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Notes from the barren shoals of international relations ‘theory’

Published on 06 February 2012
Updated on 05 April 2024

In the early 80’s, a few wine producers sold poisoned plonk to the public. People died. Why would producers deliberately kill off their customers – a new way of achieving “market share”? No. The wine was never intended for the public. It was destined for distillation under an EEC-scheme to drain the “wine lake”. In that scheme of things, whether the brew was drinkable or not, did not matter. Fatalities occurred when by error it was deviated onto the market.

Louis MENAND[1] writes about literary criticism: “This is no longer criticism; it is self-fulfilling prophecy, born of the belief that critical theory is a kind of magic bullet, which targets the important issues and does the job of interpretation for you. Very little variety or independence of mind is possible in these circumstances; and the recent emergence, in some places, of a grim and reductive political orthodoxy has squeezed the sense of personality, the sense of soul, out of academic criticism even further.”

What MENAND describes is a closed circuit which I would define, paraphrasing the great Italian economist Piero SRAFFA: “Production of professors by the means of professors.” It is a game an elite plays when it has lost its social function – i.e. has become a caste, living off a rent. Rentiers live by entitlement, and their only concern is to limit their own number. Hence the clever Byzantine “theories” such groups invent to amuse themselves, and use to whittle down applicants to the required replacement number.

Problems with such “closed circuits” arise when – as in the case of undrinkable wine – the stuff leaks into the public domain. With literary criticism it does not matter: their “theories” are shielded by a thicket of impenetrable jargon[2]. Also, they do not aspire to predict – just “entertain”.

In other areas things are different. Economics is a case in point. There is no question in my mind that the many “theories” economists have spun out in the last fifty years in their futile attempt to transform their discipline into a ”science” akin to physics have provided the “hothouse” in which finance has dissociated itself from reality and driven the world economy into the current intractable mess. Armed with “predictive” models, the most brilliant minds of a generation have been sent over the ridge of common sense to face lurking uncertainty. Philosophy is another instance: the last century was studded with philosophers ready to submit to ideological kings, who they expect would realize their reign of truth and justice[3].

In international relations there are signs that what had remained for long informed “commentary” or “descriptive” theories has now evolved into full-fledged “predictive theory”. Here is the policy recommendation of one its adepts, John J. MEARSHEIMER[4]: “If they want to survive, great powers should always act like good offensive realists.” (p. 12) – i.e. strive for hegemony. And “power in international politics is largely a product of the military forces that a state possesses.” (p. 83) He concludes pessimistically that great powers will inevitably clash militarily.

Mmm… this sounds very much like Spencerism in sheep’s clothes. Replace “will to power” with “will to survive” – and you get the same outcome. In concrete terms the author concludes: “China and the United States are destined to be adversaries as China’s power grows”. (p. 4) Note the prophetic “destined” forefronting the Wagnerian “survive”.

Together with FUKUYAMA and HUNTINGTON, MEARSHEIMER has been recently named as influential thinker in international relations[5]. So let’s take a closer look at his “theory”.

Before we go into the substance of MEARSHEIMER’s theory, however, I’d like to make a methodological point. According to this author a “theory” that “helps us look backward to understand the past should also help us look forward and anticipate the future” (p. xii). Nassim TALEB has made the humorous point that studying the past of a clucking turkey will in no way yield indications that it will end up on the dinner table soon enough. Prophecies based on time series are not much better than those based on current conditions – they both assume that the same conditions will prevail in the future. Humankind has moved within 10’000 years from the Neolithic to Post-modernity: one needs oversized blinkers to presume that the future will be “courant normal” of the past.

MEARSHEIMER’s is based on five “bedrock assumptions” (p. 30 ff.):

  • The international system is anarchic (i.e. there is no global government);
  • Great powers inherently possess some offensive capability;
  • States can never be certain about other states’ intentions;
  • Survival is the primary goal of great powers;
  • Great powers are rational actors.

He concludes: “when the five assumptions are married together, they create powerful incentives for great powers to think and act offensively with regard to each other.” (p. 32). This is his “structural theory of international politics”, which he calls “offensive realism[6]”.

These assumptions are to be read together with statements such as:

  • (Offensive realism) “pays little attention to individuals or domestic political considerations such as ideology. It tends to treat states like black boxes or billiard balls” (p. 11) – thus denying them decisive discretionary agency. They act reflexively in response to changes in the structure;
  • It is virtually impossible for any state to achieve global hegemony.” (…) “The best outcome a great power can hope for is to be a regional hegemon and possibly control another region that is nearby and accessible over land”. (p. 41)

It seems to me, that this framework is shot full of contradictions. The most obvious is – if the best the system can come up with is a set of “regional hegemons”, the theory is not in a position to predict how these regional hegemons (e.g. China and the US) will interact with one another; and a military confrontation need not be predestined. So the “destiny” of military conflict between China and the US is far from inevitable: each may remain guardedly hegemon in its own sphere of influence. The theory fails at its very core.

If external factors – the structure of international relations – determine great power behavior, participants’ behavior should be predictable, just as we can predict planetary orbits or billiard ball curves. So assumptions (3) and (5) are contradictory. MEARSHEIMER aggravates his case by arguing that “less powerful states can sometimes defeat more powerful states” – by dint of strategy, or pluck (p. 59)[7]. At this point his “theory” becomes opaque.

The next point is definitional. What does MEARSHEIMER mean by “survive”? Germany and Japan have “survived” – the only thing is, they are no longer “great powers”. Do they care? Do we even need “great powers” in a world where “vital interests” have been replaced by “policy preferences”? Now let’s assume MEARSHEIMER gets his wish, and the US takes on China – and succeeds in beating it militarily. The outcome would remind me of “The Moon is Down” by John Steinbeck, when Tonder cries out: “Flies conquer the flypaper. Flies capture two hundred miles of new flypaper!” Having shown themselves incapable of getting a country of 30 million back up and running for the US, I fail to see how it could do better in China, even by transforming the Forbidden City into a Green Zone.

The case for a “tryst with destiny” between China and the US, sometime in the future does not stand even cursory analysis[8]. Unless – unless it becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy; where one side raises the ante and forces the other to follow.

It is not a question of “who started it?” but one of “who can safely stop?” Here the answer in unambiguous. The US has the strongest capability to project power across the globe. In doing so, however, it has currently badly overextended itself and it is in dire need of retrenchment. There is thus a pragmatic case for US-led accommodation with the new “great power”, which is China. We hear an interesting voice from China: Wu Xinbo, the deputy director of the Center for American Studies at Shanghai’s Fudan University, wrote in June, “If the United States eases its policies toward China’s core interests, this could, in turn, encourage China to respect US core interests and foster cooperation as China’s material power and international influence are both growing.”

Given that we have here two (actual or potential) “regional hegemons” separated by sea, furthermore, it might be possible to find a peaceful way forward. Unfortunately theories like “offensive realism” dovetail with structural interests in the US who fear the economic implications of moving from a military-industrial complex to a society that cares for all its citizens.

Under cover of detached and “realist” analysis a theory has been developed here that is downright dangerous, particularly as it becomes “vulgarised” in public foreign policy discussion[9]. One is reminded of Graham GREENE in Quiet American: “I never knew a man who had better motives for all the trouble he caused.”

[1] Louis MENAND (1991): The politics of deconstruction. New York Review of Books. November 21.

[2] The Sokal hoax was a publishing hoax perpetrated by Alan Sokal, a physics professor at New York University. In 1996, Sokal submitted an article to Social Text, an academic journal of postmodern cultural studies. The submission was an experiment to test the publication’s intellectual rigor and, specifically, to learn if such a journal would “publish an article liberally salted with nonsense if it (a) sounded good and (b) flattered the editors’ ideological preconceptions https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sokal_affair

[3] See: Richard WOLIN (2004): The seduction of unreason. The intellectual romance with Fascism from Nietzsche to post-modernism. Princeton University Press. As well as Mark LILLA (2001): The reckless mind. Intellectuals in politics. NYRB, New York.

[4] John J. MEARSHEIMER (2001): The tragedy of great power politics. Norton, New York.

[5] See Richard K. BETTS (2010): Conflict or cooperation? Three visions revisited. Foreign Affairs, Nov/Dec 2010.

[6] The appropriation of the term “realism” is intended to cast aspersion on opposing theories. There is no real basis for the assertion: “the real world remains a realist world.” (p. 361).

[7] MEARSHEIMER builds his case by pointing to Napoleon’s 1812 campaign against Russia. The campaign, however, was a classic case of “defeat foretold”, rather than superior strategy on the part of the Russians. Sheer distance from the jump-off base defeated Napoleon. The Six Day War of 1967 would have been a far better example.

[8] One could write pages debunking the “historical analysis” in the book. Suffice to point out that it fails to account for the emergence of “great powers” like Germany or Italy in the XIXth century. As all structural theories, it is essentially static: once a hegemon emerges, the structure should keep it in place. Never is the case.

But just one quote – to point to this gem: “Great power conventional wars do not have to be protracted and bloody affairs. Quick and decisive victories are possible [in the XXIst century] as Germany demonstrated against France in 1940.” (p. 367) I vividly image a Chinese commando taking a dash down Pennsylvania Ave. in the not too distant future!

[9] There is in fact one country to which the theory of “offensive realism” applies. It is not a “great power”. One is left to wonder whether this hefty tome is not intended to provide dispensation for this specific case, under cover of a general and structural “theory”.

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