Why John J. Mearsheimer Is Right (About Some Things)

“A disgrace” and “anti-Semite” were two of the (more printable) barbs launched last fall at John Mearsheimer, a renowned political scientist at the University of Chicago. But Mearsheimer’s infamous views on Israel—in the latest case, his endorsement of a book on Jewish identity that many denounced as anti-Semitic—should not distract us from the importance of his life’s work: a bracing argument in favor of the doctrine of “offensive realism,” which can enable the United States to avert decline and prepare for the unprecedented challenge posed by a rising China.
Daniel Shea

I—China—want to be the Godzilla of Asia, because that’s the only way for me—China—to survive! I don’t want the Japanese violating my sovereignty the way they did in the 20th century. I can’t trust the United States, since states can never be certain about other states’ intentions. And as good realists, we—the Chinese—want to dominate Asia the way the Americans have dominated the Western Hemisphere.” John J. Mearsheimer, the R. Wendell Harrison Distinguished Service Professor of Political Science at the University of Chicago, races on in a mild Brooklyn accent, banging his chalk against the blackboard and erasing with his bare hand, before two dozen graduate students in a three-hour seminar titled “Foundations of Realism.”

Mearsheimer writes anarchy on the board, explaining that the word does not refer to chaos or disorder. “It simply means that there is no centralized authority, no night watchman or ultimate arbiter, that stands above states and protects them.” (The opposite of anarchy, he notes, borrowing from Columbia University’s Kenneth Waltz, is hierarchy, which is the ordering principle of domestic politics.) Then he writes the uncertainty of intentions and explains: the leaders of one great power in this anarchic jungle of a world can never know what the leaders of a rival great power are thinking. Fear is dominant. “This is the tragic essence of international politics,” he thunders. “It provides the basis for realism, and people hate people like me, who point this out!” Not finished, he adds: “The uncertainty of intentions is my Sunday punch in defense of realism, whenever realism is attacked.”

After class, Mearsheimer leads me down grim, cement-gray hallways to his office in Albert Pick Hall, whose brutalist Gothic architecture he describes as “East Germany circa the 1960s.” At 64 years of age, with round wire-framed glasses, and gray hair fringing his balding head, he is genial, voluble, animated: the opposite of the dry, heartless, muscular prose that he is known for and that has enraged so many people. His office, littered with books and file boxes, is graced with pictures of America’s two preeminent realists: Hans Morgenthau from the first half of the 20th century, and Samuel Huntington from the second half. Morgenthau, a German Jewish refugee who, like Mearsheimer, taught at the University of Chicago, once wrote that realism “appeals to historic precedent rather than to abstract principles [of justice] and aims at the realization of the lesser evil rather than of the absolute good.” Huntington, the late Harvard professor who died in 2008, challenged the policy elite with his famous idea of a “clash of civilizations,” and with his earlier notion, perhaps more provocative, that how people are governed—democratically or not—matters less than the degree to which they are governed: in other words, the United States always had more in common with the Soviet Union than with any weakly governed state in Africa.

Mearsheimer reveres both men for their bravery in pointing out unpopular truths, and throughout his career he has tried to emulate them. Indeed, in a country that has always been hostile to what realism signifies, he wears his “realist” label as a badge of honor. “To realism!” he says as he raises his wineglass to me in a toast at a local restaurant. As Ashley J. Tellis, Mearsheimer’s former student and now, after a stint in the Bush administration, a senior associate at the Carnegie Endowment, later tells me: “Realism is alien to the American tradition. It is consciously amoral, focused as it is on interests rather than on values in a debased world. But realism never dies, because it accurately reflects how states actually behave, behind the façade of their values-based rhetoric.”

Mearsheimer’s intellectually combative nature first disturbed the policy elite in 1988, with the publication of his critical biography, Liddell Hart and the Weight of History. In it, he asserts that the revered British military theorist Sir Basil H. Liddell Hart was wrong on basic strategic questions of the period between the first and second world wars, especially in his opposition to the use of military force against the Third Reich, and was a de facto appeaser even after evidence had surfaced about the systematic murder of Jews. Mearsheimer expected that his perspective would draw fire from British reviewers who had been close to Liddell Hart, which it did. “Other political scientists work on capillaries. John goes for the jugular,” notes Richard Rosecrance, a retired UCLA professor who mentored Mearsheimer in the 1970s.

Mearsheimer certainly triggered a bloodbath with a 2006 article that became a 2007 book written with the Harvard professor Stephen M. Walt and dedicated to Huntington, The Israel Lobby and U.S.Foreign Policy, which alleges that groups supportive of Israel have pivotally undermined American foreign-policy interests, especially in the run-up to the Iraq War. Some critics, like the Johns Hopkins University professor Eliot Cohen, accused Mearsheimer and Walt outright of anti-Semitism, noting that their opinions had won the endorsement of the white supremacist David Duke. Many others accused them of providing potent ammunition for anti-Semites. A former Chicago colleague of Mearsheimer’s labeled the book “piss-poor, monocausal social science.”

Last fall, Mearsheimer reenergized his critics by favorably blurbing a book on Jewish identity that many commentators denounced as grotesquely anti-Semitic. The blurb became a blot on Mearsheimer’s judgment, given the book’s author’s revolting commentary elsewhere, and was considered evidence of an unhealthy obsession with Israel and Jewishness on Mearsheimer’s part.

The real tragedy of such controversies, as lamentable as they are, is that they threaten to obscure the urgent and enduring message of Mearsheimer’s life’s work, which topples conventional foreign-policy shibboleths and provides an unblinking guide to the course the United States should follow in the coming decades. Indeed, with the most critical part of the world, East Asia, in the midst of an unprecedented arms race fed by acquisitions of missiles and submarines (especially in the South China Sea region, where states are motivated by old-fashioned nationalism rather than universal values), and with the Middle East undergoing less a democratic revolution than a crisis in central authority, we ignore Mearsheimer’s larger message at our peril.

In fact, Mearsheimer is best-known in the academy for his equally controversial views on China, and particularly for his 2001 magnum opus, The Tragedy of Great Power Politics. Writing in Foreign Affairs in 2010, the Columbia University professor Richard K. Betts called Tragedy one of the three great works of the post–Cold War era, along with Francis Fukuyama’s The End of History and the Last Man (1992) and Huntington’s The Clash of Civilizations and the Remaking of World Order (1996). And, Betts suggested, “once China’s power is full grown,” Mearsheimer’s book may pull ahead of the other two in terms of influence. The Tragedy of Great Power Politics truly defines Mearsheimer, as it does realism. Mearsheimer sat me down in his office, overlooking the somber Collegiate Gothic structures of the University of Chicago, and talked for hours, over the course of several days, about Tragedy and his life.

One of five children in a family of German and Irish ancestry, and one of the three who went to service academies, Mearsheimer graduated from West Point in the bottom third of his class, even after he fell in love with political science in his junior year. He got his master’s degree at the University of Southern California while stationed nearby in the Air Force, and went to Cornell for his doctorate. “I disagreed with almost everything I read, I venerated nobody. I found out what I thought by what I was against.” After stints at the Brookings Institution and Harvard, he went to the University of Chicago in 1982, and has never left.

Whereas Harvard, at least in Mearsheimer’s telling, is inclined to be a “government-policy shop” with close ties to Washington, the University of Chicago comes closer to a “pure intellectual environment.” At Harvard, many students and faculty members alike are on the make, networking for that first, or next, position in government or the think-tank world. The environment is vaguely unfriendly to theories or bold ideas, Huntington being the grand exception that proves the rule. After all, social-science theories are gross simplifications of reality; even the most brilliant theories can be right, say, only 75 percent of the time. Critics unfailingly seize on any theory’s shortcomings, damaging reputations. So the truly ambitious tend to avoid constructing one.

The University of Chicago, set off the beaten path in a society dominated by bicoastal elites, explains Mearsheimer, has always attracted “oddballs” with theories: political scientists who, while deeply respected, are at the same time not truly embraced by the American academic power structure. These iconoclasts have included Hans Morgenthau, as well as Leo Strauss, another German Jewish refugee, whom some link with neoconservatism. Realists especially have been outsiders in a profession dominated by liberal internationalists and others to the left.

For Mearsheimer, academia’s hostility to realism is evident in the fact that Harvard, which aims to recruit the top scholars in every field, never tried to hire the two most important realist thinkers of the 20th century, Morgenthau and Kenneth Waltz. But at Chicago, a realist like Mearsheimer, who loves teaching and never had ambitions for government service, can propound theories and unpopular ideas, and revel in the uproar they cause. Whatever the latest group-think happens to be, Mearsheimer almost always instinctively wants to oppose it—especially if it emanates from Washington.

The best grand theories tend to be written no earlier than middle age, when the writer has life experience and mistakes behind him to draw upon. Morgenthau’s 1948 classic, Politics Among Nations, was published when he was 44, Fukuyama’s The End of History was published as a book when he was 40, and Huntington’s Clash of Civilizations as a book when he was 69. Mearsheimer began writing The Tragedy of Great Power Politics when he was in his mid-40s, after working on it for a decade. Published just before 9/11, the book intimates the need for America to avoid strategic distractions and concentrate on confronting China. A decade later, with the growth of China’s military might vastly more apparent than it was in 2001, and following the debacles of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars, its clairvoyance is breathtaking.

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Robert D. Kaplan is an Atlantic national correspondent and a senior fellow at the Center for a New American Security. His most recent book is Monsoon: The Indian Ocean and the Future of American Power.

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