Sunday, September 30, 2007

Mearsheimer - Unit 3.1

In unit 3.1, we are invited to consider in greater detail one of five post-Cold War theories of International Relations. I chose Mearsheimer, mainly because it was the one that I found most intriguing. I had read about Fukuyama and Huntington but Mearsheimer seemed to hark back to another era. I thought he was perhaps trying to bridge a gap between theories of Cold War order and the new world order that emerged after 1989.

Here is the text of my crit. A bit long I know but its quicker to write long than short and time is of the essence! I would be interested to know what any one else thinks of Mearsheimer.


*John Mearsheimer teaches at the University of Chicago. Born in Brooklyn, NY, he is a West Point graduate (1970). He is proponent of nuclear proliferation and was a critic of the Iraq War. He recently raised controversy with his views on the power of the Israeli lobby in U.S. politics.*

In the post-Cold War debate about international relations, John Mearsheimer’s “Back to the Future” was an important contribution from the neo-realist camp.

At the time, realism, as a school of thought and a means of understanding the interaction between states, had been dealt a blow by the demise of the Soviet Union and the end of the Cold War, neither of which had been predicted by leading realists.

In an age when Bush Snr. was talking about a new World Order, a new multi-lateralist approach to international relations was taking shape, the realist focus on self-help, statism and survival were in question. Realism’s bleak view of human nature and its belief in the inevitability of conflict were out of sync with an American public who were hopeful for the future.

Liberal thinkers were looking at the end of the Cold War as the culmination of a process begun with the enlightenment, Napoleon or the French Revolution: with the decline of Communism in Europe came an affirmation of the values of liberalism, western democracy, market economics and individualism.

“[In the liberals’ eyes,] the possibility of conflict remained, but in an increasingly integrated economic system, the likelihood of its actually occurring was bound to diminish rapidly.”

Mearsheimer countered this idea. Against liberal optimism for a peaceful future, he presented a relatively bleak view of the future stability of the West, arguing that with the collapse of the bipolar system of the Cold War, the long peace of the period 1945-1990 had evaporated.

Mearsheimer’s point of departure is essentially the school of structural realist thought that was born from the Cold War. Taking Kenneth Waltz’s theory of self-help as his starting point, Mearsheimer argues that in a world where anarchy reigns, a state will seek to maximise its power, regionally.

“The goal for states is to dominate the entire system. To put it in colloquial terms, the aim of states is to be the biggest and baddest dude on the block. Because if you're the biggest and baddest dude on the block, then it is highly unlikely that any other state will challenge you, simply because you're so powerful.”

In contrast with traditional realism, where human nature is seen as the cause of conflict, structural realists like Waltz and Mearsheimer see conflict and competition between states as the inevitable result of a lack of any over arching authority.

In this realm of anarchy, Waltz saw states acting to secure their own security, hence the term defensive realism. Mearsheimer’s notions were categorised as offensive realism since he sees states acting to increase their own status and power over their neighbours. No one state will achieve a global hegemony, rather there will be regional leaders and a future condemned to watch them clash.

The inability for global hegemony to develop is drawn back to the stopping power of water in his later work “The Tragedy of Great Power Politics.” (Norton, 2001). Critics have questioned this.

The belief that Mearsheimer puts forward in “Back to the Future” is that without the balance of the Cold War bipolarity, Europe is doomed to experience uncertainty and therefore insecurity.

Mearsheimer’s realist approach not only ran counter to prevailing liberal views in the post Cold War environment, but also against the trend towards looking at the world in terms of globalisation.

The importance of states is challenged under globalisation theory, which says that in the modern world, where communications and markets connect countries to a greater degree than ever before, the significance of individual states is declining.

Mearsheimer disagrees with this: The fact of the matter is that the most powerful political ideology in the world today, and it's been the most powerful political ideology in the world for two centuries, is nationalism. Nationalism glorifies the state, and there are all sorts of people out there fighting for a state of their own. The Palestinians are just one example of that. So the state is here to stay for the long term.

A second theory behind globalisation is that cooperation is replacing conflict as the dominating feature of international politics. Mearsheimer rejects this also, arguing the relative peace of the 1990s (there were three wars after all), was in large part that the Americans were playing a pacifying role in Europe and Asia, controlling countries through stationed troops and NATO, while China and Russia were so weak as to not be able to cause trouble.

Much of the criticism that has been levelled at Realism hinges on its retrospective application to the world’s conflicts. It does little to throw forward new perspectives or to develop new theories: since it is rooted in a tradition that extends back to Thucydides, it tends to appear undynami and critics say that it is mathematical in its approach.

There is a logic to Realism but it can’t take into account developments that are not to do with states and their acquisition of power: developments like the spread of concerns about human rights or the emergence of non-state forms of conflict.

In some sense, Mearsheimer himself is aware of this in that while he acknowledges the significance of terrorism in the contemporary environment, he recognises that Realism has little to say about it: “There is no question that terrorism is a phenomenon that will play itself out in the context of the international system. So it will be played out in the state arena, and, therefore, all of the Realist logic about state behavior will have a significant effect on how the war on terrorism is fought. So Realism and terrorism are inextricably linked, although I do think that Realism does not have much to say about the causes of terrorism.”

His views on the strength of states lead him to conclude that China will become a major adversary to the United States should its current rate of economic expansion continue. He also uses the example, controversially, of the state of Israel as an example of how statism gives power to a people, especially when compared with the Palestinian people’s situation.

Mearsheimer’s view of the post-Cold War world paints a relatively bleak view of states’ ability to live side-by-side without conflict in an anarchic world. It discounts international institutions and favours nuclear proliferation as a means of assuring stability. It ran counter to a prevailing spirit in western democracies at the time of its publication that a new era of peaceful cooperation had begun.

Works Cited

Baylis, J., and S. Smith. The Globalization of World Politics. Oxford University Press, 2005.
"Conversation with John Mearsheimer." 2002. .
Hoffmann, Stanley, Robert O. Keohane, and John J. Mearsheimer. "Back to the Future, Part II: International Relations Theory and Post-Cold War Europe." International Security 15.2 (1990): 191-9.
Mearsheimer, John J. "Back to the Future - Instability in Europe After the Cold War." International Security 15.1 (1990): 5-56.

1 comment:

Dan Ford said...

I would be interested to know what any one else thinks of Mearsheimer

Erm ... nutter?

I find it very difficult to get past Mearsheimer's rant about the Jewish lobby in the US. He could easily have defined himself away from the charge of anti-Semitism, which he invited by his journal article, but instead he upped the ante by turning it into a book.

Well done, Tom! You are raising the bar high this term. Blue skies! -- Dan Ford