Mearsheimer, NATO Expansion, and the Ukraine War – M Predicts Russia’s Desire to Dominate Ukraine, but also NATO Expanding to Fill a Vacuum

UkraineEveryone seems to have a take on Mearsheimer and Ukraine, so here’s mine: Mearsheimer’s offensive realism predicts Russian’s desire to dominate its borderlands, but ALSO a NATO effort thwart that via expansion. So its awkward that he blames NATO, because playing international politics toughly is what his offensive realist theory would predict NATO to do.

This is a re-post of an article I wrote a few days ago at I should say to start that I find damning Mearsheimer as some kind of Russian operative or stooge is wrong. He’s been predicting this for years, and he’s an academic with a reputation for integrity. He’s a far cry from embarrassing, pro-Putin hacks like Tulsi Gabbard or Glenn Greenwald.

Still, I think Mearsheimer gets Ukraine wrong, because he only looks at it from Russia’s perspective. His theoretical priors – offensive realism – do predict that Russia will try to control its borderlands. But offensive realism ALSO predicts that

1. those borderlands will try to escape Russian domination (which Ukraine is doing now and Eastern Europe did by joining NATO)

2. Russian competitors will try to help those borderlands escape (which NATO did by accepting Eastern European states)

3. Germany/EU/NATO, for which Eastern Europe is also a borderland, will also try to dominate it (which has indeed been the case historically – Germany and Russia have contested to dominate EE)

4. states with a window of opportunity for gain against an opponent (Russia’s post-Cold War weakness) will take it (which NATO and Eastern Europe did by consolidating expansion when Russian was weak)

In other words, Mearsheimer’s own theory does not predict Russian domination of Eastern Europe as a stable equilibrium but instead predicts a dynamic contest between Russia, the states it seeks to dominate (Ukraine included), and Germany/EU/NATO for whom Eastern Europe is also a borderland.

Here’s that essay on

The debate over the causes of the Ukraine War is intense. In the West, there has been much contention over whether the expansion of NATO after the collapse of the Soviet Union provoked the invasion. The most famous proponent of that claim has been John Mearsheimer, University of Chicago professor of international relations. Mearsheimer’s core argument is made here and here, and he has recently re-stated it here and here. Others have made this argument as well (here, here, here). The Russian government has even deployed Mearsheimer’s talks to defend its war.

Please read the rest here.

So What do you think of Open Access Journals? Ever Submit to One?


I get these mailers from Sage and other academic presses a lot asking me to submit to open access journals. I have never done so, because SSCI peer-review is so absolutely central to what we do. But I feel really bad about that actually, because I absolutely detest paywalls.

I am a big supporter of open access. Like most academics, I think, I find it absolutely preposterous that journal publishers charge $30 to get to an article. It goes without saying that most students have limited means and will not pay that (nor should they). Such an ridiculous fee also punishes people in LDCs who don’t get access to JSTOR and the rest.

Barring some strong countervailing reason, like clearly defined national security concerns, knowledge should be open; it is a public good. While academics want to get paid like everyone else, no one joined this profession to get rich. We do it, because we enjoy the life of the mind and want to share ideas with others. I’m sure you’re rolling your eyes right now, but it’s true. Academics would rather win an argument and have you read their work than get paid. And they will willingly drain the fun out of everything to just convince you they’re correct about something. If we get paid along the way for that, that’s great. But most of are not doing this for the money. In fact, that is probably one reason we get no royalties on our articles. We don’t do it for that, and we probably don’t care enough to organize to push for it.

In sum, publishers simultaneously wildly overcharge end users while paying zippo to providers – all while violating a central academic tenet – that knowledge-production is not primarily about money. Yuck. This has to stop.

But we do of course need tenure and promotion, and the SSCI, especially the very top ones, are just about the excusive road to that. You may like blogging and teaching and mentoring, but peer-review is gold. Hence I never submitted to an open access journal. I don’t really like that, but I wonder what the answer is. Does anyone know?

My Website is blocked in China – Hah! I’m flattered


I was just in China for a work thing, when I checked the Duck of Minerva (the IR blog where I also write) for something. Turns out the Duck is screened out by the Great Firewall. Even if you go to Google Search Hong Kong, it’s still blocked.

Wow. Who knew even nerdy IR theory and pop culture references posed a threat to CCP rule? Lame. Even more lame – my own website, which gets way less traffic, is blocked too. For sites as small as mine, that’s almost a complement – hah. If only I had readers similarly interested enough to even bother…

Walter Russell Mead Defends, Badly, the NSF cuts to Political Science


I originally put this on Duck of Minerva, an IR theory blog where I also write. But it’s worth putting here too as the US government shuts down over Tea Party intransigence.

I’ve defended Mead before on this site. I think he is a bright conservative who stands out in a sea of Fox News ideological bleh, like NewsMax or Drudge. He has a far better sense of the importance of religion in many people’s lives than academics do, and he has a good feel for western classical history that adds historical depth to a lot of his blogging. I read him regularly, where I recently stumbled on this defense of the coming NSF cuts in political science. Money quote:

Political scientists should know better: university faculties ultimately depend on taxpayers and their representatives for many of the resources they need for their work. This fact of life is truer than ever when health care and other costs are forcing discretionary spending down. Funding for political science is just another budget line item that needs to be justified. Writing obscure articles for peer-reviewed journals that nobody, not even other people in your discipline, will read is not the best way to do that.

And here’s another thought: making departments in social sciences and other disciplines more welcoming to political conservatives and—horrors!—seriously religious people may help build that bipartisan support without which federal funds will be increasingly hard to get.

Continue reading

Guest Post – Dave Kang: “International Relations Theory and East Asian History”

AHN_HOUSEIt’s always my pleasure to guest-post my good friend Dave Kang. Dave teaches at the University of Southern California, runs their Korean Studies Institute (the pic), and knows way more about the issues of this website than I ever will. So if you aren’t reading his work yet, you should be. Here are some previous guest posts he’s written (one, two, three).

Here is his encouragement that you actually apply international relations theory to East Asia. I can’t agree more. There is far too much superficial think-tank wonkery about East Asia (how many nukes does China have? will Pyongyang test another missile? and so on), and not nearly enough real theory. Dave does that and you should too. So instead of writing yet another essay about the South China Sea, the essays referenced below should be good encouragement to write something richer.

“Thanks to Bob for letting me borrow his website yet again. I have an article “International Relations Theory and East Asian History” that appears in the current issue of the Journal of East Asian Studies, edited by Stephan Haggard. In conjunction with this post, Lynne Rienner will make the article freely available to all for the next 30 days; you can download it here until October 1.

The entire issue is devoted to the international relations of historical East Asia. The special issue features essays by James Anderson, Kirk Larsen, Jiyoung Lee, Seohyun Park, Kenneth Robinson, and Yuan-kang Wang, all exploring different aspects of IR and East Asia in many disparate epochs and areas.

Continue reading

Good Survey of Students of International Relations: Please Complete if Relevant to You

IR majorsDaryl Morini, an IR PhD candidate at the University of Queensland whom I know, has put together an interesting global survey for undergraduate and graduate students of international relations. It looks pretty thorough and might make a pretty interesting student couter-point to the Teaching and Research in International Politics (TRIP) report on scholars’ attitudes. Eventually the goal is an article on our students’ attitudes toward the discipline; here is the full write-up of  the project at e-IR. So far as I know, nothing like this has been done before (please comment if that is incorrect), so this strikes me as the interesting sort of student work we should support. Daryl’s also made an interesting effort to use Twitter as a simulation tool in IR, so I am happy to pitch this survey for him. Please take a look; Daryl may be contacted here.

PS: That pic is dead-on accurate.

Guest Post – Tom Nichols: “Bob Kelly was Wrong (and Right) about the Iraq War”

imagesCAI6BD5TI am happy to invite my friend Tom Nichols to guest-post about the continuing Iraq War debate. Tom responded so substantially to my original post series on the war (one, two, three), that I invited him to provide a longer write-up. Tom is a professor of National Security Affairs at the U.S. Naval War College and an adjunct professor in the Harvard Extension School. His blog can be found here, his twitter here. His opinions of course are his own, so whenever he says I’m wrong, you probably shouldn’t listen… REK

I’ve been reading Bob’s thoughts – cogent as always – on the 10th anniversary of Iraq. I reject Bob’s exploration of the “culpability” of the IR field for providing any kind of intellectual infrastructure for the war, mostly because I don’t think anyone in Washington, then or now, listens to us, and for good reason. Joe Nye long ago lamented that lack of influence elsewhere, and others agree (by “others” I mean “me”). So I won’t rehearse it here.

Bob and I sort of agree that the outcome of the war doesn’t say much about the prescience of at least some of the war’s opponents: there were people whose default position was almost any exercise of U.S. power is likely to be bad, and they don’t get points for being right by accident.

Continue reading

Iraq 10 Years Later (1): How Culpable is Academic International Relations?


I’ve been thinking a lot about the war this month. I’ll be teaching it in the next few weeks at school because of the decade anniversary (March 20). To my mind, it is the most important geopolitical event, for the US, possibly the planet, since the USSR’s collapse. It also pre-occupies me to this day, because I initially supported it, and didn’t really turn against it until 2008/09. I had students who told me, late in the war, that I was the only instructor they knew who still supported the invasion. Finally, I gave in, and accepted the by-then conventional wisdom that the war was a ‘fiasco.’ I will argue in my next post in a few days, that there was in fact an at least minimally defensible argument for the war, but the execution of it was so awful, disorganized, mismanaged, and incompetent, that any moral justification was lost in the sea of blood and torture we unleashed.

The whole episode became just shameful, and regularly teaching and conferencing with non-Americans these last few years has made this so painfully clear. My students particularly are just bewildered to the point of incredulity. Again and again, the basic thought behind the questions is, ‘what the hell happened to you people? 9/11 made you lose your minds there?’ *sigh* (NB: when Asians ask me about guns in the US, the ‘what the hell is wrong with you people?’ bafflement is the same.)

Hence, the post title purposefully implies that the invasion was a bad idea. But to be fair, that should be the first question: what, if any, arguments at this point can be mustered to defend the war? IR should try to answer this seriously, because I’m all but positive that the journalistic debate will be not be driven by the state of Iraq or US foreign policy today, but by the high personal reputational costs faced by so many pundits supportive of the war. It would not surprise me at all if folks like the Kagans, Krauthammer, or Thomas Friedman miraculously found that the war was worth it after all. McNamara-style mea culpas only happen at the end of a career (so I give Sullivan and Fukuyama credit for theirs on Iraq). But academic international relations (IR) should be more honest than that.

Continue reading

5 Biggest Strategic Errors of the Emperor: a Contribution to Spencer Ackerman’s ‘Battle of Hoth’ Debate

You can’t defeat a rebellion with counter-insurgents like these


Technically, I am supposed to be on vacation, but I couldn’t miss this.

An international relations theory website I also write for has gotten into an excellent debate with Wired’s Spencer Ackerman on the Empire’s blown opportunity to stamp out the Space Vietcong Rebellion at Hoth. William Westmoreland spent 5 years trying to nail down the VC in set-piece battles where US firepower could be brought decisively to bear and end the Vietnam war. Here was the Emperor’s similar chance, but Darth Vader and Admiral Ozzel blew it (mostly because the Empire’s officer corps was filled with grandstanding self-promoters, as Ackerman rightly points out).

But as the respondents noted, the larger context does a better job explaining why the Empire’s massive advantages seem to fail repeatedly (Yavin 4, Hoth, Bespin, Endor), beyond just the poor tactical leadership at Hoth. The larger strategic context is counterinsurgency, and obviously the Emperor spent too much time cackling in the Senate to watch The Battle of Algiers. So here are the five big structural problems in the background:

1. Trusting the Bloated, Showboating Navy to do Counterinsurgency

Navies are big, blunt instruments with hugely expensive platforms vulnerable to swarming, as at Yavin and Endor, and only useful for large, ‘target-rich’ enemies. They scream national vanity, and they’re terrible for hunting rebels. Why does the Empire need a massive, and massively expensive, fleet after the Clone Wars? Probably because the army was staffed by clones – genetically-designed to be dull-witted – who couldn’t push their bureaucratic interest, while the navy had lots of fully human, showboating egos like Tarkin’s Death Star council.

Continue reading