The John Mearsheimer Panel

The John Mearsheimer Panel

Paper presented at Roundtable Honouring Professor John Mearsheimer, 45th Annual Convention of the International Studies Association, Montreal, 17-20 March 2004.

Why British scholars must read Mearsheimer

Theo Farrell

University of Exeter

I am privileged to be on this panel honouring John Mearsheimer. Jay has asked me to discuss how John’s work has been received outside the “US arena.” Well first off, let me give some context. When it comes to IR (and especially security studies), American scholars are from Mars, and the Brits are from Venus. The discipline is still dominated in America by intra-Realist debate and the neo-neo synthesis, and only explanatory theory has validity. Realism has far less currency in British IR, and the British have far more time for constitutive and critical theory. I am not saying anything new here: the transatlantic rationalist-reflectivist dividehas been noted by ISA Presidents Robert Keohane and Steve Smith, and documented by Ole Waever.

But all this does raise the question: how is John Mearsheimer received in the land where Realism is not King and Rationalism is not worshiped. Well, I think that I can safely say that John is widely and rightly respected as a leading figure in modern American Realism. He has made a number of important interventions in scholarly and policy debate that have resonated in British academia.

One that stands out in my mind is John’s “Back to the Future” article, published in International Security in 1990. In it, he challenges us to imagine what the end of the Cold War would mean for the future of Europe security. John predicted that absent the Soviet threat, European integration would stall and NATO would whither. His solution was managed nuclear proliferation, at least to Germany. This prognosis for European security flowed from Realist logic as meticulously laid out by John in this long article. But, from a European perspective, it all seemed so very far removed from reality. Many British scholars shared Stanley Hoffmann’s scepticism at the notion that anybody, the Germans included, would want a nuclear armed Germany. And like Hoffmann, for many in British IR this article was indicative of the theoretical abstraction and counter-productive dogmatism displayed by American realism. And, as we now know, things did not turn out as John had predicted: Europe did not go back in its future. NATO survived, the EU has thrived, and Germany hasn’t gone nuclear.

There may be much in "Back to the Future" that I disagree with, but for me it is still testament to the enormous strengths of John's work. Once asked what it takes to be an IR scholar, John responded that you had to be “willing to invent new ideas”, “willing to think long and hard about how the world works”, and “willing to make arguments that are likely to be controversial.” In other words, to think big, study hard, and be bold. This is an admirable creed, and one that John has kept faith to.

Has might be expected, John has attracted fire for his bold policy pronouncements. But as yet, his theoretical contribution to the discipline has not received the close attention from British scholars that it warrants. In this presentation I want to argue why it is time for my colleagues in Britain to take a hard look at John’s work. I’m going to advance my argument in three stages. First I want to discuss why British IR has not really engaged modern American realism. Second, because of this I want to suggest that most British scholars fail to appreciate important differences within the neorealist camp and therefore have failed to appreciate the central contribution John has made to American Realism. And finally, I want to argue why it is now time for the British to read John Mearsheimer.

If I may mix my metaphors: American Realism is on the radar scope of British IR but it is far from centre stage. This is because two of main approaches to security studies in Britain are not at all sympathetic to American Realism. The first of these is basically atheoretical. These are British scholars who are perfectly content to do contemporary history or empirical policy studies and so they don’t see much point in theory. By and large, this is true of the Depts of War Studies at King’s College London and Peace Studies at Bradford. A second approach, characterised by Critical Security Studies, views the world through the reflectivist lens. Theory is essential to this approach in interpreting the past and present. But the reflectivist approach is all about challenging the dominant narratives in the discipline, chief among them being the American Realist one.

Engagement with American Realism is off the cards for these two approaches. For the first one, it has little to offer. Debating with American Realists in the pages of International Security left a disillusioned Paul Schroeder feeling “more than ever that neo-realist theory in general has little to offer the historian.” Lawrence Freedman is equally dismissive, labelling it “unreal realism.” For the second approach, engagement with American Realism is hindered by fundamental differences over ontology and epistemology. Reflectivists seek to understand the identities, discourses, and narratives that constitute modern world politics. This leads them to question what Realists take for granted: namely, the “fact” of state power and the validity of social science. So I think that John is mistaken when he writes in his "False Promise" article that the debate between Realists and Critical Theorists “is over which theory provides the best guide to understanding state behaviour.” The whole point is that Reflectivists challenge the privileged position of the state and of social science methodology in American IR.

John may have misrepresented reflectivism in his "False Promise" article. But to be fair, reflectivists (in Britain at least) tend to caricature American Realism. Most understand the basic difference between classical Realism and neorealism. However the vital difference between defensive and offensive Realism is under-appreciated in Britain. It is assumed that neorealism argues that states seek to maximise power. The actual neorealism prediction, that states will seek to balance power, is often missed. In other words, when British scholars take pot shots at neorealism, as they frequently do, they aim at Waltz but hit Mearsheimer.

Why do the British assume the worst of neorealists? John has noted that Realism offends the "optimism and moralism of American society." But Realism is not only a "hard sell" in America. As Robert Gilpin lamented: "NOBODY loves a Realist." In part this is because Realists are so downbeat. The world is all doom and gloom, and it's not going to get better. In part it's because of the Realist focus on power and the neglect of ethics. In a recent defence of America Realism in the Review of International Studies, Michael Desch argues that Realists do have an ethical agenda, albeit one that is subservient to considerations of power and national interest. He also argues that Realist policy prescriptions often lead to better ethical outcomes than liberal ones. In Mike's words, sometimes "it is kind to be cruel." British scholars miss this softer side of realism. But with John there is no soft side: ethics has no place in the never-ending struggle for power.

Indeed,John is the hard man of realism. In Mearsheimer's world, states have an insatiable appetite for power. Given this, as John puts it: "great powers are primed for offense" and "the world is condemned to perpetual great-power competition." John supports his Offensive Realism with characteristically rigorous theorising and a thorough exploration of international history. This is an account of world politics that demands serious scholarly attention.

A close reading of John’s work would certainly benefit the third approach to security studies in British IR: the EnglishSchool. Central to the EnglishSchool are three concepts of world politics, that of an international system, international society, and world society. As an international system, world politics is state-centric and structured by international anarchy (with the accordant imperative to balance power). This picture will be familiar to American Realists. With international society, the ontology is also statist, but state relations are governed by norms, rules and institutions. This concept is consistent with constructivism and neoliberalism and also, as Richard Little has recently pointed out, with the Classical Realism of Hans Morgenthau. And finally is world society, where identities and communities, interactions and communications, have transcended the state and are organised at a global level. This is a concept of world politics that Realists dismiss as fantasy.

There is obvious potential for engagement with neorealism in terms of exploring the theoretical and historical boundaries between international system and international society. Most promising is this regard is Barry Buzan's work on the uneven development of international society in the modern world and, most recently, Barry's structural re-interpretation of the EnglishSchool.

Engagement with neorealism is also necessary in order to explore the implications of American hyperpower for international society. Tim Dunne identifies this as the next big challenge for EnglishSchool scholars. He suggests that international society is at risk of being "choked from above" by an all-powerful United States that sees itself as being above international law. In short, society may be replaced by hierarchy.

There is much neorealist debate about the character and consequences of US preponderance. William Wohlforth presents a picture of stable American unipolarity. War with a rising challenger, he argues, is unlikely because nobody is able to counter-balance the sheer concentration of US power. Any counter-balancing alliance would also be undermined regional balancing dynamics. Some Realists also suggest that, ala Walt, European and Asian powers have no reason to counter-balance because they do not fear a benign American hegemon. ES concern and neorealist optimism are reconcilable. As John Ikenberry has argued, the United States has the interest and has previously shown the inclination to be a responsible hegemon. US hyperpower can serve to stabilise the international system and shore up international society.

However, in The Tragedy of Great Power PoliticsJohn presents a different neorealist view of US hegemony; one that offers little comfort to the ES. Unlike most neorealists, he doesn't buy the idea of American unipolarity. He accepts that the US has the largest portion of economic and military power in the world, but he points out that two other states are currently capable of militarily resisting the United States: these being China and Russia. Thus for John, the United States is hegemon in the Americas only. That said, US power is crucial in balancing against the rise of hegemons in other regions of the world.

John predicts tough times ahead. In the next 20 years he expects the withdrawal of US forces from Europe and the rise of German hegemony. He anticipates that the US will maintain forces in Asia and this could draw the United States into conflict with a rising China. John's prescription for peace is US power. He suggests that continued US presence in Europe would counter-balance German power. And he recommends that the US contain the rise of China.

ES scholars worry that the US has become too powerful and too pushy. John worries that the US is not all-powerful and might be a push-over. These are divergent visions of the world with crucial implications for policy-making. The ES must either enter into dialogue with Offensive Realism or defeat it in scholarly debate. Either way, it is time for the British to face up to John Mearsheimer.