John Mearsheimer: How to Know When a Country is Behaving Rationally

This is an edited and abridged transcription of Anatol Lieven and John Mearsheimer’s remarks during a Quincy Institute event on January 29, 2024.

Anatol Lieven: Good morning, everyone. I am Anatol Lieven, director of the Eurasia program at the Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft. It is a tremendous honor today to introduce Professor John Mearsheimer of the University of Chicago, where he has taught since 1982. He is generally regarded as one of the greatest thinkers on international relations of the past half century, as well as one of the very greatest thinkers from the realist tradition over, well—since it began. He is author of the classic work, the Tragedy of Great Power Politics. Today we will be discussing his latest book, co-authored with Sebastian Rosato, How States Think: The Rationality of Foreign Policyan interesting title, since, I think, both of us have often felt that many recent foreign policy decisions have been profoundly irrational. Anyway, John, to begin now, I will just ask you to describe briefly the main thesis of this book.

John Mearsheimer: Well, what happened here, Anatol, is that a number of years ago, Sebastian and I were talking, and we were quite perplexed by the fact that there was this growing consensus in the academic world, and even in the policy world, that states are more likely to be irrational or non-rational than they are to be rational. And we thought this was a rather disturbing finding, not only because we thought it was intuitively wrong, but also because almost all of the key theories in international relations are based on the rational actor assumption, and that would relegate them to the dustbin of history, if states were not rational. And, furthermore, how can policymakers make policy if all the states in the system, or most of the states in the system, are irrational most of the time? So we decided to investigate the matter. What we had to do was we had to come up with a definition of rationality. The definition that we came up with about rationality is a two-part definition. The first part focuses on the individual and the second part focuses on the collectivity because inside a state there are a handful of individuals who are involved in making decisions, so you have to aggregate the decisions or the views of individual policymakers. Anyway, focusing on the individual: Our basic argument is that we are all theoretical human beings. We call this Homo theoreticus. Our basic argument is that to comprehend the world around us, and to be able to make decisions, which is what rationality is all about, you need theories. The question is whether or not the theories that those policymakers employ are credible theories or non credible theories. That’s the key criterion at the individual level. So, we argue that if you see an individual or a group of individuals making a policy that’s based on a credible theory, that is rational. But that’s only part one of our argument. The second part of our argument is that the different individuals involved in the policymaking process have to work together in a collective way, so as to produce a rational decision. And that involves, you know, uninhibited and freewheeling debate among the relevant policymakers. So if you have this sort of open ended freewheeling debate at the collective level, and you come up with a policy that’s based on a credible theory about how the world works, then you are rational in our story.

Anatol Lieven: Now, the book talks about a rational policymaking process based on credible theories. But if there is something profoundly flawed about the basic goal, can the policymaking process be described as wholly rational? How does one reconcile the rationality of the process with the ends or goals and their rationality or lack of it?

John Mearsheimer: The literature on rationality is almost exclusively about the decision-making process, and has hardly anything to say about goals. The basic logic here is if you don’t survive, you cannot pursue those other goals…. Survival should be the number one goal, states can have all sorts of goals that are deeply immoral or unethical. But that doesn’t mean they’re irrational. You cannot measure rationality, you cannot determine whether a state is rational or not, by looking at outcomes—there’s almost universal agreement on this point in the literature as well. You look at the process. The question is does the policymaking elite have a rational policy based on our credible theory, and did they operate collectively in a way that fostered uninhibited debate to produce this policy? And, if the answer is yes, it’s a rational policymaking process. So it’s the process, not the outcomes that matter. And it’s really the process and not so much the goals except for survival.

Anatol Lieven: There’s an interesting tension here between the survival of a state—which I entirely agree with you must be the fundamental goal of any state—and the survival of an empire. But that isn’t really true of the United States. As long as Mexico is weak, and Canada is a friend, there is no existential threat to the United States from other powers. There is, of course, an existential threat to American global hegemony. But can that be defined as an interest of the American state?

John Mearsheimer: The question of whether or not the United States or any other great power should expand, should pursue regional hegemony, or pursue global hegemony, is all a matter of whether or not that state has a plausible theory that underpins that policy.

A good example of this is NATO expansion. I’m a realist, and I thought from the get-go that NATO expansion was going to lead to one heck of a lot of trouble. And it eventually did. Am I then going to say that NATO expansion was irrational or non-rational? I’m not, and why am I not going to say that? Because NATO expansion was based on a handful of plausible theories. NATO expansion was based on the Big Three liberal theories—Democratic Peace Theory, Economic Interdependence Theory, and Liberal Institutionalism. These three liberal theories are widely regarded in the academic world. They’re not considered to be non-credible or foolish theories. So, I think that the policy of NATO expansion was rational in the sense it was based on credible theories. But I also thought at the time that it was flawed, and I believe that I was right. But all of this just highlights that there are different theories, which lead to different policy prescriptions.

Anatol Lieven: So when it comes to NATO expansion, you would, I think, also agree that by the same token, the Russian establishment’s decision to push back very hard against NATO expansion to Ukraine and Georgia was also rational, given the premises on which they were basing their policy.

John Mearsheimer: Oh, no question. We start the book by talking about Putin, and it was commonplace, certainly after February 24, 2022, to make the argument that Putin was irrational, and it was completely crazy for him to invade Ukraine. I think this is not the case at all. I mean, Putin went to great lengths to tell us that NATO expansion was unacceptable: He tried to solve the problem diplomatically, we refused. And what he effectively did in February 2022 is he launched a preventive war. And we’re still in the midst of this horrible war, but I believe he was clearly rational in terms of his own thinking about invading Ukraine, and I think there’s a bit of evidence (we don’t have a lot of evidence at this point) that shows that he consulted others in the decision making process. So I think this is a rational policy. But as you well know, the United States, whenever it’s dealing with an adversary, has a powerful tendency to argue that that person is irrational, or crazy, whether it’s Saddam Hussein or Vladimir Putin. But the fact is, when you’re dealing with someone like Vladimir Putin, I think you’re dealing with a first-grade strategic thinker. You don’t have to like what he’s doing, but he’s not a fool, and I believe that the policy that he pursued in February 2022 can easily be explained on rational actor grounds.

Anatol Lieven: How does the issue of ignorance and intelligence failure relate to the rationality of the decision making process?

John Mearsheimer: We live in a world of uncertainty, great uncertainty, whether you’re Vladimir Putin, George W. Bush, Barack Obama, Joe Biden, you name it, we live in a world of uncertainty. And any time you make a major move in international politics, it is difficult to be certain what the end result will be. This is why you can’t equate rationality without outcomes: because we live in an uncertain world. And sometimes, things just don’t work out the way you anticipated, not because you are stupid, but because it is a very complicated world.

Anatol Lieven: To go to [audience] questions, we have a question about groupthink in decision-making, something which is very evident in Washington, D.C. Ben Rhodes coined this term, “the blob,” in terms of a certain degree of universal groupthink. What if you have a situation in which the entire apparatus is giving one set of advice based upon a doctrine, which is simply wrong?

John Mearsheimer: We found that there are three general patterns in terms of how the policy makers interact with each other “inside the room.” The first pattern is that there is no agreement among the policymakers. And nevertheless, after debating the issue, they reach agreement. The second pattern is there’s no agreement initially among the policy makers, and they never reach agreement. And the ultimate decider, the sovereign, in effect, has to make a decision. And then the third case, which is what you’re talking about, is where you get consensus from the get go. The point that I’m trying to make here is that not in every case, but in almost all the cases or most of the cases that we looked at, what you see is that policymakers are very serious, and whether they agree or disagree depends on the particular case.

Anatol Lieven: We have a question, which I know you addressed in the book: the influence on your work of Daniel Kahneman, his research: Thinking, Fast and Slow. Could you describe the relationship with your work to that of Professor Kahneman?

John Mearsheimer: Daniel Kahneman is sort of the intellectual father of the political psychology school of thought. His basic argument, which lots of political scientists—or, to put it slightly differently, lots of I.R. theorists—employ, is the claim that policymakers use heuristics to make decisions, or sometimes the argument is that they use analogies like the Munich analogy. In other words, the argument is that decision makers have the simplifying devices in their head, these heuristics, these rules of thumb, these simple analogies, and that’s what they rely on to make decisions in crises, or for purposes of formulating grand strategy. Our argument is that you can find zero evidence of this in any of the cases that we looked at.

Anatol Lieven: So, in other words, the endless endless references to Munich and appeasement that one reads in the media, and in politicians, speeches, and sometimes in President speeches, that this is basically just for public consumption, it’s for the masses, it doesn’t really affect how they themselves think?

John Mearsheimer: I think that’s true. International politics is a deadly serious business; we all understand that the stakes are enormously high here. Would you expect in that kind of situation that people are going to use or policymakers are going to use simple rules of thumb or simple analogies? I don’t think that that makes sense. And I think that when you look at the evidence, my point is born out.

Anatol Lieven: There’s a question about your attitude to the issue of Taiwan, and American commitments to Taiwan and the status of Taiwan. Some people have felt that there is an inconsistency there between the positions you’ve taken with regard to U.S. policy towards Russia and U.S. policy towards China. Can you explain your contrasting views on these issues?

John Mearsheimer: I think from an American perspective, what you don’t want is any other great power in the world to be become a regional hegemon, you don’t want Imperial Germany or Nazi Germany to dominate Europe, you don’t want Imperial Japan to dominate Asia, and you don’t want the Soviet Union to dominate either Europe or Asia. And I think that there is no possibility of Russia being a regional hegemon in Europe. And, therefore, I think the United States should have good relations with Russia. I think it makes no strategic sense at all, to pick a fight with Russia. I think China, on the other hand, is, at this point in time, a peer competitor; it’s much more powerful than Russia is and is a threat to dominate Asia. I think it’s in the American interest not to allow China to dominate Asia.

Anatol Lieven: There’s a question which follows rather naturally on the impact of nuclear weapons on decision making and calculations of rationality. Because in other words, if one’s looking at the fundamental issue of state survival, how great is the risk of annihilation, that it is wrapped in genuine annihilation, total destruction of the state and society? Is it reasonable to run for the sake of a broader concept of security?

John Mearsheimer: I think that if the United States or NATO more generally were to intervene in Ukraine, and we in the West started pushing back, and the Russians were in a situation where they looked like they were going to be defeated in Ukraine, I believe they would use nuclear weapons. So I’m adamantly opposed to NATO getting inside of Ukraine, I think it’s a prescription for disaster. I think when you think about the consequences of a nuclear war, it really, to put it in crude terms, scares the living bejesus out of you. And as I always emphasize, when I talk about these issues, thankfully, we’ve never had a nuclear war. And the end result is that we don’t know much about nuclear escalation. With regard to China, I think, you know, the dangers are there, as well as they are in Ukraine. I think that it is possible that you could have a war over the South China Sea, you could have a war over Taiwan. I think that that war would almost certainly start as a conventional war, I find it hard to imagine the Chinese or the Americans using nuclear weapons initially in a conflict between the two sides. But if a conventional war broke out, and one side was losing, I mean, if the Chinese were losing, and this war was taking place right off their coast, and the Americans were pounding the Chinese mainland, do I think that the possibility of nuclear escalation would be real? I certainly do. Am I going to sleep well at night knowing those risks are out there? Absolutely not. And this just highlights to me what a dangerous business International Relations is and why it’s so important that policymakers behave in a rational manner.

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