Many international relations theorists are self-proclaimed "realists." Traditionally, realists focus most of their attention on the self-interested behavior of powerful nation-states -- who are far more likely to get what they want in world politics. Yet, their behavior can be constrained by the "balance of power." Essentially, great powers can be deterred, depending upon the international context, even though they have a lot of clout and freedom of action.
Realists typically clash with idealists, who believe that the domestic characteristics of states matter a great deal. Democracies behave differently than non-democracies. For example, they do not go to war with one another. Idealists also value international institutions, which realists typically view as fairly unimportant since interstate cooperation tends to create disparate benefits among them.
Anyway, realists reject the idealist argument since they think all states behave about the same. University of Chicago realist John J. Mearsheimer argues, for example, that "you can't discriminate between morally virtuous states and malign states in the international system. For Realists, all states are basically black boxes that behave the same way. If the United States has to be ruthless, the United States will be ruthless. That's the argument that Realists make."
This has profound implications for understanding American foreign policy (even though the theory purports to explain international relations, not the behavior of a single state) because, as Mearsheimer argues, idealism is more widely embraced by the American people and makes for better political rhetoric.
However, Mearsheimer clearly believes that the US embraces realism even as its leaders sometimes mouth idealist words:
"We behave in the world according to Realistic dictates on almost every occasion. What's affected by the point you're making is that rhetoric. In other words, we act according to the dictates of realpolitik, but we justify our policies in terms of liberal ideologies. So what is going on here is that in many cases, elites speak one language [in public], and act according to a different logic and speak a different language behind closed doors."
Why am I bringing this up? Well, Mearsheimer was one of the most prominent academic critics of the buildup to war in Iraq. With Stephen Walt of Harvard, he authored op-ed pieces, wrote a fairly long article for Foreign Policy, and circulated a widely debated paper within academic circles. Walt and Mearsheimer thought Iraq could be readily deterred or contained and that war was unnecessary. He has since called the attack a big mistake.
Mearsheimer would likely argue that the US behavior was exceptional in a wide context. After all, if he was providing realist advice, and if policymakers almost always act on realist advice, then the most recent case must have been very unusual. A true anamoly.
Then again, there might be a problem with realism -- and its policy advice. Mearsheimer famously argued in 1990 that Germany should develop nuclear weapons to assure a balance of power in Europe (he also predicted the collapse of NATO). A few years later, in argued that the Ukraine should keep its nuclear weapons to balance Russia.
For some time, Mearsheimer's been arguing that the US should be worrying about the future containment of China. In his latest book, The Tragedy of Great Power Politics, Mearsheimer argues "that a rising China is the most dangerous potential threat to the United States in the early twenty-first century."
By his own admission, the US has not been behaving as if this is the case:
"This analysis suggests that the United States has a profound interest in seeing Chinese economic growth slow considerably in the years ahead. For much of the past decade, however, the United States has pursued a strategy intended to have the opposite effect....This U.S. policy on China is misguided."
A graduate student and I have started looking somewhat systematically at realist policy advice, so I'm not sure what to conclude from all this yet.
It might be, however, that Mearsheimer is tired of having his realist advice ignored. In Thursday's New York Times (registration required), he defends international institutions and genuine cooperation. [Remember: In the academic world, he is one of the staunchest critics of these organizations. He titles one famous piece "The False Promise of International Institutions."]:
"But as we're finding out with regard to Iraq, Iran and North Korea, we need the Europeans and we need institutions like the U.N. The fact is that the United States can't run the world by itself, and the problem is, we've done a lot of damage in our relations with allies, and people are not terribly enthusiastic about helping us now."
Perhaps Mearsheimer is a closet liberal? He certainly admires many idealist virtues, such as public debate about ideas and the scrutiny of public officials.
"The beauty of the American system is that we have all these private institutions, and even public institutions like Berkeley, where with the tenure system, professors are free to say whatever they want, and suffer hardly any consequences in terms of losing their jobs. Therefore, I think we have a very important responsibility to talk about important issues, and to challenge conventional wisdoms that other people might be unwilling to challenge. We have a real social responsibility here.
I'm not making the argument here, by the way, for coming up with particular answers to important questions. In fact, if different scholars come up with different answers, fine. But in a democracy like the United States, you want to have a very healthy public debate about the key issues of the day. And I think that scholars can go a long way towards making that debate richer and healthier."
Heck, he's even said on television that the anti-war movement can limit political leaders' decisions about war and peace.