John Mearsheimer and Sebastian Rosato Discuss “How States Think”

This September, Professors John Mearsheimer and Sebastian Rosato released their controversial new book, “How States Think: The Rationality of Foreign Policy.” Mearsheimer, a longtime Professor at the University of Chicago, is arguably among the most well-known advocates for the realist school of international relations. Stated simply: the belief that states act in their own interest. Rosato, a Professor at Notre Dame and fellow traveler, joins as his co-author. Among other assertions, Mearsheimer and Rosato argue that our tendency to view one nation’s adversaries as irrational or amoral clouds that nation’s ability to clearly assess others’ actions, and determine an appropriate response.

As one notable example, “How States Think” takes Vladmir Putin’s war against Ukraine as a case study in our human tendency to dismiss other states’ actions as irrational when perhaps what we mean is that we find them morally abhorrent. To be clear, Mearsheimer and Rosato don’t endorse Putin or his war, but they encourage us to reconsider our perception of his behavior and look deeper to see whether an underlying rationale may exist.

Mearsheimer and Rosato bring decades of experience to the project. Mearsheimer is a West Point grad and Air Force veteran who has authored a number of seminal political science and more popular books. He serves as the R. Wendell Harrison Distinguished Service Professor Political Science at the University of Chicago, and has taught at the university since 1982. Rosato currently serves as the Associate Professor of Political Science at the University of Notre Dame, and is the author of several books.

During our conversation, we also explored their unique writing dynamic shaped by the pandemic.

I couldn’t be more thrilled to invite this duo to Deciding Factors to learn more about the creative process that shaped their remarkable collaborative work, their approach to rationality and what they think policymakers could learn from it.


john J. Mearsheimer serves as the R. Wendell Harrison Distinguished Service Professor of Political Science at the University of Chicago, where he has taught since 1982. Mearsheimer graduated from West Point in 1970 and subsequently served as an officer in the U.S. Air Force. He then started graduate school in political science at Cornell University in 1975. He received his Ph.D. in 1980. Mearsheimer served as a research fellow at the Brookings Institution, and additionally as a post-doctoral fellow at Harvard University’s Center for International Affairs from 1980 to 1982. During the 1998-1999 academic year, he was the Whitney H. Shepardson Fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations in New York.


Sebastian Rosato serves as Professor of Political Science at the University of Notre Dame, where he is also a fellow of the Kroc Institute for International Peace Studies, the Liu Institute for Asia and Asian Studies, the Nanovic Institute for European Studies, and the Notre Dame International Security Center. He has written several books, including “Europe United: Power Politics and the Making of the European Community” (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2011) and “Intentions in Great Power Politics” (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2021). He received a B.A. in History from Cambridge University, an M.Phil. in International Relations from Oxford University and a Ph.D. in Political Science from the University of Chicago. Before attending graduate school, he worked for Goldman Sachs in London.

Podcast Transcript

Mearsheimer Rosato Script

Eric (00:00): I am so excited and honored today to have with us Professor John Mearsheimer and Professor Sebastian Rosato on deciding factors. John Sebastian, welcome.

John (00:10): Glad to be here.

Sebastian (00:12): It’s a pleasure to be here.

Book Origins

Eric (51:32): I do wanna make sure, to ask you a little bit about your collaboration. I wonder, you know if you could just talk to the two of you about how you came together to write this book. And then to the extent that you may have disagreed along the way about certain parts, it’d be interesting to hear how you reconciled those disagreements.

Sebastian (52:05): When we first came together, we just wanted to write an article about rationality. But by the time the article was done, we had been hit by the COVID-19 pandemic. We discussed the piece with a number of people, and almost everybody made it clear to us that they thought there were a lot of problems with the piece, but we found ourselves. But they were fascinated by the subject. They thought it was a terrifically important subject, and they seemed to think that we had something to say that we hadn’t said it very well.

Sebastian (53:07): And now we were in the pandemic and we were confined to our homes. We had nothing else to do. And so we decided to double down and write a book. And our collaboration was a collaboration on Zoom. We worked essentially four hours a day every day on Zoom, reading together, writing together, and discussing the various issues that came up for the next two years and nine months. We took a couple of days off. I think we took Christmas Day off one year.

If I had to say anything about working with John, it’s that I’m the more skeptical of the two of us thinks that we have nothing to say, and John is a great cheerleader, and that would drive us on. So we would disagree about how important what we were writing was, but we hardly ever disagreed on the details. You know, sometimes we’d come across a case that we had a slightly different interpretation of, but once we’d read about it in great detail, we came to the same view.

John (54:30): We really didn’t know a lot about rationality. We had, you know, a rather superficial understanding of the subject. And what happened is we learned a great deal along the way. The article slash book went through many drafts, and we talked to lots of people who really hammered us hard for having some foolish ideas. So in a funny way, we spent much less time arguing between ourselves.

John (55:37): In fact, we did hardly any arguing between the two of us. And instead, what we were concentrating on doing was trying to figure out how to answer or how to deal with the points that our interlocutors were making. It took us a long time to figure out, this is hard to believe now, but it took us a long time to figure out that there is not a well-defined definition of rationality.

John (00:24): I think the main reason that we wrote the book was that we both felt that lots of scholars and people in the real world were arguing that states when they make foreign policy decisions are usually irrational. And, uh, we felt that that was not the case. Uh, we felt that policymakers, uh, were by and large rational, and, uh, what we wanted to do was try to get our hands around the whole subject of what rationality means in the world of international politics, and then look at the historical record to see whether or not, uh, states tended to be rational as we thought was the case, or whether or not they were irrational, as so many people seemed to think.

Defining ‘Rationality’ and ‘Credible Theories’

Eric (01:32): You define a state as rational. If its strategy is based on a credible theory and is the result of a deliberative process, perhaps you could just, you know, provide some context to the reader what, you know, what does that mean in reality, and, uh, and, and why is this topic so misunderstood?

Sebastian (02:29): The important thing to understand about decisions in international politics is that they’re made by individual policymakers, but they’re also then made collectively by states. And the key to understanding if a policymaker is rational, as you said, is whether or not they have a credible theory. A a theory is a simplified description of reality that explains how some facet of the world works, uh, in this case, how does international politics work? You can have credible and non-credible theories, and maybe we can talk about that later. You need to have a credible theory to come up with a rational decision, and you have to use that theory first to make sense of the world, just understand the workings of international politics.

And second, to make a decision about your best course of action, which is an important part of rationality. At the state level, It turns out that decisions are not made by individual decision makers. Decisions are made by small groups of people, uh, policy makers who will often disagree about, uh, the best theory and therefore the best policy for moving forward. So in order for it to be rational, they have to deliberate. Deliberation means an uninhibited, uh, debate followed by a decision. You have to make a decision because, um, rationality is purposeful, and you have to finally come up with a strategy, but you want to have a vigorous back and forth between the various policy makers, um, because the world is a complicated place and it’s not clear what theory, uh, makes the most sense, uh, from the get-go.

Eric (04:18): It feels like commentators and, and it sounds like perhaps scholars as well can call decision makers non-rational when it seems like they simply just mean that they disagree with their decision. Is that, correct in your view?

John (04:33): I think there’s some of that, Eric, but I think the key is that most people, when they’re thinking about whether states are rational, look at the outcome. And if a state pursues a particular foreign policy and it ends up as a disaster or as a loss, people then, uh, argue that the decision was irrational. And our argument is that you cannot determine whether a decision is rational or irrational based on the outcome, because the fact is that you can make a very rational decision, and nevertheless, certain factors that you could not anticipate intervene. And the end result is that you have a disaster.

And a simple way of thinking about this that has nothing to do with international politics is you could marry a person who looked like, uh, he or she was a very fine human being, and that the two of you would live happily ever after. But in fact, something happens to this person that you marry, uh, in the ensuing years, and the marriage turns out to be a disaster. There was no way you could anticipate that. So even though the outcome is a disaster, the actual decision to get married was actually rational. So it’s a fundamental mistake that most people make to identify rationality with outcomes.

John (06:22): The key is to look at how the decision is made, to look at how the individuals thought about the problem that they faced and how to deal with it, and then how they collectively interacted with each other to produce a decision.

Sebastian (07:01): Everyone tends to think that their theory is the best theory. Um, so, and from that perspective, they will then dismiss other people as irrational. Um, our view is different. Our view is that there are many credible theories of international politics, um, which is to say that they, uh, rest on realistic assumptions. They have, um, reasonably logically consistent stories that explain how A causes B, and that they have substantial empirical evidence backing them. There are a lot of theories like that out there. And so the idea that, um, you know, it’s my theory or the highway strikes us, um, as, as the wrong way to go.

Sebastian (08:59): A credible theory has realistic assumptions about the way the world works, logically, consistent stories and substantial empirical support. A non-credible theory has unrealistic assumptions or an illogical causal story, or little evidence, or in some cases, no evidence to support it.

Applying Credible Theories to Adversaries Like Putin

Eric (13:13): It seems like, uh, there’s something perhaps inherent in human nature, uh, or at least within the US. Uh, I wonder whether you think this extends, uh, equally to, to other nations that because, uh, a nemesis, an adversary thinks differently, uh, or is perhaps promoting policies with which US policymakers disagree, there’s a natural tendency to ascribe irrationality to them. Is that accurate? And if so, what is, what drives that?

John (13:47): I think if somebody does something that you don’t like, there’s a very powerful tendency to want to demonize, uh, that adversary. Uh, and one way of demonizing an adversary is to say that the adversary is irrational. And it just all sorts of cases in the historical record where you see evidence of this, uh, the United States, uh, gets involved in, in a, uh, crisis with Saddam Hussein or, or with Vladimir Putin. And their first instinct is to describe that person, uh, not only as the devil incarnate, but also as irrational.

And people will then point to people like Hitler and people like Stalin, uh, who have horrible reputations for well deserved reasons, and describe them, the Hitlers and the Stalins as irrational, and say that these present leaders are the equivalent of Hitler and Stalin, and they too are irrational. So you have this rich history of American policymakers, or American foreign policy elites describing our adversaries irrational, when in fact they’re not irrational, uh, which is not to say that they’re, uh, good guys or that we like the policies they’re pursuing, but to describe them as irrational, uh, we believe is a fundamental mistake.

Sebastian (15:19): Our review of the historical record, to the extent that we could review it, um, finds that, um, a lot of these, uh, leaders states that John just mentioned had credible theories, credible theories of international politics that are recognized, um, as credible by the academic community. And they deliberated carefully about their every move, which of course, you’d expect because international politics is a dangerous business where you have to put a premium on, uh, thinking carefully i e using credible theories, and b uh, discussing the issue at hand in a deliberative manner.

Eric (16:27): In the book, you go through a great detail about a variety of different historical examples. I think for the interest of time, I thought we could focus for now on Russia, Ukraine, um, and the US role in that conflict, which, uh, John, you’ve been quite outspoken about. Um, perhaps you could take a moment to walk us through the implications for your theory in a place like Ukraine. Um, how it would explain the behavior of the US of Ukraine, of Russia, and, and what commentators miss most in both their historical analysis as well as their forecast and predictions.

John (17:13): People have consistently argued since the war started, uh, in February of 2022, that Putin is irrational. This is based on the assumption that he had these delusional ideas about creating an empire, and what he did was he invaded Ukraine for the purpose of annexing it, incorporating it into a greater Russia. And that eventually when he was finished with Ukraine, he would march further eastward and incorporate other countries into a greater Russia. Uh, and obviously this did not go as planned, and therefore, it’s clear that he’s irrational. As we argue in the book, you cannot determine whether someone is irrational based on the outcome.

John (18:22): So regardless of how this all turns out, the outcome doesn’t matter. It’s the decision-making process that matters. Our argument is, if you look at the decision-making process and what he was actually thinking, he was not thinking about creating an empire. This was just a case of balance, of power theory at work. And what Putin saw was that NATO was expanding eastward, and the goal of NATO was to incorporate Ukraine into NATO. And from Putin’s point of view, and this was the point of view of all of his lieutenants as well, this was categorically unacceptable. Ukraine and NATO would be an existential threat to Russia. So in keeping with balance of power politics, what Putin does is he invades Ukraine for the purpose of making sure that it does not join NATO.

John (19:28): Now, one can agree or disagree with whether, uh, that’s a good idea, but from Putin’s point of view, you can understand why he did it. And furthermore, it’s consistent with basic balance of power theory. So therefore, our argument is that it’s rational. Furthermore, all the evidence that’s available shows that the decision making process at the collective level was deliberative, that the Russian elite considered the options carefully and made a rational decision.

Eric (20:48): If this book were read by US policymakers, what do you think would change about the way they conduct or the way that they have conducted foreign policy with respect to Russia and Ukraine?

John (22:46): I think that, uh, that if we understood that Putin was rational in his decision-making process, uh, it would allow us, first of all to understand, uh, why he did what he did. It, it would allow us to understand that he had a legitimate reason for invading, uh, Ukraine. Again, we might not agree with it, and we might think that we have to deal with it, uh, by stymieing him, but we would at least understand why he did it. And furthermore, for purposes of moving forward, and this is of enormous importance, if you think an adversary is irrational, if you think that Putin is irrational, it’s hard to see how you can reach some sort of meaningful agreement with him to put an end to the war and prevent future conflict with Russia.

John (24:42): We’re proceeding on the assumption that he’s irrational. And in that situation, it’s hard to imagine how we are gonna craft some sort of policy for shutting the war down.

Eric (29:20): Last question on Ukraine, before I, I’d like to dive a bit deeper into realism and some questions around that. But some critics I think suggest that you know, UCO Ukraine joining NATO was only a hot issue, you know, quite a while ago, back in 2008, the US backed off of it. And then Putin sort of decided it was suddenly an issue which was, I guess, you know, disingenuous. It was a reason that he concocted perhaps is too strong a word, but he used to, to justify the, the invasion. How would you both respond to that?

John (30:01): Well, I think there’s no question that after the decision was made in April, 2008 to expand NATO eastward and to include Ukraine in NATO, that the United States never backed off Putin and his lieutenants went to great lengths to get the United States to back off, but we refused to back off. And every time there was a crisis, we doubled down. And the end result of that was eventually in February 2022. Putin invaded Ukraine for the purposes of preventing it from becoming part of nato, but this was not something that he made up a crisis that he created so that he could invade Ukraine and make it part of a greater Russia. I mean, that’s the argument that people make in the west. People in the west wanna make the argument that NATO expansion had nothing to do with this war.

John (31:01): And they are doing that in large part because they want to blame Putin for the war. This is all about who is responsible for this horrible conflict. If NATO expansion is the principle, cause then the West is responsible in large part for the war. If Putin is an imperialist and he’s bent on incorporating Ukraine into a greater Russia then he is responsible for the war. So people in the West have a deep seated interest in making the argument that this really has little to do with NATO expansion, and it has to do with the fact that Putin is an imperialist. But the historical record is clear on this one. There is no doubt that NATO expansion is the principle. Cause we said that Ukraine was gonna become part of NATO in April of 2008, and we have never backed off. We have continued to push and push and push, and this, of course, is what led to the war.

John (32:03): And at the same time, there is no evidence that Putin was interested in conquering Ukraine and incorporating it into a greater Russia. He never said that there’s just no evidence of it. And furthermore, it would’ve been non-rational or irrational to pursue such a policy. It was not irrational for him to invade Ukraine for the purposes of preventing Ukraine from becoming a part of NATO that is consistent with balance of power theory.

Sebastian (32:58): And I would just say another piece of evidence: the current director of the CIA. Bill Burns wrote a memo in 2008, and he said, I’ve spoken to Russians up and down the political spectrum and NATO expansion to include Ukraine is the reddest of red lines that the Russians will not tolerate.

How these Theories Apply to Domestic Policy

Eric (41:17): One thing we haven’t discussed is domestic policy and how that affects your analysis. So if decision makers and policy makers or fundamentally politicians who often maintain domestic or elite support to stay in power, are those considerations themselves not paramount in the decision making process?

John (41:38): It is quite clear to us that in the decision making process itself, policymakers pay remarkably little attention to domestic politics. They pay remarkably little attention to what their public thinks. Basically, what you see is elites employ theories and they come together in a collective decision-making process. They deliberate, and then they come up with a policy, and if they think they’re gonna have trouble dealing with their public because there’s some reticence among the public to support the policy, they’ve agreed upon what the elites basically conclude is that they can sell the story to the public. They can spin the policy in ways that it’ll be acceptable to the public. But there are very few cases where the public or domestic politics influence the decision making process in, in our story.

Eric (47:07): Do you think there’s a chance for, you know, great power politics to ever not be characterized by relentless security competition? Like, is there, is there a hope for another way of behaving?

John (47:23): Well, our view is as good realists that the answer is no. I think both Sebastian and I believe that given that we live in, in a world where there’s no higher authority that can protect you, and where you can never be certain about the intentions of other states or other great powers there’s always going to security competition. And we are both realists and realism is certainly a credible theory, but there are people in other camps people who have different theories who believe that it is possible even in a world where there’s no higher authority to create a situation where the world is much more peaceful and there’s hardly any security competition at all. And democratic peace theory would be a good example here. There are people who believe that if the world was comprised of all democracies that there would be hardly any security competition, and there would certainly be no war.

Sebastian (49:59): There’s this view out there that as human beings have become, quote unquote more rational, they’ve become more peaceful. This is a view that’s popularized by Stephen Pinker. And I would just point out that we just talked about the Ukraine US case, and the argument we made is that the United States was a rational actor, that Vladimir Putin was a rational actor, and that the war in Ukraine is a rational outcome. So to equate rationality with improvements to in, in the human condition to equate rationality with peace we happen to think is, is wrongheaded.

John (50:49): When you talk about progress, it’s very important to understand that there’s never really going to be that much progress, because we live in an uncertain world and in an uncertain world we’re gonna have to rely very heavily on theories. Theories are imperfect instruments, and the end result is that you’re going to have all sorts of situations where you get conflict. It’s just inevitable in a uncertain world.

Eric (57:52): Well, John Sebastian really amazing conversation. I really appreciate you taking the time. Honored to have you both on the book, is how states think. Congratulations on getting it out there and publishing it.

John (58:19): You’re welcome, Eric.

Sebastian (58:20): Thanks very much for having us.


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