All about Tragedy and Offensive Realism – the Life and Times of John Mearsheimer

Well I was on my way to examine “offshore balancing” when I encountered this fascinating piece by Robert D Kaplan – subject my colleague John Mearsheimer at political science at the University of Chicago. The article on John is contained in the latest Atlantic Monthly entitled, “Why John J. Mearsheimer is Right (About Some Things)” and with several great pictures of John – one especially at the end of the article identifiably at the University of Chicago.  This piece does raise offshore balancing but that is not reason enough to target it.  Nor is the fact that Dan Drezner also took the opportunity to blog on John, see his piece at his following the Kaplan piece – though clearly he beat me to the punch – drat!


The idea for detouring to the subject of this piece really is two-fold.  One is to use the article to examine again US perceptions on China and the China-US relationship.  The second, to mull over – if just briefly – the interrelationship of Kaplan to Mearsheimer.  For in the end the piece on Mearsheimer is, in my view, about Kaplan and his framing of international relations and US grand strategy – and far less, in a number of respects, about Mearsheimer.  And indeed Mearsheimer poses a conundrum for Kaplan – hence the contingently phrased title. While Mearsheimer’s “offensive realism” is ‘right up Kaplan’s alley’ the controversy that Mearsheimer has raised in his attack on America’s Israel lobby – is not.  For Kaplan the article is an exercise of not throwing the baby out with the bathwater.  As Kaplan writes in the piece:

The real tragedy – [no pun intended I assume for The Tragedy of Great Power Politics – John’s most powerful IR book] of such controversies, as lamentable as they are, is that they threaten to obscure the urgent and enduring message of Mearsheimer’s life 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.

So read the above as Kaplan urging us to: “come on folks let’s forget about all those nasty Israeli-Jewish-Palestinian debates – with more than a whiff of some nastiness, and let’s focus on the rise of China, US grand strategy, Realism Offensive Realism and Samuel Huntington.”  But even Kaplan must admit:

The Israeli Lobby has delegitimized Mearsheimer.  Inside the service academy where I taught for two years, in the think-tank world where i work, and in various government circles with which I am acquainted, Mearsheimer is quietly held in higher regard because of the familiarity with his other books, but the controversy (and its echoes last fall) has surely hurt him (emphasis added).

And that is, I suspect what Kaplan believes is a tragedy of sorts – pun intended. My sense is that John cannot help himself.  Just recently I was with him and others at Harvard at a US-China policy workshop.  There, John played a significant role in discussion and debate.  But at various moments John would express himself, or ask a question, stated in the most incendiary fashion – only to pull back after serious reaction, pushback and debate.  There is a problem with judgment in my opinion that has not aided John and left him not so much as the enfant terrible, as expressed by Kaplan, but just, at times, terrible.

So let’s leave the personal and focus on the ideas.  Dan in his post, “Intellectual clean-up in the realist aisle, please!” focused in part on the Realists.  There he takes Kaplan – and the Realists – to task for always acting the victim and declaring that realism is alien to American foreign policy thinking.  As Dan urges:

Cut it out already.  There is a long intellectual lineage in the American academy – starting with Hans Morgenthau and continuing with Mearsheimer and his students – that evinces realist principles.

Dan having so clearly taken the Realists to task for victimhood, I’ll leave it at that.  But let me focus on John’s primary foreign policy view – the rise of China and what the US must/should do.  While I won’t debate the practical value of IR theory in foreign policy action – though I think the track record is pretty dismal, and not surprisingly given that much of IR theory, including realism, operates principally at the 30,000 foot level – John’s judgments, indeed predictions – are dead wrong when it comes to understanding the rise of China and US action in response.   John’s lens is offensive realism that sees great powers, driven by uncertainty, striving for dominance and hegemony – all of them all the time:

Mearsheimer, who is not modest, believes it is a reliance on theory that invigorates his thinking.  Returning to his principal passion, China, he tells me: “I have people all the time telling me that they’ve just returned from China and met with all these Chinese who want a peaceful relationship.  I tell them that these Chinese will not be in power in 20 or 30 years, when circumstances may be very different.  Because we cannot know the future, all we have to rely upon is theory.  If a theory can explain the past in many instances, as my theory of offensive realism can, it might be able to say something useful about the future.” … If China implodes from socioeconomic crisis, or evolves in some other way that eliminates the potential threat, Mearsheimer’s theory will be in serious trouble because of its dismissal of domestic politics.  But if China goes on to become a great military power, reshaping the balance of forces in Asia, then Mearsheimer’s Tragedy will live on as a classic.

But China will reshape Asia.  It is already doing so.  The question really is will this power transformation with the rise of China and the relative decline of the United States result in not just competition and rivalry but in conflict between the United States and China and others.  Historically, most other power transformations of this sort have led to conflict.  The question in Asia is – will China and the US come to blows?  And to understand that offensive realism is inutile.  Conflict or its absence depends on both US and Chinese leadership.  And it also depends on diplomatic strategy.  Elsewhere I have argued that the US – and China as well – need to exhibit more “Bismarckian diplomacy – and here I mean after 1871, and less Wilhelmine behavior.  The China Threat School and offensive realists behind offer a brand of US diplomacy that will heighten tensions and make the necessary adjustments between the two great powers more difficult not less.   It will raise the prospects of conflict and increase the possibility for misjudgment and mistakes by the two sides.

There is no inevitability of a certain ‘hard type’ of Chinese leadership.  Just as there is none in the United States.  What is needed is smart leadership employing strategic military/political/economic behavior – on both sides.  Within the structure of the international system is leadership behavior and decision-making.  These leaders need to get it right.  John’s views it seems to me tells us nothing about getting it right.

Image Credit: The University of Chicago: permission from John Mearsheimer

Steve Clemons and the Revisionist Liberal American Foreign Policy Voice


So returning to Steve Clemons’s and his review of grand strategy approaches in the Atlantic with his “Rebuilding America’s Stock of Power” which itself is a lead in for Steve to lead an  Atlantic Live session that will be streamed live on January 11th.  Well, I hope to get there but meanwhile let me attempt a partial review of Steve and his review of various ‘in the beltway’ types in the most recent issue (Issue 23, Winter 2012) of Democracy: A Journal of Ideas.

Steve has an outsized personality that is a Washington and New York presence.  Now Steve is a realist – a ‘happy realist’ – but a realist nevertheless.  The ‘bug-a-boo’ for Steve is the rise of China.  As Steve points to:

China is driving realities in the global economic sphere today; not the United States – and America, to revive its economy, needs to figure out how to drive Chinese-held dollars (along with German and Arab state held reserves) into productive capacity inside the United States while not giving away everything.

America must knock back Chinese predatory behaviors by becoming more shrewdly predatory and defensive of America’s core economic capacities.  Without a shift in America’s economic stewardship – which also means a shift in the macro-focused, neoliberal oriented, market fundamentalist staff of the current Obama team – the US economy will flounder and on a relative basis, sink compared to the rise of the rest.

For these experts, and for Steve I suspect, it is all about finding restraint in a new US grand strategy.   With the end of the Iraq War for the US and a growing intensity to end their military involvement in Afghanistan, there is a loud and growing chorus of voices in Washington to husband US resources.  Turn down the urge to go abroad to slay dragons.  The attack is on against unrestrained US interventionism which Steve argues is, as he calls it, “the dominant personality” of both US political parties.  So for the Democrats you have the humanitarian interventionists – read that as Libya – and for the Republicans you have the neoconservatives’ regime change – read that as Iraq.  The critique from Steve:

Neoconservatives and liberal interventionists put a premium on morality, on reacting and moving in the world along lines determined by an emotional and sentimental commitment to the basic human rights of other citizens – with little regard to the stock of means and resources the US has to achieve the great moral ends they seek.

So restraint and husbanding resources – economic and military – is the new objective.  And each of the experts, in their own way, urge it.  Thus Charlie Kupchan declares that in order to rebuild American leadership the US must:

  • restore the American consensus  on foreign policy and the rebuilding of its economy;
  • work with the newly emerging market powers to create a new global order and protect a liberal international order;
  • revitalize the transatlantic relationship; and then
  • judiciously retrench and deal with the overextension of US global commitments.

In a similar vein  a quick look at this recent press release at the CFR website for Richard Betts’s  new book entitled,  American Force: Dangers, Delusions, and Dilemmas in National Security, Betts too recommends, “the United States exercise greater caution and restraint, using force less frequently (“stay out”) but more decisively (“all-in”)”.

Bruce Jentleson performs a reprise of his and Steve Weber’s approach in The End of Arrogance.  In the journal article Bruce narrates a Ptolemaic versus Copernican world, where the central image is the displacement of the US from the center of the universe.  Now contrary to more realist interpretations, this diffusion of power as described by Bruce, anticipates that China too – the new rising power – will be unable to exert hegemonic power in this new 21st century global system.  As Jentleson declares,”Peaceful rise is one thing, assertive dominance quite another.” The Copernican world, according to Jentleson, is a disorderly place, but a global order that, “… means demonstrating the capacity to implement policies that reduce our vulnerabilities, enhance our competitiveness, and cultivate a shared sense of purpose.”

Diffusion of power, the end of hegemony or at least the enlargement of leadership with the inclusion of the rising powers like Brazil, India and China, and a requirement that the United States husband its resources – economic and military.

Steve argues that he holds a line similar to the Kupchan approach though he criticizes Kupchan for holding to such neatly drawn pillars of action for the US.  But it seems to me that constraint has been the mantra of the US before – back to the 1970’s and the end of Vietnam.  It is not a strategy and it is apt to be forgotten, or ignored, by a new political leadership especially across the political divide that exists in the US.  The dilemma that exists today is not a search to enunciate some new grand strategy, but an effort, and here I tend to agree with Bruce Jentleson, to ‘lead’ in initiating collective behavior – the impetus for collective action.  And there needs to be a concerted to avoid the China Threat syndrome that is embedded in Washington.  Restraint will evaporate unless US policy makers find a way to open a political space for China. This is the overwhelming need in US foreign policy.  In the coming years, according to the review of Richard Betts’s book

China is the main potential problem because it poses a choice Americans are reluctant to face. Washington can strive to control the strategic equation in Asia, or it can reduce the odds of conflict with China. But it will be a historically unusual achievement if it manages to do both,” notes Betts. Although conflict with China is not inevitable, “the United States is more likely to go to war with China than with any other major power.

Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons

Not For Me! No Yearend Predictions



Though I appreciated all the list of international relations 2011 horrors – or the 2012 predicted horrors, I shall avoid the feeble speculation indulged in by many of blog colleagues.  No crystal ball for me.

Instead I shall look at two approaches  – both designated as part of US grand strategy.  The first is a series of articles brought together by my good friend Steve Clemons, the Washington Editor of the Atlantic in a piece called “Rebuilding America’s Stock of Power“.  In this piece  – besides bringing his own unique insights to American foreign policy, Clemons responds to various Washington beltway folk including Charlie Kupchan from Georgetown University, Rosa Brooks of the Georgetown University and Law Center and the New America Foundation, Rachael Kleinfeld of the Truman National Security Project, Tom Perriello a former Virginia Congressman and Duke University Professor, Bruce Jentleson.

The second grand strategy analysis will focus on the concept of “offshore balancing” and I shall use Steven Walt of Harvard University has the locus for this examination of a long established international relations perspective that has come back into vogue as the United States struggles to deal with the the end of one conflict – Iraq, the almost end of another – Afghanistan, and the emergence possibly of another – the Rise of China.

Stay tuned.


Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons