Monday, January 23, 2012

John J. Mearsheimer espouses "offensive realism" amid international anarchy

Robert D. Kaplan interviews John J. Mearsheimer, in a report in the latest The Atlantic with some starting revelations. Mearsheimer is the R. Wendell Harrison Distinguished Service Professor of Political Science at the University of Chicago.
He defines "anarchy" this way: It simply means that there is no centralized authority, no night watchman or ultimate arbiter that stands above states and protects them.
The opposite of anarchy is hierarchy" which is the ordering principle of domestic politics.
For Mearsheimer then, domestic politics has an ordering principle whereas international politics does not.
In his work, The Uncertainty of Intentions, Mearsheimer writes that the leaders of one great power in this anarchis jungle of a world can never know what the leaders of a rival great power are thinking. Fear is dominant.
"that is the tragic essence of international politics" and proudly declares that it provides the basis for his theory of "offensive realism" in international relations.
Quoting from the Kaplan piece, "Offensive realism posits that status quo powers don't exist; all great powers are perpetually on the offensive, even if obstacles may arise to prevent them from expanding their territory or influence." (p.83, January February, 2012, The Atlantic.)
"And he thinks that while states rightly yearn for a values-based foreign policy, the reality of the anarchic international system forces them to behave according to their own interests. In his view, either liberal internationalism or neoconservatism is more likely than offensive realism to lead to the spilling of American blood. Indeed, because as some argue, realism in the classical sense seeks the avoidance of war through the maintenance of a balance of power, it is the most humanitarian approach possible. (In this vein, fighting Nazi Germany was essential because the Nazis were attemptin to overthrow the European balance-of-power system altogether." (p.84)
There are indeed some very enlightening concepts in Mearsheimer's thinking, as outlined in the Kaplan piece. One of the nuggets that struck this reader, is that all the talk about values we hear constantly from the political class coujld conceivably bear little if any influence when a state begins to act on the world stage. Foreign policy as an extension of national values is, according the Mearsheimer, a mere mask that those seeking and maintaining political office use to assuage public opinion. What are the essential interests of a country?
And with respect to the application of his theories, Mearsheimer points to China, where defence spending jumped from $17 billion in 2001 to $150 billion in 2009, increased its submarine fleet from 62 to 77 and "has tested a stealh fighter jet as part of a builidng also fearuring surface warships, missiles and cyber warfare" (p.86) all of this to point to the need for American political leaders to concentate on China and the evidence of her  militarizing  in order to provide perspective on their medium and long-range planning.
A mathematical genius, Mearsheimer's theories are "strutural" and not focused on the culture nor the character of any individual states, and critics have pointed to these omissions as critical to the academic acceptance of his positions.
However, should China prove his theory, over the next two or three decades, Mearsheimer could well turn out to be one of, if not the most prescient of political scientists of the 21st century.

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