A Tale of Two Interviews: IR Theory and the Russian Invasion of Ukraine

22 March 2022, 0548 EDT


wo recent interviews in the New Yorker have received substantial attention in recent weeks. Unfortunately, taken together, they make the International Relations (IR) discipline look terrible. Allow us to explain.

The first is the now infamous exchange between Isaac Chotiner and John Mearsheimer, perhaps the best known living IR theorist. The interview is most noteworthy for Mearsheimer’s dogged insistence that it is, in fact, the US that’s to blame for Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. According to Mearsheimer, NATO’s expansion into Eastern Europe compelled Russia to reassert itself and any consideration of Eastern European states’ preference for liberal democracy reeks of interwar utopianism. We won’t outline his full position (also made in the Economist) here or detail the numerous contradictions within it, but rather will direct readers to a noteworthy response in The New Republic alongside Dan and PTJ’s thoughtful discussion of offensive realism and the perils of public scholarship in their Duck-affiliated podcast. (For what it’s worth, we are unconvinced. But why beat that particular dead horse?)

The more recent of the interviews, between David Remnick and Princeton historian Stephen Kotkin, has received far more praise, including from IR scholars. (Dan used the interview as a launching point for a recent post on “The Korea Analogy”). Kotkin has spent ample time in Russia, he speaks Russian fluently, and he’s published several well-received books on the subject, including two of three installments of a landmark Stalin biography. Again, we won’t bore you by rehashing the ins-and-outs of Kotkin’s interview, which is worth a read/listen. Notably, though, Kotkin “respectfully disagree[s]” with Mearsheimer’s deterministic take on Russia invading due to US over-extension. He argues instead that Russia’s invasion fits into his reading of a long historical pattern of Slavic exceptionalism, informed by his well-earned regional expertise. He weaves into his argument consideration of Putin’s own domestic weakness and strikes a careful balance between emphasizing Russia’s historical tendencies and the unique contours of the Putin era.

In both pieces, Mearsheimer veers away from structural explanations

We have been following as much coverage of Russia’s invasion as we can manage, including debates on academic Twitter, and have been disappointed at the platform Mearsheimer’s been given (including the co-opting of his work by the Russian Foreign Ministry). As Dan and PTJ point out, Mearsheimer is an outlier both in his theoretical proclivities (there aren’t many other offensive realists) and in his brash style. However, to my knowledge, IR scholars are not frequently featured in the New Yorker or, for that matter, with full length guest contributions in the Economist, so when the one who is falls flat on his face, the discipline understandably takes notice.

Having digested the two interviews and media responses, we have developed a hunch that Mearsheimer’s interventions reveal some larger problems for IR that extend beyond the limitations of offensive realism. Two stand out as worth addressing to help shore up our discipline’s place in the popular imagination.

First and foremost is the issue of agency and responsibility. In a recent Twitter conversation hosted by Eric Van Rythoven one of us (Hayes) pointed out that Mearsheimer’s theory is a descendant of structural realism, which attributes the primary causes of international conflict to the incentive structures of the anarchic international system.

However, in both the New Yorker interview and the Economist piece, Mearsheimer veers away from structural explanations, instead seeming to argue that it is the fault of two specific agents—the US and Ukraine—for overreaching and forcing Russia’s hand. This seems like a contradiction. If, as Mearsheimer’s theory predicts, the Russian invasion is due to its inevitable quest for regional hegemony in the balance of power, why blame anyone, let alone the US? Why not simply lament the zero-sum nature of the international system and then carve out room for a discussion on how best to mitigate its oftentimes horrendous consequences?

For us, Mearsheimer’s distortion of his own theoretical approach to make it policy relevant underlines the hazards of trying to ‘bridge the gap’ and engage theory, where structure often predominates, to a policy world full of agents.

Second, however, is a point that extends beyond the issues inherent to blending case specifics with structural explanation. Kotkin, after all, refers to structural forces, though he avoids Mearsheimer’s determinist pitfalls by including more historical contingency and nuance. It’s what we call the Politico problem, named after a common critique of the news site that circulated when one of us (Lerner) worked there.

In essence, the Politico problem occurs when you describe weighty moral issues in the same gamified tone as fantasy baseball. Just as some political news sites cover health care issues as tests of who is gaining what political advantage (rather than life-or-death questions about medical care and poverty), much IR theory tends to understand horrific wars and ensuing humanitarian crises solely through the lens of grand strategy.

In Mearsheimer’s interview, this problem became most apparent when he failed to consider Ukrainian democratization or desires to join the EU and NATO as anything other than markers of alignment in a new Cold War.

The Politico problem, in our reading, stems from a few issues.

Scholars should be careful not to portray the predictions of our theories as excuses for war crimes

First, when left unchecked, the dominance of rational choice, behavioralist, and game theoretic models in social scientific enquiry can veer towards deterministic IR theory, divorced from contingency, epistemological humility, and normative reflection. Unfortunately, those who believe recurring terrible wars between states are pre-determined seem less likely to empathize with the very real human beings caught in the mix (see Alexandria Innes’ excellent piece).

Second, this sort of analysis, coupled with the problematic incentive structures and gender biases in the academy, has historically resulted in a self-fulfilling stereotype of the self-assured, detached Ivory Tower academic with little regard for theory’s consequences on the ground. (Make of it what you will, but Mearsheimer’s feature image on his website is face atop Machiavelli’s body).  

Lucky for us, though, both these issues for IR scholarship are eminently avoidable.

Those employing structural theory can be more careful in their public scholarship, as they inevitably transition to discussion of specific events. They can resist facile agent-driven narrations, emphasizing instead the structural conditions of their theories in conjunction with greater appreciation of contingency.

IR scholars can resist the Politico problem by paying greater attention to the normative consequences of our theories. This doesn’t mean we all need to become normative theorists, nor is it a one-size-fits-all solution—incorporation of normativity will be different depending on the scholar. However, when in doubt, scholars should be careful not to portray the predictions of our theories as excuses for war crimes.

In other words, if the Russian Foreign Ministry is citing you favorably, you might want to have a good look in the mirror.