John Mearsheimer Interview: Conversations with History; Institute of International Studies, UC Berkeley

Through the Realist Lens: Conversation with John Mearsheimer, Professor of Political Science, University of Chicago; April 8, 2002 by Harry Kreisler
Photo by Jane Scherr

Page 2 of 7

Being a Realist

In the end, you became an international relations theorist, somebody who works on strategy, and can be put in the Realist camp. I'm curious as to what it takes to do this kind of work.

What exactly do you mean when you say "what it takes"?

What sorts of skills, other than the ones that you've already mentioned? What kind of thinking, what kind of preparation for that thinking?

Well, I've given a lot of thought to this question; it's a fascinating issue. I think by and large, theorists, IR theorists, are born, not created. I think you either have an instinct for creating theories or you don't. It's very had to take people who don't have those proclivities and to turn them into a theorist.

I think to be a theorist, you have to be creative, you have to be willing to invent new ideas, number one. Two, you have to be willing to make arguments that are likely to be controversial, and, therefore, cause all sorts of people to come after you hammer and tong. And, number three, I think you have to know a lot of history to be an IR theorist of some consequence. You have to have thought long and hard about how the world works, because what you're doing is trying to come up with an explanation that can account for a large part of international politics. If you haven't thought long and hard about how the world actually works, it's hard to imagine how you could come up with a theory that could explain the world. So I think these different characteristics are essential for someone who wants to be an IR theorist. And the first two are, I think, not learned. They're born into you, they're hardwired into you at birth. The third you can learn.

Now, you are a Realist. Help us understand what the essential features of a Realist theory are, and what your particular take on the Realist theory is.

Realists are individuals who believe that the state is the principal actor in international politics. And, furthermore, they believe that states are very concerned with the balance of power. book coverPretty much everything that states do is connected to how the behavior that they're taking at any particular time will affect their position in the balance of power. When you talk about the balance of power, you're really talking about military power and the use of military force -- that's all bound up with this concept of the balance. So Realists tend to be people who pay a lot of attention to the use of force. They study things like deterrence and war fighting, and the impact of nuclear weapons on international politics, and so forth and so on. So I think those are the key ingredients that all Realists share.

My view is that there are basically three kinds of Realists. "Human Nature" Realists are Realists who believe that states, like individuals, are hardwired at birth with a will to power in them, and that states constantly compete for power, because it's an innate phenomenon. Hans Morganthau is the most famous Human Nature Realist.

Who was at the University of Chicago, where you now.

Who was at the University of Chicago, right.

The second school of Realist thought, or what I call the "Defensive Realists," are people who believe that states behave somewhat aggressively because the structure of the international system forces them to compete for power. It's not that states are hard-wired with this animus domanandi, as Morganthau calls it. What drives states is the fact that the best way to survive in the system is to be very powerful, and every state understands that, and, therefore, they compete for power. Witness how the United States and the Soviet Union behaved during the Cold War.

These Defensive Realists, however, tend to believe that states only want a limited amount of power because they understand that too much power is a bad thing. Kenneth Waltz, who is probably the most famous living Realist theorist, and who was a professor here at Berkeley for many years, is the archetypical Defensive Realist. Waltz believes that states do compete for power, but it does not make sense to want too much power.

I agree with Waltz, that structure determines how states behave. In other words, it's the structure of the international system that causes states to compete for power.

And it's an anarchical system that they have to operate in.

Yes. It's an anarchical system, meaning that there's no higher authority that sits above states. So you have a "911" problem. If a state gets into trouble in the international system, it can't dial 911 because there's nobody on top to come to its rescue. It's this anarchy that pushes states to compete for power. So Waltz and I agree on that.

But the fundamental difference between the two of us is that I believe that states seek hegemony. I believe that they're ultimately more aggressive than Waltz portrays them as being. The goal for states is to dominate the entire system. To put it in colloquial terms, the aim of states is to be the biggest and baddest dude on the block. Because if you're the biggest and baddest dude on the block, then it is highly unlikely that any other state will challenge you, simply because you're so powerful. Just take the Western Hemisphere, for example, where the United States is by far the most powerful state in the region. No state -- Canada, Guatemala, Cuba, Mexico -- would even think about going to war against the United States, because we are so powerful. This is the ideal situation to have, to be so powerful that nobody else can challenge you. But Waltz would argue that it's not a good idea to be so powerful, because when you push in that direction, other states balance against you to try and cut you down at the knees.

You believe that the key to understanding the U.S. role in the world today is that we are the only state that has hegemonic power in its own region.

My argument is, Harry, that it's impossible for any one state to be a global hegemon, to dominate the entire globe. The globe is just too big, and there are huge power projection problems associated with the bodies of water that separate the various regions of the world. In other words, for us to go on a rampage in Asia, and conquer huge parts of Asia, would involve projecting power across this giant moat called the Pacific Ocean, and it's just not going to happen.

So I argue that what states can do is they can become the hegemon in their own region of the world. In other words, you can become a regional hegemon, not a global hegemon. But furthermore, what states want to do is make sure that there are no other regional hegemons on the face of the earth. In other words, they don't want to have a peer competitor.

And the reason for that is what? That they are concerned that another regional hegemon would inevitably try to interfere with their backyard?

Yes, that's right. Let's take the United States, for example. The United States is a regional hegemon in the Western Hemisphere. The United States does not want a regional hegemon in Europe, whether it's Imperial Germany or Nazi Germany or the Soviet Union, because it would fear that if that state had no competitors in its region, if it were the dominant state, it would be free to interfere and form alliances with states in the Western Hemisphere, and possibly threaten the security of the United States. So from the American point of view, the best situation that you could have in Europe is for there to be two or more great powers that focus most of their attention on each other, and therefore are much less concerned about what's going on in the Western Hemisphere. So the United States, over time, I argue, has gone to great lengths to make sure that there is no regional hegemon in either Europe or Northeast Asia, the two areas of the globe where there are other great powers and ergo there may be a potential peer competitor.

Next page: The Post - Cold War World

© Copyright 2002, Regents of the University of California