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Is Realism in Foreign Policy Realistic?

Considered an important thinker in the world of diplomacy, John Mearsheimer uncritically promotes the hegemonic domination of the US.
John Mearsheimer, John Mearsheimer news, realism, international relations, international relations theory, foreign policy, US presidential election, US politics, Australia, Peter Isackson

Donald Trump in the Oval Office on 10/23/2020. © The White House

October 26, 2020 14:07 EDT

The year 2020 has understandably been a time of deep confusion in the world of diplomacy, marked by the parallel phenomena of a Donald Trump presidency that may come to an end in January 2021 and the ongoing global curse of COVID-19. Those factors and other more local ones — such as yet another countdown for Brexit — have brought to a virtual standstill serious consideration of how the most powerful nations of the world will be conducting their foreign policy in the years to come. 

With the increasing likelihood of a Joe Biden presidency and a hoped-for fadeout of COVID-19, it may be time to begin looking at the prospects some influential thinkers in the realm of international relations have been putting forward.

The New York Times Under the Influence


Last year, in those halcyon days when COVID-19 was still hiding in the recesses of a bat cave on the outskirts of human society and President Trump — who was headed for another four years in the White House — was gloating over unemployment levels in the US that had reached a record low, celebrated political scientist John Mearsheimer took a trip “down under” to teach Australians his doctrine of “offensive realism.”

The University of Chicago professor informed them that the rise of China would lead to a military standoff with the reigning hegemon, the US. Though Australia may appear in geographic terms to be an appendage of Asia, with strong economic ties, Mearsheimer insisted that Australians should see their role as an outpost of the American continent, which he occasionally referred to as Godzilla.

In a 2019 debate with Australian strategic thinker Hugh White, Mearsheimer reduced his lesson to the Aussies to its simplest terms: “If you go with China, you want to understand you are our enemy. You are then deciding to become an enemy of the United States. Because again, we’re talking about an intense security competition. You’re either with us or against us.”

Does this sound like the language of war? Mearsheimer wants us to believe it’s something else. Not even a cold war. Even less, a global chess game. Those obsolete metaphors should be put to pasture. It has a new name: “intense security competition.”

Here is today’s 3D definition:

Security competition:

A contest concerning political reputation and global power that requires little more than demonstrating the capacity and readiness to launch a nuclear war, now seen as the principal attribute of any nation claiming to assume the responsibility for writing a rulebook that the rest of humanity will be obliged to follow

Contextual Note

This definition sums up Mearsheimer’s ideology. Breaking with the idealistic tradition in US diplomacy that justifies aggression and imperial conquest by citing its commitment to establishing or defending liberal democratic values in other parts of the world, Mearsheimer prefers to recognize reality for what it is (or what he thinks it is). Some may be tempted to call this political Darwinism, inspired by Herbert Spencer’s 19th-century social Darwinism.

Lecturing the Australians, Mearsheimer makes no bones about the brutally expansionist history of the growth of the US empire that began in 1783. He sees it as a consistent, continuous development. Referring to the culture of his childhood neighborhood in New York, he calls it the political equivalent of becoming “the biggest and baddest dude on the block.” As a social scientist, he gives it another more technical name: regional hegemon.

Mearsheimer insists that Australia must ally with the US instead of China, not because it is less authoritarian, but mainly because the US is bigger and badder. China is too far behind to catch up in the near future. And for a realist, the name of the game is simply “follow the leader.” And though Australia’s economy is closely tied to China’s, Mearsheimer warns the Aussies that if they don’t ally with the US, they will likely receive the same treatment as Fidel Castro’s Cuba (embargos, blockades, sanctions and perhaps even assassination attempts on a future leader).

Appearing to address the question of the choices Australians must make on their own, Mearsheimer nevertheless claims to know what Australia’s future will inevitably look like. “Security is more important than prosperity because if you don’t survive, you’re not going to prosper,” he says. “That’s why you’ll be with us.”

His Aussie audience at the conference may or may not see a resemblance between this and the mafioso telling a local shopkeeper, who resists paying protection, to be careful because “things break.” But at least one Australian commentator, Caitlin Johnstone, has understood his message. She provocatively offered what may be the best and most logical translation of Mearsheimer’s point by turning it on its head. “Australia is not aligned with the U.S. to protect itself from China. Australia is aligned with the U.S. to protect itself from the U.S.,” she writes.

Mearsheimer was even more blunt in his lecture on the same tour: “You understand that the United States is the ruthless great power.”

Historical Note

In a lengthy academic article, “Bound to Fail, The Rise and Fall of the Liberal International Order,” John Mearsheimer situates his theory within the perspective of post-World War II history. Contradicting the standard account of the Cold War, he offers this correction: “The Cold War order, which is sometimes mistakenly referred to as a ‘liberal international order,’ was neither liberal nor international.” He claims that its idealism was a sham. It was realistic. It was about hegemonic power.

Instead, he asserts that what followed the collapse of the Soviet Union should be called the rise of the liberal international order. And he explains that “the post–Cold War liberal international order was doomed to collapse, because the key policies on which it rested are deeply flawed. Spreading liberal democracy around the globe … is extremely difficult” and it “often poisons relations with other countries and sometimes leads to disastrous wars.”

Having given precise instruction to the Australians, Mearsheimer now addresses his compatriots with the question: “How should the United States act as it leaves behind the liberal international order that it worked so assiduously to build?” His answer is that the US must abandon the goal of forcefully spreading democracy and “engaging in social engineering abroad.” 

He wants the US to consolidate its power through a conjoined focus on economic control and military might. He acknowledges that China is positioned to become a regional hegemon in Asia. But he reminds us that “the United States does not tolerate peer competitors. The idea that China is going to become a regional hegemon is unacceptable to the United States.”

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Some may find this contradictory. Mearsheimer explains to the Australians that the only legitimate hegemony is regional and not global and then claims that the US — the dominant regional hegemon in the Americas — should not allow another regional hegemon to exist. That surely means that by default the US becomes the global hegemon. 

Mearsheimer confirms this impression when he describes the merits of a “rules-based order,” which so many commentators believe Donald Trump has compromised. This is what Mearsheimer told the Australians: “The United States writes the rules. We obey them when it suits us and we disobey them when it doesn’t suit us.” 

He then adds this remark: “Those rules are written to benefit the great powers so that they can wage security competition … and if they don’t like the rules they just disobey them.” His choice of the verb “wage” clearly demonstrates that his idea of “security competition” is nothing more than a euphemism for war. That apparently is how realists have been thinking ever since Thomas Hobbes.

So, what about the coming US presidential election? Stephen Walt, who famously collaborated with Mearsheimer to expose the influence of the Israel lobby on US politics, has titled his recent article in Foreign Policy: “Biden Needs to Play the Nationalism Card Right Now.” Walt cites Mearsheimer’s insistence that “nationalism remains the most powerful political ideology on the planet and a critical source of identity for most human beings, including the vast majority of Americans.”

In an interview, Mearsheimer recently articulated his expectations of a new Democratic administration: “I think that will all be for the good.” In other words, he sees Trump’s “America First” nationalism (which he appreciates) being replaced by Biden’s more realistic brand of hegemonic nationalism, which he also appreciates. Australians will simply have to learn to live with it.

*[In the age of Oscar Wilde and Mark Twain, another American wit, the journalist Ambrose Bierce, produced a series of satirical definitions of commonly used terms, throwing light on their hidden meanings in real discourse. Bierce eventually collected and published them as a book, The Devil’s Dictionary, in 1911. We have shamelessly appropriated his title in the interest of continuing his wholesome pedagogical effort to enlighten generations of readers of the news. Read more of The Daily Devil’s Dictionary on Fair Observer.]

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.

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