“Offensive Realism” Opens the Door to China Conflict

“Why the Ukraine Crisis Is the West’s Fault: The Liberal Delusions That Provoked Putin” is the splendid title of John Mearsheimer’s article in the recent issue of Foreign Affairs. Like Jimmy Carter’s Palestine: Peace Not Apartheid, the title alone, along with the prestige of the author in the firmament of the elite, make the book a potent weapon in the struggle to curb the U.S. Empire – before it permanently curbs us. Mearsheimer is Professor of Political Science at the University of Chicago and co-author with Stephen Walt, Professor and former Dean of Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government, of the widely cited The Israel Lobby and U.S. Foreign Policy. If you wish to convince someone of the foul role played by NATO in Ukraine, this article is a superb primer.

The first two paragraphs give an apt summary of the article’s core thesis; they read in part:

According to the prevailing wisdom in the West, the Ukraine crisis can be blamed almost entirely on Russian aggression. Russian President Vladimir Putin, the argument goes, annexed Crimea out of a long-standing desire to resuscitate the Soviet empire, and he may eventually go after the rest of Ukraine, as well as other countries in eastern Europe…

But this account is wrong: the United States and its European allies share most of the responsibility for the crisis. The taproot of the trouble is NATO enlargement, the central element of a larger strategy to move Ukraine out of Russia’s orbit and integrate it into the West. Since the mid-1990s, Russian leaders have adamantly opposed NATO enlargement, and in recent years, they have made it clear that they would not stand by while their strategically important neighbor turned into a Western bastion. For Putin, the illegal overthrow of Ukraine’s democratically elected and pro-Russian president — which he rightly labeled a “coup” — was the final straw. He responded by taking Crimea, a peninsula he feared would host a NATO naval base, and working to destabilize Ukraine until it abandoned its efforts to join the West.

This view of Mearsheimer’s will not come as news to the readers of DissidentVoice.org, or other honest anti-Empire publications, but they will send a shock wave through the ears of the average NPR listener where Pentagon propaganda is unremitting fare. Mearsheimer does not hide “who started it” in this round of the battle for Ukraine:

The West’s triple package of policies … added fuel to a fire waiting to ignite. The spark came in November 2013, when (Ukraine’s elected president) Yanukovych rejected a major economic deal he had been negotiating with the EU and decided to accept a $15 billion Russian counteroffer instead. That decision gave rise to antigovernment demonstrations that escalated over the following three months….On February 21, the government and the opposition struck a deal that allowed Yanukovych to stay in power until new elections were held. But it immediately fell apart, and Yanukovych fled to Russia the next day. The new government in Kiev was pro-Western and anti-Russian to the core, and it contained four high-ranking members who could legitimately be labeled neofascists…. Although the full extent of U.S. involvement has not yet come to light, it is clear that Washington backed the coup.” (Emphasis, jw)

Mearsheimer also makes clear that Russia has much to fear from the West’s Drang nach Osten:

In September 2013, Carl Gershman [president of the National for Democracy which poured enormous sums into Ukraine for regime change] wrote in The Washington Post, ‘Ukraine’s choice to join Europe will accelerate the demise of the ideology of Russian imperialism that Putin represents.’ He added: ‘Russians, too, face a choice, and Putin may find himself on the losing end not just in the near abroad but within Russia itself.’

Mearsheimer finds the source of the problem in an ideology that took hold in Washington upon its advocacy by the Clintons, an important fact since the frighteningly hawkish Hillary stands on the threshold of the presidency. (It was the Clintons, not Bush Jr. as so many believe, who set post Cold War U.S. foreign policy on a belligerent course as far as Russia went.) Mearsheimer identifies the advocates of the new Clintonian policy as “liberals,” as opposed to realists like himself. He explains their views and goals thus:

The United States was not only the “indispensable nation,” as Secretary of State Madeleine Albright put it; it was also a benign hegemon and thus unlikely to be viewed as a threat in Moscow. The aim, in essence, was to make the entire continent look like western Europe. And so the United States and its allies sought to promote democracy in the countries of eastern Europe…

But here Mearsheimer’s argument is noticeably thin. Was democracy promotion the real goal? If so, then it is hard to understand why the U.S. has ended up allying itself with “neofascists,” as Mearsheimer correctly labels them, in Ukraine. A much more satisfactory explanation is advanced by Jean Bricmont in Humanitarian Imperialism: Using Human Rights to Sell War, where he demonstrates that in the end the democratic or humanitarian rationales for the moves of the U.S. Empire are covers for a more brutal agenda of domination by all means necessary. (Some advocates of humanitarian imperialism may, and no doubt do, believe what they say about their motives, much as the British missionaries did in the British colonies; but that is all the more dangerous since such true believers are notoriously refractory to learning from experience.)

But what about Mearsheimer’s realist rationale, in his case the “offensive realist” version, for reversing policy and leaving Ukraine as a neutral nation lying between NATO and Russia? When one looks more deeply at it, it is not as comforting as might appear at first. As Mearsheimer turns to explaining his rationale for policy toward the Ukraine, and that of other realists, we are quickly confronted with the following jarring declaration: “But most realists opposed expansion, in the belief that a declining great power with an aging population and a one-dimensional economy did not in fact need to be contained.” (Emphasis, jw) In the end it comes down to the same old imperial mindset, the U.S. must not allow any other country to rival it. Mearsheimer’s prescription is in fact very much like Obama’s when he trumpeted his belief in “smart” wars.

It gets worse. Toward the end of his piece, Mearsheimer makes the following point:

Sticking with the current policy would also complicate Western relations with Moscow on other issues. The United States needs Russia’s assistance to withdraw U.S. equipment from Afghanistan through Russian territory, reach a nuclear agreement with Iran, and stabilize the situation in Syria. …The United States will also someday need Russia’s help containing a rising China. Current U.S. policy, however, is only driving Moscow and Beijing closer together.” (Emphasis, jw)

And here again we have the notion that the U.S. must remain the dominant military power (and therefore dominant economic power) on the planet. Thus China definitely will need to be “contained.” That of course will condemn the Chinese to a living standard far below that of the West, as explained here, something the Chinese will certainly not accept. They have been there before under the Qing and the burden of the opium trade, opium wars, compradors and Japanese occupation. They will not go back.

So in the end Mearsheimer, helpful though he is on exposing the West’s lies and culpability for the events in Ukraine, remains well within the bounds of a hegemonic imperialist mentality. We should welcome the assistance he gives in the current moment; and if you have a friend who doubts the criminal actions of the West in Ukraine, have them read Mearsheimer’s tidy little piece. But in the end he is far from conceiving of a multipolar world or a win-win relationship among nations. So long as his philosophy stays away from that, he will be kept around by the imperial elite and allowed access to its journals. But in the end his philosophy, like that of Hillary Clinton or Dick Cheney, is a threat to world peace.

John V. Walsh, @JohnWal97469920, until recently a Professor of Physiology and Neuroscience at the University of Massachusetts Chan Medical School, has written on issues of peace and health care for several independent media. Read other articles by John V..