Tag: Mearsheimer

Why John J. Mearsheimer is Wrong on Ukraine

When I arrived as an incoming graduate student at Ohio State University, I was labeled a realist since I studied extensively under John J. Mearsheimer at the University of Chicago. And despite the fact that I find such labeling exercises rather silly (plus, my advisor at both Chicago and OSU was actually Alex Wendt), there was, and still is, some truth to it. Power does matter in international politics and contrary to many others in our field I think that Mearsheimer’s theory of great power politics does make a lot of sense, and it explains large swaths of international politics throughout history.

However, despite the fact that his recent analysis in Foreign Affairs of the causes of the Ukrainian crisis makes a number of good points, most importantly, that Putin’s actions do not necessarily signal an attempt to build a greater Russian empire and that realpolitik matters, it is at the same time wrong. Continue reading


Crimea is not a Realist story

[Note:  This is a guest post by Jarrod Hayes, assistant professor of international relations at the Sam Nunn School of International Affairs at the Georgia Institute of Technology.  His first book, Constructing National Relations: US Relations with India and China was published by Cambridge University Press in 2013.]

Jeffrey Stacey has already discussed the issue in Crimea with alacrity, as have his interlocutors in the comments section.  My agenda here is to argue that what is going on in Crimea is not a story about which Realist theory in international relations has much to say.  My specific foil here (probably at some professional peril) is John Mearsheimer.  Mearsheimer is perhaps most known for his forceful support of Realist IR theory (there is that Israel thing too), specifically a variant called offensive realism.  According to that theory, great powers are constantly predatory, seeking to boost their power (military capability and economic capability that boosts military capability) whenever benefits exceed the costs.  It is a materialist and rationalist approach to international security, grounded in a logic of power and appealing in its simplicity.  And Mearsheimer has not been shy about commenting on the crisis in Crimea, arguing that Ukraine should have kept its nuclear weapons after the end of the Cold War and that Russia’s annexation of Crimea makes perfect sense as the actions of an insecure state seeking to prevent immediate neighbors from falling into the orbit of the West.

The story is an appealing one, and on the surface it looks compelling.  Continue reading


Iraq 10 Years Later (1): How Culpable is Academic International Relations?


I’ve been thinking a lot about the war this month. I’ll be teaching it in the next few weeks at school because of the decade anniversary (March 20). My quick sense is that any defensible theory behind the war was simply buried by an execution so awful, disorganized, mismanaged, and incompetent that it invalidated the whole premise.

The whole episode became just shameful, and regularly teaching and conferencing with non-Americans these last few years has made this so painfully clear. My students particularly are just bewildered to the point of incredulity. Again and again, the basic thought behind the questions is, ‘what the hell happened to you people? 9/11 made you lose your minds there?’ *sigh* (NB: when Asians ask me about guns in the US, the ‘what the hell is wrong with you people?’ bafflement is the same.)

Hence, the post title purposefully implies that the invasion was a bad idea. But to be fair, that should be the first question: what, if any, arguments at this point can be mustered to defend the war? IR should try to answer this seriously, because I’m all but positive that the journalistic debate will be not be driven by the state of Iraq or US foreign policy today, but by the high personal reputational costs faced by so many pundits supportive of the war. It would not surprise me at all if folks like the Kagans, Krauthammer, or Thomas Friedman miraculously found that the war was worth it after all. McNamara-style mea culpas only happen at the end of a career (so I give Sullivan and Fukuyama credit for theirs on Iraq). But IR should be more honest than that.

Continue reading


In Defence of Flawed Giants

OK, its confession time. I don’t really agree with them much, but I loved reading the post-Cold War ‘blockbusters’ of Samuel Huntington, Francis Fukuyama and John Mearsheimer, (all beautifully surveyed a little while ago by Richard Betts).

I was psyched to read Fukuyama’s prophecy that with the American-led era of market democracy, humankind had overcome the historical dialectic struggle of ideologies and had hit upon an ultimate way of being that would satisfy its fundamental longings, both material and psychological.

Samuel Huntington’s Clash of Civilizations was also audacious, in its opposite claim that far from the triumph of the Atlantic, world history was entering a period of dangerous pluralism where the global forces driving us all together would accentuate difference, and where unless we were careful, disparate cultural identity would fuel conflict and fragmentation.

And John Mearsheimer’s case for Realpolitik was a great read, making the case that no new paradigms were on the horizon, but that a multipolar power-struggle between nation-states would resume, even with the prospect of Germany and Japan unlearning their new peaceable ways and going nuclear.

So what? Go on Patrick, tell us more, I hear you thinking (get on with it, Ed).

Certainly on the UK side of the pond, academics routinely dismiss these works and other biggies like them. Not, one suspects, primarily because they, gasp, made bad predictions or were wrong on the main point.

To be sure, it seems slightly too early to proclaim the final triumph of democratic capitalism, or at least this form of it. The global financial crisis gives Fukuyama’s Hegelian ontology a day at the races, while it seems that dictatorship and the appeal of authoritarian solutions is still seductive in crisis, including in the West.

Contra Huntington, most conflicts since the Cold War have between within, not between, the civilizations and metacultural blocs that he identified. No matter how hard he argued that the first Gulf War was a signpost of the cultural clashes to come, the most impressive pattern of that conflict was how willing many Islamic states were to side with the great American Satan against the would-be Saladin to check his bid for power in the region. Not to mention the fact that in the ‘Arab Spring’, many protesters have shouted universalist, humanist and democratic slogans, not parochial or ethno-religious ones.

And against Mearsheimer’s anticipation of a return to muscular balance of power politics, EU nations aren’t yet reapplying to go back to the nineteenth century.

No, academics like to dismiss these works because the authors have appealed to a mass market, made meta-scale interpretations and predictions, and come as close to intellectual celebrity as possible for anyone who isn’t Stephen Hawking or Albert Einstein. In an academic world that cherishes specialism and hair-splitting, that largely devotes its energy to internalised dialogues in exclusionary language, and which looks on fame and glory with envious suspicion, its no wonder that the mention of all three causes respectable scholars to roll their eyes.

Most strikingly of all, many folk who pronounce on these books simply haven’t read them. Huntington wasn’t issuing a racist call to arms. His book was written as a warning of the cultural complacency and triumphalism of America’s ‘unipolar moment’ and arguing that only a restrained sense of pluralism and cultural spheres of influence could lead to peace between civilisations. Ok, civilizations do not really exist in the hermetically sealed, unitary ways he told it, but there’s some value in a sense of the limits of power, the vastness of the world and the multitudes it contains.

Fukuyama’s End of History, for heaven’s sake, didn’t actually announce the end of history as a literal claim where stuff wouldn’t happen much any more. He meant history as an evolutionary, traceable process of competing ideas, and his account built consciously on Hegelian dialectics, not to mention the belief that the thymotic desire for recognition was critical to understanding why other systems had failed. He did think the rest of history would be probably quite boring, managing the gradual conversion of the world to the Atlantic way. On the other hand, the work was tinged with an apprehension that the boring-ness of market democracy would itself contain the seeds of violent revolt…

And Mearsheimer may have overstated his case for the reversion to old school power struggle, but if we migrate his interpretations Eastward, the large-scale investments in blue water navies, the scramble for bases and listening posts, the buying up of commercial clients, and the resumption of territorial rivalries in East Asia doesn’t exactly destroy his argument. There is an insecurity that seems persistent in the anarchical condition of world politics, and nation-states themselves are proving resilient both in their determination to reassert control and in the increasing demands we make of them.

Finally, a cruder point, hard to make politely. Some who dismiss these works aren’t really fit to clean the closet of a Fukuyama, a Mearsheimer or a Huntington. There is probably more virtue in their error, in terms of prompting richer and deeper debate, than in the safe, marginal and unaudacious output of most of the rest of us.

So hooray for flawed giants. Their minds might be mistaken occasionally but their shoulders are still worth climbing on.


Hamiltonian Failure?

Yesterday, my class on U.S. Foreign Policy considered Walter Russell Mead’s Hamiltonian School — ostensibly an American realism grounded in the aligned interests of the state and business.

The Hamiltonians have their roots in Alexander Hamilton. They have always believed that the American national strategy should be modeled on the British system: use your trade to make money through commerce; government should support large business; your trade policy should be an instrument of your economic development, however that benefits you most; and then, the revenues from your international trade will support your military expenditures and interests while preserving political stability at home.

For most of U.S. history, argues Mead, Hamiltonians were mercantilists — favoring “open door” trading policies over “free” trading policies. However, after World War II, the Hamiltonians became free traders and thus embraced GATT, then WTO, NAFTA, etc.

After outlining Mead’s arguments to the class, I also presented some data that questions whether the new laissez-faire Hamiltonians have made the right call. Does the free trade system they’ve helped create build American wealth?

Dan Drezner might disagree with the limited analysis I provided, but many of the students shared the concerns I was raising.

I started the challenge with the question famously raised by Robert Reich: “Who is us?” Then, I asked the students to consider (from the Hamiltonian position) if the American state has perhaps gone too far in removing itself from global capitalism — effectively benefiting transnational corporate interests (and mercantilist states) at the expense of U.S. interests.

Essentially, the U.S. trade deficit has ballooned to historic levels, a substantial portion of that deficit is linked to trade with China. A huge problem is the loss of America’s manufacturing base:

the U.S. manufacturing sector never emerged from the 2001 recession, which coincided with China’s entry into the World Trade Organization. Since 2001, the country has lost 42,400 factories, including 36 percent of factories that employ more than 1,000 workers (which declined from 1,479 to 947), and 38 percent of factories that employ between 500 and 999 employees (from 3,198 to 1,972). An additional 90,000 manufacturing companies are now at risk of going out of business.

The “continental realist” John Mearsheimer argues that the U.S. has had a flawed China policy for a very long time. Yet, as the data reveal, the U.S. is helping to make China a stronger future great power competitor.

In the long run, the U.S. might be able to survive the loss of its manufacturing base — thanks perhaps to its innovative information technologies. However, in the midst of a deep recession (with real unemployment at near 20%) and huge trade deficits, the current situation seems troubling — at least it should for Hamiltonians worried about American national interests.


Which New Year’s Eve would you rather celebrate?

Dan Drezner and Bill have both flagged Randy Schweller’s new piece in National Interest. I’ve just finished reading the piece and I agree with them – it’s really a depressing read. But, it’s the type of piece that we see periodically – it tries to take stock of the state of the global politics and IR scholars’ understanding of it. In many way, it reads a lot like Mearsheimer’s “Why We Will Miss the Cold War” or Huntington’s “Clash of Civilizations?” It aims high and tries to explain large systemic events by using a lot of broad generalizations to develop the core argument that we live in a world of disorder.

But, it got me to thinking (and since we’re all making lists of one sort or another as we end the first decade of the 21st century), how does this New Year’s Eve (and the transition from this decade to the next) compare to the past ten or so decade transitions. How unsettling is our current era relative to others? Which New Year’s Eve on the brink of a new decade would you rather celebrate?

Here’s how I’d rank mine:

1. 1999 -2000: Post-1989 but pre-9/11. Ah, the days when our biggest threat was that Y2K was going to destroy us all. Cool Millenium concerts.

2. 1989 – 1990: The fall of communism in Eastern Europe – the only real question was how would it end in Moscow. Democratization’s third wave was snowballing….

3. 2009 – 2010: Is unipolarity and American hegemony really a bust? Environmental degradation, resource scarcity, demographic stress all sound scary but many of these threats are distant while terrorism and proliferation do not seem to convey the existential threat we experienced during much of the Cold War.

4. 1959- 1960: End of the Eisenhower era and we had settled into the Cold War; but I still wouldn’t trade tonight for 1959 — kids were practicing duck and cover in school and tens of thousands of Americans were building nuclear bomb shelters in their backyards. (I grew up in North Dakota and we still had the duck and cover drills in the late sixties — remember kids, even a piece of paper can help shelter you from fallout…)

5. 1979 – 1980: Collapse of Détente and a renewal of the Cold War, Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, the Nicaraguan revolution, the Iranian revolution, global economic recession, oil price spikes, persistent claims of US in decline — sucked to be us.

6. 1969 – 1970: Escalation of the Vietnam War — 40K+ Americans already dead as well as several hundred thousand Vietnamese; a spiraling of the arms race and social tensions in much of the West.

7. 1949 – 1950: The eruption of the Cold War with a series of crises/war scares from 1946 to 1949 culminated with the Soviet detonation of an atomic weapon in August, 1949 and the Chinese revolution in October. State S/P was drafting NSC-68 = scary.

8. 1929 – 1930: U.S. stock market collapse in October, 1929 fueling the global depression, collapse of the global trading system, etc…

9. 1919-1920: Early post-WWI recovery – refugees, property destruction, grief, a generation of young men perished, feuding among the allies, the promise of Versailles was history… Not a happy time.

10. 1939 – 1940: WWII begins in September, 1939. Enough said

I’d just add one note that I hadn’t fully anticipated before my developing my list, but my ranking goes from unipolarity, to bipolarity, to multipolarity. Hmmm…. Happy New Year’s!


Who said it?

Can you tell the difference between the views expressed by a human rights activist who worries mostly about humanitarian emergencies in Asia and those stated by a prominent neorealist American academic?

1: Realist thinking versus liberal talk:

A. “…oil and strategic interests are what dictate Western policies, not their professed liberal values. All the talk of humanism or humanitarianism is just for public relations.”

B. “…public discourse about foreign policy in the United States is usually couched in the language of liberalism. Hence the pronouncements of the policy elites are heavily flavored with optimism and moralism…Behind closed doors, however, the elites who make national security policy speak mostly the language of power, not that of principle…In essence, a discernible gap separates public rhetoric from the actual conduct of American foreign policy.”

2: What should be done about humanitarian emergencies?

C. “Now I chime in on the side of those who want to invoke the “Responsibility to Protect” doctrine or humanitarian intervention because the suffering on the ground is massive and the regime leadership responded with extraordinarily mad behavior—holding this referendum on the graves of at least 70,000 Burmese cyclone victims.”

D. “…the Clinton administration…was filled with people who extolled the virtues of human rights regimes and the importance of the international community intervening to prevent mass murder, and so forth and so on. In the event, when there was evidence pouring in that a genocide was taking place in Rwanda, a real genocide, they behaved in the most despicable fashion. And this is consistent with how we have behaved over time. The fact of the matter is…states talk a good game when it comes to values, but they actually behave in a…rather cold and calculating manner when the money is on the table.”

3: American interests and intervention.

E. “Human rights interventions in the developing world…tend to be small-scale operations that cost little…The American intervention in Somalia between 1992 and 1993 is a case in point. Furthermore, the United States could have intervened to stop the genocide in Rwanda in 1994, which certainly would have been the morally correct thing to do, without having jeopardized American security.”

F. “I do not believe that under any circumstances should the United States go to war for the purposes of protecting the United Nations or simply making sure that United Nations’ resolutions are carried out. The United States should go to war under one set of circumstances, because you want to remember here, we’re talking about sending Americans to die. Right? We go to war when it’s in the American national interest. Right? When there are good, strategic reasons to put American lives on the line.”


For 1 and 2:

A & C are from “Zarni, a former Burmese activist who founded the Free Burma Campaign in the US and led the successful PepsiCo/ Burma boycott that resulted in Pepsi cutting all ties with the Burmese regime in 1997. He now lives in England where his research at Oxford University is focused on Burma’s political and economic developments.”

B and D are from Professor John Mearsheimer, a realist political scientist at the University of Chicago.

For 3:

It’s a trick. Both E & F are from Mearsheimer.

For more fun with neorealism, see this.


The Comedy of Great Power Politics

Next Wednesday in Chicago — that’s February 28, at 8:30 am — at the Annual Meeting of the International Studies Association, I’ll be presenting a paper called “The Comedy of Great Power Politics in the 21st Century.” Warning: that’s a pdf, which I posted on my rarely used University homepage.

On the same panel, my friend Nayef Samhat is presenting “The ‘Comedic Turn’ and Critical International Relations Theory.”

If those titles sound strange to you, read my paper (and Nayef’s once it is available) and pass along your comments. Better yet, come to the panel.

If you are an IR theorist, you probably already guessed a little bit of what we are up to — or at least what ideas we are challenging. After all, neorealist John Mearsheimer called his last book The Tragedy of Great Power Politics.

Realist theorists of international relations are pessimists and embrace tragic narratives. Classically, the main character of a tragedy was a noble, the story was set in the “great hall” or on the battlefield, and the plot featured the downfall of the protagonist — often his death.

Realist theory is primarily about great powers, their story is set in the competitive “high politics” arena of the international system, and the plots are typically gloomy (featuring war, imperial overstretch, etc.)

My paper argues that contemporary great power politics, by realist standards, seems more like a farce than a tragedy — no balancing behavior, no great power war for decades, the US and China are major trading partners, NATO is thriving, weak and failed states are viewed as the major threats, etc.

Nayef’s paper puts our joint project in a broader context and part of my paper does that as well.

Again, the panel is scheduled for 8:30 am on the first day of the convention, turnout might be low. One person on this panel had to withdraw, so we’ll have plenty of time to talk about comedy.

Come and see.

Sorry for the shameless self promotion


Film class — week 3

Film #3 “Saving Private Ryan” (1998). We viewed it Tuesday.

Reading for Thursday: Daniel Warner, “Two Realist Readings of the Tragic in International Relations,” 20 International Relations 2006, pp. 225-230.

Warner reviews the recent books by John J. Mearsheimer (The Tragedy of Great Power Politics) and Richard Ned Lebow (The Tragic Vision of Politics: Ethics, Interests and Orders).

While both Mearsheimer and Lebow discuss the tragic dimensions of international politics, they have a fundamentally different take. Mearsheimer focuses on the structural aspects of international politics, which he says make fear and conflict inevitable.

Lebow, on the other hand, emphasizes that human beings make the tragic choices that often define international relations. He criticizes Mearsheimer’s neorealism for its structuralism and argues that neorealism is incapable of offering meaningful criticism of hegemonic behavior and American foreign policy. By emphasizing the inevitability of conflict and the pursuit of power, Mearsheimer’s neorealism eliminates the complexity of human behavior — and the responsibility for human choices.

Obviously, “Saving Private Ryan” is a tragic tale. Captain John Miller, played by Tom Hanks, makes a number of tactical choices throughout the film that have foreseeable tragic consequences.

  • Why did he direct his men to attack a heavily guarded radar post?
  • Why did Miller order the German survivor (credited as “Steamboat Willie”) to be set free, even when his squad members argued that the soldier would likely join another unit and fight other Americans?
  • Why did Miller and his squad remain in Ramelle to defend a bridge against much more heavily armed opposition forces — even after Private Ryan had been located and his mission was arguably completed?

The humility Lebow desires is clearly present in Miller’s “everyman” hero, though he makes one tragic decision after another.

At the same time, the grotesque and nearly anonymous violence at the beginning of the film arguably reflects the kind of tragedy imagined by Mearsheimer. Given the circumstances, the allied powers had no choice but to launch the D-Day attack — even at the cost of tremendous and completely foreseeable human suffering.

Thus, director Steven Spielberg introduces a film about a series of tragic human choices with a monstrous context that arguably overwhelms the rest of the picture. Film critics, in fact, have argued that the Omaha Beach battle sequence, which takes up nearly the first half hour of the film,

blows up the rest of the movie. For this shattering vision is so corrosive, so subversive of all logic, all morality, all stories, that it devours the story that follows.

Spielberg may have Lebow’s sensibilities, but his movie cannot escape Mearsheimer’s tragic vision.

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