Atlantic Monthly columnist Robert Kaplan created a minor stir a few weeks back when he published a defense of John Mearsheimer’s work. Mearsheimer has been a controversial figure since 2006-2007, when he co-authored an article and book alleging that the “Israel lobby” holds American foreign policy captive.” No commentary on his work can avoid dredging up that episode again – hence the controversy over Kaplan’s Atlantic essay. This University of Chicago professor, however, is best-known within academe as a leading proponent of international relations “realism.” He has pushed a variant of realism known as “offensive realism” with particular zeal and efficacy. That strand of research was what elicited Kaplan’s praise.
And understandably so. Like other varieties of realism, offensive realism postulates that states try to maximize the economic and military power that undergirds their security in an anarchic world. But there are no satisfied, status quo powers in Mearsheimer’s hardscrabble world. Since states can’t know how much power is enough to guarantee their security, they remain constantly on the lookout for opportunities to bolster their relative standing in the great-power pecking order. Better a surplus than a shortfall of strength in a struggle against predatory rivals. The upshot is that big powers seek “hegemony,” or geopolitical primacy, within their geographic neighborhoods. And to buffer against harm from external threats, they attempt to frustrate fellow aspirants’ efforts to dominate their own home regions.
Power, then, is everything. The more, the better. In a column titled “Better to Be Godzilla Than Bambi,” Mearsheimer writes: “My theory of international politics says that the mightiest states attempt to establish hegemony in their own region while making sure that no rival great power dominates another region. The ultimate goal of every great power is to maximize its share of world power and eventually dominate the system.” Because no power can truly make itself a global hegemon – resources are too finite, distances that attenuate power too great – the most any state can realistically hope to accomplish is to enforce its own rules in its geographic environs while keeping others from posing a serious extra-regional threat.
The offensive-realist thesis makes sense to me, but – like all efforts to reduce human affairs to elegant theoretical models – it can be pushed too far. It’s better to be Godzilla than Bambi, no doubt. But Godzilla is a complex sea creature. In fact, there are multiple Godzillas in the long-running B-movie series. Sometimes he’s a villain of the first order. Think about what happens to poor Bambi, or to the denizens of postwar Tokyo, when Godzilla goes on the rampage. In these cases he abuses his great strength, manifest in an arsenal of weapons such as his massive tail and his atomic breath. In other films, though, he assumes a heroic stance, battling King Kong, the Smog Monster, and other hideous creatures bent on mayhem.
Perhaps unwittingly, the Godzilla moviemakers were on to an important point about great power. An offensive-realist Godzilla has the option to abuse his great power, to provide public goods for those who dwell in his surroundings, or to bide his time, husbanding his strength against the next Megalon or Mechagodzilla who tries to ravage the land and its inhabitants. Nor is his approach necessarily static. He enjoys the option of changing his policy over time, becoming more predatory, more beneficent, or more introspective. Some combination of internal predilections and external stimuli presumably determines whether Godzilla is a scoundrel or champion on any given day. It’s true to say he’s always on the offensive, but it oversimplifies.
Let’s shift metaphors. John Mearsheimer is also fond of forecasting that China – the new Godzilla of the Far East – will impose its own Monroe Doctrine on Asia as it rises to great power. Maybe. But that could mean many things, and its meaning could change over time.
The United States, the Godzilla of the fin de siècle New World, took assorted approaches to diplomacy and strategy under the guise of the Monroe Doctrine of 1823. In the early decades of the doctrine, while the republic remained weak, it trusted to outsiders – in particular Great Britain’s unmatched Royal Navy – to hold rapacious empires at bay. In the 1890s, U.S. Secretary of State Richard Olney proclaimed that a newly muscle-bound United States’ “fiat is law” throughout the Western Hemisphere, citing the nation’s moral stature and sheer physical might. After the turn of the century, President Theodore Roosevelt gave the doctrine a new twist, vowing to confine U.S. efforts to policing the Caribbean basin. After TR’s presidency, Washington waged a series of “banana wars” under the rubric of the Monroe Doctrine. Ultimately the United States abrogated its security doctrine, instituting a “Good Neighbor” policy in its place.
American power was on the increase from 1823 forward, yet the aggressiveness of U.S. foreign policy didn’t vary directly with national power. Indeed, interpretations of the Monroe Doctrine were at their most assertive before the U.S. Navy – the main foreign policy implement used to enforce the doctrine – had fully matured. Teddy Roosevelt took a more restrained view of his prerogatives under Monroe’s precepts than had his immediate forbears, despite having the navy’s Great White Fleet at his command. Bottom line, offensive realism leaves individual states – and the statesmen, soldiers, and rank-and-file citizens who mold policy and strategy in world capitals – enormous discretion to decide how Godzilla ought to act.
There are many types of hegemon, then, and hegemons have varied ways of managing their surroundings. Offensive realism supplies some insight. There’s wisdom in pop culture – sometimes. The American experience is instructive. But with two would-be Godzillas, China and India, surveying their surroundings – and warily eyeing each other and the extra-regional monster, America – there’s no substitute for close analysis of how each nation interprets its prerogatives, and how it regards other perhaps unfriendly monsters populating the region. Forecasting general tendencies is fine, but what kind of Godzilla will Beijing be? What kind will New Delhi be?
James Holmes is an associate professor of strategy at the U.S. Naval War College. The views voiced here are his alone.