Professor John Mearsheimer is the man who predicted the Ukraine crisis. In a new, must-watch video discussion [above] with the American Committee for U.S.-Russia Accord, he explains why the West’s current strategy is so dangerous.
Mearsheimer begins by noting that “what we have here is a war between the United States and Russia”. Wait, isn’t this a war between Ukraine and Russia? Yes it is, insofar as all the combatants are from those two countries (aside from a few mercenaries and foreign volunteers).
But just because there aren’t U.S. troops on the ground, doesn’t mean that country isn’t deeply involved in the conflict – to the extent that one can speak of a ‘proxy war’ between the U.S. and Russia. The argument is laid out in these two articles by the journalist Aaron Maté, who says “the U.S. provoked Putin’s war”.
Returning to John Mearsheimer’s comments, he says the war in Ukraine is “the most dangerous crisis since the Second World War” and is actually “more dangerous than the Cuban crisis” owing to the risk of nuclear escalation. But why is there a genuine risk of nuclear escalation?
The reason is that Putin and many Russians perceive NATO expansion into Ukraine as an “existential threat” to Russia. Many Western commentators dispute that the expansion is such an existential threat. But what they believe is “irrelevant”, says Mearsheimer, because “the only thing that matters is what Putin and his fellow Russians think”.
From Putin’s point of view, therefore, “he cannot lose”. In other words, losing the war is simply not an option. Meanwhile, the U.S. and its NATO allies are banking on a total Russian defeat, up to and including regime change. They have decided, “we have to win”.
And when two nuclear-armed powers each decide that losing is not an option, the risk of nuclear escalation rises considerably. Note: even if the risk of nuclear escalation is only, say, 10%, that’s still a disturbingly high chance of such a catastrophic outcome.
Shouldn’t we be doing what we can to reach a compromise, even if that involves concessions to Russia like recognising Crimea and ruling out NATO membership for Ukraine? Simply waiting for Russia to lose, and hoping there’s no a nuclear war, doesn’t seem like a very good strategy.
Introducing John Mearsheimer near the beginning of the 7 Apr 2022 recording, Katrina vanden Heuvel relays how he:
[has] been receiving some 1,000 emails a day which I think speaks to the interest in, perhaps not agreeing with Professor Mearsheimer but hearing a different point of view, an alternative point of view, a counter to what we hear on our screens and on our computers. It’s very important to have that debate.
I want to say that the group sponsoring this today is the American Committee for East-West Accord. It was launched in the 70s at a time of detente’s strength, parity. My late husband Stephen Cohen relaunched the committee in 2014, a perilous moment in Ukrainian-Russian-U.S. relations, NATO.I think that with a small team, a very important board, we’ve worked against headwinds to fulfill a mandate of at least building dialogue, restraint, realism, different point of view. Again, that alternative point of view which is missing in our media and politics. We believe our work even against the headwinds and the brutality we witness, is more important than ever.
American Committee for East-West Accord members joining Katrina vanden Heuvel in this conversation with Professor Mearsheimer are moderator James Carden, former Ambassador to the Soviet Union (1987-1991) Jack Matlock, Professor Nicolai Petro, and Professor Marlene Laruelle. Professor Petro offered the following assessment of our situation beginning at 36:28*:
I have a few words to say about Tragedy and International Relations theory.
Tragedy in International Relations has certain general characteristics, but each generation must also deal with its own particular tragic demons. I would highlight three of those: the loss of the ability to communicate; the loss of a common legal framework; and the loss of shared values.
The loss of the ability to communicate precludes dialogue. Indeed many politicians and diplomats no longer understand what dialogue means. They think it means indicating what one wants to the other party. But that is what a prison warden does to his inmates. In fact, the logos in dialogos means “to gather together” and is sometimes rendered as “relationship.” The famous opening line of the Gospel according to St. John could thus be read: “In the beginning was the Relationship ...”
The proper objective of dialogue is not a momentary accord, but a profound self-transformation that establishes a new relationship with the Enemy. Classical Greek tragedy is thus, quintessentially, a series of dialogues in which we expose our own tragic flaws to ourselves. This exposure is meant to bring about catharsis—a purging of the soul that restores healthy perspective by removing hatred. Our reluctant willingness to sign technical agreements with other countries, while emphasizing our values disagreements with them, is the exact opposite of dialogue.
Our second tragedy is the loss of a common legal framework. I refer here to the much discussed distinction between an international legal order and a rules based order. The West has, in recent years, worked hard to replace the former with the latter, while breezily suggesting that they are the same. Much of the rest of the world, however, has said they are not, and has suggested that, what the West is really trying to do here is to privatize the international legal order, and to make it serve whatever rules the West finds most beneficial.
Our third tragedy has a rather long and distinguished pedigree. I am referring to the fruits of the poisoned tree of American exceptionalism, which causes many Americans to emphasize the values that divide us from the rest of the world, rather than the many interests that we share. This is what has transformed us from a mere nation state, into an all judging Nation Church, that as Andrew Bacevich has pointed out, unites primarily to worship at the Altar of American Greatness. Since 2003, American officials have consistently chastised Russia for her “breach of values,” but make no mistake—other states are never far behind.
These three tragedies are mutually reinforcing, and they lead to a foreign policy that can be summarized in a single phrase: “There can be no dialogue with the Axis of Evil, except about its terms of surrender to our rules.” If one were to search for historical analogies, I suspect that the world order that we are headed toward will look a lot like the early 17th century, with its efforts to impose the one true faith during the Thirty Years War.
We have been told that Putin is trying to return us to the power politics of the 19th Century. My greatest fear is that is that we may one day look back on that with regret, as an offer we should have taken.
The American Committee for US-Russia Accord (ACURA) is a nonpartisan, tax-exempt educational organization of concerned citizens from different professions — business, academia, government service, science, law, and journalism — who are deeply concerned about the serious decline in relations between the United States and Russia.
ACURA is the successor organization to the Committee for East-West Accord which was founded by the late Professor Stephen F. Cohen in 2015. Steve recognized far earlier than most the danger posed by a return to hostile relations between the world’s leading nuclear powers.
We believe the atmosphere of mutual hostility between the US and Russia does not serve US national security interests, nor does it serve the cause of a more peaceful world. While we believe it is important to recognize that we have serious disagreements with Russia, these should not close the door on dialogue or on the possibility of cooperation on matters of mutual national interest.
Indeed, given the stakes, the need for dialogue and cooperation has never been more urgent. Yet over the past several years we have watched in dismay as agreements covering areas as disparate as arms control, economics, energy, education, science, space, culture have been discarded or endangered.
The primary mission of ACURA is to promote diplomacy, dialogue and cooperation with Russia. Our goal is to stimulate public awareness regarding the dangers of a new Cold War by encouraging open, civilized, informed debate among Americans with different, even opposing, positions, perspectives, and proposals.
ACURA seeks to do this in as many ways as possible, including sponsorship or cosponsorship of events in Washington and across the country—at universities, nongovernmental organizations, and citizen organizations such as Rotary Clubs and World Affairs Councils.
We believe, as Steve did, that the way forward is not through the rhetoric of mutual demonization, but through a sincere effort to undertake the hard work of mutual understanding.It is ACURA’s goal to make a lasting contribution to that work.