As discussed in the last section the Waltzian model of realism has had profound effects on international relations theory. However, even fellow realists have found problems and inconsistencies with Waltz’s structural realism. John Mearsheimer is one of these theorists. He uses and adapts on Waltz’s theory to paint a much more pessimistic and altogether darker picture of International relations theory. He expands on Waltz’s idea of structure causing behaviour, but he rejects the ‘status quo bias in Waltz’s theory.’ (Mearsheimer, 2001, p. 20) Instead he favours a more aggressive form of state interaction forced by anarchic systems which lead states to become hegemonies.
Mearsheimer still refers to himself as a structural realist because his assumptions are based on states acting in an anarchic system. While he uses Waltz’s theory of structure he does have serious reservations about defensive realism’s theoretical usefulness:
‘Realist theories are invariably simple or parsimonious, which has an upside and a downside. Any simple theory, as we all know, can only explain so much about the world, because by definition it omits a variety of factors from its explanatory apparatus, and sometimes those factors matter a lot.’ (Mearsheimer, Booth, Wheeler, & Williams, 2006, p. 107)
He goes further to explain why this is a problem for Waltz’s theory:
‘My main problem with defensive realism is that it does not do a good job of explaining how the world actually works. It may be a good normative theory but it is not a good descriptive theory.’ (ibid., p. 111)
Mearsheimer has attempted to rectify this problem by creating a new theory, or more accurately, amending the pre-existing theory. To do this he state the five key assumptions realism is based upon. The bulk of this section will attempt to critique his amendments to Waltz’s structural realism and will attempt to show how they are also logically dubious. As stated in the previous section Waltz erred on the side of parsimony rather than providing a descriptive theory. (Sørensen, 2011, p. 112)
Mearsheimer starts his book with his five key assumptions, which he restates throughout his work. While he never explicitly ranks them, it is fair to say, based on his theory, that the following order is most important to least important.
‘States are the key actors in World Politics and they operate in an anarchic system.
Great powers invariably have some offensive military capability.
States can never be certain whether other states have hostile intentions towards them.
Great powers place a high premium on survival.
States are rational actors who are reasonably effective at designing strategies that maximise their chances of survival.’ (ibid., pp. 362-363)
Mearsheimer seems to add an addendum to his own work, that maximising chances for survival necessarily dictates that states are power-hungry. That they will attempt to gain power and try to achieve regional and perhaps global hegemony. He creates a set of mutually exclusive conditions tries to make them operate in concert to explain state behaviour. He claims in his book ‘The Tragedy of Great Power Politics’ that ‘the structure of the international system, not the particular characteristics of individual powers, causes them to think and act offensively and to seek hegemony.’ (ibid., p. 53) He argues that Waltz’s self-help behaviour, created by security dilemmas within the international system, was not taken far enough. ‘In anarchy… the desire to survive encourages states to behave aggressively.’ (ibid., p. 54) He assumes that such behaviour does not accurately explain states primary motivation and that when given the opportunity that states will act to create superiority or hegemony. He makes very little effort to explain why an anarchic system forces these actions. He assumes that through a series of, arguably flawed, case studies that his reader will accept his assumption as an epistemological fact. This is counterintuitive when his first assumption of world politics tells that states act in anarchy. Mearsheimer explains that anarchy means that states have ‘no higher authority above them.’ (2005, p. 2005) Hegemony is defined by Mearsheimer as ‘a state that is so powerful that it dominates all the other states in the system.’ (2001, p. 40) This would then prioritize the hegemon and it would act as a higher authority in the international system. This could conceivably create a hierarchic international system.
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Mearsheimer rejects this, and contradicts the logical extension of his theoretical assumptions in the process, when describing the present international system; ‘we are not moving towards a hierarchic international system, which would effectively mean some kind of world government. In fact, anarchy looks like it will be with us for a long time.’ (2001, p. 365) Mearsheimer seems to be suggesting throughout his work that the hegemon would not be an authority above the states but more of a primus inter pares. His reasoning for hegemonic growth is based in the security dilemma international relations presents. The ultimate goal being survival states will attempt to gain enough relative power that they cannot be threatened. (Wang, 2004, pp. 176-177) Nevertheless, there is still no compelling argument given to show how anarchy relates to hegemonic stability theory.
This apparent contradiction between theoretical assumptions warrants further consideration. To provide a critique that is both succinct and effective it is reasonable to use a few fundamental shortcuts in the following examination. The first of these is that this critique will assume that Mearsheimer’s underlying theoretical assumptions are correct (within the reaches of his own theory). In particular his first assumption that the structure of world politics is anarchical and the underlying premise of his work that states seek power to enhance security and that hegemony is the ultimate goal are the two theoretical assumptions that will be focused on. The second is to assume that he is correct when he labels America as a regional hegemony. It is important to note that neither of these conditions are as clear cut or simple as Mearsheimer would seem to believe, indeed the first will be challenged throughout this section. The critique will be examining the relationship between the European Union and America. It will question whether the primus inter pares relationship described above is real or if hegemonic stability theory is anathema to anarchic structures.
To begin it should be noted that it is very hard to make the case that Europe is one homogenous entity subject to the same rules and responsibilities of a state. This argument is largely born as a hypothetical situation. The following situation is being used to demonstrate a logical inconsistency and contradiction within Mearsheimer’s theory. I intend to question Mearsheimer’s conception of state actions and anarchy. Without considering other influencing factors (given that almost all realists assume that states are the main actors) the main actor that will be discussed is Germany. The situation will use Mearsheimer’s own arguments regarding potential hegemonies and the actions existing hegemonies take to prevent their rise. Mearsheimer argues that economic and political interdependence would not be enough to secure the rise of Germany within Europe. (1994-1995, pp. 6-8) America is the deciding factor when it comes to preventing war in Europe. (ibid. 6-8, 47-49) This is the action of a hegemonic entity he argues.
‘States that achieve regional Hegemony seek to prevent great powers in other regions from duplicating their feat. … Thus the United States, for example, played a key role in preventing imperial Japan, Wilhelmine Germany, Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union from gaining regional supremacy.’ (Mearsheimer J. J., 2001, p. 41)
He goes on to explain how this is relevant to the example:
‘If a potential hegemon emerges among them, the other great powers in that region might be able to contain it by themselves, allowing the distant hegemon to remain safely on the sidelines. Of course, if the local great powers were unable to do the job, the distant hegemon would take the appropriate measures.’ (ibid., p. 41)
Mearsheimer states that this form of state (it is worthwhile to point out that a hegemon is substantially different to a state this point will be expanded upon later in the section) behaviour is more about balancing power and preventing a potential threat becoming an actual threat. This is broadly in keeping with realist assumptions of state action. However, if the term balancing is replaced with policing, which is equally applicable, the action becomes problematic if the system is meant to remain anarchic. He does in fact explicitly state that ‘the peace in Europe today, is the result of the American pacifier, not the establishment of a security community.’ (Mearsheimer, Booth, Wheeler, & Williams, 2006, p. 116) This is not the role of a hegemonic balancing act. It is the imposition of order by the hegemon on other states. There is an argument to be made that it does balance a perceived future threat, that argument is, however, unconvincing. The security dilemma does not stipulate that a state respond to an implied threat, the only response warranted is when there is a de facto threat. The degree of economic integration and interdependence in Europe necessarily precludes Germany from seeking power as it would lead to negative gain. Mearsheimer oddly goes further than this when discussing this problem ‘I think you have peace in western Europe because there is a higher authority that maintains order. There is a 911 to call: the United States.’ (2006, p. 121) The contradiction becomes apparent; anarchy is the absence of a higher authority, hegemony is the imposition of it. There is little doubt that Mearsheimer would disagree with this interpretation of hegemony as he would regard America acting as a global policeman (absent the need to balance an aggressively growing potential hegemon) as ill advised and contrary to the underlying assumptions of his theory. (2001, pp. 50-51)
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The reason this example is so confused is also born out of a contradiction implicit within Mearsheimer’s work. Germany could never be a potential hegemon, irrespective of historical imperatives. The reasons for this are apparent in Mearsheimer’s own work the rational actor assumption would seem to stop a state from taking an action where the costs outweigh the potential gains. (ibid. p.37) This means, largely due to the level of economic interdependence that Germany is not likely to become an expansionistic power. The contradiction that comes out is that while the buffer that America provides (which Mearsheimer disagrees with profoundly (2006, pp. 118-121)) is not a response to a potential hegemon it is the imposition of hegemonic strength. However, this contradiction does not detract from the problem of hegemonic dominance necessarily translating the anarchic system into a hierarchical one.
Quite aside from that particular theoretical inconsistency, there is a problem with Mearsheimer’s power lust vs. balancing theory. He has three conditions that control this form of state action:
‘Great powers try to expand only when opportunities arise.
They do so when the benefits clearly exceed the risks and costs.
They will desist from expansion when blocked and wait for a more propitious moment’ (Snyder, 2002, p. 153)
The causal root of this competitive balancing is deeply rooted in the structure (or so we are lead to believe) anarchy forces each state to assume a security dilemma. This is argument is never truly pursued in his work, it is assumed that the self-help nature that Ken Waltz puts forward and this security problem is the driver for the state action. When examined this explanation of state action is completely unsatisfactory. Richard Rosecrance explains the problem of this form of state action.
‘At the turn of the century, the United States ”passed” Great Britain without war. In economic terms, Japan moved ahead of the Soviet Union in 1983 but neither country was tempted to fight over the transition. The German rise vis-a-vis Britain at the end of the nineteenth century would not have been a problem had it not been that the Kaiser decided to build a great navy and challenge Britain both at home and overseas. If Germany had remained a land power – as it opted to do under Bismarck – it would not have caused British opposition or provoked an arms race.’ (2006, p. 32)
Britain, from the mid 19th century to the start of the First World War was the regional hegemony. It had almost complete control of the sea and a huge empire to support itself. Both America and Wilhelmine Germany were potential regional hegemonies. Britain did not in any way try to challenge their growth. Similarly the Soviet Union did not balance the growing hegemony of Japan. This seems to ignore both the rational actor model and hegemonic stability theory, both of which are key parts Mearsheimers theory.
Mearsheimer’s work on offensive realism is riddled with mutual exclusions and contradictions. It does still remain an interesting theory; it attempts to add broader explanatory assumptions to a set of normative principles. The problem is that the theory attempts to do too much. It tries to explain state motivations and actions as well as the outcomes produced. It, however, uses very narrow ontological assumptions to provide explanation. We are presented with the idea that states have a will to power driven by a security threat which is in turn driven by the anarchical system. Mearsheimer does not explain coherently why an anarchic structure forces states into such an aggressive competition, he serves it up as an epistemological fact and an eternal truth. With these problems in mind, it is also important to remember that Mearsheimer theory does cover some aspects of international relations. The addition of the rational actor model is likely a positive change in realist perspective, with the caveat that states can act irrationally at times.
This section has provided a critique of Mearsheimer’s work using his own theories and examples. I have tried to remain as constant to Mearsheimer’s own theoretical assumptions as possible. While by no means conclusive it does serve to illustrate some severe problems with the theory that need to be rectified. The validity of his core assumptions are not what I have questioned, it is the underlying addition to these assumptions of hegemonic stability theory that I strongly disagree with. While Mearsheimer does give empirical evidence to support his claims, the validity of this evidence is up for debate.
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