John Mearsheimer’s Realist Theory of International Relations

Here are my notes on Harry Kreisler’s interview with John Mearsheimer. When I’m mostly quoting them, I’ll just start with their initials, but I won’t put their words in quotes. However, if it is a direct quote, I’ll put their words in quotes. When I’m just adding my own thoughts, I’ll lead with my initials.

HK: Harry Kreisler
JJM: John J. Mearsheimer
FMB: Fred M. Beshears

Conversations with History: John Mearsheimer
November 2002

“On this episode of Conversations with History, author and University of Chicago professor John J. Mearsheimer joins UC Berkeley’s Harry Kreisler to discuss the Realist theory of international relations and its implications for understanding the U.S. role in the world, future relations with China, and our response to the terrorist threat.”

FMB: Note that this interview takes place in November 2002, about a year after 9/11 and just before the US invasion of Iraq in 2003.


HK: You became an International Relations (IR) Theorist. What does it take to do this work?

JJM: By in large, IR Theorists are born, not created. You either have an instinct for creating theories or you don’t. To be a theorist, you have to be creative. You have to be willing to invent new ideas, number one. Two, you have to be willing to create arguments that are likely to be controversial. And number three, you have to know a lot of history. You have to have thought long and hard about how the world works. What you are trying to do is to come up with an explanation of a large part of international politics. The first two characteristics are not learned. They’re born into you. The third you can learn.

HK: You are known as a Realist, so help us understand the essential characteristics of Realism and what your particular take on Realist Theory.

JJM: Realists are individuals who believe that the state is the principle actor in international politics. Furthermore, they believe that states are very concerned with the balance of power and that pretty much everything that states do is connected to how the behavior they’re taking at any particular time will affect their position in the balance of power.

JJM: And, when you’re talking about the balance of power, you’re really talking about military power and the use of military force.

JJM: So, realists tend to be people who pay a lot of attention to the use of force. They focus on things like deterrence and war fighting as well as the impact of nuclear weapons on international politics.

JJM: I think those are the key ingredients that all realists share.

JJM: My view is that there are three kinds of realists.

JJM: Human nature realists are individuals who believe that states, like individuals, are hard-wired at birth with a will to power in them, and that states constantly compete for power because it’s an innate phenomenon. Hans Morgenthau is the most famous human nature realist.

JJM: The second school of realist thought, are the defensive realists. These individuals believe that states behave somewhat aggressively because the structure of the international system forces them to compete for power. It’s not that states are hard-wired to compete for power, this Animus Dominant as Morgenthau would put it. What drives states is the fact that the best way to survive in the system is to be very powerful, and every state understands that. Therefore, they compete for power. Witness how the Soviet Union and the US behaved during the cold war. These defensive realists, however, tend to believe that states only want a limited amount of power because they understand that too much power is a bad thing. Kenneth Waltz, who is probably the most famous living realist theorist, and who is a famous professor here at Berkeley, I think is the archetypal defensive realist theorists. Waltz believed that states do compete for power, but it does not make sense to want too much power.

JJM: I agree with Waltz that structure determines how states behave. In other words, it’s the structure of the international system that causes states behave in certain ways.

HK: The archetypal system that they have to operate in.

JJM: The anarchic system meaning that there’s no higher authority that sits above states. So you have a 911 problem. If a state gets into trouble in the international system, it cannot dial 911 to get help because there’s nobody on top to come to their rescue. And it’s this anarchy that pushes states to compete for power. Waltz and I agree on that.

JJM: But the fundamental difference between the two of us is that I believe that states seek hegemony. I believe that they are ultimately more aggressive than how Waltz portrays them as being. In my view, the goal for states is to dominate the entire system.

JJM: I believe that the aim of states is to be the biggest and baddest dude on the block. If you’re the biggest and baddest dude on the block, then it is highly unlikely that other states will challenge you simply because you’re so powerful.

JJM: Just take the western hemisphere, for example. Here the United States is by far the most powerful state in the region. No other state in the hemisphere would even think of going to war with the US. For the US, this is the ideal situation to have.

JJM: But Waltz would argue that it’s not a good idea to be so powerful because when you push in that direction, other states balance against you.

HK: And you believe that the key to understanding the US role in the world today is that we are really the only state that has hegemonic power in its own region.

JJM: My argument is that it’s impossible for any one state to be a global hegemon. To dominate the entire globe. The globe is just too big and there are huge power projection problems associated with the bodies of water that separate the various regions of the world.

JJM: In other words, for us to go on a rampage in Asia and concur huge parts of Asia would involve projecting power across this giant moat called the Pacific ocean. And it’s just not going to happen.

JJM: So, I argue that states can do is become the hegemon in their own region of the world. And, they can make sure that their are no other hegemons in any of the other regions of the Earth because they do not want to have a peer competitor.

HK: And the reason for that is what? Is it that they fear another regional hegemon would eventually try to interfere with them in their own backyard?

JJM: Yes, that’s right. Let’s take the US as an example. The US is a regional hegemon in the western hemisphere. The US does not want a regional hegemon in Europe – whether it’s Imperial Germany, Nazi Germany, or the Soviet Union – because the US would fear if that state had no real competitors in its region, it was the dominant state, it would free to interfere and form alliances with states in the western hemisphere. And that would potentially threaten the security of the US.

JJM: So, from the American point of view, the best situation to have in Europe would for there to be two or more great powers that focus most of their attention on each other, and are therefore much less concerned about what is going on the the western hemisphere.

JJM: So I argue that the US has gone to great lengths to make sure that there is no regional hegemon in either Europe or north east Asia. These are the two areas of the globe where there are great powers and there may be potential peer competitor.


HK: Now the argument you’re making is controversial now, and before 9/11 it was even more controversial. The Soviet Union falls in 1991 and before September 11, 2001 it looked like economic globalization [and the spread of liberal democracy] was taking hold and we were seeing the decline of the nation-state. What was your argument then and what is it now.

JJM: Well, there’s two arguments here. One is that the state was disappearing, and the second is that cooperation was replacing conflict as the dominating feature of international politics.

JJM: First of all, I think that there’s no evidence that during the 1990s (and certainly now) that the state was disappearing from the face of the earth. The fact of matter is that the most powerful political ideology in the world today (and it’s been the most powerful ideology for two centuries) is Nationalism. And Nationalism glorifies the state. And there are many groups out there today fighting for a state of their own. The Palestinians are just one example of that. So the state is here to stay for the long term.

JJM: Now, with regard to the argument that cooperation is replacing conflict as the dominating feature of international politics, I believe that there was less conflict among the great powers during the 1990s than there was during the rest of the 20th century when there was WWI, WWII, and the Cold War. But the principle reason for that was the architecture of power that you had in Europe and NE Asia at the end of the Cold War. At the end of the Cold War you were left with this remnant state called Russia, which was remarkably weak and in no position to cause any trouble. The other great powers in Europe – Britain, France, and especially Germany – were in no position to cause any trouble because the US had 100,000 troops stationed in Europe and was sitting on top of those states through out the 1990s. Through NATO, the US had sat on top of those states beginning in 1945 and through the Cold War. So it was the American pacifier in Europe and you have the same situation in Asia. You have 100,000 troops in Asia, most of them either in South Korea or Japan. And even though US troops are not in China or Russia, both so weak that they’re not in a position to cause any trouble.

JJM: The US has fought three wars since 1991: against Saddam Hussein in 1991, against Slobodan Milosevic in Yugoslavia in 1991, and we’re currently fighting a war in Afghanistan. So, despite the fact that there has not been much conflict between the great powers, there has been conflict in the world and the US has been involved at least three of those wars.


HK: Why is it so hard for the US to buy into a Realist theory of the world and a Realist theory of its own behavior.

JJM: Realism has two real problems for most Americans. First of all, it has a very pessimistic view of international politics. It says that there has always been conflict, there is conflict today, and there always will be conflict. And, there is not much you can do about it. This is way I call The Tragedy of Great Power Politics. The second point that realists make is that you can’t discriminate between morally virtuous states and non-virtuous states in the international system. For realists, all states are really black boxes that behave the same way. If the US has to be ruthless, the US will be ruthless. That’s the argument that realists make.

JJM: Now Americans are fundamentally Liberals at heart. They believe in progress; they are products of the Enlightenment. They 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 where, we can create a more peaceful world. That is in contrast to the pessimism of Realists. And American Liberals therefore dislike Realism for that reason. (Also, when we talk about American Liberals we’re talking about the vast majority of Americans.)

JJM: Another idea that Americans believe in is that our country is a highly moral country. We behave according to a different code of conduct, which makes our behavior different from 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 Soviet Union and the US 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.

HK: Now, in addition to this dilemma for Americans to understand the way the world really works, and the way that policy makers really make policy, there is the added difficulty that we’re doing this in a democracy, right. So your theory suggests that our leaders are always not putting all of their cards on the table as they get elected and debate the issues. So how does that problem affect the way we behave in the world?

JJM: We behave in the world according to Realist dictates on almost every occasion. What’s effected by the point you’re making is our rhetoric. We act according to the dictates of realpolitik, but we justify our policies according to liberal ideology. So what’s going on here is that elites speak one language [in public], but act according to a different logic. And, we [our elites] speak a different language behind closed doors.

JJM: 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 line up perfectly. For example, in the fight against Nazi Germany and the fight against the Soviet Union, the logic of Realism pointed in exactly the same direction as the logic of Idealism. Therefore, it was not difficult for American elites to justify the war against Nazi Germany and [the cold war] against the Soviet Union in terms of idealist rhetoric. It was completely consistent with what we were doing.

JJM: The really tricky cases are when the US has to form an alliance with a repressive regime, right. Or, to go to war against a state that it thinks is quite progressive. And then realist logic points in one direction, while idealist logic points in another. In these cases, what the US does is we bring in the spin doctors and they tell a story to the American people that makes it look like what the US is doing is completely consistent with its ideals.

JJM: A perfect case of this is how we dealt with the Soviet Union in the late 1930s. At that time, Stalin was viewed as a murderous thug and the Soviet Union was widely viewed 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.

JJM: Because Americans would find it difficult to accept that we had jumped into bed with a totalitarian state that was run by a murderous leader like Joseph Stalin. So we cleaned him up.

HK: So what are the implications of this for the notion that we try to conduct our foreign policy in a democratic system? Because on the one hand I’m hearing you say that our politicians do not lay all of their cards on the table. But, on the other hand they are acting in ways that they cloak with idealist rhetoric (i.e. in liberal democratic terms). I guess what I’m asking how should people examine their leaders in an electoral process in a democracy when it comes to foreign policy?

JJM: Well, I think they should be very skeptical to begin with. I think it’s very important for students of foreign policy to be very skeptical about what their leaders say, regardless of the country that you live in, and regardless of whether it’s Bill Clinton or George Bush in the white house and 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 all the time. As I said before, there will be cases where they are giving us the straight poop. But, there will also be cases where they have incentives to mislead. And we ought to be aware of that.

JJM: Second point is that I would pay more attention to what states do rather than what they say. And, I think if you look at the behavior of states and then mesh it with the rhetoric of the leaders, you’ll often find a real disjuncture there. And those are the cases where you’ll want to examine things much more closely.


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

JJM: What what I learned from that case is that in a democracy it is very important to have individuals who are free to say whatever they want. And if you look carefully about most people who speak out about American foreign policy or about German foreign policy or British foreign policy, most of them are constrained about what they can say because they are beholden to certain institutions. Often times it’s the state. As you know, in Germany universities, your appointment as a professor was dependent on the state. They’re all state run universities. So you had to be very careful about what you said if you were a professor at a German university.

JJM: The beauty of the American system is that we have all of these private universities and places like Berkeley, tenured professors are free to say what they want and suffer hardly any consequences in terms of losing their job. Therefore, I think we have a very important responsibility to speak out about issues that other people may be unable to speak about for fear of losing their jobs. We [tenured professors] 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 are part of the body politic and that the ideas that they are developing should be articulated to the body politic for purposes of influencing public debate on particular policies in important ways. They believe that they’re doing science and that science is some abstract phenomenon that has little to do with politics. In fact, I think that just the opposite should be the case, we should study problems that are of great public importance, and when we come to conclusions about those problems we should go to considerable lengths to communicate our findings to the general public so we can influence the debate in positive ways.

JJM: I’m not making the argument for coming up with particular answers to important questions. In fact, if different scholars come up with different answers, fine. But in a democracy, we want to have a healthy public debate about the important issues of the day.

HK: Let’s look at some of these problems to see if we can tie these thread together. For example, terrorism is something that we were confronted with after 9/11. What sort of a problem is terrorism in the eyes of a Realist who does international relations theory? And what do you have to say about the way the US government is conducting the war against terrorism?

JJM: First of all, it’s 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. We had been the victim of other Al-Qaeda attacks in the 1990s. But on 9/11 they proved that they were not the gang that couldn’t shoot straight. Before 9/11 we thought that was the case. When we realized how competent they were, we began to hypothesize what might happen if they got a hold of WMD. So, the terrorism problem has been with us for a while, 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 now realize that we’re up against a much more formidable and much more dangerous adversary than we thought was the case through out the 1990s.

JJM: Point number two, is the question: What does a realist theory about politics have to say about terrorism? The answer is not a whole heck of a lot. As I said before, realism is about the relationships between nation-states, especially among great powers. In fact, Al-Qaeda is not a state actor. It’s sometimes called a trans-national actor. My theory and most realist theories don’t have much to say about trans-national actors. However, there is no question that terrorists and terrorism is a phenomenon that will play itself out in the context of the international system. So it will be played out in the realist arena. SO 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. ON the other hand, I don’t think that realism has much to say about the causes of terrorism.

JJM: Now you asked what I think about how the Bush administration is waging the war against terrorism. My view is that the Bush administrations policy puts too much emphasis on using military force to deal with terrorism and too little emphasis on diplomacy. To ameliorate the problem of terrorism, we have to win hearts and minds in the Arab and Islamic world. There are many people in that world who hate the US. And many of those people are either willing to support suicide bombers or become suicide bombers. We have to ameliorate that hate rid and we have to go to great lengths to win hearts and minds. And I don’t think you can do that with military force.

JJM: Some military force is justified. If you could convince me that Osama bin Laden and his fellow leaders were located at a particular location at at particular set of caves in Afghanistan at this point, I would be willing to see the US use military force to take them out.

JJM: But in general, what the US has to do is to not rely too heavily on military force. In part this is true because the target doesn’t lend itself to military force. They don’t tell us where they are. But even more important is that using military force in the Arab/Islamic world is just going to generate more resentment of the US, which will cause the rise of more terrorists and to give people cause to support these terrorists. So I privilege diplomacy in this war.


HK: Let’s look at another problem, specifically the People’s Republic of China. How should we look at China as it emerges as a potential hegemon in the Asian theater.

JJM: The most important question about China is whether it will continue to grow economically over the next 20 to 30 years they way it’s grown over the past 20 years. It’s almost impossible say whether China is going to look like an economic Hong Kong in 2030 or not. My argument is that if China continues to grow [FMB: especially at the rate it has been growing over the past 20 years] it will translate that economic might into military might and it will become involved in an intense security competition with the US. This competition will be similar to the security competition that existed between the US and the USSR during the cold war. That security competition, in my view, is unavoidable.

JJM: Why do I say this. My argument is that all states like to be regional hegemons. They like to dominate their backyard, and they want to make sure that no other state can interfere in their backyard. This is the way the US has long behaved in the western hemisphere. It’s what the Monroe Doctrine is all about. Well, if China continues to grow economically and militarily, why should we expect that they will be any different? We should expect that China will try to imitate the US. We should expect that China will want to dominate their backyard the way that we have dominated our backyard. Why shouldn’t we expect that China will have a Monroe Doctrine the same way that we have a Monroe Doctrine.


JJM: Now, if China tries to dominate its own geographical region, which I expect it will do for good geopolitical reasons related to realpolitik, the question you have to ask yourself is: How will the US react? As I emphasized before, the US has long wanted to be the hegemon in its own region and to make sure it has no peer-competitors. Well, if China becomes the hegemon in Asia, then it is a peer competitor by definition.

JJM: My argument is that the US will go to great lengths to make sure that China does not become a peer competitor. It will go to great lengths to contain China and cut China off at the knees the way it cut Imperial Germany off at the knees in WWI, the way it cut Nazi Germany off at the knees in WWII, and the way it cut Imperial Japan off at the knees in WWII, and the way it cut the Soviet Union off at the knees during the Cold War.

JJM: The US has a long and clear record of not tolerating peer competitors in either Asia or Europe. And therefore I think there’s no reason to believe that we will tolerate Chinese hegemony in Asia any more than we would tolerate Japanese hegemony in Asia.

HK: Now what does that mean? What do you think we will do or should do to prevent that inevitability from coming about?

FMB: if something is really inevitable, then it will come about.

JJM: Well there are two things that I think we will do. 1) I think we’ll go to considerable lengths to slow down Chinese economic growth once it becomes apparent that they’re headed toward the Hong Kong model. I’m not exactly sure what policies we’ll pursue, and I tend to believe it will be almost impossible to slow down Chinese economic growth. 2) The second thing we’ll do, which I think will be more effective, it that we’ll put in place a containment policy, similar to the containment policy we had against the Soviet Union during the Cold War, to prevent China from dominating Asia.

JJM: And the balancing coalition will look like this: it will be Japan, Vietnam, South Korea, India, Russia, and the United States.

FMB: What about Australia?

JJM: And you can already see the first stirrings of that balancing coalition. The fact that the United States and India, who are not rivals but basically soft adversaries during the Cold War, have moved much closer to one another and are much more friendly with one another is due to the common threat of China. And I think you’ll see the same thing happening with Russia. I don’t think Russian-American relations will be as bad over the next 20 years as they were during the 1990s in large part because a growing China will push us together.

HK: Now what particular form or action will these alliances take? Is it the worry that China will be on the move militarily? What form will balancing take? Will it be military, cultural, economic?

JJM: It will mainly be military. Just to give you a couple of examples of the potential problems that are out there.

JJM: There’s disagreement as to where the border between Russia and China is in some places. There’s been massive illegal Chinese immigration into Russia. So, it’s possible that a border dispute could break out between Russia and China. The US would not want to see China concur some large portion of Russian territory, so we will go to great lengths to make sure that doesn’t happen.

JJM: Japan is highly dependent on exports and imports, so they are concerned about the security of those sea lines. The Chinese troll those same waters, so they’re sure to build a very large navy. So the Chinese, Japanese, and US navies will all be moving around the China Sea. So there are scenarios where they crash into each other.

JJM: Another important important issue is Taiwan, which I won’t talk about at length because it’s so obvious. What happens if China becomes big and powerful but still doesn’t own Taiwan? At some point they’re probably going to use military force to take Taiwan. And it may be that both the US and Japan say that that is unacceptable and go to war on behalf of Taiwan.

JJM: So there are many scenarios where a powerful China will run headlong into a powerful United States.

HK: The opposing argument put forward by people who favor international institutions is in some sense an idealistic argument. They would say certain values, such as favoring increased international commerce, will take hold and offer a brighter future than Realist theories offer however compelling their logic. The question I have for you is where is there in Realism for values and the realization of those values in the world. Because at one level Realism can sound very mechanistic because there’s a logic here and there doesn’t seem to be any way to deviate from that logic. There doesn’t seem to be any place for normative structures … the universalizing of human rights and so on. Any comments on that?


JJM: Well, I am sad to say that your depiction of Realism is an apt one. There is not much room for human rights and values in the Realist story. Realists basically believe that states are interested in gaining power, either because they’re hard-wired that way or because it’s the best way to survive. And they don’t pay much attention at all to values.

JJM: There’s a new book out by Samantha Power that everyone should read. It deals with the question of how the US reacted to all the genocides of the 20th century, the most recent of which is the Rwanda crisis of 1994. And the central conclusion she reaches is that despite all of our rhetoric in the US about our willingness to fight on behalf of human rights, our record is an abysmal one.

JJM: If you read her chapter on how we behaved during the Rwanda crisis it will turn your stomach. Here is the Clinton administration filled with people who extolled the virtue of human right regimes and the international community intervening to prevent mass murder. When it was clear that there was a genocide in Rwanda they behaved in the most despicable manner. And this is consistent with how we’ve behaved over time.

JJM: As I mentioned earlier, states talk a good game when it comes to values, but they actually behave in a realpolitik, or rather cold and calculating way when the money is on the table. Now what does this tell us? This tells me that if you are 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 you should not depend on the international community.

JJM: 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 that had a lot of power and could beat up on them. And when they dialed 911, or when they tried to call in the international community, there would be nobody at the other end. So, they got their own state.

JJM: Now, the Jews are beating up on the Palestinians. The Palestinians are getting very little help from the international community. When they dial 911, there’s nobody there at the other end. Not surprisingly, the Palestinians are desperate to get their own state.

JJM: So, the basic lesson I take from studying international history over time is that if you are interested in surviving, you as a people are interested in surviving, you need to have your own state and to be as powerful as possible.

HK: What advise would you give to students who might watch this tape to help them prepare for the future.

JJM: Students should read widely. They should look at competing theories about how the world works. There are different theories about IR. Morgenthau is different from Waltz. And, Waltz is different from Mearshimer. These are three very distinct Realist theories. Then you have a whole body of Liberal theories, and theories that have devised by social constructivists. Students should pay very close attention to all of those theories and get them deeply embedded in their brain. And, at the same time, they should look carefully at how the world works, looking at the historical record. And students should constantly be running the different theories they’ve studied up against the historical record to determine which theories they think best explain the world.

JJM: As I tell my students, my goal is not to make you a Realist. I’m going to give you my view on how the world works. Hopefully, some of you will think that my theory is a powerful theory. If you don’t and you come to different conclusions, so be it. The important point is that you want to be open minded about all the theories that are out there, especially if you’re a young student. (Not old codgers like you and I, who have already figured out what our theories are and are attached to them for all sorts of different reasons.)

HK: For students watching this, what suggestions do you have about what they should learn from your life story.

JJM: First, it’s impossible to figure out how you’re going to end up. The world works in funny ways. When I was young, I never imagined that I would become an IR theorist. If someone told me that when I graduated from West Point in 1970, I would have said that they should be taken away to the loony bin. One never knows where they’re going to end up.

JJM: Second, it’s important to have lots of different life experiences, to expose oneself to different situations, different theories, and different kinds of people – because that exposes you to all sorts of different insights about how the world works. You do not want to be narrow in your learning experiences.


JJM: You want to make sure you expose yourself to lots of theories and lots of history.

3 thoughts on “John Mearsheimer’s Realist Theory of International Relations

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: