and also creating of new rapid force, yes? So what -- how do you -- what do you think about this decision, how Russia could respond? And do you think NATO actually do -- does NATO anticipate the Russian response to this?
And I have the second question, also, about Ukraine, but maybe first about this. Thank you.
MEARSHEIMER: OK. I think that the key is for NATO not to permanently station troops in Eastern Europe, to include Poland and the Baltic states. I think that we've not done that up to this point in time, in large part because we understood full well that it would antagonize the Russians and it would damage relations between Russia and the West.
And fortunately, nobody's talking at this point in time about permanently stationing NATO troops in the East. And I hope that remains the case. There's going to be an increased presence for a temporary period of time. I think that makes perfect sense, because it reassures the countries in NATO that are in the eastern part of Europe. That's all for the good.
But I don't think the Russians will -- and I don't think the Russians will be bothered by that. I think the Russians understand that we have to do that. And as long as our presence isn't permanent, they'll have no problem with it.
So I think so far we've been quite measured in -- with regard to moving troops and conducting exercises in the east, but we have to be very careful that we don't step over the line and do anything to provoke the Russians.
QUESTION: You mean this declaration, this founding act from 1997, founding act of NATO, NATO-Russia Council, is still relevant?
QUESTION: You know, where NATO made promise that there won't be any permanent bases in the eastern countries.
MEARSHEIMER: Yes, I think it is still relevant. It could change, and I think that would be disastrous. Again, I don't think it's in NATO's interest -- and this includes a country like Poland -- to provoke the Russians and to poison relations over the long term between Russia and the West. No good will come from that, and I think it's going to be difficult to walk the dog back, so to speak, at this point in time, for reasons that Gideon pointed out. But nevertheless, I think we should go to enormous lengths to defuse this crisis, because it's good to no one.
QUESTION: And, also, about -- you said that the main reason for this crisis is NATO expansion, but, I mean, what do you make of the argument that there is actually no appetite for the NATO enlargement? You said yourself in 2009 they didn't (inaudible) the map, the road map, and (inaudible) Ukraine (inaudible) if you talk to diplomats in the West, they are not ready for enlargement, and this summit is not about enlargement anymore. So, I mean, I don't -- how would you make of this argument? I mean...
ROSE: Yeah, is it a falsifiable thing, John? Because if you had actually been pushing for NATO expansion, wouldn't you have pushed a lot harder, a lot earlier, and more consistently?
MEARSHEIMER: Well, the key point here is to remember that it's really what the Russians think. It's not so much what we did or what we think. I mean, again, to go back to Mike McFaul, Mike McFaul's point is that the Russians should have understood that NATO expansion was not directed at them. And my response to that is that what Mike McFaul thinks is largely irrelevant. It's what the Russians think.
The Russians thought that NATO expansion into Ukraine and into Georgia was going to happen, maybe not right away, but over the long term, and they were deeply concerned about that.
Now, there's no question that in 2008, at April 2008, as I said, the Germans and the French were a break on NATO expansion into Ukraine and Georgia at the Bucharest summit. That's clearly the case. But the Americans were pushing very hard, and that's why, in the final communique from the Bucharest conference, it was said that NATO and -- that Georgia and Ukraine will eventually become part of NATO. That's what the final declaration said.
And the Russians reacted immediately to that. That declaration was never taken off the table. Nobody ever said that NATO expansion was not going to happen. So the Russians had good reason to believe that it would eventually happen. And, by the way, Ukraine has just said -- this happened on August 29th -- that it was going to move to change its non-aligned status and request membership in NATO. And then the NATO secretary general, Anders Fogh Rasmussen, said that if NATO did that, and it met the requirements -- I mean, if Ukraine did that and it met the requirements for NATO admission, then Ukraine could become part of NATO. This was just last month.
This is like waving a red flag in front of a bull. So the idea that NATO -- that Ukraine and Georgia becoming part of NATO is not a serious issue is not the way the Russians see it. And if I were a Russian, I would see it the same way. The mere fact that the United States of America remains committed to NATO expansion would scare me greatly.
OPERATOR: Thank you. Our next question comes from Martin Berchov (ph) with Information Danish Newspaper (ph).
QUESTION: Yes, hi, thanks. I think a lot of Western Europeans would agree with Professor Mearsheimer's view that a political settlement is needed and that there needs to be a clear line drawn in the sand about NATO membership and expansion. That's my feeling, although I'm in the United States at the moment.
But I also think that the way you have approached your analysis of what happened in Ukraine would not be shared by quite a lot of Western Europeans. Perhaps the radical left would share your view on that. So calling it a coup, when actually Yanukovych left on his own volition the country, and the parliament that had remained there actually voted in favor of the new government, is a little beyond what I think realistically happened.
Another thing is that you mentioned -- and I wonder whether it's realistic to imagine that Putin would ever accept a democratic Ukraine, if it were to become prosperous and successful, because it would reflect badly on his rule, which is turning out to be more and more authoritarian. In other words, it is not just about renouncing the idea of NATO membership for Ukraine. It is really about this relationship between the two countries, and what Putin feels, perhaps, is a threat to his own rule.
MEARSHEIMER: Well, let me take your questions in reverse order. I think that there's no question that Putin feels a threat to his own rule. And that's because we have, in effect, made it clear to him with our promotion of democracy in Ukraine that we may ultimately topple him from power, as well. The leader of the National Endowment for Democracy said as much last November in an op-ed in the Washington Post.
So I think Putin has good reason to think that, if we can do social engineering in Ukraine, we will ultimately do social engineering in Russia. This is why I'm saying that the United States should get out of the business of doing social engineering and promoting democracy in countries like Ukraine and in countries like Russia. It just doesn't make good strategic sense, as long as that's all part of making a country like Ukraine part of the West.
But I think if the possibility of Ukraine becoming part of the West, becoming enmeshed in NATO and becoming enmeshed in the E.U. is taken off the table, then it's possible to think about promoting democracy in Ukraine. And -- because you're no longer making it part of the West.
And I think if you had a democracy and a prosperous democracy in Ukraine, it would not be a major problem for Putin, because I think Putin is fully capable of maintaining power in Russia and wouldn't view that as a great threat. So I think that that problem can be dealt with.
What was your other question?
QUESTION: Well, I think, you know, about -- you call it constantly a coup...
MEARSHEIMER: Oh, yes.
QUESTION: ... I think a lot of people disagree with that.
MEARSHEIMER: I think it was a coup. I mean, there was violence in the streets. People were dying. European leaders came in. They worked out an agreement to have an election that would replace Yanukovych, and I believe that the reason he left the country was he feared for his life. And I think that there was good reason for him to fear for his life. He was a democratically elected leader.
QUESTION: Yeah, but he left on his own volition, and the parliament voted -- approved the new government.
MEARSHEIMER: I'm not sure what it means to say he left on his own volition. He left because he was scared for his life.
QUESTION: Well, so what does it mean to be scared for your life? You can easily stay and fight for your country and what you believe is a democracy and your right -- your legitimate position as the president. He just left. I don't think that makes sense.
But in any case, another thing I wanted to ask you is this, though. The E.U. -- you argue that E.U. membership should be taken off the table, but the E.U. has never offered membership and not interested in that at all. I mean, we don't want more expansion. We've had more than enough. We're over our head. An association agreement would be fine.
MEARSHEIMER: Yeah, in the short term. But there is talk on numerous occasions of Ukraine eventually becoming a member of the E.U. and also becoming a member of NATO. I mean, it wasn't going to happen right away, but over the long term, this was held out as a promise for Ukraine.
QUESTION: I don't think there's any evidence to that.
ROSE: Let's keep going. We've got a few more.
QUESTION: OK, next -- I'm done. Thank you.
OPERATOR: Thank you. Our next question comes from Derek Mitchell with Mitchell Report.
QUESTION: Thanks very much, Professor, for doing this. You have on multiple occasions today, when referring to NATO expansion, said -- talked about the distinction between the U.S. and Western point of view and the Russian perspective. And I want to try to get you to expand a little bit on -- on whether it is -- whether what we're talking about is the Russian perspective, per se, or whether it is the Putin perspective. And let me just put it in this context.
It seemed to me that if someone with the ego and the intelligence of a Putin would look at Russia in its current circumstances and say, here is where I'm going to invest my time and energy, to build a 21st century economy, I'm going to try to find ways to, you know, make us a center for technology in the way that the Israelis have done it, I'm going to do everything I can to recreate a great Russia, but to recreate it in the 21st century terms.
Instead, it seems to me, after having made the huge investment in the Olympics, which was a splash on the global stage, he turns around and does something that is guaranteed to be costly to him politically, economically, and in all other ways.
ROSE: And the question is?
QUESTION: And the question is, how -- how does that -- is that a -- is that a Putin way of thinking or is that the Russian way of thinking?
MEARSHEIMER: Well, I would argue that there's hardly any daylight between Putin's thinking and the thinking of most members of the Russian foreign policy elite on this whole issue of Ukraine. And I think what your analysis misses is the fact that geopolitics still matters. You were saying that we're now in the 21st century, and you were implying that in the 21st century that all that matters is economic considerations and technical considerations and making sure that you fit into the world economy and that you continue to prosper. There's no question that that's an important dimension of any state's foreign policy.
But the fact of the matter is that geopolitics still matters. And as I said to one of the questioners before, I think that the reason that the United States and the Western Europeans got themselves into so much trouble on this issue is that they forgot that geopolitics still matters. They forgot the fact that the Russians think very much in geopolitical terms and view NATO expansion and E.U. expansion in exactly those terms. They see what's happening through a geopolitical lens.
So I would say that the argument that politics -- international politics has changed in the 21st century and economics completely dominate security issues is wrong. And, by the way, you brought up the case of the Israelis. Your description of their economic miracle over the past decade or so is correct. But the Israelis don't forget the importance of geopolitics, either. Security and economics matter to them, as they do to most powers in the system, and that's certainly true of the Russians.
OPERATOR: Thank you. Our next question comes from Marianne LeVine with L.A. Times.
QUESTION: Hi, thank you so much for speaking with us today. I just wanted to get your take on whether or not you think the allies will move forward with lethal aid.
MEARSHEIMER: The allies will move forward with what?
QUESTION: With lethal aid. How likely do you think it is that the Obama administration, as well as the allies, will support lethal aid?
MEARSHEIMER: I'm not sure what that means.
QUESTION: I guess, do -- right now, we have non-lethal aid, or I guess aid...
MEARSHEIMER: Oh, lethal. L-e-t-h-a-l?
MEARSHEIMER: Oh, I'm sorry. Lethal aid.
QUESTION: Yes, exactly. I'm sorry about that.
MEARSHEIMER: Sorry, I thought you meant "legal" aid. Lethal aid. It's not clear at this point in time exactly what we're going to do. I think it would be a major mistake to provide the Ukrainians with lethal aid. What we should be doing at this point in time is working with the Ukrainians to end the fighting and then doing everything we can to negotiate some sort of agreement, not only with the Russians, but with the insurgents in eastern Ukraine so that we can maintain the sovereignty of Ukraine and turn it into a buffer state.
If we give lethal aid to the Ukrainians, that's just going to cause the Russians to increase their military involvement in eastern Ukraine. It's going to make the civil war bloodier. And it's going to do more to poison relations between Russia and the West. And this is to nobody's advantage.
So I hope there's no movement to move -- there's no movement to give Ukraine lethal aid.
QUESTION: OK, thank you.
MEARSHEIMER: You're welcome.
OPERATOR: Thank you. Our next question comes from Teresa Abono (ph) with People's World.
QUESTION: Hi, thank you for taking this question and for also expanding your views on the coup, the February 22nd coup. Kind of following up from that, the Russian media has really been emphasizing the role of fascist and extreme right-wing groups in the Ukrainian government. How accurate is this, in your opinion? And how does that play out in terms of the -- you know, Putin's plans, et cetera?
And also, could you expand a little more about how NATO expansion and building democracy, how these two interact with each other?
MEARSHEIMER: OK. I'll take them in reverse order. Building democracy and promoting the Orange Revolution in Ukraine were all designed not simply to make Ukraine democratic, but to bring into power leaders who were pro-Western. And those pro-Western leaders would therefore be well-positioned to help drive Ukraine into the West. In other words, what we wanted were people in charge in Ukraine who were deeply committed to becoming part of the West, and that meant becoming embedded in NATO and becoming embedded in the European Union.
So as we move NATO and the E.U. eastward, and we help facilitate the rise of politicians who are pro-West, you would, in effect, create a situation where Ukraine someday would end up looking like Poland or end up looking like Germany. It would be...
ROSE: Still might. Still might.
MEARSHEIMER: I would not bet a lot of money on that. My argument, of course, is that what the Russians will do is they will continue to wreck the country. I think we got away with it with regard to Poland. And I don't think we're going to get away with it with regard to Ukraine. And I think that continuing to pursue that policy would be a big mistake.
ROSE: OK, we're going to have one last question.
QUESTION: He didn't answer mine.
ROSE: OK, John, you -- you can -- and we'll finish this off and then you can have one more, John.
MEARSHEIMER: OK, I'm sorry. Yes, I think it's quite clear that fascist groups played a key role in the uprising between November 2013 and February 22, 2014. This is well documented. And furthermore, it's clear, when the new government took over after Yanukovych left, that that new government included four individuals who I think could legitimately be called fascists.
And it's very clear that this concerns the Russians greatly. And there's no question this is what scared Yanukovych and played a key role in his leaving the country, in what I call a coup.
ROSE: OK, we'll take one last question.
OPERATOR: Thank you. Our next question comes from Tony Papper (ph) with EIR (ph).
QUESTION: It's great to hear you, Professor Mearsheimer, stick to your guns on this. Look, I want to briefly try to present a broader context and ask you to respond...
ROSE: Unfortunately, at this point, we don't have the time for the broader context. We're at the end of our time. So a quick question is all we have time for.
QUESTION: Well, I'll just begin what I was going to say. We're at the fag-end of the World War I, World War II, Cold War, perpetual war system that began with the dumping of Bismarck. This system is coming to an end. That's what we're looking at. And what we have is a new system rising where you can see most -- in one view, most clearly, when the Brits met with Brazil with all the heads of state of South America toward a new system which resembles what Franklin Roosevelt was planning for the post-World War II system, rather than the perpetual war, Wall Street system, which is what we wound up with.
ROSE: OK. John, so final comment. Are we at the verge of a sort of global police -- you know, a new multipolar...
QUESTION: A new era.
ROSE: A new multipolar era with sort of local policing and regional policing?
QUESTION: The end of war, actually.
MEARSHEIMER: The point I would make is, there's no question that you have new actors on the scene and that the balance of power among various actors has shifted. Russia is declining. Germany is declining. China's rising. So there's been changes of that sort.
But the idea that this is sort of a new era of international politics and the world works in different ways is simply wrong. And I believe that that kind of thinking is what caused this crisis. The fact of the matter is that we still live in a world where realpolitik really matters, and it really matters when you're dealing with great powers.
And if people forget this when we deal with China, we're going to get ourselves into a whole heck of a lot of trouble, just like we've gotten ourselves into a whole lot of trouble with Russia over Ukraine. Power matters. Geopolitics matters. This is not to say that economics doesn't matter, but you want to understand that the world has not changed in fundamental ways as a result of the end of the Cold War.
ROSE: Well, with that, we're going to wrap this one up, but I want to thank John, I want to thank all of you. And, you know, now you know what it's like to be in a seminar at the University of Chicago with Professor Mearsheimer as your professor. Foreign Affairs, the cheapest and (inaudible) around, and we look forward to continuing to discuss this and other topics down the road. Thank all of you.