More on Mearsheimer’s Article: Some Clarity Appears Necessary

In an earlier commentary, I laid out some of my immediate reactions to John Mearsheimer’s Feb. 25, 2014 article in The National Interest. In this post, written in a similar (commentary) style but with a somewhat different message, I attempt to clarify for some critics Mearsheimer’s argument based on his overall theory of international relations, that is, offensive realism. I suppose it should go without saying that Mearsheimer does not really need my help. My only hope is to clarify for some critics of his recent article—of which I am one—his argument as relates to his overall theory, as it appears some of his detractors have obfuscated his argument not only with past calls for the U.S. to abandon Taiwan but also with general appeasement and defeatism.

Mearsheimer’s theory is, as he himself admits in The Tragedy of Great Power Politics, pessimistic, but it is pessimistic in its response to those who believed, in the euphoria that followed the collapse of the Soviet Union and the end of the Cold War (liberal institutionalists and neoconservatives alike), international relations had somehow fundamentally changed and that great power competition had ended—in short, that the end of the Cold War signified, to reference Francis Fukuyama (and, thereby, Immanuel Kant), an end to history.

Mearsheimer’s is not a theory of appeasement. Such an assertion would contradict his entire theoretical argument that states seek to maximize power at the expense of others by any and all means and do not sacrifice power for a little increase in short-term security. (This is Mearsheimer’s theoretical jab at defensive realists, of whom the now-infamous, at least among supporters of Taiwan for his 2011 article in Foreign Affairs which argued that to seek a closer relationship with China and avoid the potential for a major military clash with the PRC, the United States should essentially abandon all commitments to Taiwan’s defense, scholar, Charles Glaser, is one.) For Mearsheimer to argue simultaneously that states—or, more accurately, great powers—seek to gain power at the expense of others and that a state should seek to appease rivals is a major contradiction, one that Mearsheimer does not make. Remember, in Mearsheimer’s theory, there are essentially no “status-quo” powers (sentiment to which I am sympathetic, although I also argue that without the concept of status quo there can also be no revisionism, and hence these are false dichotomies, analytical devices or heuristics meant to give general understanding and make categorization easy but in practice utterly meaningless). There are no states, save the as-yet-unrealized systemic hegemonic powers, that simply wish to hold on to their amount of the distribution of power in the international system.

I make, and have made, no secret about my misgivings with regard to several aspects of Mearsheimer’s theory. As stated in an earlier post, structural realism in general lacks the tools, based on its desire for strict theoretical parsimony, to deal with domestic factors in international politics. Also stated in the same earlier post, I tend to hold the perceptions (and misperceptions) of leaders and even, generally speaking, entire societies in far higher regard than does Mearsheimer and find his rather dismissive treatment of cognitive theories of decision making both disingenuous and somewhat contradictory to how his theory relates to his case studies in Tragedy and vice versa. To take my criticism a bit further, I also argue that offensive realism in the Mearsheimerian sense does not take its theoretical assumptions and relationships between variables to their logical conclusion; in other words, offensive realism simply does not go far enough along the path that it has laid out for itself. Why, for instance, would a state seek to gain power at the expense of others but still, once it has achieved systemic hegemony, tolerate the prospect of potential external threats? To put it differently, as offensive realists themselves assert, the future is uncertain, and there is no way of knowing whether one day one of those minions one stamped down long ago may rise up or work in concert with other minions to undermine one’s hegemony. To me, this is a fatal flaw. My response to it is that the only way to ensure one’s external security is to render all externalities internal. Hence, offensive realism does not go far enough; offensive realists should argue not that a systemic hegemon would be content merely with being by far the most powerful state in the system but that it would strive to become the only political-administrative-coercive show in international-systemic town, that is, it would become a global state.

However, even here this global state would not merely be a “status-quo” seeker. To argue along the same lines as Waltz in Theory of International Politics for justifying his assertion that international anarchy is not inherently bad, there is no reason to believe that, based on historical evidence, hierarchy is less violent than anarchy. States and other administrative constructs have constantly used violence to maintain domestic order. What was once external violence simply becomes internalized—but at least in my critique of offensive realism, the global state can deal with challenges to its administrative control entirely on its own terms and with, if necessary, the entire globe’s resources. It seems, then, that even a global state would not be a status-quo power: it would be constantly seeking ways to enhance its ability to maintain domestic order by any and all means at its disposal while trying constantly to keep localities and regions under its administrative and coercive thumb.

I blame these problems not on the assumptions of offensive realism but on offensive realism’s single-minded focus on armed territorial conquest. In fact, although offensive realists, including Mearsheimer, argue that states use any and all means at their disposal to gain power at the expense of others, they focus almost entirely on only one method of doing so—armed conquest. Then again, neoclassical realists such as Jason W. Davidson in his 2006 book The Origins of Revisionist and Status-quo States fare little better. Davidson, for example, argues that states seek either to change or uphold the status quo via altering or maintaining the distribution of territory, status, markets, expansion of ideology, and creation or change of international law and institutions, yet his cases focus, with only several brief and marginal exceptions, on changes to the territorial status quo. Other neoclassical realists, particularly Randall Schweller, argue that balancing does not occur as often in the international system as neorealists assert; Timothy Crawford offers reasons why this may be—i.e., that potential targets of balancing coalitions have a wide array of tools at their disposal to drive wedges between those states seeking collective action. In the end, although territorial expansion via armed conquest may stand a higher chance of provoking the formation of balancing coalitions, other forms of attaining systemic hegemony exist (see the notes on Davidson’s argument in this paragraph) that arguably stand a lesser chance of being balanced against. None of these appear to be considered systematically by realists of any color, although Glenn Palmer and T. Clifton Morgan’s A Theory of Foreign Policy may represent a step in that direction.

What all of this means is that although I am sympathetic to Mearsheimer’s theory in some respects, I have no desire to defend offensive realism from fair criticism. However, I have found most critics of Mearsheimer’s Feb. 25 article to have a limited understanding of precisely what he is arguing and an even more limited understanding of his theory—which is what his article is really about.

Mearsheimer’s article is not an article about or advocating appeasement, nor is it expressing defeatism. A simple reading of the final chapter of Tragedy would lead those who assert that Mearsheimer is cut from the same sinews as Glaser, Michael Swaine, William Overholt, Bruce Gilley, and others who have from one theoretical perspective or another argued recently that the United States, in order to seek closer relations with, in their view, the economically and/or strategically more important PRC as well as to avoid the possibility of armed, and potentially nuclear, conflict with China, should abandon commitments to defend Taiwan are utterly wrong. Mearsheimer’s argument is quite different if only because he focuses on a different aspect of this relationship and because he reaches a somewhat similar conclusion but from a different approach.

Mearsheimer has—and a quick reading of the final chapter of Tragedy would make this clear—argued quite extensively against the U.S. policy of engaging China. Mearsheimer argues essentially that the United States should, according to his theory, do everything in its power to contain China in the way it contained the Soviet Union because engagement, to borrow a term coined by Thomas Christensen in a 2006 article published in International Security, is “creating a monster.” Whether one agrees with Mearsheimer on this is beside the point; the point here is that he believes U.S. engagement policy counterproductive and counterintuitive and that the United States and its allies will pay a price for their “engaging” mistake.

Allow me to state this plainly: for Mearsheimer, the problem is not appeasement; he appears, based on his theory, quite dead set against appeasement, since it would quite obviously give rise to a new regional hegemonic power and a real, not potential, peer competitor—developments states should, based on his theory, seek to avoid. His is a purely capabilities- and geography-based argument, although he rightly asserts that the steady stream of calls for abandonment among “experts” adds the very important variable of resolve to the mix. But again, resolve is not a part of his theory, which is purely structural and cannot become “reductionist” by considering the resolve of leaders or states, in short, to go below the international systemic level of analysis to explain the behavior of individual actors. Most other scholars, including the ones mentioned two paragraphs above this one, have floated the idea that in the future the United States may not, should the growth of China’s economic and military capabilities continue at the pace they have for the past several decades, be able to defend Taiwan. However, their theories tend to have other elements—for example, Overholt asserts that the United States has far more to gain from deeper economic engagement with China and, thus, abandonment makes greater economic sense; Glaser asserts, again, that abandonment should occur to avoid conflict; neither of these assertions are mutually exclusive, of course—and most often stronger value-based assertions than does Mearsheimer’s. Granted, all social science theories—and indeed, as Michael Polanyi argued long ago, all theories of natural science as well—are essentially value-laden and, therefore, biased, and Mearsheimer’s is certainly no different. However, his argument is at least superficially less value-laden in that he bases his theory on capabilities calculations and not on the wishful thinking that, for example, engagement will change Chinese behavior or that giving in to Beijing on one of its “core interests” will purchase stronger Sino-U.S. relations. Point of fact: if China were able to successfully defeat all U.S. (and, potentially, combined U.S.-Japan and/or U.S.-Japan-Taiwan) attempts at defending Taiwan, the United States, by definition, could not defend Taiwan. That he argues in favor of Taiwan seeking an agreement with Beijing, I think, reveals perhaps his naivety or betrays him as—gasp!—a theorist of international politics and security and strategic studies and not a regional or country specialist. But then again, he does get right that most Taiwanese do not favor unification now or in the future—despite the fact that this is, essentially, reductionism.

The key variable, then, is not U.S. resolve, although it is a variable, but, rather, the ability of the United States to present a viable deterrent (again, I understand the theoretical-cognitive critiques of deterrence; I’m simply trying to summarize Mearsheimer’s structural and capabilities-based argument) to counter Chinese measures and, if necessary, successfully defeat Chinese capabilities in a shooting match based on superior U.S. capabilities. This problem is compounded, as Mearsheimer makes clear, by geography. But as my argument, probably quite controversial, below seeks to demonstrate, an inability to successfully defend Taiwan will likely demonstrate a real inability to defend the Western Pacific—and probably even Hawaii—if this logic is carried out to its extreme conclusion (which offensive realism argues, or at least it should, is inevitable unless it is countered). Again, my own theory is not purely structural, so I am not defending Mearsheimer’s theory or the assumptions upon which it is based; the main idea here is to explain.

The problem with the capabilities-plus-geography argument is that if this argument is carried to its logical (and extreme) conclusion, the United States will likely be forced from the entire Pacific and even from Hawaii. This is because Chinese capabilities will, via current projections, eventually far surpass those of the United States. If the United States cannot defend Taiwan, it can also not defend Japan, keep the South China Sea open to free navigation, protect Guam or South Korea, etc. This is not because the United States lacks the will but because its capabilities are insufficient to do so. Were Chinese capabilities able to far surpass those of the United States, Hawaii would eventually become the last and most-distant U.S. outpost in the Pacific and would, due to Chinese superiority and the inability of the United States to procure the capabilities necessary to defend it, become a potential strategic (and economic, due to the strains of attempting to procure and transport such capabilities across a vast expanse of ocean) liability. Because Mearsheimer argues that water has “stopping power”—but those of us who have actually read Tragedy know this—the Chinese would be faced with major difficulties in taking Hawaii by force, but the United States would face even greater challenges due to superior Chinese capabilities in attempting to defend Hawaii. Essentially, Mearsheimer’s argument, if carried to its logical and extreme conclusion—and based on his claims, it must be carried out thus—the U.S. defeat and retreat would make California the Western-most U.S. state with even Alaska potentially gone.

These claims, like Mearsheimer’s, are controversial. They are, like Mearsheimer’s, meant to be so. This is not because scholars seek to sell books. If it were, I wouldn’t be posting this for free on my blog. If it were, all of those who criticize Mearsheimer would not do so—because they would have already bought and read his book. Scholars make claims and theories and studies not because they hope to make a fortune; believe me, such an endeavor would fail miserably because being a scholar does not pay, at least not monetarily. Instead, scholars make claims to push intellectual boundaries and challenge what others “know.” Before Mearsheimer’s book, offensive realism existed only as a few scattered assertions stretched across a few scholarly articles; it was unsystematic and theoretically crude. Scholars do not write so they will become famous, although that may occur; only the most thought-provoking ideas achieve renown, and the idea tends to outlive, at least among non-experts, the person and the name that created it. Being a scholar is a thankless endeavor, but thankfully scholars don’t become scholars to be thanked. Often they are cursed, sneered at, or baselessly accused, sentenced, and punished almost instantaneously (and usually based more on the ignorance of the judge, jury, and executioner, often all the same person, than on reasonable doubt).

A final point: those who argue that theorizing is simply dealing with abstractions have a point, but then again all thought beyond mere number crunching is based on theoretical abstractions. Deterrence, for example, although real from a policy standpoint, is also based on an almost unfathomable number of theories about human cognition, rationality, human nature, and a host of other concepts that the mere number cruncher—and there are no real mere number crunchers, as Polanyi has argued, even among the accountants of the world—fails to recognize and for which he or she fails to account. However, as always, just because we do not recognize and/or fail to account for something does not mean it does not exist—as every theorist will admit if he or she is a good one. Theory is simply linking variables together in a systematic way in order to attempt to explain a phenomenon or group of phenomena; it is abstraction. But then again, thought itself is an abstraction. So before we condemn theorists, we ought first consider what we are criticizing and, in our consideration, realize that we are in fact contradicting ourselves. Even the most mundane thoughts are based on any number of theories—even those most mundane thoughts of the lowly political scientist who gets no thanks, no real compensation, and little to no recognition beyond the insult. But then again, if he is a good thinker, he thinks for different reasons altogether anyway.


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