Whence, John J. Mearsheimer? Recoiling from America’s Cold War Record

John J. Mearsheimer, one of America’s leading foreign policy experts, promotes an ideology-free view of America’s national interest. But, lately, he seems to be gravitating toward a conspiratorial view of the world.

Who talks like this?

I ran across these words on the Facebook page of a friend who is a grudging admirer of Mearsheimer’s Offensive Neorealism approach to international conflict. I got hung-up on Mearsheimer’s premise. Here Mearsheimer is disagreeing with General Charles Wald (retired) who believes the U.S. should help arm the Ukrainians.

First of all, the United States sometimes violates international law when it thinks it’s in its interest. The war in Iraq was a clear violation of international law. The war against Serbia over Kosovo in 1999 was a clear violation of international law. The idea that the United States obeys international law and the Russians are simply an outlaw state is not, in my opinion, a correct argument.- John J. Mearsheimer

This is our introduction to a recurring problem with Mearsheimer. His first sentence in that paragraph is so reasonable that it is almost a truism. Yet, (bracketing Iraq) this statement about Kosovo is dubious. Besides the American far-left and the Russian government, who else calls the Kosovo operation a ‘clear violation’ of international law?

But, OK, we see what Mearsheimer is trying to do. He is calling BS on the General. He is questioning the General’s implication that preservation of international law might be a motivating goal for U.S. conduct regarding Ukraine. Fine.

But Mearsheimer just keeps going:*

But the United States has a rich history of overthrowing democratically elected leaders. And furthermore, when it comes to democracy promotion, especially in places like Ukraine, you want to understand that we’re not just simply interested in promoting democracy because it represents our best values; we’re interested in promoting democracy there, and in many other places, as well, because we think it will end up putting in power leaders who are pro-American. And by the way, when that doesn’t happen, we then overthrow those leaders, which contradicts the basic assumption that underpins the policy to begin with. So the United States does not have a particularly good record with regard to either international law or democracy promotion. – John J. Mearsheimer

It is fairly well established that the United States has an embarrassing Cold War history of overthrowing democratically elected leaders.

1973. There were certainly four or five instances where the U.S. was materially involved in overthrowing a democratically-elected government. But the last clear example of this was in Chile in 1973, 40+ years ago. Yet Mearsheimer raises these events as evidence that General Wald can’t possible be interested in democracy promotion in 2015.

Then Mearsheimer doubles-down. He states that the U.S. overthrows democratic regimes and then leads follow-up coups against the leaders that we helped install. This actually happened in Guatemala in 1954. But it is not clear that it ever happened again. So Mearsheimer exaggerates when he suggests a pattern.

The American far-Left holds as gospel the belief that U.S. treachery abroad during the Cold War was far deeper and broader than has ever been demonstrated, because of evidence-destroyed, witnesses-eliminated, brains-washed, etc. And who knows? Maybe those folks are correct.

Regardless, raising this history (almost as a non-sequiter), exaggerating it a bit, and applying it to current U.S. conduct is typical of, say, Noam Chomsky (making no pre-judgement as to the legitimacy of these claims). It would not be typical of commenters from other ideological backgrounds to make these sorts of arguments.

What is going on here?

Right now, your guess is as good as mine. I was just baffled enough to want to know more. More on what I found in tomorrow’s post.

* I am not attempting to characterizing Mearsheimer’s fairly persuasive argument against arming Ukraine. He is a sharp and systematic thinker. Instead, I am flagging the words he uses and the questionable sources upon which he relies.

About the Author
Richard E. Ford is a communications specialist in Washington DC with a keen interest in Israel, and an abiding belief that small facts are more useful than big narratives.
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