Kaplan on Mearsheimer on China: From Our Current Issue

Frequently as I exhort readers to "Subscribe!" to our print edition, that being the center of our evolving print/online/"live" business and the heart of our journalism, I really should be talking up print articles even more than I do. The latest Jan-Feb issue is an illustration. Adam Davidson's cover story, on the realities of what it would take to re-create a "middle class" society, has been cited by half the op-ed writers in the world and could have been the background briefing to the President's State of the Union address last week. (Here is the background "enhanced" briefing the White House actually put out, but it dovetails with the article.) Cullen Murphy, for 20 years an editor here, explains how the original Inquisition prefigures the current one. Lane Wallace talks about the perils and appeal of air races; Megan McArdle, about the perils and appeal of business school; Gregg Easterbrook, about the perils and appeal of the sun; and on through a long list of strong stories (on REM, Joan Didion, Mike Ditka, etc). Seriously: read the series of short "Dispatches" that start the issue, at one sitting, and you'll be impressed and will go on to the rest.

Now, about a feature article that deserves more attention than it seems to have received so far: Robert Kaplan's profile of John Mearsheimer, of the University of Chicago. Kaplan devotes half of his article to the subject for which Mearsheimer has been best known and most controversial in the past five years: his book, with Stephen Walt, The Israel Lobby and US Foreign Policy. If for some reason you were asleep recently, the controversy was because, as Kaplan puts it, the book "alleges that groups supportive of Israel have pivotally undermined American foreign-policy interests, especially in the run-up to the Iraq War." Kaplan engages the merits of the Mearsheimer-Walt argument more deeply, and in a fairer and calmer frame of mind, than most other treatments of the book. He doesn't agree with all of it, but he comes down thus:

[Mearsheimer and Walt argue that] the reason the Israelis are not more cooperative is that in the final analysis, they don't have to be--which, in turn, is because of the pro-Israel lobby.... I see nothing wrong or illegitimate about this core argument. And no amount of nitpicking by their critics of The Israel Lobby's 100 pages of endnotes can detract from it. I say this as someone who is a veteran of the Israel Defense Forces and who supported the Iraq War (a position I have come to deeply regret).

The other half of the article explores the Mearsheimer world view that, in Kaplan's view, has been unfairly slighted because of the "Israel lobby" furore. That is his doctrine of "offensive realism," especially as it indicates that the U.S. should be girding for an inevitable showdown with a rising, ambitious, and expansionist China. The article begins with these words, a quote from one of Mearsheimer's classroom lectures:

"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."

Kaplan makes clear that Mearsheimer is overstating for effect. But he also explains why Mearsheimer believes a strategic/military confrontation between the US and China truly is inevitable -- and why he, Kaplan, mainly shares this view. I mainly disagree with both of them, and the basis of our disagreement touches on another important theme of the article.

In an article of my own in next month's issue, and in my forthcoming book, I argue that China has too many things going on, and going wrong, within its own borders to have the time, energy, skill, or ambition for much of an "expansionist" world effort. From the outside, it looks like an unstoppable juggernaut. From inside, especially from the perspective of those trying to run it, it looks like a rambling wreck that narrowly avoids one disaster after another. The thrust of Mearsheimer's argument is that such internal complications simply don't matter: the sheer increase in China's power will bring disruption with it. I am saying: if you knew more about China, you would be less worried, especially about military confrontations. He is saying: "knowing" about China is a distraction. What matters are the implacable forces.

Naturally, I think this view is wrong, or at least too mechanistic; and that while we need to think constantly and seriously about China, a "showdown" would be a result of miscalculation or recklessness on either side, rather than of unstoppable tectonic pressures. On the other hand, I completely endorse Mearsheimer's (and Kaplan's) view that we should have been paying more attention to China, and been less bogged down in the Middle East, through the past decade. But his case is certainly worth considering, and Bob Kaplan lays it out very well. I expect that we'll also hear from Jeffrey Goldberg soon about the other part of the article, about the Mearsheimer-Walt book.