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

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The Post - Cold War World

The argument you're making is what you wanted -- namely, controversy -- and before 9/11, it was even more controversial. Let's look at some of those arguments. The Soviet Union fell, the Berlin Wall came down, and before we knew who Osama bin Laden was, it looked like the world was going the other way. We were looking at globalization, we were looking at the movement of people and money, and it looked like a global culture and society was emerging, and states were losing their power. We were seeing the decline of the nation state, or the state power, which is critical to your theory. What was your argument then and what is it now, [based on] your theory?

There are two arguments here. One is that the state is disappearing, and the second is that cooperation was replacing conflict as the dominating feature of international politics. Let's take them one at a time.

First of all, I think that there is no evidence that during the 1990s, and certainly now, that the state is disappearing from the face of the earth. The fact of the matter is that the most powerful political ideology in the world today, and it's been the most powerful political ideology in the world for two centuries, is nationalism. Nationalism glorifies the state, and there are all sorts of people out there fighting for a state of their own. The Palestinians are just one example of that. So the state is here to stay for the long term.

Now, with regard to the argument that cooperation was replacing conflict as the defining feature of international politics, I think that there's no question that there was less conflict among the great powers during the 1990s than there was during the rest of the twentieth century, when you had World War I, World War II, and the Cold War. But the principal reason for that was the architecture of power that you had in Europe and Northeast Asia with the end of the Cold War. When the Cold War ended in Europe and the Soviet Union collapsed, you were left with this remnant state called Russia that was remarkably weak, and in no position to cause any trouble. The other potential great powers in Europe -- Britain, France, and especially Germany -- were in no position to cause any trouble because the United States had 100,000 troops stationed in Europe, and was sitting on top of those states throughout the 1990s through NATO, the way it had sat on top of those states from 1945 to 1990, during the Cold War. So it was the American pacifier in Europe, and you have basically the same situation in Asia, where you have the American pacifier there. You have 100,000 troops in Asia as well, most of them in Korea and Japan, sitting on top of some of the most powerful states in both of those regions, and preventing them from fighting with each other. And China and Russia, which are the two states that the United States is not sitting on top of, are both so weak that they're in no position to cause any trouble.

Nevertheless, I would remind you that we have fought three wars since the Cold War ended. We fought a war against Saddam Hussein in 1991, we fought a war against Slobodan Milosevic in Yugoslavia in 1999, and we fought a war in Afghanistan last year, and, in fact, that war is still going on. So despite the fact that there has been not much conflict between the great powers, there has been a great deal of conflict in the world, and the United States has been involved in at least three of those wars.

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