John Mearsheimer

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John J. Mearsheimer

John J. Mearsheimer
BornDecember 1947
Brooklyn, New York
EraInternational relations theory
RegionWestern Philosophers
Main interestsInternational security, nuclear security, balance of power
Notable ideasOffensive realism
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John J. Mearsheimer

John J. Mearsheimer
BornDecember 1947
Brooklyn, New York
EraInternational relations theory
RegionWestern Philosophers
Main interestsInternational security, nuclear security, balance of power
Notable ideasOffensive realism

John J. Mearsheimer (born December 1947) is an American professor of Political Science at the University of Chicago. He is an international relations theorist. Known for his 2001 book on offensive realism, The Tragedy of Great Power Politics, Mearsheimer became better known for co-authoring with Stephen Walt the New York Times Best Seller The Israel Lobby and U.S. Foreign Policy (2007). His 2011 book Why Leaders Lie: The Truth About Lying in International Politics is described as cataloging "the kinds of lies nations tell each other."[1] According to an interview with Mearsheimer in The Boston Globe, the lesson of the book is: "Lie selectively, lie well, and ultimately be good at what you do."[2]


Early years

Mearsheimer was born in December 1947 in Brooklyn, New York. He was raised in New York City until the age of eight, when his parents moved his family to Croton-on-Hudson, New York, a suburb located in Westchester County.[3]


When he was 17, Mearsheimer enlisted in the U.S. Army. After one year as an enlisted member, he chose to attend the United States Military Academy at West Point. He attended West Point from 1966–1970. After graduation, he served for five years as an officer in the U.S. Air Force.[4][5]

In 1974, while in the Air Force, Mearsheimer earned a Masters Degree in International Relations from the University of Southern California. He subsequently entered Cornell University and in 1980 earned a Ph.D. in government, specifically in international relations. From 1978–1979, he was a research fellow at the Brookings Institution in Washington, D.C.; from 1980–1982, he was a post-doctoral fellow at Harvard University’s Center for International Affairs. During the 1998–1999 academic year, he was the Whitney H. Shepardson Fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations in New York.[3]

University of Chicago

Since 1982, Mearsheimer has been a member of the faculty of the Department of Political Science Faculty at the University of Chicago.[6] He became an associate professor in 1984, a full professor in 1987, and was appointed the R. Wendell Harrison Distinguished Service Professor in 1996. From 1989-1992, he served as chairman of the department. He also holds a position as a faculty member in the Committee on International Relations graduate program, and is the co-director of the Program on International Security Policy.[7]

Mearsheimer’s books include Conventional Deterrence (1983) which won the Edgar S. Furniss Jr. Book Award, Nuclear Deterrence: Ethics and Strategy] (co-editor, 1985); Liddell Hart and the Weight of History (1988); The Tragedy of Great Power Politics (2001), which won the Joseph Lepgold Book Prize; The Israel Lobby and U.S. Foreign Policy (2007); and Why Leaders Lie: The Truth About Lying in International Politics (2011). His articles have appeared in academic journals like International Security and popular magazines like The London Review of Books. He has written op-ed pieces for The New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, and the Chicago Tribune.[7]

Mearsheimer has won several teaching awards. He received the Clark Award for Distinguished Teaching when he was a graduate student at Cornell in 1977, and he won the Quantrell Award for Excellence in Undergraduate Teaching at the University of Chicago in 1985. In addition, he was selected as a Phi Beta Kappa Visiting Scholar for the 1993-1994 academic year. In that capacity, he gave a series of talks at eight colleges and universities. In 2003, he was elected to the American Academy of Arts and Sciences.[7]

John Mearsheimer is the leading proponent of a branch of realist theory in international relations called offensive realism which maintains that states are not satisfied with a given amount of power, but seek hegemony for security.[citation needed]

Conventional deterrence

Mearsheimer's first book Conventional Deterrence (1983) addresses the question of how decisions to start a war depend on the projected outcome of military conflict. In other words, how do decision makers' beliefs about the outcome of war affect the success or failure of deterrence? Mearsheimer's basic argument is that deterrence is likely to work when the potential attacker believes that a successful attack will be unlikely and costly. If the potential attacker, however, has reason to believe the attack will likely succeed and entail low costs, then deterrence is likely to break down. This is now widely accepted to be the way the principle of deterrence works. Specifically, Mearsheimer argues that the success of deterrence is determined by the strategy available to the potential attacker. He lays out three strategies. First, a war-of-attrition strategy, which entails a high level of uncertainty about the outcome of war and high costs for the attacker. Second, a limited-aims strategy, which entails less risks and lower costs. And, third, a blitzkrieg strategy, which provides a way to defeat the enemy rapidly and decisively, with relatively low costs. For Mearsheimer, failures in the modern battlefield are due mostly to the potential attacker's belief that it can successfully implement a blitzkrieg strategy in which tanks and other mechanized forces are employed swiftly to effect a deep penetration and disrupt the enemy's rear.[8] The other two strategies are unlikely to lead to deterrence failures because they would entail a low probability of success accompanied by high costs (war of attrition) or limited gains and the possibility of the conflict turning into a war of attrition (limited aims). If the attacker has a coherent blitzkrieg strategy available, however, an attack is likely to ensue, as its potential benefits outweigh the costs and risks of starting a war.[9]

Besides analyzing cases from World War II and the Arab-Israeli conflict, Mearsheimer extrapolates implications from his theory for the prospects of conventional deterrence in Central Europe during the late Cold War. Here, he argues that a Soviet attack is unlikely because the Soviet military would be unable to successfully implement a blitzkrieg strategy. The balance of forces, the difficulty of advancing rapidly with mechanized forces through Central Europe, and the formidable NATO forces opposing such a Soviet attack made it unlikely, in Mearsheimer's view, that the Soviets would start a conventional war in Europe.[10]

Nuclear proliferation

In 1990 Mearsheimer published an essay[11] where he predicted that Europe would revert to a multipolar environment similar to that in the first half of the Twentieth century if American and Soviet forces left following the end of the Cold War.

In this essay and in the 1993 article in Foreign Affairs "The case for a Ukrainian nuclear deterrent",[12] he argued that to reduce the dangers of war, the United States should encourage Germany and Ukraine to develop a nuclear arsenal, while working to prevent the rise of hyper-nationalism. Mearsheimer presented several possible scenarios for a post-Cold-War Europe from which American and Russian forces had departed. He believed that a Europe with nuclear proliferation was most likely to remain at peace, because without a nuclear deterrent Germany would be likely to once more try to conquer the continent (See pages 32–33).[11] Mearsheimer argued that it would be strategically unwise for Ukraine to surrender its nuclear arsenal (remnants of the Soviet stockpile). However, in 1994 Ukraine consented to rid of its entire former Soviet nuclear stockpile, a process that was complete by 1996. When challenged on the former assertion at a lecture given to the International Politics department at the University of Wales in Aberystwyth, he maintained that in spite of European integration and expansion, he still believed that his predictions would come true if the United States military left Europe.[13]

Also, in op-ed pieces written in 1998 and 2000 for The New York Times, Mearsheimer defended India's right to acquire nuclear weapons. In support of this position, he argued that India has good strategic reasons to want a nuclear deterrent, especially in order to balance against China and Pakistan, guaranteeing regional stability. He also criticized United States counter-proliferation policy towards India, which he considered unrealistic and harmful to American interests in the region.[14]

Offensive realism

John Mearsheimer is the leading proponent of offensive realism. It is a structural theory which, unlike the classical realism of Hans Morgenthau, blames security competition among great powers on the anarchy of the international system, not on human nature. In contrast to another structural realist theory, the defensive realism of Kenneth Waltz, offensive realism maintains that states are not satisfied with a given amount of power, but seek hegemony for security because the anarchic makeup of the international system creates strong incentives for states to seek opportunities to gain power at the expense of competitors.[15] Mearsheimer summed this view up in his 2001 book The Tragedy of Great Power Politics:

Given the difficulty of determining how much power is enough for today and tomorrow, great powers recognize that the best way to ensure their security is to achieve hegemony now, thus eliminating any possibility of a challenge by another great power. Only a misguided state would pass up an opportunity to be the hegemon in the system because it thought it already had sufficient power to survive.[16]

In this world, there is no such thing as a status quo power, since according to Mearsheimer, "A great power that has a marked power advantage over its rivals is likely to behave more aggressively, because it has the capability as well as the incentive to do so." He has also dismissed democratic peace theory, which claims that democracies never or rarely go to war with one another.

Although Mearsheimer does not believe it is possible for a state to become a global hegemon, he believes states seek regional hegemony. Furthermore, he argues that states attempt to prevent other states from becoming regional hegemons, since peer competitors could interfere in a state's affairs. States which have achieved regional hegemony, such as the U.S., will act as offshore balancers, interfering in other regions only when the great powers in those regions are not able to prevent the rise of a hegemon. In a 2004 speech, Mearsheimer praised the British historian E. H. Carr for his 1939 book The Twenty Years’ Crisis and argued that Carr was correct when he claimed that international relations was a struggle of all against all with states always placing their own interests first.[17] Mearsheimer maintained that Carr’s points were still as relevant for 2004 as for 1939, and went on to deplore what he claimed was the dominance of “idealist” thinking about international relations among British academic life[17]

Gulf War

In January and early February 1991, Mearsheimer published two op-eds in the Chicago Tribune and the New York Times arguing that the war to liberate Kuwait from Iraqi forces should be quick and lead to a decisive US victory, with less than 1,000 American casualties. This view countered the conventional wisdom at the start of the war, that predicted a conflict lasting for months and costing thousands of American lives. Mearsheimer's argument was based on several points. First, the Iraqi Army was a Third World military, unprepared to fight mobile armored battles. Second, US armored forces were better equipped and trained. Third, US artillery was also far better than its Iraqi counterpart. Fourth, US airpower, unfettered by the weak Iraqi air force, should prove devastating against Iraqi ground forces. Fifth and finally, the forward deployment of Iraqi reserves boded ill for their ability to counter US efforts to penetrate the Iraqi defense line along the Saudi-Kuwaiti border. These predictions came true in the course of the war.[18][19]

Israel lobby

In March 2006, Mearsheimer and Stephen Walt, academic dean and professor of International Relations at the Harvard Kennedy School of Government, published a Harvard University Kennedy School of Government working paper[20] and a London Review of Books article[21] discussing the power of the Israel lobby in shaping the foreign policy of the United States. They define the Israel lobby as "a loose coalition of individuals and organizations who actively work to steer US foreign policy in a pro-Israel direction". They emphasize that it is not appropriate to label it a "Jewish lobby", because not all Jews feel a strong attachment to Israel and because some of the individuals and groups who work to foster U.S. support for Israel are not Jewish; according to Mearsheimer and Walt, Christian Zionists play an important role. Finally, they emphasize that the lobby is not a cabal or a conspiracy but simply a powerful interest group like the National Rifle Association or the farm lobby. Their core argument is that the policies that the lobby pushes are not in the United States' national interest, nor ultimately that of Israel. Those pieces generated extensive media coverage and led to a wide-ranging and often heated debate between supporters and opponents of their argument.

Mearsheimer and Walt subsequently turned the article into a book also called The Israel Lobby and U.S. Foreign Policy which was published in August 2007. The book has been translated into twenty-one languages and published in twenty-one countries[citation needed], and has become a widely popular, if controversial, work. Mearsheimer and Walt traveled extensively throughout the United States and overseas to talk about the book.

Statements on Israeli wars and a Palestinian state

Mearsheimer was critical of Israel’s war against Lebanon in the summer of 2006. He argued that Israel’s strategy was "doomed to fail" because it was based on the "faulty assumption" that Israeli air power could defeat Hezbollah, which was essentially a guerrilla force. The war, he argued, was a disaster for the Lebanese people, as well as a "major setback" for the United States and Israel.[22] The lobby, he said, played a key role in enabling Israel’s counterproductive response by preventing the United States from exercising independent influence.[23]

Mearsheimer was also critical of Israel’s offensive against Hamas in the Gaza Strip that began in December 2008. He argued that it would not eliminate Hamas’s capability to fire missiles and rockets at Israel, and that it would not cause Hamas to end its fight with Israel. In fact, he argued that relations between Israel and the Palestinians were likely to get worse in the years ahead.[24]

Mearsheimer emphasizes that the only hope for Israel to end its conflict with the Palestinians is to end the occupation and allow the Palestinians to have their own state in Gaza and the West Bank. Otherwise, Israel is going to turn itself into an "apartheid state." That would be a disastrous outcome not only for Israel, but also for the United States and especially the Palestinians.[25]

The "Future of Palestine" lecture

In April 2010, Mearsheimer delivered the Hisham B. Sharabi Memorial Lecture at the Palestine Center in Washington, DC, which he titled "The Future of Palestine: Righteous Jews vs. the New Afrikaners." He argued that "the two-state solution is now a fantasy" because Israel will incorporate the Gaza Strip and the West Bank into a "Greater Israel", which would become an apartheid state. This state, according to Mearsheimer, would not be politically viable, most American Jews would not support it, and it would eventually become a democratic bi-national state, politically dominated by its Palestinian majority. He suggested that "American Jews who care deeply about Israel" could be divided into three categories: the "new Afrikaners" who will support Israel even if it is an apartheid state, "righteous Jews," who believe that individual rights are universal, and apply equally to Jews and Palestinians, and the largest group who he called the "great ambivalent middle". He concludes that most of the "great ambivalent middle" would not defend an apartheid Israel because "American Jews are among the staunchest defenders of traditional liberal values" resulting in the "new Afrikaners" becoming increasingly marginalized over time. Mearsheimer stated that he "would classify most of the individuals who head the Israel lobby’s major organizations as "'new Afrikaners'" and specifically listed Abraham Foxman of the Anti-Defamation League, David Harris of the American Jewish Committee, Malcolm Hoenlein of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, Ronald Lauder of the World Jewish Congress, Morton Klein of the Zionist Organization of America; as well as "businessmen" like Sheldon Adelson, Lester Crown, and Mortimer Zuckerman and "media personalities" like Fred Hiatt, Charles Krauthammer, Bret Stephens and Martin Peretz.[26]


Mearsheimer asserts that China's rise will be unpeaceful[27] and that the US will seek to contain China and prevent it from achieving regional hegemony.[28][29][30][31] He believes that China will attempt to dominate the Asia-Pacific region just as the U.S. dominates the western hemisphere. The motivation for doing so would be to gain a position of overwhelming security and superiority against its neighbours which it sees as potential challengers to its status.[32] Additionally, he maintains that the US will attempt forming a balancing coalition that consists primarily of India, Japan, South Korea, Vietnam and Indonesia to counter the growing strength and power projection capabilities of China.[33] He points to increased alliances and warming US-Vietnam and US-India relations as evidence of this.[34][35]

He also asserts that Australia should be concerned with China's accretion of power because it will lead to an intense security competition between the China and the US. Arguing that China is implementing the militarily aggressive philosophy of the US naval strategist Alfred Thayer Mahan who argued for Sea control and decisive battle.[32]

Lying in International Politics

Mearsheimer wrote the first book that systematically analyzes lying in international politics. He argues in Why Leaders Lie (Oxford University Press, 2011) that leaders lie to foreign audiences as well as their own people because they think it is good for their country. For example, he maintains that President Franklin D. Roosevelt lied about the Greer incident in August 1941, because he was deeply committed to getting the United States into World War II, which he thought was in America's national interest.

His two main findings are that leaders actually do not lie very much to other countries, and that democratic leaders are actually more likely to lie to their own people than autocrats.[36] Thus, he starts his book by saying that it is not surprising that Saddam Hussein did not lie about having WMD—he truthfully said he had none—but that George Bush and some of his key advisors did lie to the American people about the threat from Iraq. Mearsheimer argues that leaders are most likely to lie to their own people in democracies that fight wars of choice in distant places, which is another way of saying the United States and Britain as well. He says that it is difficult for leaders to lie to other countries because there is not much trust among them, especially when security issues are at stake, and you need trust for lying to be effective. He says that it is easier for leaders to lie to their own people because there is usually a good deal of trust between them.

Mearsheimer argues that there are five types of international lies: inter-state lies, fear-mongering, strategic cover-ups, nationalist myths, and liberal lies. He explains the reasons why leaders pursue each of these different kinds of lies. He also says that international lying can have negative effects, and there he emphasizes "blowback," which is where telling international lies helps cause a culture of deceit at home, and "backfiring," which is where telling a lie leads to a failed policy. He also emphasizes that there are two other kinds of deception besides lying: "concealment,” which is where a leader remains silent about an important matter, and "spinning," which is where a leader tells a story that emphasizes the positive and downplays or ignores the negative. Mearsheimer does not consider the moral dimension of international lying; he looks at it simply from a utilitarian perspective.

See also



  1. ^ Reid, Stuart (2011-01-14) Diplomacy and Duplicity,
  2. ^ Keohane, Jon (2011-01-02) Why leaders lie, Boston Globe
  3. ^ a b
  4. ^
  5. ^
  6. ^ Department of Political Science Faculty page.
  7. ^ a b c World Affairs Council of Northern California profile of John Mearsheimer
  8. ^ John Mearsheimer, Why the Soviets Can't Win Quickly in Central Europe, early article version of Conventional Deterrence chapter, undated.
  9. ^
  10. ^
  11. ^ a b Mearsheimer, John (1990). "Back to the Future". International Security (International Security, Vol. 15, No. 1) 15 (1): 5–56. doi:10.2307/2538981. JSTOR 2538981. 
  12. ^ The case for a Ukrainian nuclear deterrent, 1993.
  13. ^ Mearsheimer, John (2006). "Conversations in International Relations: Interview with John J. Mearsheimer (Part I)". International Relations 20 (1): 105–123. doi:10.1177/0047117806060939. See page 116
  14. ^ India Needs The Bomb, New York Times, March 24, 2000.
  15. ^ Mearsheimer, John, J. The Tragedy of Great Power Politics. New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 2001.
  16. ^ Mearsheimer, John (2001). The Tragedy of Great Power Politics. New York: W. W. Norton. p. 35. ISBN 0-393-02025-8. 
  17. ^ a b Mearsheimer, John (2005). "E.H. Carr vs. Idealism: The Battle Rages On". International Relations (International Relations, Vol. 19, No. 2) 19 (1): 139. doi:10.1177/0047117805052810. 
  18. ^
  19. ^
  20. ^ The Israel Lobby and U.S. Foreign Policy by John J. Mearsheimer and Stephen Walt, Harvard University's Kennedy School of Government Working Paper, Submitted 13 March 2006
  21. ^ "The Israel Lobby" by John Mearsheimer and Stephen Walt, London Review of Books, 23 March 2006
  22. ^ John J. Mearsheimer, Stephen M. Walt. The Israel lobby and U.S. foreign policy. 2007, page 315-6
  23. ^ John J. Mearsheimer, Stephen M. Walt. The Israel lobby and U.S. foreign policy. 2007, page 326
  24. ^ John J. Mearsheimer, “Another War, Another Defeat,” American Conservative, January 26, 2009; John J. Mearsheimer, “Responses to Gaza,” London Review of Books, January 29, 2009
  25. ^ John Mearsheimer, “Saving Israel from Itself,” American Conservative, May 18, 2009
  26. ^ Mearsheimer, John (29 April 2010). "The Future of Palestine: Righteous Jews vs. the New Afrikaners". Hisham B. Sharabi Memorial Lecture. The Jerusalem Fund. 
  27. ^ Mearsheimer, John J. (April 2006). "China's Unpeaceful Rise". Current History. China and East Asia (Current History Magazine) 105 (690): 160–162. 
  28. ^
  29. ^
  30. ^
  31. ^
  32. ^ a b
  33. ^'s%20Challenge%20to%20US%20Power&vidLength=Full
  34. ^ 2010 German translation
  35. ^
  36. ^ Barker, Alexander (2011-10-17) International Deceit, Oxonian Review

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