Truth, Lies, Nationalism, War, and Election Meddling | Interview with Dr. John Mearsheimer

Truth, Lies, Nationalism, War, and Election Meddling | Interview with Dr. John Mearsheimer

We met with University of Chicago’s notable political scientist, Dr. John J. Mearsheimer to talk about failure of liberal hegemony in the face of nationalism, characteristics of international politics and domestic politics, and so much more. Enjoy!

Notable political scientist Dr. John J. Mearsheimer offers insights into lying and truth-telling in international politics versus domestic politics, whether the Russians and Putin lied and interfered in our elections, the failure of liberal hegemony in the face of nationalism, and brinkmanship in a nuclear crisis. R. Wendell Harrison Distinguished Service Professor at the University of Chicago, Dr. Mearsheimer talks with Dr. Jed Macosko, academic director of and professor of physics at Wake Forest University.

…that liberalism ran up against nationalism. Nationalism is an incredibly powerful force and a liberal foreign policy that doesn't take into account the power of nationalism is almost certain to get into trouble.” – Dr. John Mearsheimer

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Interview with Political Scientist
Dr. John Mearsheimer

Interview Transcript

(Editor’s Note: The following transcript has been lightly edited to improve clarity.)

00:21Starting out

Jed Macosko: Hi, this is Dr. Jed Macosko at and Wake Forest University. Today. We have another wonderful guest, professor, John Mearsheimer from the University of Chicago.

So professor Mearsheimer, could you tell us a little bit about how you got your start in political science?

John Mearsheimer: I was a junior at West Point in the late 1960s, and I was actually a terrible student who had never been really seriously interested in academics, much less international relations. And I took an international relations course, it was a mandatory course. And I loved it! And it was the first course I had taken in my entire life that really excited me! So I decided that in my senior year, at West Point I would take all the international relations and political science courses that I could, and I would try to do very well, which I did.

And I decided in the middle of my senior year that, after I graduated, I would at some point get a PhD in political science and focus on international relations. I had no idea that I could ever become an academic. I just wanted a PhD because I loved the subject matter.


So after graduating from West Point, I went in the Air Force. And my first assignment, fortuitously, was in Los Angeles. So I went part time to the University of Southern California, and then full time for about six months, and got a master’s degree. And when I got out of the Air Force after my five-year commitment in 1975, I applied for PhD programs. Now, I didn’t have much of an academic record, but it was reasonably easy to get into PhD programs in 1975, for variety of reasons.

So I barely got into a PhD program at Cornell to get a PhD, again in international politics. And after I got into the program, I discovered that I was really good at it. That I not only loved it, but I was good at doing research and writing and coming up with new ideas and so forth and so on.

And my professors at Cornell were wonderful to me. They thought that I had talent and they nurtured me. And the rest is history!

02:46The power of sports

Jed: That’s great. Well, was there anything that now, looking back, that you could see, in your younger self that gave you the idea that maybe this is something you’d be good at? Were you were you interested in the news, when you were a kid? Were you interested in history or wars… tell us a little bit about something that may have triggered that if somebody had been watching you they’d say, "Oh, this is something he’d be good at!"

John: I think that the key here is sports. I was deeply committed to playing basketball, football, and baseball. And my dream was to become a professional athlete. Hopefully in basketball. And, I was also very interested in reading about sports. So I spent endless hours, reading magazines and reading the newspaper.

My father used to work in New York city, or he worked in New York city at the time… and he would take the New York central railroad train home and he got off at the last stop. And what he would do is he would collect all the newspapers, the sports sections from all the New York newspapers. And in those days there were like five, six, seven New York newspapers. He’d collect all the sports sections and he’d bring them home to me.

Jed: Aww…

John: After dinner, I would lock myself in the bathroom and I would read all the sports sections. And I was very analytical about it, so I knew a great deal. And I constantly thought about strategy because, as you know, sports is really all about strategy, it’s a very interactive, environment: what you do depends very much on what your opponent does. Anyway, I think I developed in those years, studying sports and playing sports, all sorts of analytical skills that were very important for studying international relations!


Because international relations is all about interactions among two or between two or among three or more actors, you really have to be good at strategy, I think, to be good at international politics.” – Dr. John Mearsheimer

Because international relations is all about interactions among two or between two or among three or more actors, you really have to be good at strategy, I think, to be good at international politics. So in a funny sort of way, all of that time I spent studying sports, which my parents used to say was a waste of time, actually was very beneficial down the road!

05:22International politics and "Why Leaders Lie"

Jed: Oh, that is such a great story. Oh my goodness!

Well, I do remember seeing a PBS special on Major League Baseball and one of the most successful general managers was a person who was so paranoid about what the other team was going to do to him. That he tried to do it to them first and it made him absolutely brilliant in strategy. I don’t remember which general manager it was, but it’s exactly what you’re talking about.

John: Yeah.

Jed: In Politics takes some of the most successful leaders are the ones that are worried what the other countries are going to do to them, and they try to anticipate that and sort of cut that off at the pass, and maybe sometimes, well, when, when that country doesn’t do that to them, they’re like, well, then we better do it to them before they do it to us!

One of your books, Why Leaders Lie gets into that a little bit. So do you want to talk a little bit about how strategy, and political, you know, sort of, things that are going on in the political world internationally played into that book?

And I have been surprised over the course of my lifetime, how many people don't think that when they move, the other side will respond. They just think in terms of what's my first move?” – Dr. John Mearsheimer

John: Well, I think that in international politics, it is absolutely imperative to understand that the other side has a second move, if you are the first mover. And I have been surprised over the course of my lifetime, how many people don’t think that when they move, the other side will respond. They just think in terms of what’s my first move? You know, “I don’t like that person. I’m going to punch him in the head.” Well, you want to remember that if you punch him in the head, he’s likely to punch you back unless you knock them out.

So you want to ask yourself, what are of the consequences of not knocking the other person out? And the same sort of logic applies in international politics. And just to go to the subject of lying: If you lie to the other side, you mean they get away with it the first time you do it. Right? Because the other side is unsuspecting. You have a rich track record of telling the truth, but all of a sudden you lie. And, of course, if you’re seen as a truth-teller, that’s when you’re most likely to get away with lying, right? But the problem that you then face is that everything you say after you tell that first lie will be viewed with great suspicion. And it will make it much more difficult for you to reach agreements, for you to reach deals with the other side. Because the other side won’t trust you.

So, again, this just highlights the interactive nature of international politics and the realm where this matters the most of course is wartime, and wartime is a lot like a football game or a basketball game, right? You’re constantly thinking about what the other side’s strategy is, and what your strategy is. And what you want is a strategy that allows you to exploit the weaknesses in the other side’s strategy. So again, sports and, and foreign policy are very similar in that way.

Jed: Now you wrote the book, Why Leaders Lie prior to the 2016 election and the fallout of, “Did Russia tamper with our election.?” Do you feel like there’s a lot of lying going on in the international realms, with Putin lying about whether he was involved, or this or that? What do you think? Cause you, you said in the book that the leaders don’t often lie, that they lie a lot less frequently than one would think, but is this an instance where they are lying?

John: Well, there are two points to be made here.

Where you see lots of lying is in domestic politics. Leaders lie to their own people all the time.” – Dr. John Mearsheimer

My first point is that: I argue that leaders do not lie much to each other. Thant you don’t have much lying in international relations. The reason is that, by-and-large, most leaders don’t trust other leaders, and therefore you’re not going to get away with telling a lie.

Where you see lots of lying is in domestic politics. Leaders lie to their own people all the time.

Jed: Hmm…

John: And the reason they do that is because it’s much more likely that their own people will trust them: because they are their leaders. And if people are trustworthy, that provides a perfect opportunity for a leader to tell a lie.

I didn’t expect that this would be the finding when I first started studying the subject of lying, but what I discovered is that you get more lying by leaders to their own people than to foreign governments. So that’s point one.

Point two is with regard to the Russians: I’m not sure, in the final analysis, whether Putin’s lying or not. It’s not clear to me from the available evidence how much the Russians have interfered in the 2016 election, or have interfered since then. There no question that lots of American leaders, and I think the foreign policy establishment in general, screams all the time that the Russians are doing this and, they’re doing that, but there’s never a lot of hard evidence presented. So, I have my doubts as to whether Putin’s lying or not.

This is not to argue for one second, that Putin is above lying. Because I don’t believe any leader is above lying: Franklin D. Roosevelt lied, Dwight D. Eisenhower lied, J.F. Kennedy lied.

Sometimes, I argue in the book, it makes good sense to lie. JFK, for example, lied about the deal that he struck with Nikita Khrushchev during the Cuban missile crisis.

Kennedy had told Khrushchev that he would take our Jupiter missiles out of Turkey. But Kennedy told Khrushchev, "I am going to deny publicly that we made this agreement… even though we’ve made the agreement, and you can trust that I’ll take the Jupiter missiles out. But for domestic political reasons, I can not admit to the American people that I’ve agreed to take our Jupiter missiles out of Turkey in exchange for you taking your nuclear armed missiles out of Cuba."

So, Kennedy lied. And I believe that was a noble lie. I don’t like lying. I don’t think any of us like lying. But, the truth is that sometimes it makes strategic sense.

Jed: Hmm. Interesting.

So in the particular case of Kennedy and the Cuban missile crisis: do you think that he could have avoided even having to make that deal and then lie about it? If he had done a better job in foreign relations prior to the whole escalation? Was it his fault that things got as bad as it did?

John: No

Jed: Okay.

John: He was in what we used to call “a pickle!” He was just between a rock and a hard place. He just really had no choice.

Jed: Okay.

John: He had to get the missiles out, and he did not want a war. And Khrushchev, at the last moment, insisted that there be a quid pro quo and the quid pro quo was that Kennedy take the Jupiters out.

What’s really ironic about that case is that when Kennedy came into office in ’61, he told the Pentagon to get the Jupiter missiles out of Turkey… and it didn’t happen. So Kennedy had no interest in keeping the Jupiters in Turkey. He had originally, before the Cuban missile crisis. Said, "Get rid of those missiles!" But the context was completely different once you’re into the Cuban missile crisis and the American people are expecting Kennedy to be tough with the Soviets.

Jed: Yeah!

John: And Kennedy understands that he doesn’t want to be too tough because Kennedy just wants to get out of the crisis without starting world war three, with nuclear weapons!

Jed: Yeah…

John: I mean, I actually think now, looking back at the Cuban missile crisis… I didn’t think this when I was younger, but I’ve now come to the conclusion that Kennedy handled it brilliantly.

Jed: Good for him! That’s really good.

John: Yeah. He was surrounded by hawkish advisors. I think there’s a good chance we would have had a war —

Jed: Wow!

John: Had Kennedy listened to his advisors. But Kennedy was bent on making sure we didn’t have a war. And that of course was why he was willing to trade the Jupiters for the Soviet missiles in Cuba.

14:25Nationalism and liberalism

Jed: Hmm. Interesting. Well, that really helps me better understand your book about Why Leaders Lie… that they don’t lie to each other, which I gathered from the brief read I did have your book, but they do lie to their own people, which is what we see happening all the time around us, especially on the last four years.

So, what have you been working on since writing that book? Have you extended some of its arguments to account for the latest administration? Or have you worked on other things? Tell us a little bit more about your more recent projects.

John: No, my most recent book and the subject I’ve been very interested in over the last few years is the subject of how nationalism and liberalism interact with each other.

And my argument is that the failure of American foreign policy from the end of the Cold War up until when Donald Trump was elected, was due in large part to our failure to understand the relationship between nationalism and liberalism. And I argue in this book that I wrote in 2018… it’s called The Great Delusion, which deals with, Liberal Dreams and International Realities. That’s the subtitle: The Great Delusion, Liberal Dreams and International Realities. My argument is that the United States, in the wake of the cold war, was so powerful that it was free to pursue a “liberal foreign policy.” That’s what most of my friends and I call “liberal hegemony.”

The United States, once the Cold War ended, decided that it was going to use that tremendous power that it had to remake the world in America’s image: this is “liberal hegemony.” And, as you know, it failed.

This is one of the principle reasons that Donald Trump is in the White House: Donald Trump ran against liberal hegemony, Donald Trump ran against the American foreign policy establishment. And he won! So the question is what went wrong?

How did we end it up in Afghanistan in the longest war in American history, how did we end up blowing it in Iraq? How did NATO expansion lead to the crisis with Ukraine? Why is it that US/China relations deteriorated so seriously in recent years?

Nationalism is an incredibly powerful force and a liberal foreign policy that doesn't take into account the power of nationalism is almost certain to get into trouble. And this is exactly what happened to us.” – Dr. John Mearsheimer

And my argument is: Because liberal hegemony was a failure.

And my argument at it’s core, is that liberalism ran up against nationalism. Nationalism is an incredibly powerful force and a liberal foreign policy that doesn’t take into account the power of nationalism is almost certain to get into trouble. And this is exactly what happened to us.

The United States, for example, thought that it could interfere in countries like Iraq, Russia, and China and turn those countries into liberal democracies. That was our goal.

You know, you talked about the Russians interfering in American politics: there’s no country on the planet that has richer history of interfering in the domestic politics of other countries than the United States of America! And our goal is invariably to turn those countries into liberal democracies.

Well, what happens in almost all those cases is that the people who live in those countries don’t want the Americans interfering in their politics and telling them what kind of political system they should have. Just like Americans do not like Russians interfering in American politics! We believe in American sovereignty, American self-determination: that’s nationalism, right? The Russians, the Chinese, the Iraqis, the Afghanis all feel the same way.

I learned this lesson when I was a young boy during the Vietnam war. I was in the American military from 1965 to 1975, that was coterminous with the Vietnam war. I was in from 65–75, and I learned one thing that was of great importance over the course of those ten years, and that was that we were not fighting communism in Vietnam, we were fighting nationalism. The Vietnamese were interested in having a sovereign state of their own. They did not like the idea of the Americans interfering and their politics and telling them what kind of political system they should have. So they were willing to die in huge numbers to drive us out. And before that, they were willing to die in huge numbers to drive the French out! So I learned back in those days, between 1965 and 1975, you do not want to invade countries like Iraq or Afghanistan, because you’re going to run into that buzzsaw called “nationalism.”

…the United States got itself into a whole lot of trouble between 1990 and 2016, because it thought that it could remake the world in its own image. And this was a huge mistake.” – Dr. John Mearsheimer

And by the way, I’m sure you remember, Jed, when the Soviets invaded Afghanistan in 1979, ten years later, they left! Defeated. Why? Because the Afghanis, like the Vietnamese, like the Americans, like the Russians, like the Chinese, like the Iraqis do not like the idea of foreigners coming in and trying to reorganize their politics.

So The Great Delusion book that I wrote that was published in 2018, sends a very simple message, which is that the United States got itself into a whole lot of trouble between 1990 and 2016, because it thought that it could remake the world in its own image. And this was a huge mistake.

21:51Liberal hegemony and if Hillary had won

Jed: Hmm! Now had Hillary gotten elected, we would have expanded that range for a few more years, right? It wouldn’t have stopped in 2016, it would’ve started in 1990 and kept going.

So is it good that we stopped? I mean, it sounds like your book is arguing that we should stop and had Hillary gotten elected, we wouldn’t have stopped. So what are your thoughts about that?

John: Two points. One is: There’s no question that Hilary’s inclination, when she ran for president in 2016, was to continue liberal hegemony. She was deeply committed to pursuing liberal hegemony. Trump ran against her. Again, this is one of the reasons that Trump beat her.

The second point is: Even if she had won, liberal hegemony still would have come to an end rather quickly. And the reason is the rise of China. Once China becomes a great power and a serious challenger to the United States, the United States can no longer pursue liberal hegemony as a foreign policy. It has to now re-engage in basic real politique, like it did during the Cold War.

You see, what’s very important to understand about the uni-polar moment. the period from let’s say 1990 to 2016, is that the United States was, by definition, the only great power on the planet. It’s the “unipolar moment,” and in a unipolar world where there’s only one great power there’s, by definition, no security competition between great powers. During the Cold War, for example, you had a bi-polar world. And in that bipolar world, you had a serious security competition between the United States and the Soviet Union.

So real politique, Like liberalism, defined the foreign policy of the United States. Real politique… because the Soviet union was there. Soviet Union goes away… unipolarity… you don’t need real politique cause there’s no other great power. So you can pursue liberal hegemony.

However, with the rise of China and the resurrection of Russian power under Vladimir Putin, you’re now in a multi-polar world. And when you’re in multipolar world, liberal hegemony gets put on the trash heap of history and you go back to real politique.

So, even though Hillary Clinton talked about pursuing liberal hegemony once she was in the White House, I believe she would have had no choice but to act in very similar ways to how Donald Trump has acted vis-a-vis China, and even vis-a-vis Russia. And I might add to that: this is related to the question of, "What will happen if Joe Biden is elected President in November?" There are a lot of people who believe that Biden will deal with China in a fundamentally different way than Trump has dealt with China. I don’t believe that for one second. And by the way, the Chinese don’t believe that either. And the reason is that we are in a multipolar world and one of those poles, one of those great powers is a potential peer competitor. China is an incredibly formidable power and it’s growing by leaps and bounds every year.

So, the United States is deeply concerned with checking the growth of Chinese power. We’re deeply interested in containing China. And that will be true whether Donald Trump is in the White House or whether Joe Biden is in the White House.

Now, I think you can make a good argument that. Biden would do a more effective job than Trump has done. Although there are obviously some people who argue the opposite, but nevertheless, both of them will make sure that America’s gun sights are on China, and that we do everything possible to make sure that China does not become an actual peer competitor, and that we remain the dominant country on the planet.

Jed: Hmm. Well, now one of your friends, Stephen Walt , said that it wasn’t until Trump got into office, that he took seriously some of the imbalances that were in our trade agreements with China. China was promising things and not delivering on them and what he said is that Trump’s inclinations of there being a problem with those arrangements and that China wasn’t doing their part were correct. But the problem was he was inefficient at achieving them. So it’s almost as if, what I hear you saying is that had Hillary gotten into office, she might have not had the instincts that Trump had about China, but now that Joe Biden could come into the office, he would have the same instincts because he has no other choice and, most importantly he’ll be more effective.

Is that a fair summary of what you would say?

John: With one difference: I think that Hillary Clinton, had she become President would have quickly changed her foreign policy perspective. She would have abandoned liberal hegemony. You want to remember that Hillary Clinton was Secretary of State in 2011… and in 2011, she announced the “Pivot to Asia.” And the Pivot to Asia was the first step that we took to contain China. So it came under Hillary. Now, it was not something that she placed a high priority on. She wasn’t saying we have to fundamentally alter our foreign policy to deal with China.

But Hillary Clinton was aware in 2011, as was Barack Obama , sho was the President at the time, that China was growing, increasingly powerful and the United States had to start thinking about containment. Now Trump took this two or three steps further in 2016, when he ran for President, and then certainly after 2017 when he moved into the White House, and he has been a real hardliner on China. Now, you could argue that if Hillary had been elected, yes she would’ve changed her focus and put her gun sights or the administration’s gun sights on China. But you would have done it in a more circumspect way than Trump has done. I think there’s a bit of truth in that, but nevertheless, I think she would have come to play hardball with China quite quickly.

Jed: Well, that’s interesting. And another interesting thing that Stephen Walt said was that it was because of her husband’s foreign policy… specifically the building-up of NATO and the dual containment of Iran and Iraq that we ended up in a lot of the problems that we see. You mentioned Ukraine is because of NATO’s buildup, and 9/11, due to having a huge military presence in Saudi Arabia, which is what started bin Ladin off on his rampage against the United States.

So, would you say that those two mistakes that Bill Clinton made were, in part, some of the things that led to the collapse of this liberal hegemony that you’re talking about?

John: Yes. I would not put all the blame on Bill Clinton though.

Jed: Okay.

John: I think that Bill Clinton, George W. Bush , and Barack Obama all pursued liberal hegemony. And I think one could argue that, actually, George H. W. Bush , who engineered the end of the Cold War, that he, in a very important way, got the ball rolling. And what Bill Clinton did was stand on George H.W. Bush’s shoulders. But Clinton was the first President to really put liberal hegemony off in bright lights.

And there’s no question that his policies went a long way towards getting us into trouble. But you don’t want to underestimate what George. W Bush did, or what Barack Obama did.

Clinton’s biggest mistake, in my opinion, was to start NATO expansion. NATO expansion, coupled with European Union expansion, coupled with the “color revolutions”… the color revolutions were designed to facilitate the spread of democracy in Eastern Europe, the Orange revolution in Ukraine, the Rose revolution in Georgia. This is a case… I will note, of the United States interfering in the domestic politics of other countries.

But anyway, NATO expansion coupled with these other moves, eventually poisoned relations with Russia. Huge mistake with regard to the Middle East. There’s no question that the Clinton administration made a big mistake pursuing a policy of dual containment in the wake of the first Gulf War. What we did was we kept American military forces in the region in ways we had not done before that. And there’s no question that got us into big trouble with Osama bin Laden and was one of the contributing reasons for the 9/11 attacks by bin Ladin and company.

But then you have George W. Bush, who foolishly invaded Iraq. And not only does he invade Iraq and get us into trouble there, but that guarantees that things will eventually go South in Afghanistan because we, in effect, take our eye off the ball. We’re in Afghanistan. If we’re going to make Afghanistan work and we’re going to be able to get out of there, we have to concentrate on that problem because it’s a huge problem. But instead of concentrating on that problem, Bush starts another war in Iraq… an unnecessary war. Then Afghanistan goes South!

And then, of course, along comes Barack Obama. He plays a key role in trying to topple the regime in Syria… another disaster. Then he plays the key role in trying to topple the regime in Libya. We’re successful, but what does it lead to? Utter chaos.

If you look at American policy in the Middle East, under Clinton, Bush, and Obama, it’s one giant disaster. And again, this is one of the reasons that Donald Trump got elected in 2016. Trump said,in no uncertain terms, these Presidents have failed: both Republicans and Democrats! Many people forget this, but Trump… he ran the table during the Republican primaries. He ran against Jeb Bush , Marco Rubio , and so-forth, and so-on, and he said, "Failed foreign policy. We need a change. America first…." And he got elected! This is not to argue that he’s done a really good job since he’s been president, but he did get elected.

32:42Sign off

Jed: Well, thank you so much. This has been fascinating and a real nice addition to the material we already got with Stephen, Walt, your friend and colleague. We really appreciate the time we got to have with you today. Thank you so much for coming on the show.

John: My pleasure. Thank you for having me on!

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