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.
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Such thinking is prologue to Mearsheimer’s admonition that a struggle with China awaits us. “The Chinese are good offensive realists, so they will seek hegemony in Asia,” he tells me, paraphrasing the conclusion to Tragedy. China is not a status quo power. It will seek to dominate the South China Sea as the U.S. has dominated the Greater Caribbean Basin. He continues: “An increasingly powerful China is likely to try to push the U.S. out of Asia, much the way the U.S. pushed European powers out of the Western Hemisphere. Why should we expect China to act any differently than the United States did? Are they more principled than we are? More ethical? Less nationalistic?” On the penultimate page of Tragedy, he warns:

Neither Wilhelmine Germany, nor imperial Japan, nor Nazi Germany, nor the Soviet Union had nearly as much latent power as the United States had during their confrontations … But if China were to become a giant Hong Kong, it would probably have somewhere on the order of four times as much latent power as the United States does, allowing China to gain a decisive military advantage over the United States.

Ten years after those lines were written, China’s economy has passed Japan’s as the world’s second-largest. Its total defense spending in 2009 was $150 billion, compared with only $17 billion in 2001. But even more revealing is the pattern of China’s military modernization. “Force planning—the product of long-term commitments and resource allocation decisions—is the heart of strategy,” the military expert Thomas Donnelly, of the American Enterprise Institute, wrote last year. And for more than a decade now, China’s military

has shifted its focus from repelling a Soviet invasion and controlling domestic unrest to the sole problem of defeating U.S. forces in East Asia. This has been a strategic surprise to which no American administration has appropriately responded.

China is increasing its submarine fleet from 62 to 77 and has tested a stealth fighter jet as part of a buildup also featuring surface warships, missiles, and cyber warfare. Andrew F. Krepinevich, the president of the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments, believes that nations of the Western Pacific are slowly being “Finlandized” by China: they will maintain nominal independence but in the end may abide by foreign-policy rules set by Beijing. And the more the United States is distracted by the Middle East, the more it hastens this impending reality in East Asia, which is the geographical heart of the global economy and of the world’s navies and air forces.

Mearsheimer’s critics say that offensive realism ignores ideology and domestic politics altogether. They argue that he takes no account of China’s society and economy and where they might be headed. Indeed, simple theories like offensive realism are inherently superficial, and wrong in instances. Mearsheimer, for example, is still waiting for NATO to collapse, as he predicted it would in a 1990 Atlantic article. The fact that it hasn’t owes as much to the domestic politics of Western states as it does to the objective security situation. And the stopping power of water did not prevent Japan from acquiring a great maritime empire in the early and middle part of the 20th century; nor did it prevent the Allied invasion of Normandy. More generally, Mearsheimer’s very cold, mathematical, states-as-billiard-balls approach ignores messy details—like the personalities of Adolf Hitler, Mao Zedong, Franklin Delano Roosevelt, and Slobodan Milošević—that have had a monumental impact in deciding how wars and crises turn out. International relations is as much about understanding Shakespeare—and the human passions and intrigues that Shakespeare exposes—as it is about understanding political-science theories. It matters greatly that Deng Xiaoping was both utterly ruthless and historically perceptive, so that he could set China in motion to become such an economic and military juggernaut in the first place. Manifest Destiny owes as much to the canniness of President James K. Polk as it does to Mearsheimer’s laws of historical determinism.

But given the limits of social-science theories, even as we rely on them to help us make some sense of the Bruegelesque jumble of history, The Tragedy of Great Power Politics is a signal triumph. As Huntington once told his protégé Fareed Zakaria: “If you tell people the world is complicated, you’re not doing your job as a social scientist. They already know it’s complicated. Your job is to distill it, simplify it, and give them a sense of what is the single [cause], or what are the couple of powerful causes that explain this powerful phenomenon.”

Truly, Mearsheimer’s theory of international relations allowed him to get both Gulf wars exactly right—and he’s one of the few people to do so. As a good offshore balancer, Mearsheimer supported the First Gulf War against Saddam Hussein, in 1991. By occupying Kuwait, Iraq had positioned itself as a potential hegemon in the Persian Gulf, justifying U.S. military action. Moreover, as Mearsheimer asserted in several newspaper columns, the United States could easily defeat the Iraqi military. This assertion made him something of a lone wolf in academic circles, where many were predicting a military quagmire or calamity. The Democratic Party, to which most scholars subscribed, overwhelmingly opposed the war. Mearsheimer’s confidence that fighting Saddam would be a “cakewalk” was based in part on his trips to Israel in the 1970s and ’80s, when he was studying conventional military deterrence. The Israelis had told him that the Iraqi army, mired as it was in Soviet doctrine, was one of the Arab world’s worst militaries.

But Mearsheimer’s finest hour was the run-up to the Second Gulf War against Saddam, in 2003. This time, offshore balancing did not justify a war. Iraq was already contained and was not on the brink of becoming the hegemon of the Persian Gulf. And Mearsheimer felt strongly that a new war was a bad idea. He joined with Harvard’s Stephen Walt and the University of Maryland’s Shibley Telhami to lead a group of 33 scholars, many of them card-carrying academic realists, to sign a declaration opposing the war. On September 26, 2002, they published an advertisement on the New York Times op-ed page that cost $38,000, and they paid for it themselves. The top of the ad ran, WAR WITH IRAQ IS NOT IN AMERICA’S NATIONAL INTEREST. Among the bullet points was this: “Even if we win easily, we have no plausible exit strategy. Iraq is a deeply divided society that the United States would have to occupy and police for many years to create a viable state.”

Mearsheimer opposed not only the Iraq War, but also the neoconservative vision of regional transformation, which, as he tells me, was the “polar opposite” of offshore balancing. He was not against democratization in the Arab world per se, but felt that it should not be attempted—and could not be accomplished—by an extended deployment of U.S. troops in Iraq and Afghanistan. And as he explains to me, he now sees an attack on Iran as yet another distraction from dealing with the challenge of China in East Asia. A war with Iran, he adds, would drive Iran further into the arms of Beijing.

During the buildup to the Iraq War, Mearsheimer and Walt began work on what would become a London Review of Books article and later The Israel Lobby and U.S. Foreign Policy. (The Atlantic had originally commissioned the piece, only to reject it owing to a profound disagreement between the editors and the authors over its objectivity.) In some respects, The Israel Lobby reads as an appendix to The Tragedy of Great Power Politics—almost a case study of how great powers should not act. Many of those loosely associated with the lobby supported the Iraq War, which Mearsheimer saw as a diversion from the contest with China. The so-called special relationship between the United States and Israel, by further entangling the United States in the problems of the Middle East, contradicted the tenets of offshore balancing. And proponents of the special relationship have routinely justified it by citing Israel’s status as a stable democracy in the midst of unstable authoritarian states—but that internal attribute, in Mearsheimer’s view, is largely irrelevant.

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Robert D. Kaplan is the author of Asia’s Cauldron: The South China Sea and the End of a Stable Pacific. He is the chief geopolitical analyst for Stratfor, and a national correspondent for The Atlantic. 

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