Transcript for John Mearsheimer: Israel-Palestine, Russia-Ukraine, China, NATO, and WW3 | Lex Fridman Podcast #401

This is a transcript of Lex Fridman Podcast #401 with John Mearsheimer. The timestamps in the transcript are clickable links that take you directly to that point in the main video. Please note that the transcript is human generated, and may have errors. Here are some useful links:

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Lex Fridman (00:00:00) The following is a conversation with John Mearsheimer, a professor at University of Chicago and one of the most influential and controversial thinkers in the world. He teaches, speaks and writes about the nature of power and war on the global stage, in history and today.
(00:00:19) Please allow me to say, once again, my hope for this little journey I’m on. I will speak to everyone on all sides with compassion, with empathy, and with backbone. I’ll speak with Vladimir Putin and with Volodymyr Zelenskyy, with Russians and with Ukrainians, with Israelis and with Palestinians, with everyone. My goal is to do whatever small part I can to decrease the amount of suffering in the world by trying to reveal our common humanity. I believe that in the end, truth and love wins. I will get attacked for being naive, for being a shill, for being weak. I’m none of those things, but I do make mistakes and I will get better. I love you all.
(00:01:19) This is a Lex Fridman podcast. To support it, please check out our sponsors in the description. And now, dear friends, here’s John Mearsheimer.


(00:01:29) Can you explain your view on power in international politics as outlined in your book, The Tragedy of Great Power Politics and in your writing since then?
John Mearsheimer (00:01:39) Yeah, I make two sets of points there. First of all, I believe that power is the currency of international relations, and by that I mean that states are deeply interested in the balance of power and they’re interested in maximizing how much power they control. And the question is why do states care so much about power. In the international system, there’s no higher authority, so if you get into trouble and you dial 911, there’s nobody at the other end. In a system like that, you have no choice but to figure out for yourself how best to protect yourself. And the best way to protect yourself is to be powerful, to have as much power as you can possibly gain over all the other states in the system. Therefore, states care about power because it enhances or maximizes their prospects for survival.
(00:02:39) Second point I would make is that in the realist story or in my story, power is largely a function of material factors. The two key building blocks of power are population size and wealth. You want to have a lot of people and you want to be really wealthy. Of course, this is why the United States is so powerful. It has lots of people and it has lots of wealth. China was not considered a great power until recently because it didn’t have a lot of wealth. It certainly had population size, but it didn’t have wealth. And without both a large population and much wealth, you’re usually not considered a great power. So I think power matters, but when we talk about power, it’s important to understand that it’s population size and wealth that are underpinning it.
Lex Fridman (00:03:38) So there’s a lot of interesting things there. First you said nations in relation to each other is essentially in a state of anarchism.
John Mearsheimer (00:03:48) Yeah, well, anarchy basically means the opposite of hierarchy. Sometimes people think when you’re talking about anarchy, you’re talking about murder and mayhem, but that’s not what anarchy means in the realist context. Anarchy simply means that you don’t have hierarchy. There’s no higher authority that sits above states. States are like pool balls on a table. And in an anarchic world, there’s no higher authority that you can turn to if you get into trouble.
(00:04:22) And of course the political philosopher who laid this all out was Thomas Hobbes. And Hobbes talked about life in the state of nature, and in the state of nature you have individuals and those individuals compete with each other for power. And the reason that they do is because in the state of nature, by definition, you have no higher authority. And Hobbes’s view is that the way to get out of this terrible situation where individuals are competing with each other and even killing each other is to create a state. It’s what he calls the Leviathan, and that of course is the title of his famous book.
(00:05:02) So the idea is to escape anarchy, you create a state, and that means you go from anarchy to hierarchy. The problem in international politics is that there is no world state, there is no hierarchy. And if you have no hierarchy and you’re in an anarchic system, you have no choice but to try to maximize your relative power to make sure you are, as we used to say when I was a kid on New York City playgrounds, the biggest and baddest dude on the block. Not because you necessarily want to beat up on other kids or on other states, but because again, that’s the best way to survive.
(00:05:47) And as I like to point out to people, the best example of what happens when you’re weak in international politics is what the Chinese call the century of national humiliation. From the late 1840s to the late 1940s the Chinese were remarkably weak, and the great powers in the system preyed upon them. And that sends a very important message to not only the Chinese, but to other states in the system. Don’t be weak, be as powerful as you can.
Lex Fridman (00:06:18) And we’ll talk about it, but humiliation can lead to resentment or resentment leads to something you’ve also studied, which is Nazi Germany in the 1930s. We’ll talk about it, but staying to the psychology and philosophy picture, what’s the connection between the will to power in the individual, as you mentioned, and the will to power in a nation?
John Mearsheimer (00:06:43) The will to power in an individual has a lot to do with individual psychology. The story that I tell about the pursuit of power is a structural argument. It’s an argument that says when you are in a particular structure, when you’re in a system that has a specific architecture which is anarchy, the states have no choice but to compete for power. So structure is really driving the story here. Will to power has a lot more to do with an individual in the Nietzschen story where that concept comes from. So it’s very important to understand that I’m not arguing that states are inherently aggressive. My point is that as long as states are in anarchy, they have no choice but to behave in an aggressive fashion. But if you went to a hierarchic system, there’s no reason for those states to worry about the balance of power, because if they get into trouble there is a higher authority that they can turn to. There is in effect a leviathan.
Lex Fridman (00:07:59) So what is the role of military might in this will to power on the national level?
John Mearsheimer (00:08:06) Well, military mights is what ultimately matters. As I said to you before, the two building blocks of power are population size and wealth.
Lex Fridman (00:08:16) You didn’t mention military mights.
John Mearsheimer (00:08:17) I did not, no. That’s right. And it’s good that you caught that because if you have a large population and you’re a wealthy country, what you do is you build a large military, and it’s ultimately the size of your military that matters because militaries fight wars. And if states are concerned about survival, which I argue is the principle goal of every state in the international system for what I think are obvious reasons, then they’re going to care about having a powerful military that can protect them if another state comes after them.
Lex Fridman (00:08:55) Well, it’s not obvious that a large nation with a lot of people and a lot of money should necessarily build a gigantic army and seek to attain dominant soul superpower status to military might. But you’re saying, as you see the world today, it has to be that way.
John Mearsheimer (00:09:16) Yeah, I’m arguing it is obvious. If you’re a state in the international system, do you want to be weak? If you live next door to Nazi Germany or Imperial Germany or Napoleonic France or even the United States… The United States is a ruthless great power, you surely recognize that. And if you’re dealing with the United States of America and you’re Vladimir Putin, you want to make sure you’re as powerful as possible so that the United States doesn’t put its gun sights on you and come after you. Same thing is true with China. You want to be powerful in the international system.
(00:09:50) States understand that, and they go to great lengths to become powerful. Just take the United States of America. When it started in 1783, it was comprised of 13 measly colonies strung out along the Atlantic seaboard. Over time, the various leaders of the United States went to great lengths to turn that country into the dominant power in the Western Hemisphere. And then once that was achieved in 1900, we’ve gone to great lengths to make sure that there’s no pier competitor in the system. We just want to make sure that we’re number one.
(00:10:33) And my argument is that this is not peculiar to the United States. If I’m China, for example, today, I would want to dominate Asia the way the United States dominates the Western Hemisphere. They’d be fools not to. If I were imperial Germany, I’d want to dominate all of Europe the way the United States dominates the Western Hemisphere. Why? Because if you dominate all of Europe, assuming you’re Imperial Germany or Napoleonic France, then no other state in the area or in the region can threaten you because you’re simply so powerful.
(00:11:12) And again, what I’m saying here is that the structure of the international system really matters. It’s the fact that you’re in this anarchic system where survival is your principle goal and where I can’t know your intentions, right? You’re another state. I can’t know that at some point you might not come after me. You might. And if you’re really powerful and I’m not, I’m in deep trouble.
Lex Fridman (00:11:37) Yeah. So some of the ideas underlying what you’ve said, offensive realism, which I would love to talk to you about sort of the history of realism versus liberalism, but some of the ideas you already mentioned, anarchy between states, everybody’s trying to develop military capabilities, uncertainty, such an interesting concept. States cannot be sure that other states will not use military capabilities against them, which is one-
John Mearsheimer (00:12:07) That’s of enormous importance to the story,
Lex Fridman (00:12:09) …really important, and so interesting because you also say that this makes realists more cautious and more peaceful, the uncertainty because of all the uncertainty involved here, it’s better to approach international politics with caution, which is really interesting to think about. Again, survival, most states interested in survival. And the other interesting thing is you assume all the states are rational, which-
John Mearsheimer (00:12:40) Most of the time.
Lex Fridman (00:12:41) Most of the time. You call this framework offensive realism. Can you just give an overview of the history of the realism versus liberalism debate as worldviews?
John Mearsheimer (00:12:56) Well, I think for many centuries now, the big divide within the world of international relations theory is between realism and liberalism. These are time honored bodies of theory. And before I tell you what I think the differences are between those two bodies of theory, it is important to emphasize that there are differences among realists and differences among liberals. And so when you talk about me as an offensive realist, you should understand that there are also defensive realists out there, and there are a panoply of liberal theories as well.
(00:13:42) But basically realists believe that power matters, that states compete for power, and that war is an instrument of statecraft. And liberals, on the other hand, have what I would say is a more idealistic view of the world. This is not to say that they’re naive or foolish, but they believe there are aspects of international politics that lead to a less competitive and more peaceful world than most realists say. And I’ll lay out for you very quickly, what are the three major liberal theories today that I think will give you a sense of the more optimistic perspective that is inherent in the liberal enterprise.
(00:14:40) The first and most important of the liberal theories is democratic peace theory, and this is a theory that says democracies do not fight against other democracies. So the more the world is populated with democracies, the less likely it is that we will have wars. And this basic argument is inherent in Francis Fukuyama’s The End of History. He argues that democracy triumphed first over fascism in the 20th century, it then triumphed over communism, and that means that in the future we’re going to have more and more liberal democracies on the planet. And if you have more and more liberal democracies and those democracies don’t fight each other, then you have a more peaceful world. That was his argument. It’s a very liberal argument.
(00:15:36) A realist like me would say that it doesn’t matter whether a state is a democracy or not, all states behave the same way because the structure of the system, getting back to our earlier discussion about international anarchy, the structure of the system leaves those states no choice, whether they’re democracies or autocracies. And again, the liberal view, this first liberal theory, is that democracies don’t fight other democracies, and therefore the more democracies you have, the more peaceful the world.
Lex Fridman (00:16:12) Can I just sort of try to unpack that a little bit? So the democratic peace theory, I guess, would say that in democracies leaders are elected, and the underlying assumption is most people want peace, and so they will elect peacemakers. So the more democracies you have, the more likely you have peace. And then the realist perspective says that it doesn’t matter if the majority of people want peace. The structure of international politics is such that superpowers want to become more super and powerful, and they do that through war.
John Mearsheimer (00:16:51) You can’t make that argument that you’re making about democracies, because if you’re saying that democracies are inclined toward peace and that the electorate picks leaders who are inclined towards peace, then you have to show that democracies are, in general, more peaceful than non democracies, and you can’t support that argument. You can find lots of evidence to support the argument that democracies don’t fight other democracies.
(00:17:25) So the argument I believe that you have to make, if you’re going to support democratic peace theory, the main argument you have to make is that liberal democracies have a healthy respect for each other and they can assess each other’s intentions. If you’re a liberal democracy, and I’m a liberal democracy, we know we have value systems that argue against aggression, and argue for peaceful resolution of crises. And therefore, given these norms, we can trust each other, we can know each other’s intentions. Remember, for realists like me, uncertainty about intentions really helps drive the train. But if you’re talking about two democracies, the argument there is that they know each other’s intentions.
Lex Fridman (00:18:19) And for you, sure, maybe democracies reduce uncertainty a little bit, but not enough to stop the train.
John Mearsheimer (00:18:26) I think that’s right, yeah. That’s right. So that’s democratic peace theory. The second theory is economic interdependence theory, and that’s the argument that, in a globalized world like the one that we live in and have lived in for a long time, there’s a great deal of economic interdependence. And if you and I are two countries, or if you and me are two countries and we’re economically interdependent and we’re both getting prosperous as a result of this economic intercourse, the last thing that we’re going to do is start a war, either one of us, because who would kill the goose that lays the golden eggs, it’s that kind of argument. So there you have an argument that economic interdependence leads to peace.
(00:19:09) And then the third liberal argument has to do with institutions, sometimes referred to as liberal institutionalism. And this is the argument that if you can get states into institutions where they become rule abiding actors, they will obey the rules that dictate that war is not acceptable. So if you get them to accept the UN rules on when you can and cannot initiate a war, then you’ll have a more peaceful world. So those are the liberal theories, and as you can tell, they’re very different from realism as articulated by somebody like me.
Lex Fridman (00:19:57) Can you maybe argue against the economic interdependence and in the institutions that institutions follow rules a little bit? So the golden goose with the golden egg, you’re saying that nations are happy to kill the goose because again, they want power.
John Mearsheimer (00:20:19) If they think it’s necessary to kill the golden goose because of security concerns, they will do it. The point is that economic interdependence at its root has prosperity as the core variable. In the realest story, the core variable is survival, and survival always trumps prosperity. So if you go back to the period before World War I, we’re in Europe, it’s 1913 or early 1914, what you see is that you have an intense security competition between all of the great powers. On one side you have the Triple Alliance, and on the other side you have the Triple Entente. You have these two alliances, and you have an intense security competition between them. At the same time, you have a great deal of economic interdependence. It’s amazing how much economic intercourse is taking place in Europe among all the actors. And people are getting prosperous or countries are getting prosperous as a result. But nevertheless, in the famous July crisis of 1914, this economic prosperity is unable to prevent World War I because security concerns or survival is more important. So there are going to be lots of situations where prosperity and survival come into conflict, and in those cases, survival will win.
Lex Fridman (00:21:59) And maybe you can speak to the different camps of realists. You said offensive and defensive. Can you draw a distinction between those two?
John Mearsheimer (00:22:09) Yeah. Let me just back up a bit on that one. And you were talking about will to power before. The first big divide between realists is structural realists and human nature realists, and Hans Morgenthau, who was influenced by nature and therefore had that will to power logic embedded in his thinking about how the world works, he was a human nature realist. I’m a structural realist and I believe it’s not human nature, it’s not individuals in some will to power that drives competition and war. What drives competition and war is the structure of the system. It’s anarchy.
Lex Fridman (00:23:03) So you’re not as romantic as the human nature realists.
John Mearsheimer (00:23:06) Yeah. There’s just a world of difference between the two. It’s just important to understand that.
Lex Fridman (00:23:12) So within that, from the structural, there’s a subdivision also of offensive and defensive.
John Mearsheimer (00:23:17) Yes. Inside the structural realist world. And you have a handful of realists who believe that the structure of the system fosters competition, for sure, security competition. But it really rules out great power war almost all the time. So it makes sense to care about the balance of power, but to focus on maintaining how much power you have. That’s the defensive realism, maintaining how much power you have. Not trying to gain more power, because the argument the defense of realists make is that if you try to gain more power, the system will punish you, the structure will punish you. I’m not a defensive realist, I’m an offensive realist. And my argument is that states look for opportunities to gain more power, and every time they see, or almost every time they see an opportunity to gain more power, and they think the likelihood of success is high and the cost will not be great, they’ll jump at that opportunity.


Lex Fridman (00:24:39) Just to linger on the human nature perspective, how do you explain Hitler and Nazi Germany, just one of the more recent aggressive expansions through military might? How do you explain that in the framework of offensive realism?
John Mearsheimer (00:25:04) Well, I think that Nazi Germany was driven in large part by structural considerations. And I think if you look at Imperial Germany, which was largely responsible for starting World War I, and of course Nazi Germany’s largely responsible for starting World War II, what that tells you is you didn’t need Adolf Hitler to start World War I. And I believe that there is a good chance you would’ve had World War II in the absence of Hitler. I believe that Germany was very powerful, it was deeply worried about the balance of power in Europe, and it had strong incentives to behave aggressively in the late 1930s, early 1940s. So I believe that structure mattered.
(00:25:54) However, I want to qualify that in the case of Adolf Hitler, because I do think he had what you would call a will to power. I’ve never used that word to describe him before, but it’s consistent with my point that I often make, that there are two leaders, or there have been two leaders in modern history who are congenital aggressors, and one was Napoleon and the other was Hitler. Now, if you want to call that a will to power, you can do that. I’m more comfortable referring to Hitler as a congenital aggressor and referring to Napoleon as a congenital aggressor, although there were important differences between the two, because Hitler was probably the most murderous leader in recorded history, and Napoleon was not in that category at all. But both of them were driven by what you would call a will to power, and that has to be married to the structural argument in Hitler’s case, and also in Napoleon’s case.
Lex Fridman (00:27:02) Is there some degree on the human psychology side that resentment, because of what happened after World War I, led to Hitler willing so much power, and then Hitler starting World War II? So this is the human side. Perhaps the reason I asked that question is also because you mentioned the century of humiliation on the China side. So to which degree does humiliation lead to Hitler and lead to World War II?
John Mearsheimer (00:27:33) Well, the question of what led to Hitler is a very different question than the question of what led to World War II once Hitler was in power. I mean, after January 30th, 1933, he’s in power. And then the question of what is driving him comes racing to the fore. Is there resentment over the Versailles treaty and what happened to Germany? Yes. Did that matter? Yes. But my argument is that structure was the principle factor driving the train in Hitler’s case. But what I’m saying here is that there were other factors that as well, resentment being one of them. Will to power or the fact that he was a congenital aggressor in my lexicon certainly mattered as well, so I don’t want to dismiss your point about resentment.
Lex Fridman (00:28:29) So Hitler in particular, the way he wielded, the way he gained so much power, might have been the general resentment of the populace or the German populace.
John Mearsheimer (00:28:41) I think that as a result of defeat in World War I and all the trials and tribulations associated with Weimar Germany, and then the coming of the Great Depression, all of those factors definitely account for his coming to power. I think that one of the reasons that he was so successful at winning over the German people once he came to power was because there was a great deal of resentment in the German body politic. And he played on that resentment, that surely helped him get elected too. But I think having studied the case, it was even more important once he took over.
(00:29:32) I also believe that one of the principal reasons that he was so popular and he was wildly popular inside Nazi Germany is because he was the only leader of an industrialized country who pulled his country out of the depression. And that really mattered, and it made him very effective. It’s also worth noting that he was a remarkably charismatic individual. I find that hard to believe because every time I look at him or listen to his speeches, he does not appear to be charismatic to me. But I’ve talked to a number of people who are experts on this subject who assure me that he was very charismatic. And I would note to you, if you look at public opinion polls in Germany, West Germany, in the late 1940s, this is the late 1940s after the Third Reich is destroyed in 1945, he is still remarkably popular in the polls.
Lex Fridman (00:30:31) Stalin is still popular in many parts of Eastern Europe.
John Mearsheimer (00:30:36) Yeah, yeah. And Stalin’s popular in many quarters inside Russia, and Stalin murdered more of his own people than he murdered people outside of the Soviet Union.
Lex Fridman (00:30:50) And still to you, the tides of history turned not on individuals, but on structural considerations. So Hitler may be a surface-layer characteristics of how Germany started war, but not really the reason.
John Mearsheimer (00:31:09) Well, history is a multidimensional phenomenon-
Lex Fridman (00:31:14) So I hear.
John Mearsheimer (00:31:15) … and we’re talking about interstate relations here, and realism is a theory about how states interact with each other, and there are many other dimensions to international politics. And if you’re talking about someone like Adolf Hitler, why did he start World War II is a very different question than why did he start the Holocaust or why did he push forward a holocaust? I mean, that’s a different question, and realism doesn’t answer that question. So I want to be very clear that I’m not someone who argues that realism answers every question about international politics, but it does answer what is one of the big, if not the biggest, questions that IR scholars care about, which is what causes security competition and what causes great power war.
Lex Fridman (00:32:10) Does offensive realism answer the question why Hitler attacked the Soviet Union?
John Mearsheimer (00:32:17) Yes.
Lex Fridman (00:32:18) Because from a military strategy perspective, there’s pros and cons to that decision.
John Mearsheimer (00:32:25) Pros and cons to every decision. The question is, did he think that he could win a quick and decisive victory. And he did, as did his generals. It’s very interesting, I’ve spent a lot of time studying German decision making in World War II. If you look at the German decision to invade Poland on September 1st, 1939, and you look at the German decision to invade France on May 10th, 1940, and then the Soviet Union on June 22nd, 1941, what you see is there was actually quite a bit of resistance to Hitler in 1938 at the time of Czechoslovakia, Munich, and there was also quite a bit of resistance in September, 1939.
Lex Fridman (00:33:13) Internally? Or you mean…
John Mearsheimer (00:33:14) Internally, internally. For sure. Yeah. People had doubts. They didn’t think the Wehrmacht was ready, and given the fact that World War I had just ended about 20 years before, the thought of starting another European war was not especially attractive to lots of German policy makers, including military leaders. And then came France 1940. In the run-up to May 10th, 1940, there was huge resistance in the German army to attacking France. But that was eventually eliminated because they came up with a clever plan, the Manstein Plan. If you look at the decision to invade the Soviet Union on June 22nd, 1941, which is the only case where they fail… They succeeded in France, they succeeded in Poland, they succeeded at Munich in 1938. Soviet Union is where they fail. There’s hardly any resistance at all, right?
Lex Fridman (00:34:20) Yeah. Well, and to say that they failed the Soviet Union, my grandfather fought for the Soviet Union, there was a lot of successes early on. So there’s poor military, I would say, strategic decisions along the way, but it caught Stalin off guard. Maybe you can correct me, but from my perspective, terrifyingly so, they could have been successful if certain different decisions were made from a military perspective.
John Mearsheimer (00:34:54) Yeah. I’ve always had the sense they came terrifyingly close to winning. You can make the opposite argument that they were doomed-
John Mearsheimer (00:35:03) You can make the opposite argument that they were doomed. But I’m not terribly comfortable making that argument. I think the Wehrmacht, by the summer of 1941, was a finely tuned instrument for war, and the Red Army was in quite terrible shape. Stalin had purged the Officer Corps, they had performed poorly in Finland, and there were all sorts of reasons to think that they were no match for the Wehrmacht.
(00:35:36) And if you look at what happened in the initial stages of the conflict, that proved to be the case. The Germans won a lot of significant tactical victories early on.
Lex Fridman (00:35:49) And if they focused and went to Moscow as quickly as possible, again, terrifyingly, so could have been, basically topple Stalin. And one thing that’s-
John Mearsheimer (00:36:03) That’s possible.
Lex Fridman (00:36:04) That’s possible.
John Mearsheimer (00:36:05) Fortunately, we’re not going to run the experiment again, but one could argue that, had they concentrated as the generals wanted to do, in going straight from Moscow, that they would’ve won. I mean, what Hitler wanted to do is, he wanted to go into the Ukraine. I mean, Hitler thought that the main Axis… There were three Axes. The northern Axis went towards Leningrad, the central Axis of course, went to Moscow, and then the Southern Axis, Army Group South, headed towards Ukraine and deep into the caucuses.
(00:36:39) And Hitler believed that that should have been the main Axis. And in fact, in 1942, the Soviets, excuse me, the Germans go back on the offensive in 1942. This is Operation Blue, and the main Axis in ’42 is deep into the Ukraine and into the caucuses, and that fails.
(00:37:01) But one could argue that, had they done that in ’41, had they not gone to Moscow, had they gone, had they concentrated on going deep into Ukraine and into the caucuses, they could have knocked the Soviets out that way. I’m not sure that in the end I believe that. I think in the end the Soviets would’ve won no matter what, but I’m not a hundred percent sure of that.
Lex Fridman (00:37:28) Sometimes, maybe you can educate me, but sometimes they say, just like with Napoleon, winter defeated Hitler in Russia. I think not often enough people tell the story of the soldiers and the motivation and how hard they fight. So it turns out that Ukrainians and Russians are not easy to conquer. They’re the kinds of people that don’t roll over and fight bravely. There seems to be a difference in certain peoples, in how they see war, how they approach war, how proud they are to fight for their country, to die for their country, these kinds of things. So I think Battle of Stalingrad tells, at least to me, a story of extremely brave fighting on the Soviet side, and that, it’s a component of war too. It’s not just structural, it’s not just military strategy, it’s also the humans involved, but maybe that’s a romantic notion of war.
John Mearsheimer (00:38:33) No, I think there’s a great deal of truth in that, but let’s just unpack it a bit in the case of the Soviet Union in World War II. The counterargument to that is that in World War I, the Russian Army disintegrated. And if you look at what happened when Napoleon invaded in 1812, and you look at what happened in 1917, and then you look at what happened between ’41 and ’45, the Napoleon case looks a lot like the Hitler case, and it fits neatly with your argument.
(00:39:14) But World War I does not fit neatly with your argument because the Russians lost and surrendered, and you had the infamous treaty of Brest-Litovsk, where the Soviet Union then, because it went from Russia to the Soviet Union in October 1917, the Soviet Union surrendered large amounts of Soviet territory because it had suffered a humiliating defeat.
(00:39:38) My argument for why the Russians, let me take that back, why the Soviets fought like wild dogs in World War II is that they were up against a genocidal adversary. You want to understand that the Germans murdered huge numbers of Soviet POWs. The overall total was 3.7 million. And by December, December of 1941, remember the invasion is June ’41, by December of 1941, the Germans have murdered 2 million Soviet POWs. At that point in time, they had murdered many more POWs than they had murdered Jews.
(00:40:20) And this is not to deny for one second that they were on a murderous rampage when it came to Jews, but they were also on a murderous rampage when it came to Soviet citizens and Soviet soldiers. So those Soviet soldiers quickly came to understand they were fighting for their lives. If they were taken prisoner, they would die. So they fought like wild dogs.
Lex Fridman (00:40:48) Yeah, the story of the Holocaust, of the 6 million Jews, is often told extensively. If Hitler won, conquered the Soviet Union, it’s terrifying to think, on a much grander scale than the Holocaust, what would’ve happened to the Slavic people, to the Soviet people.
John Mearsheimer (00:41:08) Absolutely. All you have to do is read the Hunger Plan, right? And they also had a plan, what was it called? Grand Planned East, I forget the exact name of it, which made it clear that they were going to murder many tens of millions of people. And by the way, I believe that they would’ve murdered all the Poles and all the Roma. I mean, my view is that the Jews were number one on the genocidal hit list. The Roma, or the gypsies, were number two, and the Poles were number three.
(00:41:42) And of course, I just explained to you how many POWs they had killed. So they would’ve ended up murdering huge numbers of Soviet citizens as well. But people quickly figured out that this was happening, that’s my point to you. And that gave them, needless to say, very powerful incentives to fight hard against the Germans, and to make sure that they did not win.

Russia and Ukraine

Lex Fridman (00:42:09) To fast-forward in time, but not in space, let me ask you about the war in Ukraine. Why did Russia invade Ukraine on February 24th, 2022? What are some of the explanations given? And which do you find the most convincing?
John Mearsheimer (00:42:33) Well, clearly, the conventional wisdom is that Putin is principally responsible. Putin is an imperialist, he’s an expansionist.
Lex Fridman (00:42:43) That’s the conventional thinking.
John Mearsheimer (00:42:44) Yeah, yeah. And the idea is that he is bent on creating a greater Russia, and even more, so he’s interested in dominating Eastern Europe, if not all of Europe, and that Ukraine was the first stop on the train line. And what he wanted to do was to conquer all of Ukraine, incorporate it into a greater Russia, and then he would move on and conquer other countries. This is the conventional wisdom. My view is there is no evidence, let me emphasize, zero evidence, to support that argument.
Lex Fridman (00:43:26) Which part? That he would… The imperialist part, the sense that he sought to conquer all of Ukraine, and move on and conquer-
John Mearsheimer (00:43:36) There’s no evidence he was interested in conquering all of Ukraine. There was no evidence beforehand that he was interested in conquering any of Ukraine. And there’s no way that an army that had 190,000 troops, at the most, could have conquered all of Ukraine, it’s just impossible.
(00:43:59) As I like to emphasize, when the Germans went into Poland in 1939, and the Germans, you want to remember, were only intent on conquering the western half of Poland, because the Soviets, who came in later that month, were going to conquer the eastern half of Poland. So the western half of Poland is much smaller than Ukraine, and the Germans went in with 1.5 million troops. If Vladimir Putin were bent on conquering all of Ukraine, he would’ve needed at least 2 million troops. I would argue he’d need 3 million troops, because not only did he need to conquer the country, you then have to occupy it.
(00:44:44) But the idea that 190,000 troops was sufficient for conquering all of Ukraine, it’s not a serious argument. Furthermore, he was not interested in conquering Ukraine, and that’s why, in March 2022, this is immediately after the war starts, he is negotiating with Zelensky to end the war. There are serious negotiations taking place in Istanbul involving the Turks. And Naftali Bennett, who was the Israeli prime minister at the time, was deeply involved in negotiating with both Putin and Zelensky to end the war.
(00:45:22) Well, if he was interested, Putin, in conquering all of Ukraine, why in God’s name would he be negotiating with Zelensky to end the war? And of course, what they were negotiating about was NATO expansion into Ukraine, which was the principal cause of the war. People in the West don’t want to hear that argument because if it is true, which it is, then the West is principally responsible for this bloodbath that’s now taking place. And of course, the West doesn’t want to be principally responsible. It wants to blame Vladimir Putin.
(00:45:59) So we’ve invented this story out of whole cloth that he is an aggressor, that he’s the second coming of Adolf Hitler, and that what he did in Ukraine was try to conquer all of it and he failed. But with a little bit of luck, he probably would’ve conquered all of it, and he’d now be in the Baltic States, and eventually end up dominating all of Eastern Europe. As I said, I think there’s no evidence to support this.
Lex Fridman (00:46:28) So maybe there’s a lot of things to ask there. Maybe just to linger on NATO expansion, what is NATO expansion? What is the threat of NATO expansion and why is this such a concern for Russia?
John Mearsheimer (00:46:42) NATO was a mortal enemy of the Soviet Union during the Cold War. It’s a military alliance which has at its heart the United States of America, which is the most powerful state on the planet. It is perfectly understandable that Russia is not going to want that military alliance on its doorstep.
(00:47:08) Here in the United States we have, as you well know, what’s called the Monroe Doctrine, and that basically says no great powers from Europe or Asia are allowed to come into our neighborhood and form a military alliance with anybody in this neighborhood. When I was young, there was this thing called the Cuban Missile Crisis. The Soviets had the audacity to put nuclear armed missiles in Cuba. We told them in no uncertain terms that that was not acceptable, and that those missiles had to be removed. This is our backyard and we do not tolerate distant great powers coming into our neighborhood.
(00:47:45) Well, what’s good for the goose is good for the gander. And if we don’t like great powers coming into our neighborhood, it’s hardly surprising that the Russians did not want NATO on their doorstep. They made that manifestly clear when the Cold War ended, and they exacted a promise from us that we would not expand NATO. And then when we started expanding NATO, they made it clear, after the first tranche in 1999, that they were profoundly unhappy with that. They made it clear in 2004, after the second tranche, that they were profoundly unhappy with that expansion.
(00:48:29) And then, in April 2008, when NATO announced that Ukraine and Georgia would become part of NATO, they made it unequivocally clear, not just Putin, that was not going to happen. They were drawing a red line in the sand. And it is no accident that in August 2008, remember the Bucharest Summit is April 2008? And August 2008, you had a war between Georgia and Russia, and that involved, at its core, NATO expansion.
(00:49:02) So the Americans and their allies should have understood by at least August 2008 that continuing to push to bring Ukraine into NATO was going to lead to disaster. And I would note that there were all sorts of people in the 1990s like George Kennan, William Perry, who was Bill Clinton’s Secretary of Defense, the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Paul Nitsa, and so forth and so on, who argued that NATO expansion would end up producing a disaster, which it has.
(00:49:38) I would note that at the famous April 2008 Bucharest Summit, where NATO said that Ukraine would be brought into the alliance, Angela Merkel and Nicolas Sarkozy, the German and French leaders respectively, opposed that decision. Angela Merkel later said that the reason she opposed it was because she understood that Putin would interpret it as a declaration of war. Just think about that. Merkel is telling you that she opposed NATO expansion into Ukraine, because she understood, correctly, that Putin would see it as a declaration of war.
(00:50:22) What did the United States and its friends and friends in Europe do? They continued to push and push, because we thought that we could push NATO expansion down their throat after 2008, the same way we did in 1999 and 2004, but we were wrong, and it all blew up in our face in 2014. And when it blew up in our face in 2014, what did we do? Did we back off and say, “Well, maybe the Russians have some legitimate security interest.” No, that’s not the way we operate. We continued to double down.
(00:50:57) And the end result is that in 2022, you got a war. And as I’ve argued for a long time now, we, the West, are principally responsible for that, not Vladimir Putin.
Lex Fridman (00:51:11) So the expansion of NATO is primarily responsible for that.
John Mearsheimer (00:51:15) Yeah. To put it in more general terms, what we were trying to do was turn Ukraine into a Western bulwark on Russia’s border, and it really wasn’t NATO expansion alone. NATO expansion was the most important element of our strategy. But the strategy had two other dimensions. One was EU expansion, and the third was the Color Revolution. We were trying to force Orange Revolution in Ukraine, and the basic goal there was to turn Ukraine into a pro-Western, liberal democracy.
(00:51:52) And that meant that you’d have Ukraine, if it worked, as a pro-Western liberal democracy that was in the EU, and that was in NATO. This was our goal. And the Russians made it unequivocally clear Ukraine was not going to become a Western bulwark on their border, and most importantly, they made it clear that Ukraine in NATO was unacceptable.
Lex Fridman (00:52:19) Can we talk about the mind of Vladimir Putin? You’ve mentioned this idea that he has aspirations for imperialist conquest, that he dreams of empire, is not grounded in reality. He wrote an essay in 2021, about one people. Do you think there is some degree to which he still dreams of the former Soviet Union reuniting?
John Mearsheimer (00:52:50) No, he’s made it clear that anybody with a triple digit IQ understands that it’s nuts to think about recreating the Soviet Union. He thinks it’s a tragedy that the Soviet Union fell apart, but as he made clear in that essay, the July 12th, 2021 essay, and as he made clear in speeches before, immediately before he invaded Ukraine, he accepted the breakup of the Soviet Union, and he accepted the status quo in Europe, save for the fact he did not accept the idea that Ukraine would become part of NATO.
Lex Fridman (00:53:33) He’s been in power for over two decades. Is there a degree that power can affect a leader’s ability to see the world clearly, as they say, corrupt? Do you think power has corrupted Vladimir Putin, to a degree?
John Mearsheimer (00:53:52) It’s very hard for me to answer that question because I don’t know him, and I’ve not studied him carefully in terms of his overall performance over the course of the 23 years that he’s been in power. I’ve studied him as a strategist, and I’ve studied how he deals with the West, and deals with the international system more generally since 2014. And I think he is a first class strategist.
(00:54:31) This is not to say he doesn’t make mistakes, and he admits he’s made some mistakes, but I think that the West is dealing with a formidable adversary here. And I don’t see any evidence that he’s either lost speed off his fastball, or that power has corrupted his thinking about strategic affairs.
Lex Fridman (00:54:59) So he has consistently put, as a primary concern, security? As does the United States, he’s put for Russia’s security, making sure that NATO doesn’t get close to its borders?
John Mearsheimer (00:55:12) I think that’s clear. Yeah, I think as I emphasized early on in our conversation, that leaders privilege security or survival over everything else. And by the way, he gave a number of talks and press conferences in addition to writing that famous article that you referred to on July 12th, 2021. So we have a pretty clear record of what he was saying, and I would argue what he was thinking, in the run-up to the war in February 2022.
(00:55:50) And if you read what he said, it’s quite clear that he privileged security or survival. He was deeply concerned about the security of Russia. And Russia is a quite vulnerable state in a lot of ways, especially if you think back to what it looked like in the 1990s, as you know better than I do. It was in terrible shape. The Chinese talk about the century of national humiliation. One could argue that for the Russians, that was the decade of national humiliation. And it took Putin, I think, quite a bit of time to bring the Russians back from the dead. I think he eventually succeeded, but it took a considerable amount of time, and I think he understood that he was not playing a particularly strong hand. He was playing something of a weak hand, and he had to be very careful, very cautious, and I think he was. And I think that’s very different than the United States. The United States was the Unipol. It was the most powerful state in the history of the world, the most powerful state relative to all its possible competitors. From roughly 1989, certainly after December 1991, when the Soviet Union fell apart, up until, I would argue, about 2017, we were incredibly powerful. And even after 2017, up to today, the United States remains the most powerful state in the system.
(00:57:18) And because of our geographical location, we are in a terrific situation to survive in any great power competition. So you have a situation involving the United States that’s different than the situation involving Russia. They’re just much more vulnerable than we are. And therefore, I think Putin tends to be more sensitive about security than any American president in recent times.
Lex Fridman (00:57:51) Europe on one side, China on the other side. It’s a complicated situation.
John Mearsheimer (00:57:56) Yeah. And we talked before about 1812, when Napoleon invaded and Moscow got burned to the ground. We talked about World War I, where the Russians were actually defeated and surrendered, and then we talked about 1941 to 1945, where, although thankfully the Soviets prevailed, it was a close call. And I mean, the casualties, the destruction that the Soviet Union had inflicted on it by the Germans is just almost hard to believe. So they are sensitive.
(00:58:38) You can understand full well, or at least you should be able to understand full well, why the idea of bringing Ukraine up to their border really spooked them. I don’t understand why more Americans don’t understand that, it befuddles me. I think it has to do with the fact that Americans are not very good at putting themselves in the shoes of other countries. And you really, if you’re going to be a first class strategist in international politics, you have to be able to do that. You have to put yourself in the shoes of the other side and think about how they think, so you don’t make foolish mistakes.
Lex Fridman (00:59:16) And as a starting point, Americans tend to see themselves as the good guys and a set of others as the bad guys. And you have to be able to empathize that Russians think of themselves as the good guys, the Chinese think of themselves as the good guys, and just be able to empathize. If they are the good guys… It’s like that funny skit. Are we the baddies? Consider the United States could be the bad guys.
(00:59:44) First of all, see the world, if the United States is the bad guys and China is the good guys, what does that world look like? Be able to just exist with that thought, because that is what the Chinese leadership and many Chinese citizens, if not now, maybe in the future, will believe. And you have to kind of do the calculation, the simulation forward from that. And same with Russia, same with other nations.
John Mearsheimer (01:00:12) Yeah, I agree with you, a hundred percent. And just, I always think of Michael McFall at Stanford, who was the American ambassador to Russia, I think between 2012 and 2014. And he told me that he told Putin that Putin didn’t have to worry about NATO expansion because the United States was a benign hegemony.
(01:00:36) And I asked Mike what Putin’s response was to that. And Mike said that Putin didn’t believe it, but Mike believed that he should believe it, and that we could move NATO eastward to include Ukraine, and in the end, we’d get away with it because we are a benign hegemony, but the fact is that’s not what Putin saw. Putin saw us as a malign hegemony. And what Mike thinks, or any American thinks, doesn’t matter. What matters is what Putin thinks.
Lex Fridman (01:01:15) But also, the drums of war have been beating for some reason. NATO expansion has been threatened for some reason. So you’ve talked about NATO expansion being dead, so it doesn’t make sense from a geopolitical perspective, on the Europe side, to expand NATO. But nevertheless, that threat has been echoed. So why has NATO expansion been pushed, from your perspective?
John Mearsheimer (01:01:46) There are two reasons. One is, first of all, we thought it was a wonderful thing to bring more and more countries into NATO. We thought that it facilitated peace and prosperity. It was ultimately all for the good. And we also thought that countries like Ukraine had a right to join NATO.
(01:02:12) These are sovereign countries that can decide for themselves, and the Russians have no say in what Ukraine wants to do. And then finally, and this is a point I emphasized before, we were very powerful, and we thought we could shove it down their throat. So it’s a combination of those factors that led us to pursue what I think was ultimately a foolish policy.
Lex Fridman (01:02:39) We’ve talked about how wars get started. How do you hope the war in Ukraine ends? What are the ways to end this war? What are the ways to achieve peace there? To end the, I would say, senseless death of young men, as always happens in war?
John Mearsheimer (01:03:04) I’m sad to say I don’t have a good answer to that. I don’t think there’s any real prospect of a meaningful peace agreement. I think it’s almost impossible. I think the best you can hope for at this point is, at some point the shooting stops, you have a ceasefire, and then you have a frozen conflict. And that frozen conflict will not be highly stable.
(01:03:36) And the Ukrainians in the West will do everything they can to weaken Russia’s position, and the Russians will go to great lengths to not only damage that dysfunctional rump state that Ukraine becomes, but the Russians will go to great lengths to sow dissension within the alliance. And that includes in terms of transatlantic relations.
(01:04:03) So you’ll have this continuing security competition between Russia on one side, and Ukraine and the West on the other. Even when you get a frozen peace, or you get a frozen conflict, and the potential for escalation there will be great. So I think this is a disaster.
Lex Fridman (01:04:25) That’s a very realist perspective. Let me ask you sort of the human side of it. Do you think there’s some power to leaders sitting down, having a conversation, man to man, leader to leader, about this? There is just a lot of death happening. It seems that, from an economic perspective, from a historic perspective, from a human perspective, both nations are losing.
(01:04:55) Is it possible for Vladimir Zelensky and Vladimir Putin to sit down and talk, and to figure out a way where the security concerns are addressed, and both nations can minimize the amount of suffering that’s happening, and create a path towards future flourishing?
John Mearsheimer (01:05:21) I think the answer is no.
Lex Fridman (01:05:23) Even with the United States involved, three people in the room?
John Mearsheimer (01:05:27) Well, I think if the United States is involved, the answer is definitely no. You have to get the Americans out. And then, I think if you have Zelensky and Putin talking, you have a sliver of a chance there. The Americans are a real problem. Look, let’s go back to what happens right after the war starts, okay? As I said before, we’re talking March, early April of 2022. The war starts on February 24th, 2022.
(01:05:59) And as I said to you, the two sides were negotiating in Istanbul, and they were also negotiating through Naftali Bennett, and the Bennett track and the Turkish track were operating together. I mean, they were not at cross purposes at all. What happened? Bennett tells the story very clearly that they had made significant progress in reaching an agreement. This is Zelensky on one side and Putin on the other. Bennett is talking in person to both Putin and Zelensky, and what happens to produce failure?
(01:06:45) The answer is, the United States and Britain get involved and tell Zelensky to walk. They tell Zelensky to walk. If they had come in and encouraged Zelensky to try to figure out a way with Putin to shut this one down, and worked with Bennett, and worked with Erdogan, we might’ve been able to shut the war down then, but it was the United States.
Lex Fridman (01:07:09) Well, let me sort of push back on that. You’re correct, but the United States paints this picture that everybody’s aligned. Maybe you can correct me, but I believe in the power of individuals, especially individual leaders. Again, whether it’s Biden or Trump or whoever goes into a room and says, in a way that’s convincing, that no more NATO expansion. And actually just on a basic human level, ask the question of why are we doing all this senseless killing?
(01:07:49) And look at the interest of one, Russia, look at the interest of the other, Ukraine. Their interests are pretty simple. And say, the United States is going to stay out of this. We’re not going to expand NATO, and say all that in a way that’s convincing, which is that NATO expansion is silly at this point, China’s the big threat. We’re not going to do this kind of conflict escalation with Russia. The Cold War’s over, let’s normalize relations.
John Mearsheimer (01:08:20) Let me just embellish your argument, okay?
Lex Fridman (01:08:23) Thank you. I need it.
John Mearsheimer (01:08:26) If we say there’s a sliver of a chance that you can do this, and I do think there is a sliver of a chance. Let me just embellish your point.
Lex Fridman (01:08:34) Thank you. I need all the help I can get.
John Mearsheimer (01:08:37) Two things have to be done here, in my opinion. One is, Ukraine has to become neutral, and it has to completely sever all security ties with the West, right? It is not like you can say, “We’re not going to expand NATO to include Ukraine, but we’re going to continue to have some loose security arrangement with Ukraine.” None of that. It has to be completely severed. Ukraine has to be on its own, okay?
(01:09:13) And number two, Ukraine has to accept the fact that the Russians are going to keep the four oblasts that they’ve now annexed, and Crimea. The Russians are not going to give them back. And what you really want to do, if you’re Zelensky or who’s ever running Ukraine in this scenario that we’re positing, is you want to make sure the Russians don’t take another four oblasts, to include Kharkiv and Odessa.
(01:09:45) If I’m playing Putin’s hand and this war goes on, I’m thinking about taking four more oblasts. I want to take about 43% of Ukraine and annex it to Russia, and I certainly want Odessa, and I certainly want Kharkiv, and I want the two oblasts-
John Mearsheimer (01:10:03) And I certainly want Harki and I want the two old boss in between as well.
Lex Fridman (01:10:05) Literally, or as leveraged in negotiation or Ukraine neutrality?
John Mearsheimer (01:10:12) No, I want them literally, I want to conquer them literally. My point to you is if we can begin to talk about cutting a deal now, you may be able to head that kind of aggression off at the pass. In other words, you may be able to limit Putin and Russia to annexing the four old boss that they’ve now annexed plus Crimea. That’s the best I think you can hope for. The point is you have to get the Ukrainians to accept that. You have to get the Ukrainians to accept becoming a truly neutral state and conceding that the Russians keep a big chunk of territory. It’s about 23% of Ukrainian territory that they’ve annexed and I find it hard to imagine any Ukrainian leader agreeing to that.
Lex Fridman (01:11:03) Well, there could be more nuanced things like no military involvement between the United States and Ukraine, but economic involvement, sort of financial support, so normalizing economic relationships with Ukraine, with Russia, all being-
John Mearsheimer (01:11:21) I think you could probably get away with that. I think the tricky question there that you would have to answer is what about EU expansion? And I think EU expansion is probably a no-no for the Russians because most people don’t recognize this, but there is a military dimension built into EU expansion. It’s not purely an economic alliance or relationship or institution, whatever word you want to use. There’s a military dimension to that. In the run-up to the war, actually in the run-up to the 2014 crisis, when it first broke out, the Russians made it clear they saw EU expansion as a stalking horse for NATO expansion.
(01:12:10) So EU expansion is tricky, but I think your point of close economic relations between … or healthy economic relations to use a better term between Ukraine and the West is possible. I think the Russians have a vested interest and if it’s a neutral Ukraine, they have a vested interest in that Ukraine flourishing, but that then brings us back to the territorial issue, right?
Lex Fridman (01:12:39) Well, so do you believe it’s possible for individual human relations to counteract the structural forces that you talk about? So meaning the leaders being able to pick up the phone and make agreements that are good for humanity as a whole and for their individual nations in the long term?
John Mearsheimer (01:12:59) I think leadership matters here. I mean, one of the real problems here is that there’s no trust on the Russian side, and that has to do with the Minsk agreements. The Minsk agreements, which were designed to shut down the Civil War in Eastern Ukraine, in the Donbas really mattered to the Russians. And there were four players involved in the Minsk process, four main players, Russia and Ukraine of course, and then Germany and France. And I believe the Russians took the Minsk Accord seriously. I believe Putin took them very seriously. He wanted to shut down that conflict.
(01:13:52) And Angela Merkel, Francois Hollande, he was the French leader and Poroshenko, who was the Ukrainian leader, those were the three key players besides Putin. Again, Hollande from France, Merkel from Germany, and Poroshenko from Ukraine have all explicitly said they were not seriously interested in reaching an agreement in all of the discussions with Putin, they were bamboozling him. They were trying to trick him so that they would buy time to build up Ukraine’s military. Putin is profoundly upset about these admissions by these three leaders. He believes he was fooled into thinking that Minsk could work. He believes that he negotiated in good faith and they did not.
(01:14:49) And he believes that the level of trust now between Russia and the West is virtually zero as a result of this experience over Minsk. I only bring this up because it cuts against your argument that leaders could pick up the phone and talk to each other and trust each other at least somewhat to work out a meaningful deal. If you’re Putin at this point in time, trusting the West is not an idea that’s going to be very attractive at all. In fact, you’re going to distrust anything they say.
Lex Fridman (01:15:30) Yeah, distrust anything the West say, but there is individual humans. The way human nature works is when you’re sitting across from a person, you can trust a human being while still distrusting the West. I mean, I believe in the power of that. I think with the right leaders, you could sit down and talk, like override the general structural distrust of the West and say, “You know what? I like this guy or gal, whatever.” I do hope Zelensky and Putin sit down together and talk, have multiple talks.
John Mearsheimer (01:16:08) Just remember they were doing that in March and the Americans came in and the British came in and they scotched a potential deal.
Lex Fridman (01:16:17) Well, the other beautiful thing about human nature, there’s forgiveness and there’s trying again.
John Mearsheimer (01:16:25) When you’re the leader of a country in an anarchic system, you have to be very careful not to let your trust in a foreign leader take you too far, because if that foreign leader betrays you or betrays your trust and stab you in the back, you could die and again, you want to remember that the principal responsibility of any leader, I don’t care what country it is, is to ensure the survival of their state. And that means that trust is only going to buy you so much, and when you’ve already betrayed the trust of a leader, you really are not going to be able to rely on trust very much to help you moving forward. Now, you disagree with that? I hope you’re right.
(01:17:17) And if they can shut down the Ukraine-Russia war, it would be wonderful. If I’m proved dead wrong, that would be wonderful news. My prediction that this war is going to go on for a long time and end in an ugly way is a prediction that I don’t like at all. So I hope I’m wrong.
Lex Fridman (01:17:45) You wrote that many in the West believe that the best hope for ending the Ukraine wars to remove Vladimir Putin from power, but you argue that this isn’t the case. Can you explain?
John Mearsheimer (01:17:58) Well, a lot of people thought when they were having all that trouble, the Russians were having all that trouble with Prigozhin and the Wagner Group that Putin was vulnerable and was likely to be overthrown. And what would happen is a peace-loving leader would replace Putin. I made two points at the time, and I would make those same two points now. Number one, he’s not likely to be overthrown. He was not likely then to be overthrown. And I think as long as his health holds up, I think he will remain in power. My second point is if he doesn’t remain in power and he’s replaced, I would bet a lot of money that his replacement will be more hawkish and more hard line than Putin is.
(01:18:58) I actually think one could argue that Putin was too trusting of the West before the war started and number two, I think one could argue that he has not waged the war against Ukraine as vigorously as one might have expected. He was slow to mobilize the nation for war, and he has pursued a limited war in all sorts of ways. The Israelis, for example, have killed more civilians in Gaza in one month than the Russians have killed over 18 months in Ukraine. The idea that Vladimir Putin is waging a punishment campaign and killing on purpose, large numbers of civilians, is simply not true.
(01:19:53) All this just to say that … I would imagine that if Putin leaves office and someone else comes in to replace him, that someone else will be at least if not, more hard line than him in terms of waging the war, and certainly will not trust the West any more than he has.
Lex Fridman (01:20:15) By way of advice, let me ask you, if I were to have a conversation interview Vladimir Putin and Zelensky individually, what should I ask them? If you, me and Vladimir Putin are having a chat, what are good ideas to explore? What are good questions to ask? What are good things to say on or off the mic once again, that could potentially even slightly, lessen the amount of suffering in the world caused by this war?
John Mearsheimer (01:20:51) I think if you get an interview with Vladimir Putin, there’s just all sorts of questions you could ask him. And my sense is that Putin is a straight shooter. He’s also very knowledgeable about history, and he has simple theories in his head about how the world works. I think he would level with you, and all you would’ve to do is just figure out what all the right questions are. That would not be hard to do. You could ask him why was he so foolish? For example, why was he so foolish as to trust Poroshenko, Hollande and Merkel in the Minsk Accords. Why after his famous talk at Munich in 2007 where he made it clear that he was so unhappy with the West, did he continue to, in a very important way, trust the West?
(01:21:52) Why didn’t he mobilize the Russian military before late September, 2022, once the negotiations that we were talking about before involving Istanbul and Naftali Bennett. Once they broke down, why didn’t he immediately mobilize more of the Russian population to fight the war? Just all sorts of questions like that. Then, you could ask him questions about where he sees this one headed. What’s the best strategy for Russia if the Ukrainians will not agree to neutrality?People like John Mearsheimer say, “You’ll probably take close to half of Ukraine. Is that true? Does it make sense to take Odessa.”
Lex Fridman (01:22:47) And John Mearsheimer also has questions about China, your future relationships with China?
John Mearsheimer (01:22:53) Yeah, I mean, one really important question that I would ask him is if the United States had basically not driven you into the arms of the Chinese, if there had been no war over Ukraine and the United States and its European allies had gone to considerable lengths to create some sort of security architecture in Europe that resulted in you, Vladimir Putin having good relations with Ukraine, what would your relations with China be and how would you think about that? So there are just plenty of questions you could ask him.
Lex Fridman (01:23:33) Well, hope burns eternal in my heart, I think probably in Putin’s heart and Zelensky’s heart, I hope because hope is, the leap of trust that we’ve talked about, I think is necessary for deescalation and for peace.
John Mearsheimer (01:23:50) Well, you realize, I have, from the beginning, argued for different policies that were all designed to prevent this war from ever happening.
Lex Fridman (01:23:59) Yes.
John Mearsheimer (01:24:00) I don’t know if you know this, but in 1993, I argued that Ukraine should keep its nuclear weapons. I was probably the only person in the West who made that argument. And my argument in 1993, this is in foreign affairs, was that there may come the day when Russia thinks about invading Ukraine. And should that day come, it would be very helpful for preventing war if Ukraine had nuclear weapons.
Lex Fridman (01:24:27) So military might is essential for maintaining a balance of power and peace.
John Mearsheimer (01:24:33) Well, if you’re interested in deterring an adversary, if I’m worried about you coming after me, the best way to deter you is to have military might. If you’re Russia, and I’m Ukraine, I’m far weaker than you, right?
Lex Fridman (01:24:46) Yeah.
John Mearsheimer (01:24:47) And having a nuclear deterrent would be very effective at convincing you not to attack me because if you attack me, you’re threatening my survival. And that’s the one circumstance where it is likely that I would use nuclear weapons to defend myself and given the consequences of nuclear use, you would be reluctant in the extreme to attack me. So that’s why I argued in ’93 that if Ukraine kept its nuclear weapons that made war down the road much less likely. And I believe I was correct. And in fact, Bill Clinton, who played the key role in forcing Ukraine to give up its nuclear weapons now says … he has said it publicly, you can find it on YouTube that he made a mistake doing that.
(01:25:36) Furthermore, I argued in 2014 that it made eminently good sense not to continue to push to bring Ukraine into NATO because the end result is that Ukraine would be destroyed and Ukraine is being destroyed. So I was deeply interested at time in making sure that that didn’t happen for the good of the Ukrainians, not to mention, because stability in Europe is a net positive for almost everybody involved, but people did not listen to me then either.
Lex Fridman (01:26:08) How did nuclear weapons change the calculus of offensive realism, because of mutually assured destruction? I mean, it’s not just military might. It’s just so destructive that you basically can’t use nuclear weapons unless you want complete destruction.
John Mearsheimer (01:26:28) There’s no question that the presence of nuclear weapons makes it much less likely. I’m choosing my words carefully here, much less likely that a great power would aggress against another great power. It doesn’t take that possibility off the table, but it makes it much less likely because of the reasons that you articulated. With regard to nuclear use, it’s an interesting question how you think about nuclear use in a MAD world. I mean, your point that we’re in a MAD world is … that’s mad, MAD as well as mad, small letters, but let’s stick to the capital letters. We’re in a world of mutual assured destruction. There’s no question that in that world, it’s unlikely that nuclear weapons would be used.
(01:27:22) The way you use nuclear weapons in that world is you use them for manipulation of risk purposes, demonstration effect. You put both sides out on the slippery slope. Now, what exactly am I saying here? Let me talk about NATO doctrine during the Cold War. We lived in a MAD world, United States and Soviet Union or the Warsaw Pact in NATO, both had an assured destruction capability. So you had mutual assured destruction. If the Warsaw Pact were to invade Western Europe, and here we’re talking about West Germany and NATO was losing the war, we said that we would use nuclear weapons. How would we use nuclear weapons given that we were in a MAD world? The argument was that we would use a handful of nuclear weapons against the Warsaw Pact, not necessarily against their military forces.
(01:28:25) It could be in a remote area. We would use a small number of nuclear weapons to signal to the Soviets that we were deadly serious about putting an end to their offensive, and that we were throwing both sides out on the slippery slope to oblivion. In other words, we were manipulating risk and the last clear chance to avoid Armageddon rested with them. And then, we would tell them that if you retaliated with a handful of nuclear weapons and you didn’t cease your offensive against West Germany, we would launch a small, another nuclear attack. We would explode a handful more of nuclear weapons, all for the purposes of showing you our resolve.
(01:29:21) So this is the manipulation of risk strategy, and a lot of the language I just used in describing it to you is language that Thomas Schelling invented. Now fast-forward to the present, if Russia were losing in Ukraine, that’s the one scenario where I think where Russia would’ve used nuclear weapons. The question is, how would Russia have used nuclear weapons? Again, we’re assuming that the Russians are losing to the Ukrainians. I believe they would’ve pursued a manipulation of risk strategy. They would’ve used four or five, three or four, who knows, nuclear weapons-
Lex Fridman (01:29:59) Maybe just one in a rural area that kills very few people.
John Mearsheimer (01:30:03) Yes, exactly, and basically, that would spook everybody. The American-
Lex Fridman (01:30:08) Just the mushroom cloud.
John Mearsheimer (01:30:10) Yeah. It’s because of the threat of escalation.
Lex Fridman (01:30:14) Yeah.
John Mearsheimer (01:30:14) Again, your point is we’re in a MAD world. I accept that and if you have limited nuclear use, right? We understand hardly anything about nuclear escalation because thank goodness we’ve never had a nuclear war. So once you throw both sides out on the slippery slope, even if you only use one nuclear weapon in your scenario, you don’t know what the escalation dynamics look like. So everybody has a powerful incentive to put an end to the conflict right away. I might add to you that there were people who believed that we would not even initiate a manipulation of risk strategy in Europe if we were losing to the Warsaw Pact during the Cold War.
(01:31:04) Both Henry Kissinger and Robert McNamara said after leaving office that they would not have done it. They would’ve not initiated nuclear use, even limited nuclear use. That’s what we’re talking about here. They would rather be red than dead, that was the argument.
Lex Fridman (01:31:24) Too risky.
John Mearsheimer (01:31:25) Too risky. That’s exactly right, but if they had used one nuclear weapon in your story, or three or four in my story, everybody would’ve said, “Oh my God, we’ve got to shut this one down immediately.” I only tell you this story or lay out this scenario as an answer to your question of how you use nuclear weapons in a MAD world, and this is the answer.
Lex Fridman (01:31:53) This is all very terrifying. Perhaps in part, it’s terrifying to me because I can see in the 21st century, China, Russia, Israel, United States using a nuclear weapon in this way, blowing it up somewhere in the middle of nowhere that kills maybe nobody, but I’m terrified of seeing the mushroom cloud and not knowing, given social media, given how fast news travels, what the escalation looks like there. Just in a matter of minutes, how the news travels and how the leaders react. It’s terrifying that this little demonstration of power, the ripple effects of it, in a matter of minutes, seconds, what that leads to because it’s human emotions.
(01:32:51) You see the landscape of human emotions, the leaders and the populace and the way news are reported, and then the landscape of risk, as you mentioned, shifting the world’s most intense nonlinear dynamical system, and it is just terrifying because the entirety of human civilizations hangs in the balance there. And it’s like this, hundreds of millions of people could be dead.
John Mearsheimer (01:33:21) Let’s just talk about this in the context of the Ukrainian War. If the Russians were losing, as I said before, which is not the case anymore, but in 2022, it did look like that, if the Russians are losing and they turn to nuclear weapons, the question is how do they use them? And they would use them in Ukraine, and because Ukraine has no nuclear weapons of its own, Ukraine cannot retaliate. It’s not a mutual assured destruction world. It’s a case where one side has nuclear weapons and the other doesn’t. That means that the Russians are likely to think that they can get away with using nuclear weapons in ways that would not be the case if they were attacking NATO.
(01:34:17) And therefore, it makes nuclear use more likely. Okay. That’s point one. Point two is let’s assume that the Russians use two or three nuclear weapons in a remote area-
Lex Fridman (01:34:27) My palms are sweating, by the way. Just as a commentary. It’s terrifying.
John Mearsheimer (01:34:32) Yeah. The question then is what does the West do? Now, Macron has said and Biden has also, I think, implicitly made this clear, “We would not retaliate with nuclear weapons, if the Russians were to attack with a handful of nuclear weapons in Western Ukraine.” Then, the question is what would we do? And if you listen to David Petraeus, what David Petraeus says, is that we should attack the Russian naval assets in the Black Sea and attack Russian forces in Ukraine. Well, once you do that, you have a great power of war. You have NATO versus Russia, which is another way of saying you have the United States versus Russia. We’re now in a great power of war.
(01:35:23) They have nuclear weapons, we have nuclear weapons. They’ve used nuclear weapons. What is the happy ending here? And just to take it a step further and go back to our earlier discussion about moving NATO up to Russia’s borders, the point I made, which you’ll surely agree with, is that the Russians are very fearful when they see NATO coming up to their border. Well, here’s a case where not only is NATO come up to their border, but they’re in a war with NATO right on their border. What do the escalation dynamics look like there? You know what the answer is? Who knows? That should scare the living bejesus out of you, right?
Lex Fridman (01:36:06) And some of it could be, like you mentioned, unintended. There could be unintended consequences. That could be a Russian missile misses in hits Poland. These kinds of things that just escalate misunderstandings, miscommunications, even … I mean, nuclear weapon could be … boy, it could have been planned to go location X, and it went to a location Y that ended up actually killing a very large number of people. I mean, the escalation that happens there just happens in a matter of minutes. And the only way to stop that is communication between leaders. And that to me is a big argument for ongoing communication.
John Mearsheimer (01:36:52) There’s a story that during the Cuban missile crisis, Kennedy put out the word, no aircraft under any circumstances or to penetrate Soviet airspace. He then found out a few days later that some guy hadn’t gotten the message and had penetrated in an aircraft deep into Soviet airspace.
Lex Fridman (01:37:19) Yeah.
John Mearsheimer (01:37:19) And this supports your basic point that bad things happen.
Lex Fridman (01:37:25) Yeah.
John Mearsheimer (01:37:26) And again, the overarching point here is we’ve never done this before, thankfully. Therefore, we don’t have a lot of experience as to how it plays itself out. It’s really a theoretical enterprise because there’s no empirical basis for talking about escalation in a nuclear crisis. And that, of course, is a wonderful thing.
Lex Fridman (01:37:50) Well, and in general, the human species as a whole as a one-off, is a theoretical enterprise. The survival of the human species. We’ve seen empires rise and fall, but we haven’t seen the human species rise and fall. So far it’s been rising, but it’s not obvious that it doesn’t end. In fact, I think about aliens a lot, and the fact that we don’t see aliens makes me suspect it’s not so easy to survive in this complicated world of ours. Switching gears a little bit and going to a different part of the world, also engulfed in war. Let me ask you about the situation in Israel. Why did Hamas attack Israel on October 7th, 2023? As you understand the situation, what was the reason that attack happened?

Israel and Palestine

John Mearsheimer (01:38:48) Well, I think the main reason was that you had this suffocating occupation. I think as long as the occupation persists, the Palestinians are going to resist. As you well know, this is not the first time there has been a Palestinian uprising. There was the first Intifada, there was the second Intifada, now there’s October 7th, and there are uprisings besides those three, so this is not terribly surprising. A lot of people hypothesized that this attack was due to the fact that the Israelis, the Saudis and the Americans were working together to foster another Abraham Accord and that the Palestinians would in effect be sold down the river.
(01:39:45) I think given the fact that this was in the planning stages for probably about two years, and the Abraham Accords with regard to Saudi Arabia are relatively new phenomenon, I don’t think that’s the main driving force here. I think the main driving force is that the Palestinians feel oppressed as they should, and that this was a resistance move. They were resisting the Israeli occupation.
Lex Fridman (01:40:18) So that resistance, the attack involved killing a large number of Israeli civilians. There’s many questions asked there, but one is, do you think Hamas fully understood what the retaliation will involve from Israel and to Gaza?
John Mearsheimer (01:40:39) They had to understand. I mean, you had Operation Cast Lead in 2008, 2009. It started, I think right after Christmas 2008, and it ended right before President Obama took office in January 2009. And the Israelis periodically do what they call mowing the lawn where they go into Gaza and they pound the Palestinians to remind them that they’re not supposed to rise up and cause any problem. So there’s no question in my mind that the Hamas forces understood full well that the Israelis would retaliate and they would retaliate in force as they have done.
Lex Fridman (01:41:35) Yeah, even the metaphor of mowing the lawn is disturbing to me in many ways. I actually saw Norman Finkelstein, I think, say that, well, then if you use that metaphor, then you could say that Hamas was also mowing the lawn. It’s such a horrific image because the result on either side is just the death of civilians. I mean, let me ask you about the death of civilians. So during the attack, 1400 Israelis were killed. Over 240 were taken hostage. Then, in response, as we sit today, Israel’s military response has killed over 10,000 people in Gaza. And given the nature of the demographics, it’s a very heavily young population.
(01:42:27) Over 40% of them are under the age of 18, of those killed. That’s of course, according to Ministry of Health of Palestinian Authority. So what do you think is the long-term effect on the prospect of peace when so many civilians die?
John Mearsheimer (01:42:46) I mean, I think it’s disastrous. I mean, the only way you’re going to get peace here is if you have a two-state solution where the Palestinians have a sovereign state of their own, and there is a sovereign Jewish state. And these two states live side by side American presidents since Jimmy Carter have understood this full well. And this is why we have pushed very hard for two-state solution. Indeed, many American Jews and many Israelis have pushed for a two-state solution because they think that that is the only way you’re going to get peace between the two sides. What’s happened here is that in recent years, the Israelis have lost all interest in a two-state solution.
(01:43:43) And it’s in large part because the political center of gravity in Israel has steadily moved to the right. When I was a young boy, the political center of gravity in Israel was much further to the left than it is today. It is in a position now, the political center of gravity where there’s hardly any support for two state solution and Netanyahu and the rest of the people in his government were in favor or are in favor of a greater Israel. There’s just no question about that. Well, on top of that, you now have had a war where, as you described, huge numbers of civilians have been killed, and you already had bad blood between the Palestinians and the Israelis before this conflict.
(01:44:41) And you could imagine how people on each side now feel about people on the other side. So even if you didn’t have this opposition inside Israel to a two-state solution, how could you possibly get the Israelis now to agree to a two-state solution? I think for the foreseeable future, the animosity …
John Mearsheimer (01:45:03) Solution. I think for the foreseeable future, the animosity inside Israel towards the Palestinians is so great that it is impossible to move the Israelis in that direction. And the Israelis here are the key players more so than the Palestinians because it’s the Israelis who control Greater Israel. It’s the Israelis who you have to convince. Now, I want to be clear here. You also ultimately have to get around the fact that Hamas is not committed to a two-state solution. But I think that problem could be dealt with. It’s important to understand that Arafat and the PLO was once adamantly opposed to a two-state solution. But Arafat came around to understand that that was really the only hope for settling this. And he became a proponent of a two-state solution.
(01:45:53) And that’s true of Mahmoud Abbas who runs the PA in the West Bank. It’s not true of Hamas at this point in time. They want a one-state solution, they want a Palestinian state. And of course, the Israelis want a one-state solution too, which is a Jewish state that controls all of Greater Israel. So the question is, can you get some sort of agreement? And I think to get to the nub of your question, given what’s just happened, it’s almost impossible to imagine that happening anytime soon.
Lex Fridman (01:46:27) The cynical perspective here is that those in power benefit from conflict while the people on both sides suffer. Is there a degree of truth to that? Or for the people in power to maintain power conflict needs to continue?
John Mearsheimer (01:46:44) No, I don’t believe that. I mean, just to take the Netanyahu government or any Israeli government that maintains the occupation, what you want is you want a Palestinian population that submits to Israeli domination of Greater Israel. You don’t want resistance, you don’t want an intifada. You don’t want what happened on October 7th. In fact, I think one of the principal reasons that the Israelis are pounding Gaza and killing huge numbers of civilians. Punishing the civilian population in ways that clearly violate the laws of war, is because they want the Palestinians to understand that they are not allowed to rise up and resist the occupation. That’s their goal.
(01:47:33) So, I think the Israelis would prefer that the Palestinians roll over and accept submission. In terms of the people who live in Gaza to include the elites, and the people who live in the West Bank to include the elites. They would much prefer to move to some sort of situation where the Palestinians have a state of their own. I think in the case of the PA, under Abbas, they would accept a two-state solution. I think what, at this point in time, Hamas wants is a one-state solution, but they want peace. All of them want peace. The two different sets of leadership in Palestine and the Israelis.
Lex Fridman (01:48:16) So you think Hamas wants peace?
John Mearsheimer (01:48:19) Sure. But on its own terms, that’s the point.
Lex Fridman (01:48:21) What does peace look like for Hamas?
John Mearsheimer (01:48:24) At this point in time, I think peace basically means a Greater Israel controlled by Palestine or Palestinians.
Lex Fridman (01:48:31) Okay. So essentially, it’s the whole land is called Palestine and there’s no Israel?
John Mearsheimer (01:48:38) I think, at this point in time, that’s their principal goal. I do believe, and there have been hints over time, Jimmy Carter has said this, that Hamas can be convinced to a two-state solution. Assuming that the Palestinians get a viable state of their own, that Hamas would buy into that. Can we say that with a high degree of certainty? No, but I think the Israelis should have pursued that possibility. They should have worked with Abbas, they should have worked with Hamas to do everything they can to facilitate a two-state solution. Because I think, ultimately, that’s in Israel’s interest. Now, the Israeli government, and most Israelis at this point in time, I believe, don’t agree with that.
Lex Fridman (01:49:21) What do you think of Israel starting the ground invasion of Gaza recently on October 27th?
John Mearsheimer (01:49:31) The question is, should they continue until they have finally defeated Hamas? There are all sorts of reports in the media, including in the Israeli media, that they’re not going to be allowed by the United States to continue this offensive for much more than a few weeks. The Israelis have been saying it’s going to take, in the best of all possible worlds, a number of months, if not a year to finish off Hamas. Well, it doesn’t look like they’re going to have enough time to do that. I doubt whether they can finish off Hamas, even if they’re given the time. I think they’re going to run into fierce resistance. And when they run into fierce resistance and large numbers of Israelis going to start to die, they’ll lose their appetite for this. And they, the Israelis, surely know at this point in time that even if they finish off Hamas, even if I’m wrong and they’re able to finish off Hamas, another group is going to rise up to resist the occupation.
(01:50:48) The idea that you can use with Ze’ev Jabotinsky called The Iron Wall, to beat the Palestinians into submission is delusional. It’s just not going to happen. The Palestinians want a state of their own. They don’t want to live under occupation. And there’s no military solution for Israel here. There has to be a political solution. And the only viable political solution is a two-state solution. I mean, you can’t go to democracy. You can’t go to a situation where you give the Palestinians equal rights inside of Greater Israel in large part because there are now as many Palestinians as there are Israeli Jews. And over time, the balance, the demographic balance shifts against the Israeli Jews and in favor of the Palestinians. In which case, you’ll end up with a Palestinian state in Greater Israel. So democracy for all doesn’t work. The Israelis, I believe, are quite interested in ethnic cleansing.
(01:51:56) I think they saw this recent set of events as an opportunity to cleanse Gaza, but that’s not going to happen. The Jordanians and the Egyptians have made it clear that that’s not happening. The United States has now made it clear that that’s not happening. And the Palestinians will not leave. They’ll die in place. So ethnic cleansing doesn’t work. So you’re really left with two alternatives, the two-state solution or a Greater Israel that is effectively an apartheid state. I mean, that’s what the occupation has led to. And all sorts of people have been predicting this for a long, long time. And you’ve now reached the point. Here in the United States, if you say that Israel’s an apartheid state, that’s going to get you into all sorts of trouble. But the fact is that Human Rights Watch, Amnesty International, and B’Tselem, which is the leading Israeli human rights group. All three of those institutions or organizations have issued detailed reports making the case that Israel is an apartheid state.
(01:53:07) Furthermore, if you read the Israeli media, all sorts of Israelis, including Israeli leaders, refer to Israel as an apartheid state. It’s not that unusual to hear that term used in Israel. This is disastrous for Israel in my opinion. And Steve Walt and I said this, by the way, when we wrote The Israel Lobby, that Israel is an apartheid state, which is equivalent to Israel as an occupier is not good for Israel. That brings us back to the two-state solution. But as you and I were talking about a few minutes ago, it’s hard to see how you get a two-state solution. And the end result of this conversation is utter despair.
Lex Fridman (01:53:53) Because the path to a two-state solution is blocked by the amount of hate that’s created by civilian deaths?
John Mearsheimer (01:54:01) Well, that plus the fact that the Israeli government is filled with people who have no interest in a two-state solution. They’re ideologically deeply committed to a Greater Israel. They want all the land between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean Sea to be part of a Jewish state. They’re just ideologically committed to that. And of course, as we were talking about before with regard to Hamas, Hamas wants everything between the river and the sea to be a Palestinian state. And when you have two sides with those kinds of views, you’re in deep trouble because there’s a little room for compromise. So what you have to do to get this to work is you have to convince the Israelis that it’s in their interest to have a two-state solution. And you’ve already taken care of the PA on this front, the Palestinian Authority, but you’ve got to convince Hamas that it’s maximalist goals are not going to work. And it’s in its interest to follow in the footsteps of Arafat and accept a two-state solution.
(01:55:17) But even if you do that at this point, let’s say, that there’s a lot of willingness intellectually on both sides to do that. The problem is that the hatred that has been fueled by this ongoing conflict is so great that it’s just hard to imagine how you can make a two-state solution work at this juncture. That’s why I’ve sort of taken to saying, and I hope I’m wrong here, that on the two-state solution, that boat has sailed. It’s no longer possible.
Lex Fridman (01:55:53) Well, again, I believe in leadership and there’s other parties at play here, other nations, Jordan, Saudi Arabia, other players in the Middle East that could help through a normalization of relationships and these kinds of things. There’s always hope, like you said, slither of hope.
John Mearsheimer (01:56:10) Slither of hope.
Lex Fridman (01:56:12) I think human civilization progresses forward by taking advantage of all the slithers it can get. Let me ask you about, you mentioned The Israel Lobby. You wrote a book, probably your most controversial book on the topic.
John Mearsheimer (01:56:26) Not probably. Clearly, the most controversial book I ever wrote.
Lex Fridman (01:56:30) So you’ve criticized the Israel lobby in the United States for influencing US policy in the Middle East. Can you explain what the Israel lobby is, their influence, and your criticism over the past, let’s say a couple of decades?
John Mearsheimer (01:56:48) Well, the argument that Steve Walt and I made, actually, we wrote an article first, which appeared in the London Review of Books, and then we wrote the book itself. Our argument is that the lobby is a loose coalition of individuals and organizations that push American policy in a pro-Israel direction. And basically, the lobby is interested in getting the United States, and here we’re talking mainly about the American government, to support Israel no matter what Israel does. And our argument is, that if you look at the relationship between the United States and Israel, it’s unprecedented in modern history. This is the closest relationship that you can find between any two countries in recorded history. It’s truly amazing the extent to which Israel and the United States are joined at the hip. And we support Israel no matter what almost all the time. And our argument is that, that is largely due to the influence of the lobby. The lobby is an extremely powerful interest group.
(01:58:15) Now, it’s very important to understand that the American political system is set up in ways that allow interest groups of all sorts to wield great influence. So in the United States, you have an interest group or a lobby like the National Rifle Association that makes it, well, not impossible to get gun control. And so with the Israel lobby, you have this group of individuals and organizations that wield enormous influence on US policy toward the Middle East. And this is not surprising given the nature of the American political system. So our argument is that the lobby is not doing anything that’s illegal, or illicit, or immoral, or unethical. It’s just a good old-fashioned American interest group. And it just happens to be extremely powerful. And our argument is that this is not good for the United States because no two countries have the same interests all the time. And when our interests conflict with Israel’s interest, we should be able to do what we think is in our national interest, in America’s national interest.
(01:59:42) But the lobby tends to conflate America’s national interests with Israel’s national interests and wants the United States to support Israel no matter what. We also argue, and I cannot emphasize this enough, given what’s going on in the world today, that the lobby’s effects, the lobby has not been pushing policies that are in Israel’s interest. So our argument is that the lobby pushes policies that are not in America’s interest or not in Israel’s interest. Now, you’re saying to yourself, what exactly does he mean by that? What every president since Jimmy Carter has tried to do, as I said before, is to foster a two-state solution to push Israel, which is the dominant player in Greater Israel, push Israel to accept the two-state solution. And we have run into huge resistance from the lobby whenever we try to, let’s be blunt about it, coerce Israel.
(02:00:51) In a perfect world where there was no lobby and an American president was free to put pressure on Israel, to coerce Israel, I believe, we would’ve gone a long way towards getting two-state solution. And I believe, this would’ve been in Israel’s interest. But we couldn’t get a two-state solution because it was almost impossible to put meaningful pressure on Israel because of the lobby. So this was not in Israel’s interest and it was not in America’s interest. And that was the argument that we made. And we, of course, got huge pushback for making that argument.
Lex Fridman (02:01:28) What’s the underlying motivation of the lobby? Is it religious in nature? Is it similar to the way war hawks are sort of militaristic in nature? Is it nationalistic in nature? If you were describe this loose coalition of people, what would you say is their motivation?
John Mearsheimer (02:01:47) Well, first of all, I think you have to distinguish between Jews and Christians. You want to remember that there are a huge number of Christian Zionists who are deeply committed to Israel no matter what, right? And then, there are a large number of Jews. The Jews are obviously the most important of those two groups in the Israel lobby. But one of the arguments that we made in the book is that you should not call it the Jewish lobby because it’s not populated just by Jews and Christian Zionists are an important part of that lobby. But furthermore, there are a good number of Jews who are opposed to the lobby and the policies that the lobby pervades. And there are a number of Jews who are prominent anti-Zionist, and they’re obviously not in the lobby. Or if you take a group like Jewish Voice for Peace, Jewish Voice for Peace is not in the lobby. So it’s wrong to call it a Jewish lobby.
(02:02:52) But with regard to the American Jews who are in that lobby, I think that really, this is all about nationalism. It’s not so much religion. Many of those Jews who are influential in the lobby are not religious in any meaningful sense of that term. But they self-identify as Jewish in the sense that they feel they’re part of a Jewish nation. And that in addition to being an American, they are part of this tribe, this nation called Jews. And that they have a responsibility to push the United States in ways that support the Jewish state. So I think that’s what drives most, if not almost all the Jews. This is not to say there’s not a religious dimension for some of them, but I think that the main connection is much more tribal in nature.
Lex Fridman (02:03:49) So I had a conversation with Benjamin Netanyahu and he said, “Fundamentally, if you’re anti-Zionist, you’re antisemitic.” So the Zionist project is tied to the hip to the Jewish project, what do you have to say to that?
John Mearsheimer (02:04:08) Look, you can define antisemitism any way you want. And you can define antisemitism to incorporate anti-Zionism. And I think we have reached the point where antisemitism is identified today, not just with anti-Zionism, but with criticism of Israel. If you criticize Israel, some people will say you’re an antisemite. And if that’s your definition of antisemitism, it’s taken an important term and stretched it to the point where it’s meaningless. So when Steve and I wrote the book, wrote the article and then wrote the book, all sorts of people said that we were antisemites. This is a ludicrous charge. But what they meant was, you’re criticizing the lobby, you’re criticizing Israel, and therefore, you’re an antisemite. Okay. If that’s what an antisemite is, somebody who criticizes Israel, probably half the Jewish community, if not more in the United States, is antisemitic. And of course, you get into all these crazy games where people are calling Jews, self-hating Jews and antisemites because they’re critical of Israel.
(02:05:35) But even people who are anti-Zionists, I don’t think they’re antisemitic at all. You can argue they’re misguided, that’s fine. But many of these people are Jewish and proud of the fact that they’re Jewish. They just don’t believe that nationalism and Jewish nationalism is a force that should be applauded. And you want to understand that in the American context, there is a rich tradition of anti-Zionism. And these were not people who were antisemites if you go back to the thirties, forties, fifties. And the same thing was even true in Europe. There were all sorts of European Jews who were opposed to Zionism. Were they antisemites? I don’t think so. But we’ve gotten to the point now where people are so interested in stopping any criticism of Israel that they wield this weapon of calling people antisemites so loosely that the term has kind of lost meaning. So I think Netanyahu is wrongheaded to equate anti-Zionism with antisemitism.
Lex Fridman (02:06:49) Alan Dershowitz was one of the people that called you specifically antisemitic. So just looking at the space of discourse, where’s the slither of hope for healthy discourse about US relationships with Israel between you and Alan Dershowitz and others like him?
John Mearsheimer (02:07:16) Well, I think until there is a settlement of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, there’s no hope of putting an end to this nonsense. Right?
Lex Fridman (02:07:27) So these are just uses of terms to kind of cheat your way through the discourse, it’s a shortcut.
John Mearsheimer (02:07:35) No, it’s to silence people. It’s very important to understand that one of the lobby’s principle goals is to make sure we don’t have an open discourse, a freewheeling discourse about Israel. Because they understand, people in the lobby understand, that if you have an open discourse, Israel will end up looking very bad. You don’t want to talk about the occupation, you don’t want to talk about how Israel was created. All these subjects are ones that will cause problems for Israel. See, just to go to the present crisis. When you have a disaster, and what happened on October 7th is a disaster. One of the first things that happens is that people begin to ask the question, how did this happen? What’s the root cause of this problem? This is a disaster. We have to understand what caused it so that we can work to make sure it doesn’t happen again. So we can work to shut it down and then make sure it doesn’t happen again.
(02:08:46) But once you start talking about the root causes, you end up talking about how Israel was created. And that means telling a story that is not pretty about how the Zionists conquered Palestine. And number two, it means talking about the occupation, right? It’s not like Hamas attacked on October 7th because there were just a bunch of antisemites who hated Jews and wanted to kill Jews. This is not Nazi Germany. This is directly related to the occupation and to what was going on inside of Gaza. And it’s not in Israel’s interest or the lobby’s interest to have an open discourse about what the Israelis have been doing to the Palestinians since, I would say, roughly 1903 when the second aliyah came to Israel or came to what was then Palestine, right? We want to talk about that. And we don’t want to talk about from the lobbyist’s point of view, the influence that the lobby has, right?
(02:09:54) It’s better from the lobbyist’s point of view if most Americans think that American support of Israel is just done for all the right moral and strategic reasons, not because of the lobby. And when John Mearsheimer and Steve Walt come along and say, you have to understand that this special relationship is due, in large part, to the lobby’s influence. That is not an argument that people in the lobby want to hear. So the point is, you have to go to great lengths for all these reasons. You have to go to great lengths to silence people like me and Steve Walt. And one of the ways to do that is to call us antisemites.
(02:10:32) I think the chapter or the section of the book where we talk about this charge of antisemitism is called The Great Silencer. That’s what we call the charge of antisemitism, The Great Silencer. Who wants to be called an antisemite, especially in the wake of the holocaust? Do I want to be called an antisemite? Oh my God, no. And so it’s very effective. But it is important to talk about these issues, in my humble opinion. And I think if we had talked about these issues way back when, it would’ve gone a long way towards maybe getting a two-state solution, which I think was the best alternative here.
Lex Fridman (02:11:21) It’s complicated. And I wonder if you can comment on the complexity of this, because criticizing Israel and criticizing the lobby can, for a lot of people, be a dog whistle for sort of antisemitic conspiracy theories. That this idea that Jews run everything, run the world, they’re this kind of cabal. And it’s also very true that people who are legitimately antisemitic are also critics of Israel in the same kind of way. And so, it’s such a complicated landscape in which to have discussions. Because even people like David Duke who are racist, don’t sound racist on the surface. I haven’t listened to him enough. But there’s dog whistles. It’s a complicated space in which to have discussions. I wonder if you can sort of speak to that. Because there’s this silencing effect of calling everybody antisemitic. But it’s also true that there’s antisemitism in the world, there is a sizable population of people that hate Jews. There’s probably a sizable population of people who hate Muslims, too.
John Mearsheimer (02:12:51) A lot of hate out there.
Lex Fridman (02:12:53) A lot of hate out there. But the hatred of Jews has a long history. And so you have, like Rolling Stones have a set of great hits. And there’s just a set of great hits of the ways, conspiracy theories, that you can make about the Jews that are used as part of the hatred. So there’s nice templates for that. And I just wonder if you can comment on operating as a historian, as an analyst, as a strategic thinker in this kind of space.
John Mearsheimer (02:13:25) Obviously, when we wrote the article, which we did before the book gave this subject a great deal of thought. I mean, what you say just now is music to our ears. I’m talking about me and Steve. I think that your point about dog whistles is correct. Look, we went to great lengths to make it clear that this is not a cabal. It’s not a conspiracy. And in fact, in a very important way, the lobby operates out in the open. They brag about their power. And this was true before we wrote the article. And we said in the article, in the book, and you heard me say it here, first of all, it’s not a Jewish lobby. Secondly, it’s not a cabal. It’s an American interest group.
Lex Fridman (02:14:29) And the American system is designed such that interest groups are perfectly legal, and some of them are super effective.
John Mearsheimer (02:14:37) Exactly. I mean, you hit the nail right on the head. That’s exactly right. And there was nothing that we said that was antisemitic by any reasonable definition of that term. And huge numbers of Jews have known me and Steve over the years, and nobody ever, ever said that we were antisemitic before March, 2006 when the article appeared, because we’re not antisemitic. But look, you’ve got this interest group that has a significant influence on American policy and on Israeli policy, and you want to talk about it. It’s just important to talk about it. It’s important for Jews in the United States, for Jews in Israel, to talk about this. The idea that you want to silence critics is not a smart way to go about doing business, in my opinion. If we were wrong, if Steve and I were so wrong and our arguments were so foul, they could have easily exposed those arguments. They could have gone into combat with this in terms of the marketplace of ideas and easily knocked this down.
(02:16:00) The problem was that our arguments were quite powerful. And instead of engaging us and defeating our arguments, they wanted to silence us. And this is not good. It’s not good for Israel, it’s not good for the United States. And I would argue in the end, if anything, it’s going to foster antisemitism. I think you don’t want to run around telling people that they can’t talk about Israel without being called an antisemite. It’s just not healthy in terms of the issue that you’re raising. But I still agree with you that it is a tricky issue. I don’t want to make light of that. I know that there’s this piece of literature out there called the Protocols of the Elders of Zion. And I fully understand that if you’re not careful, you can come close to writing volume two of the protocol. But I don’t believe that we wrote anything that was even close to that. And again, I think that a healthy debate on the issues that we were raising would’ve been not only in America’s interest, but it would’ve been in Israel’s interest.
Lex Fridman (02:17:15) Yeah. Underneath it all is just, I wonder why there is so much hate against groups, why it’s such a sticky way of thinking. Not just tribalism, proud of your country and kind of hating another country, but really deeply hating. Hating in a way where it’s part of your identity kind of hate.
John Mearsheimer (02:17:40) Well, just to make a general point on this issue in our conversation here today, you often talk about individual leaders, and the word individual often pops up in your vocabulary. I believe that we are ultimately social animals before we are individuals. I believe we’re born into tribes, we’re heavily socialized, and that we carve out space for our individualism. But we are part of tribes, or social groups, or nations. Call them what you want, ethnic groups, religious groups. But the fact is that these tribes often crash into each other. And when they crash into each other, they end up hating each other. If you go to a place like Bosnia, the Croats and the Serbs, oh, my God. And then throw in the Bosniaks, which is the term for Bosnian Muslims. And Muslims, Croats, Serbs, and the tribes hate each other. And in a funny way, that hatred almost never goes away. And I guess, there are some exceptions to that.
(02:18:59) If you look at the Germans after World War II, they’ve gone a long way towards reducing, I wouldn’t want to say completely eliminating, but reducing a lot of the hatred that existed between Germans and their neighbors. But that’s really kind of an anomalous case. I mean, you go around East Asia today and the hatred of Japan in a place like China, the hatred of Japan in a place like Korea, just not to be underestimated. But I think a lot of it just has to do with the fact that you’re dealing with social groups that have crashed into each other at one point or another. And there are those lingering effects. And by the way, this gets back to our discussion a few minutes ago about trying to get a two-state solution between the Palestinians and the Israeli Jews now that you have had this horrible war, which is ongoing.
Lex Fridman (02:19:59) It’s interesting to ask, to go back to World War II-
Lex Fridman (02:20:02) … To ask to go back to World War II. Now, you said you studied Nazi Germany in the ’30s from a perspective of maybe offensive realism, but just to look at the Holocaust, it’s sometimes popular in public discourse today to compare certain things to the Holocaust. People have compared the Hamas attack on Israel to the Holocaust, saying things like, “It’s the biggest attack on Jews since the Holocaust,” which kind of implies that there’s a comparison. People have made that same comparison in the other direction. What do you make of this comparison? Is it comparable? Does the use of the Holocaust have any accuracy in comparisons of modern day international politics?
John Mearsheimer (02:21:01) Is it possible that you could have another genocide? Yes, and I would argue that what you had in Rwanda was a genocide. The Holocaust is not the only genocide. I believe the word genocide is used too loosely today. And as you know, lots of people, and I mean lots of people who are pro-Palestinian accused the Israelis of engaging in genocide in Gaza. I think what the Israelis are doing in Gaza represents a massacre. I would use that term given the number of civilians that they’ve killed and the fact that they’ve been indiscriminate in terms of how they’ve been bombing Gaza. But I would not use the word genocide. For me, a genocide is where one side attempts to eliminate another group from the planet. I think that what happened with the Holocaust was clearly a genocide, and that the Germans were bent on destroying all of European Jewry.
(02:22:13) And if they could have gotten their hands on Jews outside of Europe, they would’ve murdered them as well. That’s a genocide. And I think with the Hutus and the Tutsis, you had a similar situation. I think with the Turks and the Armenians during World War I, that was a genocide, but I have a rather narrow definition of what a genocide is and I don’t think there are many cases that qualify as a genocide. The Holocaust certainly does. Now, what Hamas did doesn’t even come close to what happened to European Jewry between, let’s say, 1939 and 1945, although I date the start of the Holocaust to 1941, if we were looking at it closely, but let’s just say 1939, when they invaded Poland, from 1939 to 1945. What Hamas did pales in comparison. It’s hard to believe anybody would make that argument. Yes, a lot of Jews died, but hardly any compared to the number that died at the hands of the Germans. No parallel at all. And furthermore, Hamas was in no position to kill all of the Jews in the Middle East, just not going to happen.
Lex Fridman (02:23:43) But there’s also levels of things, Germans using human skin for lamps. There’s just levels of evil in this world.
John Mearsheimer (02:23:54) Yes, but that’s not what Hamas is doing. I want to be very clear here. I am not justifying the Hamas’ killing of civilians. Not for one second, but I’m just saying… And by the way, just to go to the Israelis and what they’re doing in Gaza, as I said to you before, I do believe that is a massacre and I believe that’s to be condemned, the killing of civilians. This is not legitimate collateral damage. They’re directly punishing the population. But I would not call that a genocide and I would not compare that to the Holocaust for one second. I just want to be very clear on that.
Lex Fridman (02:24:37) Do you think if Israel could, they would avoid the death of any civilians? So you’re saying there’s some degree of punishment of collective-?
John Mearsheimer (02:24:48) They’re purposely killing civilians. This is the Iron Wall. They’re trying to beat the Palestinians into submission. There’s no way you kill this many civilians if you’re trying to precisely take out Hamas fighters. And by the way, the Israeli spokesmen, the IDF spokesman has explicitly said that, “We are not pursuing precision bombing. And that what we are doing is trying to maximize the amount of destruction and damage that we can inflict on the Palestinians and I think this is a major mistake on the part of Israel.” First of all, it ends up being a moral stain on your reputation, number one. And number two, it doesn’t work. It doesn’t work. The Palestinians are not going to roll over and submit to Israeli domination of their life.
(02:25:52) The whole concept of the Iron Wall, Jabotinsky’s term, was misguided. And by the way, if you look at what the Israelis are doing, they’re trying to do two things. One is the Iron Wall, and that’s where you punish the civilian population in Gaza and get them to submit. The other thing that they’re trying to do is get Hamas. They want to destroy Hamas. And the belief there is that if they destroy Hamas, they’ve solved the problem. But as many Israelis know, including people on the hard right, even if you destroy Hamas, they are going to be replaced by another resistance group and that resistance group will employ terror.
Lex Fridman (02:26:36) Yeah. I think you’ve said that other terrorist organizations have used the situation in Palestine as a recruitment mechanism for a long time.
John Mearsheimer (02:26:47) Osama bin Laden made it clear that this was one of those principal reasons for attacking the United States.
Lex Fridman (02:26:56) And the United States attacked back and got us into a 20-year war that cost the lives of millions of people, not American, but human beings and-
John Mearsheimer (02:27:12) Engaged in torture.
Lex Fridman (02:27:14) And torture. Yeah.
John Mearsheimer (02:27:16) No, I think if you look at how we reacted to 9/11 and how the Israelis are reacting to what happened on October 7th, there’s quite a bit of similarity in that both sides, the Israeli side and the American side, are enraged and they lash out and they go on a rampage and the end result is not good.
Lex Fridman (02:27:45) Is there a capacity within Israel or within United States after 9/11 to do something approximating turn the other cheek of understanding the root of terror is hate and fighting that hate with, not to sound naive, but compassion?
John Mearsheimer (02:28:10) Well, I don’t think in either case you’re going to turn the other cheek.
Lex Fridman (02:28:18) What I mean by that is some limited powerful military response, but very limited?
John Mearsheimer (02:28:25) Coupled with a smart political strategy.
Lex Fridman (02:28:27) Political strategy, diplomacy.
John Mearsheimer (02:28:29) Yeah. That’s what they should have done.
Lex Fridman (02:28:31) Yeah.
John Mearsheimer (02:28:31) Right.
Lex Fridman (02:28:31) But is there capacity for that or from your offensive realism perspective, it’s just the odds are really low?
John Mearsheimer (02:28:41) From my offensive realist perspective or my realist perspective, that’s what you should do. My view is states are rational actors, they should be cunning. They should think about the strategic situation they’re in and choose the appropriate response. And what happens, and this is why my theory is not always correct, is that sometimes states are not rational and they misbehave. I would argue in the Israeli case that it would’ve been good after October 7th, or starting on October 7th, if the United States had tried to hold the Israelis back and countenanced a more moderate response. Take some time just to think about how to deal with this problem instead of lashing out. I think given what happened to the Israelis, given how shocked they were, given the level of fear, given the level of rage, they were going to lash out and I don’t believe that was in their interest. I think it would’ve made sense to think about it and to think about a smarter strategy than they’re now employing. And I think the Americans blew it. The Americans gave them a bear hug and a green light and said, “We’ll give you all the weaponry you need and go out and do it.” And I don’t think that was the smart thing to do. Look, in the wake of October 7th, the Israelis had no good strategy. It’s not like there’s a magic formula that they just didn’t see and we should have told them what the magic formula was. That’s not true. They were, in a sense, caught between a rock and a hard place in terms of what to do. But there are smarter things than number things and I think the Israelis lashed out in ways that are counterproductive. I think going on a rampage and killing huge numbers as civilians, it’s obviously morally wrong, but it’s also just not in their strategic interest because it’s not going to buy them anything.
(02:31:03) And in fact, it’s going to cost them because people all over the planet are turning against Israel. I saw an Israeli think tank today that has been tracking protests around the world, gave some figures for what it looked like between October 7th and October 13th in terms of the number of protests around the world that were pro-Israel versus pro-Palestine. And then it looked at the numbers from October 13th up to the present and I think the numbers were 69% were pro-Palestinian in the first six days after October 7th, 69%, and I think 31%… Take these numbers with a grain of salt. 31% were pro-Israel. So I think it was 69 and 31.
(02:32:04) And since then, since October 13th, if you look at the number of protests around the world, 95% have been pro-Palestinian and 5% have been pro-Israel. And what this tells you is that public opinion around the world has shifted against Israel. And if you look at some of the demonstrations in places like London and Washington, DC, it’s truly amazing the number of people who are coming out in support of the Palestinians. And all of this, again, is just to support my point that it was just not smart for Israel to launch this bombing campaign. You can make an argument for going after Hamas and doing it in a surgical way or as surgical a way as possible, but that’s not what they did. And again, my point to you is I think that this punishment campaign is not going to work strategically. In other words, they’re not going to beat the Palestinians into submission, they’re not going to finish off Hamas. And at the same time, by pursuing this strategy, they’re doing huge damage to their reputation around the world.
Lex Fridman (02:33:16) In the wake of October 7th, given the geopolitical context, I think there’s a lot of leverage to be the great ethical superpower, demonstrate power without killing any civilians, and use that leverage diplomatic leverage to push forward something like Abrahamic Accords with more nations, with Saudi Arabia, push for peace aggressively, peace agreements, this kind of stuff, economic relationships, all of this kind of stuff, and thereby pressure the Palestinian authority towards perhaps the two-state solution.
John Mearsheimer (02:34:04) I think what you’re missing here, just in the Israeli case, is that the Israeli government is not interested in two-state solution. And you want to remember that Benjamin Netanyahu, who looks very hawkish when you look at him in isolation, doesn’t look so hawkish when you look at him compared to the rest of the people in his cabinet. He almost looks like a moderate. He’s got a lot of people who are way out to the right of him. And these people, and this of course includes Netanyahu, are not interested in the two-state solution. So the question you have to ask yourself is, if you’re Benjamin Netanyahu and it’s October 7th, late in the day, what do you do? You’re not thinking about a two-state solution. You’re thinking about an occupation that’s not going to end. And the question is how do you deal with the Palestinians given what’s just happened?
Lex Fridman (02:35:05) Well, there’s people in the cabinet and then there’s history. And history remembers great leaders. So Benjamin Netanyahu can look in the streets of Israel and see the protests and think of how history will remember him. I think a two-state solution is on the table for a great leader.
John Mearsheimer (02:35:24) Well, it was there. Was he the person who was going to take advantage of it? I don’t think so, but we’ll see.
Lex Fridman (02:35:35) He’s a student of history. At this point, it’s very difficult. Like you said, 95% now or whatever the number is of protests, I think the window in which Israel has the ears of the world, it can do the big ethical action towards peace, I think, has closed. Or maybe there’s still a slither, but it’s just… The slippery slope of hate has taken off. It’s quite depressing to watch what’s going on.
John Mearsheimer (02:36:10) Yep. I agree a hundred percent. Unequivocally depressing.
Lex Fridman (02:36:13) But of course, as you talk about the role of… The US involvement is of critical importance here for the United States and the argument you make is that we should not be involved in Ukraine, at least to the degree we are, we being the United States, and we should not be involved in Israel to the degree we are because it’s stretching us too thin when the big geopolitical contender in the 21st century with United States is China. Is that a correct summary?
John Mearsheimer (02:36:49) Yeah, I think just on Ukraine, we should not have pushed Ukraine to join NATO.
Lex Fridman (02:36:55) Sure.
John Mearsheimer (02:36:56) And once the war started, we should have worked overtime to shut it down immediately.
Lex Fridman (02:37:03) March.
John Mearsheimer (02:37:04) March, right. And you remember, by the way, not to go back to Ukraine in great detail, in the early fall of 2022… The war starts February, 2022. There’s March, 2022, which we’ve talked about, which is the negotiations. In the fall of 2022, I think it was in September, the Ukrainians had won two major tactical victories, one in Kherson and the other in Kharkiv. And at that point in time, General Milley, who was the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said, “Now is the time to negotiate because this is the high watermark for the Ukrainians.” Milley understood that things were only going to get worse, and the White House shut Milley down and said, “We’re not negotiating.” So we have blown a number of opportunities here to head this problem off at the pass. But that’s my view there. And with regard to the Israelis, my only point about Israel is that it would be better for Israel and better for the United States if we, the United States, was in a position to put pressure on Israel from time to time. As Steve and I say in the book, we should be able to treat Israel like a normal country. The fact is that countries sometimes do stupid things. This includes the United States and Israel. And if Israel is pursuing a policy that we think is unwise, we should be in a position where we could put pressure on Israel. That’s our argument. But anyway, we goofed both with regard to Ukraine and with regard to the Middle East and we’re now up to our eyeballs in alligators in both of those regions. And as you described my view, this is not good because the area of the most strategic importance for the United States today is East Asia and that’s because China is there and China is the most serious threat the United States faces.


Lex Fridman (02:39:14) Do you think there will be a war with China in the 21st century?
John Mearsheimer (02:39:19) I don’t know. My argument is there will be. There is right now a serious security competition and at the same time, there is a real possibility of war. Whether or not we avoid it is very hard to say. I mean, we did during the Cold War. We had a serious security competition from roughly 1947 to 1989 and we thankfully avoided war, probably came the closest in 1962 at the Cuban Missile Crisis. But we avoided it and I think we can avoid it here. Is it for sure? No.
Lex Fridman (02:39:59) You’ve said that China won’t move on Taiwan militarily, in part because, as you said, amphibious operations are difficult. Why will China not move on Taiwan in your sense in the near future?
John Mearsheimer (02:40:16) Well, it’s because there’s this body of water called the Taiwan Strait, which is a big body of water, and getting across water is very difficult unless you can walk on water.
Lex Fridman (02:40:29) So geography still has a role to play in the 21st century?
John Mearsheimer (02:40:32) Oh, yeah. I think geography’s very important. Big bodies of water really matter. In an ideal world, you’d like to have the Pacific Ocean between you and any potential adversary. 6,000 miles of water, hard to get across. If you’re a country and I’m a country and there’s land between us, I can take my Panzer divisions and I can go right across the land and get into your country or attack your country. And you of course can take your Panzer divisions and come across that same piece of land. But if there’s a big body of water between us, your Panzer divisions can’t go across the water and then the question is how do you get them across the water? And that’s very tricky. And in a world where we have lots of submarines and you have lots of aircraft and you have missiles that are land-based that can hit those surface ships, it is very, very hard to attack across a body of water. And all you have to do is think about the American invasion of Normandy, June 6th, 1944, coming in on Omaha Beach. Oh, boy. That was really difficult.
Lex Fridman (02:41:46) But there is a growing asymmetry of military power there that even though it’s difficult-
John Mearsheimer (02:41:53) That is correct.
Lex Fridman (02:41:54) So I guess-
John Mearsheimer (02:41:56) That is correct.
Lex Fridman (02:41:57) So I recently had a conversation with Elon Musk and he says that China is quite serious about the One China policy, and it seems inevitable that Taiwan will have to be… If you look at this pragmatically in the 21st century, it seems inevitable that Taiwan will have to be a part of China and so we can get there either diplomatically or militarily. What do you think about the inevitability of that kind of idea? When a nation says, “This is a top priority for us,” what do you think about them meaning it, and what do we do about that?
John Mearsheimer (02:42:46) There’s no question it’s a top priority for them and there’s no question they mean it, but it’s also a top priority for us not to let them take Taiwan.
Lex Fridman (02:42:54) Why exactly?
John Mearsheimer (02:42:56) Because it’s an important strategic asset. Many people will say it’s because Taiwan’s a democracy, but that doesn’t matter that much. It’s because of two strategic reasons. The first is that if we were to let Taiwan go, it would have hugely negative consequences for our alliance structure in East Asia. To contain China, we need allies. We have an alliance structure, and our allies, Japanese, South Koreans, Filipinos, Australians, they’re all counting on us to be there for them. And if we say, “We’re not going to defend Taiwan, the Chinese attack,” they’re going to say, “I bet if the Chinese attack us, the Americans won’t be there for us.” So it would have a damaging effect on our alliance structure, which we cannot afford because containing China is a wicked problem. It’s a powerful state. You were getting to this before when you talked about China versus Taiwan. So that’s the first reason.
(02:44:07) Second reason is you want to bottle up the Chinese Navy and the Chinese Air Force inside the first island-chain. You don’t want to let them get out into the Pacific. You don’t want them dominating the waters of East Asia. You want to bottle them up again inside the first island-chain. And you can only do that if you control Taiwan. You don’t control Taiwan, they get out into the Philippines Sea, into the Pacific, and the Western Pacific and cause all sorts of problems.
Lex Fridman (02:44:38) Well, you saying all that, you’ve also said the Century of Humiliation, Japan and the United States are a source of that humiliation for China, don’t you think they see the other side of that?
John Mearsheimer (02:44:52) Absolutely.
Lex Fridman (02:44:53) And in the interest of avoiding a World War… I guess the question is how do we avoid a world war? It doesn’t seem like the military involvement in the conflict between China and Taiwan is the way.
John Mearsheimer (02:45:14) Well, I don’t want-
Lex Fridman (02:45:15) There’s no good answers here. I’m just saying-
John Mearsheimer (02:45:17) There are no-
Lex Fridman (02:45:18) Which is the less bad option?
John Mearsheimer (02:45:20) Well, what you want to do is you want to make sure that you deter China from invading Taiwan. You want to avoid a war. You and I are in complete agreement on that. We don’t want a war, but we want to contain China. We do not want to let China dominate Asia. That’s what the Americans are principally concerned with here and it’s what China’s neighbors are principally concerned with. This includes the Japanese, the South Koreans, the Filipinos, Australians, and the Taiwanese. They don’t want and we don’t want China to dominate the region, so we have to contain it.
(02:45:57) But at the same time, and this should be music to your ears, we not only want to contain it, we want to make sure we don’t end up in a shooting match with the Chinese because this could be disastrous. So you have to have a very smart policy. You have to build powerful military forces, and you have to make sure you don’t do anything that’s provocative. On Taiwan, for example, the last thing you want is for the Taiwanese government to declare its independence because the Chinese have said, “If Taiwan does that, we’ll go to war.” And of course, we don’t want that. So my view is you want to smartly build up your military forces and you want to do everything you can to contain China, and at the same time, not be provocative.
Lex Fridman (02:46:41) So a big component of that is making sure the US military is bigger than the Chinese military.
John Mearsheimer (02:46:51) Not necessarily. It’s an interesting question. A lot of people think that to make deterrence work, you have to be able to beat the Chinese and therefore, you need a much bigger military. And I don’t think over time that’s possible. I think it’s probably not even possible now to beat the Chinese in a war over Taiwan or in a war in the South China Sea. I think what you want to do is make it clear to the Chinese either that there will be no winner… In other words, you don’t have to win, but you want to make sure they don’t win. It’s a lose-lose proposition if they go to war over Taiwan or what have you.
(02:47:40) And if you can’t do that, you think that they’re so powerful that they’re ultimately going to win, you want to convince them that victory would be a Pyrrhic victory. In other words, they would pay a godawful price to win the war. You follow what I’m saying? So the best strategy for deterrence is you win, China loses. Second best strategy is a stalemate, nobody wins. Third best strategy is they win, but they pay a godawful price. And the fourth possibility, which you don’t want, is they went quickly and decisively. If that’s the case, then you don’t have much deterrence.
Lex Fridman (02:48:28) What does a world with China as the sole dominant superpower look like? I mean, a little bit underlying our discussion is this kind of idea that US is the good guys and China is the bad guys. First of all, dividing the world into good guys and bad guys seems to somehow miss the nuance of this whole human civilization project we’re undertaking. But what does the world look like where China is the dominant sole superpower in a unipolar world?
John Mearsheimer (02:49:01) Well, I don’t tend to think of the world in terms of good guys and bad guys. As a good realist, I think that states or states, they’re all black boxes. I don’t discriminate between democracies and autocracies. But having said that, I am an American and as an American, I’m interested in the security of my country, the survival of my country. So I want the United States to be the most powerful state in the world, which means I want the United States to dominate the Western hemisphere, I want us to be a regional hegemon, and I want to make sure that China does not dominate Asia the way we dominate the Western hemisphere.
(02:49:45) It’s not because I think we’re the good guys and they’re the bad guys. If I were Chinese and I were in Beijing and I was Xi Jinping’s national security advisor, I’d tell him what we got to do is make sure we dominate the world or dominate our region and then do everything we can to undermine America’s position in the Western hemisphere. That’d be my view. So I guess you could say I do view the world in terms of good guys and bad guys, an American and-
Lex Fridman (02:50:16) More like us and them versus-
John Mearsheimer (02:50:18) Yeah, it’s us and them. That’s a nice way to put it. Yeah, it’s us versus them. Not so much good guys versus bad guys.
Lex Fridman (02:50:24) Is it possible to have a stable, peaceful world with a good balance of power where it’s China and US as superpowers? It’s a bipolar world, no longer unipolar.
John Mearsheimer (02:50:37) Yeah. Okay, so you’re hypothesizing a world where they dominate Asia and we dominate the Western hemisphere.
Lex Fridman (02:50:43) Yeah.
John Mearsheimer (02:50:44) I believe there would be a great deal of intense security competition between those two superpowers.
Lex Fridman (02:50:53) The definition of intense matters here. So it could be small military conflicts or it could be extremely large unstable military conflicts, right?
John Mearsheimer (02:51:04) Well, conflict… Let’s use the word war. So I distinguish between security competition and war. And what I’m telling you is you’ll have an intense security competition where there’s no shooting, or if there’s shooting, it’s mainly proxies that are doing the fighting, much like the Vietnam War. Or you could have a case where one of those superpowers was involved in a war against a proxy of the other superpower. Think the Korean War. The United States fought the Chinese who were allied with the Soviets at the time. But a war between the United States and China, just like a war between the United States and the Soviet Union during the Cold War, that’s what you really want to avoid. So I think you’d have an intense security competition. You’d have wars involving proxies of each of those two superpowers and you would probably have some wars where one of superpowers was involved in a proxy with one of the other superpower’s proxies.
Lex Fridman (02:52:12) So it seems likely then, if that’s the case, then it would be Taiwan is the proxy and US fighting China through the proxy of Taiwan?
John Mearsheimer (02:52:21) Yeah. Well, that would assume the United States… But you want to remember, you’re hypothesizing a situation where China dominates Asia.
Lex Fridman (02:52:29) Oh, it already has dominated.
John Mearsheimer (02:52:31) Yeah, it’s already dominated Taiwan.
Lex Fridman (02:52:34) I see. Where do you find the proxies? Australia?
John Mearsheimer (02:52:38) The Middle East could be a good case.
Lex Fridman (02:52:40) Oh, wow.
John Mearsheimer (02:52:41) Persian Gulf.
Lex Fridman (02:52:43) Oh boy. And then our discussion of Israel becomes even more dramatically-
John Mearsheimer (02:52:47) Yeah, well, Israel gets involved… I think in this scenario, if you’re talking about a US China competition and you’re talking about the Middle East, I think it’s the Gulf, it’s the Saudis, the Iranians, the Iraqis. It’s the oil.
Lex Fridman (02:53:03) Don’t you think it could be Israel versus Iran with some very 1984 kind of dramatic partnership of Iran, Russia, and China versus United States, Europe, and Israel?
John Mearsheimer (02:53:18) I think that’s possible. Yeah.
Lex Fridman (02:53:19) Oh boy.
John Mearsheimer (02:53:20) I think that’s possible. Yeah. I mean, I hadn’t thought about it until you said it, but yeah, I think that that is possible.
Lex Fridman (02:53:28) Isn’t that terrifying?
John Mearsheimer (02:53:31) Yeah. Well, in your scenario, where China already dominates Asia and we dominate the Western hemisphere, I think you start talking about where the most likely places that the United States and China go head-to-head or fight through proxies. I think it is the Gulf or the Middle East and the scenario that you posit.
Lex Fridman (02:53:56) I mean, one question I have… I don’t know about you, but for me, unlike with the Soviet Union, and I know I was born there, but even outside of that, the cultural gap, the loss in translation, the communication gap between China and the United States seems to be much greater than that of what was the former Soviet Union and the United States. I see two cultures intermingling and communicating as one of the ways to deescalate future conflict.
John Mearsheimer (02:54:35) It’s an interesting question. I mean, at sort of an abstract theoretical level, my argument is that great powers act according to realist dictates and they understand those realistic dictates and that could lead to cooperation or it can lead to war. It depends. I would say just in the case of the Soviets, a lot of people…
John Mearsheimer (02:55:03) I would say just in the case of the Soviets, a lot of people describe the Cold War as an ideological competition above all else, it was communism versus liberal democracy or communism versus liberal capitalism, whatever. I actually don’t believe that. I believe the Soviets were realist to the core. I believe Stalin was a realist par excellence, and that ideology did not matter much in Stalin’s foreign policy. And I believe if you look at Soviet foreign policy after World War II, throughout the Cold War, they were realists to the core. And I think in those days, the Americans were realists, a lot of liberal ideology floating around out there, but the Americans were realists. And I think one of the reasons you avoided a shooting match between the United States and the Soviet Union from ’47 to ’89 was because both sides, I think understood basic balance of power logic. US China competition is somewhat different.
(02:56:14) First of all, the Chinese are realists to the core. I’ve spent a lot of time in China. I basically have rock and roll. I’m basically a rock and roll star in China. The Chinese-
Lex Fridman (02:56:27) You’re kind of a big deal in China. I love it.
John Mearsheimer (02:56:29) The Chinese are my kind of people. They’re realists, right? They speak my language. It’s the United States that is not very realist. American leaders have a very powerful liberal bent and tend not to see the world in realist terms. I believe, by the way, just going back to our discussion of NATO expansion, I think our inability to understand that NATO expansion was anathema to the Soviet, to the Russians, was due in large part to the fact that we just during the unipolar moment, didn’t think of international politics from a realist perspective and didn’t respect anyone who thought about international politics from a realist perspective. If those various American administrations starting with the Clinton administration had put their realist hat on, they would’ve understood that NATO expansion into Ukraine was not a good idea, but we had this thoroughly liberal view of the world that dominated our thinking, and it’s gone away somewhat since we’ve moved into Multi-polarity, but not completely.
(02:57:34) And this makes me a little nervous to pick up on your point. I mean, the United States is thinking about the world in ways that are somewhat different than the Chinese who are real as par excellence.
Lex Fridman (02:57:47) So that’s fascinating. So the Chinese are pragmatic about thinking of the world as a competition of military powers, all the ways in which you described the realist perspective. So that’s a hopeful thing, right? If we can achieve stability and a balance of powers through that military competition.
John Mearsheimer (02:58:11) Yeah, I actually think that’s right. I think if the United States, just let me talk a little bit about the United States to get at the issue you’re raising. If the United States pursues a smart containment strategy, given what you just said, and I said about the Chinese, I think we will avoid war. The problem with the Americans is it’s not just the liberalism. It’s the possibility that we will pursue a rollback policy. In other words, during the Cold War, we pursued containment. It was whenever anybody talked about American grand strategy towards the Soviet Unions, containment, containment, containment. We now know from the historical record that the United States was not only pursuing containment, it was pursuing rollback. We were trying to roll back Soviet power to put it bluntly, we were trying to wreck the Soviet Union, and I would not be surprised moving forward with regard to China if the United States pursues a serious rollback policy and-
Lex Fridman (02:59:17) So you’re saying throughout history, United States was always doing that. Always. Where’s that from? Why can’t we respect the power of other nations?
John Mearsheimer (02:59:26) Because they may be a threat to us?
Lex Fridman (02:59:28) Well, I mean-
John Mearsheimer (02:59:31) Look, you don’t respect the power of other nations. You fear the power of other nations.
Lex Fridman (02:59:37) Well fear and respect are next door neighbors depending on the neighborhood you’re living in, but I just mean it could be very counterproductive to try because if you can empathize with their… If you assume they’re rational actors you trying to roll back would lean into the uncertainty of potential conflict. So you want to avoid the uncertainty of potential conflict, caution, right?
John Mearsheimer (03:00:03) Well, yes and no. Look, your point is you want to empathize. You want to be able to put yourself in the shoes of the other side.
Lex Fridman (03:00:10) Yes.
John Mearsheimer (03:00:10) I agree 100% with that, right. It’s very important if you’re a first class strategist to be able to do that, but at the same time, there is this competition for power taking place, and what you want to do is maximize how much power you have relative to the other side, and the other side wants to maximize how much power it has relative to you. So you have this competition for power that’s taking place all the time, and that’s taking place at the same time you want to have empathy or you want to be able to put yourself in the shoes of the other side. So those two things kind of go together.
Lex Fridman (03:00:49) It just feels less threatening to build up your thing versus try to hurt the other person’s thing, the other group’s thing.
John Mearsheimer (03:01:00) But if you build up your own power, you are building up your capability to hurt the other side.
Lex Fridman (03:01:06) Right, but I guess you don’t rattle the saber just work on manufacturing sabers.
John Mearsheimer (03:01:13) Well, that I agree with. I think that the United States wants to make sure it has a big stick in East Asia for purposes of containing China and avoiding a war, right? Again, I want to be clear, I’m not advocating that we start World War III, but the point is you want to have a big stick and you want to make sure that you don’t overstep your bounds in terms of using that big stick. This is the danger with rollback that you get too aggressive and you precipitate a war, and you also just have to be very careful what you say. And to go back to your favorite argument, you want to be able to have empathy or put yourself in the shoes of the other side, because if you do something, you want to think smartly about what that other side, how that other side is going to see your action and how they’re going to react, right?
Lex Fridman (03:02:09) And mostly focus on the carrots, have a giant stick laying around, but never mention it, just focus on the carrots.
John Mearsheimer (03:02:17) Well, occasionally you have to mention the stick.
Lex Fridman (03:02:19) Everyone knows the stick is there.
John Mearsheimer (03:02:21) There is some truth in that, right?
Lex Fridman (03:02:23) I mean, yeah, and words matter a lot. It feels our current President Biden is meeting with Xi Jinping, and I think the words exchanged there are really important. I have a notion that leaders can stop wars just as much as they can start wars.
John Mearsheimer (03:02:42) Well, leaders matter. There’s no question about that, no question, but just on rhetoric, you want to remember that Putin has on more than one occasion, very subtly rattled the nuclear sword, and it has been very effective because Joe Biden has paid attention, and Joe Biden wants to make sure we don’t end up in a thermonuclear war, and thank goodness he’s thinking that way. So all Putin has to do is mention the possibility of nuclear war. Just to go back to Taiwan, switch areas of the world. If you’re interested in containing China and you’re interested in deterrence, and let’s go back to those various scenarios where the Chinese win, we win, Chinese win, but they do it at great cost.
(03:03:35) One could argue that, that discussion that I laid out before it didn’t take into account nuclear weapons and all President Biden or any of his successors has to do is just very subtly rattle or employ the nuclear threat and just sort of remind the Chinese that you start a war over Taiwan, it could easily escalate into a nuclear war. You want to understand we both have nuclear weapons, and if either one of us is put into a desperate situation, we may turn to those nuclear weapons and oh, by the way, Xi Jinping, you want to understand that we’re out here in the water and using nuclear weapons in the water, it’s not the same as using war nuclear weapons on lands. So we may very well use them. I’m not saying we will, but anyway, a little saber rattling. Right?
Lex Fridman (03:04:36) Let me just zoom out on human history. What makes empires collapse and what makes them last when they do when you look at human history, in your sense thinking about the United States, perhaps as an empire?
John Mearsheimer (03:04:52) I don’t view the United States as an empire.
Lex Fridman (03:04:57) So to you empire as a thing that seeks expansion constantly?
John Mearsheimer (03:05:03) Yeah, I think it’s a country that incorporates different regions or areas around the world into sort of a giant sphere of influence without incorporating those territories actually into the state itself. So you had this thing called the British Empire and it controlled areas like India, North America, and Kenya, just to pick a couple instances at different points. Singapore would be another example. Australia would be another example. So these were all entities that were part of the British Empire and the United States has taken a stab at empire after the Spanish American War, for example, with regard to the Philippines and Cuba and Puerto Rico, but we never got serious about it. There’s never been an American empire.
(03:06:13) This is not to say the United States is not an incredibly powerful country that goes all around the world building military bases and stationing troops here, there and everywhere, but we’re not running an empire the way the British Empire was run or the French Empire. So the question for me is why did those empires go away? Why did the British Empire go away? If you ever look at a map of the world in 1922 after World War I, it’s truly amazing how much of that map is controlled by Britain. They had a huge empire and it’s disappeared.
Lex Fridman (03:06:53) Probably by far the biggest in terms of area empire in human history, I think so.
John Mearsheimer (03:06:59) I think that’s right. It almost has to be.
Lex Fridman (03:07:01) Yeah, right. It’s crazy.
John Mearsheimer (03:07:04) Crazy, yeah.
Lex Fridman (03:07:05) And then no longer is the case.
John Mearsheimer (03:07:07) Yeah. Now I want to be clear. The Americans have wielded maybe even greater influence than Britain did when it had its empire, but I don’t believe we have an empire that bears any resemblance to the British Empire. So the question is, what happened to that British empire? What happened to the French Empire? What happened to the Belgian Empire? What happened to the Dutch Empire? These were countries that had colonies all over the planet. The Dutch East Indies, Vietnam was French Indochina. Where did those empires go? Two factors finished them off. Number one, nationalism. Nationalism became a very powerful force in the 19th Century. It began to rear its head in the late 18th Century and became a very powerful force in the 19th and certainly in the 20th.
Lex Fridman (03:07:57) Can you explain nationalism here?
John Mearsheimer (03:07:59) Nationalism is the idea that these different nations that were part of the empire, like the Kenyans wanted their own state, nation state. This is my point about the Palestinians, right? This is Palestinian nationalism. What is Zionism? Zionism is Jewish nationalism. Jewish nationalism. Think of Theodore Herzl’s famous book. It’s called The Jewish State, Nation State. Think of the word nation state that embodies nationalism. Nation state, Jewish state. Palestinians want their own state, two state solution. Can’t beat the Palestinians into submission. The Indians wanted their own state. The Pakistanis wanted their own state. The Kenyans wanted their own state. Singapore wanted its own state. Oh, the Americans wanted their own state. This is called the American Revolution.
(03:08:51) So that’s the first reason, nationalism that these empires disappeared. The second reason is that from a cost benefit analysis, they no longer made any sense, and it was the coming of the Industrial Revolution. Once the Industrial Revolution comes, an empire is basically an albatross around your neck. I would argue that the British Empire was an albatross around Britain’s neck in most of the 20th Century. Some of my friends disagree with that and think there were all sorts of benefits from the British Empire, but you want to remember that in the 20th Century, the three countries that really were powerful were the United States, Germany and the Soviet Union. Those were the big three. Did any of them have an empire? No.
Lex Fridman (03:09:39) That’s a good argument.
John Mearsheimer (03:09:40) In the industrial world, you don’t need an empire, right? What you need is a powerful manufacturing base.
Lex Fridman (03:09:50) Well, the cost benefit analysis is different before the Industrial Revolution, there’s been many empires.
John Mearsheimer (03:09:56) There’s no question that empires came and went, right?
Lex Fridman (03:10:00) Yes.
John Mearsheimer (03:10:02) All you have to do is just look at the British and the French in the Seven Years War, 1756 to 1763, the British win, they get Canada, and that’s why Quebec, Montreal, all these big French speaking areas are now part of Canada. So borders change and countries got established. The United States being one, and remember, South American, Central America were once completely dominated by the Spanish, and in the case of Brazil, the Portuguese, but they all in the 19th Century got their independence, and what I’m saying to you is in the 19th and in the 20th Century, there were two forces that were really driving the train. One is nationalism, and then the other is the industrial revolution, which changes the cost benefit analysis.
Lex Fridman (03:11:01) Almost too crazy of a question, but if you look, let me calculate, let’s say 500 years from now, and you John Mearsheimer traveled through time and are at a bookstore looking at the entire history of human civilization in a single book. What role does US play? What’s the story of US over the next a hundred, 200, 300 years? Is it a big role, small role?
John Mearsheimer (03:11:32) Well, that’s a long time. If you asked me, let’s just say the next hundred years.
Lex Fridman (03:11:39) Yeah, that’s still tough.
John Mearsheimer (03:11:42) That’s still tough, but actually I think we’re in excellent shape and here’s the reason. Going back to the beginning of our conversation, you asked me about power and I told you the two principle building blocks of power are population size and wealth, and therefore you want to look around the world and you want to look at what you think the demographics are of countries like Britain, the United States, Iran, China, Russia, pick your country moving forward, what do the demographics look like and how wealthy are those countries likely to be? What you discover very quickly is that almost every country around the world is depopulating over time. Russia’s going to be much smaller, China’s going to be much smaller a hundred years from now than both of those countries are, as best we can tell.
(03:12:49) United States, American women are not having lots of babies these days. No question about that, but we have immigration. We’re an immigrant culture. You’re a perfect manifestation of that. You’re a perfect, you’re now an American. That’s wonderful. We need more people like you. So when I hear Donald Trump and others arguing that immigration’s a terrible thing, this is ridiculous. Immigration is what made us great. It’s when my relatives came over in the middle of the 19th Century from Germany and Ireland.
Lex Fridman (03:13:26) That’s fascinating because there’s been a huge concern, America and other developed nations are not having enough children, but you just made me realize in the long arc of history, the United States has gotten really good at integrating immigrants and helping them flourish. The whole diversity of that makes up America.
John Mearsheimer (03:13:51) You’re absolutely right.
Lex Fridman (03:13:52) There’s a machinery of integrating other cultures.
John Mearsheimer (03:13:56) Yeah, just very quickly on this-
Lex Fridman (03:13:57) That’s fascinating.
John Mearsheimer (03:13:59) Sam Huntington’s book, Who Are We? Which in many ways I love that book, but it has one fundamental flaw and a number of people told him beforehand that flaw existed and he didn’t fix it, but Sam argues in the book that we have large numbers of Hispanics in this country and we’re doing a very poor job of integrating them into the mainstream and they’re not becoming Americans, and because many of them are concentrated in the Southwest of the United States, unlike other ethnic groups that were spread out all over God’s little green acre, we’re going to have this cohesive group of Spanish speaking Americans who are going to want to break away, and the United States is no longer going to be a reasonably coherent nation state. He’s wrong. All the evidence is that Hispanics are integrating into the American mainstream more quickly and more effectively than the European immigrant groups that came starting around 1835.
(03:15:12) If you look at immigration from Europe into the United States, leaving aside the original wasps who came over and founded the place, the immigrants start coming in large numbers in 1835, and we really don’t shut the door until 1924, right? This is a crude overview, starting in 1835 and running up till about 1885, it’s mainly Germans and Irish. That’s why Germans are the largest ethnic group to ever come to the United States, and the Irish are right behind them. These are the European ethnic groups we’re talking about. Then starting in 1885 Pols, Jews and Italians start coming, and the Germans and Irish keep coming, and this is why Ellis Island is opened, I think it’s 1893, Ellis Island is opened because Castle Garden in New York, which had handled all the previous immigrants coming across the pond, Castle Garden, couldn’t handle them all, so they opened up Ellis Island.
(03:16:11) That’s why somebody like me, I can’t find my distant relative’s records in Ellis Island because they came through Castle Garden. Whereas lots of Jews I know, lots of Italians, I know they can find their relatives records in Ellis Island because they came through Ellis Island. The point is, you had all these immigrants who came in roughly between 1835 and 1924 when we shut the gates. It was the only time we’ve ever really shut the gates in a meaningful way and this is what made America great, all these people, and they made lots of babies.
Lex Fridman (03:16:47) So in some sense, make America great again, means getting more immigrants in.
John Mearsheimer (03:16:52) Well, we opened the gates again in ’65, closed them in ’24, opened them in ’65. I’m oversimplifying the story here, because we didn’t completely shut them. We almost completely shut them in ’24, opened in ’65, and we’ve had huge numbers of immigrants flowing in. These immigrants who have been flowing in since ’65 are not Europeans. They’re not mainly Europeans, they’re mainly Hispanics and Asians. If you look at those Hispanics and Asians, they’re integrating into the American mainstream at a much faster and more effective clip than was the case with those immigrants who came in the 19th Century and early 20th Century.
(03:17:36) The Irish, oh my God, they were treated horribly. There’s a book, a very famous book that’s been written called When The Irish Became White, just think about the title of that book. There was discrimination against all these groups, and the worst discrimination, of course was against Chinese Americans, but we’ve gotten much better and what we should do moving forward is redouble our efforts to integrate immigrants into the American mainstream, Hispanics, Asians of all sorts, because the fact is that America is rapidly reaching the point where it’s not going to be an all white country.
(03:18:24) I have five children and two of my children are, I was a generation Z, Gen Z. Gen Z is the last majority white generation, subsequent generations, and not majority white. So for anybody who’s bothered by this, I’m not bothered by that, but for anybody who is bothered by this, they better good use to it because Americans aren’t making enough babies that we can continue to grow population-wise in a robust way. So we need immigration and we’re an immigrant culture, and this is a great virtue. It has been a great virtue over time.
Lex Fridman (03:19:10) It should be a source of hope, not worry.
John Mearsheimer (03:19:13) That’s my view. That’s my view and America when it works, is a place that is very attractive to immigrants and immigrants can do very well here and then the real key moving forward is intermarriage, and you have a huge amount of intermarriage. Somebody was telling me not too long ago that the highest inner marriage rates in the United States are among Asian women, Asian American women, Asian women and Anglos, and I say wonderful and-
Lex Fridman (03:19:47) Great.
John Mearsheimer (03:19:48) Yeah. No, the more-
Lex Fridman (03:19:49) Love is the fastest way to integrate.
John Mearsheimer (03:19:52) Yeah. Well, what you want to do is you want to eliminate difference, right? You want to eliminate difference, right? It’s like people who say, “I’m an antisemite,” right? I have two grandsons who Adolf Hitler would’ve thrown into a gas chamber. One of whose first name is John, and middle name is Mearsheimer, right?
Lex Fridman (03:20:15) Yeah.
John Mearsheimer (03:20:16) This is what you want. Steve Watt’s wife and his two children would’ve been thrown into a gas chamber by Adolf Hitler. This is what you want. You want intermarriage. Now, there are a good number of people in some of those groups, especially among Jews who don’t like intermarriage, but they’ve lost because I haven’t looked recently at the data for intermarriage rates among basically secular Jews, but it used to be around 62% large numbers of Jews marry Guam.
Lex Fridman (03:20:51) And they’ve lost because of intermarriage. Intermarriage helps fight tribalism. Destructive kind of tribalism.
John Mearsheimer (03:20:58) Exactly.
Lex Fridman (03:20:58) It’s nice
John Mearsheimer (03:20:59) Calling me an antisemite, they haven’t met my grandsons, my son-in-laws, a niece that I have, nephews that I have, brother-in-laws that I have. Jewish. Come on.
Lex Fridman (03:21:13) And this gives a really nice hopeful view of America is the integration of different cultures, different kinds of peoples. That is a unique property of America.
John Mearsheimer (03:21:24) Yes, but just to go back to where we started, it was not smooth in the beginning.
Lex Fridman (03:21:29) All things are rough in the beginning.
John Mearsheimer (03:21:31) All things are rough in the beginning.

Life and mortality

Lex Fridman (03:21:34) What advice would you give to a young person today about how to have a career they can be proud of or a life they can be proud of?
John Mearsheimer (03:21:42) Well, I think it’s very important to make sure that you do something in life that really interests you. My mother used to use this phrase, “Floats your boat.” You want to do something that floats your boat or to use another one of my mother’s phrases, ” You want to get off. You want to do something where you get up out of bed in the morning with a bounce in your step.” So I think that if your mother and father want you to be a lawyer and they’re pushing you to be a lawyer and you don’t want to be a lawyer, you want to be a policeman, be a policeman. Don’t do what other people want you to do because it’s very important to find a job, an occupation that you really love.
(03:22:26) The second thing I would say, and this has to do with your point about humility, you want to think about the humility hubris index. My friend Steve Van Everett, who teaches at MIT, he and I invented this concept. We call it the hubris humility index, and you want to have a healthy dose of humility, but you also want to have a healthy dose of hubris. You want to think you can change the world. You want to think you can make things better for yourself. You want to take chances. You want to think sometimes that you know better than other people do. Hubris is not a bad thing, but at the same time, you have to have humility. You have to understand that a man or a woman has his or her limits and you want to listen to other people. You want to be a good listener.
(03:23:19) So always remember the importance of the hubris humility index and the importance of having healthy doses of both hubris and humility.
Lex Fridman (03:23:31) Speaking of humility, you’re mortal, like all humans are, do you ponder your mortality? Are you afraid of it? Are you afraid of death?
John Mearsheimer (03:23:42) I’m not sure I’m afraid of death. I don’t want to die because I enjoy life so much.
Lex Fridman (03:23:50) Having too much fun?
John Mearsheimer (03:23:53) Given how horrible the world is today, I hate to say that I’m having too much fun, but do I find what I do interesting and gratifying? I do. I just love what I do and I love studying international politics, and I love being intellectually curious about all sorts of subjects. I love talking to you about this and that. I mean, this is really wonderful, and I often tell people thank goodness I’m only 28 years old because I do try to behave like I’m only 28 years old, but I am well aware of the fact that as my mother used to say, “Nothing is forever,” and that includes me and when you’re 75 going on 76, you understand that you have a limited number of years left and I find that depressing because I’ve been very lucky and I feel like I’ve won the lottery. I’m very thankful for that. I’d like to make it last for as long as possible, but I do understand that nothing is forever.
Lex Fridman (03:25:06) Yeah, the finiteness of things.
John Mearsheimer (03:25:09) Yeah. You never think that when you’re young. I mean, you think you’re going to live forever and you’re just not going to get old. I never thought this would happen that I would become 75 years old.
Lex Fridman (03:25:22) Well, you got so much energy and boldness and fearlessness and excitement to you that I’m really grateful to see that, especially given how much I’m sure you’ve been attacked for having bold ideas and presenting them and not losing that youthful energy is beautiful to see.
John Mearsheimer (03:25:46) Thank you.
Lex Fridman (03:25:47) Not becoming cynical. John, it’s a huge honor to speak with you that you’ve given me so much time and so much respect and so much love. This was a really incredible conversation. Thank you so much for everything you do in the world, for looking out into the world and trying to understand it and teach us, and thank you so much for talking with a silly kid like me.
John Mearsheimer (03:26:07) It was my pleasure. Thank you very much. I thoroughly enjoyed it.
Lex Fridman (03:26:11) Awesome. Thanks for listening to this conversation with John Mearsheimer. To support this podcast, please check out our sponsors in the description. And now let me leave you with some words from Plato. “Only the dead have seen the end of war.” Thank you for listening and hope to see you next time.