RD Interview: University of Chicago professor John Mearsheimer talks about the U.S., Russia and China and how relations among them matter for the international order.

John J. Mearsheimer, Professor of Political Science at the University of Chicago, attends the 13th annual meeting of the Valdai International Discussion Club. Photo: RIA

Now that Russia's relations with the West have deteriorated to a new low, it is very important to understand the fundamental problems and actions that led to such a situation. Many blame Russia's revanchism and expansionism, which they view as Russian President Vladimir Putin's attempt to reconstruct the Soviet Union and its former glory. Others accuse the U.S. of a misguided, unilateral approach to world affairs and a desire to impose its values on the entire globe. 

To help clarify what exactly has happened to Russia-West relations, Russia Direct had a chance to interview one of the world's foremost international relations theorists, University of Chicago professor John Mearsheimer, on the sidelines of the Valdai Discussion Club meeting in Sochi.

Russia Direct: You often say that the U.S. has some misconceptions about how international affairs work. Do you think the Russians also have any misconceptions about the international order?

John Mearsheimer: Well, I think that in recent years the Russians have come to understand quite clearly that the West is hostile towards the foreign policies that are coming out of Moscow and I think the Russians are quite correct in their assessment of the situation.

RD: You talked about the potential conflict between Russia and China in the future and that Russia would be better off aligning with the U.S. against China. Do you think Russia is going to change its foreign policy on that?

J.M.: No, Russia is not driving the train here. The U.S. is driving the train. The Americans pushed the Russians into the arms of the Chinese. I believe if Washington had a more positive attitude towards Moscow, then the end result would be that we had good relations between the U.S. and Russia and eventually the Russians would be part of the balancing coalition against China. It’s important to understand that over time, if China continues to rise, the U.S. is going to be deeply committed to containing China and it’s going to need all the help that it can get and it’s going to need the Russians.

What is happening now is we are driving the Russians into the arms of the Chinese. Your question implies that it was the Russians who decided on their own to become an ally of China – that’s not what happened here. It is very important to understand that the U.S. is much more powerful actor on the international stage than Russia. And the Russians tend to have to react to the Americans more than the Americans react to the Russians.

And again, in this particular case, the U.S. pushes Russia towards the Chinese, which I believe is not in American’s national interest. Worldwide, people believe is that it is good for Russia but I think it would be better for Russia if it had close relations with the U.S.

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RD: In case China continues to rise and the U.S. will commit more resources and attention to it, will Europe get less attention from the U.S.? Is it possible that this will pave the way for the improvement of EU-Russia relations?

J.M.: Well, I think there is no question that the U.S. is going to pivot to Asia in a big way. If China continues to rise and if the U.S. pivots to Asia, that means it will pivot away from Europe. So, I think the American commitment to Europe is going to diminish over time, because the U.S. has to deal with China, which is a much greater threat than Europe or Russia. And the end result is that the U.S. is going to have less interest in Europe and the Russians are going to have less troubles with the Americans in Europe because the U.S. is not going to be in Europe in the same way they have been up till now.

RD: Do you believe that the EU is in some sort of conceptual crisis?

J.M.: The EU has a whole set of different problems but they do not have much to do with relations between Russia and the EU or Russia and the U.S. The problems in the EU mainly have to do with the Euro crisis, migration and refugees.

RD: Well, but do you believe that the EU has a future?

J.M.: The EU has a future for sure. The question is what will that future look like: Is it a bright future or is it a bleak future? And if I had to bet at this point of time, I might bet that the future is bleak. I think that Brexit is the hammer blow to the EU. I don’t think there is much hope they are going to fix the EU in any meaningful way. Besides, if you look at public opinion polls across the EU member states, there is just a great deal of dissatisfaction. Indeed, you find that there is more dissatisfaction with the EU in France than there is in Britain and Britain has just voted to exit the EU. So, this is no reason for a good time ahead for the Union.

RD: Do you think that Russia repeats the same mistakes developing its own integration project, the Eurasian Economic Union?

J.M.: It is something completely different. There is nothing that Russia can build that would equal the EU. The European Union is an amazing phenomenon. It is unique in contemporary history.

RD: Many argue that Russia, by pushing its Eurasian Economic Union, intends to restore the Soviet Union in a way. Do you think those claims are legitimate?

J.M.: Russia cannot recreate the USSR or anything that looks like the Soviet Union. Russia has a deep-seated interest in creating institutions that serve its interests and that’s what it is trying to do. But those interests are not the equivalent of the EU and there is no doubt in my mind that Russia is in no position to recreate the Soviet Union or to create a Greater Russia. In fact, Russia’s problems over the long term are to head off decline. The great danger is that Russia might become increasingly weak over time because its economy is in trouble and because It may very well have demographic problems as well.

RD: There is an opinion of Professor Karaganov, that Europe is going to be in decline for the next 10-15 years and after that, when the elites will have been changed, then the EU will come into play again as an influential actor.

J.M.: So, this is a theory that basically says that smart people are the key to success and what we have now are people in charge who are not very smart. What we have to do is to get rid of them and put in power a new generation that is much smarter. However, I do not believe this is the way the world works. I believe that what matters most are the structural forces that are at play here. I don’t think smart people can fix the Euro crisis or can deal with Brexit in a sophisticated way. The fact is that there just powerful forces in play now that make it almost impossible for anyone to solve these problems.

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RD: Recently one precedent happened: Italy opposed the mentioning of new sanctions against Russia in the final document of the recent European Summit in Brussels. Next year, elections in France and Germany are coming and there is a great deal of concern that new political forces will come to power. Or even if the current leaders stay, they will have to consider those rising forces and soften their stance on Russia and to adjust their policies overall. Should we expect such change to happen in the next year or two?

J.M.: I think there is no question that there is a softening inside the EU towards sanctions against Russia. There is definitely a movement inside Western Europe to soften or even to eliminate the sanctions if possible. But the problem is there is no softening in the American position and the Americans will go to great lengths to keep their sanctions on Russia. Furthermore, they will go to great lengths to push the European countries to keep their sanctions. Some might not agree and this will just further exacerbate tensions within the EU, which is not good for the United States.

RD: So, basically again, the U.S. is pushing Europe towards its own decline, towards more tensions within its own ranks.

J.M.: I think that the U.S. is the principal driving force behind the hostile policies towards Russia that now exist. The Europeans are basically doing that because they tend to do what the Americans tell them to do. But the fact is that the Europeans generally have had more sophisticated understanding of Russian concerns than the Americans had. And this was reflected in the Bucharest NATO summit in April 2008. The French, and especially the Germans, fought against NATO expansion into Ukraine and Georgia at that NATO summit. It was the U.S. that was pushing hard for NATO expansion into Georgia and Ukraine. And of course it was that decision after that summit that Ukraine and Georgia would become a part of NATO that has played a key role in precipitating the present Ukraine crisis.

RD: Why do you think, despite all the talk about the need to pivot to Asia both in the U.S. and Russia, they keep prioritizing West-Russia relations so the focal point is still Euro-Atlantic relations?

J.M.: I think there are two things that happened here. First of all, we have not had a major crisis in East Asia between the U.S. and China. In the absence of the crisis, there is no real imperative to pivot quickly to East Asia. If there is a major crisis over the South China Sea any time soon, that will cause the U.S. to accelerate its pivot to Asia.

Second, we have had a major crisis in Eastern Europe, in Ukraine in particular, starting in 2014 and that is what kept the Americans focused on Eastern Europe and on NATO at the expense of the pivot to Asia.

RD: But it is not in the strategic interests of the U.S.?

J.M.: I agree completely. But it is very important to understand that the U.S. did not anticipate the Ukrainian crisis. It was shocked by it. The U.S. expanded NATO in 1999 despite Russia’s protests, it expanded NATO in 2004 despite Russia’s protests, and it thought that it could continue to expand further to the East to include Georgia and Ukraine at some distant point. And when it all blew up in the West’s face in February 2014 the policy-makers in the U.S. and Western Europe were shocked, they just did not anticipate that. So, it is not like they decided purposely to focus on Eastern Europe at the expense of the pivot. It just happened inadvertently.