A Clash of National Interests?

Realism, according to John Mearsheimer, is “a perspective on international politics that states that the basic goal … is to survive.” As a result, states compete to be “the biggest and ‘baddest’ dude on the block.”

A working knowledge of realism can be a key tool to understanding and evaluating international politics and American foreign policy. That’s one of the reasons the Charles Koch Institute invited Professor Mearsheimer to speak at a session during the 2016 International Students for Liberty Conference last month.

The session, titled “A Clash of National Interests? The U.S. and Russia in Eastern Europe,” was a conversation between Mearsheimer, the R. Wendell Harrison Distinguished Service Professor of Political Science and co-director of the Program on International Security Policy at the University of Chicago, and Daniel McCarthy, editor of The American Conservative. Together, they discussed realism and its application to both U.S. and Russian foreign policy, the conflicts and points of agreement between U.S. and Russian national interests, and the situation in Ukraine.

“The United States,” Mearsheimer argues, “very clearly does not pursue a realist foreign policy” today, although it did in the past. The United States achieved hegemony in the Western Hemisphere because “the Founding Fathers and their successors went to enormous lengths to … create a very powerful state … [one] that had no other state that could compete with it in the security realm.” One of the United States’ primary national interests is to maintain its regional hegemony in the Western Hemisphere.

Russia, meanwhile, has its own national interests, which mirror those of the United States. They include a desire to maintain influence over the states that border it for its own security. Understanding Russian national interests can help the United States predict Russian behavior and make better foreign policy choices to improve U.S. safety and security.

According to Mearsheimer, the key question Americans must ask when it comes to evaluating Russia is: How powerful is Russia actually, and is it likely to dominate Europe or Asia in a way that could threaten the United States? Mearsheimer argues that Russia “is a declining great power. … Its population is shrinking, and … it’s effectively a giant gas station.” It also has a very weak power projection capability. In fact, Mearsheimer is perplexed at the current amount of antagonism towards Russia, and he believes that the United States will need to partner with them to solve the crises in Syria and Iran.

The situation in Ukraine is an example of nonrealist interpretations of Russian actions leading to views of the crisis that completely contradict the views a realist would have. Mearsheimer posits that this crisis is largely a result of Russia acting in its own interest in the wake of the past decade of NATO expansion threatening Russian hegemony. “The idea that Ukraine, which is a giant piece of real estate right on their border, was going to become part of an alliance structure that was a mortal enemy of the former Soviet Union—which Russia was a part of from 1945 to 1989—was categorically unacceptable to them.” Mearsheimer argues that the Russians were acting out of fear for their own security rather than a desire for empire, as many nonrealists have claimed.

Realists recognize that there is a difference in the “balance of resolve” of the United States and Russia regarding the status of Ukraine. This has made determining a solution difficult under America’s current nonrealist foreign policy. “The Russians consider Ukraine to be a vital strategic interest. … They’ll fight and die for it.” Therefore, no matter how much pain is inflicted on the Russians through sanctions or other punishments, “they will not scream ‘uncle.’” The solution, Mearsheimer argues, is a truly neutral Ukraine that is “an independent buffer state between NATO and Russia.”

Overall, Mearsheimer laid out a clear vision of why current American foreign policy is flawed and could benefit from a greater application of realism. Realism recognizes that states are self-interested entities that seek self-preservation above all else. Americans should remember that Russia has its own national interests and security concerns driving its foreign policy and that those interests sometimes clash and sometimes coincide with those of the United States.

Discussions with luminaries such as John Mearsheimer are vitally important to the Charles Koch Institute’s goal of fostering a national conversation about what truly is in the United States’ best interest and how those interests can best be secured. The Charles Koch Foundation is also currently accepting proposals for research projects related to this important issue.

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