and the real world
John Mearsheimer's article "Liberal Talk, Realist Thinking"
(February/02) leaves out the tie that binds: action. Close work,
careful listening, and reconciliation of not only different views
but also different paradigms are as always the key to producing
results. Also, the idea that liberalism does not respect or understand
power is naive.
saw us successfully through two world wars and any number of civil
upheavals. We understand power in that we mediate and don't sacrifice
ends to means when we take action.
H. Gordon, AM'74, PhD'81
police think in realistic terms when it's time to stop crime does
not mean they cannot play a good, moral role that they can and
should feel good about. And just as there will always be crime
within nations, there will always be criminal behavior between
nations. Particularly when respected people who might be in a
position to notice the benefits of market economies and democratic
systems provide fodder to the enemies of such by characterizing
systems that actually provide for the non-zero-sum betterment
of humanity as mere excuses for an implied zero-sum expansionism.
New York City
congratulations on the article excerpted from Mearsheimer's book.
It is the most honest, lucid presentation of the realities of
international politics that has ever been my pleasure to read.
am presenting at a seminar on "U.S. as Superpower: The Challenge
of Statecraft" at Rocky Mountain College, and his article
will strongly influence my lecture.
L. Stickney, MD'54
to "Liberal Talk, Realist Thinking," we can rethink
the U.S. declaration of "war on terrorism." Behind such
a campaign label we have theorists influencing policy.
John Mearsheimer's publication may wield influence, and this excerpt
appears as an antidote to his earlier writings that promised a
security in bipolar geopolitics. Even within his book's title,
The Tragedy of Great Power Politics, readers may be tempted
to hope for a scholarly critique of his previous defense of superpower
dominance. But as with his subject, his rhetoric can be deceiving.
Mearsheimer's distillation of international-relations theories
as either liberal or realist promises theoretical elegance and
penetrating revelation. Yet his clarity is reductive, and the
dichotomy of his comparison misleading. Purporting to reveal a
surprising veneer of moral rhetoric covering base motives of power,
Mearsheimer instead serves up the obvious and rationalizes that
which he appears to critique.
one abroad would be surprised to hear, as Mearsheimer writes,
that through history the U.S. has been able to "get away
with [a] contradiction between rhetoric and policy." Foreign
nationals, as well as students from the College who return from
foreign study, have said this much and now say the same about
the current campaign officially labeled "Enduring Freedom."
Similarly, many who study the world did not find much to recognize
in Mearsheimer's earlier vision of "stability" in Cold
War-era proxy wars.
wonders, then, why such journalistic writing attracts scholarly
and policy audiences here. Is the answer not that Mearsheimer's
revelation is instead a justification? He purports to reveal something
startling: that "Americans are prone to believe that morality
should play an important role in politics." And he attempts
a subtle explanation that Americans believe moral labels because
"Americans dislike realpolitik." Does this "gap
between reality and rhetoric" truly go "unnoticed in
the United States"? International and domestic scholars indeed
notice this phenomenon. Why state the obvious?
such a simple dichotomy is useful for a Cold War theorist to craft
yet another admonition to accept his premise that raw pursuit
of power, regardless of bias revealed in rhetoric, explains the
world. When he concludes that Americans "find it easy to
believe that they are acting according to cherished principles,"
Mearsheimer reverts once more to tautology. Instead of probing
scholarship, this writing raises facetious comparisons and arrives
at his same conclusion that we must accept the primacy of "cold
and calculated power considerations." As with ideologists
in abortion debates who capture the label "right to life,"
such followers of aggression theory as Mearsheimer appropriate
the mantle of "realism." More subtle scholarship on
realities should include attention to past policies that provoke
anti-U.S. sentiment. In future issues of the Magazine on
the topic, one would hope for a series of culturally informed
and scholarly reflections.
Hsu, AM'88, PhD'98
it apparent that the political experiment that is the United States
is founded on a liberal vision? In the Declaration of Independence
the Founding Fathers set forth a vision that, through analysis,
rational discourse, and resolute action, human beings could improve
the society in which they live, and could expect to continue improving
it. This characteristic of U.S. society has endured until today,
when the U.S. is the world's only superpower and its cultural
influence is global. Political optimism is at the heart of both
the Republican and Democratic parties.
the same time there is another principle that has been a major
element of U.S. political development since the American Revolution:
the belief that the nation must be protected by military force.
This principle is clear in the Federalist Papers, in which Alexander
Hamilton, James Madison, and John Jay argued for the ratification
of the Constitution. The main argument for ratification in all
of their essays is that only through political unity, a "United
States," could the colonies expect to be able to prevail
militarily against possible foreign enemies. The military wisdom
of this view was testified to throughout the 19th century by the
wars against Great Britain, Mexico, and Spain, and in the 20th
century by World Wars I and II, the Cold War, and more recently
the Gulf War, the war in Afghanistan, and numerous other U.S.
military actions. As our enormous military budget, and the current
"bipartisan" support of the "War on Terrorism"
testify, leaders of both the Republican and Democratic parties
deeply hold this belief.
the sense that these beliefs in the "improvability of society"
and the necessity of military force as the means for doing it
describe much of the world today, they are "realistic,"
whether the military component is passive or active. In the sense
that this political approach can continue to be successful forever,
the perspective is unrealistic. This is because the belief that
military force can be such a rationally controlled instrument
of change is unscientific.
is unscientific because it ignores mathematical analysis of how
probability is related to time-or, stochastic analysis, a branch
of science widely used in physics, chemistry, biology, and the
insurance industry. Stochastic analysis shows that nuclear deterrence,
the foundation of U.S. foreign policy, is unstable and can be
expected to collapse at any moment into catastrophic accidents
with nuclear weapons, terrorist nuclear attacks, and nuclear war.
This stochastic principle is powerfully illustrated by the tragic
events of September 11. The destruction of the World Trade Center
towers occurred because all of the physical and psychological
conditions for their destruction existed. Under those conditions,
the attacks were just a matter of time. If present nuclear arsenals
continue to exist, the destruction of world culture is just a
matter of time. If people continue to hate each other as much
as they do, the catastrophe will be sooner rather than later.
If the liberal vision of the United States is to remain realistic,
it must be tied to an understanding of how nonviolent, nonmilitary
means for achieving security, social and economic justice, and
humanitarian social change can be made effective.
Mearsheimer's article contained many ideas with which I agree;
nevertheless I cannot agree with his setting up a dichotomy between
liberalism and realism. The antonym for "liberal" is
"conservative," and the antonym for "realist"
is "idealist." It is certainly true that some
liberals are unrealistic, but it is also true that some conservatives
are unrealistic. To draw the conclusions about liberals and foreign
policy that Mearsheimer is doing, one would have to show that
all liberals are unrealistic, which is certainly not the
observes that for realists there is the recognition that there
is the selfish pursuit of power by states, but there should also
be the realistic observation that the pursuit of power frequently
involves the pursuit of plunder. Odysseus is lauded by Homer as
a "plunderer of cities." Warfare and piracy are close
allied. Then too, the conquest of Troy was facilitated by the
Trojan horse, which is based on deceit. It comes as no surprise
that, as Mearsheimer says, "It should be obvious to intelligent
observers that the United States speaks one way and acts another."
Indeed, the Trojan horse of deceit is not only a useful element
in warfare and politics, but apparently, as the Enron scandal
indicates, in the financial affairs of corporations as well.
problem arises when Mearsheimer quotes Carr as pointing out that
the states on the European continent regard the English-speaking
peoples as "masters in the art of concealing their selfish
national interests in the guise of the general good," adding
that "this kind of hypocrisy is a special and characteristic
peculiarity of the Anglo-Saxon mind." The problem is that
the Anglo-Saxons were invaders of England who came from the continent!
So the question arises, are the people on the continent so free
of deceit that we can trust their characterization of their English-speaking
cousins? Do the English-speaking peoples have a monopoly on deceit,
or like sin, is it more widely distributed amongst nations? To
be thoroughly realistic, Professor Mearsheimer should have explored
this question as well.
R. Tangherlini, SM'52