John Mearsheimer and the decline of US hegemony

Nov 2, 2023
October 23 2023, John Meisheimer speaks in Brisbane at the Centre for Independent Studies (CIS). Image: supplied

“It’s very important to understand that what’s happened is that the unipolar moment is in the rearview mirror. It’s gone. We are now in a multipolar world”

On October 23, a fortnight after the start of the Hamas-Israel conflict, the Centre for Independent Studies (CIS), one of Australia’s leading right-wing think tanks, hosted Professor John Mearsheimer, the doyen of US foreign policy analysts, for a talk in Brisbane that had been hastily retitled, Will Ukraine and now Israel derail the US pivot to contain China?

The Centre for Independent Studies specialises in public policy research in areas such as foreign policy, economics, and culture. Its Executive Director is Tom Switzer, one of the leading lights of the Australian centre-right, who hosts Between the Lines on ABC radio, and is a frequent contributor to the Australian, the Australian Financial Times and Sky News.

Their guest speaker, John J Mearsheimer, the R. Wendell Harrison distinguished professor of political science at the University of Chicago, is one of the foremost contrarians on the subject of US foreign policy in Ukraine. He achieved guru status on the internet with his 2015 lecture Why the Ukraine is the West’s fault, which has received an astonishing 29 million views, 277,000 likes, one dislike, and over 17,000 comments!

The MC Tom Switzer set the tone for the evening by prefacing his introduction of John Mearsheimer by reading a letter from a correspondent, Sherelle Jacobs, who expressed her fear that the US was becoming dangerously overextended.

“Sherelle Jacobs asks if the West becomes bogged down in a multi-year Arab Israeli dispute, Beijing may be tempted to take advantage with a shock invasion of Taiwan. Sherelle Jacobs goes on to ask, ‘Does anyone seriously think that the US will be able to effectively fight three proxy wars on three continents at the same time: Ukraine in Europe; Hamas and Gaza in the Middle East; and then, of course, in China in East Asia. Could America do this at a time when its own faction-riddled politics threatens to upend the American political order.’

She concludes: ‘America, can no longer be the world policeman.”

This was the third Australian tour by Mearsheimer, sponsored by Tom Switzer and the CIS. Switzer displayed his stratosphere-high regard for Mearsheimer with his ringing introduction.

“John Mearsheimer is professor of political science at the University of Chicago. He’s also author of many prominent books, most notably The Tragedy of Great Power Politics that was published in 2001, which predicted that the rise of China would not be peaceful. John is, according to the next edition of the prestigious New York based Foreign Affairs magazine, I quote, ‘one of the most famous political scientists in history’! And that article was written by a critic!!

And with that, please welcome John Mearsheimer!”

The applause was prolonged and thunderous. The venue, the conference room at the Westin Hotel, holds 150 and it was sold out. Like myself, most of the attendees were familiar with Mearsheimer via the internet or from his previous tours; many, like Switzer, could be described as devotees.

As a lecturer, Mearsheimer was in his element. He has done this ten-thousand times before, and he needed neither notes, nor a podium. Standing centre-stage, relaxed and confident, he worked the room, engaging with the audience, and he was clear, erudite, concise, challenging, revelatory, hard-hitting and very angry with the direction US foreign policy had taken. Unlike many speakers, Mearsheimer does not woo his audience with humour: I can’t remember one joke. Instead, his weapon of choice are truth-bombs, and his trademark is his brutal honesty.

The anger in his voice was palpable as he explained the disastrous results of the policy of NATO expansion eastward that the US pursued for two decades. The US was now trapped in a proxy war with Russia that neither side could afford to lose, with no end in sight, and with the only certainty being that Ukraine would be devastated. Describing the future of the conflict, Mearsheimer prophesised,

“We will continue to support Ukraine. We will continue to look for opportunities to screw the Russians and the Russians will look for opportunities. to screw us. You’ll have this nasty security competition. There’s no end in sight to the trouble that we are now facing in Ukraine, which, by the way, tells you what a massive mistake we made in 2008 trying to bring Ukraine into NATO.”

Although he is a contrarian on the Ukraine war, which he regards as a foolish strategy that has driven Russia into the arms of China, Mearsheimer was otherwise very much in the US foreign policy mainstream as an advocate of the US pivot to China. He argued,

“My argument is that the United States is losing focus, and you say to yourself, what exactly does that mean? I believe that the principal threat that the United States faces in the world is the rise of China and the possibility that China might try to dominate Asia. And I think we have a deep-seated interest in containing China. But what’s happened is that the United States has lost focus, and it’s got diverted into the Ukraine war in Europe, and it’s now getting diverted into the Middle East with the war between Hamas and Israel and the United States, and therefore is unable to pivot completely to Asia and I think this is a major mistake for the United States.”

From unipolarity to multipolarity

Mearsheimer explained that the period from 1989 when the Cold War ended and the Soviet Union collapsed, up until about 2017, was commonly known as the unipolar moment. This was because there was only one great power on the planet in this period, and that one great power was the United States of America. The US had been world hegemon, but the basic architecture of the system had now changed. “We went from Unipolarity to Multipolarity,” says Mearsheimer.

“It’s very important to understand that what’s happened is that the unipolar moment is in the rearview mirror. It’s gone. We are now in a multipolar world where we went from one great power to three great powers, the United States. China and Russia. We now consider Russia a great power because Vladimir Putin since he took over in 2000, has brought the Russians back from the dead. Most of you know that in the 1990s Russia had basically died. Putin brought them back from the dead. So, Russia is a great power and China is a great power, and of course, Uncle Sam is a great power.”

Russia’s weakness in the 1990s and early 2000s had allowed the US to expand its NATO alliance to the borders of Russia, over the objections of Russia, which was too weak to oppose. The decision to extend NATO to the borders of Russia was an enormous strategic mistake, Mearsheimer says, “And the biggest mistake of all came in 2008 at the annual NATO summit in Bucharest when Georgia and Ukraine were invited to join NATO.”

Putin and the Russians again made it unequivocally clear they considered this an existential threat that would turn the Black Sea into a NATO lake.

“The Americans think they can push it down Putin’s throat, just like they did in 1999 and 2004, so we continue to push,” says Mearsheimer. “This freaks the Russians out like you wouldn’t believe. Especially NATO in Ukraine.”

And so the 2014 coup in Ukraine kicked off the civil war, which became a proxy war, then the Special Military Operation, the sanctions, the continuing escalations, and the Doomsday Clock was moved to 90 seconds to midnight in January 2023. And the war dragged on, always threatening to spread like a wildfire, the way wars do. Then the attack on October 7 turned the Middle East into a powder keg that could explode anytime one of the numerous actors there wants it to.

The main areas of the world the US worries about, Mearsheimer had said, are Europe, the Persian Gulf, and East Asia. With its dysfunctional political system, its zero-sum politics, and its aged, feeble President, the US and its allies worry the US might stumble into a war on all three fronts.

The US wasted the Unipolar moment fighting regime-change wars in Iraq, Afghanistan, Libya, Syria, Lebanon, Sudan and Somalia, destroying nations all across the Islamic world, generating massive refugee flows that are destabilising Europe, and causing massive hatred of the US within the Islamic world. One of the major US war aims in supporting Ukraine was to achieve regime change in Russia. Both China and Iran know that if that is achieved, they are next on the regime-change agenda, and this has solidified Russian support. And Putin’s popular support in Russia is over 80%, double Biden’s.

Imperial overreach has caused other empires to fall.

When it’s adjusted at the start of 2024, what time will the Doomsday clock show?

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