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.

Tragedy begins with a forceful denial of perpetual peace in favor of perpetual struggle, with great powers primed for offense, because they can never be sure how much military capacity they will need in order to survive over the long run. Because every state is forever insecure, Mearsheimer counsels, the internal nature of a state is less important as a factor in its international behavior than we think. “Great powers are like billiard balls that vary only in size,” he intones. In other words, Mearsheimer is not one to be especially impressed by a state simply because it is a democracy. As he asserts early on, “Whether China is democratic and deeply enmeshed in the global economy or autocratic and autarkic will have little effect on its behavior, because democracies care about security as much as non-democracies do.” Indeed, a democratic China could be more technologically innovative and economically robust, with consequently more talent and money to lavish on its military. (A democratic Egypt, for that matter, could create greater security challenges for the United States than an autocratic Egypt. Mearsheimer is not making moral judgments. He is merely describing how states interact in an anarchic world.)

Face it, Mearsheimer says in his book, quoting the historian James Hutson: the world is a “brutal, amoral cockpit.” To make sure readers get the point, he taps the British scholar E. H. Carr’s 1939 book, The Twenty Years’ Crisis, 1919–1939, which takes a wrecking ball to liberal internationalism. One of its main points: “Whatever moral issues may be involved, there is an issue of power which cannot be expressed in terms of morality.” To wit, in the 1990s we were able to intervene to save lives in the Balkans only because the Serbian regime was weak and had no nuclear weapons; against a Russian regime that was at the same time committing incalculable human-rights violations in Chechnya, we did nothing, just as we did nothing to halt ethnic cleansing in the Caucasus. States take up human rights only if doing so does not contradict the pursuit of power.

But being a realist is not enough for Mearsheimer; he needs to be an “offensive realist,” as he calls himself. “Offensive realism,” he writes in Tragedy, “is like a powerful flashlight in a dark room”: it cannot explain every action throughout hundreds of years of history, but he exhaustively goes through that history to demonstrate just how much it does explain. Whereas Hans Morgenthau’s realism is rooted in man’s imperfect nature, Mearsheimer’s is structural, and therefore that much more inexorable. Mearsheimer cares relatively little about what individual statesmen can achieve, for the state of anarchy in the international system simply guarantees insecurity. Compared with Mearsheimer, Henry Kissinger and the late American diplomat Richard Holbrooke—two men usually contrasted with each other—are one and the same: romantic figures who believe they can pivotally affect history through negotiation. Kissinger, in fact, has written lush histories of statesmen in A World Restored: Metternich, Castlereagh and the Problems of Peace 1812–1822 (1957) and Diplomacy (1994), embracing his subjects with charm and warmth, whereas Mearsheimer’s Tragedy is cold and clinical. Kissinger and Holbrooke care deeply about the contingencies of each situation, and the personalities involved; Mearsheimer, who was always good at math and science in school, sees only schemata, even as his own historical analyses have helped to rescue political science from the purely quantitative studies favored by others in his field.

Just as Mearsheimer’s theory of realism is opposed to Morgenthau’s in being structural, it is also opposed to the structural realism of Columbia’s Waltz in being offensive. Offensive realism posits that status quo powers don’t exist: all great powers are perpetually on the offensive, even if obstacles may arise to prevent them from expanding their territory or influence.

What was Manifest Destiny, Mearsheimer asks the reader, except offensive realism? “Indeed, the United States was bent on establishing regional hegemony, and it was an expansionist power of the first order in the Americas”: acquiring territory from European powers, massacring the native inhabitants, and instigating war with Mexico, in good part for the sake of security. Mearsheimer details Japan’s record of aggression in Korea, China, Russia, Manchuria, and the Pacific Islands after its consolidation as a nation-state following the 19th-century Meiji Restoration. To demonstrate that the anarchic structure of the international system, not the internal characteristics of states, determines behavior, he shows how Italy, during the eight decades that it was a great power, was equally aggressive under both liberal and fascist regimes: going after North Africa, the Horn of Africa, the southern Balkans, southwestern Turkey, and southern Austria-Hungary. He characterizes Germany’s Otto von Bismarck as an offensive realist who engaged in conquest during his first nine years in office, and then restrained himself for the next 19 years. “In fact, [that restraint] was because Bismarck and his successors correctly understood that the German army had conquered about as much territory as it could without provoking a great-power war, which Germany was likely to lose.” But when Mearsheimer picks up the story at the start of the 20th century, Germany is again aggressive, because by now it controls a larger percentage of the world’s industrial might than any other European state. Behind every assertion in this book is a wealth of historical data that helps explain why Tragedy continues, as Richard Betts predicted, to grow in influence.

“To argue that expansion is inherently misguided,” Mearsheimer writes, “implies that all great powers over the past 350 years have failed to comprehend how the international system works. This is an implausible argument on its face.” The problem with the “moderation is good” thesis is that “it mistakenly equates [so-called] irrational expansion with military defeat.” But hegemony has succeeded many times. The Roman Empire in Europe, the Mughal Dynasty in the Indian subcontinent, and the Qing Dynasty in China are some of his examples, even as he mentions how Napoleon, Kaiser Wilhelm II, and Adolf Hitler all came close to success. “Thus, the pursuit of regional hegemony is not a quixotic ambition,” though no state has yet achieved regional hegemony in the Eastern Hemisphere the way the United States achieved it in the Western Hemisphere.

The edgiest parts of Tragedy are when Mearsheimer presents full-bore rationales for the aggression of Wilhelmine Germany, Nazi Germany, and imperial Japan.

The German decision to push for war in 1914 was not a case of wacky strategic ideas pushing a state to start a war it was sure to lose. It was … a calculated risk motivated in large part by Germany’s desire to break its encirclement by the Triple Entente, prevent the growth of Russian power, and become Europe’s hegemon.

As for Hitler, he “did indeed learn from World War I.” Hitler learned that Germany could not fight on two fronts at the same time, and he would have to win quick, successive victories, which, in fact, he achieved early in World War II. Japan’s attack on Pearl Harbor was a calculated risk to avoid abandoning the Japanese empire in China and Southeast Asia in the face of a U.S. embargo on imported energy and machine tools.

Mearsheimer is no warmonger or militarist. His job as a political scientist is not to improve the world, but to say what he thinks is going on in it. And he thinks that while states rightly yearn for a values-based foreign policy, the reality of the anarchic international system forces them to behave according to their own interests. In his view, either liberal internationalism or neoconservatism is more likely than offensive realism to lead to the spilling of American blood. Indeed, because, as some argue, realism in the classical sense seeks the avoidance of war through the maintenance of a balance of power, it is the most humanitarian approach possible. (In this vein, fighting Nazi Germany was essential because the Nazis were attempting to overthrow the European balance-of-power system altogether.)

In the course of his 500-plus-page defense of his own brand of realism, Mearsheimer popularizes two other concepts: “buck-passing” and the “stopping power of water.” The latter concept leads Mearsheimer to propose—in 2001, mind you—an American foreign policy of restraint. But first, consider buck-passing. Whenever a new great power comes on the scene, one or more states will end up checking it. But every state will initially try to get someone else to do the checking: buck-passing “is essentially about who does the balancing, not whether it gets done.” The United Kingdom, France, and the Soviet Union all buck-passed prior to World War II, each trying to get the other to be the one to bear the brunt of Hitler’s onslaught. In Asia today, the United States quietly encourages Japan and India to build up their militaries in order to check China, but in the end, it has no country to whom it can pass the buck. Hence Mearsheimer’s plea from a decade ago that we need to focus on China.

The “stopping power of water” is where Tragedy, in an analytical sense, builds toward its powerful conclusion. “Large bodies of water are formidable obstacles that cause significant power-projection problems,” Mearsheimer writes. Great navies and air forces can be built, and soldiers transported to beachheads and airstrips, but conquering great land powers across the seas is difficult. This is why the United States and the United Kingdom have rarely been invaded by other great powers. It is also why the U.S. has almost never tried to permanently conquer territory in Europe or Asia, and why the United Kingdom has never tried to dominate continental Europe. Therefore, the “central aim of American foreign policy” is “to be the hegemon in the Western Hemisphere” only, and to prevent the rise of a similar hegemon in the Eastern Hemisphere. In turn, the proper role for the United States is as an “offshore balancer,” balancing against the rise of a Eurasian hegemon and going to war only as a last resort to thwart it. But better to try buck-passing first, Mearsheimer advises, and come into a war only at the last moment, when absolutely necessary.

Mearsheimer tells me that the U.S. was right to enter World War II very late; that way it paid a smaller “blood price” than the Soviet Union. “Before D-Day, 93 percent of all German casualties had occurred on the eastern front,” he says, adding that the devastation of the Soviet Union helped the U.S. in the Cold War to follow.

“How is offshore balancing different from neo-isolationism?,” I ask him. “Isolationists,” he responds, “believe that there is no place outside of the Western Hemisphere to which it is worth deploying our troops. But offshore balancers believe there are three critical areas that no other hegemon should be allowed to dominate: Europe, the Persian Gulf, and Northeast Asia. Thus,” he goes on, “it was important to fight Nazi Germany and Japan in World War II. American history suits us to be offshore balancers—not isolationists, not the world’s sheriff.” Later, when I ask Mearsheimer about the Obama administration’s slightly standoffish policies toward Libya and whether they are a good example of buck-passing, he says the problem with leading from behind in this case was that America’s European allies lacked the military capacity to do the job efficiently. “If mass murder was truly in the offing, as it was in Rwanda,” he tells me, “then I would have been willing to intervene in Libya. But it is unclear that was the case.”

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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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