Realism vs. Reality

January 12, 2014 Topic: Grand Strategy

Realism vs. Reality

A response to John J. Mearsheimer. 

Editor’s Note: Please see “America Unhinged” by John J. Mearsheimer.

John Mearsheimer is not especially worried about terrorism. It is only “a minor threat”. The attacks of September 11th may have been spectacular, but “did not cripple the United States.” Besides, another attack of that magnitude is “highly unlikely”. Even “nuclear terrorism, in short, is not a serious threat.” Mearsheimer writes that “significant obstacles” face any organization seeking to procure fissile material and weaponize it. Finally, he does not even break a sweat when considering that an unstable nuclear regime may lose control of its arsenal. Yes, he admits, “Political turmoil in a nuclear-armed state could in theory allow terrorists to grab a loose nuclear weapon, but the United States already has detailed plans to deal with that highly unlikely contingency.” This blithe confidence in the marginal relevance of terrorism is essential to Mearsheimer’s main argument, that “what happens [in Egypt and Syria] is of little importance for American security”; furthermore, US exaggeration of these countries’ significance reflects a fearful American mindset that detects dire threats “in every nook and cranny of the globe.” Yet if one pulls on the loose threads in Mearsheimer’s stance on terrorism, the logic of his essay begins to unravel.

It is striking that Prof. Mearsheimer’s comfort with loose nukes rests on his faith in “detailed” US planning for intervention in failed or failing states, which he tends to dismiss as futile. Perhaps he imagines that securing such weapons will entail nothing more than a series of commando raids, like the one that resulted in the death of Osama bin Laden. Yet what if a failed state, say Pakistan in 2020, has dozens or hundreds of nuclear caches to secure? The US mission may entail a sizable intervention, including a prolonged counterinsurgency campaign, perhaps with a measure of the “social engineering” that Mearsheimer dreads. The value of being prepared for such a campaign is not something he can accept. Previously, he has described American interventions in Iraq and Afghanistan not just as failures, but as “unwinnable.”[1] This absolutism may be rhetorical excess, but Mearsheimer has argued that favorable conditions for counterinsurgency are so rare that it is practically impossible for the benefits to outweigh the costs.[2]

Of course, US intervention in Syria – for now a dead letter – was unlikely to involve boots on the ground. Instead it could’ve followed the pattern of Kosovo and Libya, where US and allied air power provided a decisive advantage to indigenous rebel forces. In Syria, the US had the opportunity to remove a tyrant who was a critical asset for both Iran and Hezbollah. Yet Mearsheimer insists “If anything, intervention [in Syria or Egypt] is likely to make a bad situation worse.” He then cites “America’s dismal record in Iraq, Afghanistan and Libya.” Yet in Libya, we prevented a horrific massacre and ousted Muammar Qaddafi, while leaving behind an admittedly unstable situation. In Afghanistan, Mearsheimer actually called for an end to the US air war in mid-November 2001, arguing instead for a campaign of “bribery [and] covert action” making “the fullest use of Pakistani intelligence and influence.” Why? Because the Northern Alliance was unreliable, the Taliban elusive and Afghan nationalism would ensure an unwelcome reception in Kabul.[3] He was wrong on every point. Without reference to his earlier prediction, Mearsheimer later admitted, “Sometimes it is easy to eliminate hostile regimes, as the US did in Afghanistan.”[4] Of course, American blundering can make things worse. After four years of inattention, the Taliban re-emerged and became a serious menace. In Iraq, a lethal insurgency emerged within months of the US invasion. Only after four agonizing years did the Coalition employ an effective strategy against the insurgents backed by sufficient manpower. Within months, violence plummeted. Yet as late as 2011, Mearsheimer insisted, “the surge has not been a success,” because of ongoing political instability.[5] Ironically, the melting away of American gains in Iraq is attributable in no small part to a President who shared Prof. Mearsheimer’s revulsion at the war itself and refused to leave behind a stabilizing force to maintain leverage over the Maliki government.

To understand why Mearsheimer cannot countenance American “meddling” in other nations’ politics, it’s necessary to place “America Unhinged” within the context of Mearsheimer’s extensive theoretical writing. He identifies himself as a “structural” or “neo-” realist, meaning that he considers states to be the fundamental units in world politics and seeks explanations for their behavior based on their material power relative to other states. Hence, the ideas that guide a state’s leadership are effectively irrelevant, since the state’s interests are determined by the balance of power. Thus Mearsheimer can write with brio, “It does not matter much who is in charge in Cairo or Damascus.” To make such a position plausible, for Syria in particular, Mearsheimer must downplay the threat of terrorism, especially nuclear. Yet in 2006, he stated that nuclear terrorism “is clearly the greatest threat now facing the United States.”[6] Discomfited by the unpleasant facts of the Syrian civil war, Prof. Mearsheimer contradicts himself in order to save his theory and justify his politics.

Such tensions illustrate how Mearsheimer’s unrelenting commitment to structural realism prevents him from being the kind of realist who sees the world as it really is. While realists are emphatic about the dangers of ideological thinking – especially the dangers of American Exceptionalism – the irony is that Mearsheimer’s own structural realism has fitted him with a set of ideological blinders. Within academia, Mearsheimer is infamous for his prediction that after the Cold War, the nation-states of Europe would return to their 19th century practice of aggressive power balancing, rather than progressing toward a peaceful union. While most realists have written off that failure, Mearsheimer can’t bring himself to admit that new ideas about European identity are what prevent further wars between Britain, France, Germany, and their neighbors. In his keynote address to a gathering of European scholars, Mearsheimer even insisted his prediction cannot truly be tested “until US troops are pulled completely out of Europe and NATO is disbanded.”[7]

Meanwhile, even those realists with structuralist leanings have recognized the lessons of 9/11 regarding failed states and non-state actors. According to a 2002 article in International Security, “if Afghanistan had been governed by a more capable and moderate regime over the past decade, bin Laden would not have found sanctuary there…The danger that some failed states pose remind us that unresolved conflicts are always a potential danger…Thus helping to settle protracted civil conflicts is not merely good for the world in general, it can also make the United States safer.”[8] Thus wrote Stephen Walt, Mearsheimer’s frequent co-author and fellow critic of the “foreign penetration” of American policymaking by ethnic lobbies.[9] If Prof. Mearsheimer finds his colleague’s arguments persuasive, he ought to reconsider his view that, in the Mideast, “only the oil-producing states of the Persian Gulf are of marked strategic importance.” In fact, he (and perhaps Prof. Walt) may want to send a brief note of thanks to the Israeli armed forces, whose 2007 destruction of the al-Kibar nuclear reactor prevented nuclear materials from spilling onto Syrian battlefields today. Unless, of course, Mearsheimer prefers to stand by the assertion that America’s “detailed plans” would have nimbly resolved such a nightmare.

David Adesnik is a visiting fellow at the Marilyn Ware Center for Security Studies at the American Enterprise Institute (AEI), where he works on isolationism, national security strategy, and democracy promotion. He is part of AEI’s American Internationalism Project. Before joining AEI, Adesnik was a research analyst at the Institute for Defense Analyses. He has served as deputy director of Joint Data Support at the US Department of Defense, where he focused on the modeling and simulation of irregular warfare and counterinsurgency.

Image: U.S. Army/Flickr.

[1] John J. Mearsheimer, “Why is Europe Peaceful Today?”, European Political Science, Vol. 9 (2010), 392.

[2] John J. Mearsheimer, “Imperial by Design”, The National Interest, January/February 2011, 26-29.

[3] John J. Mearsheimer, “Guns Won’t Win the Afghan War,” The New York Times, Nov. 4, 2001, Sec. 4, Pg. 13.

[4] John J. Mearsheimer, “Hearts and Minds,” The National Interest, Fall 2002, 14-15.

[5] Mearsheimer, “Imperial by Design,” 27.

[6] “Conversations in International Relations: Interview with John J. Mearsheimer (Part II)”, International Relations, Vol. 20, No. 2 (2006), 237.

[7] Mearsheimer, “Why is Europe Peaceful Today?”, 389.

[8] Stephen M. Walt, “Beyond Bin Laden: Reshaping U.S. Foreign Policy,” International Security, Vol. 26, No. 3 (Winter 2001/02), 62.

[9] Stephen M. Walt, “Taming American Power,” Foreign Affairs, Sep/Oct 2005, [Original Pagination]; See also John J. Mearsheimer and Stephen M. Walt, The Israel Lobby and U.S. Foreign Policy (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2007).