1 John J. Mearsheimer: An Offensive Realist Between Geopolitics & Power Peter Toft Institut for Statskundskab Arbejdspapir 2003/01
2 Institut for Statskundskab Københavns Universitet Rosenborggade København K. ISSN ISBN
3 John J. Mearsheimer An Offensive Realist Between Geopolitics & Power Peter Toft Abstract The aim of this paper is to discuss the work of John J. Mearsheimer and to assess his contribution to the development of the discipline of international relations in general and to realism in particular. Mearsheimer s main contribution is his theory of offensive realism. Accordingly, most of this paper deals with this theory in order to evaluate its potential and limitations. I argue that despite certain weaknesses the theory represents a major advance. Mearsheimer s work is a remarkably consistent, clear and forceful exposition of offensive realist theory that provides compelling answers to why expansionism and aggressive state strategies are a rational answer to life in the international system. Furthermore, Mearsheimer makes important contributions to alliance theory and offers new important insights into the role of power and geography in world politics.
4 I. Introduction John J. Mearsheimer is the R. Wendell Harrison Distinguished Service Professor of Political Science at the University of Chicago, where he is also co-director of the Programme on International Security Policy. He has contributed to the literature on international relations with a comprehensive body of work including numerous scientific articles and is the author of the books; Conventional Deterrence, Lidell Hart and the Weight of History, and The Tragedy of Great Power Politics. Through his academic career Mearsheimer has covered a variety of international security issues spanning from conventional deterrence, strategic studies, nuclear deterrence, and American foreign policy. Furthermore, he has inspired several important theoretical debates within the discipline of international relations. One of America s most distinguished scholars of international affairs and as a contributor to the New York Times, the New Republic, and the Atlantic, he also actively participates in the ongoing debate on US foreign policy. Dangerous security competition will inevitably re-emerge in post Cold War Europe and North East Asia and international institutions cannot bring about peaceful coexistence between the states. In the coming decades the United States should help Germany and Japan acquire nuclear deterrents of their own. America is likely to end its continental commitments in Europe and North East Asia. The US should strive to limit China s economic development in order to curtail China s prospects of dominating Asia. All great powers inherently behave aggressively despite embracing liberal democracy. These rather controversial statements roughly sum up the conclusions suggested by professor John Mearsheimer in his numerous articles and books covering a range of subjects on international security. The provocative nature of Mearsheimer s work has spurred major debates within the discipline of international relations during the 1990 s both within the realist tradition to which Mearsheimer s work belong - but also within the wider circles of the discipline. As a consequence of this remarkable ability to inspire important debates and set the premises of the agenda itself, John J. Mearsheimer, now at the beginning of the new millennium, stands out as one on the most distinguished, controversial, and influential contemporary scholars in the American realist tradition. In this paper Mearsheimer s theoretical endeavours, their potential, and their limitations are dealt with, with the purpose of evaluating his work to date and assess the value of his contribution to the study of international relations. The underpinnings of most of Mearsheimer s conclusions are based on his theory of offensive realism, although he has only recently developed it fully into an explicit and coherent theoretical framework in the book The Tragedy of Great Power Politics (2001). But his version of offensive realism is consistently applied in most of his earlier major articles as well (e.g. Mearsheimer 1990a: 84-85, 1994/95: , 1998, 2001b). Consequently, because of its centrality an evaluation of Mearsheimer s contribution to theory development within the IR-discipline takes its natural point of departure in an assessment of his theory of offensive realism. The central question of this paper asks: To which degree has John Mearsheimer contributed to the theoretical development of realism and political science? The remainder of this paper is organised as follows: I begin with a short presentation of Mearsheimer s theory of offensive realism and outline its dynamics. In part II the theory is placed in the broader IR-landscape of realism, and in the main body of the article (part III, IV, and V) I evaluate the theory and discuss its merits and limitations. Finally, Mearsheimer s considerations on American foreign policy are scrutinised (part VI). This discussion enables
5 us to evaluate Mearsheimer s contribution to realism in particular and political science in general, the subject of the concluding section. II. Offensive Realism: The Theory The basic aim of Mearsheimer s offensive realist theory is to explain patterns of corporation - and not least conflict in the modern state system. More specifically Mearsheimer aims to explain why great powers seemingly always strive for dominance and why this pattern of behaviour tragically is doomed to repeat itself fuelling relentless security competition and causing occasional great power wars. Basic assumptions The theory takes it point of departure in five core assumptions - shared more or less by most contemporary realists 1 - that define the structure of the international system, The first assumption of the theory is that the international system is anarchic - not in the meaning of disorder, but in the sense of an ordering principle. Accordingly, the anarchic order of the international system points to the fact that there is no government of governments to enforce rules and punish perpetrators. Consequently, the main units comprising the system, the states, must in the end decide for themselves, which means to deploy to achieve their goals. This, however, also implies that states fundamentally cannot rely on others to guarantee their security, as can citizens in domestic society. Thus, the international system is inevitably a self-help realm. The second assumption of the theory is that no state can ever be absolutely sure of each other s intentions. In anarchy no state can be absolutely certain that other states will not use their military capabilities to attack the first state. By this Mearsheimer does not assume, that the states necessarily have hostile intentions. However, intentions are impossible to divine with absolute certainty and they are in constant flux. Therefore, benign intentions can quickly change into malignant ones and vice versa. In anarchy uncertainty about intentions is unavoidable. The third assumption is that survival is the primary goal of all states in the international system. Even though other goals e.g. prosperity, human rights etc. are high on the list survival is on top because the autonomy of the state is a perquisite for achieving other goals. Thus, security is the main motivator of state behaviour. The fourth assumption is that states are rational in an instrumental sense of the word. This implies that they think strategically about their external situation and chose the strategy that seems to maximise their basic aim of security and survival - now as well as in the long run. Finally Mearsheimer assumes that the states always possess some offensive capability enabling them to hurt and possibly to destroy each other. As Mearsheimer himself so eloquently puts it, for every neck there are two hands to choke it. Accordingly he maintains, that even inherently defensive weapons could be used for offence (Mearsheimer 1994/95, 2001a: 30-31). 1 For a brief discussion of the core assumptions of the contemporary realist research programme see Brown, Lynn-Jones & Miller (1995).
6 Marrying together these assumptions Mearsheimer concludes, that the states choose the security strategies that best guarantee their survival and they soon realise that the most efficient way to achieve this goal is to maximise security with the ultimate aim of becoming the strongest power of the system (a hegemon). This is because the lofty position at the pinnacle of power is the best guarantee to ensure the long-term survival of the state. The problem is, however, that not all states can maximise their security at the same time. As long as it remains anarchic the international system, therefore, is destined to be an arena of relentless security competition. Generally speaking, Mearsheimer s definition of the international structure is in accordance with the modern realist research programme as outlined by Kenneth Waltz (1979). However, two of his assumptions are controversial. First, although, shared by most contemporary realist scholars, the rationality-assumption is controversial. For instance, Waltz argues that structural realism does not need any distinct assumption of rationality (Waltz 1979: 76-77) although, he does admit, that states are rational in the sense that they are sensitive to costs (Waltz 1981, 1986). A generally accepted and important qualifier on the rationality-assumption is however, that the states chose the most efficient strategies on the background of imperfect knowledge. Second, Mearsheimer s assumption that all states posses some offensive military capability is not generally regarded as a core assumption of the realist research programme. Furthermore, it is difficult to include such an assumption into a definition of international structure. This is because offensive military capability is a specific unit-level attribute associated with the individual states and not with the relations among them. However, even though Mearsheimer makes no explicit attempt to do so, one could argue that offensive military capability is a structural trait because even though military capability is a unit attribute the distribution of military capabilities across units is not. 2 In sum, Mearsheimer s list of assumptions seems to fit well into the logic of the structural realist research programme. State Goals and Strategies As mentioned above Mearsheimer argues that hegemony is the ultimate aim of every state. A hegemon is defined as a state that is so powerful that it dominates all the other states in the system (Mearsheimer 1995: 84 fn. 15 [1990a], 2001a: 40). The concept of hegemony is applied both globally and regionally. Thus, although hegemony means domination of the system, which is usually interpreted as the entire world. it is possible to apply the concept of a system more narrowly and use it to describe particular regions, such as Europe, Northeast 2 This point is forcefully put forward by Waltz (1979: 97-98) although Waltz s concern is the entire range of capabilities including military capability.
7 Asia, and the Western Hemisphere (ibid.: 1995: 80 fn. 4 [1990a], 2001a: 40). However, Mearsheimer finds that achieving global hegemony is virtually impossible because of the stopping power of water. Thus, the problems of projecting power across the world s oceans make it almost impossible for any state to dominate the entire globe. Global hegemony is only possible in the rare case that one state achieves a nuclear monopoly. This is, however, unlikely to happen because rival states will go to great lengths to develop a nuclear retaliatory force of their own (ibid.: 2001a: 146). Because of this, regional hegemony becomes the principal aim of the states. Accordingly, regional security dynamics become the principal level of analysis in Mearsheimer s thinking. To attain regional hegemony states strive to achieve three operational goals. First, great powers aim to build the most formidable military in their region. Especially, they strive to dominate the balance of land forces as land power is the most important means of coercion because it is the main military instrument of conquering and controlling land, which is the supreme political objective in a world of territorial states (ibid.: 86, Ch. 4). Second states aim to maximise their share of the world s wealth as economic might is an important prerequisite of military might (ibid. Ch. 3, 143). Third, states strive to gain nuclear superiority. Even though nuclear superiority is almost impossible to achieve Mearsheimer argues that the great powers are not likely to be content with living in a world where they are vulnerable to nuclear attack by other great powers. Nuclear superiority would eliminate this risk. To be sure, Mearsheimer agrees that the risk of nuclear attack is very small in a world of mutual secured destruction (MAD). However, he maintains that the risk - however small - is nevertheless a real one (ibid.: ). But which specific strategies do states apply in order to reach their ultimate goal of regional hegemony? Mearsheimer divides these into two overall foreign policy strategies. The one type of strategy aims at gaining further increments of relative power while the other type of strategy aims at checking aggressors preventing them from gaining relative power at the expense of the first state. Thus, security maximisation becomes a two-sided game in which the states not only try to gain more relative power themselves. They also must avoid others from gaining relatively. The principle strategy for gaining power is war and conquest. Even though war is costly, rational states may choose to start a war if the benefits outweigh the costs. Most important, a successful war may oust a rival from the ranks of the great powers thereby making the aggressor safer (ibid.: ). Second, a strategy of blackmail can be applied in order to squeeze out concessions from a rival by the threat to use force. This strategy, however, is not very effective because great powers rarely give in to threats as they have the military means to put up a decent fight and defend themselves. However, a strategy of blackmail may be successful against minor powers (ibid.: ). Finally states can gain in relative strength by applying a strategy of bait and bleed or bloodletting. A bait and bleed strategy is intended to lure two rival powers into a protracted and costly war of attrition enabling the baiter to sit on the sidelines gaining relatively while they bleed each other white. This strategy is problematic, however, because it is difficult to make other powers start a war that they would otherwise not fight (ibid.: ). A bloodletting strategy on the other hand, is easier to pursue. This strategy implies no baiting, but is intended to make sure that an existing conflict between two rivals is turning into a costly protracted war of attrition that weakens both parties while the bloodletter sits comfortably on the sidelines (ibid.: ).
8 At the other side of the power game Mearsheimer suggests the main strategy of checking aggression to be balancing. Balancing implies taking a direct responsibility to deter a potential aggressor either through internal build-up (internal balancing) or via formation of international alliances (external balancing) or some combination thereof. 3 Drawing on the existing realist literature on alliance formation Mearsheimer points out that states join alliances because the burden of deterring or fighting an aggressor is shared. However, alliances are difficult to form and often inefficient because it takes time to find allies and to co-ordinate the efforts. Furthermore, allies probably will disagree over how the burdens should be distributed among the alliance members (ibid.: ). Buck-passing is suggested as the main alternative to balancing. A buck-passer attempts to pass the burden of deterring an aggressor on to someone else while it remains at the sidelines. Buck-passing is an attractive alternative to balancing because it is a low-cost way of handling an aggressor. Furthermore, if war brakes out between the eventual buck-catcher and the aggressor, the buck-passer can safely sit by while the balance of power may shift to its advantage. As such buck-passing implies a strong offensive element making it resemble the bloodletting strategy mentioned above. However, buck-passing is also a dangerous option for two reasons. First, the buck-catcher may fail to contain the aggressor. This situation would leave the buck-passer exposed to the now even stronger rival power alone while at the same time having fewer available alliance options. Second, if the buck-catcher successfully defeats or deters the aggressor it is allowed to increase its relative power and may end up upsetting the balance of power to the disadvantage of the of the buck-passer (ibid.: ). The realist alliance literature often posits that bandwagoning that is siding with a stronger opponent is the main alternative strategy to balancing behaviour. Mearsheimer, however, rejects this as a viable option because it implies conceding a disproportionate share of the spoils of possible conquests. This will make the more powerful ally even stronger. Accordingly in Mearsheimer s view bandwagoning is an anomaly because states have strong incentives to resist other powers from increasing their relative share of world power. Only very weak states without prospects for resisting an aggressor chose this strategy. Appeasement that is to make concessions in the hope that an aggressor will turn into a satiated power is another anomalous behavioural pattern to offensive realism. Appeasement is pursued in the hope that an aggressor can be turned into a status-quo-power. According to the logic of offensive realism this strategy is, however, doomed to fail as all great powers face strong incentives to always increase their share of world power. Thus, making concessions only increases the appetite of the aggressor and violates the incentive to resist other powers from gaining relative strength (ibid.: ). In sum, following the logic of Mearsheimer s offensive realism, we should find very few cases of bandwagoning and appeasement at least among the great powers. The different state strategies as well as their advantages and disadvantages are summed up in figure 1. FIGURE 1 State Strategies 3 Because there are only two great powers in bipolarity logically no external balancing takes place in this international structure (cf. Waltz 1979).
9 Strategies for gaining power War Blackmail Bait and bleed Bloodletting Efficient but often associated with great costs Blackmailing great powers is difficult but effective against minor powers Cost efficient but difficult to bait other powers into a conflict Cost efficient and without obvious disadvantages Strategies for checking aggressors Balancing Buck-passing Efficient in keeping aggressors at bay but costly and difficult to sustain Cost efficient if the buck-catcher successfully deters or defeats the aggressor but dangerous if the buck-catcher is defeated or is strengthened in relative terms Choosing between Strategies By outlining the specific strategic options available to the states, Mearsheimer is able to deduce specific hypothesis about their likely foreign policy behaviour. However, in order to know specifically under which conditions states choose a strategy of gaining power or a strategy of checking aggression depends on two independent and distinct variables: The distribution of power and the geographic location of the state. Mearsheimer argues that the determinant factor that prompts the great powers to opt for a strategy of gaining power is the distribution of relative power. Even though states always have an incentive of maximising their relative strength they are not mindless aggressors. Rather, in accordance with the rationality assumptions, they carefully calculate the risk of aggression taking into account the strength and likely actions of their competitors. When the benefits outweigh the costs they choose a strategy of power-maximisation. When the costs are too high they sit out and wait for a more propitious moment (ibid.: 38). Thus, the more the balance of power favours a great power the more likely it is that it tries to gain the position as hegemon. Accordingly, a strategy of gaining power is most likely when the balance of power is heavily tilted towards one of the great powers. This situation is described as unbalanced multipolarity. 4 However, Mearsheimer makes no attempt to clarify under which conditions states chose between the various strategies for gaining power only that they are all possible options. However, a closer examination of the different power-maximising strategies combined with the cost-benefit calculus under different distributions of power makes clear that under some conditions some strategies are more likely than others. For instance following Mearsheimer s logic, none of the two competing great powers in a bipolar power structure are able to establish global hegemony because of the roughly equal distribution of world power. Therefore, a strategy of hegemonic war is unlikely, as the other great power possess the wherewithal to successfully defend itself and thwart expansionist attempts by the other. Because of this state of affairs the two great powers are more likely to pursue strategies that weaken their opponent in a more indirect way e.g. through extracting 4 Mearsheimer s concept of polarity is roughly in accordance with the one of Kenneth Waltz (1979). As such Mearsheimer agrees that multipolar systems that is an international power distribution containing more than two great powers is more war prone than bipolar ones an international distribution of power containing only two great powers. Unlike Waltz however, Mearsheimer argues that multipolar systems can be either balanced or unbalanced. Balanced multipolarity described a roughly equal distribution of power and the great powers are able to balance each other. Thus, in balanced multipolarity there is no potential hegemon. In unbalanced multipolarity, however, the balance of power is heavily asymmetrical and favours of one of the great powers. This great power therefore is able to make a run for regional domination making it a potential hegemon.
10 concessions from lesser states through blackmail or trying to exhaust the opposing great power through a costly arms race or keeping it entangled in a prolonged struggle with minor powers pursuing a bloodletting strategy. In balanced multipolarity on other hand, the room for manoeuvre is wider making it possible to pursue a strategy of limited war against minor powers or a weak neighbouring great power. Also blackmail, bloodletting and bait and bleed strategies are likely options. In unbalanced multipolarity however, a strategy of hegemonic war seems to be the only viable option (apart from the rare case of achieving a nuclear monopoly). This is because the attempt to become a regional hegemon is likely to be met by a countervailing coalition of the other great powers. Thus, potential hegemons have to fight all of its rivals in order to establish hegemony. Figure 2 illustrates the different strategies of gaining power and the conditions under which they are likely policy options. FIGURE 2 Choosing between Strategies of Gaining Power Bipolarity Balanced multipolarity Unbalanced multipolarity Blackmail Blood-letting Limited war Blackmail Bloodletting Bait and bleed Hegemonic war (Nuclear blackmail) The distribution of power also conditions when states choose a policy of checking aggression. As mentioned above, Mearsheimer argues that the two most likely ways of checking aggression is balancing and buck-passing. Again it is possible to narrow down under which conditions either strategy is the likely choice according to offensive realism. In bipolarity buck-passing is impossible because no third great power exists to catch the buck. Internal balancing is therefore the only viable option as there are also no other great powers with whom to ally. In balanced multipolar systems, on the other hand, buck-passing is the preferred strategy because each power can be certain that aggression can be checked by the other great powers. However, whether a specific state chooses to pass the buck depends on its geographic location via-à-vis its rival. More specifically, the closer a state is to a rival the more likely it is that balancing is the preferred strategy. This is especially the case if the rivalling great powers share a common border. On the other hand, if a natural barrier exists separating the rivalling great powers from each other the more likely it is that buck-passing is the likely choice of strategy. This is especially true of insular powers, as power-projection across the oceans is especially difficult. Therefore, in balanced multipolar systems the socalled offshore balancers are most often inclined to buck-pass (Mearsheimer 1998, 2001: Ch. 8). In unbalanced multipolarity, however, the balance of power is so asymmetrically distributed in the favour of one of the great powers that it is able to make a run for regional domination making it a potential regional hegemon. When this situation occurs balancing is the only viable response among the other great powers although the impetus to buck-pass continues to be strong. However, the stronger the potential hegemon the less likely it is that states can afford to run the risk associated with passing the buck (ibid.: 2001: Ch. 8). Figure 3 shows the different strategies of checking aggressors and when either balancing or buckpassing is likely to be chosen.
11 FIGURE 3 Choosing Between Strategies of Checking Aggression Geographic Location Distribution of Power Nearby landlocked great Distant landlocked great Off-shore great powers powers powers Balanced multipolarity Balancing Buck-passing Buck-passing Unbalanced multipolarity Balancing Balancing Balancing Bipolarity Balancing Balancing Balancing III. Offensive Realism and the Realist IR-landscape Having outlined Mearsheimer s basic theoretical argument and presented the dynamics of the theory, the aim of the following section is to place his body of work in the IR-landscape of realism. This is important because, although most contemporary realists take their point of departure in the same set of core assumptions of the modern realist research programme (cf. Waltz 1979), a proliferation of different realist theories has taken place during the last decade. Thus, Wivel (2002) has identified no more than 14 distinct contemporary debates and schools within the paradigm. This state of affairs makes assessing the value of Mearsheimer s work difficult for at least three reasons. First, realists have always emphasised and somewhat legitimised the realist approach against the historical continuity of their insights from classical realists such as Thucydides to structural realists like Waltz. However, it seems difficult to identify continuity and enduring trends if the theoretical development of realism makes it increasingly hard to point out a constant core of thoughts and assumptions (Wivel 2002: 3). Second, Vazques (1997) has argued that the recent theoretical developments within realism lead to conflicting and mutual exclusive hypothesis on the nature and dynamics of international politics. The realist research programme is therefore degenerative rather than progressive. Third, as pointed out by Legro & Moravcsik (1999) it is increasingly difficult to distinguish contemporary realist theories from other paradigms because many modern realists, in addition to systemic factors, incorporate unit attributes such as domestic political structure and perceptions. Furthermore, Rosecrance (2001) has argued that contemporary realism has evolved into mere cost-benefit analysis. Taking the opposite view Gideon Rose (1998), on the other hand, praises the development within contemporary realism because it arguably has contributed with better specification of the research programme and explored its explanatory range. In the same vein, Taliaferro (2001) points out that a lively intra-realist debate is likely to produce theoretical advances in a more productive way than to declare degenerative whole research programmes. According to Taliaferro debates within research programmes rather that between them lead to progressive research because the researchers, by developing and testing theories deduced from the same set of core assumptions, can more easily identify competing hypothesis and discover new facts. In sum, the ongoing debate and different views about the state of contemporary realism demonstrates that an assessment of Mearsheimer s contribution requires a clear specification of his position within the realist IR-landscape in order to assess whether his theoretical endeavours represent a theoretical advance or marks a degenerative turn. A specification of Mearsheimer s stance in the realist debate, in turn, demands some sort of systemising principle with which we can specify the various theoretical points of view within
12 the research programme. Systemising Mearsheimer s theoretical stance by applying to it the conventional labels 5 within the realist debate is difficult, however for three main reasons. First, Mearsheimer s emphasis on the power structure of international politics is in perfect accordance with Kenneth Waltz seminal neorealist theory (1979) and firmly places Mearsheimer within the contemporary structural realist framework. However, the gloomy nature of his analysis and the depiction of the international system as an arena of relentless competition for power and security distinguishes his approach from Waltz more benign realism, which holds that the outbreak of international wars and security competition stems not from overt calculated aggression, as argued by Mearsheimer (cf. part II), but rather from miscalculation and overreaction in a world populated by states with inherently defensive motives trapped in a security dilemma. 6 Rather, the nature of Mearsheimer s pessimistic analysis resembles more closely the writings of the so-called human-nature realists such as Hans Morgenthau, Reinholdt Niebuhr, and Henry Kissinger. However, the human-nature realist identified the causes of international security competition within the nature of man stemming from an insatiable lust for power and domination. Mearsheimer, on the other hand, maintains that causes at the level of the international structure - not human nature - propel inherently security-seeking states to behave aggressively towards one another. Second, the inclusion of geography represents a clear-cut break with Waltz neorealist theory which leaves no room for unit level attributes. Waltz argues that the international distribution of power alone is sufficient to explain the patterns of corporation and conflict within the international system e.g. the formation of alliances and the frequency of wars (Waltz 1979). To be sure, Mearsheimer maintains that structural constraints alone account for the offensive motivation of the states but at the same time he strongly emphasises the role of geographical location as an important factor influencing the patterns of corporation and conflict (cf.: part II). Even though Waltz rejects to include geopolitics into his theoretical framework, geopolitical analysis is far from alien to realism. In fact geopolitics has been present in realist thought for centuries (Haslam 2002: Ch. 4) and geography also plays a prominent role in more recent developments of the realist research programme for instance in Stephen Walt s Balance of Threat Theory (1990). Third, by combining the distribution of power and geographic location Mearsheimer is able to deduce rather specific foreign policy predictions from his theory. The attempt at explaining foreign policy, however, marks another step away from Waltz neorealist theory that is primarily concerned with explaining major international political trends - not foreign 5 In discussions of the theoretical development of realism it is common practice to distinguish between three expressions of the realist tradition. Classical realism often refers to the works of such diverse authors as Thucydides, St. Augustine, Machiavelli, Hobbes, and Spinoza. Writing in the decades following the end of World War II figures such as Carr, Morgenthau, Niebuhr, and Kissinger are often labelled human-nature-realists while contemporary realism goes under the label structural realism or neo-realism. 6 John Herz first coined the notion of the security dilemma (1950). Later it was further developed by Robert Jervis (1976, 1978). The essence of the dilemma is that in anarchic self help systems the measures states take to increase their own security usually decrease the security of other states propelling them to add further increments of security again leaving the first state less secure. For a more recent discussion of the implications of the security dilemma see Glaser (1997)
13 policy behaviour (Waltz 1979, 1996). 7 As argued by Rose (1998) foreign policy analysis is closely associated with the so-called neo-classical realist school whose prime concern is to explain the process through which the pressures of the international system are translated into specific foreign policy actions. The above discussion demonstrates that Mearsheimer incorporates elements from various realist strands. This makes it difficult to place his work within the IR-landscape of realism. The task is facilitated, however, if one applies a typology of contemporary realism suggested by Wivel (2000a, 2002). The main point is that in order to successfully systematise the various theoretical strands within contemporary realism we must distinguish between offensive and defensive realist theories on the one hand and contingent and universal theories on other. Regarding the first division, a now widely recognised disagreement exists between realists who argue that the anarchic structure of the international system propels states to behave defensively and proponents of the view that that the states are induced to act aggressively. To be sure, both offensive and defensive realists start with the logic that the anarchic international system presents states with powerful constraints and opportunities that they cannot easily ignore, but they make radically different conclusions of how the states are likely to respond to the pressures of the international system (cf.: Brown, Lynn-Jones & Miller 1995, Labs 1997, Taliaferro 2001, Wivel 2000a, 2002). The majority school of defensive realism paints a comparatively benign picture of international politics arguing that security is in plentiful supply most of the time because the international system and the predominance of defensive weapons propel states to behave moderately. First, security is plentiful because states wishing to survive are propelled to check aggressors. If a state significantly increases its relative power its neighbours have no choice but to balance against it because the more powerful it is, the greater its ability is to dominate and possibly harm the others. Thus, in order to ensure their survival and autonomy the weaker states continuously join forces and form countervailing coalitions in order to block potential aggressive ambitions of the strong. In such a world only moderate strategies aimed at preserving the status quo are rational because aggressive behaviour is self-defeating. As argued by Grieco states are mostly concerned with maintaining their relative position of power, not increasing it thus making them act as defensive positionalists (Grieco 1993). Second, many defensive realists argue that security is plentiful because of the predominance of defensive weapons. According to this argument a balance exist between offensive and defensive weapons systems and history demonstrates that the defence has had the upper hand most of the time making aggression difficult and costly. In the modern age especially the presence of nuclear weapons has swung the balance decisively in favour of the defence. 8 From the other side of the fence offensive realists argue that it is impossible to determine when the level of security is sufficient. Furthermore, this problem is compounded because the power and wealth of states grow at different rates making it even more difficult to predict how the balance of power will evolve over time. And because power is the primary means of security in a self-help-world states are compelled to make short-term calculations and grasp any opportunity that leads to increased levels of security because the stronger a state is relative to its potential rivals, the less likely it is that any of those rivals will attack it and threaten its long term survival. Thus, offensive 7 In a 1996-article Colin Elman has forcefully countered this claim by Waltz arguing that nothing hinders the construction of neorealist theories of foreign policy a priori. 8 Kenneth Waltz (1979, 1986), Stephen Walt (1990, 1996), Stephen Van Evera (1999), Joseph Grieco (1993), Charles Glaser (1995, 1997), and Jack Snyder (1991) and before them John Herz (1950) are the most prominent exponents of this variant of the modern realist research programme.
14 realists paint a rather grim picture of international politics as a competitive realm in which security is always scarce. 9 However as argued by Wivel another dividing line of equal importance can be detected within contemporary realism. This is a dividing line between universal and contingent theories. Whereas universal theories deduce general conclusions from the effects of the international structure alone, contingent theories incorporate various non-structural factors that affect the impact of the anarchic structure on state action (Wivel 2000a: Ch. 3, 2002). As mentioned above Waltz neorealist theory only ascribe importance to the international structure and, therefore, is an archetype universal theory. On the other hand some realist scholars e.g. Walt and Schweller explicitly include non-structural variables that affect state behaviour in tandem with international structure thereby placing their theories on the contingent line (cf.: Toft 2002). Figure 4 illustrates the typology of contemporary realism. FIGURE 4 A Typology of Contemporary Realism Defensive Offensive Universal Universal defensive realism Universal offensive realism Contingent Contingent defensive realism Contingent offensive realism Source: Wivel 2000a So where does Mearsheimer s theory fit in? As is clear by the label offensive realism, which Mearsheimer himself applies to describe his theory (although not originally coined by him) he self-consciously places himself on the offensive side of the offence-defence-division. In fact Mearsheimer s recent book The Tragedy of Great Power Politics probably represents the strongest articulation of the offensive standpoint to date. However, the offensive and military focus of Mearsheimer s writings is evident in his earlier work as well. For instance, in his 1983-book Conventional Deterrence he set out to analyse different strategies of offensive military warfare. In addition, during the 1980 s he has published several articles devoted to strategic studies assessing e.g. the nuclear and conventional balance of forces in Cold War Europe (1984/85, 1989). Furthermore, in his well-known article Back to the Future (1995 [1990a]), Mearsheimer has argued that eventually, aggressive security competition will re-emerge among the great powers of Europe after the end of the Cold War and concluded that the best way to keep the European powers from waging war in the future is the managed spread of nuclear weapons to e.g. Germany. Moreover, in his hotly debated article The False Promise of International Institutions (1994/95) he sharply criticised the belief that international institutions are able to bring about world peace while at the same time revealing an especially competitive view of the workings of the international system. In sum, Mearsheimer can be firmly placed on the offensive side in the offense-defence debate. However, positioning the theory according to the horizontal universal-contingent-division is more problematic. This is because the theory both incorporates the international structure and geographic location as independent motivators of state behaviour. However, as geographic 9 Among the most important proponents of offensive realism are Eric Labs (1997), Fareed Zakaria (1994, 1998), Randall L. Schweller (1994, 1998), and Robert Gilpin (1981).
15 location is a not a structural attribute this leads us to place the theory along the contingent division. This is because the behaviour of the states, in Mearsheimer s thinking, is contingent upon their proximity vis-à-vis the most threatening (strongest) state. In general, the closer the threat the more likely it is that states choose a balancing strategy. The more distant the threat, the more likely it is that a buck-passing strategy is chosen although this also depends upon the possible presence of a potential hegemon in an unbalanced multipolar system. This, however also indicates that the international distribution of power may be a more important factor than geography. Geography only tells us when and which states are likely to balance aggressors. It does not affect whether states are behaving aggressively or defensively in the first place. This is a distinct difference in comparison to other realist contingent theories, which for the most part argue, that non-structural modifiers strongly intervene between the pressures of the international system on state behaviour. 10 In Mearsheimer s thinking the non-structural variable, geographic location, plays no part regarding whether the great powers act in accordance with the pressures of the international structure. Hence, although Mearsheimer straddles the universal-contingent-divide, we should place his theory along the universal dividing line because of the primary importance of the constant and ever present pressures of the international structure that pushes and shoves states to always try to maximise their share of world power. IV. A Theoretical Evaluation Having placed Mearsheimer s work in the IR-landscape of realism we can now turn to a critical evaluation of the explanatory power of his core theory of offensive realism. This task is undertaken in this section by scrutinising the theory according to three criteria of theory evaluation (cf.: Walt 1999). These criteria are: Degree of originality, logical consistency, and empirical validity. The criteria are useful for three main reasons. First, the concept of explanatory power is often applied without any substantiation or explicit definition although the common usage of the concept often refers to whether a theory is empirically valid or not. However, as argued by Waltz the relationship between theory and fact is often complex and interdependent. Therefore, theories should also be judged on other parameters e.g. intellectual power (1986: 336, 1997). Consequently, by supplementing the criteria of empirical validity with other relevant parameters we gain a more solid foundation for evaluating theory. Second, as argued by Walt the degree of a theory s originality and logical consistency represents such other relevant criteria. This is because theories that are innovative and original may help us see well-known phenomena in a new light and provide solutions for theoretical or empirical puzzles which we were unable to explain before (Walt 1999: 13). Further, we should pay close attention to a theory s logical consistency because predictions deduced from theories, which are logically flawed cannot be directly deduced from its premises. Therefore, logically inconsistent theories tend to yield flawed hypothesis. In addition, inconsistent theories are difficult to test because we cannot clearly determine whether a given empirical fact supports or contradicts the theory (ibid.: 12). Finally, in comparison to other scientific methods of theory evaluation e.g. Popper s principle of falsification or Lakatos strategy for evaluation scientific research programmes, which have both been the subject of much criticism (cf.: King, Koehane, & Verba 1994: 101, 10 See Brooks (1997).
16 Walt 1997b), the three criteria of theory evaluation suggested above are uncontroversial (cf.: Wivel 2000b: 26). Degree of originality Following the three criteria, we first should look for whether Mearsheimer s theory represents an original development of the realist research programme? Looking at the basic concepts of the theory this does not seem to be the case. First, the central concept of balance of power is a familiar concept in the writings of the human-nature-realists as well as within contemporary structural realism. Second, the inclusion of geography is nothing new in traditional realist thinking and plays a major role in Stephen Walt s Balance of Threat theory (Walt 1990 ). Third, Mearsheimer echoes Waltz in emphasising the effects of structure on international politics arguing that bipolar systems are less war-prone than multipolar ones and that the patterns of conflict and corporation are heavily influenced by the specific number of poles in the system. However, at closer look Mearsheimer s offensive realism does represent an original theoretical development. First, in opposition to defensive realism, Mearsheimer s theory embodies the most forceful and parsimonious articulation of universal offensive realism to date. Reaching basically the same gloomy conclusions about relentless security competition in world politics, as did the human-nature-realists, Mearsheimer however, anchors his theoretical conclusions on a much firmer structural foundation. Thus, by looking at world politics through an offensive realist prism Mearsheimer helps us see well-known phenomena in a new light and offers solutions for theoretical or empirical puzzles e.g. the sheer amount of international wars through history, which defensive realists on their part have a hard time accounting for (cf.: Zakaria 1995, Labs 1997). Second, by distinguishing between balanced and unbalanced multipolarity Mearsheimer not only introduces new concepts into the IR-vocabulary but brings realism an important step forward in predicting when major international conflicts are most likely to occur and under which conditions grand alliances are most likely to form. Thus, according to Mearsheimer, unbalanced multipolarity represents the most war-prone international power structure because the emergence of a potential hegemon makes other states fear more for their security and pushes them to form a countervailing balancing coalition to correct the imbalance of power. On the other hand, these balancing efforts, however, are likely to be viewed as vicious encirclement by the potential hegemon, which may take further steps to increase its security. The end result is that spirals of fear and hostility are set in motion likely to lead to war (Mearsheimer 2001a: 345). Mearsheimer offers empirical data that strongly support his deductive argument ibid.: 2001a: Ch. 9). For instance, during 109 years of European history, great power war, defined as wars including at least one great power (ibid. 2001: 334), was going on 2,2 per cent of the time of the total number of years in bipolarity, 18,3 in balanced multipolarity, and 79,5 per cent of the time in unbalanced multipolar systems (cf.: Snyder 2002: 167). As pointed out by Snyder this represents a strong confirmation of what other structural realists like Waltz have surmised: The balance-of-power process is not particularly conducive to peace (Snyder 2001: ) an argument in direct opposition to the analysis of the human-nature realists (e.g. Morgenthau 1948, Kissinger 1994). Third, Mearsheimer makes an original contribution to the debate on alliance formation by demonstrating that buck-passing not bandwagoning is the main alternative alliance choice to
17 balancing. The concept of bandwagoning has been hotly contested within the realist literature on alliances (e.g. Schweller 1995, 1998, Walt 1990) and Mearsheimer s introduction of buckpassing seems to solve empirical puzzles where states chose to refrain from balancing a rising threat e.g. Great Britain in the 1930 s and the USSR in To be sure, the concept of buckpassing itself is nothing new as it was already introduced by Waltz in his 1979-book and thoroughly analysed by Christensen and Snyder (1990). However, these authors perceive buck-passing as an anomalous state behaviour while Mearsheimer forcefully shows that buckpassing is a likely outcome of the foreign policy process under certain given circumstances. Finally, by bringing the concept of hegemony into structural realist analysis Mearsheimer combines in an original way two of the most prominent realist theories: Waltz neorealism (1979) and Gilpin s theory of hegemonic transition (1981). This is an interesting combination as these authors suggest very different explanations of international politics. Whereas Waltz strongly emphasises the condition of international anarchy and the resulting general patterns of power balancing depending on a particular polarity e.g. bipolar or multipolar, Gilpin argues that international outcomes can be explained in terms of competition for power and prestige between the major powers to become the hegemon of the international system - i.e. the dominant power in the international hierarchy of power and prestige (Gilpin 1981: 29). In Waltz s theory multipolar systems are more war prone than bipolar ones because of the myriad of potential lines of conflict and because the balance of power is in a state of constant flux. In Gilpin s theory conflict is the result of challengers trying to take over the position as hegemon. Thus, by further refining the notions of polarity, balancing and buck-passing from Waltz theory and by adding a slightly altered concept of hegemony from Gilpin s vocabulary Mearsheimer constructs an original vocabulary of his own that helps us to recognise and explain empirical puzzles hitherto unsolved such as why war and aggression is historically such a common feature in international politics and why great power war is especially likely when potential hegemons arrive at the international arena. Logical consistency The next step of the evaluation of Mearsheimer s theoretical work is to uncover its underpinning logic in order to judge whether it builds on a sound and coherent logic. As argued above this is an important task because a logically inconsistent theory is likely to generate flawed hypothesis and is difficult to test because we cannot easily determine whether a given empirical fact supports or contradicts the theory. At first glance Mearsheimer s theory of offensive realism seems to have no obvious flaws in its logic. The argument that states pursue maximum security in a self-help world and thereby end up following aggressive foreign policies is both convincingly and logically delineated. Furthermore, Mearsheimer s takes care to communicate in a clear-cut and easily understandable language (this is particularly true of Great Power Politics ) thereby adding to the impression of a sound logic. However, at closer look four problems appear regarding the logical underpinnings of his theory of offensive realism. The first and most important problem concerns whether the hypothesis deduced from the theory flow logically from the stated assumptions. From his five basic assumptions; that rational states wishing to survive in anarchy with the ability to harm each other and lack of information of others intentions, Mearsheimer concludes that states live in a high risk world in which they are propelled to maximise their security because this is the best way to ensure their survival. However, departing from approximately the same set of core assumptions defensive realists reach the opposite conclusion, namely that states are content with a level of security far short of hegemony. So, how does Mearsheimer reach his conclusions? Surely, from the stated assumptions alone realists can only predict in very general terms how states
18 wishing to survive in anarchy are likely to behave (cf.: Brooks 1997). As posited by Waltz (1979), to ensure survival states are likely to pursue a level of security level spanning from at least a minimum to a maximum. However, to argue that only the maximum extreme is sufficient cannot be logically deduced from Mearsheimer s assumptions. This conclusion demands further assumptions about state behaviour. Therefore, either Mearsheimer must make a non-stated psychological assumption of extreme fear among the units of the international system making them strive for total security or the drive for absolute security must stem from the domestic level. 11 Second, another problem arises regarding the specific assumption of rationality. As argued by defensive realists (and certainly recognised by Mearsheimer) states wishing to survive in anarchy are propelled to check aggressors because increased power augments the risk that the more powerful may dominate and possible compromise the survival of the weak. Thus, balancing is the dominant behavioural dynamic induced by the system. But, from this follows, that maximising security makes little sense in a self-help-world because states are inclined to form countervailing balancing coalitions making aggression self-defeating. For this reason security maximisation is irrational (Wivel 2000a; Ch. 3, 2002). Thus, Mearsheimer has to violate the rationality-assumption. Mearsheimer counters this argument in two ways. First, he argues that states only attempt to gain hegemony when the benefits outweigh the costs that is when the balance of power is tilted so much in their favour that they become potential hegemons. This qualification of course is an important modifier on state behaviour making aggression less predominant than one would expect. On the other hand the qualification also seems somewhat of a contradiction in terms because if the weaker states are likely to balance against the strong the resulting cost benefit analysis of a potential hegemon should rarely result in an outcome favouring expansion. Of course as outlined in part II, Mearsheimer finds that buck-passing not balancing is often the preferred choice of weaker states making the cost benefit calculus less clear. However, according to Mearsheimer when potential hegemons arrive at the scene balancing is the expected choice of strategy by all other great powers (including offshore balancers) rendering the quest for hegemony futile. Second, Mearsheimer points to the historical record arguing that aggression seems to succeed about half to sixty per cent of the time (Mearsheimer 2001a: 39-40). However, the cases mentioned most often concern minor acts of aggression not likely to shift the balance of power e.g. Germany s acquisition of Schleswig-Holstein in However, when it comes to the most significant wars of the modern age such as the Napoleonic Wars, the First and Second World Wars, hegemonic war never has been successful (cf.: Kennedy 1988). Third, an ambiguity exists within the theory concerning the level of analysis. Whilst it is evident that Mearsheimer aims at building a general theory that explains world politics as a function of structural system-wide properties the inclusion of the variable, geographic location means that regional security dynamics - not system-wide dynamics become the focal point of his analysis (cf.: part II). This asks the question whether regions function as independent systems with their own structural dynamics? This seems to be the case. For instance in his Back to the Future essay Mearsheimer argues that polarity arguments can be used to assess the prospects for stability in a particular region, provided that the global and regional balances are distinguished from one another and the analysis is focused on the structure of power in the relevant region (Mearsheimer 1995: 80, fn. 4 [1990a]). However, at the same time it is also clear that the great powers in different regions also interact across different regions in a global balance of power. For instance the caveat of Mearsheimer s theory of offensive realism is precisely that the great powers keep a close eye at the balance of power - mainly in their own neighbourhood - but also in other regions of the globe. This is 11 Interestingly Zakaria (1994) makes a similar point regarding defensive realism.
19 particularly true of regional hegemons that aim to prevent rivals in other regions from emerging. This is a central point in several of Mearsheimer s writings. For instance in his 1998-article, The Future of Americas Continental Commitment Mearsheimer finds that a grand strategy of counter-hegemony 12 best describes US strategy towards Europe and North East Asia implying that the United States is very concerned not only what goes on the Western Hemisphere but also with developments in the balance of power in other key regions as well. Thus, Mearsheimer fails to distinguish clearly between the regional level and the systemic level of analysis. This is problematic because we do not know when the regional level and the system-wide level is the main explanatory factor. This makes it difficult (although not impossible) to falsify the theory. For instance, if developments in the regional balance do not explain we may have a second chance to verify the theory by looking for system-wide developments and vice versa. 13 Fourth, a problem exists concerning the internal logic between the two independent key variables of the theory: The international power structure and geographic location. First, the fact that the theory operates from two distinct variables that explain outcomes in conjunction makes it difficult to falsify the theory. This is because Mearsheimer does not clearly state which of these variables is the more important. Nor does he require that a significant change in value of each variable should be present in each case. Therefore, both variables can individually account for foreign policy outcomes. This is problematic because it may be too easy to find confirmatory evidence supporting the theory. Mearsheimer s own analysis seems to suffer from this weakness. For instance he argues that the Soviet Union did not balance against Nazi Germany in 1939 because a belt of weak Central European states separated the two countries, which is why the USSR chose to buck-pass even though Germany became a potential European hegemon in the late 1930 s. However, had the USSR chosen to balance the theory would still be confirmed because Germany, being a potential hegemon, threatened to dominate Europe. Second a logical problem exists regarding how the variable, geographic location, fits into Mearsheimer s otherwise very structural theory. To be sure, geographical location is not a structural variable. This is evident in Kenneth Waltz structural theory where non-systemic factors such as geography play no role at all. In fact as argued by Wivel location is antithetical to Waltz structural theory because it is concerned with the systemic balance of power and not regional or subregional balances. This implies that variations only occur across systems because of shift in the balance of power but not within systems (cf.: Wivel 2000b: 8). This brings us back to the problem discussed above regarding the relationship between the 12 Counter-hegemony is defined as a strategy based on the belief that established regional hegemons are principally concerned that no other great power dominate any region of the world (Mearsheimer 1998: 222). 13 An additional problem associated with regional analysis is how to define the boundaries of different regions. Defining such boundaries is important because the essence of regional analysis is that some states are included in a regional balance of power while others are excluded. There is, however, no generally accepted way of defining regions and Mearsheimer himself makes no attempt to offer solutions to this problem. For an explicit attempt at defining regional security complexes see Buzan (1991).
20 levels of analysis in Mearsheimer s thinking. The ambiguous role of location inevitably makes one wonder if the inclusion of geographic location in the otherwise very structural theory merely functions as a residual explanation to account for obvious anomalies in the theory e.g. why the US and Great Britain have mostly pursued defensive strategies and not acted like aggressive security maximisers. Empirical validity The final important requirement of this evaluation is to assess whether Mearsheimer s hypotheses are empirically valid? 14 In The Tragedy of Great Power Politics Mearsheimer primarily looks for evidence supporting his theoretical proposition of power-maximisation among six cases of great power behaviour from 1860 till The selected cases seem to compound the predictions of offensive realism to a substantial degree. Analysing the foreign policies of Japan ( ), Germany ( ), the Soviet Union ( ), and Italy ( ) Mearsheimer concludes that these states all strove to maximise their share of world power in accordance with the predictions of the theory. For instance, Japan attempted to become a hegemon in Asia in tandem with its rising power-position after the Meiji-restoration in the 1860 s. Furthermore, Germany, after being united under the leadership of Bismarckian Prussia in the 1860 s, fast became the strongest European power and soon embarked on a hegemonic crusade trying to dominate all of Europe causing two world wars on the way until Nazi-Germany was defeated and partitioned by the Allies in In addition, The Soviet Union, strengthened in relative terms, emerged from the destruction of World War II as a potential hegemon and attempted to dominate the European continent although the expansion of the USSR in Europe was halted in its tracks in the early 1950 s by the successful containment of the United States and its Western European allies. Finally, following the formation of the Italian state in 1861, Italy became a great power and quickly sought to expand its control into the Balkans and Africa (Mearsheimer 2001a: Ch. 6). To be sure, this is an impressive list of cases supporting the theory as these four states made up half of the great powers between 1891 and 1991 (the others being the USA, Great Britain, France, and China after 1945). As such the theory explains at least 50 percent of the cases in question. But why were the other four great powers not acting as security maximisers? Mearsheimer argues, that, in fact they were - at least when the USA and Great Britain are concerned while France and China are mostly left out from the analysis. During the 19 th century the USA expanded in North America and at the turn of the century the country had become a regional hegemon in the Americas. Even though Mearsheimer, strangely, does not point to this fact himself, Great Britain too was expansionist for centuries building the largest empire the world has ever seen. But why did they not try to dominate the other great powers in Europe and North East Asia, as one would expect? Mearsheimer replies that because both Great Britain and the USA were separated from the European and the Asian mainland their ability to expand was reduced by the stopping power of water. Therefore, in accordance with the theory, they mainly pursued an offshore balancer strategy of checking aggressors, sending troops either to Europe or North East Asia whenever a potential hegemon emerged. Thus, the 14 An important qualification is in place here because as argued by King, Keohane, & Verba (1994) no social theory is able to explain all available evidence. Some contradictory cases always will emerge when dealing with social phenomena. Consequently we should not discard a social science theory because it flunks at explaining a few deviant cases within its purview. However, to be valid a theory should be able to explain a good deal of the cases within its range.