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Wednesday, February 29, 2012

Mearsheimer Profile

Back in 1990, in the Atlantic Monthly, prominent neorealist IR theorist John Mearsheimer published a popular version of one of his best-known academic arguments: "Why We Will Soon Miss the Cold War."
The next forty-five years in Europe are not likely to be so violent as the forty-five years before the Cold War, but they are likely to be substantially more violent than the past forty-five years, the era that we may someday look back upon not as the Cold War but as the Long Peace, in John Lewis Gaddis's phrase.

This pessimistic conclusion rests on the general argument that the distribution and character of military power among states are the root causes of war and peace.
His argument was based on the difficulty of assuring stability among a larger number of great powers -- and the higher chance that states would have different amounts of military power. Of course, Mearsheimer was also quite skeptical about the role democracy and economic interdependence might play in assuring peace, though he was also pessimistic that realist prescriptions could avoid war.

In short, the essay reflected most of the important ideas associated with Mearsheimer -- a pessimistic (if not tragic) realist emphasis on great power competition and the enduring prospects for war.

In the January/February 2012 issue of The Atlantic, Mearsheimer is profiled by the magazine's frequent contributor Robert Kaplan: "Why John J. Mearsheimer Is Right (About Some Things)." Kaplan highlights the University of Chicago scholar's ongoing interest in the threat of major power war. The essay gives a great deal of attention to the potential rising threat from China, a point Mearsheimer has been emphasizing for over a decade.

If you follow IR theory, none of the political science discussed by Kaplan is new. The piece does include several photos.

Because of my interests in political communication and deliberation, I'm including this quote from one of Mearsheimer's ex- students:
As Ashley J. Tellis, Mearsheimer’s former student and now, after a stint in the Bush administration, a senior associate at the Carnegie Endowment, later tells me: “Realism is alien to the American tradition. It is consciously amoral, focused as it is on interests rather than on values in a debased world. But realism never dies, because it accurately reflects how states actually behave, behind the fa├žade of their values-based rhetoric.”
Here, Tellis is echoing a point Mearsheimer has frequently made.

Again, for scholars, the article is filled with redundancies like that. If you've read several pieces by Mearsheimer, chances are you did not learn anything from this article.

Yet, it is kind of interesting that a national magazine profiled Mearsheimer at this time. If the U.S. soon enters into a long cold war with China, he'll be credited (or blamed) with framing the logic behind the competition. Alternatively, if the U.S. or Israel launches war against Iran out of concerns about nuclear proliferation, then Mearsheimer will likely emerge as a vocal critic (as he was in the Iraq war case) and so this article helps to establish his credentials to a wider audience outside the academy.

In short, the article is (mostly) an effort to rehabilitate Mearsheimer after he and Steve Walt published their article and book about the role of the Israeli lobby in American foreign policy. Kaplan says that work is polemical and not objective, so the piece does not serve as a complete rehabilitation. Indeed, within the media Kaplan says that The Israeli Lobby has "delegitimized" Mearsheimer.

Kaplan is occasionally described as a neocon and apparently served in the Israeli armed forces, so he may not be the most objective observer of Mearsheimer. Notably, neocons have long shared Mearsheimer's worries about China.

In short, the subtext makes for an interesting read.

Note: I updated the post March 1 to provide a real conclusion.

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1 comment:

  1. I am always amused by how many people say that "realism describes how state actually behave", when almost every realist prediction I've ever read has ended up WAY off the mark. Esp. those of Mr. Mearsheimer.