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 Problem of Terrorism

Let's look at two problems and see if we can tie some of these problems together. Terrorism -- that is something that we were confronted with starkly after the blowing up of the Twin Towers by the hijacked planes and the al Qaeda terrorists in control of the planes. What sort of a problem is terrorism in the eyes of somebody who is a Realist, who does international relation theory? What do you have to say about the way the government is conducting the war against terrorism?

There are a lot of different questions embedded in that one.

Yes. Let's unpack them.

First of all, it's very important to emphasize that terrorism was a significant problem before 9/11. As you know, in 1993, al Qaeda tried to blow up the World Trade Center. They just failed on that occasion. And we, the United States, had been the victim of terrorist attacks by al Qaeda on more than a handful of occasions in the 1990s. What happened on 9/11 that is so important is that they proved beyond a doubt that they were not the gang that couldn't shoot straight, which is what we thought was the case before 9/11. When we realized just how competent and dangerous they were, we then began to hypothesize what might happen if they got ahold of weapons of mass destruction, and particularly, if they got ahold of nuclear weapons. So the terrorism problem has been with us for awhile, and most IR theorists have spent some time thinking about it. But what has changed over the past year is the magnitude of the threat. We understand that we're up against a much more formidable and much more dangerous adversary than we thought was the case throughout the 1990s. So that's point number one.

Point number two is the question of what does a Realist theory of international politics have to say about terrorists? The answer is not a whole heck of a lot. Realism, as I said before, is really all about the relations among states, especially among great powers. In fact, al Qaeda is not a state, it's a non-state actor, which is sometimes called a transnational actor. My theory and virtually all Realist theories don't have much to say about transnational actors. However, there is no question that terrorism is a phenomenon that will play itself out in the context of the international system. So it will be played out in the state arena, and, therefore, all of the Realist logic about state behavior will have a significant effect on how the war on terrorism is fought. So Realism and terrorism are inextricably linked, although I do think that Realism does not have much to say about the causes of terrorism.

Now, the final issue that you raised is the question of what I think of about how the Bush administration is waging the war on terrorism. My basic view, which may sound somewhat odd coming from a Realist, is that the Bush administration's policy is wrong-headed because it places too much emphasis on using military force to deal with the problem, and not enough emphasis on diplomacy. I think that if we hope to win the war on terrorism, or to put it in more modest terms, to ameliorate the problem, what we have to do is win hearts and minds in the Arab and Islamic world.

There's no doubt that there are huge numbers of people in that world who hate the United States, and a significant percentage of those people are willing to either sacrifice themselves as suicide bombers or support suicide bombing attacks against the United States. What we have to do is we have to ameliorate that hatred, and we have to go to great lengths to win hearts and minds. I don't believe that you can do that with military force. I think some military force is justified. If you could convince me that Osama bin Laden and his fellow leaders are located in a particular set of caves in Afghanistan at this point in time, I would be perfectly willing to use massive military force to get at those targets and to kill all of the al Qaeda leadership. But I think, in general, what the United States wants to do is not rely too heavily on military force -- in part, because the target doesn't lend itself to military attack, but more importantly, because using military force in the Arab and Islamic world is just going to generate more resentment against us and cause the rise of more terrorists and give people cause to support these terrorists. So I'd privilege diplomacy much more than military force in this war, and I think the Bush administration would be wise if it moved more towards diplomacy and less towards force.

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