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.’
John Mearsheimer was contacted for comment.