Air Date: February 27, 1996 Program 9609


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 power.

KEITH PORTER, host: John Mearsheimer and the anarchy of nations on this edition of Common Ground.

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 brutish one.

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 instability?

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 world.

PORTER: Okay. What is the theory you subscribe to?


PORTER: Realism.

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. Cassettes cost $5.00. To order or to share your thoughts about the program, please write to us at the Stanley Foundation, 216 Sycamore Street, Suite 500, Muscatine, Iowa 52761. Be sure to refer to Program #9609. To order by credit card, you can call us at 319-264-1500.

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