John Joseph Mearsheimer (; born December 14, 1947) is an American political scientist and international relations scholar, who belongs to the realist school of thought. He is the R. Wendell Harrison Distinguished Service Professor at the University of Chicago.
Mearsheimer is best known for developing the theory of offensive realism, which describes the interaction between great powers as being primarily driven by the rational desire to achieve regional hegemony in an anarchic international system. He was a vocal opponent of the Iraq War in 2003 and was almost alone in opposing Ukraine's decision to give up its nuclear weapons in 1994, predicting that it would invariably face Russian aggression without a nuclear deterrent.
His most controversial views concern alleged influence by interest groups over US government actions in the Middle East which he wrote about in his 2007 book The Israel Lobby and U.S. Foreign Policy. In accordance with his theory, Mearsheimer believes that China's growing power will likely bring it into conflict with the United States.
Mearsheimer was born in December 1947 in Brooklyn, New York. He was raised in New York City until he was eight, when his parents moved his family to Croton-on-Hudson, New York, a suburb in Westchester County.
When he was 17, Mearsheimer enlisted in the US Army. After one year as an enlisted member, he chose to attend the US Military Academy at West Point, where he attended from 1966 to 1970. After his graduation, he served for five years as an officer in the US Air Force.
In 1974, while he was in the Air Force, Mearsheimer earned a Masters Degree in International Relations from the University of Southern California. He entered Cornell University and in 1980 earned a Ph.D. in government, specifically in international relations. From 1978 to 1979, he was a research fellow at the Brookings Institution in Washington, DC. From 1980 to 1982, he was a post-doctoral fellow at Harvard University's Center for International Affairs. During the 1998–1999 academic year, he was the Whitney H. Shepardson Fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations in New York.
Since 1982, Mearsheimer has been a member of the faculty of the Department of Political Science Faculty at the University of Chicago. He became an associate professor in 1984 and a full professor in 1987, and he was appointed the R. Wendell Harrison Distinguished Service Professor in 1996. From 1989 to 1992, he served as chairman of the department. He also holds a position as a faculty member in the Committee on International Relations graduate program, and he is a co-director of the Program on International Security Policy.
Mearsheimer's books include Conventional Deterrence (1983), which won the Edgar S. Furniss Jr. Book Award; Nuclear Deterrence: Ethics and Strategy (co-editor, 1985); Liddell Hart and the Weight of History (1988); The Tragedy of Great Power Politics (2001), which won the Lepgold Book Prize; The Israel Lobby and U.S. Foreign Policy (2007); and Why Leaders Lie: The Truth About Lying in International Politics (2011). His articles have appeared in academic journals like International Security and popular magazines like the London Review of Books. He has written op-ed pieces for The New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, and the Chicago Tribune.
Mearsheimer has won several teaching awards. He received the Clark Award for Distinguished Teaching when he was a graduate student at Cornell in 1977, and he won the Quantrell Award for Excellence in Undergraduate Teaching at the University of Chicago in 1985. In addition, he was selected as a Phi Beta Kappa Visiting Scholar for the 1993–1994 academic year. In that capacity, he gave a series of talks at eight colleges and universities. In 2003, he was elected to the American Academy of Arts and Sciences.
He is the recipient of the American Political Science Association's 2020 James Madison Award, presented every three years to an American political scientist who has made distinguished scholarly contributions. The Award Committee noted that Mearsheimer is "one of the most cited International Relations scholars in the discipline, but his works are read well beyond the academy as well."
Mearsheimer's works are widely read and debated among 21st-century students of international relations. A 2017 survey of U.S. international relations faculty ranks him third among "scholars whose work has had the greatest influence on the field of IR in the past 20 years."
Mearsheimer's first book Conventional Deterrence (1983) addresses the question of how decisions to start a war depend on the projected outcome of military conflict. In other words, how do decision makers' beliefs about the outcome of war affect the success or failure of deterrence? Mearsheimer's basic argument is that deterrence is likely to work when the potential attacker believes that a successful attack will be unlikely and costly. If the potential attacker, however, has reason to believe the attack will likely succeed and entail low costs, deterrence is likely to break down. That is now widely accepted to be how the principle of deterrence works. Specifically, Mearsheimer argues that the success of deterrence is determined by the strategy available to the potential attacker. He lays out three strategies. First, an attrition strategy entails a high level of uncertainty about the outcome of war and high costs for the attacker. Secondly, a limited-aims strategy entails fewer risks and lower costs. Thirdly, a blitzkrieg strategy, provides a way to defeat the enemy rapidly and decisively with relatively low costs. For Mearsheimer, failures in the modern battlefield are caused mostly by the potential attacker's belief that it can successfully implement a blitzkrieg strategy in which tanks and other mechanized forces are employed swiftly to cause a deep penetration and to disrupt the enemy's rear. The two other strategies are unlikely to lead to deterrence failures because they would entail a low probability of success, accompanied by high costs (war of attrition) or limited gains and the possibility of the conflict turning into a war of attrition (limited aims). If the attacker has a coherent blitzkrieg strategy available, however, an attack is likely to ensue, as its potential benefits outweigh the costs and risks of starting a war.
Besides analyzing cases from World War II and the Arab–Israeli conflict, Mearsheimer extrapolates implications from his theory for the prospects of conventional deterrence in Central Europe during the late Cold War. He argues that a Soviet attack is unlikely because the Soviet military would be unable to successfully implement a blitzkrieg strategy. The balance of forces, the difficulty of advancing rapidly with mechanized forces through Central Europe, and the formidable NATO forces opposing such a Soviet attack make him view it unlikely that the Soviets would start a conventional war in Europe.
B.H. Liddell Hart
Mearsheimer's second book Liddell Hart and the Weight of History (1988) reassessed the intellectual legacies of the 20th century British military theorist B.H. Liddell Hart. While acknowledging that his own research had "profited greatly from his stimulating writings" and that Liddell Hart's works should still be considered "essential reading for serious students of strategy and warfare" (p. x), Mearsheimer argued that much of the conventional wisdom on Liddell Hart's contributions to modern military thought was flawed. In particular, the theory of the indirect approach that Liddell Hart developed during the 1930s was so vague and tautological that "[v]irtually every military victory can be ascribed to [it]." (p. 87). Moreover, Liddell Hart's limited attempts to operationalize the theory clearly indicated that what he primarily had in mind was to "indirectly" defeat a continental adversary by "break[ing] the morale of the enemy's civilian population, not to destroy his military forces, which of course is what the blitzkrieg is concerned with" (p. 88). The common practice of tracing the intellectual origins of the blitzkrieg strategy to the indirect approach was thus mistaken; there was "no evidence...that Liddell Hart understood the importance of the deep strategic penetration [that distinguishes blitzkrieg] before World War II" (p. 43). Not surprisingly, Liddell Hart was proven utterly wrong on the fundamental military questions of the interwar period (e.g., he dismissed the possibility of a decisive German offensive in the Western front) and fell into disrepute in the immediate aftermath of the war.
However, Mearsheimer showed that Liddell Hart managed to salvage his intellectual stature by convincing former Wehrmacht generals to credit him with the ideas that led to the development of Germany's blitzkrieg strategy. Eager to restore their own tarnished reputation after the war, retired German generals such as Heinz Guderian allowed Liddell Hart to exaggerate his influence on blitzkrieg through their memoirs in exchange for helping them promote an image of themselves as having been military innovators first and foremost rather than Nazi henchmen; in the case of Guderian, Liddell Hart effectively acted as his "literary agent" for the English-speaking world (p. 185). Fritz Bayerlein, who served as General Erwin Rommel's chief of staff in the North African campaign, similarly helped Liddell Hart manipulate the historical record to falsely portray Rommel as having been his "pupil" (pp. 193–201). Mearsheimer concluded by emphasizing the importance of a robust intellectual community that can hold "defense intellectuals" accountable:
Defense intellectuals need to know that informed judgments will be passed on their views and their overall conduct and that charlatanism will be exposed. Absence of penalties for misbehavior means no brake on the spread of false ideas. Liddell Hart actually was held accountable at one point. The significant ebbing of his influence during and immediately after World War II was, in effect, punishment for offering flawed ideas for how to deal with the Third Reich. What is disturbing about Liddell Hart's case, however, is that eventually he was able to escape from this predicament by rewriting history. The national security community, especially its historians, need to be alert to historical manipulation for selfish reasons (p. 224).
Mearsheimer's arguments about Liddell Hart generated varied responses. For example, founder of the Israel Defense Forces Operational Theory Research Institute Simon Naveh concurred in a separate study, finding that "by distorting the actual historical circumstances of the Blitzkrieg formation [Liddell Hart] obscured its temporal and cognitive origins...The early-1950s display of the transformed version of Blitzkrieg as a historical fact, carrying the joint signature of Liddell Hart and Guderian, lent it an authentic touch and a professional legitimacy that could not be shaken".:108–109 By contrast, Richard Swain of the U.S. Army Command and General Staff College argued that while "there is a good deal about which Mearsheimer is correct," he likely overstated the extent to which Liddell Hart's historical distortions were consciously self-serving: "To charge Liddell Hart with cleverly creating a deception requires one first to accept that Liddell Hart knew he had been wrong. There is little or no evidence of that".:803
Nuclear proliferation and deterrence
In 1990, Mearsheimer published an essay in which he predicted that Europe would revert to a multipolar environment, similar to that of the first half of the 20th century if American and Soviet forces left after the end of the Cold War. In another article that year, in The Atlantic, he predicted that the multipolar environment would increase nuclear proliferation in Europe, especially in Germany.
In that essay and in the 1993 Foreign Affairs article "The case for a Ukrainian nuclear deterrent," he argued that to reduce the dangers of war, the United States should accept the possibility of Germany and Ukraine developing a nuclear arsenal and work to prevent the rise of excessive nationalism. Mearsheimer presented several possible scenarios for a post-Cold-War Europe from which American and Russian forces had departed. He believed that a Europe with nuclear proliferation was most likely to remain at peace because without a nuclear deterrent, Germany would be likely to once more try to conquer the continent.:32–33 Mearsheimer argued that it would be strategically unwise for Ukraine to surrender its nuclear arsenal (remnants of the Soviet stockpile). However, in 1994, Ukraine consented to get rid of its entire former Soviet nuclear stockpile, a process that was complete by 1996. When challenged on the former assertion at a lecture given to the International Politics department at the University of Wales in Aberystwyth, he maintained that in spite of European integration and expansion, he still believed that his predictions would come true if the United States military left Europe.
Also, in op-ed pieces written in 1998 and 2000 for The New York Times, Mearsheimer explained why it made sense for India to pursue nuclear weapons. He argued that India has good strategic reasons to want a nuclear deterrent, especially to balance against China and Pakistan and to guarantee regional stability. He also criticized the American counter-proliferation policy towards India, which he considered unrealistic and harmful to American interests in the region.
In a widely cited 1994 article entitled "The False Promise of International Institutions," Mearsheimer tackled popular arguments about the ability of institutions to discourage war and promote peace among states. While recognizing that states often do find institutions useful, the imperative of relentless security competition under anarchy meant that state behavior is primarily a function of the distribution of power in the international system. Institutions, at best, were "merely an intervening variable in the process" (p. 13). Mearsheimer maintained that "institutionalist theories" offered poor alternatives to this grim picture of international politics. In particular, influential neoliberal institutionalist arguments ignored relative-gains concerns as a barrier to cooperation and failed to provide evidence that instances of cooperation commonly attributed to institutions would not have taken place in their absence. Other theories such as collective security theory and critical theory likewise fell short on logical and empirical grounds.
In a response article, prominent neoliberal institutionalist scholars Robert Keohane and Lisa Martin acknowledged that seminal institutionalist works tended to neglect the problem of relative gains, but maintained that the debate spawned by realist challenges "has made distributional and bargaining issues more salient than they were in early neoliberal thinking" (p. 45). Mearsheimer charged that "a careful look at Keohane and Martin's response reveals that liberal institutionalism in its latest form is no longer a clear alternative to realism, but has, in fact, been swallowed up by it".
Mearsheimer is the leading proponent of offensive realism. The structural theory, unlike the classical realism of Hans Morgenthau, places the principal emphasis on security competition among great powers within the anarchy of the international system, not principally on the human nature of statesmen and diplomats. In contrast to another structural realist theory, the defensive realism of Kenneth Waltz, offensive realism maintains that states are not satisfied with a given amount of power but seek hegemony for security because the anarchic makeup of the international system creates strong incentives for states to seek opportunities to gain power at the expense of competitors. Mearsheimer summarized this view in his 2001 book The Tragedy of Great Power Politics:
Given the difficulty of determining how much power is enough for today and tomorrow, great powers recognize that the best way to ensure their security is to achieve hegemony now, thus eliminating any possibility of a challenge by another great power. Only a misguided state would pass up an opportunity to be the hegemon in the system because it thought it already had sufficient power to survive.
He has also dismissed democratic peace theory, which claims that democracies never or rarely go to war with one another.
Mearsheimer does not believe it is possible for a state to become a global hegemon (see section on "Night Watchman" below). When the global hegemon is theoretically impossible, it is because there is too much landmass and too many oceans, which he posits have effective stopping power and act as giant moats. Instead, he believes that states can achieve only regional hegemony. Furthermore, he argues that regional hegemons attempt to prevent other states from gaining hegemony in their region since peer competitors would be free to roam and thus could interfere in the established regional hegemon's neighborhood. States that have achieved regional hegemony, such as the United States, will act as offshore balancers, interfering in other regions when the great powers in those regions are not able to prevent the rise of a hegemon.
Endorsement of E. H. Carr
In a 2004 speech, Mearsheimer praised the British historian E. H. Carr for his 1939 book The Twenty Years' Crisis and argued that Carr was correct when he claimed that international relations was a struggle of all against all with states always placing their own interests first. Mearsheimer maintained that Carr's points were still as relevant for 2004 as for 1939 and went on to deplore what he claimed was the dominance of "idealist" thinking about international relations in British academic life.
Night Watchman is a "global hegemon" in Mearsheimer's terminology, a theoretical impossibility as stated in The Tragedy of Great Power Politics. Nevertheless, in 1990, Mearsheimer mentioned an existing "watchman." Democracies lived at peace because "America's hegemonic position in NATO... mitigated the effects of anarchy on the Western democracies and induced cooperation among them.... With the United States serving as a night watchman, fears about relative gains among the Western European states were mitigated...."
Afterwards, Mearsheimer lost the watchman. A decade later, he described the "international anarchy" as having not changed with the end of the Cold War, "and there are few signs that such change is likely any time soon. States remain the principal actors in world politics and there is still no night watchman standing above them." Five more years later, Mearsheimer confirmed that "in an anarchic system there is no night watchman for state to call when trouble comes knocking at their door."
Precisely two decades since Mearsheimer detected the watchman in the world for the last time, he rediscovered the watchman, which exists and keeps Europe at peace. The article "Why Is Europe Peaceful Today?" unambiguously answers, "The reason is simple: the United States is by far the most powerful country in the world and it effectively acts as a night watchman."
In January and early February 1991, Mearsheimer published two op-eds in the Chicago Tribune and the New York Times that argued that the war to liberate Kuwait from Iraqi forces would be quick and lead to a decisive US victory, with less than 1,000 American casualties. That view countered the conventional wisdom at the start of the war, which predicted a conflict lasting for months and costing thousands of American lives. Mearsheimer's argument was based on several points. Firstly, the Iraqi Army was a Third World military that was unprepared to fight mobile armored battles. Secondly, US armored forces were better equipped and trained. Thirdly, US artillery was also far better than its Iraqi counterpart. Fourthly, US airpower, unfettered by the weak Iraqi air force, should prove devastating against Iraqi ground forces. Fifthly and finally, the forward deployment of Iraqi reserves boded ill for their ability to counter US efforts to penetrate the Iraqi defense line along the Saudi–Kuwaiti border. The predictions came true during the course of the war.
In October 1991, Mearsheimer was drawn into a bitter controversy at the University of Chicago on Elisabeth Noelle-Neumann, a visiting professor from Germany. Noelle-Neumann was a prominent German pollster and a leading academic on public opinion research, who authored the highly regarded book, The Spiral of Silence. The debate centered on an article written by Leo Bogart, "The Pollster and the Nazis," which described Noelle-Neumann's past employment as a writer and editor for the Nazi newspaper Das Reich from 1940 to 1942. Noelle-Neumann's response to the article was to claim "texts written under a dictatorship more than 50 years ago cannot be read as they were in 1937, 1939 or 1941. Severed from the time and place where they were written, they are no longer real, for reality is in part based on time and place."
As chairman of Chicago's political science department at the time, Mearsheimer sat down with Noelle-Neumann to discuss the article and the allegations. After meeting with her for over three hours, Mearsheimer publicly declared, "I believe that Noelle-Neumann was an anti-Semite," and he spearheaded a campaign to ask her for an apology. He joined other University of Chicago faculty in writing a joint piece for Commentary Magazine that reacted to Noelle-Neumann's reply to the accusation against her. They declared that "by providing rhetorical support for the exclusion of Jews, her words helped make the disreputable reputable, the indecent decent, the uncivilized civilized, and the unthinkable thinkable." Mearsheimer said, "Knowing what we know now about the Holocaust, there is no reason for her not to apologize. To ask somebody who played a contributing role in the greatest crime of the 20th century to say 'I'm sorry' is not unreasonable."
Israel and U.S. Foreign Policy
In March 2006, Mearsheimer and Stephen Walt, the former academic dean and professor of International Relations at the Harvard Kennedy School of Government, published a Harvard University Kennedy School of Government working paper and a London Review of Books article discussing the power of the Israel lobby in shaping the foreign policy of the United States. They define the Israel lobby as "a loose coalition of individuals and organizations who actively work to steer US foreign policy in a pro-Israel direction." They emphasize that it is not appropriate to label it a "Jewish lobby" because not all Jews feel a strong attachment to Israel and because some of the individuals and groups who work to foster US support for Israel are not Jewish; according to Mearsheimer and Walt, Christian Zionists play an important role. Finally, they emphasize that the lobby is not a cabal or a conspiracy but simply a powerful interest group like the National Rifle Association or the farm lobby. Their core argument is that the policies that the lobby pushes are not in the US national interest or ultimately that of Israel. Those pieces generated extensive media coverage and led to a wide-ranging and often heated debate between supporters and opponents of their argument. The article was subsequently turned into a book, The Israel Lobby and U.S. Foreign Policy.
Statements on Israeli wars and a Palestinian state
Mearsheimer was critical of the 2006 Lebanon War. He argued that Israel's strategy was "doomed to fail" because it was based on the "faulty assumption" that Israeli air power could defeat Hezbollah, which was essentially a guerrilla force. The war, he argued, was a disaster for the Lebanese people, as well as a "major setback" for the United States and Israel. The lobby, he said, played a key role in enabling Israel's counterproductive response by preventing the US from exercising independent influence.
Mearsheimer was also critical of Israel's offensive against Hamas in the Gaza Strip that began in December 2008. He argued that it would not eliminate Hamas's capability to fire missiles and rockets at Israel and that it would not cause Hamas to end its fight with Israel. In fact, he argued that relations between Israel and the Palestinians were likely to get worse in the years ahead.
Mearsheimer emphasizes that the only hope for Israel to end its conflict with the Palestinians is to end the occupation and to allow the Palestinians to have their own state in Gaza and the West Bank. Otherwise, Israel will turn itself into an "apartheid state." That would be a disastrous outcome for Israel but also the United States and especially the Palestinians.
Mearsheimer's criticisms of Israel further extended to its possession of nuclear weapons. In remarks made at the International Spy Museum in 2010, Mearsheimer asserted that a nuclear Israel was contrary to US interests and questioned Israel's accountability in the matter. He stated that there was "no accountability for Israel on any issue" because, he surmised, "The Israelis can do almost anything and get away with it."
The "Future of Palestine" lecture
In April 2010, Mearsheimer delivered the Hisham B. Sharabi Memorial Lecture at the Palestine Center in Washington, DC, which he titled "The Future of Palestine: Righteous Jews vs. the New Afrikaners." He argued that "the two-state solution is now a fantasy" because Israel will incorporate the Gaza Strip and the West Bank into a "Greater Israel," which would become an apartheid state. According to Mearsheimer, such a state would not be politically viable, most American Jews would not support it, and it would eventually become a democratic binational state politically dominated by its Palestinian majority. He suggested that "American Jews who care deeply about Israel" could be divided into three categories: the "new Afrikaners," who will support Israel even if it is an apartheid state; "righteous Jews," who believe that individual rights are universal and apply equally to Jews and Palestinians, and the largest group, which he called the "great ambivalent middle." He concluded that most of the "great ambivalent middle" would not defend an apartheid Israel because "American Jews are among the staunchest defenders of traditional liberal values." Accordingly, the "new Afrikaners" would become increasingly marginalized over time. Mearsheimer stated that he "would classify most of the individuals who head the Israel lobby's major organizations as "'new Afrikaners'" and specifically listed Abraham Foxman of the Anti-Defamation League, David Harris of the American Jewish Committee, Malcolm Hoenlein of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, Ronald Lauder of the World Jewish Congress, Morton Klein of the Zionist Organization of America, as well as businessmen such as Sheldon Adelson, Lester Crown, and Mortimer Zuckerman and "media personalities" like Fred Hiatt, Charles Krauthammer, Bret Stephens and Martin Peretz.
Blurb on The Wandering Who?
In 2011, John Mearsheimer wrote a back-cover blurb for Gilad Atzmon's book The Wandering Who? A Study of Jewish Identity Politics: "Gilad Atzmon has written a fascinating and provocative book on Jewish identity in the modern world. He shows how assimilation and liberalism are making it increasingly difficult for Jews in the Diaspora to maintain a powerful sense of their 'Jewishness.' Panicked Jewish leaders, he argues, have turned to Zionism (blind loyalty to Israel) and scaremongering (the threat of another Holocaust) to keep the tribe united and distinct from the surrounding goyim. As Atzmon's own case demonstrates, this strategy is not working and is causing many Jews great anguish. The Wandering Who? should be widely read by Jews and non-Jews alike."
Atzmon has been called an anti-Semite and Holocaust denier, and Jeffrey Goldberg said that the book espoused Neo-Nazi views. Alan Dershowitz wrote an article in response, "Why are John Mearsheimer and Richard Falk Endorsing a Blatantly Anti-Semitic Book?" He stated the book "argues that Jews seek to control the world."
Mearsheimer said that he had "no reason to amend it or embellish" his blurb, and defended his position. Writing in regard to the charge by Goldberg that Atzmon is anti-Semitic and, by implication, so is his positive review of Atzmon's book, Mearsheimer responded: "Atzmon's basic point is that Jews often talk in universalistic terms, but many of them think and act in particularistic terms. One might say they talk like liberals but act like nationalists… It is in this context that he discusses what he calls the 'Holocaust religion,' Zionism, and Israel's treatment of the Palestinians. Again, to be perfectly clear, he has no animus toward Judaism as a religion or with individuals who are Jewish by birth."
Rise and Containment of China
Mearsheimer asserts that China's rise will not be peaceful and that the US will seek to contain China and prevent it from achieving regional hegemony. Although containing China militarily is possible, economic containment of China is not. Mearsheimer believes that China will attempt to dominate the Indo-Pacific region just as the US set out to dominate the Western Hemisphere. The motivation for doing so would be to gain a position of overwhelming security and superiority against its neighbors, which it sees as potential challengers to its status. Additionally, he maintains that the US will attempt to form a balancing coalition that consists primarily of India, Japan, the Philippines, South Korea, Vietnam, and Indonesia to counter the growing strength and power projection capabilities of China.
Mearsheimer presented a fuller statement of his views on China's rise in his 2014 updated edition of The Tragedy of Great Power Politics, arguing that "if China continues its striking economic growth over the next few decades, it is likely to act in accordance with the logic of offensive realism… Specifically, it will try to dominate Asia the way the United States dominates the Western Hemisphere." In accordance with the theory's structural logic, China would pursue regional hegemony not because its domestic politics or ideology inclines it toward aggression but because "domination offers the best way to survive under international anarchy" (p. 368). Mearsheimer stressed that China was simply following America's example in this regard:
These ambitious goals make good strategic sense for China (although this is not to say China will necessarily be able to achieve them). Beijing should want a militarily weak and isolated India, Japan, and Russia as its neighbors, just as the United States prefers a militarily weak Canada and Mexico on its borders. What state in its right mind would want other powerful countries located in its region? All Chinese surely remember what happened over the last century when Japan was powerful and China was weak… [They also] surely remember what happened in the hundred years between the First Opium War (1832–42) and the end of World War II (1945), when the United States and the European great powers took advantage of a weak China and not only violated its sovereignty but also imposed unfair treaties on it and exploited it economically. Why should we expect China to act differently than the United States? Are the Chinese more principled than we are? More ethical? Are they less nationalistic? Less concerned about their survival? They are none of these things, of course, which is why China is likely to follow basic realist logic and attempt to become a regional hegemon in Asia (pp. 374-375).
In a subsequent debate with former U.S. National Security Advisor Zbigniew Brzezinski on Foreign Policy magazine, Mearsheimer clarified that "[i]t is unlikely that China will go on a rampage and conquer other Asian countries. Instead, China will want to dictate the boundaries of acceptable behavior to neighboring countries, much the way the United States does in the Americas. An increasingly powerful China is also likely to try to push the United States out of Asia, much the way the United States pushed the European great powers out of the Western Hemisphere." In his response, Brzezinski argued that "[h]ow great powers behave is not predetermined...For its part, the Chinese leadership appears much more flexible and sophisticated than many previous aspirants to great power status." Mearsheimer responded that Chinese leaders were indeed prudent and had no incentive to "pick a fight" with the United States at the moment, but that "what we are talking about is the situation in 2025 or 2030, when China has the military muscle to take on the United States. What happens then, when China has a much larger gross national product and a much more formidable military than it has today? The history of great powers offers a straightforward answer[.]"
In a 2015 review of Mearsheimer's arguments, sociologist Amitai Etzioni charged that China and the United States "have very little 'real' reason to confront each other," and that "[t]he main value of Mearsheimer's provocative thesis is that it alerts those of us on both sides of the power divide to redouble our efforts to prevent his dire predictions from coming true." By contrast, Executive Director Tom Switzer of the Sydney-based Centre for Independent Studies opined in May 2020 that "[r]arely in history has an academic been as intellectually vindicated as John Mearsheimer, [He] accurately foresaw the intense Sino-American security competition that the coronavirus crisis has exposed."
Why Leaders Lie
Mearsheimer wrote a book that analyzes lying in international politics. He argues in Why Leaders Lie (Oxford University Press, 2011) that leaders lie to foreign audiences and because they think that it is good for their country. For example, he maintains that US President Franklin Roosevelt lied about the Greer incident in September 1941 because he was deeply committed to getting America into World War II, which he thought was in its national interest.
His two main findings are that leaders actually do not lie very much to other countries and that democratic leaders are actually more likely than autocrats to lie to their own people. Thus, he starts his book by saying that it is not surprising that Saddam Hussein did not lie when he said that he had weapons of mass destruction but that that George W. Bush and some of his key advisors lied to the American people about the threat from Iraq. Mearsheimer argues that leaders are most likely to lie to their own people in democracies that fight wars of choice in distant places. He says that it is difficult for leaders to lie to other countries because there is not much trust among them, especially when security issues are at stake, and trust is needed for lying to be effective. Mearsheimer states that it is easier for leaders to lie to their own people because there is usually a good deal of trust between them.
Mearsheimer does not consider the moral dimension of international lying, which he views from a utilitarian perspective. He argues that there are five types of international lies.
- Inter-state lies are where the leader of one country lies to a leader of another country, or more generally, any foreign audience, to induce a desired reaction.
- Fear-mongering is a leader lying to his or her own domestic public.
- Strategic cover-ups are lies to prevent controversial policies and deals from being made known publicly.
- Nationalist myths are stories about a country's past that portray that country in a positive light and its adversaries in a negative light.
- Liberal lies are given to clear up the negative reputation of institutions, individuals, or actions.
He explains the reasons why leaders pursue each of the different kinds of lies. His central thesis is that leaders lie more frequently to domestic audiences than to leaders of other states. That is because international lying can have negative effects, including blowback and backfiring. "Blowback" occurs if telling international lies helps cause a culture of deceit at home. "Backfiring" occurs if telling a lie leads to a failed policy. He also emphasizes that there are two other kinds of deception besides lying: "concealment," a leader remaining silent about an important matter, and "spinning," a leader telling a story that emphasizes the positive and downplays or ignores the negative.
Liberal International Order
In The Great Delusion: Liberal Dreams and International Realities (Yale University Press, 2018) Mearsheimer presents a critique of the geopolitical strategy he refers to as 'liberal hegemony'. Mearsheimer's definition of liberal hegemony includes a three-part designation of it as an extension of Woodrow Wilson's original initiatives to make a world safe by turning its governments into democracies, turning geopolitical economic initiatives towards open markets compatible with democratic governments, and opening up and promoting other democratically liberal international social and culture societies on a global scale of inclusion. Mearsheimer stated in an interview broadcast on CSPAN that it represents a "great delusion" and that much more weight should be associated with nationalism as a policy of enduring geopolitical value than the delusions he associated with liberal hegemony.
In a related 2019 article, Mearsheimer argued that the U.S.-led liberal international order was destined to collapse from its inception. Contrary to scholars such as G. John Ikenberry who trace the origins of the liberal international order to the early Cold War, he asserted that the Cold War liberal order had in fact been a "bounded order" designed to help the United States and its allies compete more effectively against the communist bloc. Although the U.S.-led order became truly international after the collapse of the Soviet Union, the policies that undergird this order tended to precipitate its demise to the point where "[e]ven if Western policymakers had been wiser stewards of that order, they could not have extended its longevity in any meaningful way" (p. 30). In particular, U.S.-led efforts to expand the order's membership by spreading democracy were bound to backfire by provoking nationalist resistance, embroiling the U.S. in disastrous military adventures, and stoking hostility among rival powers such as Russia and China. Liberal internationalist policies also tended to collide with nationalism and economic concerns within the liberal countries themselves, as illustrated by key events such as Brexit and the election of Donald J. Trump to the U.S. presidency. Finally, the drive to integrate rising powers such as China into the liberal international order effectively "helped China become a great power, thus undercutting unipolarity, which is essential for maintaining a liberal world order" (p. 42). Mearsheimer concluded by predicting that the liberal international order would be replaced by three distinct "realist orders" in the near term: "a thin international order" primarily concerned with arms control and managing the global economy, and two bounded orders respectively led by China and the United States (p. 44).
His claims about the liberal international order have sparked a lively debate, prompting responses from scholars such as Robert Jervis, Christopher Layne, Jennifer Pitts, Jack Snyder, William C. Wohlforth, and C. William Walldorf.
Nuclear weapons and Ukraine
After the end of the Soviet Union, the new independent Ukraine had a large arsenal of nuclear weapons on its territory. However, in 1994, Ukraine agreed to give up nuclear arms; became a member of the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty; and, within two years, had removed all atomic weapons. Almost alone among observers, Mearsheimer was opposed to that decision because he saw that Ukraine without a nuclear deterrent would likely to be subjected to aggression by Russia.
2014 Crimean Crisis
In September 2014, Mearsheimer wrote the article "Why the Ukraine Crisis Is the West's Fault. The Liberal Delusions That Provoked Putin," published in Foreign Affairs. The essay was highly critical of American policy towards Russia since the conclusion of the Cold War. Mearsheimer argued that Russian intervention in Crimea and Ukraine had been motivated by what he saw as the irresponsible strategic objectives of NATO in Eastern Europe. He compared NATO expansion into Eastern Europe, led by NATO and the planned inclusion of Ukraine to the hypothetical scenario of a Chinese military alliance in North America: "Imagine the American outrage if China built an impressive military alliance and tried to include Canada and Mexico."
Mearsheimer argued that Russia's annexation of the Crimea was fueled by concerns that it would lose access to its Black Sea Fleet naval base at Sevastopol if Ukraine continued to move towards NATO and European integration. Mearsheimer concluded that US policy should shift towards recognising Ukraine as a buffer state between NATO and Russia rather than attempting, to absorb Ukraine into NATO.
Mearsheimer's article provoked Michael McFaul and Stephen Sestanovich to publish their response in November/December 2014 issue of Foreign Affairs.
On Hypothesis Testing in International Relations
In 2013, Mearsheimer and Walt published "Leaving theory behind: Why simplistic hypothesis testing is bad for International Relations." They point out that in recent years, scholars of international relations have devoted less effort to creating and refining theories or using them to guide empirical research. Instead is a focus on what they call a simplistic hypothesis testing, which emphasizes discovering well-verified empirical regularities. They state that to be a mistake because insufficient attention to theory leads to misspecified empirical models or misleading measures of key concepts. They also point out that because of the poor quality data in international relations, it is less likely that the efforts will produce cumulative knowledge. It will lead to only a short-term gain and make scholarship less useful to concerned citizens and policymakers.
Theories gives a scholar an overarching framework of the myriad realms of activity. Theories are like maps and aim to simplify a complex reality, but unlike maps, theories provide a causal story by saying that one or more factors can explain a particular phenomenon. Theories attempt to simplify assumptions about the most relevant factors in the aim to explain how the world works. Some grand theories like realism or liberalism claim to explain broad patterns of state behavior, and middle-range theories focus on more narrowly defined phenomena like coercion, deterrence, and economic sanctions. They list eight reasons why theories are important. The problems that arise from inadequate attention to theory is that it impossible to construct good models or interpret statistical findings correctly. By privileging hypothesis testing, that is overlooked. It might make sense to pay more attention to hypothesis testing if it produced much useful knowledge about international relations, but Mearsheimer and Walt claim that it is not the case, and the simplistic hypothesis test is inherently flawed. One consequence omitted variable bias, which is often treated as a methodological issue, but it should be treated as a theoretical matter. Selection bias is also a problem that arise from inadequate attention to theory. To examine that more clearly, the authors point out James Fearson's critique of Paul Huth and Bruce Russett's analyses of extended deterrence. Mearsheimer and Walt also point out that contemporary international relations scholarship faces challenging measurement issues because of inadequate attention to theory and cause misleading measures. A few examples are given to support their claim, including Dan Reiter and Allan Stam's Democracies at War. Mearsheimer and Walt state that it is a sophisticated study but contains questionable measures of key concepts and that the measure to test their idea do not capture the theories core concepts. Poor data, the absence of explanation, and the lack of cumulation are other problems that arise from inadequate attention to theory by focusing too much on simplistic hypothesis testing.
Mearsheimer currently lives in Chicago with his wife, Pamela. He has five children.
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