image: University of Chicago Magazine - logo

link to: featureslink to: class news, books, deathslink to: chicago journal, college reportlink to: investigationslink to: editor's notes, letters, chicagophile, course work
link to: back issueslink to: contact forms, address updateslink to: staff info, ad rates, subscriptions

  > > Editor's Note
  > > From the President
  > >
  > >
  > > e-Bulletin: 04/15/02

Realism and the real world

Professor 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.

Liberals 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.

Sarah H. Gordon, AM'74, PhD'81
Hamden, Connecticut

That 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.

Matthew Jacobson, AB'96
New York City

Hearty 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.

I 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.

Edwin L. Stickney, MD'54
Billings, Montana

Thanks 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.

Indeed, 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.

No 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.

One 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?

Rhetorically, 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.

Roland Hsu, AM'88, PhD'98

Isn't 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.

At 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.

In 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.

It 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.

Bradford Lyttle, AM'51

John 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 case.

Mearsheimer 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.

Another 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.

Frank R. Tangherlini, SM'52
San Diego


  APRIL 2002

  > > Volume 94, Number 4

  > >
Auteur! Auteur!
  > >
A Run for Our Money
  > >
My Life as a Mind
  > >
Thinking Inside the Box
  > >
Home, home in the Reg

  > > Class News

  > > Books
  > > Deaths

  > > Chicago Journal

  > > Chicago Report

  > > Investigations

  > > Coursework
  > > Doctoral Studies



uchicago ©2002 The University of Chicago Magazine 1313 E. 60th St., Chicago, IL 60637
phone: 773/702-2163 fax: 773/702-2166