Picking on Mearsheimer’s theory, his assumptions, his assertions about Taiwan’s options, or his message as “defeatist” does not allow one to escape the reality: that no matter which way one slices it, Taiwan’s is a precarious situation and has been for as long as just about all of us can remember.
Just as the past (numerous) assertions by policy analysts, scholars, and present and former politicians that the United States either should or will eventually be forced to abandon Taiwan, John Mearsheimer’s February 25, 2014 article in The National Interest caused quite a stir among supporters of Taiwan. What follows is my own response to Mearsheimer’s article, which I hope is interpreted as neither hostile toward nor supportive of Mearsheimer’s overall argument (since that is the spirit in which this response is written). It is written in editorial/commentary and not in academic format, although I do hope to remedy this in a future post.
Theoretically speaking, Mearsheimer’s argument is both cogent and elegantly parsimonious, not at all unlike the third-image theorizing from which Kenneth N. Waltz derived his theory of what is today called structural realism or, more commonly, neorealism. Indeed, Mearsheimer’s theory of offensive realism, as expounded in his 2001 book The Tragedy of Great Power Politics, is admittedly a strict structural theory that diverges with Waltz’s conception of structural realism only in the diverging conclusions the authors reach about incentives the anarchic international system provides actors. For Waltz, states seek security and are security maximizers in that they seek only the right amount of security to ensure their survival while seeking to avoid provoking balancing coalitions against them. For Mearsheimer, the anarchic nature of the international system incentivizes power, not security, maximization, since no state can be sure just how much power—defined as military capabilities and the economic and other resource means to acquire military power—is enough to ensure security and because no state can be sure that other states in the international system are not aggressive. Indeed, Mearsheimer’s theory argues that the very nature of the international system incentivizes states to act aggressively when they have the opportunity to do so.
Of course one of the many—and oft-mentioned—weaknesses of purely structural international relations theories, whether of the defensive (Waltzian) or offensive (Mearsheimerian) variety, is that what the theories gain in parsimony they lack in contextual specificities and actor particularities, especially at the first (human behavior) and second (internal structures of states) images, or levels of analysis, that Waltz defines in Man, the State, and War. Mearsheimer admits this obvious flaw but, as most structural realists contend, asserts not unfoundedly that the simple elegance of structural theory, while not accounting for all factors—indeed, what theory could account for all variables?—nonetheless makes a necessary and profound contribution to the disciplines of international relations, security studies, and, at least for some, foreign policy analysis. (It should be mentioned here, however, that Waltz, the late father of strictly structural theories of international relations, contended that structural realism is not a theory of foreign policy. Colin Elman, for one, has responded that it can and should be.)
I, for one, am guardedly sympathetic to offensive realism as a beginning point for analysis, but my interests and background in comparative politics, area/regional studies, and country-specific studies renders it necessary that I approach structural explanations with caution—and not, like some, reject such explanations outright. From a theoretical perspective, I tend to adhere more closely toward the less parsimonious neoclassical realism of Gideon Rose (among others), which argues that while the structure of the international system is an excellent beginning point of analysis, the structure itself cannot account for important variables. Hence, neoclassical realists make a different tradeoff from realists of the structural variety (they engage in a certain amount of what Waltz termed reductionism), sacrificing parsimony for greater explanatory power. (It should be noted here that neoclassical realism is often considered not a theory of international politics but rather a theory of foreign policy.) Although I have my own intellectual qualms with certain particulars of neoclassical realism (indeed, my current Master’s thesis as well as an article I am working on with another scholar deal with the more recent injection of what I/we consider a false dichotomy between so-called status-quo and revisionist states), it must be mentioned here that Mearsheimer’s criticism of what he terms “human-nature realism” is not altogether appropriate. (It should be mentioned parenthetically that Mearsheimer is leveling criticism at neoclassical, as well as structural, realism’s intellectual descendent—that is, the classical realism of such writers as Morgenthau, Carr, and Niebuhr—and not neoclassical realism itself.) For one, Mearsheimer’s argument in Tragedy that perceptions matter much less than actual power realities because leaders tend to have a rather accurate understanding of such realities is somewhat contradictory; this is because the only other explanation has to be that those states studied in Tragedy which failed to gain regional hegemony and were defeated in war either were acting in suicidal manners (that is, acting aggressively in full understanding that they would be overpowered) and not within the theoretical confines of offensive realism or because they incorrectly perceived that they could win anyway despite major disparities in national power between themselves and their adversaries. Needless to say, this is an issue for which Tragedy, at least in my reading of it, fails to sufficiently account.
Beyond theoretical misgivings, however, I don’t find Mearsheimer’s general understanding of Taiwan’s current situation all that far from the mark—at least not as far as some of the more fanatical opponents of Mearsheimer’s February 25 article argue he is. Although admittedly not a Taiwan (or, for that matter, China) scholar, one does not need to think too long and hard on the basic facts of Taiwan’s situation to realize quite quickly that Taiwan’s present status is precarious. This, for me, was the obvious, rather unenlightening, conclusion of Mearsheimer’s article. That is not defeatist, nor is it pessimistic; it is simply a reality. And what is more, even though Mearsheimer does not delve very deeply into the nuances of domestic politics in Taiwan or China, he does touch on the major issues—for example, that the vast majority of Taiwanese do not support unification and that although it is impossible to know precisely what the average Chinese citizen thinks, all evidence points to the very real possibility that the average Chinese would support the use of force to either prevent Taiwan’s de jure independence or to compel unification on Beijing’s terms—and, as I argue below, he does not really have to touch on domestic issues in order to reach roughly the same conclusion that he reaches in “Say Goodbye.”
I, for one, doubt the strength of Taiwanese democratic institutions not only because Taiwan is only a few decades removed from Martial Law or because the Republic of China (ROC) constitution remains essentially a Kuomintang (KMT) party-state constitution but also because I doubt the capability and willingness of the average Taiwanese to forcefully resist a coerced end to Taiwan’s de facto independence. This is in no way damning toward Taiwanese, and it is not a lao wai’s projection of his own values on another society or culture. It has developed from a very substantive difference between protesting with words and protesting with force—especially in a society where the average person lacks the means to defend him- or herself. What that says about the right to personally own firearms is one thing, and this is neither the time nor the place to debate that on legal, moral, or “social stability” grounds; what it says about the ability of the average person to fight back if he or she is being violated by an aggressor is a completely other topic, one which I will leave here. Suffice it to say that intentions to fight back, even were they to exist in their most fervent of manners, are useless without the means by which to fight. Peaceful resistance, even in its silent sense, would still essentially sacrifice Taiwan’s de facto independence since it could not be a deterrent against aggressive use of force.
I could point to my observations that the current state of Taiwan’s society has led me to believe that the average Taiwanese is far more willing to accept injustices and wrongs than any other society in which I have yet lived. That is a pacifying and at times warm and open aspect of Taiwan that I respect and to a certain degree admire. Coming from the States, I am all too used to people ranting about the slightest perceived injustice and seeking compensation in any form it can be made available—even if it harms those completely uninvolved in the wrong. However, this passive acceptance also has a very real downside, one I recognize every time I get upset by the many drivers who nearly kill me almost every day and my wife, a Taiwanese, tells me to simply let it go, to tolerate it.
I could point out that the average person appears, at least in my experience, to hold the military in rather low regard, and recent espionage cases in Taiwan as well as the death of a young soldier last year at the hands of officers and the seeming inability of the ROC Navy to protect Taiwanese fishermen have further reinforced this perception.
I could offer a counterpoint to the assertion that because Ma Ying-jeou’s public approval rating is so low he could never afford politically any form of “sellout” of Taiwan to China by arguing instead that is already-low approval rating could instead make such a “sellout” less costly. He needs not seek reelection; he needs not (nor does he ever seem to) listen to public opinion; and he needs not fear a backlash since his approval rating is already so low that he would hardly suffer in the rating department if he were to hand Taiwan to the People’s Republic of China (PRC) on a silver platter.
I could point to the utter lack of a viable political alternative to the KMT. The Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) has shown itself in recent years to be less than innovative politically, gradually more beholden to Beijing (to the point that some in the “independence party” have floated the idea of dropping the independence clause from the DPP political platform), and just as corrupt as the KMT. But to be sure, the constitution, which again is essentially a KMT party-state document, could easily be used to banish opposition parties if interpreted and invoked in particular ways.
I could go on and on and on about how utterly awful the media—both English and Chinese—is, but that would be fruitless and would, instead of reading as informed criticism, more likely read as a Westerner’s projection of his own values on others. Indeed, at least one foreign journalist in Taiwan has been more than willing to batter away at Western value projection while simultaneously projecting values on Taiwanese; I do not seek to be anything remotely like this particular journalist, and so I will end my criticism of the media outlets here.
In short, even were Mearsheimer to devote endless pages to the particularities of Taiwan’s and China’s political systems and the national character of Taiwanese and Chinese people, he would likely reach a very similar conclusion as his structural assessment—namely, that Taiwan’s is a precarious situation. I knew this before I arrived in Taiwan almost nine years ago, and I know it—although perhaps on a somewhat less superficial basis—today. Taiwan’s is a state of perpetual crisis, one my wife has to remind me at times when I complain about this or that political issue I can perhaps understand in an academic sense but never truly feel because I am and will always be an outsider. September 11, 2001 revealed to Americans how truly vulnerable they were as individuals and as a people (you will, I hope, allow the collective sense of nationality here if only for the purpose of expediency); Taiwanese, my wife has insisted several times during our nearly five years of marriage and six years of knowing each other, have lived in a perpetual state of pending doom and insecurity for as long as the vast majority of them have lived. I can remember a time when I could feel, at least superficially, secure and innocent as a young man growing up in the States; I think that sentiment would be difficult, if not impossible, to find among the average Taiwanese, although I assert that it is entirely possible that certain individuals may feel thus.
And in that sense, even the average Taiwanese—and forgive my generalization here—has been continuously held in suspense wondering whether just around the corner he or she will be forced him- or herself to “say goodbye” to Taiwan as a de facto independent nation-state and “say goodbye” to any sense of the identity with which he or she grew up. Perhaps this sense of “say goodbye” was not the sense in which Mearsheimer intended it; but I read it between the lines, and I understand—if only in a cerebral, academic sense.