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 United States and Realism

Why is it so hard for the United States to buy into a Realist theory of the world and a Realist explanation of its own behavior?

Realism has two real problems with it for most Americans. First of all, Realism has a very pessimistic view of international politics. It says there has always been conflict, there is conflict today, book coverand there always will be conflict, and there's not much you can do about it. This is what I call the "tragedy of great power politics," which is the title of my book.

The second point that Realists make that most Americans find repugnant is the idea that you can't discriminate between morally virtuous states and malign states in the international system. For Realists, all states are basically black boxes that behave the same way. If the United States has to be ruthless, the United States will be ruthless. That's the argument that Realists make. Now, Americans are fundamentally liberals at heart. They believe in progress, they're products of the Enlightenment, they are people who believe that through hard thinking and skillful policies, it's possible to solve the world's problems; that somewhere out there in the future (it's hard to say when), we can create a more peaceful world. That is in contrast to the pessimism of Realists. And American liberals -- and when we talk about American liberals, we're talking about the vast majority of Americans -- therefore, dislike Realism for that reason.

The other point that Americans believe in is the idea that our country, the United States, is a highly moral country, that we behave according to a different code of conduct than most other states. In the Cold War, for example, there were good guys and bad guys -- we were the good guys and the Soviets were the bad guys. Realists, on the other hand, don't discriminate between good states and bad states, they're just states. And a Realist explanation of the Cold War would say that the United States and the Soviet Union were both equals, and they behaved according to the same rules, because the structure of the system left them with no choice. That's a perspective that most Americans recoil at.

In addition to this dilemma for Americans to understand the way the world really works, and the way that policy-makers actually make policy, there is the added difficulty that we're doing this in a democracy. So your theory and what you just said suggests that our leaders are always not putting all their cards on the table as they get elected and debate the issues. How does that problem affect the way we behave in the world?

We behave in the world according to Realistic dictates on almost every occasion. What's affected by the point you're making is that rhetoric. In other words, we act according to the dictates of realpolitik, but we justify our policies in terms of liberal ideologies. So what is going on here is that in many cases, elites speak one language [in public], and act according to a different logic and speak a different language behind closed doors.

Now, to unpack this a bit more. There are some cases where the dictates of realpolitik and the dictates of the idealism that is so attractive to most Americans line up perfectly. For example, in the fight against Nazi Germany and the fight against the Soviet Union, the logic of Realism pointed in the exactly the same direction as the logic of idealism, so it was not difficult for American elites to justify the war against both Nazi Germany and against the Soviet Union, in terms of idealist rhetoric. It was completely consistent with what we were doing. The tricky cases are when the United States has to form an alliance with a repressive regime, or go to war against a state that it thinks is quite progressive. Then Realist logic points in one direction and idealist logic points in another direction. In those cases, what the United States does is it brings out the spin doctors, and they tell a story to the American people that makes it look like what the United States is doing is completely consistent with its ideals.

A perfect case in point of this is how we dealt with the Soviet Union in the late 1930s. In the late 1930s, Stalin was viewed as a murderous thug, and the Soviet Union was widely considered to be a totalitarian state. But in December of 1941, when we went to war against Nazi Germany, we ended up as a close ally of the Soviet Union. So what we did was bring the spin doctors out, and Joseph Stalin became Uncle Joe, and the Soviet Union was described as an emerging democracy, and we made all the necessary rhetorical changes to make it look like we were aligning ourselves with a burgeoning democracy, because Americans would find it very difficult to tolerate a situation where we, in effect, jumped into bed with a totalitarian state that was run by a murderous leader like Joe Stalin. So we cleaned him up.

What are the implications of this for the conduct of a foreign policy in a democratic system? I'm hearing you say that politicians do not lay all their cards on the table, but cloak their action in liberal democratic terms. How should people examine their leaders in an electoral process, in a democracy, when it comes to the conduct of foreign policy?

I think that they should tend to be very skeptical. It's very important for students of foreign policy to be skeptical about what their leaders say, regardless of the country that you live in, regardless of whether it's Bill Clinton or George Bush who is running American foreign policy. We should all be very skeptical of what our leaders say, because they have powerful incentives to mislead us on occasion -- not always. As I said before, there will be cases when they're giving us the straight poop, but there will also be cases where they have an incentive to mislead, and we want to be aware of that.

The second point is, I would pay more attention to what states do, rather than what they say. If you look at the behavior of states and mesh it with the rhetoric of the leaders, you'll often find a real disjuncture there, and those are the cases where you want to examine things much more closely.

What are the particular responsibilities of a strategist and an IR theorist as they get involved in the policy debate in their own country? book coverI know one of your books was on the British strategist Liddell Hart. What did you learn from that study about the dilemmas that confront a strategist in keeping the debate honest, as it relates to national security and foreign policy?

What I learned from that case, and also from a handful of other cases that I've studied and thought about over time, is that in a democracy it's very important to have individuals who have the freedom to say whatever they want. If you look carefully at most people who speak out about American foreign policy or about German foreign policy or British foreign policy, you can pick your country, most of them are constrained in what they can say because they're beholden to certain institutions. Oftentimes, it's the state. As you know, in German universities, your appointment as a professor is dependent on the state. These are all state-run universities, so you have to be very careful what you say when you are a German professor, for fear you might run afoul of the government.

The beauty of the American system is that we have all these private institutions, and even public institutions like Berkeley, where with the tenure system, professors are free to say whatever they want, and suffer hardly any consequences in terms of losing their jobs. Therefore, I think we have a very important responsibility to talk about important issues, and to challenge conventional wisdoms that other people might be unwilling to challenge. We have a real social responsibility here.

One thing that bothers me greatly about most political scientists today is that they have hardly any sense of social responsibility. They have hardly any sense that they're part of the body politic and that the ideas that they are developing should be articulated to the body politic for the purposes of influencing the public debate and particular policies in important ways. They believe that they're doing "science," and science is sort of an abstract phenomenon that has little to do with politics. In fact, I think exactly the opposite should be the case. We should study problems that are of great public importance, and when we come to our conclusions regarding those problems, we should go to considerable lengths to communicate our findings to the broader population, so that we can help influence the debate in positive ways.

I'm not making the argument here, by the way, for coming up with particular answers to important questions. In fact, if different scholars come up with different answers, fine. But in a democracy like the United States, you want to have a very healthy public debate about the key issues of the day. And I think that scholars can go a long way towards making that debate richer and healthier.

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