Whence, John J. Mearsheimer?

John J. Mearsheimer, one of America’s leading foreign policy experts, promotes an ideology-free view of America’s national interest. But, lately, he seems to be getting a little cranky…

If you know who John J. Mearsheimer is, skip to the next section

John J. Mearsheimer is a big deal. He is the R. Wendell Harrison Distinguished Service Professor of Political Science and the co-director of the Program on International Security Policy at the University of Chicago. He has a PhD from Cornell, did post-doctoral work at Harvard and was a fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations.

He is perhaps best known to the readers of these pages as the co-author, along with Stephen Walt, of the New York Times bestseller The Israel Lobby and U.S. Foreign Policy (2007).

Before entering the fray created by his book on the Israel lobby, he earned a substantial academic reputation through his less polemical work, including the award-winning The Tragedy of Great Power Politics (2001).

The controversy around his statements on Israel haven’t diminished his stature, nor too terribly distracted admirers from “the urgent and enduring message of Mearsheimer’s life’s work, which topples conventional foreign-policy shibboleths and provides an unblinking guide to the course the United States should follow in the coming decades.” (The Atlantic, Dec. 2011)

What is John J. Mearsheimer’s ‘urgent and enduring message’?

Offensive neorealism.

It’s not that complicated. Neorealism essentially argues that power is the most important factor in international relations.

Mearsheimer’s brand of neorealism – offensive neorealism – sharpens the point. He says that national governments behave as self-interested power maximizers. This is driven by their fear for their own security, and it pushes states, where possible, to try to control their neighbors and extend their influence to other vital chokepoints around the world (think the Saudi peninsula).

To oversimplify, the dual maxims of offensive realism might be – ‘states are always primarily concerned with self-defense’ and ‘the best defense is a good offense.’

Mearsheimer doesn’t defend his view on the grounds that it is morally appealing. He just says we should be realistic. Other states take this approach. They are looking to maximize their influence at our expense. So the United States deviates from this approach at our own peril. And if we fail to recognize this drive in other states, well that is to our peril as well.

Mearsheimer, like other realists (only more so), does not use normative language. He isn’t talking about how he thinks the world should be. He speaks in descriptive terms. Mearsheimer’s Offensive Neorealism is explicitly non-ideological.

Mearsheimer’s Offensive Neorealism is explicitly non-ideological. And Mearsheimer’s explicitly non-ideological language is a huge part of his appeal.

And Mearsheimer’s explicitly non-ideological language is a huge part of his appeal. We are emerging, a bit hungover, from a generation of U.S. foreign policy discussions – under Clinton and Bush – that took place in explicitly ideological terms. Clinton expressed a deep belief in the ability of international organizations to promote peace and a modicum of good behavior among states. Bush favored a more direct approach. But both presidents described our foreign policy in terms of how we thought the world should be, and both were big spenders.

The Obama administrations has provided little tonic for this hangover, with its baffling and rudderless approach to international relations.

So maybe this is Mearsheimer’s moment.

Yet, there’s something about Mearsheimer’s analysis – the language of that analysis – that nags at the reader. More on that next time.

About the Author
Richard E. Ford is a communications specialist in Washington DC with a keen interest in Israel, and an abiding belief that small facts are more useful than big narratives.
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