Realpolitik and Imaginärepolitik: Mearsheimer’s Delusion and the Psychoanalysis of Conflicts
This is the paper I read in streaming on 11 February 2023 at a conference of Russian psychoanalysts. The Russian psychoanalysts were mostly resident in Russia, a few abroad. Some non-Russian scholars had also been invited to the conference. I cannot reveal the name of the organisation that invited me.
The American political scientist John Mearsheimer is a famous representative of ‘political realism’, or Realpolitik. Mearsheimer thinks that wars are inevitable because the main concern of each state is to seek its security first. International politics is always anarchic – and archaic, I would say – because there is no super-state or super-police capable of resolving disagreements between individual states by its own authority. In an anarchic context, one in which therefore no one can trust anyone else, it is always a good idea to expand your power and hegemony over other states to increase your security.
Now, Mearsheimer points out, the policy of the United States, from its very beginnings, since the times of its Founding Fathers, does not correspond to this criterion: American policy is not only power politics, like that of other nations, but also and above all an ideological mission. Americans have proclaimed themselves champions, apostles, of liberal-democratic values throughout the world (by ‘liberal’ I do not mean here economic free market theory, but the liberal policies of civil and universal rights). According to the basic American philosophy, as I would call it, liberal democracy (hence not communist democracy, nor the illiberal democracy now theorised by Putin) is the best political system for all human beings, not just for Americans. America’s historical mission is therefore to expand the pluralistic democratic system as much possible, with free elections in a context of full freedom of expression. As soon as the opportunity arises, it is the duty of the United States to export this ethical-political model.
We can observe that the basic communist philosophy was completely symmetrical: the USSR was convinced that if the whole world became socialist wars would disappear, because the principle of cooperation would prevail over that of competition. The very names USSR and USA are unattached to specific ethnic realities: in the USSR the term ‘Russia’ did not appear, and in the USA the only geographical reference is to the American continent: in theory, any part of America could become part of the United States, such as any country could become part of the USSR.
Now, Mearsheimer accuses this American strategy of being a Great Delusion. It has, he says, led the US into an extremely long series of wars. These wars were meant to bring peace to the world, but they have not done so by any means. The principle of defending liberal democracies against dictatorships or false democracies, such as today’s staunch defence of Ukraine or the decision to defend Taiwan against China, leads America to becoming mixed up in increasingly difficult and bloody conflicts. In short, according to Mearsheimer, American policy should be less ideological and more realistic, i.e. more selfish and cynical.
When I read all this, I was truly convinced that Mearsheimer was the staunchest isolationist theorist of the American right. I was very surprised when I learned that instead Mearsheimer is the theoretical champion of most left-wing political scientists, their flagship. The left, however, usually rejects Realpolitik.
Mearsheimer’s prestige has increased significantly today because he condemned the United States’ pro-Ukrainian policy well before February 2022. He said that NATO enlargement towards Eastern Europe would end up frightening Russia, prompting it to retaliate by invading Ukraine or Georgia. In short, the current Russian-Ukrainian conflict, in which the US and the EU are indirectly taking part, is the effect of the philosophical delusion of NATO and its leading country.
But is Mearsheimer’s reconstruction really thorough? Can we say that Mearsheimer shows healthy realism when he accuses NATO of having driven Putin’s Russia to attack Ukraine?
In a 2015 lecture, Mearsheimer, after foreboding the destruction of Ukraine, added: “If you really want to wreck Russia, what you should do is to encourage it to try to conquer Ukraine. Putin is much too smart to try that”. Did the facts refute this prediction or not? After all, what does it mean to say that facts have refuted a political analysis, or that they have confirmed it? If we look at the defeated Germany of 1945, we can say that the theories that predicted its decline were confirmed. But if we look at the reunified, prosperous and powerful Germany of 1990, then those same theories were falsified. The problem is when we test a theory. History is an endless game, whereby what is verified today can be disproved tomorrow, or vice versa.
We could say that Mearsheimer was wrong to overestimate Putin’s smartness, since he does seem to have fallen into the trap set for him by the West. Or we could say that Mearsheimer foresaw the West’s cynicism, as it did end up prompting Russia to destroy Ukraine only in order to destroy Russia in turn. But the point is: why should the West have threatened Russia and wanted to destroy it?
It is true that on the one hand NATO has expanded eastward so as to include former Soviet countries such as the Baltic states. But it is also true, on the other, that at the same time the Merkel doctrine prevailed, i.e. the idea that we needed to be friends with Putin’s Russia by binding it to an economic dependency with the West through gas and oil. The Merkel doctrine was the typical liberal-free market philosophy, according to which the only thing that matters in history is economics and peace will be achieved when everyone realises that their economic interests are by no means at odds with those of everyone else. A win-win strategy. As a consequence, several Western countries, particularly Germany and Italy, have tied themselves head and foot to Russian imports, but the double economic dependence has not prevented a political and military rift between Russia and the West.
This point is a crucial one. A simple point, but one that most contemporary political philosophies absolutely cannot stomach: the fact that history is not determined exclusively or predominantly by economics. And this point is, I believe, one about which psychoanalysis has something to say.
When we were young, in Italy, whether our educators were leftists or rightists, they always taught us the same principle: only economic interests are really decisive in explaining history. What essentially matters for the left is the struggles between economic classes, while for the right it is essentially the freedom of the market that counts – in all cases, it is the economy that rules. No, psychoanalysis teaches us that things are not so simple. That history has no secret rationality; on the contrary, even when it seems to unravel rationally it reveals an underlying irrationality. It is what I would call the principle of insufficient reason. The inverse of Leibniz’s principle of sufficient reason and of the Hegelian Cunning of Reason.
Beyond economics, values are equally important. And insofar as values are based on underlying philosophies, we can easily say that philosophies move the world no less than economics. It’s a blasphemy…. And since psychoanalysis states that there are deep-rooted drives at the core of values and philosophies, we can just as easily say that politics is on the one hand a rational strategy, Realpolitik, but on the other it is also an expression of unconscious drives; Imaginärepolitik, I would call it.
In other words, if Putin invaded Ukraine even though it was by no means economically advantageous for him, it is not because he is scarcely far-seeing. The fact is that the unification of all the Russias is a paramount value for him. A delusional value in my opinion, but an essential one for him and for the majority of Russians who support him. Similarly, there was no economic rationality in Hitler’s decision to exterminate the Jews: he hated and feared them. His too were delusional values, but values nonetheless. And behind these values, a paranoid way of thinking that Freud and Lacan described well.
In the same way, when the US prepares to go to war with a country the likes of China to defend the independence of 23 million Chinese in Taiwan (23 million, a drop in the ocean of the Chinese population), there is no Realpolitik behind its choice. The US is prepared to go to war with China on the basis of a quasi-religious premise and promise: to defend a full democracy. In this case too, as in so many others, American foreign policy is guided by the principle of defending liberal democracy, something which Mearsheimer condemns as lacking political realism.
Values, pure values, not economics.
Realpolitik manages the world, but at the end the imagination transforms it. Utopias or dystopias make history.
Now, psychoanalysis, and Lacanian psychoanalysis in particular, stresses that values are based on signifiers. Human beings are stirred and moved by signifiers, they sacrifice themselves, kill and are killed for the sake of signifiers. For signifiers of nation or democracy, socialism or fascism…, of religious confession or ethnic ‘identity’…
Over the years I have had the opportunity, having taught regularly in Kiev for over 20 years, to follow the development of Ukrainian patriotism. Early on, being Ukrainian or Russian was irrelevant; both peoples spoke more or less the same language, the two countries had a common past, in short, having ended up within Ukrainian or Russian borders was purely coincidental. But then, over time, the Ukrainian signifier began to fill with meaning, as did being Russian in Ukraine, to the point that both sides engaged in a horrifying war. It’s not that a flag represents the country to which we belong, it’s the flag itself that gradually creates a country that recognises itself behind it.
Mearsheimer has reiterated that NATO enlargement to Eastern Europe would prompt Moscow to attack Ukraine, which was clearly opting for a pro-Western path. But Mearsheimer is also honest enough to add that it was not the intention of Western countries, the US firstly, to thus provoke Russia. Nothing after 1989 predestined the West to become an antagonist of Russia once again. After all, NATO is a defensive alliance, nothing compelled it to threaten Russia. Putin’s feeling of being threatened by NATO enlargement is itself an expression of Imaginärepolitik, not of Realpolitik: he felt threatened by the Other, because he wished to threaten the Other himself. Indeed, we could insinuate that Putin’s feeling of being threatened was a symptom of the fact that he was already planning to perpetrate something the West would find unacceptable.
In other terms, when Mearsheimer admonishes the West for not being realistic, he is in fact saying that it has neglected to take into account the Russian imagination, which is correct in my view. In politics you should never limit yourself to seeing the world as you see it, you need to see it as the other sees it. It is not just your intentions that matter, what others believe your intentions to be also matters. It’s like in the Prisoner’s Dilemma: it’s not just what you say you’re going to do that matters, it’s what the other thinks about what you’re thinking of doing that matters… There’s a vertigo in politics, like in all games that are based on trust.
Let’s remember that if politics is a game, analysis is one too. What Lacan called “logical time” was taken from this type of game. Analysis is not itself linked to politics, but both politics and analysis are based on the unconscious, which means that they have a common game structure.
But whether there is a trust or distrust is indeed a philosophical matter, so to speak, not a practical one. For example, in the Cold War both the USSR and the US could say, in good faith, that they wished for peace and harmony. But both knew that the genetic code of the USSR would still lead it to support communist movements in the world, just as the genetic code of the US would lead it to support liberal-democratic and pro-capitalist ones. Sympathy for kindred ideals continually led to peaceful coexistence being undermined.
After all, behind nearly all the great historical powers there is not only a will to power but I would also say a sort of symbolic mission. For the ancient Romans the mission was to bring the pax romana, the Roman peace, Latin civilisation, to all barbarian peoples. For the Muslim empires it was to bring the Islamic faith to the infidels, for the Christian empires it was to bring the Christian faith to the pagans. So, colonialism was certainly an economic issue, but it also came with the Christianisation and Westernisation of the colonised. As soon as African blacks were enslaved, they were immediately baptised.
For many generations intellectuals have taught that, if we don’t want to be naïve, we need understand that history, behind its superstructures of values, is driven by basic economic interests or by a fundamental Nietzschean will for power. Today I think the opposite: that wanting to see economic interests as the structural foundation is naive, that the insightful approach is instead to perceive a plurality of reasons and drives. Politics does not have just one deep structure. Nor does analytical practice.
But values, as we have seen, are pure signifiers – or rather, as Ernesto Laclau would say, empty signifiers. Yet each of us human beings needs to be stirred by a signifier of some sort, which is our cause for life. Without a cause for life, we will suffer from depressive syndromes, or the kind of existence I would call anankastic: nothing has meaning, nothing has value, not even our own life. A cause for life can be to give birth to many children or to die for Allah, to write a great novel or to make a lot of money, to marry a beautiful woman or to achieve communism… But this cause for life is mostly a signifier that comes to us from the outside, and will therefore be of either a religious, political, aesthetical or ethical nature. And since signifiers are oppositional (this is what structural linguistics teaches), oppositions between signifiers are the matrix of most political conflicts, even the bloodiest and cruellest, between human beings. What we call political realism is actually realising that no political actor is a realist.
It is values, i.e. signifiers, that determine the ‘realistic interest’ of a nation. For example, if my value is to unite everyone who speaks my same language into a single state – this was, for example, Hitler’s fundamental project – then conquering a territory where people who speak that language live becomes my fundamental interest. If, instead, my value is to increase the GDP of my country as much as possible, if that same territory inhabited by people who speak my language is part of a strong and wealthy state that can make large investments in my country, then my ‘realistic interest’ will be not to wage war against that state, but on the contrary to try to have the best possible relations with it. In short, ‘realistic interest’ is not something fixed for every country but varies according to the values that country has chosen as its fundamental principles.
But then, as Mearsheimer basically suggests, is the really important thing for me, whether individual or nation, to be the only realist? If others are driven by empty signifiers, would the best thing be for me to pursue my own interests instead?
For example, I, the US, have no interest in defending Israel all-out against every threat from the Muslim world. Mearsheimer, among others, has pointed out that the pro-Israeli policy the US has been pursuing for several decades is unrealistic and that America’s interest would be to side with the various Muslim countries, which encompass a far greater population than Israel and possess vast oil treasures. What drives America, conservative America in particular, to jeopardize its national interests in order to defend Israel no matter what happens? The usual clichéd answer is that an extremely strong Jewish lobby influences American administrations. A stupid explanation, because a no less powerful Islamic lobby also exists in the US. Why then does the Jewish lobby always end up prevailing over the Islamic among the American people? For reasons that I would call mythical, and religious of course.
Christian America feels in continuity with Jewish culture. Even though anti-Semitism can be widespread and bitter in the United States, the Christian Bible still includes the Old Testament, the Hebrew Bible. While the Islamic world is instead considered foreign, an exotic development of biblical religions. Furthermore, Israel came into being as a response to a centuries-old Christian anti-Semitism, and liberal Christian countries have a strong historical sense of guilt towards Jews. It is basically the guilt caused by anti-Semitism – of which the Holocaust was the acme – that largely explains America’s ‘mad’ support for Israel. The guilty feeling of a people can be no less decisive for understanding political acts than economics and Realpolitik.
But as well as being Jewish, Israel is also liberal-democratic, whereas very few Muslim countries are liberal-democratic. This quality is decisive. It triggers a signifying solidarity that is stronger than any realist argument. In the mind of every Western ruler, the world is coloured according to whether a country falls into the liberal-democratic camp or not. The ‘not’ can be fascism, communism, confessional totalitarianism, and so on… It’s like a great big playground where values, rather than economic interests, are at stake.
I think this is the greatest contribution psychoanalysis (at least of a certain kind of psychoanalysis) can offer to understanding international relations. That strategies cannot always be win-win, because values usually involve zero-sum games: either I win, or you win. Mors mea, vita tua; vita mea, mors tua (my death, your life; my life, your death).
After this presentation, a discussion followed. At one point, one of the organisers said quite explicitly that the participants did not feel free to say what they wanted. I replied that I actually had many qualms about discussing current Russian politics, precisely in consideration of the risks some attendees were running. I ultimately decided to express what I feel is the truth, on the basis of psychoanalytical ethics, which is always very suspicious of Verdrängung, a concept translated as repression in English, but which could be called displacement or removal. Psychoanalysis began as the practice of unveiling removals – but we have repressions too, in the sense of political repression. A practice of non-displacement like psychoanalysis cannot survive too long in a repressive environment. Political freedom is the condition, I believe, of the freedom to psychoanalyse. The history of this last century proves it. That is why the fight against political repression in Russia is also, for those who want to practise as psychoanalysts, a fight for psychoanalysis.