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

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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

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