John Gray: Why I disagree with John Mearsheimer
States are not always rational actors
The English philosopher John Gray has stated that he disagrees with the American political scientist John Mearsheimer’s brand of realism. Gray said that while he “had sympathy” for the realists, he felt that the school of thought to which Mearsheimer belongs places too much emphasis on states acting rationally.
“There may be something in that narrative, but it’s only a part and maybe not the main part now of what’s driving Putin,” Gray told Freddie Sayers on UnHerdTV. “What’s driving him is an almost semi-mystical vision of the Russian realm, which would include not just Ukraine but parts of the Baltic states, parts of Central Asia, maybe even some of Poland to be part of a vast, semi-mystical thing inherited from Tsarist Russia”.
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Mearsheimer is an International Relations professor at the University of Chicago whose profile rose this year in conjunction with the Russian invasion of Ukraine. He has maintained that NATO expansion bears responsibility for Russia’s invasion and fears that the West’s military support for Ukraine risks an all-out nuclear conflict.
Gray argues that the “error of Mearsheimer and others” is to “simplify Putin’s behaviour” as purely a reaction against the West. The philosopher noted that states do not act like “rational economic agents in market theory”, but are also moved by “history, emotion and myth”. He referred to Xi Jinping as an example, suggesting that “earlier privations” in his life taught him that for China to flourish, it would need to be a “strong, authoritarian state”. Full comments below:
Freddie Sayers: So what is our role or the West’s role in having made this situation worse? Because you’ve been someone who has really been quite robust about the Ukraine project or repelling the barbarism, as you call it. But it sounds like you accept that it’s potentially a bit more complicated than that. You’re not with Mearsheimer, you’re not a self-described realist?
John Gray: I have sympathy for realists but it would be someone more like Morgenthau actually… There are different strands of realist thought; there is a strand which interprets the actions of states as a kind of calculation of material interests or other kinds of interests, modelled basically on economics, which has a rational choice theory at the back of it. So if Putin does what he did do, they say, ‘well, he must have had reasons for that. And the reasons must have been…’ and then they blame the West. They say, ‘the West broke tacit promises over Ukraine. It crept up too much to Ukraine’s borders.’
There may be something in that narrative, but it’s only a part and maybe not the main part now of what’s driving Putin. And what’s driving him is an almost semi-mystical vision of the Russian realm, which would include not just Ukraine but parts of the Baltic states, parts of Central Asia and maybe even some of Poland. It would be a kind of vast, semi-mystical thing inherited from Tsarist Russia that he wants to restore.
I think the error of Mearsheimer and others is to simplify Putin’s behaviour by seeing it as a reaction against the West; that all would have been well if the West hadn’t… But there’s a deeper flaw in it, which is that the conception of rationality that the realists work with, which is that of states being something like rational economic agents in market theory, isn’t the way states really react. States are moved by history, emotion, and myth, which are very powerful in the history of a long period.
I mean, for example, the case of Xi Jinping. Little is known about his earlier life, but it looks as if he responded to his earlier family privations in the Cultural Revolution by saying, ‘Well, what we’ve got to avoid at all points is a sort of sliding into anarchy in China, because once that happened before, we’ve had warring states and China has been weak. What we need is a very strong authoritarian kind of state in China.’
To watch the full interview with John Gray, click here. For the first part of the interview, click here.
John Mearsheimer was contacted for comment.
A sensible viewpoint. There is a consistency in Putin’s utterances and actions that makes it likely he is rational rather than mad. His vision on restoring Russia’s greatness is documented back to the nineties. His enjoyment at winding people up with threats is well documented. As is his vanity. And his willingness to change tack when he faces obstacles. And his indifference to the fate of individuals.
Whilst probably rational it will be in the context of his objectives and his view of his capabilities.
It is a complex puzzle to solve if the West is to help in a resolution in Ukraine.
Biden and Boris have prevented every chance of meeting and resolving this. Everyone in the fight wanted to stop it at the beginning – but Biden/Boris prevented it. And why not – it is not Biden and Boris who are involved in being slaughtered, their nations flattened, their econoimy destroyed, the global starvation this will set off will not hurt them. The innocents are destrroyed – the evil people people driving this and profiting off it are having a great time.
The West is not going to help a resolution – they could have done it in the first week. They want this destruction for some twisted reason. USA has spent about $80Billion they can NOT afford – UK less – to pour gas on this fire -. The west is doing this, not resolving it. (And who is going to pay for the rebuilding?)
The west wanted this war becasue they thought it was better than handing Ukraine over to Putin’s Russia as a gift, and thus whetting Russia’s appetite for further gains. The Ukrainians could have chosen to deal with Putin, but they also preferred war to surrender.
Getting into Putins’s (and Xi’s) head and finding some “mystical” ideas there as all good and well. What Gray, Mearsheimer and others are ignoring their analysis, however, are the implications of the war inside Russia. As the saying goes, foreign politics is always an extension of domestic politics. If we want to understand what is driving Putin, maybe it is worth taking a look on what he has actually accomplished – chances are, this is what he was going from from the beginning. The situation in Russia is as follows:
- Putin’s approval ratings have shot up. With all the caveats about inaccurate polls in authoritarian regimes, the trend is obvious
- Remaining dissent has been crushed. Whatever “independent” media there were in Russia prior to February 2022, they have all been shut down. Most journalists and activists have emigrated.
- Russian elite have been forever labelled as war crime accomplices in the West. If anyone from the top in Russia was looking to join the western structures, it is almost impossible now.
So, Putin has tightened his grip on power. If before the war people were starting to ask themselves “what is the point of Putin”, the answer is obvious now: “we are fighting a war”. There are presidential elections in Russia coming up in 2024. Of course, there will be no liberal challenger (there probably wasn’t going to be one even before the war). If Putin want to appoint the most reactionary and bloodthirsty heir, that heir will now be approved with flying colors.
“what’s driving him is an almost semi-mystical vision of the Russian realm, which would include not just Ukraine but parts of the Baltic states, parts of Central Asia and maybe even some of Poland. It would be a kind of vast, semi-mystical thing inherited from Tsarist Russia that he wants to restore.”
Something which Putin strangely failed to manifest much for about 15 years, and only emerged around the same time as a democratically elected president in Ukraine was violently ousted with active, open US funding and support and you heard increasing chatter of NATO encircling the Black sea
Also, amazing how Putin manages to have his ass kicked and lose numerous troops in Ukraine (if you believe the Western press) while also supposedly threatening Poland and Finland.
This guy is doing some kind of psychic channeling of Putin and Xi?
”“What’s driving him is an almost semi-mystical vision of the Russian realm,”
”It would be a kind of vast, semi-mystical thing inherited from Tsarist Russia that he wants to restore.
”case of Xi Jinping. Little is known about his earlier life, but it looks as if he responded to his earlier family privations in the Cultural Revolution by saying, ‘Well, what we’ve got to avoid at all points is a sort of sliding into anarchy in China, because once..”
John Mearsheimer’s brand of realism – the guy has been calling it on the money for 20 years. Read about him – if Freddy can get him it would be amazing. Read about him https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/John_Mearsheimer
Getting into the Ukraine war is every bit as bad as getting into the war in Iraq and Afghanistan – It was None of Our Business. It is not our sphere of vital influence. It is Eurasia, it has a 2000 year history of how it works. So, Ukraine destroyed.
This guy, and Bush and Boris, and Truss and Sunak…….’‘It became necessary to destroy Ukraine to save it”. (Pity it destroyed the global economy too, in the process)
”annihilate the Communist Viet Cong who had taken refuge in the South Vietnamese village of Ben Tre in the Mekong Delta.During the battle American bombs, rockets and napalm obliterated much of the town, hundreds of innocent civilians were killed, and most of the buildings were leveled. After the battle, a U.S. major allegedly justified the carnage by telling a U.S. reporter: “It became necessary to destroy the town to save it.”
What is the evidence that Putin is driven by a “semi-mystical vision of the Russian realm”? While this may be true of a good portion of the Russian people, maybe not very dissimilarly from British or American folks, Putin himself looks very unsentimental to me. Rather he is a hard-nosed realist who understands great-power politics and took his gamble. I doubt he believes in any millenarian view of Russia.
Evidence for this can be found in Putin’s aticle ”On the Historical Unity of Russians and Ukrainians“ wherein he tries to prove there is an unbroken 1000 year history linking the two countries.
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