TCS Daily

Get Real

By Pejman Yousefzadeh - October 28, 2002 12:00 AM

One of my favorite professors during college and graduate school was John Mearsheimer, whose famed "realist" worldview of international politics was - and still is - the dominant working theory designed to predict the workings of world politics. A clever and diligent scholar, a delightful lecturer, and a professor given to heady arguments where he could seek to persuade others of his informed and deeply held beliefs, Mearsheimer has long been one of the most popular international relations professors at my alma mater. His book on great power politics is a must read for any serious student of international relations. Lately, however, I find myself disagreeing with many of his arguments and predictions regarding the war on terrorism.

Before we get into those predictions and arguments, it is helpful for us to gain an understanding of what the realist theory of international relations proposes. The following are the general principles:

1. The world structure is fundamentally anarchic, and is ungoverned by any supranational or global entity.

2. Nation-states are the primary actors on the international stage, as opposed to multinational organizations, nongovernmental organizations, or other non-state entities. (Non-realists, of course, would point to al Qaeda as the potential outstanding exception to the realist viewpoint).

3. Because of the fundamentally anarchic nature of the world structure, nation-states must rely upon themselves to ensure their own survival and security. As Mearsheimer often put it, there is no international distress phone number that nation-states can call to ask for help should their security or survival be threatened.

4. The self-interests of nation-states matter more in predicting the behavior of those nation-states than do the nature of the regimes that govern those nation-states. This is a very Palmerstonian viewpoint of the world (Lord Palmerston being the statesman who famously declared, "Britain has no permanent friends, nor permanent enemies. She has only permanent interests).

5. Nation-states seek power. Classical realists argue that this is because of man's inherent lust for power. Structural realists (such as Mearsheimer) argue that nation-states primarily seek power to ensure their own security. Neoclassical realists split the difference by maintaining that nation-states seek power for a combination of the above reasons.

6. Because of the anarchic nature of the world structure, and because of the fact that nation-states can only rely upon themselves to ensure their own security and survival, war is a political tool that will be relied on by nation-states. Offensive structural realists believe that this makes war more likely in the international structure. Defensive structural realists argue that war can still be avoided by having nation-states balance against a regional (or global) hegemon.

Now, bear in mind that realist theory is designed to predict the nature and shape of the international structure. It is not an ideology that is propagated. Realists do not necessarily maintain that the above six points represent the way in which the world should work. Rather, they maintain that those principles represent the way in which the world does work, whether one likes it or not.

Recently, however, prominent realists appear to have at least tacitly embraced realism not only as a predictive model, but as an ideology. For example former national security advisor Brent Scowcroft, who is a realist by anyone's standards, appears to have embraced coalition building for the sake of coalition building alone - thus making a fetish out of coalitions and ignoring their true purpose and value. This is a prime example of taking realist theory - explaining how the world does work in a neutral and detached manner - and corrupting it into realist ideology - arguing that the behavior that realism predicts as being followed by nation-states should be enacted as policy. Now, it appears that Mearsheimer has made the same mistake.

In a recent article, Mearsheimer argues that the United States should back away from the war on terrorism, and instead should reduce its military forces around the world, as well as overhaul its Middle East policies. Additionally, Mearsheimer argues that the United States should focus its military forces solely on the defeat of al Qaeda, and not take on other terrorist organizations, or seek regime change in states that sponsor terrorism. Finally, he urges the United States to balance against the Iraqi threat by allying itself with Iraq's traditional enemy, Iran.

These ideas are flawed in several ways. First of all, the reduction of the American military presence and a change in American policy towards the Middle East will signal to the terrorists that they have been successful in changing, through their tactics, the policies and behavior of the United States. Additionally, al Qaeda will never be destroyed if the United States ignores terrorist groups and states that help finance and support the organization.

But it is the proposed alliance with Iran that raises the most eyebrows. Mearsheimer seems to advocate that the United States live up to realist expectations by balancing against the Iraqi threat through an alliance with the Islamic Republic. This conflation of realist theory with the advocacy of behavior that would serve to vindicate the theory's predictive power is peculiar.

Merely because realist theory predicts balancing behavior in certain instances does not mean that balancing behavior should be called for. If realist theory really is successful in predicting the behavior of nation-states, one need not inadvertently seek to stack the deck to vindicate the predictive power of realism by advocating policies that the theory purports to predict in the first place. Mearsheimer gives no real reasons for his proposal to ally with Iran, other than to claim that this would allow the United States to withdraw forces from Saudi Arabia. One is therefore left with the impression that Mearsheimer advocates balancing because... well... that is what realist theory predicts of nation-states in terms of their behavior. This conflation of a predictive theory with policy advocacy does not take into account the specific facts of the situation Mearsheimer addresses.

Those facts include the public knowledge that Iran, while a traditional adversary of Iraq, has also cooperated with the regime of Saddam Hussein from time to time. As such, it would be, at best, an unreliable ally. They also include the fact that Iran is a state sponsor of terrorist organizations that have used Iranian support to kidnap, torture and kill Americans, and citizens of American allies. Those facts include reports that Iran may be supporting and training members of al Qaeda. Finally, those facts include the oft-publicized news of internal dissent and political opposition in Iran that is designed to reform or overthrow a regime unfriendly to the United States, and replace it with one that more accurately reflects the desire of the Iranian people to establish closer ties with America and the West.

Indeed, considering the principles of realist theory that propose the notion of states relying on themselves for their own security, and acting in their own self-interests, one can hardly understand why the United States would want, through the virtue of an alliance with it, to prop up a regime that has engaged in terrorism against America and American allies, and that seeks to thwart the desire of its own people to establish closer ties with America.

Realist theory possesses, and will continue to possess, great and vibrant intellectual integrity so long as it is used as it was intended. It was intended to be used as a model to predict nation-state behavior. It was never intended to be used as a set of policy proposals or prescriptions. Using what was intended to be a neutral model to serve instead as an active ideology for determining specific foreign policy objectives and actions will do nothing other than to blind American policymakers to what the specific international situation requires in terms of American action.



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