John Mearsheimer’s lecture on international politics.
International relations sound intangible to many of us: Why do wars start? Why do we trade with certain countries? Are there real allies, or is every country actually against every country? John Mearsheimer, one of the most well-known scholars of the realist school of thought, visited Budapest to give a lecture on his views and the current geopolitical context with Hungary’s role in it. Conference coverage from Hype&Hyper.
Mearsheimer highlighted in the beginning that he focuses on the big picture; he aims to understand the context during his work: What has caused the plight we live in? He was born in 1947 when the world was dominated by two superpowers, the United States and the Soviet Union. The Soviet Union’s collapse overturned this world order, leading to a unipolar world where the US is the sole superpower.
Mearsheimer argues that this unipolar structure is currently being transformed into a new order, upending the status quo. We can distinguish three superpowers now: the strongest is the United States, China is challenging its position from the second place, while Russia is lagging behind. It is clear that Washington considers Beijing as its main rival, but the picture is more complicated than it was during the Cold War. There are now two global superpower conflicts (US-China and US-Russia) instead of one (US-Soviet Union). Today we live in a more dangerous world as there are more opportunities for wars between superpowers.
We need to take a look at Mearsheimer’s views on international relations in order to understand his reasoning in the current context. He bases his global politics theory on five core assumptions:
-The international system is rather anarchic; everyone is against everyone, as no real supranational authority exists;
- all states have some, at least minimal, military strength, but, of course, there are very significant differences between the countries;
- no country can ascertain other states’ intentions: many factors can be measured or analyzed, but nobody can read the mind of other countries’ leaders;
- survival is the primary goal of all states; if a state cannot survive, it cannot fulfill other goals either;
- states tend to be rational actors; they try to maximize their potential and develop strategies.
States are afraid of each other as their leaders cannot read each other’s minds. And in an anarchistic world, no country can expect to be saved by another. So, how can countries survive in this context? They have to be as powerful as possible by maximizing their relative strength. In this setting, states aim to become regional hegemons, dominating their environment. This is exactly what the United States did: Washington pushed the Europeans out of America and became the hegemon in the Western hemisphere. And the US did not tolerate several regional hegemons in the past, such as Germany, Japan, or the Soviet Union.
The US began to see China as a potential regional hegemon in the 1990s. Washington realized that Beijing aims to dominate Asia, and we can admit that the Chinese can hardly be blamed for this objective. But the United States cannot allow this to happen: Washington aims to contain China’s expansion both economically and militarily. Taiwan is an excellent symbol of this global conflict; the US defends it with weapons, which also has an economic aspect due to chip production.
Currently, the Russo-Ukrainian war defines the relationship between Washington and Moscow. Many people argue that Russia is imperialist and claim that Putin’s goal is rebuilding the Soviet Union and bringing Eastern Europe back to Moscow’s sphere of influence. But Mearsheimer believes this is simply a lie as Putin never thought it would be possible, and he never had such plans. Today it is clear that the Russians cannot even occupy Eastern Ukraine; Putin may know beforehand that his army could not annex the whole of Ukraine. But then, what is the rationale behind Russia’s actions? Mearsheimer is convinced that Putin’s goal is to stop Ukraine’s Westernization. Ukraine’s rapprochement with the EU and NATO poses security concerns for Russia. Georgia’s potential NATO accession meant already a massive problem for the Kremlin, leading to the Russo-Georgian War in 2008.
But why is it worth it for the United States? Because Washington sees Moscow as weak. Still, Russia did not halt its expansion plans after 2008 or the 2014 Ukraine crisis. The Kremlin saw that Kyiv had two potential paths for the future: either remaining neutral or becoming a NATO member. And this is unacceptable from Russia’s point of view.
What is Mearsheimer’s opinion on Hungary’s role in this global context? Budapest is more influential in the US-Russia relationship than in the US-China one. Moreover, as Hungary is a relatively small country, it has only limited options. Mearsheimer believes it is appropriate that Hungary is not taking a side clearly as the country is geographically close to Russia. Hungary is a NATO member, but its relationship with Moscow is a critical security factor, so Budapest does not poke the bear. Furthermore, the war’s de-escalation is paramount for Hungary as in the case of an even larger-scale, potentially nuclear war, Hungary would be very exposed to the conflict’s dangers. Another reason for Budapest’s neutral stance is that the country’s energy supply is very dependent on Russia. Lastly, Hungary is ideologically also between the two blocs as Hungarians hold many Western values but also sympathize with Russian voices in some cases.
What can be the outcome of the war? Mearsheimer said there is a high probability of escalation. Putin may start a nuclear war if the West succeeds in reining in Russia and the sanctions hit the Russian economy hard. NATO’s more direct involvement could come at this point as Washington might reply to Moscow by pushing that red button if the Russians decide to use nuclear weapons. Mearsheimer thinks that a potential alternative is reaching a stalemate where the West is also severely affected by an economic decline for many years. Furthermore, stable alliances might be shaken as Hungary and Poland, or France and Germany, disagree on many things regarding the war. Global politics and international relations are much more complex today than 50 years ago. Mearsheimer believes that interesting times will come in this respect.
Of course, Mearsheimer’s opinion represents only one perspective, but we would need more leading scholars to understand the context in a more sophisticated way. Mearsheimer’s lecture was a gap filler as it is rare for such a prominent scholar to visit Central and Eastern Europe and present a possible solution to the war in light of the current geopolitical context.
John Joseph Mearsheimer was born in Brooklyn in 1947. He is an American political scientist who teaches at the University of Chicago. Mearsheimer is best known for his offensive realism theory, which he also outlined in the current lecture. He has published many books, including „The Great Delusion: Liberal Dreams and International Realities.” Mearsheimer was invited to Budapest by the National University of Public Service and the Mathias Corvinus Collegium.