A Realist Reply by Jon Mearshiemer NOTES
Mearsheimer argues that international institutions have minimal influence on state behavior and therefore
hold little promise for promoting peace and stability. He says that realism is based on five assumptions: the
world is anarchic, states are potentially dangerous to each other, states can't be certain about the intentions
of other states, states are motivated by survival, and states think strategically and rationally about how to
survive. He claims that institutions are not powerful enough to overcome these basic facts of state behavior
because the three theories that underpin institutionalism are flawed.
Mearsheimer discusses three theories of institutionalism and their flaws:
1. Liberal institutionalism: emphasizes economic and environmental cooperation as a means to avoid war.
Accept realism's root assumptions. Claims that the principle obstacle to peace is the threat of cheating,
illustrated by the prisonner's dilemma. Mearsheimer disagrees: This theory assumes that states are not
concerned about relative gains and focus exclusively on absolute gains. It ignores the fact that each side
wants the best for itself and does not care about relativegains or how well the other side fares.
2. Collective security: aims to prevent war by rejecting the use of force, by the immediate squashing of any
threat of war, by preventing states to act out of selfinterest, and by using the joint forces of states to combat
antagonists. Institutions are the key to managing power successfully. Mearsheimer disagrees: In order for
this to work, states must give up thinking in terms of selfinterest and trust each other. This will not happen.
3. Critical theory; aims to transform the fundamental nature of international politics. Claims that ideas and
discourse are the driving forces behind state behavior. Rejects realism's claim that behavior is a function of
the external world. Mearsheimer disagrees: Critical theory sounds nice, but offers no believable explanation
of how this dramatic change will occur. Discourse reflects changes in the objective world but does not
cause the changes. Very little empirical support for this theory.
(and Critique of Mearshiemer's The False Promise Of International Institutions)
Mearsheimer argues that international institutions have not significantly influenced world politics and such
theories should not be accepted within international affairs. Mearsheimer, an advocate of the realist
approach, believes the world functions in an anarchic system. Realists are in constant fear for national security and distrust the intentions and motive other states. Under the realist approach, states must remain
in perpetual restlessness, assuming other states are plotting against them. Such unremitting security
competition forces state behavior into a constant questioning of war, power, safety, and cheating.
Mearsheimer, in regard to such logic says, "no amount of cooperation can eliminate [such constraints]." The
presence of fear is constant and inhibits institutions from developing. Thus, success in forming new logic
becomes impossible for institutionalists. While he admits that functioning institutions do exist, Mearsheimer
argues these institutions are merely used by dominant states as a means to promote their own interests,
mainly security. Institutions are affected by the balance of power in the world and are used to push the
agenda of the powerful states. These institutions do not affect the behavior of a state and are only useful so
long as they are promoting an idea that is beneficial to the dominate states. Institutions are merely arenas
for acting out power relationships.
Mearsheimer evaluates and dissects three institutional theories in depth: Liberal Institutionalism, Collective
Security, and Critical Theory. Although realism "paints a rather grim picture of world politics," Mearsheimer
is certain institutionalist theories would jeopardize the "balance" realism has created.
Liberal Institutionalism does not set out to change the way a state rationalizes, unlike Collective Security
and Critical Theory. Liberal Institutionalists agree with Realists that the nature of the system is anarchical.
They promote collective security and reject the use of force to solve disputes. This theory focuses more on
economic and environmental issues and pays less attention to the realist's main concern of security.
Advocates of this theory believe greater economic cooperation will reduce the likelihood of going to. The
key to liberal institutions is cooperation which means states must trust each other not to cheat. Institutions
become a sort of national watch dog, punising errant, cheating states and protecting states that become
victims of the cheating states. Mearsheimer argues that states' lack of trust for one another and strong
focus on relative gains prevents trust. Mearsheimer highlights the fact that liberal Institutionalism accepts
realism's basis, but its logic fails to realize the unwavering defensive truth; survival negates any form of
cooperation. States are concerned with power and security and will undermine a theory if necessary.
Mearsheimer supports his claims against liberal institutionalism with empirical evidence relating to the
importance of relativegains; during the Cold War economic relations of even advanced industrial states
such as the United States were of major concern. Mearsheimer applies Krasner's studies which conclude
"states were remarkably unconcerned about cheating but deeply worried about relative gains."
The theory of Collective Security recognizes the importance of military power and concentrates on how to
cause peace in world politics. It is not believed that states are functioning in a selfhelp" world as the
Realists argue. Instead, through institutions, it is argued that states can move past that "selfhelp" idea and
establish a sense of trust. Institutions are necessary in order to manage power amongst states. They can
help eliminate the balance of power provide equal protection to all states. This thory recognizes the role of
the military, but also requires that most if not all states renounce war, especially aggressive war, and give
some of their sovereignty over to the institution. War would no longer be the way to change the status quo
as it has been in the past. Peaceful negotiations through institutions would be the new way to alter relations.
In essence, the institution would be there to promote collective peace in the international system that may
not always be what is best for the individual state. The state would have to give some of its sovereignty to
the institution. For example, if the institution wants to stop an aggressive state from an action, ideally all of the other states would have to support the action militarily if need be whether it is in their best interest or
not. While institutions like this have been established before, they have not been very successful. The
League of Nations proved that institutions created for collective security have failed miserably in its
attempts. It could not prevent a series of wars that broke out in the 1930s. While the UN has had slightly
more effect than the League of Nations, the Iraq war and the UNs disapproval of it shows that an institution
cannot stop a powerful state from acting if it believes its security is being threatened
Critical Theory focuses on how to bring peace into world politics by changing the Realist mindset. Changing
how the current ideas of international relations are discussed could, hopefully, create a peace system in
which states trust each other and are led by peaceful norms. Essentially, advocates of this theory believe
that if we begin to talk in terms of peace and collective security then, the international system can change.
The norms of the system must be changed and institutions can help do that. Critical Theory believes that
the selfhelp thinking of states today must stop and a world society must be created to bring about peace.
Institutions can assist in creating the norm of collective security and help states think in terms of the
common good over the individual good. This new system would be based on community versus anarchy.
Critical Theory suggests that change within world politics should happen from the top down, revolutionary
ideas beginning with scholars, experts, and state leaders. The main empirical evidence Critical Theory
employs is: Realism is not the only way of looking at the feudal era and the communal sense that was
created and used. Mearsheimer points out that very little evidence is provided that Critical Theory in fact
works. While it points to the community emphasis of the feudal era, there is also strong evidence that
realism was a main actor during that time as well. For example, feudal lords acted as states, taking part in
what would be equivalent to small wars in order to gain more land, building up some military strength for
protection, and forming small alliances to ensure a balance of power between them.
John Mearsheimer concretely evaluates and analyzes the Liberal Institutionalism theory of international
relations. In Mearsheimer's analysis, he declares Liberal Institutionalism, one out of three institutional
theories, is the least ambitious in explaining how states prevent war. Mearsheimer cites many academics in
this field and adequately explains the institutionalism theory. A strong criticism he has is liberal
institutionalists neglect the importance of relativegains, and only focus on absolute gains. He explains
gains in response to the prisoner s dilemma, which is a central argument for this theory to explain why
states will not cheat in the international realm. Under the prisoners dilemma, a liberal institutionalist state is
only concerned about its absolute gains, which would be the result of what would happen to them (and only
them) if they were to cheat or not to cheat. A liberal institutionalist would argue that states would not cheat
because if they were to cooperate together, the best outcome for both states would be not to cheat.
However, they understand that if they cheated, and the other person did not, they would come out stronger
and more powerful than the other. This is relativegain, and a liberal institutionalism isnt considered about
the outcome of the other state. Mearsheimer argues that this is wrong and that a state should be concerned
about relativegains. He states, liberal institutionalists cannot ignore relativegains considerations, because
they assume that states are selfinterested actors in an anarchic system, and they recognize that military
power matters to states. In further explaining his point, he argues that liberal institutionalists explicitly
accept realism s core assumptions but fail to address how relative gains explain why states cooperate. Mearsheimer realizes that there may be liberal institutionalists who would argue that relativegains only
apply to security issues, therefore are not important because only absolutegains affect economic
cooperation (which is the principle concern, not security). He addresses this point because he states that
international politics are divided into two different realms, security and political economy, and liberal
institutionalism is mainly only concerned with politcal economy.Mearsheimer gives an excellent argument
why relative gains are directly important and significant not only to economic development, but also to
security. He argues that relativegains are directly related to security because in todays society, military
might is significantly dependent on economic might. He continues by arguing that the relativegains that
were ignored by the liberal institutionalist affect the security of the states in the international system and
may have profound consequences for its standing in the international balance of military power. This is a
strong argument for realism because the liberal institutionalists neglect to address that relativegains
significantly affect the security of the state.
Mearsheimer provided great detail and analysis of each theories' main ideas and flaws. Mearsheimer's
account of institutions was thoroughly detailed. He substantiated his viewpoint of institutions lacking weight
in promoting world peace by highlighting the absence of empirical evidence. The meticulous breakdown of
each theory was countered with a realist approach as to why institutions are not congruent in the realist
world of politics, war, and the absence of cooperation. Mearsheimer's analysis of the theories' flaws is
important because many Americans, as he later concludes, may take such seemingly bright alternatives to
heart and overlook their improbability for success.
Mearsheimer attempted to calculate the rebuttals of institutional theorists and subjected them to the realist
approach. Mearsheimer remains consistent with the underpinnings of realism, reiterating the obvious but
logical, in his view, pessimism of world relations. Mearsheimer scrutinizes the theories' shortcomings, thus
foreshadowing their eminent failure according to a realist perspective. For instance, liberal institutionalism
claims to employ "rules" and "punish" cheating states but does not discuss how one would execute such
In his critique of Collective Security, Mearsheimer depicts an excellent argument when exposing the
weaknesses of this theory. In his essay he describes the Collective approach, which supports that states
must believe that their national interest is inextricably bound up with the national interest of other states,
and rightly points out that states are indeed selfinterested and likely to remain on the sidelines if vital
interests are not threatened.
The ongoing conflict in Sudan helps illustrate Mearsheimer s argument. Although genocide is seen by the
world powers as atrocious and unacceptable, they are unwilling to compromise because their interests are
not threatened. No major power is willing to commit and engage in the conflict because it is not in their best
Mearsheimer also brings up the issue of trust. According to Collective Security Theory, states must trust
each other, but no feasible explanation is given of how states can achieve this level of trust. As
Mearsheimer explains, there is no way of knowing the intentions of other states or assuring that states will
unite against the aggressor. How can a state know if the other state will get cold feet and fail to confront the
troublemaker? Due to the anarchic nature of the international system, a state cannot be 100% certain that other states will comply. The war in Iraq can help illustrate this dilemma. When the invasion began, the
United States had the support of a few of states, including Spain. Yet, following the March 2004 terrorist
attacks in Madrid and sequential elections, Spain decided to withdraw its troops because it was not in its
best interest to be engaged in the war. This example proves that states have little or no certainty that other
states won t back out.
Mearsheimers conclusion is remarkable and essential to the understanding of Realism and those who
oppose it. Most Americans do not accept Realism because, as Mearsheimer explains, it seems alien to
American culture. In reality Realism is not alien but a reality most Americans are not willing and/or able to
see and acknowledge, because admitting our nature would mean a change in policy that is not in America s
best interest. Most Americans will be horrified to learn that America has supported cruel dictators, wars
against legitimate and progressive governments, repression, and torture around the world, just because it
threatened Americans hegemonic power or its capitalist ideology.
America is indeed selfinterested, imperialist, and only concerned with maintaining its supremacy. As long
as Americans deny the nature of Realism and attempt to find alternative theories that reflect more American
values to explain the international system, they will be in denial of their state s real values and intentions.
Mearsheimer is right that Institutionalists purvey a message that Americans want to hear, but this does not
mean that the message is accurate.
The beginning of Mearsheimer s article states that he will examine how institutions push states away from
war and promote peace. The article then states that the three theories on which the case for institutionalism
is based are all flawed. This immediate, negative viewpoint gives the reader an automatic sign that the
author is bias (towards realism). Is Mearsheimer offering a valid explanation for these In