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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Lessons Learned

The argument on the other side by the people who believe in the emergence of international institutions is, in some sense, an idealist argument, that certain values -- whether it's human rights, or whether it's the values of international commerce and capitalism -- will take hold and offer a brighter future than Realist theories offer, however compelling the logic of Realism. The question I have for you is, is there in Realism a place for values and the realization of those values in the world? Because at one level, Realism can sound very mechanistic, that there is a logic here, and it's very hard to deviate from that logic. There doesn't seem to be a place for normative structures -- for example, the universalizing of human rights, and so on. Any comments on that?

Well, I am sad to say that I think that your description of Realism is an apt one. That is to say that there is not much place for human rights and values in the Realist story. Realists basically believe that states are interested in gaining power, either because they're hardwired that way or because it's the best way to survive, and they don't pay much attention at all to values. There's a new book out by Samantha Power that everybody should read. It deals with the question of how the United States reacted to all the principal genocides of the twentieth century, the most recent of which is the Rwanda crisis of 1994. And the central conclusion that she reaches is despite all the rhetoric in the United States over time about our willingness to fight on behalf of human rights, our record is an abysmal one. If you read her chapter on how we behaved during the Rwanda crises, it will make you sick to your stomach. Here is an administration, the Clinton administration, that was filled with people who extolled the virtues of human rights regimes and the importance of the international community intervening to prevent mass murder, and so forth and so on. In the event, when there was evidence pouring in that a genocide was taking place in Rwanda, a real genocide, they behaved in the most despicable fashion. And this is consistent with how we have behaved over time.

The fact of the matter is, as I said to you earlier, states talk a good game when it comes to values, but they actually behave in a very realpolitik, or rather cold and calculating manner when the money is on the table. And what does this tell me? This tells me that if you're interested in survival in the international system, the best way to survive is to have your own state, and to have lots of power, and not to depend on the international community.

The Jews learned this lesson very clearly. This is what Zionism is all about. The Jews understood that as long as they didn't have their own state, they were at the mercy of other states, or of states that had a lot of power and could beat up on them. And that when they dialed 911, or they thought about calling in the international community, there would be nobody at the other end. So they got their own state. Now, the Jews are whopping up on the Palestinians. The Palestinians are getting very little help from the international community. Right? When they dial 911, there's nobody there at the other end. Not surprisingly, the Palestinians are desperate to get their own state.

So the basic lesson I take from studying international history over time is that it makes sense if you're interested in surviving, if you as a people are interesting in surviving, to have your own state and be as powerful as possible.

What advice would you give to students who might watch this tape or read this interview as to how they should prepare for the future?

My view is that students should read widely, John Mearsheimerand they should look at all of the competing theories that are out there that attempt to explain how the world works. As I've tried to make clear here, there are a number of Realist theories about how the world works. Morganthau is different than Waltz, and Waltz is different than Mearsheimer, right? And I'm different than Morganthau. These are three very distinct Realist theories. Then you have a whole body of Liberal theories, and theories that have been devised by social constructivists that explain, in very different ways than Realism, how the world works. I think students should pay very careful attention to all of those theories and get them deeply embedded in their brain, while at the same time looking carefully at how the world works. Looking at the historical record. Looking at what happened in the twentieth century, World War I, World War II, the Cold War. They should constantly be running all of those different theories that they've studied up against the historical record, to determine for themselves which theories they think best explain the world.

I always tell students, "My goal here is not to make you a Realist. I'm going to give you my view on how the world works. Hopefully, many of you will think that my theory is a powerful theory. But if you don't, and you come to different conclusions, so be it." But the important point is that you want to be open-minded about all the theories that are out there. Especially for young students. Not old codgers like you and me, who have already figured out what our theories are, and are now attached to them for all sorts of different reasons. These are young people who have an opportunity to play around with all sorts of theories, and to run them up against the real world, to come to their own conclusions about how they think the world operates.

If students watching this, what suggestions do you have about the lesson they might learn from your intellectual odyssey -- solder, theorist, and so on?

There are two lessons I would take from it. One is, it's almost impossible to figure out how you're going to end up, wherever you end up somewhere down the road. The world works in very funny ways, and I never imagined when I was a young boy, training myself to be a professional athlete, or when I was a cadet at West Point, that I would become an IR theorist someday. If somebody had told me that in, say, 1964, or even 1970, when I graduated from West Point, I would have said that that person should be taken away to the loony bin. I just did not think it was in the cards. So one never knows where he or she is going to end up. That's point number one.

Point number two is one thing I've learned over time, that it's important to have lots of different life experiences, and to expose oneself to all sorts of different situations and different theories, and different kinds of people, because it provides you with all sorts of insights about how the world works. You don't want to be narrow in your learning experience. You want to be wide-ranging, you want to absorb tremendous amounts of information, and you constantly want to be running it through your brain to see how well the theories that you have in your head about how the world works, how they mesh up with the real world. The key point, remember here, is that all individuals have theories in their heads. We understand the world in terms of theories. What we have to constantly be doing is upgrading and improving our theories. Because the theories that we have when we're twenty years old, many of them we junk by the time we're forty years old, because the world doesn't work according to those theories. So people want to be conscious of this interplay between the theories they have in their head, and the real world, and pay very careful attention to that phenomenon.

Mearsheimer with fellow IR theorists Steve Miller, Barry Posen, and Steve Van Ever

One final question. What should students get out of an undergraduate education that helps them along the path that you just described?

If you're an undergraduate, what you want to do is you want to take a lot of history courses, and you want to familiarize yourself with what's called the empirical database. You just want to know a lot about history and a lot about the politics of the day. In fact, you want to read The New York Times, or the Wall Street Journal, or your local newspaper, and you want to read widely.

The other point that I would make is that you want to take a good number of courses where they teach the prevailing theories in the various sub-disciplines. You want to take courses in American politics, for example, where you get the principal theories; you want to go over to the Sociology Department and you want to take courses where the principal theories of the day are laid out; and the same thing is true with international politics. There's no substitute for having a wide-ranging knowledge base, and there's no substitute for being familiar with the theories of the day, because that will help you refine your own thinking, help you fine-tune those theories that you have in your head, maybe even abandon certain theories that you have in your head, and adopt new theories. As you well know, we all go through life, and we reach certain junctures along the road where we junk theories that we once thought were tremendously powerful, and that's because we get introduced to new ideas that give us a much better grasp on life, and we also, sometimes, run into evidence that contradicts the theories we have in our head.

So I would say to students that what you want to do is, you want to make sure that you exposure yourself to lots of theories and to lots of history.

John, on that positive note, thank you very much for being with us today and sharing this story of your intellectual journey.

Thank you.

And thank you very much for joining us for this Conversation with History.

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