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A Realist Perspective on Mearsheimer’s Realism

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John Mearsheimer is a formidable presence in the study of International Relations. His seminal work, ‘The Tragedy of Great Power Politics’, is a foundational publication in the study of IR theory, and has shaped Realist thinking for many an academic. For this author, it grounded the concepts of Realism in all its forms and continues to shape the lens for viewing world politics.

Mearsheimer’s recent article in Foreign Affairs, entitled ‘The Inevitable Rivalry: America, China and the Tragedy of Great Power Politics’, sought to show the United States as a superpower taken in by its own optimism and its faith in democratic principles, resulting in the questionable choice of encouraging China’s rise at the end of the Cold War. The writing, masterfully done, attempts to persuade the reader that the US, almost riding high on a wave of delirious belief in the triumph of liberalism, ignored at its own peril the realities of great power conflict and chose to accommodate China rather than check the latter’s path to ascendance. 

This notion of ‘misguided’ American optimism is misleading. In calling it America’s “momentous choice”, Mearsheimer attempts to cast the US in a benevolent light, a superpower willingly blinding itself to the reality of structural constraints in the international system and choosing boldly to go where no major power had gone before: give its blessing to a potential great power competitor. This, he writes, was despite the “ominous signs” pointing to China as a potential threat to US preponderance. He directly credits the United States with making China what it is today – “Turning China into a great power was a recipe for trouble” – and almost appears to be embarrassed for the then American leadership’s well-intentioned largesse.

This is problematic, because Professor Mearsheimer’s argument seeks to:

  • Frame the current US-China dynamic as the outcome of  a bellicose Beijing that America should have seen coming;
  • Put the onus of the currently brewing US-China conflict squarely on Chinese shoulders; that is to say, China, by responding to American indulgence with the base instincts of a state in an anarchic system, bit the hand that fed it, and is thereby forcing the US to try and bring China to heel;
  • Justify the current aggressive American posturing and multi-front assault on China as an unwilling response to bad Chinese behavior; as if to say America expected better from China and is now paying the price for having trusted China to conform;
  • Gloss over the economic advantages the US accrued as a direct result of its China policy.

With this article Mearsheimer offers a selectively constructivist re-telling of history, betraying the realpolitik he has traditionally championed. It also attempts to absolve successive American administrations of their mistakes in their policies toward China; what he labels “The Road not Taken” was a leadership choice, not an exercise in inexperienced management.

US-China history is replete with reminders of the fact that the two countries have never not been at odds with each other. It was born as an ideological difference, albeit one of global proportions, that constructed US and Chinese perceptions of each other. Those identities and the mistrust they nurtured were fortified by a series of successive events: American support for the Kuomintang and the subsequent refusal to recognize the PRC; the push by UN forces under MacArthur beyond the 38th parallel and toward the Yalu River in the Korean War; the Taiwan Straits crises; the Soviet factor creating the impetus for a US-China rapprochement; and Tiananmen in 1989.

The end of the Cold War did not upend the US-China dynamic cemented during it. In the last decade alone, the two have found themselves conflicting over issues in the East and South China Seas; the treatment of minorities in Xinjiang; protests in Hong Kong; and a questionable Quad aimed at countering China. They remain embroiled in the 5G – soon to be the 6G – race for supremacy; a vicious trade war and affiliated political fallout; the race for supremacy in hypersonic weapons and AI; plus accusation and counter-accusation over each other’s handling of the pandemic. Since August 2021, political crossfire over Taiwan, an issue which regurgitates itself every few years, has ramped up to alarming levels; and a shiny new alliance in the form of AUKUS has emerged for good measure.  

It has also been hard not to miss the absolute avalanche of articles, op-eds and research publications that has taken politico-academic social media by storm, in a push for narrative.   

In admitting that the current Cold War is more dangerous than the original, by virtue of geography, the number of stakeholders involved, and comparative national strengths, Mearsheimer essentially makes a case for a strengthened US military presence in the Asia Pacific and sustained political pressure in the international community of nations. 

As such, it is arguably an effort to justify the position taken by the US now, and would have the world believe this is not a war of America’s choosing. But that would be to misconstrue historic choices and airbrush political miscalculation. 

What the world is seeing now and where the world is heading is a choice, and cannot be justified by saying “Mea culpa!” on behalf of America.