Theory Talk #49, with John Mearsheimer

Interview on Power as the Currency of International Relations, Disciplining US Foreign Policy, and Being an Independent Variable – Published on Theory Talks, Sunday, June 24, 2012.

… What is, according to you, the central challenge or principal debate in International Relations? And what is your position regarding this challenge/in this debate?

  • I think the principle debate in international relations theory, certainly in the US, is between realists on one hand and liberals on the other hand. There are three key liberal theories—economic interdependence theory, liberal institutionalism, and democratic peace theory—and those theories offer a very different view of the world than realism.  Whenever we study big questions, like whether China can rise peacefully or not, it essentially comes down to the question of whether or not one views that subject through the lens of a liberal or a realist. That is the big fault line in international relations theory in the US. Constructivists matter, for sure, but I don’t think constructivists are that important in terms of defining the theoretical debates here in America. I think it is basically liberals versus realists. And, of course, I’m a realist who believes that one can explain what happens in the world much better with a realist theory than with a liberal theory—which is not to say that realism can explain everything. But I believe its relative punching power is greater than liberalism’s.
  • I think the principle real-world problem for the US today is its liberal imperialist bent. The fact is that, both on the left and on the right in contemporary America, there is a powerful inclination to try to run the world and to rely heavily on military force for that purpose. Take the Bush Doctrine, for example. The US was bent on using military force to reorder the entire Middle East. The US was talking about imposing democracy on countries all across the Middle East at the end of a rifle barrel. This was a remarkably ambitious strategy! It was a strategy that many liberals and democrats supported, which is why there was so much support across the American political spectrum for the 2003 Iraq War. The key point is that the US has this imperial impulse wired into it today, and this includes both left and right wing elites.
  • The end result of this is that the US has gotten itself into a heck of a lot of trouble over the past ten years, maybe even the past twenty years if you include some of the misadventures of the Clinton administration. The question is, how are we going to rid ourselves of this imperial impulse, and how are we going to break our addiction to war? If you look at the US today, it’s quite clear that its elites are addicted to war. The US has been at war for two out of every three years since the Cold War ended. The US has fought six wars since 1989: the 1991 war against Iraq, the war against Serbia over Bosnia in 1995; the war against Serbia over Kosovo in 1999; the Afghanistan war, which started in 2001 and is still going on; the 2003 Iraq war; and then the war against Libya last year (2011). This is remarkable! And we’re now talking about the possibility of using military force against Iran, and maybe even Syria! America’s elites are addicted to using military force. Plus they believe the US has both a right and a responsibility to run the world. This is not a healthy situation and it is imperative that the US figures out a way to break these bad habits. This is the key foreign policy issue at this point in time.
  • One might have expected me to say that the key issue facing the US is the rise of China. But I think that’s a problem for another day. It’s an interesting intellectual question at this point in time, but the question of whether or not China will challenge the US is a decade or so away. America’s imperial impulse is the central problem that exists today, and indeed has been the main problem since the end of the Cold War … //

… What are the biggest misconceptions that you come across in the discipline of international relations?

  • What Walt and I wrote on Israel may come of a surprise for those who associate realism with warmongers. In general, I sometimes find that when I’m discussing that I end up agreeing with people who come from very different traditions, more than I agree with other realists. This is especially true in the post-Cold War world, where many of the old ideological and scholarly divides have broken down in important ways. In fact, I sometimes find myself closely allied with people on the far left, and vehemently disagreeing with people on the right. You would expect a realist to be closer in his or her thinking to people on the right rather than the far left. But for me the reverse is often the case these days.
  • And this is stunning to me. It turns out that contrary to the conventional wisdom, realists are much less willing to use military force than most people on either the left or the right in the US. When I say the left, I’m talking about liberals. When I talk about the right, I’m basically talking about neo-conservatives. The fact is that when you look closely at the American national security elite, and this includes academics, you discover that many liberals and neo-conservatives are powerfully disposed to using military force around the world to serve US interests. Realists, on the other hand, tend to be much more wary about using military force. This means that in many situations—and we saw this in the run-up to the Iraq war—the realists end up opposing hawkish policies being pushed by liberals and neo-conservatives. In those circumstances, what you often find is that realists have more in common with people on the far left, and here I am talking about individuals who are clearly outside of the mainstream or the consensus.
  • My good friend Steve Walt recently said to me that what’s bizarre about the world today is that he and I are often identified as leftists in the US, despite the fact that we are both card-carrying realists. I’ve run into all sorts of people in recent years who are on the hard left and who are opposed to using military force, who once saw me as the devil incarnate and now view me as a powerful ally. Of course, they find it hard to believe that realists could be opposed to using military force. But the fact is that realists have always been wary about using military force. As I often point out to people, every realist—except for Henry Kissinger—opposed the Vietnam War. The two most public opponents of the Vietnam War in its earliest days were Hans Morgenthau and Walter Lippmann, who were both realists. Almost every realist opposed the 2003 Iraq war as well.
  • So realists are not warmongers. And very interestingly, it is liberals, who dominate foreign policy in the Democratic Party, and neo-conservatives, who do the same inside the Republican Party, who seem to have a huge appetite for launching wars across the globe. They are birds of a feather when it comes to questions of war and peace. This situation is really quite counter-intuitive and interesting!

In the same line, what’s so offensive about offensive realism? Or, to put it more generally, what is it about realism that makes it so unpopular?

  • What makes realism so unpopular is that it is a fundamentally amoral theory. Realism says that states should be concerned with the balance of power above all else and should pay little attention to ethical and moral questions; this disturbs most people very much. This kind of thinking especially disturbs people in a liberal society like the US, where there is a deeply held belief that states should act in ethical and moral ways. Many Americans believe in the ‘just war’ theory and the importance of international law, which is not to say that is how the US actually operates in the international system. Realism, in fundamental ways, cuts against this liberal way of thinking about the world. Realism assumes that the world is nasty and brutish and therefore states have to worry mainly about how much power they have, not behaving morally. For realists, power is the currency of international politics; one might even say that for some realists it is the end all and be all. When you think and talk that way, as realists do, you are sure to offend people who are idealistic and naturally gravitate to liberal theories.
  • It is important to understand that the US has often acted according to the dictates of realism in the past.  But when it does, it describes its behaviour with idealistic or liberal rhetoric. When we go to war in places like Afghanistan or Iraq, we refer to the campaigns as ‘Operation Enduring Freedom’ and “Operation Iraqi Freedom.” We always like to portray our behaviour in noble terms and we like to argue that our behaviour is invariably consistent with international law and ‘just war’ theory. After all, we are the chosen people. We are the city on the hill. As such, we have a responsibility to behave in proper ways and not act like those nasty realists say we should. There’s no question that the US is going to steer clear of describing its behaviour as ‘warlike’. Remember, we used to have a Department of War, which we renamed the Department of Defence. One might argue, given our behaviour since the Cold War ended, that we should rename it the Department of Offence. But, that’s not the American way.
  • One should be very suspicious of the words that come out of the mouths of American policymakers. One should instead pay attention to their actions, not their rhetoric. Of course, they will occasionally slip up and say in plain English what the US is doing or has done in another country. But, for the most part, they will talk in ways that are designed to make what is often brutish behaviour look benevolent and noble.

One can perhaps summarize your view on international politics as ‘the tragedy of billiard balls in the state of nature’. How can realism help to make sense of the coming tragedy and which billiard balls will be involved?

  • I think that one big question these days is whether China can rise peacefully. Will it continue to expand at a rapid economic pace and if it does, how will that play out in international politics? If China continues its rise, there will be two big billiard balls in the system, the US and China. The $64,000 question is whether or not those two countries will engage each other in a security competition with the ever-present danger of war. Will those two billiard balls, the US and China, interact with each other in the future in ways that are similar to how the US and the Soviet Union interacted with each other during the Cold War? My answer is that they will, that there is no way that the US and China can avoid an intense security competition, if China continues its impressive rise.
  • When I give talks and make the case that China cannot rise peacefully, someone in the audience will invariably say: ‘Okay, your argument is interesting and even compelling, but tell me, what can we do to avoid this problem? What are the policies that the US and China should adopt to head this problem off?’ My answer is that there is little China or the US can do to avoid an intense security competition. The core of the problem is twofold: first, there’s no way that either the US or China can trust the other side because of uncertainty about each other’s intentions, especially regarding future intentions. If you ultimately cannot trust the other side, there is a powerful incentive to make your country very powerful in case the other side decides to come after you. Since both countries understand this logic and are governed by it, they end up competing with each other for power.
  • The second problem is the security dilemma: simply put, the measures states take to defend themselves invariably appear to be offensive in nature to rival states. This means there’s little that China or the US can do to defend itself that won’t look offensive to the other side. Consider the case of Chinese defence spending. Beijing has increased defence spending quite significantly over the past few years. Mind you, they still don’t spend anywhere near as much money on defence as the US does. Indeed, the US spends almost as much money on defence as the rest of the world combined (see graph). So here are the Chinese, who are far behind the US in terms of defence spending, increasing the size of their defence budget. How does the US react? It is highly critical of China and interprets its increased defence spending as offensive in nature. This is evidence, so the argument goes, that the Chinese are potentially dangerous and threaten America’s strategic position in Asia.
  • The Obama administration then decides it has to react, and does so by announcing that the US is going to ‘pivot toward Asia’. It is going to move additional military forces to the Asia-Pacific region. The US, of course, sees this as a defensive move; it’s just shoring up its defences in the region. But if you’re sitting in Beijing and the US starts moving additional aircraft carriers, attack submarines, and troops into your backyard, it hardly looks like the US is acting defensively to you! America’s behaviour instead looks offensive! It looks threatening.
  • So, you end up in this tragic situation where there is no way the US and China can avoid competing with each other for power. When I make this argument, someone will usually say to me, ‘One problem I have with your argument, John, is that it’s a self–fulfilling prophecy. If you say that China and the US should prepare for a security competition with the other side, then of course you’re going to get a security competition. Isn’t that self-fulfilling prophecy, and doesn’t that give you pause?’ And my answer is, ‘Yes, it is a self-fulfilling prophecy, and it does give me pause. But the question is, what’s the alternative? The fact is that neither China nor the US can take the chance that there won’t be trouble down the road. Therefore, even though it creates a self-fulfilling prophecy, both countries have to arm themselves and try to be more powerful than the other.’ And of course, when they arm, what looks defensive to them looks offensive to the other side. There’s no escaping that cruel dilemma, which sits at the heart of international politics.
  • The sad fact is that you can have a situation where two countries are satisfied with the status quo and have no interest in using military force to alter it, but they still are doomed to compete with each other for power. The reason is that neither side can be certain about the other side’s intentions. Therefore leaders on both sides have to assume the worst case; they have to assume that the other side is a revisionist state, not a status quo power, and compete for power with the other side. That is the tragedy of great power politics.

(full long interview text and related links).


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