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Blogging on the Shoulders of Giants

August 20, 2010

After writing on John Mearsheimer’s recent lecture at the University of Sydney for GW Discourse, I realized that my previous post on the problem of US foreign policy goals was about a week too late in coining the paradox of American hegemony, in which a state that should be acting as a status quo power acts in a reckless, revisionist fashion. Not only did Mearsheimer say it first, but he says it much better:

This is not to deny that most Americans, like most Chinese, think that their military is a defensive instrument; but that is not the way it looks when you are at the other end of the rifle barrel. Thus, anyone in China seeking to gauge American intentions by assessing its military capabilities is likely to think it is a revisionist state, not a status quo power.
Lastly, there is the matter of America’s recent behavior and what that might tell us about future U.S. actions. As I said earlier, past actions are usually not a reliable indicator of future behavior, because circumstances change and new leaders sometimes think differently about foreign policy than their predecessors. But if Chinese leaders try to gauge how the United States is likely to act down the road by looking at its recent foreign policy, they will almost certainly conclude that it is a war-like and dangerous country. After all, America has been at war for 14 of the 21 years since the Cold War ended. That is 2 out of every 3 years. And remember that the Obama administration is apparently contemplating a new war against Iran.
If confrontation with China is as grave a danger as Mearsheimer depicts it, then this policy of revisionist interventionism is doubly damaging. Not only does it heighten Chinese suspicions and intensify the security competition in East Asia, but a country which spends 2 out of every 3 years at war in today’s strategic climate is likely a country waging numerous of wars of choice, prolonged occupation or nation-building, and other conflicts which do not directly serve its vital national interests. Should China adopt a strongly revisionist or aggressive posture, we will wish we had not squandered so much of our resources, attention, and credibility in misguided missions of unilateral choice or ideological preference.
One Comment leave one →
  1. September 2, 2010 3:05 pm

    Thanks for the link to the Mearsheimer lecture which, on a quick look, does seem to be partly a repeat of The Tragedy of Great Power Politics. Even if one accepts the assumptions of offensive realism (which I don’t), there is a weak link in his reasoning: since China cannot become a global hegemon (b/c no state can, according to Mearsheimer), why should the U.S. care whether China becomes a regional hegemon in the Asia/Pacific? He does attempt to answer this in TGPP — something about regional hegemons being free to make trouble in each other’s backyards — but it’s not, logically, very convincing (IMO). Which leaves the possibility that his argument hinges on the U.S.’s irrational intolerance of ‘peer competitors,’ and if this intolerance is irrational, it might be possible to overcome it, so to speak, in domestic debate (or it might not, of course). Anyway, thanks for the link.

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