His theory of offensive realism is the most aggressive of all foreign policy theories. He believes China’s continued rise will likelylead to a muscular contest; and he has enraged the Israel Lobby in Washington. But his story is much more nuanced…
Part 1 (of 2): The challenge of China; Washington elites.
If it is true that academic immortality is achieved by creating a theory that will forever be cited by future scholars, Chicago professor Mearsheimer probably has achieved such immortality. His offensive realism theory, which postulates that great powers will naturally aim for hegemony through overwhelming power superiority, is not only much cited but it has become practically a bible for the Washington foreign policy elite.
But he criticises the US policy of global hegemony because it is unable to sustain such a policy. He is a realist. He believes that China too will aim for at least regional hegemony as it becomes more wealthy and will aim to push the US out of East Asia. That is what great powers do, according to him.
And where does Australia fit in? Mearsheimer created a stir in Canberra last August (2019) when he told a Centre for Independent Studies audience that the US will behave exactly as his theory predicts; that it will further decouple from China in an attempt to retain and enhance its hegemonic primacy; and that it will compel Australia to also decouple from China.
Australia will not be given a choice, he said. “You’re with us or against us,” he said. If Australia chooses not to fall in line, “you will be our enemy.” And “you do not want to underestimate how nasty we can be.”
Mearsheimer is a true realist in international relations nomenclature: He thinks power, he talks power. He is scornful of liberal internationalist thinking, especially the idea that the US should bring democracy to other states, describing it as a futile and failed strategy.
A number of themes have underlined his work in the last 20 years, all involving US foreign policy: China’s rise; Washington’s response; a “foreign policy elite” in Washington that calls the shots but does not reflect the American majority; unnecessary and wasted wars; and the power of the Israel lobby.
Advocating or predicting his theory? Balance of power. And China.
At this point, it should be pointed out that while Mearsheimer believes great powers will behave as his theory predicts, that they will seek overwhelming superiority, he does not necessarily advocate they do. He is not a “hawk” as some believe. Indeed, his book in 2001 unveiling his theory was called “The Tragedy of Great Power Politics” (emphasis added).
Since then, his views have moderated somewhat. Mearsheimer believes that China’s rise will alarm its neighbours, who will push back in concert with the US. And what will transpire will be a balance of power called offshore balancing.
In a 2011 paper, “Imperial by Design” (in the National Interest), Mearsheimer wrote: “Since the end of the Cold War, American policy makers have operated under the flawed assumption of an inexorable march of history guaranteeing perpetual American primacy. Despite its disastrous consequences, the pursuit of this hubristic project is shared by liberal imperialists on the left and neoconservatives on the right. It is time for the United States to abandon its ambitions of global dominance and restore its traditional grand strategy of offshore balancing.”
And in a 2016 paper with Harvard professor Stephen Walt (“The Case for Offshore Balancing: A Superior US Grand Strategy”, in Foreign Affairs), they wrote that the US strategy of going to war for regime change to promote democracy, had clearly failed.
Clearly, offshore balancing is a large step away from his theory of offensive realism. While offensive realism dwells on a unipolar world with a single hegemon, offshore balancing imagines a multipolar world with two or more great powers and a number of middle powers. If necessary, these players can combine to push back against a future aggressive regional hegemon, such as China. Left unsaid but equally true is that they can push back against an over-assertive US.
Mearsheimer commends offshore balancing because it respects the power of nationalism in other countries, does not try to impose American values on foreign societies, and focuses on setting an example that others will want to emulate. “As in the past, offshore balancing is not only the strategy that hews closest to US interests; it is also the one that aligns best with Americans’ preferences.”
As further justification, he wrote “For the first time in recent memory, large numbers of Americans are openly questioning their country’s grand strategy. An April 2016 Pew poll found that 57 percent of Americans agree that the United States should ‘deal with its own problems and let others deal with theirs the best they can’.”
Iraq an unnecessary war. And the foreign policy elite.
Mearsheimer has always objected to invading Iraq. As early as January 2003, months before the invasion, he and Walt spoke out against the invasion. In “An unnecessary war” (in Foreign Policy), they wrote: “If the United States is, or soon will be, at war with Iraq, Americans should understand that a compelling strategic rationale is absent.
“This war would be one the Bush administration chose to fight but did not have to fight. Even if such a war goes well and has positive long-range consequences, it will still have been unnecessary. And if it goes badly – whether in the form of high US casualties, significant civilian deaths, a heightened risk of terrorism, or increased hatred of the United States in the Arab and Islamic world – then its architects will have even more to answer for,” they wrote.
Mearsheimer is regularly critical of the “foreign policy elite” in Washington. He wrote that they do not reflect the views of the majority of Americans. It was mainly the policy elites that seek US primacy.
“The pronouncements of the policy elites are heavily flavoured with optimism and moralism. Behind closed doors, however, the elites who make national security policy speak mostly the language of power, not that of principle,” he wrote in The Tragedy…
And: “It should be obvious to intelligent observers that the United States speaks one way and acts another. In fact, policymakers in other states have always remarked about this tendency in American policy. As long ago as 1939, Carr (British foreign affairs doyen E.H. Carr) pointed out that states on the European continent regard the English-speaking peoples as ‘masters in the art of concealing their selfish national interests in the guise of the general good’.”
On democracy promotion: “Democracy promotion in the hands of the US is mainly about toppling leaders who are seen as anti-American or anti-West and putting in their place leaders who are pro-American or pro-West,” he wrote (in “Defining a New Security Architecture for Europe that Brings Russia in from the Cold”, Military Review, 2016).
In “America Unhinged” (The National Interest; 2014), Mearsheimer wrote: “Anyone paying even cursory attention to US foreign policy in recent decades will recognize that Washington’s response to Egypt and Syria is part of a much bigger story. The story is that America’s national-security elites act on the assumption that every nook and cranny of the globe is of great strategic significance and that there are threats to US interests everywhere. Not surprisingly, they live in a constant state of fear.”
“The Virtue of Restraint”
Mearsheimer over the last two decades has clearly not been a hawk. Writing last year (“Realism and Restraint”, Horizons: Journal of international relations and Sustainable Development, 2019), he called on the US to jettison its grand ambitions of liberal hegemony.
“Not only is this policy prone to failure, it tends to embroil the American military in costly wars that it ultimately loses. Washington should adopt a more restrained foreign policy based on realism and a clear understanding of how nationalism limits a great power’s room to manoeuvre. Nationalism works to make an ambitious policy abroad even less necessary. In brief, the United States should learn the virtue of restraint.”
He believes a powerful state (the US) can pursue liberal hegemony only in a unipolar system in which it need not worry about threats from other great powers. When the world is bipolar or multipolar, great powers have little choice except to pursue balancing, because of the presence of rival great powers.
“There is good reason to think unipolarity is coming to an end, mainly because of China’s impressive rise. If so, American policymakers will have to abandon liberal hegemony. But there is a serious downside: the United States will have to compete with a potential peer.”
Hegemonic powerful states invariably get themselves into serious trouble both at home and abroad. Moreover, they usually end up harming other countries, including the ones they sought to help. Most Americans prefer to address problems at home rather than fight endless wars and try to run the world, he wrote.
“The case for a realist-based foreign policy is straightforward and powerful, and it should be compelling to a large majority of Americans. But it is still a tough sell, mainly because many in the foreign policy elite are deeply committed to liberal hegemony and will go to enormous lengths to defend it,” Mearsheimer wrote.
Implied but not said by Mearsheimer in his writings is that in a new multipolar world, it will be as difficult for China to pursue hegemony as for the US.
Part 2 (of 2): The Israel Lobby and US Foreign Policy.
(John Tan was a deputy editor in the Straits Times newspaper in Singapore. He has been foreign editor and business editor.)