John Mearsheimer on Ukraine, Gaza & Escalation Dominance | SpectatorTV | Transcript

John Mearsheimer joins Freddy Gray for the Spectator's Americano podcast. On the show they explore the powder keg situation in Eastern Europe, why Putin is possibly the least hawkish of possible Russian leaders and why Israel has lost escalation dominance.
John Mearsheimer on Ukraine, Gaza & escalation dominance | SpectatorTV

In the first filmed edition of the Americano podcast, deputy editor Freddy Gray interviews Professor John Mearsheimer, an expert on international relations, discussing the strategic implications of the conflicts in Ukraine and Gaza. Mearsheimer criticizes Western policies, particularly the expansion of NATO and support for Ukraine, arguing that they have led to a dangerous escalation with Russia and an untenable situation for Israel in Gaza. He underscores the limits of military power, emphasizing that despite Western military superiority, the U.S. and its allies struggle to achieve their objectives. He also highlights the rising influence of China and Russia, suggesting their strategic maneuvers are complicating Western efforts in these regions. Mearsheimer stresses that resolving these conflicts is complex and warns against underestimating nationalism and the potential for prolonged geopolitical tensions.

Published on May 30, 2024 (YouTube)

* * *

Freddy Gray: Hello and welcome to the first filmed edition of the Americano podcast. My name is Freddy Gray. I’m the deputy editor of The Spectator and I’ve been doing the Americano podcast for a number of years. We have a huge and loyal fan base, but we thought we’d now expand it by running it on Spectator TV.

So this is the first episode, and I couldn’t think of a better guest to get than Professor John Mearsheimer, who is a professor at the University of Chicago and a leading expert on international relations. He has caused quite a bit of controversy, or stirred up quite a bit of anger anyway, with his recent speeches about Gaza and Ukraine.

John, I’m delighted that you are our first guest. Thank you for coming on. I wanted to start by asking you to give your response to Emmanuel Macron. There is a video going around, and a lot of people are saying how clever and eloquent Macron is because he has spelled out why he thinks the West should support France in his case, but the West generally should support Ukraine in hitting Russian targets within Russia. He makes quite an eloquent case, arguing that since Russia is aggressively attacking Ukraine from within its borders and we are giving Ukraine weapons to defend itself, Ukraine should be able to strike back at Russian targets as long as they are military targets. What’s your response to Macron’s argument? Did you find it persuasive?

John Mearsheimer: Well, I don’t agree. I understand what he’s saying and it is a plausible argument at first glance, but the problem here is the threat of escalation. You’re now talking about hitting the Russian homeland. You’re not talking about hitting Russian targets in territory that used to be part of Ukraine, which Russia has now annexed. You’re back to attacking Mother Russia, and the Russians have made it clear that they consider this to be a red line.

My view is these attacks are not likely to be very successful and therefore the Russians will not retaliate in any meaningful way. However, if I’m wrong and their S-400s can’t shoot down these missiles and they begin to have a real effect, the Russians will retaliate in a serious way. The great danger is that the West, and here we’re talking mainly about the United States, will get dragged into the war and you’ll have a great power war. We’ve gone to great lengths, meaning the Americans, from the beginning not to get directly involved in the fighting, and this holds some promise of bringing us in, which makes me very nervous.

Freddy Gray: Well, it’s been an interesting conflict in that respect. Seemingly at first, nobody thought that we’d be anywhere near the level of involvement that we are in now. We being the West broadly, and Biden has led from behind to a certain extent, dribbling his way into it. He’s always said no at first and then eventually said yes, wouldn’t you say, when it comes to providing weapons for the Ukrainians and so on?

John Mearsheimer: I agree with that, Freddy. In 2022, the first year of the war, remember the Russians attacked on February 24th, 2022. For the first year of the war, we were quite confident that we could defeat the Russians. We were confident that the Ukrainians could beat the Russians on the battlefield, and moreover, we thought that economic sanctions would do egregious damage to the Russian economy, bringing it to its knees. The combination of victories on the battlefield inside of Ukraine against the Russian army combined with economic sanctions looked like a winning formula.

You want to remember that in late 2022 when General Milley said, “I agree that things are going well, but now is the time to settle this conflict because this is the high watermark for Ukraine and for the West.” The Biden administration wanted to hear none of that because they thought we were in the driver’s seat and the situation would only improve with time. They were dead wrong. What’s happened over the course of 2023 and now 2024 is the Russians have mobilized, they’ve shifted the balance of power in their favor, and we have had to compensate. We have had to try to figure out how to go up the escalation ladder with them, and every time we attempt to bring in a new weapon or try a new strategy, it fails. At least it fails to redress the growing imbalance against Ukraine.

So here we are today with the Ukrainians in real trouble on the battlefield, and it looks like Ukraine is going to lose the war. Not surprisingly, leaders like Macron are arguing that we ought to up the ante by hitting the Russian homeland. Again, you have to ask yourself whether you think this makes sense.

Freddy Gray: You used that term, the escalation ladder. Can you explain to our viewers what you mean by that and whether it is an entirely convincing theory by which to understand international relations?

John Mearsheimer: Anytime two countries get into a war, you get escalation. You get escalation in terms of the goals that each side has. For example, Russia’s goals in this war have escalated with the passage of time. Furthermore, in terms of weaponry and how the states fight the war, you get escalation. You bring in new weapons, mobilize more troops, spin up your industrial base, hit targets that you hadn’t hit before, and the end result is that the conflict escalates. Both sides are escalating. If you’re talking about Britain fighting Germany in World War I, those two sides are constantly escalating. What you try to gain over the other side is escalation dominance. You want to think that as you go up the escalation ladder, you can dominate the other side.

The problem that we face in the West is that as we have gone up the escalation ladder with the Russians, the Russians have been beating us at every turn. We respond and do our very best to rectify the growing imbalance that attends this escalation process, but we have not been successful. It’s just very important to understand that in virtually every war that’s ever been fought, the means of fighting that war as well as the goals escalate.

Freddy Gray: Yes, but I wonder, you know, when you’re talking about Russia and Ukraine, I think we in the West, since this war has begun, have been two steps behind Russia on the escalation dominance scale. In fact, I wonder what you think of the idea that perhaps if we’d actually gone to war with Russia—of course, with nuclear weapons and so on, it would have been a disaster—but whether we’d have been in a stronger position if we had been far more vigorous in our initial response rather than this kind of creeping escalation that we’ve seen from the West in the last two years.

John Mearsheimer: I think we’d be better off if we had sent more weaponry immediately to Ukraine, let’s say in 2022 or early 2023, and hadn’t waited so long, for example, to send them ATACMS. But I don’t think it would have mattered. I think the only way we really could have beaten the Russians is if we had gotten involved in the fight. But that was not going to happen because we don’t want a great power war, especially when both of those great powers, and here we’re talking about the United States and Russia, have thousands of nuclear warheads. The Biden administration has wisely tried to avoid a war.

Freddy, if you don’t put Western ground forces into the fight, there’s no way the Ukrainians can defeat the Russians. The fact is that there are many more Russian people than there are Ukrainian people, and therefore the Russians can build a much larger military in terms of personnel. When you look at the Russian ability to produce weaponry, it far outstrips Ukraine’s ability and indeed outstrips the West’s ability to provide weaponry. So what you have taking place in Ukraine at this point in time is a fight between two sides where one side is badly outnumbered, not only in terms of the number of soldiers but also in terms of the weaponry available on each side. The end result is that the Ukrainians are losing, and there’s really nothing we can do to fix this situation. I don’t believe that even if we implement Macron’s idea that it’s going to make much difference at all.

Freddy Gray: Which brings us to the key question, which is, as General Petraeus said, how does this end? Or perhaps just, what’s our objective? What is the Western objective now in Ukraine, and how can we go about achieving it?

John Mearsheimer: I think the Western objective takes two forms, and they’re closely related. One is to stalemate the Russians on the battlefield, do everything we can to prevent the Russians from gaining more territory, and then maybe in 2025 or 2026 we will have spun up the industrial bases in the West to the point where we can get the Ukrainians sufficient weapons so that they can go back on the offensive or launch another counteroffensive and succeed this time. Some people still believe that.

The alternative is to stalemate the Russians on the battlefield, force them to go to the negotiating table, and get the best deal possible for the Ukrainians. I think that’s the most plausible goal you can find Western spokesmen articulating these days. The question you have to ask yourself is whether you think that’s plausible.

Freddy Gray: Another ambition might be to undermine Putin. There has been a lot of talk in recent weeks about Putin’s war with his own army, with Shoigu being removed from his post as defense minister and various generals being arrested on corruption charges and so on. There is an argument that the Kremlin could just collapse at some point because Putin’s hold over power is not as significant as we think.

John Mearsheimer: The question you then have to ask yourself, and I would ask you, is who do you envision replacing Putin?

Freddy Gray: I would envision someone much worse.

John Mearsheimer: That’s exactly right. Putin is usually portrayed in the West as the second coming of Adolf Hitler, but as Russian elites and foreign policy elites go, he is not that hawkish. One can easily envision his replacement being someone who is more hawkish and really willing to turn the dogs loose against the Ukrainians. For long periods in the blogosphere, Russian commentators criticized Putin for not waging the war vigorously enough. One could argue that you’ll easily get somebody who is more hardline, more hawkish, and more willing to play hardball with the Ukrainians than Putin has been. It is extremely unlikely, almost impossible to imagine, that you would get some leader who would move to immediately end the war on terms that were favorable to Ukraine and the West. I just don’t think that’s going to happen.

I think getting rid of Putin is like getting rid of Netanyahu. If you look at the situation in the Middle East, a lot of people think once you get rid of Benjamin Netanyahu, you’re going to live happily ever after because he’s the source of all the trouble. This is a pipe dream. Indeed, in Netanyahu’s case, he has a number of members of his cabinet who are much more hawkish, much more interested in inflicting pain on the Palestinians than he is. The idea that if you get rid of Netanyahu, peace is going to break out in Gaza is an illusion. The same thing is true going back to Eastern Europe and talking about Ukraine. Getting rid of Putin is not going to have a significant effect on the outcome of this war.

Freddy Gray: Well, I want to get on to Gaza, but perhaps this would be a good moment to zoom out a bit and look at the great power game that’s going on in the world. Is a problem in the West that we think in terms of PR now? We think, you know, get rid of Putin, new PR story that can be invented; get rid of Netanyahu, new PR story. But the fundamentals of international relations don’t change. The realities of it don’t change. If you look at Eastern Europe beyond Ukraine now, we can see there’s a sort of a scramble for power going on. You can see in Georgia there’s this vote where there’s a strong sort of European push to undermine a law that’s being passed that would be seen as pro-Russian. Then you can see in Slovakia that Robert Fico, a pro-Russian leader, being assassinated. There are things going on in Eastern Europe that suggest a kind of scramble for influence that a lot of Western thinkers seem to only understand in PR terms. Am I right in saying that or am I talking rubbish?

John Mearsheimer: Oh, absolutely. Let’s assume that the war in Ukraine settles down, the shooting stops for all intents and purposes, and you get a frozen conflict. There are at least five potential flashpoints where war could break out again. One is control of the Black Sea; two is Moldova; three is Belarus; four is the Baltic Sea where you see a lot of activity going on; and five is the Arctic where you also see a lot of activity going on. Up in the Arctic, there are eight countries that are physically located up there. Seven of them are NATO countries, the other is Russia. With the ice melting and all the consequences that fall from that, there is huge potential there.

I’ve just pointed out to you five potential flashpoints that don’t include Georgia, which is what you were talking about. You can see that there are all sorts of ways that if you get a cold peace at some point, it soon thereafter turns into another hot war because of these potential flashpoints. The West and Ukraine will never accept a Russian victory, and therefore the West and Ukraine will go to great lengths to undermine Russia’s position in Ukraine and at all those flashpoints that we just talked about. Of course, the Russians will go to great lengths to cause trouble in Europe and to cause trouble in terms of transatlantic relations. I think for as far as the eye can see, you’re going to have significant potential for conflict beyond Ukraine once you settle the conflict in Ukraine. Who knows when that conflict is going to be settled? Who knows when you’re going to get a cold peace? My guess is I’ll be well into my 80s, and you and I, Freddy, will still be talking about these issues.

Freddy Gray: I wonder if the way we in the West think about the color revolutions needs to be revised a bit. We tend to still think about them as spontaneous, pro-freedom eruptions that cause pro-democratic governments to be formed in Eastern Europe. There is some truth to that. I’m not a complete cynic about that. I think there’s some truth to that, but also these were directed in many ways by America, by Western forces, were they not? They were pro-Western maneuvers that were directed by Western agencies, were they not?

John Mearsheimer: Absolutely. I want to make it clear before I give you my view on these color revolutions that I am deeply thankful that I live in a liberal democracy. I’m deeply thankful that I was born in the United States, so I’m not an opponent of liberal democracy.

Freddy Gray: Well, we couldn’t have this conversation if we weren’t, right?

John Mearsheimer: Right, so I recognize that it has its flaws. But the idea that the United States of America and its allies can go around the world interfering in the domestic politics of other countries and in good part trying to shape in profound ways what those polities look like is a prescription for disaster. You want to understand that the most powerful political ideology on the planet is nationalism. We live in a world of nation-states, and nationalism privileges concepts like sovereignty and self-determination. People don’t want other countries coming into their country and trying to influence their politics.

Look at the United States of America. The United States is deeply upset at the slightest hint that any Russian or Chinese leader is interfering in our political process. We do not like that. Our view is that our political process is ours alone, and nobody from outside is allowed to interfere in it. I fully support that view. But if you think about it, that should mean that the United States should stay out of the business of trying to shape or interfere in the politics of other countries. But we do that all the time. We think we have a right and the responsibility to turn countries all across the planet into liberal democracies, to make them look like us, and this has got us into unending trouble.

The Russians fear a color revolution in Moscow. The Chinese don’t want to be turned into a liberal democracy. I learned this as a young man during the Vietnam War when it became clear after a certain point that this was not so much a war against communism as it was a war against nationalism. The fact is that the North Vietnamese and the Viet Cong in the South believed in self-determination. They didn’t want a bunch of Americans or the French before them telling them how to run their politics. They wanted to do that for themselves. They wanted to push the foreigners out of their country, and who could blame them once you began to see this conflict in terms of nationalism?

I think we ought to get out of the business of promoting color revolutions because it gets us into endless trouble and it violates basic principles of liberalism. If I can make one final point on this, Freddy, liberalism is an ideology that is premised on the assumption that people cannot agree about first principles. What you try to do in a liberal society is give people the opportunity to live their lives according to their own principles, and at the same time, you promote tolerance. You accept difference and you promote tolerance. But the United States and its European allies have gotten to the point where they think that they have the magic formula. They have the approved solution for how to run one’s political system, and therefore they have the right to intervene in the politics of other countries. This is a fundamentally illiberal way of executing a foreign policy because there’s no tolerance of difference. If a country wants to have an autocratic system and that country is happy with the autocratic system, they don’t like liberalism, that’s their business and we should leave them alone to put in place a system that they’re happy with. But we can’t do that because, again, we don’t tolerate difference. We think there is an approved solution, which is liberal democracy.

Freddy Gray: Which makes us or the West imperialistic, does it not?

John Mearsheimer: You can use that word. I don’t like the word imperialistic because it reminds me of the days when the British and the French and others had these empires, but you could call it imperialistic. I fully understand what you’re getting at.

Freddy Gray: But you think we need to, I mean, if you want to advance Western interests, and I think probably both of us do, do you think we need to update the color revolution playbook a bit? For example, in Iran, it feels like America has been trying to stoke a color revolution and that just has failed. It may have been effective at the end of the Cold War, but it doesn’t seem to be working anymore. Or at least the West is not as good as Russia is in many cases, or China indeed, at affecting social change to bring about political ends.

John Mearsheimer: One assumption is that if you facilitate social change and you get more liberal democracies and you get rid of autocracies, that works in your strategic interest. It’s a good thing. I don’t think that is true. I’m going to make it clear, I don’t think that promoting democracy at the end of a rifle barrel works, but let’s assume that it does work. The belief again is that this is in our strategic interest because those liberal democracies will align with us and authoritarian states will not. Anybody who looks at the history of American foreign policy quickly comes to understand that we have a rich history of overthrowing democracies around the world: Iran 1953, Guatemala 1954, Chile 1973. The United States has overthrown many democracies, and at the same time, we’ve been able to live comfortably with autocracies all around the world. Saudi Arabia is the most important case. The idea that liberal democracies automatically become allies and autocracies are enemies is an argument that I don’t think you can make. I don’t think there’s any strategic value to this foolish policy of trying to interfere in the politics of other countries and telling them what kind of political system they should have.

Freddy Gray: Do you think autocracies, if we look at Russia and China at the moment, autocracies seem to be more effective. If you look at what Russia and China are doing in Africa, for instance, they are more effective at interfering in other countries than democracies are.

John Mearsheimer: One of the reasons they’re so effective is because we are so ineffective. If you look at what the West is doing, it’s really quite shocking the extent to which we collectively are shooting ourselves in the foot. I blame the Americans more than I do the Europeans for this problem because the Americans are in the driver’s seat, and the Americans have promoted a number of remarkably foolish policies. As you know, my argument on the causes of the Ukraine war is that it was the decision in April 2008 to expand NATO into Ukraine that precipitated this present war. I would note that in April 2008 at the Bucharest Summit, the NATO Summit in Bucharest, it was the Americans, George W. Bush, who was pushing hard to bring Ukraine into NATO, and the Europeans, in particular Angela Merkel, who was the head of Germany at the time, and Nicolas Sarkozy, who was the head of France at the time, they were deeply opposed. They thought it was a terrible idea. The Europeans were right, the Americans were wrong, but unfortunately, the Europeans followed the American lead, and we are where we are today. I think we would have been better off if the Europeans had prevailed and prevented us from pursuing this crazy idea of bringing Ukraine into NATO. The Americans are in the driver’s seat here, and the Americans are not doing very well when it comes to formulating and executing foreign policy.

Freddy Gray: What do you say to the argument on Ukraine and the extent to which we should help Ukraine that when Ukraine gave up its nuclear weapons in 1994, we, the West, along with Russia, guaranteed their sovereignty? That has now been breached, and we have a responsibility, therefore, to protect their sovereignty. We are almost bound by that giving up of Ukraine’s nuclear weapons. Is that a persuasive argument?

John Mearsheimer: The question you have to ask yourself, Freddy, is are you willing to fight World War III with nuclear weapons to preserve Ukraine’s territorial integrity? That’s the question here. I’m not. I think it’s just a fight that nobody in their right mind would want to have. What we should have done is we should have allowed Ukraine to keep its nuclear weapons. As you know, I was probably the only person in the West who argued, and I did this in 1993 in an article in Foreign Affairs, that Ukraine should keep its nuclear weapons. That’s point one. Point two is I think we should not have pursued this policy of bringing Ukraine into NATO. It was one of the most important decisions made since the Cold War ended, and it was a disastrous decision because it led to this war, which is going to have negative consequences of all sorts for a long time to come.

Freddy Gray: Yes, well, let’s talk about the other war that’s going on that’s going to have negative consequences for a long time to come: Gaza. I don’t know if you’ve seen the story in The Guardian today about how Israel hounded a member of the ICC. What do you make of that? Do you think it’s a classic example of how Israel behaves, or do you think it’s kind of anti-Israel journalism?

John Mearsheimer: The story in The Guardian is based on facts. It’s not like The Guardian is making up these facts and making up this story.

Freddy Gray: I was just quite struck that I couldn’t quite get what the allegation was. There seemed to be a threat, but the threat was very vague. I wasn’t completely persuaded by the story.

John Mearsheimer: What was happening was that evidence was accumulating that the ICC was investigating Israel, and there was a chance that they would charge particular Israeli leaders with crimes. The Israelis were trying to head those investigations off at the pass. They wanted to prevent the ICC from going down that road. This person who was the head of the Mossad at the time had a number of meetings with the chief prosecutor and made it clear to her that that was not acceptable, that Israel would go to great lengths to make sure that she paid a significant price if she went after Israel. I find this hardly surprising. Anybody who has studied Israeli behavior over time knows full well that the Israelis play hardball. They are fully committed to playing hardball, and the Israelis understand that both the International Court of Justice and the International Criminal Court are a potential problem of great magnitude for them, as has been proven over the course of this year, 2024. In January, the International Court of Justice went after Israel, and now the International Criminal Court is going after Israel. Again, the story in The Guardian shows you why the Israelis have been so concerned for a long time about the ICC.

Freddy Gray: Does this tie into your thesis? You’ve given this speech, which has now gone mega viral, about why Israel is essentially losing this war in terms of international institutions and so on. It seems like countries are turning on Israel, Israel is isolating itself, and Israel is making a strategic mistake. That’s your argument, isn’t it?

John Mearsheimer: I would make three points to support the basic thesis I laid out in this talk that I gave in Australia, which said Israel is in trouble. My third point is the one that you just articulated. Enormous damage has been done to Israel’s reputation and its standing around the globe. The fact that it’s being accused of genocide and war crimes is, in my opinion, a disaster for Israel’s reputation.

My first point is that Israel is in deep trouble because it’s back in Gaza. You want to understand that in 2005, Ariel Sharon, who was then Prime Minister of Israel, pulled Israeli settlers and Israeli military forces out of Gaza. He turned it into a giant open-air prison. The reason Sharon did that is he fully understood that Gaza was a hornet’s nest, and it made no sense from a strategic point of view to have Israeli forces in Gaza. I believe he was correct, but if you look at what’s happened now, the Israelis are back in Gaza in force, and they are going to be principally responsible for running Gaza for the foreseeable future. This is a disaster in my opinion.

Second, if you look at what’s happened with regard to relations between Israel and Iran, Israel and Hezbollah, what you see is that Israel has lost escalation dominance. This is the subject we were talking about before. The Israelis have long believed that their deterrent capability depended very much on having escalation dominance. A good example of this would be what happened in Lebanon in 2006. In 2006, Hezbollah killed a number of Israelis and took, I think, two prisoners. I’m not sure of the exact number. They took hostages. Hezbollah killed a number of Israelis and took some hostages. The Israelis retaliated, and they did enormous damage to Hezbollah and to Lebanon. Afterwards, Nasrallah, who was the leader of Hezbollah, said that if he had known what the Israeli response would be to the kidnappings and the killings, he would have never done those kidnappings and killings. That’s escalation dominance. The Israelis escalated after the killings and the hostages were taken. They retaliated in such a forceful way that Nasrallah admitted that he made a mistake. Again, that’s escalation dominance.

If you look at what’s happening now with regard to Hezbollah and Israel on the northern border of Israel, the war goes on, and Israel, despite the fact they’re retaliating against Hezbollah, does not have escalation dominance. If you look at what happened, this is even more important in the exchange between Iran and Israel that took place on April 14th. That’s when Iran attacked Israel, and April 19th when Israel attacked Iran. The Iranian attack was much larger in scale than the Israeli counterattack. There is no way you can make the argument that Israel has escalation dominance over Iran unless you want to bring in nuclear weapons. Of course, that just tells you that Iran is likely to try to get nuclear weapons, and there are all sorts of stories in the newspapers these days about Iran pursuing nuclear weapons more vigorously today than any time in the past.

What I’m saying to you, Freddy, is number one, Israel’s back in Gaza, which is disastrous. Number two, with regard to Hezbollah and Iran, it looks like the Israelis have lost escalation dominance. Number three, the damage that has been done to Israel’s reputation as a result of its policies in Gaza has been disastrous as well. I think this conflict overall has not been good for Israel, to put it mildly.

Freddy Gray: But in that exchange between Iran and Israel that you describe, I could see that yes, Iran launched a much bigger attack on Israel and Israel’s response ultimately was fairly meaningless in terms of damage done. Both sides did very little, and perhaps the defense was overblown, the coordination of Israel’s defense was overblown, but it wasn’t a devastating strike which Israel did not reply to.

John Mearsheimer: If you think about what happened here, we knew April 1st is when all the trouble started. On April 1st, the Israelis attacked the Iranian embassy in Damascus, Syria. The Iranians then made it clear that they would retaliate. The United States was aghast at the thought of Iran attacking Israel because we were afraid that the war would escalate and we would be brought in. It’s very important to understand that neither Iran nor the United States wanted to get into this fight. It was the Israelis who attacked the Iranian embassy, trying to bring both the Americans and the Iranians into the fight because the Israelis wanted the Americans to really clobber the Iranians. But again, the Iranians and the Americans didn’t want to fight.

Anyway, this attack on the embassy takes place on April 1st. Then on April 14th, the Iranians attack Israel. It’s very important to understand that we coordinated with the Iranians before the attack and during the attack to do everything we could to keep it a limited offensive in terms of targets, in terms of weapons used, and so forth and so on. Furthermore, and this cannot be underestimated, the West, and here we’re talking mainly about the United States, played a key role in parrying the Iranian attack. There are reports in legitimate sources that say we, meaning the Americans, shot down about half of the cruise missiles, ballistic missiles, and drones that were directed at Israel. This tells you the Israelis were heavily dependent on the United States. Moreover, we coordinated the defensive effort. You hear all these stories about how the Jordanians, the Saudis, the French, the British, the Americans worked with the Israelis on April 14th to protect Israel against this Iranian missile offensive. That’s true, but that tells you that Israel could not do it itself; it needed help. Again, this cuts against escalation dominance.

When the Israelis attacked, it was a minor attack, and that’s mainly because the Americans put great pressure on Israel to keep the attack very limited. I’m going to be clear on that. The Israelis’ basic instinct was to really go after Iran in a big way. But the question you want to ask yourself, Freddy, is why did we want to keep the Israeli attack limited? It was because we knew that if the Israelis really slammed Iran, Iran would retaliate again with a massive attack. So you see, the Israelis just don’t have that escalation dominance that they once had, again, unless you bring in nuclear weapons. That, by the way, tells you that the Iranians have a very powerful incentive to get nuclear weapons. I would argue that Israel is also in trouble because this conflict that took place between Iran and Israel, and the more general conflagration that’s going on in the Middle East today, gives Iran a great incentive to get nuclear weapons, and that is certainly not in Israel’s interest.

Freddy Gray: Let’s try and connect Gaza and the war in Ukraine. Isn’t the same story here that the West is unable to impose its will on both conflicts? America still has escalation dominance ultimately, but it is unable to make sure that what it wants to happen in those regions happens.

John Mearsheimer: I think there’s no question about that. I often argue these days that one of the problems with the American foreign policy establishment is that they don’t have a healthy appreciation of the limits of military force. The United States is clearly the most powerful state on the planet. It’s the most powerful state by far economically. China’s obviously going to give us a run for our money, but we remain the most powerful state economically. We are clearly the most powerful state militarily, but there are real limits to what you can do with American military power.

By the way, Freddy, I would point out, if you look at the Israelis, they’re in an analogous situation. Would anybody deny that the IDF is far, far more powerful than Hamas? Of course it is. But the idea that the IDF is going to defeat Hamas and put an end to this conflict in Gaza is a pipe dream. It’s not going to happen. The Israelis are not going to defeat Hamas despite the tremendous military advantage that Israel has over Hamas, if you look at pure material capabilities. Again, it’s the limits of military force.

I go back to my youth and the Vietnam War. The United States was far more powerful than Vietnam. Fast forward to Afghanistan, the United States up against the Taliban—this is Bambi versus Godzilla. But who won? Bambi won. Bambi won in Vietnam. This just tells you there are significant limits as to what you can do with powerful military forces, and you have to understand that.

Just to go to the two examples you were pointing to: Ukraine and Gaza. Even though the United States is backing the Ukrainians and backing the Israelis, it’s not clear that we’re going to get our way in either case. In my opinion, we’re not going to get our way. I think the Russians are going to win an ugly victory against Ukraine, and I think the Israelis, as I pointed out a few minutes ago, are in deep trouble and have no good solution to the mess that they’re in.

Freddy Gray: To what extent, lastly, John, because we’ve taken up enough of your time, but to what extent do you think America hitting the limits of its power is down to the rise of China and Russia, both of which are now shaping events far more perhaps than they were in previous decades?

John Mearsheimer: China doesn’t matter very much at this point in terms of the problems that we face. The two big problems that we face are Ukraine and Gaza, as you pointed out. There’s no question that China is our principal threat and that containing China is the most important mission that the United States has today. There’s also no question that being so deeply involved in Ukraine and being so deeply involved in Gaza makes it difficult for us to fully pivot to Asia to deal with China. But thankfully, we’ve not had a serious crisis or war in East Asia, so that’s not a case of China causing us all sorts of problems today. You can’t make that argument.

But the Russians are causing us huge problems. We thought we could easily handle the Russians. As I said at the beginning of the show, we thought we could bring them to their knees with economic sanctions. We thought the Ukrainian military, which we had trained and armed between 2014 and 2022, would defeat the Russians in all sorts of ways on the battlefield in Ukraine. None of that panned out.

Freddy Gray: But partly the reason we were wrong about that was because of China. China could ultimately buy up Russian natural resources, it could support Russia even if not explicitly, and so on. Ditto in Gaza. You do see China helping Iran. China has an interest in keeping the West preoccupied in these conflicts while it rises, does it not?

John Mearsheimer: It certainly does. The war in Ukraine and the Gaza conflict are manna from heaven for the Chinese, there’s no question about that. I would not dispute your point that because China has been important for supporting Russia, it has mattered somewhat in that sense. But I would argue that as time goes by, the argument that you just articulated will become more important. I think the Chinese will become more influential in the Middle East with the passage of time and will become more involved in helping the Russians. For example, I think you’ll see the Chinese up in the Arctic with Russia. It’s quite clear that the Russians are interested in getting the Chinese to help them in the Arctic because they understand they’re outnumbered seven to one. As I said before, of the eight countries in the Arctic, seven are NATO countries, and the Russians are now looking to involve the Chinese with them in the Arctic. So with the passage of time, Chinese influence outside of East Asia will just grow.

Freddy Gray: Well, John, you said that we could be talking about this for decades to come. I hope we are because it’s always fascinating to talk to you. But I know lots of other people want to talk to you too, so we should let you go. Thank you very much for coming on to this first televised edition of the Americano podcast.


Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Read More

Weekly Magazine

Get the best articles once a week directly to your inbox!