Glenn Loury
The Glenn Show
John Mearsheimer – America's Sunk Cost in Ukraine

John Mearsheimer – America's Sunk Cost in Ukraine


My guest this week is the distinguished political scientist and international relations expert John Mearsheimer. If you’re skeptical about US involvement in the Ukraine War, this episode has good news and bad news for you. The good news is that John’s clear, rational analysis will confirm that you are not crazy to question the wisdom of our ever-deepening investment in the war. The bad news is that it may be too late to be right. In John’s view, the US’s support of NATO expansion and its influence within Ukraine have played a major role in antagonizing Russia to the point where Putin felt that he had no choice but to invade. With hopes of a quick end to the conflict now dashed, John sees neither a likely path to victory for Ukraine nor a viable exit strategy for the US.

In John’s view, while the invasion of Ukraine has extracted a terrible cost from the country, it was not an “irrational” action on Russia’s part. Putin correctly understood NATO expansion as an attempt by the West (and the US in particular) to hem Russia in. After diplomacy failed, Putin invaded in what he saw as an act of self-defense, even though it violated international law. John argues that money and weapons from the West will not be enough to drive Russian troops out of the country. The war may escalate, and nuclear strikes from Russia are not out of the question. If Ukraine loses enough ground, John worries that the US will deepen its commitment to a sunk cost and deploy troops, at which point the world will face something much worse than a regional conflict.

I wish I could say talking with John made me feel better about the situation. Unfortunately, I found him rather convincing. And with Biden now asking for tens of billions of dollars more for Ukraine, the scenario John lays out looks all too possible.

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0:00 Why John thinks Russia’s invasion of Ukraine was rational

6:55 How small states deal with world powers

10:13 If Russia’s action were rational, were the US’s?

16:40 John: The Ukraine invasion violates international law, but Russia has reason to see it as just

21:58 The risk of escalation

29:26 Zelensky’s expert manipulation of the West

33:51 Is it a coincidence that so many recent presidential scandals involve Ukraine?

39:57 Can tolerant liberals tolerate illiberal societies?

45:45 American Russophobia didn’t cause the war, but it’s not helping

49:19 John: If Putin is overthrown, his replacement will probably be even more brutal

53:35 The foreign policy establishment’s grip on both Democrats and Republicans

Recorded September 28, 2023

Links and Readings

John’s Substack

John’s book, with Sebastian Rosato, How States Think: The Rationality of Foreign Policy

John’s essay, “Bound to Lose”


Glenn Loury
The Glenn Show
Race, inequality, and economics in the US and throughout the world from Glenn Loury, Professor of Economics at Brown University and Paulson Senior Fellow at the Manhattan Institute