In a wide-ranging, elucidative lecture delivered last week in Budapest, University of Chicago Professor John Mearsheimer, one of the world’s preeminent political scientists and scholars of international relations, offered his views on the current world order. The talk focused principally on the Russo-Ukraine War, the geopolitical conditions and actors responsible for it, and what it all means for Hungary.
The lecture, titled “Great Power Politics in the 21st Century and the Implications for Hungary,” took place in the historic St. Ladislaus Chapel of the National University of Public Service before an audience of hundreds. With many seated in an overflow room, Mearsheimer offered a lucid, artful polemic against the liberal-globalist establishment’s narrative about the Russo-Ukraine War.
Using plain language devoid of the typical left-liberal academic gobbledygook, Mearsheimer—described as the most influential realists of his generation—organized his two-and-a-half-hour long talk into five parts: first, he outlined the present geopolitical situation and how we arrived at it; second, he outlined his theory of international politics; third, he explained the U.S.-China conflict dyad; fourth, he detailed U.S.-Russia relations in the context of the Ukraine war; and fifth, he considered the implications of these global challenges for Hungary.
How We Got Here
In an attempt to paint a picture which accurately portrayed the totality of the current geopolitical backdrop, Mearsheimer first recounted the sequence of events which took us from a bipolar world to a unipolar world, and then to a multipolar world. To understand this trajectory, it is essential to understand where we were, Mearsheimer said. And for him, the story begins with the fall of the Berlin Wall and the end of the Cold War, in which the bipolar world—where the U.S. and Soviet Union competed for global military, economic, political, and cultural hegemony—gave way to a unipolar world, with the United States emerging as the sole global hegemon.
That period of unipolarity, which scholars refer to as “the unipolar moment,” lasted until roughly 2017, and was followed by the multipolar era we find ourselves in now, where three great powers—the U.S., Russia, and China—vie for hegemony in all spheres.
In this new, multipolar world order, Mearsheimer explained, the United States is by far the greatest power, with China not far behind, though it is catching up quickly. Russia—despite having the second-largest nuclear arsenal—is a distant third.
He contended that the two “conflict dyads” that exist between the U.S. and Russia and the U.S. and China are far less stable—and therefore far more dangerous—than the U.S.-Soviet dyad that existed during the bipolar era. And he noted: “My bottom line is that the unipolar moment [was] really a wonderful time. … But it’s gone away and we actually live in very dangerous times.”
U.S.-China Conflict Dyad
To Mearsheimer, the potential for a future military conflict between the U.S. and China is exceptionally high, particularly given that the U.S. believes it should be the world’s sole regional hegemon, while China desires to become a regional hegemon of its own—and has the ability to actualize that desire. Taiwan would serve as the most likely flashpoint.
Furthermore, a military confrontation between the U.S. and China even begins to look inevitable when one considers the notion of a ‘Thucydides Trap,’ he explained. This notion describes the tendency toward war that arises when an ascendent power threatens to displace a ruling power as a regional or international hegemon.
Mearsheimer reminded the audience that over the past several decades, the U.S. has played a principal role in assisting China to become one of the most economically powerful countries in the world. “We have foolishly helped turn China into an economically powerful country,” he said. “Every single administration, from 1989, whether Republican or Democrat, participated in that enterprise.” Only Trump adopted a realist approach to China, he noted.
In the decades ahead, he predicts that Washington will likely seek to roll back Chinese economic growth—and thereby belatedly attempt to diminish the country’s military might and its capacity to assert itself as regional hegemon.
U.S.-Russia Conflict Dyad
Turning to the U.S.-Russia conflict dyad—which without a doubt contained the most controversial content—Mearsheimer methodically dismantled arguments that have clogged the airwaves of the media since the onset of the Russo-Ukraine War.
He began by first refuting the claim, repeated far and wide by both establishment liberals and conservatives, that Russia is an imperial power whose intention has always been to march westward, beginning with Ukraine. “I think this theory is dead wrong,” Mearsheimer said, noting that Russia does not have the capability to conquer Ukraine much less other countries.
Mearsheimer made an assertion that has undoubtedly prompted countless figures in the political mainstream to label him a ‘Putin apologist:’ he argued that the Russian head of state was never interested in conquering Ukraine and incorporating it into the Russian Federation. “There is no evidence that Putin has ever said that he thought it would be a good idea to conquer Ukraine … or … that it is feasible … or … that that’s what he plans to do,” he said.
Instead, Mearsheimer said, Putin’s actions in eastern Ukraine ought to be seen as “balancing behavior.” Russia’s military incursion into Ukraine, he said, can be seen as an act of self-defense against efforts from the West—led by the United States—to make Ukraine a western bulwark on Russia’s border, 750 kilometers away from Moscow. “What we see in Ukraine now is the end result of the United States’ efforts to make Ukraine a western bulwark against Russia,” he concluded. And he added ominously: “We are close to the Americans and the Russians shooting each other. We were never this close during the Cold War.”
Implications for Hungary
While the increasingly adversarial relationship between the U.S. and China affects Hungary to some extent, its effect is nominal compared to that of the U.S.-Russia conflict dyad, said Mearsheimer. This is principally due to Hungary’s geographic proximity to the Russian Federation. He acknowledged that Hungary is deeply committed to its current position, where it does not have to choose sides, adding that it has a profound interest—militarily, ideologically, and economically—not to anger either the United States or Russia.
This position between great powers has allowed Hungary to benefit greatly from trade between Europe and Russia—and, as a result, it is keenly interested in maintaining close economic ties with both the East and West.
However, he cautioned, “if you get a situation where Hungary has significant economic ties with China, the U.S. will put a lot of pressure on it to not trade with China.” This may be difficult, since Hungary was already the first European country to sign on to the Belt and Road Initiative and Huawei’s 5G rollout. “Americans do not want Europe to have significant economic relations with China,” he added.
Regarding ideology and partisanship, Mearsheimer stated what most who know anything about Hungary are already aware of—namely, that it has mixed emotions over the various dyads and “isn’t sure what side is the good one.” He acknowledged that while much of the country has antipathy toward liberal globalism, the Hungarian state does uphold many of the core tenets of classical liberalism. Still, “hostility or dislike of liberalism is shared by many Hungarians; therefore, you have a certain ambivalence toward Russia and the West.”
In the conclusion of his talk, Mearsheimer warned of the dangers of escalation, saying: “If the West is successful and pushes the Russians back East, and if the sanctions begin to bite, the Russians will escalate—and there’s a good chance that they will use nuclear weapons.”
Additionally, he said he believes there’s a “good chance that NATO will get involved in Ukraine,” as Biden will be “under immense pressure to go and rescue Ukraine.” Alternatively, however, if escalation does not occur, then a stalemate could be likely.
As for the dismal situation that Europe currently finds itself in, Mearsheimer ended the lecture with an interesting comment that appeared to surprise many in the audience: “The end result was always unavoidable because the Americans were driving the train.”