John Mearsheimer is best known for developing the theory of offensive realism, which describes the interaction between great powers as being primarily driven by the rational desire to achieve regional hegemony.
John Joseph Mearsheimer is an American political scientist and international relations scholar, who belongs to the realist school of thought. He is the R. Wendell Harrison Distinguished Service Professor at the University of Chicago. He has been described as the most influential realist of his generation.
Mearsheimer is best known for developing the theory of offensive realism, which describes the interaction between great powers as being primarily driven by the rational desire to achieve regional hegemony in an anarchic international system. In accordance with his theory, Mearsheimer believes that China's growing power will likely bring it into conflict with the United States.
Steve, Corey, and John discuss:
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John Mearsheimer - https://www.mearsheimer.com/
The Great Delusion: Liberal Dreams and International Realities - https://www.amazon.com/Great-Delusion-Liberal-International-Realities-ebook/dp/B07H3XRPQS
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Steve Hsu is Professor of Theoretical Physics and Computational Mathematics, Science, and Engineering at Michigan State University. Join him for wide-ranging conversations with leading writers, scientists, technologists, academics, entrepreneurs, investors, and more.
Steve Hsu: Hi, this is Steve. The interview you're about to hear is with John Mearsheimer. Corey Washington and I recorded in 2020, but the recording has been in limbo for about two years because of the situation between myself and the university after I stepped down as vice president for research. The copyright has been released to me now, so I can share the episode with you.
Steve Hsu: The episode is of great historical and analytical interest because in the discussion we talk about great power competition between the United States and China. We also talk about the sphere of influence that Ukraine lies in and whether Russia, whether the United States should allow Russia to dominate that sphere of influence in order to keep Russia from ending up in a tight alliance with China.
Steve Hsu: So, these are obviously issues which are extremely relevant to current events. I hope you enjoy the episode.
Steve Hsu: Corey I'm tickled today to have John Mearsheimer as our guest. Uh, I've been a longtime fan of his work and reader of many of his books and papers. John is the R. Wendell Harrison Distinguished Service Professor at the University of Chicago. He's a leading proponent of the realist school of foreign relations, which posits that interaction between great powers is dominated by irrational desire to achieve hegemony in a world of insecurity and uncertainty regarding other state's intentions.
He's the author of books, such as the “Tragedy of Great Power Politics” and “The Great Delusion: Liberal Dreams and International Realities.” John was a vocal opponent of the Iraq war in 2003. And I guess you and I would agree he was shown to be right in that he was almost alone in opposing Ukraine's decision to give up its nuclear weapons in 1994.
And he anticipated that without some kind of deterrent, they would face Russian aggression in the future. Mearsheimer predicts increasingly intense competition between the U.S. and China, as the ladder continues to grow as a national power. In our discussion, I'd like to return to these last two topics, but first I'd like to explore John's realist perspective in more detail.
So, John, maybe you could just start by describing what is meant by a realist perspective on foreign policy and foreign relations and explain maybe what people who disagree with you would criticize about your worldview.
John Mearsheimer: Okay. Basically, realists believe that states and here we're talking mainly about the great powers in the international system because they really shape international politics.
The argument is that the great powers are principally concerned with the global balance of power. And what they want to do is gain as much power as they possibly can and make sure that their adversaries don't gain power at their expense. So, from a realist point of view, what international politics in its essence is all about, is a competition for power.
Now, I'm what's called a structural realist. I believe that the reason that states compete with each other for power is because the structure or the architecture of the international system does not leave them any choice. Now, you're wondering what I mean by that. The international system is anarchic. That means it has no higher authority in it. It has no political institution that sits above states that can help them if they get into trouble. And when you marry that simple fact with the fact that states can never know the intentions of other states — and that's certainly true with regard to future intentions — states have a very powerful incentive to be as powerful as possible so that they can protect themselves if they get into trouble.
Because again, if you get into trouble, there's no higher authority that can pull your chestnuts out of the fire. You are in an anarchic world, not a hierarchic world. So, the structure of the international system in my story, forces states to compete with each other for power, with the ultimate goal to be the most powerful state in the system, or what we sometimes call the hegemon.
Now, you asked the question, how would my critics respond to that story that I just told you. Most of them would say that what really matters is the makeup of the particular states, or the particular great powers in the system. And they would argue, for example, whether a state is a liberal democracy or not really matters.
And if you have two liberal democracies, they will not compete with each other for power in any meaningful way. And they will certainly never fight with each other. So, it's the makeup of those states that really determines the shape of international politics. For someone like me, who is a structural realist, the makeup of the states doesn't matter at all. Domestic politics doesn't matter. States for me are black boxes and all that really matters is how big those states are.
So, I think that's the fundamental difference between me and not all, but most of my critics
Steve Hsu: Before Cory jumps in, I just want to say one thing for our listeners that you've made the point many times that this kind of theoretical framework is only an approximation. So, there'll always be an exception to any theory in foreign relations. And so, I, Corey is probably about to jump in with some counterexamples for you, but I just want to say that for our listeners before he does that.
Corey Washington: Well, I want to jump in, but not with a counterexample. But my sense is you're overstating the position of your critics. I would say it is well known that critics of realism believed that liberal democracies will not go to war. But the idea they won't compete with each other in a significant sense, I don't think it's part of the storehouse of views of your critics, I would say.
I think they're totally open for economic competition, even political competition, influence abroad. But you're right, there is a hypothesis that liberal democracies don't go to war.
That's my first criticism slash question. The second is whether in fact great powers do maximize their influence. I think some great powers do. The U.S. and China look like they're trying to maximize their power. I don't see the members of the EU doing that so much. They seem much less aggressive in many ways than the U.S. and China. So, I guess I'd like to hear your reaction to those two points.
John Mearsheimer: Okay. First of all, I didn't mean to imply the great powers if their democracies, according to my critics, don't compete economically and politically. They certainly do. Their argument is that they do not compete militarily. In other words, there's no significant security competition between great powers in the liberal story. And of course, there's no war between liberal democracies in that same story. This is not to say that they can't compete economically or compete for influence around the world. So, I was just talking about security competition or military competition.
Steve Hsu: And Corey, I think the EU is a very special case because they're under the U.S. security umbrella. Some would even argue that they are part of an American empire and are still occupied now 50 years or 70 years after the war. So, their military adventurism, you know, is limited by that aspect of reality. Right?
Corey Washington: We're getting into things I'd like to discuss further on, which is the future of nations and so forth.
Steve Hsu: Great. Excellent.
John Mearsheimer: If I can just say, I just want to say a word on Corey's second question. First of all, the EU is not a state.
Corey Washington: Yeah. So, the individual states — it's hard to say one or the other. It's not clear which one your point applies to, right? Does it apply to France, or does it apply to the EU when you say that these liberal institutions, or I'm not sure what you call them, are going to compete? Because it gets, it's sort of blurred in the case of the EU, right? What's our unit of analysis? Is it France? Is it Germany? Is it the EU as a whole? I just want to hear your point applied to that conglomeration.
John Mearsheimer: My point is that it’s states that matter. I am not saying the EU is insignificant and doesn't matter at all, but I'm someone who focuses on states, states of the principal actors in the international system.
And as I emphasized in my initial comments, the focus of real state theories is mainly on great powers. And there is no state in the European Union that is a great power. And I would marry that with Steve's point that the United States basically provides security for the states in Europe. The United States serves as a pacifier. It's a very special situation. But if you were to take the United States out of Europe, right, there was no NATO. Then you'd see security competition among those states in Europe. The reason you don't have that is because we're there.
Steve Hsu: You could even imagine the hypothetical where the Chinese government becomes more democratic, but the people really do want to re-establish China as a global hegemon as the great civilization. And they still might come into military conflict with the United States. So, we'll get to that.
Corey Washington: Yeah, I think this is a question that I'd like to get into, because China's puzzling to me, in some sense. It seems like they don't want to project power as far as the U.S. does. And I want to see, I'm honestly not an expert in this, obviously, but people say China wants regional influence rather than global influence. I mean, the silk road initiative calls that into question, but I eventually want to get to the question of do they want to protect power as far as the U.S. does?
Steve Hsu: Well, we're going to spend a lot of time on that, but let's not, if you don't mind, jump into that just yet. I want to emphasize another component of John's thinking, which I don't know whether you include that in realism or it's a separate assumption, maybe about internal dynamics of countries and agglomerations of countries.
So, this is the question of tribalism and nationalism, which actually already ended our conversation. So, the idea that ethnic and cultural loyalties are not easily overcome and that perhaps some set of thinkers in the last say 20 years have been overconfident in the ability of say the United States to intervene, say in Iraq, and create a liberal democracy and overcome ethnic rivalries, cultural rivalries. I think that's also a thread in your thinking. Now, do you include that as a part of realism or is that a separate thing?
John Mearsheimer: It's separate from realism. Realism is a theory that actually applies to individuals in certain cases. I think if you look at Hobbes' Leviathan where he talks about individuals in the state of nature. I think the story that Hobbes tells about those individuals and the state of nature is essentially the same story that I tell about states operating in anarchy. Anarchy is just another word for the state of nature. And you can substitute individuals for states. Thucydides, who was a great realist, did not write about nation states [and came] well before there was any concept called nationalism. He wrote about city states. So, you don't need nationalism for realism to work.
The fact is however that we live in a world that's populated with nation states. The concept of a nation state is synonymous with nationalism. So those units, those black boxes that we're now talking about in the international system, are nation states. So, nationalism is relevant in that sense. But you don't need nationalism for realism.
But my argument as you guys know is that nationalism is an incredibly powerful ideology. I think it's the most powerful political ideology on the planet. I think most Americans failed to recognize that fact, even though most Americans, the vast majority of Americans are very nationalistic themselves. And my argument is that when you go abroad, slaying monsters, where you invade other countries and try and do social engineering in those countries, you're invariably going to get yourself into a whole heck of a lot of trouble because nationalism is going to cause the country you're occupying to resist your efforts to do that social engineering.
Steve Hsu: I think it's clear now, as we approach what might be the end game in Iraq with perhaps the U.S. eventually even leaving the country with, you know, not much but ashes in our mouths after all of this effort. I wonder whether you think that people who disagree with you, the people who maybe are under the great delusion, which isn't the title of your book, have updated on what has happened in these U.S. foreign adventures and are learning from the actual empirical results.
John Mearsheimer: Yeah, I think the learning took place between the first and second George W. Bush administrations. In the first George W. Bush administration, between 2001 and 2005, we invaded two countries, Iraq and Afghanistan, and both of those enterprises had gone south by the time of George W. Bush's second administration, which ran from 2005 to 2009.
So, what we have done since then, and this is true of the Obama administration as well, is to not invade any more countries, but instead to use air power, as we did in Libya to help overthrow Colonel Qaddafi or use insurgents who we fund and train as we did in Syria. And if you think about a possible war with Iran, we're not talking about invading Iran. What we're going to do in Iran is a drive by shooting. We will use air power to attack Iran.
So, I think we have updated our thinking. And we, this is not me, but you know, most people in the American foreign policy elite have concluded that we still should intervene in everybody's politics. I mean, the American national security elite is filled with people who think that we have a right, we have a responsibility, and we have the capability to run around the world doing massive social engineering. They just don't want to do it with another occupation.
Steve Hsu: But do you think people are ready to take the loss or mark to market what's actually happened in Iraq and Afghanistan? Like, is there yet an open acknowledgement of what has actually transpired there?
John Mearsheimer: Yeah, I think it's almost impossible to deny that both of these escapades have turned into fiascos. I think, you know, you'd lose all credibility if you argued otherwise at this juncture.
Corey Washington: You know, John, I'd argue that in returning to these proxy conflicts, we're just really going back to the past, right? This was the norm for conflicts in the bipolar world, throughout, you know, our low-level conflict with Russia called the Cold War. I mean, Africa, there are many proxy wars there. There are proxy wars in central America. For, I think for a long time Americans were kind of aligned on the idea that you can have conflicts, but you actually don't get yourself in the line of fire. You put other people there. And what was unusual in these decades with the collapse of the Cold War, was that Americans — I mean, in the intervening time after Vietnam — but the Americans started going to war themselves.
I'm just curious. Do you see us returning to something like the proxy war approach, if we do interventions in the future?
John Mearsheimer: Well, I'm not sure I agree with your description of the past. I think if you go back to 1900, when the United States became the dominant power in the Western hemisphere and was really a regional hegemon for the first time, what you see at that point in time is that the United States gets deeply involved in a war in the Philippines. That's our first great overseas adventure that basically fails. And then when I was young, there was the Vietnam war where we effectively deployed, you know, hundreds of thousands of troops to Vietnam. And that of course was a fiasco. And then there was the Iraq and Afghanistan wars. Those are the big four wars of this sword.
Corey Washington: But look at the smaller wars. We were in Angola; we were in central America. We intervened in Chile, we intervened in all these other places, mainly through proxies in the immediate aftermath after Vietnam. So at least in some of these wars, if it's not a huge war that requires a massive amount of firepower, it seems that we've got a long history of just essentially finding someone to support whether we're going to call them freedom fighters in Nicaragua or rebels in other parts of the world. And we have our conflicts there and we don't get blood on our hands. And Americans are much less upset about those conflicts.
John Mearsheimer: I think that's exactly right. The United States has been, since 1900, and it was certainly true during the Cold War, a remarkably interventionist country. And by the way, we have a huge amount of blood on our hands.
Corey Washington: Oh, no doubt. But I mean, in the sense that it’s deniable blood, right?
John Mearsheimer: The blood of other people.
Corey Washington: The blood of other people, yeah. And that makes a huge difference for public response.
John Mearsheimer: Yeah. I think that's exactly right. And this is why there was such a public outcry over Vietnam. I mean, first of all, you had a draft, but second, the number of casualties and number of battle deaths was much greater than in these wars that we now have. Of course, they're fought by a volunteer military, and that has all sorts of consequences.
But your general point that the United States has been intervening all over the world is certainly true. And I would note by the way, we have a rich history of overthrowing democratically elected leaders.
Steve Hsu: So, it's my impression, John, that you've not shied away from viewing the U.S. as an empire. I believe you've referred to it as a rogue state, pointed out that we've fought seven wars since 1989, dropped thousands of bombs, even just in recent years on many countries. But there seems to be a tension here because it doesn't seem like our leaders can be open within our democratic system with their supporters about the true nature of what America is and how it operates abroad.
John Mearsheimer: Well, most of our leaders believe these myths that they tell the American people. Nationalism, by the way, is all about telling myths about your people, right? And the United States is no exception in this regard. And our elites and the vast majority of the American public believe that the United States is an exceptional country. This is this whole notion of American exceptionalism. And when they say that we're an exceptional country, what they mean is that we are morally an exceptional country. We are morally good in the extreme. And if we do something wrongheaded, it's not because we didn't have good intentions, because of course we always have good intentions.
But this story that we tell ourselves bears little resemblance to reality. The United States is one of the most ruthless, great powers that's ever walked the planet. The number of people that we've killed over time is truly remarkable. All you have to do is look at the firebombing of Japan in World War II. Most people focus on the dropping of two nuclear weapons in August of 1945 on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. But the fact is the first night we firebombed Tokyo, we killed more people than we killed in either Hiroshima or Nagasaki, and we were burning Japanese cities to the ground by the time we dropped those two nuclear weapons on those two Japanese cities.
Look at what we did in Germany involving cities like Hamburg and Dresden. And look at the bombing of North Korea during the Korean war. Most people know hardly anything about this. There are some estimates that we killed 20% of the North Korean population. We bombed like crazy in Vietnam.
We have a rich history of overthrowing governments, as we just talked about, and just go back to how the United States was created. It's a story of, you know, conquest on a large scale. We murdered huge numbers of Native Americans, stole their land. What's now the southwest of the United States, we stole from Mexico. I mean, if you really look carefully at American history over time and the various wars we fought, it's not a pretty picture. But this is not what Americans believe. And it's not what our elites believe. And this is why they continue to run around the world doing.
Steve Hsu: It's funny because I almost, if I close my eyes, I could have for a moment there believed you were Howard Zinn talking about the U.S. history.
Corey Washington: I was going to ask exactly this question. A couple of questions along these lines, John. So, I'd like to hear your analysis of how you're similar to and differ from Noam Chomsky and Howard Zinn on these points, because I think they will agree with you that the U.S. is a nation essentially born and bred and survived on blood of other people. But they would disagree with you on the point that at least in the great delusion you argue that many of our interventions are with the goal of spreading liberal democracy.
And these guys do not think that our goals were to spread liberal democracy. Chomsky, in many of his writings, seems to think our goal is to try to make the world safe for corporate America. I'm not sure Zinn articulates that point, but he does emphasize the role of bloodshed and our willingness to shed other people's blood for it.
Corey Washington: So, I'm just curious as to, if you could align your position, your critique in relationship to theirs. And I have a second follow-up about who actually believes that the U.S. is a kind of virtuous actor, because I grew up in a far-left part of the country. I grew up in Amherst, Massachusetts. And our view of the standard version of history was effectively the Howard Zinn version of history, and the Noam Chomsky view of foreign policy. So, there's a segment of America that I think has always been skeptical. And Amherst is a pretty white town, but it's, I think, pretty much accepted when people who are black or brown during those periods and who were politically aware that the U.S. was not acting virtuously and was not a particularly moral country for obvious reasons, right.
But I'd be curious as to your assessment about the fact that it's a complicated country. Many people simply don't buy this line that the U.S. is virtuous. Although they weren't in power, people believe that, you know, the U.S. wasn't virtuous were not running the country. Anyway, two lines of questioning. You in relationship to Howard Zinn and Chomsky, and then different groups in the U.S. and how they view the U.S. quote unquote virtue.
John Mearsheimer: Well, I don't know Howard Zinn's work. I know Chomsky's work reasonably well, not very well. And I think your description of the differences between me and Chomsky is correct that he tells a story about American behavior over time that bears marked resemblance to my story. Or my story bears mark resemblance to his story, in terms of what the United States has done. He makes it clear that the United States has not behaved like a virtuous great power most of the time. And I agree with that. I think your description of what the causal story is in the post-Cold War period is correct. That he sees the United States government is acting on behalf of corporate interests. And I argue that what was going on here is that we were trying to spread liberal democracy all over the planet. A la Francis Fukuyama. So, I agree with you.
With regard to your point about growing up in Amherst and what people in Amherst, Massachusetts thought. I think there are a handful of places in the United States — Amherst being one; Hyde Park, where I live, being another; Cambridge, Massachusetts being another — where there are lots of people who understand that the United States, and here we're talking about foreign policy. We're not talking about domestic policy. People who understand that U.S. foreign policy has been quite ruthless over time.
But if you go to the, you know, the wider audience, i.e., all of the United States, most Americans I think don't buy the argument that the United States has been a ruthless, great power. They believe in American exceptionalism. And this gets back to the issue of nationalism that Steve raised before, almost everybody who writes about nationalism understands that nationalism requires a series of myths about your own nation state. You have to believe that you're the chosen people. You're the city on the hill. And the end result is you end up spinning these tales about your own country, that bear little resemblance to reality. And in the case of the United States, the principal story we tell about foreign policy is that we're the good guys and everybody else who opposes us is the bad guy.
Steve Hsu: I'll just throw in for the, in the interest of cultural diversity, Corey. I will reveal that my parents do believe in America as exceptional — my father is no longer with us — but did believe in or do believe in the U.S. as an exceptional country. And they're both from KMT families that lost the war. Very anticommunist, saw firsthand what happened in the cultural revolution, what happens when crazy leftists take over a country, and felt the United States was doing what it should be doing to defend the world against communism and things like that.
And they also felt that the country accepted them, gave them a life, gave them the ability to raise a family and have a career. And they looked quite different from the main people who established this country. So, they feel America is extremely exceptional and probably would have had a big argument with your parents about the nature of the whole thing.
John Mearsheimer: I want to be very clear. As I make clear, as I argue clearly in the Great Delusion, I'm very thankful that I grew up in liberal democratic America. Right? I think liberal democracy is the best political order on the planet. And I think that growing up in the United States, I consider myself to have been very fortunate. And I understand how your parents thought about living in the United States. What we're talking about here is American foreign policy and how the United States behaves abroad.
But back to domestic politics, I think if you are Black, or you are Chinese in the 19th century, in this country, it's a very different story than the one I tell about growing up as a white boy and a white man in the United States, or your parents tell as Chinese immigrants in the later part of the 20th century. That's just a different world. So, I just want to be clear on that.
Steve Hsu: And I agree with that completely.
Corey Washington: And I would agree, actually, with your point of view too, about domestically. My parents grew up in a particular … it's a little bit complicated, right. You know, my father, likes to say he grew up in [or was] born in apartheid in Mississippi. And he somehow ended up in Amherst, Massachusetts, right in the halcyon days of like any state, right? He's just amazed by this transformation. But a lot of my discussions with him happened in the seventies and eighties, right. Which is just post sixties. And so, they're very much aware of the kind of [unclear]. And there's a lot of discussions around oppression even perhaps more than now.
So, I think there's a sense in which my dad would acknowledge that it's pretty exceptional what's happened to him over the course of his life. And I've had conversations with European friends about this, and there is something remarkable about the U.S. domestically, as far as its ability to integrate different groups together. I had long debates with my European friends about Obama and just, I argued to them that Obama would take 50 years perhaps to happen in Europe if he, what happened in that period. So, there is something unusual about this. This gets me to a discussion I'd like to have with you about what a nation actually is, John.
So, I think there is some, something sort of exceptional about the U.S. in some ways, although it's been massively repressive to minorities and other respects. Just, it's very complicated. And that's what has struck me is that you find these myths on both sides, right? You get myths like the U.S. can do no wrong, and it's a perfectly nice place and has these great ideals. And you get myths like the 1619 project which sort of go to the other extreme. And each side seems to be telling sort of myths to make their own point, whereas no one's terribly focused on the mundane realities of exactly what happened. But John, I think we do kind of agree, there is something unusual about the place domestically.
Steve Hsu: I want to stay on track a little bit more on the sort of foreign relations aspect. So, let's come back and talk about U.S.-China competition. So, I think we're all in agreement that the U.S. can be or has been quite often a very ruthless hegemon in the world and now it's facing what could be a peer competitor perhaps to some extent of its own creation because the rise of China in recent decades really did require quite a lot of trade and cooperation with the United States. John, tell us how you envision the coming decades in the relationship between the U.S. and China?
John Mearsheimer: Well, I have long argued that if China grows economically in a truly impressive way, over many decades, that it would translate that economic might into military might, and it would try to dominate Asia the way the United States dominates the Western hemisphere. And my view is the Chinese would be crazy not to try to become a regional hegemon if they have the raw potential, if they have the economic wherewithal to do that. And I think what you see happening now is that China is getting increasingly powerful economically. It looks like it's going to continue to grow in impressive ways for the foreseeable future. And the end result is that China is going to, number one, try to become by far the most powerful state in Asia and, number two, push the United States out of east Asia. And I think from China's point of view, that makes absolutely good sense.
From America's point of view, that's not a good thing. And we will go to great lengths. Indeed, we are going to great lengths already. This is what the pivot to Asia is all about, to prevent the Chinese from becoming a regional hegemon. And the end result of all this is that you're going to have an intense security competition between the United States and China with a serious possibility of real shooting.
Steve Hsu: Now, in the case of Ukraine, I think some people would argue, some realists might argue that, you know, Ukraine is in the sphere of influence of Russian. We don't want to risk war over Ukraine, let them have Ukraine, let them have a buffer state if they need it. I sense that perhaps the notion here in Asia is that Asia is too important to allow the Chinese, to basically adopt most of it or all of it as their sphere of influence. Is that fair?
John Mearsheimer: Well, Europe historically was more important to the United States than Asia. And allowing any country to establish hegemony in Europe was categorically unacceptable to us, whether it was imperial Germany, Nazi Germany, or the Soviet Union. And we played a key role in all three of those cases and putting those countries on the scrap heap of history, because we do not tolerate peer competitors.
The problem with taking that argument and applying it to Russia and what's happening in Ukraine is it just doesn't work. Russia is a very weak great power. It is a declining great power, and there is no chance it is going to become a regional hegemon in Europe. And if Russia wants to have influence in Ukraine, it doesn't matter to the United States. Who cares? Strategically, it doesn't matter. And by the way, we have demonstrated already that we are not willing to fight and die for Ukraine because it is not strategically important. And because Russia is not a serious threat to dominate all of Europe.
China is a completely different situation. This is a great power that is on the rise that has a lot of people and looks like it's going to have a lot of wealth. And they show a lot of interest in becoming a regional hegemon. And that's why we are now focusing on Asia as the most important area in the world for the first time in our history. In recent years, we focused mainly on Europe. Europe was the center of the universe for us. Because that's where the most dangerous great powers were. Nazi Germany was a much greater danger than Imperial Japan. So, we focused on Europe. The Soviet Union was much more of a European power than an Asian power. So, we focused on Europe. That world has gone away. There is no country in Europe that is a possible regional hegemon. And there is one possible regional hegemon on the planet. It is in Asia, and it's called China. And you can rest assured that Uncle Sam will put its gun sites on that country because the United States does not tolerate peer competitors.
Corey Washington: Is Russia even a great power anymore? You know, The Economist had a headline about a year or so ago. They called it a hollow superpower. I just don't sense it's a, I mean, we allow it to exercise power. It's got nuclear weapons. There's no doubt, but economically, you know, it’s a fairly weak player in the world.
Steve Hsu: In real, in sort of exchange rate GDP, it's like the size of Italy. In terms of PPP GDP, it's more like Germany actually. But it's still militarily quite strong.
Corey Washington: Yeah. I guess their time's running out.
Steve Hsu: I think the other thing I emphasize with you Corey, when we discuss this, is that the main issue for the U.S. is the alignment between Russia and China. Because if China and Russia do align and you, you can make arguments, whether or not that's plausible, they provide natural resources, energy to China, also military technology. The two combined are very difficult for us to assail, the United States to assail, because they're both nuclear powers and, you know, that combined economy is quite …
Corey Washington: You could argue the same thing would happen if the U.S. combined with Europe also, which seems to be equally plausible.
Steve Hsu: Well, the U.S. is pretty — I should let John jump in here — but the U.S. is pretty self-sufficient in terms of natural resources.
Corey Washington: I know. But as far as sort of regional reach, et cetera, et cetera, building a bloc, of that union. I mean, they both struck me as a little far-fetched hypotheses, but I’d like to hear John's response to that possible future.
John Mearsheimer: I would just say, Corey, you don't want to talk about Europe as if Europe was a country, right? Because Europe is not a country. There are particular countries in Europe and there are no great powers in Europe.
Corey Washington: Yeah, I'm just thinking if we're going to go as far as talking about Russia united with China, I'm willing to pull back a little bit and see a future where Europe becomes more united and perhaps has a closer one.
John Mearsheimer: Well, why would Europe become more united? If Russia is focusing on China, the Russian threat to Europe is even less than it is today.
Corey Washington: So, here's what I think. And this partly comes back to something in your book. You've got a notion of nation, your book, which I don't want to get into definitions, but as best I can tell nation is simply the current maximal size unit. It's not based on ethnicity. It's not based on anything clear to me but seems like whatever you get is the maximum unit given time that qualifies as a nation. It seems like nations have been, think units, have been growing larger and larger. And we now have things we call nations. I would say that you go 100 years in the future, seven years in the future, and big like cooperation just may be better.
And so, you may get pushed towards a place where European individual European states feel that in order to survive and compete against this world that has the U.S. and aggressive China, they've got to get bigger and stronger. And that's a possibility in which you may get something like a more unified Europe than you do right now. And that's a potential future where you can have some kind of decision across these individual national borders to make stronger alliances with the U.S. That's the picture I'm envisioning.
John Mearsheimer: Yeah. I have a different view there. I think Europe's actually going in the opposite direction and you're getting more fragmentation.
Corey Washington: In the short term. In the short term. The question is when as China gets stronger and stronger, will Europe wake up and say, we can't afford this fragmentation? As you're arguing in the past, fragmentation led to bad things for small actors. And this led to effectively the creation of the nation state. The question is why has that process stopped?
Why won't they say, small is not helping me? No, let's say, as with corporations, get larger.
John Mearsheimer: Because China's not a threat to Europe.
Corey Washington: Not yet.
John Mearsheimer: Right? It's not going to be.
Corey Washington: Economically?
John Mearsheimer: But again, this is not economics that drives integration. It's security competition, or to be a real threat and cause integration in Europe, it's going to have to be a military threat, right? That's how you got the EU to begin with. The EU was mainly an effort to put Europe together. So, it could deal with the Soviet threat, right.
The fact is that if we're talking about China, the United States and Russia as the three great powers, the competition among those three great powers is going to be in Asia. It's not going to be in Europe. The Western Europeans are going to be on the sidelines.
Corey Washington: So again, you don't focus a lot on economics in your book, The Great Delusion, but I think it's in the background. But I think there's a question of, you know, China has had an enormous effect on the U.S. without being a military actor. It has an enormous effect on the U.S. economically. Many people argue they've hollowed out the U.S. middle class economically and are doing much the same thing to Europe, you could argue. So, the question is how are Europeans going to react to this over time by trying to get stronger and stronger. It may not be a military threat.
And the question is, will the economic pressure us Europeans to be in, to think in other terms, not the basis of military power, but on the basis of purely closer integration of their economies, which will lead to a sense in erosion of the nation states, because they need to get larger economically to essentially be able to fight a kind of closed economic war against China. That's the picture I'm going with.
John Mearsheimer: Let's assume that you're right. Okay. All you're going to get is a bigger nation state. It's not like France and Germany may no longer exist, but you're now going to have a United States of Europe. The fact is that you have to have a state, you have to have some sort of political system. You can't have a corporation because a corporation is not a political entity.
Corey Washington: No, I was using the only analogy of corporations saying corporations have gotten bigger and bigger over time. So, I agree. You'd have a bigger nation state at which point you have an actor, right? You now have an economic and political actor in a more unified Europe.
People might look back and see this early EU as something like the U.S. weak federation that kind of fell apart for a while. You've got the U.S. and you've got China, and these may be the actors going forward. I think Russia may allow China, but I'm not, I'm not as sanguine about that as Steve, but that's a possible future I see as quite plausible that you've got these three actors that become more unified.
Steve Hsu: Just to clarify, I'm not asserting that Russia will align with China. It's in the U.S. interest to peel Russia off from China, but it's doing, especially the Democrats, doing everything in their power to push Russia and China together right now, which is terrible for U.S. interests. But I'm not predicting that's going to happen.
John Mearsheimer: That's a result of the Ukraine crisis, right? As a result of the Ukraine crisis, we've effectively driven the Russians into the arms of the Chinese.
Steve Hsu: Right.
Corey Washington: Yeah. I'm not sure what the long-term effects of that are.
Steve Hsu: But just to your worldview, I want to just check it with John. So, we're talking about a China that doesn't necessarily have extra territorial ambitions, right? I think the Chinese planners would be happy if they can secure their energy supplies and they can secure trading relationships with external markets. If that's true, they can develop to the point where, as John would say, they become a very big South Korea and maybe their total GDP becomes twice as large as the U.S. GDP.
Steve Hsu: And that point there, they're not assailable, they have nuclear weapons, they have high technology. But where they are, I think, vulnerable right now is energy supplies and access to external markets. So those are the main things I think that if you're a Chinese planner you want to secure.
Corey Washington: I agree with that.
John Mearsheimer: But what do you mean when you say they don't have territorial goals? They want Taiwan back. They want to turn the south China sea into a giant Chinese lake. They want what the Japanese called the Senkaku, and they call the Diaoyu Islands, in the east China sea. They have a border dispute with India where they want to take territory that the Indians believe is theirs. I'm not saying it does belong to the Indians. And furthermore, they'll tell you behind closed doors — and there's lots of evidence of this now — that they're going to build a blue water Navy that can project power into the Persian Gulf. They now get roughly 25% of their oil from the Gulf. That number is going to go up substantially in the future, and they want to be able to have a Navy that secures those sea lines of communication, from the Gulf to the eastern coast of China.
So, this is a country with a big appetite and wants to project its power all over the planet. Just think of Belt and Road. This is not a country that's just satisfied with maintaining the status quo.
Steve Hsu: I mean, I think obviously they have a number of disputes, which for example, could go on non-linear and lead to shooting wars. For example, Taiwan. But in terms of the ambition to dominate or take control, military or political control, of neighboring countries, large neighboring countries. Which, you know, for example in World War II, the Germans for example, were actually trying to conquer Europe, right? That kind of situation I don't think is in the plans for a country like China.
John Mearsheimer: You don't have to do that. You could follow the American model. The United States is a hegemon in the western hemisphere. But we don't occupy Canada or occupy Mexico or any other place, you know, in the hemisphere. So, you just have to make sure that you are by far the most powerful state and that you basically call the shots on the security front. And that you don't have a distant, great power in your backyard. This is what we call the Monroe doctrine.
But what the Chinese want to do is they want to solve those territorial disputes that I just described. They want to make sure that they're much more powerful than Japan, India, and Russia, and any other countries on their borders. And they want to push the Americans out, first, beyond the first island chain and then beyond the second island chain. And if I were the national security advisor in Beijing, these would be my goals. But I'm not the national security advisor in Beijing. I'm an American and as an American, I don't want to let them accomplish those goals because I don't want to see China become a regional hegemon.
Steve Hsu: Right. I think I agree with that description. I was reacting mainly to Corey's point that Europe might eventually feel threatened by China. And then that would drive some level of political integration or military integration within Europe. And I see that as somewhat far off.
Corey Washington: I'm not saying threatened militarily again. I think they're threatened economically.
Steve Hsu: Economically, they may have to react.
Corey Washington: And I would argue the economics drives … I mean, I'm not fully in the Chomsky camp but the economics drives a lot of what countries are going to be doing. And ultimately military viability is going to depend upon economic viability.
Steve Hsu: Yeah. I think the tricky aspect of that, which is more sort of internal to these polities rather than being a foreign policy issue is that the elite’s interests and the working-class interests are quite different. So, if the Chinese can co-opt the elites, the economic elites saying, hey, great opportunities run your hedge fund in Beijing. Open an office in Shanghai. You know, maybe the working class will get screwed in, in this whole trend. I mean that you could argue that's what's happened in the United States.
Corey Washington: These countries are non-democratic, and the working class can't vote.
Steve Hsu: The U.S. is, other than Trump, right. Basically, the development of China you could argue has come at the expense of working classes.
Corey Washington: I think Trump has had one very probably lasting effect on U.S. politics, which is almost everyone who's running for office is not naive about China anymore. And I think even among people pretty far left, they'll like put their hand in front of their face and say, I kind of agree with what Trump's doing about China.
So, that kind of nationalism, I think, has really been a game-changer in the U.S. and I think I'd be surprised if the small towns in France that no longer have factories, aren't going to be responding.
Steve Hsu: So, the question is can a European unification project be driven primarily due to economic fear of China? That that's the question. I don't find that plausible, but let's hear what John has to say.
John Mearsheimer: No, I think I've made it clear. I don't believe that's going to happen. And I believe if you look at what's happening to Europe, it's fragmenting. And I think the situation's only going to get worse with time.
Europe is in deep trouble. And the principal reason, I believe, is demographic. They just don't make babies in large numbers in Europe anymore. This is going to have huge consequences over time. You look at what's going on in Italy, demographically, Bulgaria, truly stunning, Romania, Poland.
Corey Washington: They've got to get over that. There's no doubt about it. Japan has exactly the same problem. South Korea has the same problem.
Steve Hsu: All of east, all of developed east Asia has the same demographic problem.
Corey Washington: All developed world, pretty much has that problem. They're not producing enough.
John Mearsheimer: That may be true, but it doesn't contradict my point that there's big trouble coming in Europe.
Corey Washington: So, the question is, will, you know, remember listen to a Japanese demographer years ago and he's like, he's a very kind of hands off. He's like, well, it'd be something after the Japanese, it'll just pass.
Steve Hsu: If you've actually lived in east Asia, you realize just how densely populated it is. And so of course there are transient effects where, okay, you have trouble funding your pension plan or something, but generally a lot of these countries would be better off with lower population density in the long run. So that's why it's not so frightening, I think, to a lot of them.
Corey Washington: The question is whether these trends are going to be how long they go on. They've got to turn around eventually. And so, I'm not sure that the demographics is going to be destiny, you know, going into the distant future. People start having babies when they drop below a level, which they think they can function as a country.
Steve Hsu: Yep.
Corey Washington: So, this is sort of out of place, but I do think this is critical. This is something that most people read in the book, at least it jumped out at me, right. I couldn't tell what happened at the end of the [Cold War]. There's apparently some theory before the end of the Cold War and there's liberal democracy afterwards, but it wasn't clear for me from your book, what the theory was that got dropped at the end of the Cold War that was driving our interventions beforehand.
John Mearsheimer: Okay. I'll lay out the story for you. My basic argument is that in a bipolar world or a multipolar world where the United States is one of the great powers in the system, it has to behave in realist fashion. It has to be concerned about the balance of power. It has to be concerned about what its power situation looks like relative to the other great powers in the system. That's in a bipolar world or a multipolar world.
When the Cold War ends, we move into a unipolar world. And by definition, there's only one great power in the system. And that one great power is the United States. And it no longer has to worry about other great powers and how much power it has relative to those other states, because it's the only great power in the system. And in that situation, real politic kind of behavior is largely irrelevant and you're free to pursue an ideological foreign policy. And the United States being a liberal democracy pursued a policy, which I and many others call liberal hegemony. The goal was to spread liberal democracy all over the planet and create a world filled with liberal democracies. That was not our goal during the Cold War, which was a bipolar world where we were mainly concerned with competing with the Soviet Union. And indeed, in that world, we overthrew lots of democracies if we didn't like their politics. So that's the fundamental change that takes place between the bipolar world and the unipolar world.
Corey Washington: But in your book, you do quote people pre-end of the Cold War as espousing liberal democracy as a reason to intervene in Vietnam and other places. So, it's not like there's a categorical change. There are people in the administrations during the Cold War espousing similar views to what you think change was after.
So, it's, it's just the whole situation strikes me as a little more complicated. It's not quite how to characterize it, but there is the strain of people arguing for liberal interventions beforehand. Some interventions are perhaps driven by real politic also. And maybe became purer afterwards when the real politic dropped out. Is that a fair characterization?
John Mearsheimer: Yes, but I'm not interested in what people are arguing. I'm interested in what they're doing.
Corey Washington: So, you think the interventions prior to the Cold War were uniform with the real politic?
John Mearsheimer: Yes.
Steve Hsu: I think it's pretty clear. We had a brief, hyper power experience where we didn't have any peer competitors, and then we could indulge in these ideologically driven actions. And now we're kind of, we're not in that mode anymore.
Corey Washington: Yeah, I guess it's not, it's not clear to me that it's all or nothing. I guess I see some intervention beforehand being driven by what Chomsky sees as corporate interests, some being driven, somewhat ideologically. And then there definitely is a purification, I'd say. Increasing purification after the end of the Cold War towards more interventions based on liberal democracy. But I guess they don't see it as a phase shift fundamentally.
Steve Hsu: Maybe we can just close with you telling us in this U.S.-China competition which is likely to happen in Asia: the U.S. is going to want to form a coalition and force countries to choose sides, pro U.S. or pro-China. How do you see that playing out for particular countries like, for example, Australia or India, Indonesia, Japan?
John Mearsheimer: Well, I think there's no question, the United States is going to try to put together a balancing coalition against China in Asia, much the way put together a balancing coalition in Europe and in Asia against the Soviet Union during the Cold War. And the Chinese of course, are going to try and win as many allies as they can on their borders. I think that the countries that will ally with the United States include Japan, South Korea, the Philippines, Vietnam, Singapore, Australia, India. And the big question marks are countries like Myanmar, Pakistan, and especially Russia.
I think it looks like the Pakistanis will be with the Chinese. Pakistan and China always had close relations. And if we're allied with India, it's hard to imagine us being able to form an alliance with Pakistan at the same time. So, I think Pakistan will be with the Chinese. I think Myanmar will, in all likelihood, be with the Chinese. You see the Americans and the Chinese now competing for Myanmar's allegiance. Other countries that I think will be with China are North Korea, Laos, Cambodia. So, you'll have this balancing coalition that the United States dominates and then China will have a handful of allies on its periphery. And it'll look a lot like the Cold War. It won't be complete overlap by any means, but you'll have a pretty clear-cut alliance structure, in my opinion.
Steve Hsu: Do you think that whether or not Russia and China align closely depends on how the U.S. plays the game or are there structural factors that will really determine that?
John Mearsheimer: My argument is that the United States has foolishly pushed Russia into the arms of China as a result of the Ukraine crisis. I believe if China continues to grow more powerful, it will become a threat to Russia. It will become a greater threat to the United States and that will push the United States and Russia together.
You want to remember in the 1930s, the United States and the Soviet Union had remarkably hostile relations. And what drove the United States and the Soviet Union together during World War II and turned them into close allies was the rise of Nazi Germany and Nazi Germany's military successes in Europe. So, my view is that if China continues to grow economically in impressive ways and translate that economic might into military might, and the Belt and Road turns out to be really successful, especially in places like central Asia, that'll drive the Russians towards us, and the Russians and the Americans will become allies.
There is a third possibility by the way, that's worth mentioning. And that is not that Russia becomes an ally of China or Russia becomes an ally of the United States, but instead Russia sits on the sidelines. One could argue that the smartest strategy from Russia's point of view is to let the United States and China clash, let them engage in an intense security competition and just stay out of it. So that's a third option and one might argue that's the smartest option from the Russian point of view. But at this juncture, what we've done is foolishly pushed the Russians into the arms of the Chinese.
Corey Washington: The long-term growth prospect we talked about with Russia just seems so dim that I think that last possibility seems highly plausible because I just don't see them having the economic power to keep a strong military that allows them to really play in this game. And they're going to be aware of that unless they really diversify their economy.
John Mearsheimer: Yes, and there's no evidence they're diversifying their economy and that's why the long-term prospects for Russia are quite dim. And this is why China is really the only meaningful competitor to the United States.
Fact is if the Chinese economy stops growing in an impressive way, and let's just say the Chinese economy basically flat lines and the United States continues to grow economically, we'll be more powerful in 2050 relative to the rest of the world than we are today. And that's due in large part to the fact that we're an immigrant society. We bring in people from all around the world and turn them into Americans. And that means that we're not going to have the demographic problems that China's going to have, and Russia's going to have, and Germany is going to have, and Japan is going to have, and South Korea is going to have. The United States is a very different case, again, because of immigration. That means we're going to continue to grow economically.
And what happens with China is something of an open question. In most of our discussion here, we're assuming that China will continue to grow. But there are a lot of people, including people in China, who do not think that's going to happen. They think that the Chinese economy has all sorts of structural problems that are going to catch up with it. And Chinese economic growth is going to slow down in serious ways. From an American point of view, I hope that happens. I don't know whether it will happen, but if it does happen, again, the United States will be very, very powerful in the year 2050 relative to everybody else.
I often say to people, if you look at who our three principal competitors were in the 20th century, this is the United States, of course. Our three principal competitors were Russia slash the Soviet Union, Germany, and Japan. All three of those countries are depopulating. All three of those countries face a bleak future because in my opinion of the population. The United States on the other hand is going to grow bigger and bigger in terms of population. Its economy is going to remain vibrant. And therefore, the power gap between the United States and its three principal competitors from the 20th century will only grow over time. And again, this brings us back to the basic point that there's only one country on the planet that can give the United States a run for its money. And that's China.
Steve Hsu: I think the one key variable in that demographic story is whether the U.S. successfully achieves a kind of more high skill immigration. So, you know, you don't want to have your immigration entirely made up of people who are lowering the GDP per capita of your country. You want really high skill immigration, which we're successful at partially, but I'm not sure we're in the right place as far as the balance goes.
John Mearsheimer: I actually disagree with that. I think that most of the relatives of Americans who came across the Atlantic Ocean or the Pacific Ocean, didn't have great skills. They didn't have two nickels to rub together. They came to the United States, they were highly ambitious, they worked hard, they went to school, they got educated, and they became very successful. I think you can make a very powerful case for bringing in people who don't have two nickels to rub together and educating them and letting them succeed.
And the idea that you have to bring in highly skilled people. I have nothing against highly skilled people. But I'm in favor of bringing in all sorts of kinds of people and just giving them the opportunity to succeed. I like people who are hungry, I like people who want to make it in America. So, I wouldn't discriminate in favor of highly skilled people.
Steve Hsu: Well, it's certainly true that was successful for us in the past. I think the issue now is that I don't know that we're doing such a good job now of bringing second generation, third generation immigrants up to the level that we need. So, if you look at what's happening in California public schools, and you look at, say, what fraction of kids graduate [who are] able to do algebra one or something. The numbers are really shocking. So somehow, we've got to do a better job with immigration. Not necessarily with selection of immigration, but maybe just handling, you know, how those immigrants are educated and, you know, the skills are developed in the next generation.
John Mearsheimer: Yeah, of course it's not only immigrants that we're failing within our schools. I live here in Chicago and the Chicago public schools are in many ways a disaster zone and it's not, you know, it's not that they're not educating immigrants. It's just the school system. Not very good. So, I think we need to fix the public schools in this country. But that's not my area of expertise, of course.
Steve Hsu: So, John, thanks a lot. It's been a fantastic having you on the show and we hope to do it again sometime in the future.
John Mearsheimer: My pleasure, Steve. And Corey.
Corey Washington: Thanks, John.
John Mearsheimer: You're welcome.