Two Worlds, Two Playbooks: Why Moscow and Washington Don’t Understand Each Other

In international relations, Washington and Moscow operate according to different playbooks, hence their misunderstanding, which at times leads to diplomatic confrontation, believes John Mearsheimer, a prominent scholar of great power politics from the University of Chicago.

This week, Mearsheimer, a living classic of political realism, attended a discussion at the Valdai Club Conference Hall in Moscow, which brought together scholars, diplomats and journalists.

During the debate, Mearsheimer outlined the ongoing tensions as a conflict between the two perspectives of international relations, the realist and the liberal internationalist, with the latter still dominating in the western world. Liberal interventionism has the upper hand in academic debates in the United States because of the unprecedented might and influence that Washington gained after the end of the Cold war, and with it, the commitment of the US political establishment to global dominance, according to Mearsheimer.

“We wanted to dominate the entire globe,” Mearsheimer said. “The United States was the indispensable nation, which stands taller and sees further.”

According to the Mearsheimer, this position is based on three premises: the country is incredibly rich, incredibly secure and its military force allows it to intervene around the world without alienating society.

This almost unlimited use of military force, leading to local wars every two-three years is foolish, Mearsheimer said. Political realists like him and Stephen Walt from Harvard call for restraint, but so far to no avail. Could Donald Trump’s potential, although not very likely presidency reverse this trend?

“Trump is instinctively opposed to global dominance and wants restraint,” Mearsheimer says. “But we disagree with Trump on all sorts of issues. Trump gives our views his name and people in the foreign policy establishment are opposed to anything he says”.

In fact, leaders do not have much room to maneuver in the US’ context, just like in Russia, he said. Therefore, no serious policy reversal should be expected from either presidential candidate.

Whether the liberal interventionist discourse will continue to dominate in US political circles, paradoxically, depends on China’s ability to continue its rise. If the Chinese economy begins to decline over time, the US will be more powerful, relative to other countries in 2050 than it is now, and will continue to pursue global dominance, strengthening the positions of liberal internationalists, Mearsheimer said. Conversely, if China continues to rise, the United States will be forced to focus on containing China. China is potentially so powerful that the US will have to pay deadly serious attention, he added.

Mearsheimer also reiterated his long-standing point that confrontation between the United States and China is most likely to be the central conflict of the coming decades, although the history of tensions between Washington and Moscow has given rise to fears that the two countries could be engaged in a ‘Cold War 2.0’.

“There is no sense in driving Russia to a close alliance with China,” he said. “My hope is that China continues to rise and the United States will realize that bad relations with Russia is a bad idea.”

Relations between Russia and the US will improve over time, and those between Russia and China will deteriorate, while confrontation between the United States and China is inevitable, Mearsheimer said, noting that this is “the tragedy of great power politics.”

While liberal internationalism remains the dominant school of thought in the United States, Western Europe and countries like Japan and South Korea, political realism has long ago taken hold in Russia and China, according to Mearsheimer.

“As a realist in a liberal internationalist world, you’re a fish out of water. Intellectually, I’m much more at home in China than I am in the United States […] and, by the way, I’m much more at home here in Russia. Culturally, I don’t speak a word in Russian, it’s a foreign culture to me, just like the Chinese culture, but intellectually, most Russians, like most Chinese, speak realpolitik,” Mearsheimer said.

The West continues to underestimate the feeling of insecurity Russia has had since NATO, created during the Cold War to contain Moscow, began to move toward its borders. “Great power is very sensitive about its neighborhood,” something liberal internationalists keep ignoring, he said. In 1999, a weakened Russia did not formally object to the first wave of NATO expansion, but its feeling of being circled grew when former Soviet republics Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania joined the alliance in 2004. NATO’s 2008 statement that Georgia and Ukraine would eventually join the bloc was a “big mistake”. “Russia would not allow this to happen,” Mearsheimer said.

Interestingly, liberal internationalists such as Michael McFaul, the former US ambassador to Russia, genuinely believed that NATO did not expand to contain Russia, Mearsheimer noted. They viewed it as an inexorable advance of western democracy and its institutions, which would someday extend to Russia, provided that it complies with Western Liberal standards. The problem is that Russia sees things another way.

“He [McFaul] is a liberal interventionist. Putin is not,” Mearsheimer said. “Russia operates according to a realist playbook. The United States operates according to a liberal interventionist playbook.”

The key question for the realist paradigm is what the United States’ strategic interests are, Mearsheimer posited. Ukraine and Georgia have no real strategic interest for the US, and the US “should not be giving Article 5 guarantees to anyone.”

“The idea that [Ukraine] can eventually become part of the West […] is disastrous for Ukraine. Telling the Ukrainians that they can become part of the West and making them more pro-Western is only going to antagonize the Russians,” Mearsheimer added.

The countries on Russia’s doorstep are “asking for trouble” if they think they have a ‘right’ to join NATO, Mearsheimer said. “This is not the way international politics works,” he says. “You don’t have ‘rights’. Did the Cubans have a ‘right’ to invite the Soviets to put the missiles on that island in 1963? We didn’t think so. We don’t think countries in the western hemisphere have a right to invite a foreign great power into the western hemisphere. You don’t have ‘rights’ when you’re dealing with the United States of America.”

The current atmosphere of confrontation between Russia and the West may, however, lead to a renaissance of realist thinking, according to Mearsheimer. While liberal interventionists believed that people like him live in “the 19th century world”, to use to John Kerry’s phrase, as a result of the Ukraine crisis and the rise of China, great power politics is back on the table. The years between 1989 and 2014 were “a holiday from realism”, Mearsheimer said, and now that holiday is over. Thinking in terms of great power politics is on the rise throughout the world and this is the kind of debates Mearsheimer, or as he is sometimes called, “Mr. Realism,” said he would expect to hear at the 13th Valdai Club session in Sochi later this month.

Views expressed are of individual Members and Contributors, rather than the Club's, unless explicitly stated otherwise.