Air Date: February 27, 1996||
John Mearsheimer, Professor of Political Science,
University of Chicago
JOHN MEARSHEIMER, Professor of Political Science, University of Chicago: When you look at
the warp and woof of daily life in the international system, basically what you see is that
states are in a constant security competition. They’re not in a constant state of war, but
they’re constantly competing with each other for advantage. Now, sometimes that security
competition leads to war. Not often, not often by any means, but sometimes you have war. And
realists would argue that whether or not you have war is largely a function of the balance of
KEITH PORTER, host: John Mearsheimer and the anarchy of nations on this edition of
MEARSHEIMER: The point that I’m trying to make here is that among realists there are
significant differences regarding how the distribution of power causes either peace or war. But
what virtually all realists agree on is that you have constant security competition among those
states, and that’s the basis of the basic realist view that the system is a rather nasty and
PORTER: Common Ground is a program on world affairs and the people who shape
events. It’s produced by the Stanley Foundation. I’m Keith Porter. John Mearsheimer teaches
political science at the University of Chicago and is a frequent writer and commentator on
international affairs. Six years ago he wrote a quite provocative piece for the Atlantic
Monthly. The article appeared at a time of general optimism. The Cold War had ended, the
Berlin Wall fallen, and the Iron Curtain lifted. Decades of calcified global relations had been
shaken loose. In the midst of this, Mearsheimer titled his work “Why We Will Soon Miss the Cold
War.” Six years later I asked the professor, “Do we, in fact, miss it?”.
MEARSHEIMER: I think that in terms of human rights, especially in regard to Eastern
Europe, we don’t miss the Cold War; and that would extend to the Soviet Union. The one really
negative aspect of the Cold War was that for people who lived on the eastern side of the Iron
Curtain they were denied fundamental human rights in quite terrible ways. In that sense, we
certainly don’t miss the Cold War.
But from the perspective of stability in Europe, we’re beginning to miss the Cold War. My
argument would be that with the passage of time we’ll miss it more and more. I think that there’s
no question that there was a great deal of inertia built into that structure that we created
during the Cold War, especially NATO; and it’s only slowly coming unglued. What we’re seeing now
in Bosnia is the tearing apart of the basic fabric of NATO. I believe that will happen more and
more with the passage of time. I think that NATO is doomed to come apart. It may remain a name,
but the actual structure is not going to have much meaning five or ten years down the road. What
you will see with the passage of time is greater and greater instability in Europe, especially
in Central Europe, and especially with regard to the Germans on one hand and the Russians on the
other. At that point in time, we’ll miss the stability of the Cold War. We won’t miss the Cold
War from a human rights perspective for sure, but from a stability perspective we’ll miss it.
What many Americans intuitively realize or intuitively recognize is that the Cold War provided
real stability in Europe.
The United States and the Soviet Union headed these two coalitions that had come to the
conclusion that there was no way they could alter the status quo with military force. Therefore,
they had given up on using military force in Europe. Furthermore, you had a situation where it
was very hard for minor powers to get into conflicts or for internal civil wars to break out like
you have in the former Yugoslavia today, in large part because the Soviet Union and the United
States would not tolerate that.
It’s no accident that all the trouble in Yugoslavia started after the breakup of the former
Soviet Union and the end of the Cold War. That could not have happened in the Cold War, because
the Soviet threat was there to keep the Yugoslavias and the Bosnias from breaking apart. So with
the end of the Cold War, the end of the Soviet Union and the United States beginning to come out
of Europe and NATO changing its basic structure, I think that the potential for instability is
much greater than it was from 1945 to 1990. That’s not a good thing.
PORTER: Two questions about NATO. First of all, we are in the middle of perhaps the
biggest operation, mobilization, that NATO’s had during its existence. So it seems odd at that
moment to be saying it’s falling apart. Secondly, would you agree that we need NATO? If we’re
faced with instability in Europe, wouldn’t it be great to have a structure like this that might
mitigate some of that?
MEARSHEIMER: Let’s deal with both of those questions just one at a time. There’s no
question that if you look at what’s happening in Bosnia at a superficial level that one could
make a case that NATO is in quite good shape. It has found a new mission, and there is cause for
optimism regarding the future of NATO. If you begin to scratch below the surface, what you see
are really significant tensions that don’t portend well for the future.
First of all, we’ve had this period leading up to the troop deployment, which has basically
lasted for over three years now since the war broke out in April 1992 in Bosnia, where the
Europeans on one hand, specifically the British and the French, and the Americans on the other
hand, have been at loggerheads over how to deal with the problem. The Americans have refused to
put ground forces in, and we’ve wanted to rely heavily on arming the Bosnian Muslims and striking
from the air. Europeans, on the other hand, have done the opposite. They’ve put ground troops in,
and they’ve resisted arming the Bosnian Muslims. They have also been very averse to using NATO
air power against the Serbs. This has caused a lot of bad feelings over time.
Furthermore, the Europeans have long been in favor of partitioning the place. They’ve come up
with a number of plans for partitioning the place, and the Americans have sabotaged those plans.
Now the Americans have come up with their own plan and said, “Look, the Europeans are no good at
solving their own security problems, they have a major conflict in their backyard like Bosnia.
They can’t come up with a plan, but we Americans had to step in and do their dirty work for
them.” The Europeans are irate at this moment over this very claim, because the Europeans
believe they had plans that would have solved the problem except the Americans, in conjunction
with the Bosnian Muslims, subverted these plans. All this is just to say that there’s a lot of
bad blood between the Americans and the Europeans at this point in time over Bosnia.
Now, as we go into Bosnia, we have a situation where many Americans think that we simply
shouldn’t send forces. Many people in this country, the majority in fact, are opposed to
participating in this mission. At the same time, many of those conflicts between the Europeans on
one hand and the Americans on the other regarding how to deal with Bosnia still exist. We’re
committed to arming the Bosnian Muslims, and this is going to anger the British and the French.
Furthermore, the French are now beginning to get more actively involved in NATO matters,
specifically this whole Bosnian mission.
The question you want to ask yourself is whether or not you think the French, the British, the
Americans, the Germans (as they begin to get involved), and the Russians (as they begin to get
involved) can all operate on the same sheet. I have real reservations about that. If this
operation goes sour, and there are many reasons to think it may go sour either in the short term
or the long term, there’s going to be a lot of finger pointing; and that is going to involve the
Europeans on one hand and the Americans on the other. When you look at what’s happening in the
American Congress, when you look at American public opinion, there just isn’t that old-fashioned
commitment to European defense that existed during the Cold War. A big controversy involving us
and the Europeans over Bosnia could just do really serious damage to the alliance.
PORTER: All right. How about the second question, about NATO? If we are going to see more
instability in Europe, wouldn’t it be great to have an organization like this that could help
clamp that down a little bit?
MEARSHEIMER: That is a great question. There’s no question that the United States has a
vested interest in maintaining stability in Europe, to include Bosnia. The question you have to
ask yourself is whether or not the United States is willing to expend significant numbers of
lives to maintain stability in Europe and again in particular in places like Bosnia? There’s no
question that we’d vote for stability over instability. That’s a no-brainer. The $64,000 question
is whether or not we’re willing to expend huge amounts of money and huge amounts of blood for the
purpose of maintaining stability.
To use a historical example, in 1914 when World War I broke out in Europe, we found that to be a
very regrettable situation. We would have voted for peace not for war. But the United States in
1914 was not willing to intervene militarily to stop that war. We were willing from 1914 to 1917
to allow the Europeans to kill themselves in large numbers, because stability in Europe was not
worth the price of large numbers of American lives. When many Americans today talk about
maintaining NATO or expanding NATO eastward, they talk as if this was sort of a cost-free
operation, that we don’t have to expend a lot of blood and iron to do these things. But if you’re
worried about instability, that means there is some potential you are going to have a war in that
particular area where large numbers of Americans may get killed. The question you have to ask
yourself is, “Are Americans willing to pay that price?”. I think the answer is basically no.
When it was a Soviet threat that no other European power could deal with, I mean it was this
potential hegemony there called the Soviet Union that threatened to overrun all of Europe, absorb
all that GNP, absorb all that skilled population, and turn itself into a really formidable threat
against the United States; when you had that situation the United States really had no choice but
to rise to the occasion and send 300,000 plus troops to Europe and keep them there for 40 years.
But that threat is gone.
Now there’s a Russian threat in place of the Soviet threat; and there’s a very powerful Germany,
a Germany that’s much more powerful today for sure than it was in say 1949 when NATO was formed
or throughout the 50s or even 60s or 70s. Why should the United States expend huge amounts of
capital and maintain a large military to protect that more powerful Germany against the less
powerful Russia? That will be the basic logic that underpins American thinking. The same basic
argument goes with regard to Bosnia. Most Americans would love to shut down the war in Bosnia for
very good human rights reasons. But the question you have to ask yourself is, “Are we willing to
expend large numbers of American lives to do that?”. I think the answer is no. Bill Clinton is
going into Bosnia on the assumption that he can keep casualties way down, really close to zero.
If he told the American people that they were going to have to pay a great blood price to bring
peace and stability to Bosnia, he simply wouldn’t be able to sell that.
The future of NATO is seriously in question here, not because Americans don’t want stability in
Europe—they want stability in Europe—but because Americans in the end will not be willing to
pay the price to maintain stability in Europe.
PORTER: Let’s talk about the chances of instability a little bit more beyond Bosnia. In
your article, “Why We Will Soon Miss the Cold War,” you said that statistically speaking war or
instability in a multipolar world is more likely than in a bipolar world. That certainly makes
logical sense. Has it proven to be true? And statistics not only have the multipolar element but
also the time element. Over time, things are more likely to happen than they are over shorter
periods of time. Do you still believe that statistically speaking we are going to see more
instability in a multipolar world versus a bipolar world?
MEARSHEIMER: It’s too early to tell exactly how the bipolar world from the 1945 to 1990
period will stack up against the multipolar period. I would suggest that we wait, you know 45
years, and look at what Europe looked like from 1945 to 1990 compared to 1990 to say the year
2035—those two 45-year periods. There is still a lot of history in front of us, and it’s hard to
say exactly how it’s going to play itself out. Hopefully, I’ll be wrong, and we’ll find that this
multipolar Europe is equally as stable as the bipolar period, if not more stable. Hopefully, that
will be the case. But I would not bet on that. I’d bet just the opposite.
The point I would make is that in the bipolar world you had two superpowers that in effect
controlled two separate parts of the European continent, the eastern part and the western part.
The Soviet Union was in effect the hegemony on the eastern part of the continent and the United
States was a night watchman on the western half of the continent. And the United States would not
let Germany and France fight each other. It would not let England and France fight each other.
The Soviet Union would not let Hungary and Romania fight each other or Poland and Czechoslovakia.
So for this reason you had a great deal of stability, because you really had one conflict
dyad—NATO versus the Warsaw Pact. At the end of the Cold War you have many potential conflict
dyads: the Poles could fight the Germans, the Romanians could fight the Hungarians, the Germans
could fight the Russians, the Russians could fight the Ukrainians, and the Russians could move
into the Baltic States. There are all sorts of possible conflict situations. When I say that
statistically war is more likely in a multipolar world, that’s what I’m talking about.
PORTER: We are talking in this edition of Common Ground with Professor John
Mearsheimer from the University of Chicago. Audiocassettes of this program are available. Listen
at the end of the broadcast for details. Common Ground is a service of the Stanley
Foundation, a nonprofit, nonpartisan organization that conducts a wide range of programs meant to
provoke thought and encourage dialogue on world affairs.
With the return of Communists in Poland and continued instability in the countries of the former
Soviet Union, how concerned should we be about this as a contributing factor to more widespread
MEARSHEIMER: I’m not too sure that what happens domestically matters very much for
conflict between the countries of post-Cold War Europe. With regard to the return of the
Communists, I don’t believe that Communists are any more aggressive than liberal Democrats. If
the Communists were to return to power in countries like Poland or even Russia, it would not be
the case that those countries would be more aggressive.
One could make the argument that Russia today is in such bad shape economically and politically
that it is in no position to go to war or to cause international trouble. However, if it gets its
house in order politically and economically and can begin to look outward and worry more about
its external problems than its internal problems, because there’s been some amelioration of those
internal problems, I think a case could be made that the Russians will then cause more trouble.
One could argue quite persuasively that the Russians are not likely to cause trouble on their
western border in the immediate future. Here I am talking about Ukraine, Beloruss, the Baltic
states, Poland, and Czechoslovakia in large part because they’re so consumed by internal problems
that they just don’t have the time to monkey around in the periphery. Once they solve their
problems at home, then they can begin to turn their attention to their borders.
PORTER: Could you argue that we should not care much about domestic stability in those
countries, because promoting domestic stability in those countries would lead to a potentiality
like you spelled out there?
MEARSHEIMER: I could make that argument. You could make the argument that keeping the
Soviet Union weak at home will put it in a position where it causes less trouble abroad. Of
course, there’s a whole line of argument, it’s known as the social imperialism theory, which says
that when countries are weak at home they become more aggressive abroad in large part because you
want to create foreign threats to cohere the body populace at home, to bring people together. As
long as thy think there’s a foreign bogeyman, they’ll be united on the home front. A country
that’s badly fractured politically at home needs that kind of threat and so forth and so on.
There is that line of argument as well.
The basic point I’m trying to make here is that it’s very hard to come up with firm conclusions
regarding how a country’s internal structure influences its foreign policy behavior. I know most
Americans like to believe that if any country in the world is a liberal democracy like the United
States it’s not likely to cause any trouble, the principal reason being that we’re the good guys.
We are liberal Democrats. We never cause any trouble. Therefore, anybody who’s like us will
likewise not cause any trouble. Unfortunately, I don’t think that’s the way the world works.
States are basically interested in maximizing relative power. They’re interested in taking
advantage of each other to increase their power at the expense of potential rivals. Whether those
countries are liberal democracies or fascistic states or communist states, states like to be very
powerful. They like their potential adversaries to be as weak as possible, because they’re
interested in security.
I really don’t think it matters that much, contrary to the conventional wisdom in the United
States and certainly in the Clinton administration, whether the world is populated by liberal
democracies or not.
PORTER: We have been talking about political systems. That makes me think of economic
systems. Just as a point of reference here, do you believe that economic systems play a role in
this, that capitalist systems are less likely to go to war or you’re less likely to go to war
with countries that you have deep economic relationships with? This would mean that we ought to
promote more free trade zones and European alliance sort of things.
MEARSHEIMER: There are really three liberal theories of international politics that
heavily inform American thinking about foreign policy and especially the Clinton administration.
The first of those is the peace-loving democracy’s argument which we talked about before. The
argument there is that democracies don’t fight other democracies. If we can create a zone of
democracies, areas of the world that are populated only by democracies, we will in effect have
created a zone of peace. That’s the first liberal theory.
The second liberal theory is economic interdependence and the argument there is that if you
create capitalist states that are highly interdependent economically they will not go to war,
because it is economically infeasible. It’s against their economic interests.
The third liberal argument is the institutional argument which says that if you create liberal
institutions like the United Nations—the CSCE which is now the OSCE, the European community, and
so forth and so on, and you include more and more states in these institutions—then you will
have a more peaceful world, because institutions cause peace. These three theories are the basic
liberal theories that heavily inform American thinking about foreign policy. All three of them on
careful inspection are fundamentally flawed and not a sound basis for providing for peace in the
PORTER: Okay. What is the theory you subscribe to?
MEARSHEIMER: Realism says that states are basically interested in maintaining a favorable
balance of power. What drives states is the balance of power, and states are concerned with
maximizing relative power. They want to be as powerful as possible vis-a-vis any potential
opponent. Therefore, states constantly look for opportunities to take advantage of other states
and increase their power relative to these potential rivals. That is the basis of the security
competition that informs international politics. When you look at the warp and woof of daily life
in the international system, basically what you see is that states are in a constant security
competition. They are not in a constant state of war, but they are constantly competing with each
other for advantage.
Sometimes that security competition leads to war. Not often, not often by any means, but
sometimes you have war. Realists would argue that whether or not you have war is largely a
function of the balance of power. For example, some realists argue that in a bipolar world you
are more likely to have war than in a multipolar world. The difference between bipolarity and
multipolarity is all a function of the balance of power. Other realists would say that if you had
one state in the system that had the capability to possibly take over the entire system, what’s
sometimes called a potential hegemony. If you have a potential hegemony, war is likely, because
all the threatened states will band together against the potential hegemony.
Other people argue that if you have a potential hegemony you’re likely to have stability, because
that potential hegemony has all sorts of incentives to create a stable system. The point that I’m
trying to make here is that among realists there are significant differences regarding how the
distribution of power causes either peace or war. What virtually all realists agree on is that
you have constant security competition among those states. That is the basis of the basic
realist view that the system is a rather nasty and brutish one.
PORTER: Michael Mandelbaum has written a piece for Foreign Affairs where he’s
highly critical of Clinton foreign policy. He says the president has failed to identify key US
national interests following the Cold War. He’s tried to “turn foreign policy into a branch of
social work.” He says that instead of pursuing US national interests we are promoting American
values and not necessarily doing well at that either. Do those criticisms ring true with you?
MEARSHEIMER: Yes. This dovetails what I said to you earlier. When Michael Mandelbaum says
that the Clinton administration is promoting American values abroad in a rather indiscriminate
fashion, I think he’s correct. I would just use slightly different language than he uses to say
that the values that American foreign policy is concerned with purveying are democracy and
capitalism. What the United States wants to do is spread democracy, or spread democratic values,
across the globe; because the United States is operating on the assumption that if you can create
a world of democracies you, in effect, will have a world of peace. Because democracies don’t
fight other democracies.
Furthermore, we are interested in spreading capitalism across the globe, because we believe that
with the spread of capitalism you will get lots and lots of economic interdependence among the
states in the system. Once states are economically interdependent, they will have no incentive to
fight against each other. You will, therefore, have a more peaceful world. In effect, what
Michael Mandelbaum is saying is that liberal democracy is a set of values or liberal democracy
represents a set of values that the Clinton administration is dedicated to spreading in a rather
indiscriminate fashion. I think he’s basically correct.
PORTER: Professor Mearsheimer, thank you very much for the lesson.
MEARSHEIMER: You’re welcome.
PORTER: That is John Mearsheimer, professor of Political Science at the University of
Chicago. For Common Ground, I’m Keith Porter. Cassettes of this program are available.
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