Foreign Policy: How Free are Washington’s Wheels?

Given the level of irrationality visible in the geopolitical landscape, few would argue that political decisions today are made on a purely rational basis. John Mearsheimer actually thinks they are, but raises some serious questions about what we mean by rationality.
John Mearsheimer

Portrait of John Mearsheimer. Via John Mearsheimer’s personal website (CC BY-SA 3.0).

February 28, 2024 03:53 EDT

In most people’s minds, rationality is a tool that serves to solve problems. But has rationality itself become a problem? Take any issue and interrogate two people with opposite views on the issue. Each will accuse the other of being irrational. Moreover, they will likely use rational argument to prove their case.

We learned at school that rationality is an essential tool for acting in the world. It all goes back to the famous trio of Greek philosophers — Socrates, Plato and Aristotle — who saw reasoning as the key to understanding the world and achieving “the good life” both as individuals and for society as a whole.

International relations guru John Mearsheimer, known as a realist, has always insisted that nations use rationality to craft policies focused on defending their interests. In times of peace and stability that sounds like a rational assessment. But in times of war and rapid global shift, do we still believe that?

The American Conservative this month published the transcript of an event organized by the Quincy Institute on the occasion of the publication of Mearsheimer’s book co-authored with political scientist Sebastian Rosato, How States Think: The Rationality of Foreign Policy. In his lecture, Mearsheimer explained that policies are “rational” if they are “based on credible theories.” To make his point, he cites three theories that lay behind NATO’s decision to expand eastward, which he believes are flawed.

Policymakers, according to Mearsheimer, must learn to distinguish between logically-constructed theories that, however logical in themselves, may either be consistent with reality or flawed. Theories can be deceptive. Mearsheimer thinks the validity of Washington’s Ukraine policy can be assessed by asking this question: “Does the policymaking elite have a rational policy based on our credible theory, and did they operate collectively in a way that fostered uninhibited debate to produce this policy? And, if the answer is yes, it’s a rational policymaking process.”

Today’s Weekly Devil’s Dictionary definition:

Uninhibited debate:

A social and political practice cultivated by human beings ever since the emergence of philosophy as a discipline and then abruptly abandoned by the political class and the media at some point in the early 21st century.

Contextual note

Mearsheimer explains why the example of US policy on Ukraine and NATO expansion offers an illustration of why rationality alone is never enough. “So, I think that the policy of NATO expansion was rational in the sense it was based on credible theories. But I also thought at the time that it was flawed, and I believe that I was right. But all of this just highlights that there are different theories, which lead to different policy prescriptions.”

According to Mearsheimer, there exists a permanent risk that even the best theory may be flawed. But there’s also a key to avoiding the flaws, quite simply: “uninhibited debate.” To make his point, Mearsheimer adds a second epithet to reinforce his argument: “freewheeling.”

“The second part of our argument is that the different individuals involved in the policymaking process have to work together in a collective way, so as to produce a rational decision. And that involves… uninhibited and freewheeling debate among the relevant policymakers. So, if you have this sort of open-ended freewheeling debate at the collective level and you come up with a policy that’s based on a credible theory about how the world works, then you are rational in our story.”

Mearsheimer makes it clear that there are several complementary ideas to this process: “different individuals” who “work together in a collective way,” “uninhibited and freewheeling debate” and the production of a “credible theory.” This raises the further question of what makes one theory more credible than another.

Mearsheimer answers this question by invoking the notion of goals. These should be defined through uninhibited debate. “If there is something profoundly flawed about the basic goal,” he doubts that the policymaking process can be deemed rational. But he doesn’t stop there. He takes his reasoning one step further, adding that “it’s the process, not the outcomes that matter.”

In other words, rational decision-making in matters of foreign policy requires a process spawned by uninhibited debate that seeks to clarify goals. It may then evolve along two lines that consist of monitoring the real conditions in which the policy is applied and continued debate. In foreign policy, thinking you are right is never enough. You have to get it right. And to get it right requires freewheeling debate.

Historical note

Mearsheimer’s position on the Ukraine conflict has been extremely consistent over the past decade. It is also very different from the orthodoxy of both theory and practice in Washington. We might find it odd that in a democracy, given the differences of well-informed opinion that exist, there has been no debate on issues that are historically and geopolitically complex. Instead, Washington and NATO have consistently announced a policy supposedly justified by a single theoretical principle not subject to debate or even discussion: Ukraine’s “sovereign right to choose its own path as a sovereign nation.”

In contrast, Mearsheimer has attempted to open the debate on many occasions since 2014, as the video below illustrates. In spite of his reputation as a preeminent US expert in international relations, none of the three presidents since 2014 — Obama, Trump or Biden — has thought of consulting him on the issue, apparently because of an endemic allergy to freewheeling debate.

Mearsheimer’s analysis hasn’t changed 2014. And history has proved him a prophet. He claimed back then that if US policy failed to take into account the reality he described, conflict would be inevitable. In contrast, even with nearly 200,000 Russian troops positioned all along the border, the Biden administration believed Putin would never dare to invade Ukraine. That differing reading might have produced the kind of debate capable of preventing the ongoing catastrophe we are currently witnessing. But that debate was never permitted. The Biden administration continues to elude it even today when it could still serve to prevent further suffering.

What about goals? The mantra in the West has been reduced to a simplistic narrative equally immune to debate. The goal is to assist in Ukraine’s self-defense. After an “unprovoked” invasion, the members of NATO have stood in solidarity supporting the cause.

President Barack Obama’s official position in the aftermath of the 2014 coup, that Ukraine has limited strategic value to the US, has been echoed more recently by critics such as Tucker Carlson. Western governments may firmly believe in the right of sovereign nations to choose their alliances, but any course of action that risks provoking a regional war should be either questioned and before being implemented subjected to a truly uninhibited debate. Instead, based on that principle, in December 2021 the US and NATO refused to consider a discussion of Russia’s security concerns, calling its propositions a “clear non-starter.” Given the result, it’s fair to conclude that the theories justifying the West’s policies were flawed.

One of the obvious flaws was in the formulation of goals. Perhaps inadvertently, US Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin made it clear that the true goal was not the defense of Ukraine but to “weaken Russia.” CNN concluded, “Austin’s assertion that US wants to ‘weaken’ Russia underlines Biden strategy shift.” It is far more likely that the defense secretary was admitting the true strategic goal from the very beginning, an illegitimate goal that clearly could not have been subjected to freewheeling debate.

Most people would agree that democracy implies uninhibited debate on many different levels: within the political class, among experts such as Mearsheimer, in the media and in the public arena. On foreign policy, the political class appears clearly immune to any form of real debate. Governments and the media prefer repeating their standard mantras. As a result, the public has been shielded from the very substantial debate that experts are permitted to develop only in the margins, far from mainstream media.

To a large extent, this sums up the real crisis of democracy. It isn’t about rigged elections or foreign-sourced disinformation. It’s about the impossibility in today’s political culture of conducting uninhibited and freewheeling debate in what is still, probably mistakenly, called “the free world.”

*[In the age of Oscar Wilde and Mark Twain, another American wit, the journalist Ambrose Bierce produced a series of satirical definitions of commonly used terms, throwing light on their hidden meanings in real discourse. Bierce eventually collected and published them as a book, The Devil’s Dictionary, in 1911. We have shamelessly appropriated his title in the interest of continuing his wholesome pedagogical effort to enlighten generations of readers of the news. Read more of Fair Observer Devil’s Dictionary.]

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.


Only Fair Observer members can comment. Please login to comment.

Leave a comment

Support Fair Observer

We rely on your support for our independence, diversity and quality.

For more than 10 years, Fair Observer has been free, fair and independent. No billionaire owns us, no advertisers control us. We are a reader-supported nonprofit. Unlike many other publications, we keep our content free for readers regardless of where they live or whether they can afford to pay. We have no paywalls and no ads.

In the post-truth era of fake news, echo chambers and filter bubbles, we publish a plurality of perspectives from around the world. Anyone can publish with us, but everyone goes through a rigorous editorial process. So, you get fact-checked, well-reasoned content instead of noise.

We publish 2,500+ voices from 90+ countries. We also conduct education and training programs on subjects ranging from digital media and journalism to writing and critical thinking. This doesn’t come cheap. Servers, editors, trainers and web developers cost money.
Please consider supporting us on a regular basis as a recurring donor or a sustaining member.

Will you support FO’s journalism?

We rely on your support for our independence, diversity and quality.

Donation Cycle

Donation Amount

The IRS recognizes Fair Observer as a section 501(c)(3) registered public charity (EIN: 46-4070943), enabling you to claim a tax deduction.

Make Sense of the World

Unique Insights from 2,500+ Contributors in 90+ Countries

Support Fair Observer

Support Fair Observer by becoming a sustaining member

Become a Member