Mearsheimer and Realism

By Tara Kadioglu

John Mearsheimer, noted professor of political science and director of the Program for International Security Policy, candidly spoke to students and faculty members at the Reynolds Club South Lounge Thursday as part of a continued series of brownbag forums collectively entitled, What Matters to Me and Why. Mearsheimer, the R. Wendell Harrison Distinguished Service Professor at the University, is the author of various books, including Conventional Deterrence, Liddell Hart, and The Weight of History.

The professor cited his work and honesty as the two things that “matter” to him. He began by sharing his interests, his quirks, and some anecdotes from his life.

“I think what really motivates me is trying to understand how the world works. I was always fascinated with puzzles and theories. I’ve always been interested in having an impact—I guess it’s ego-related. I’ve always wanted to write and say things that people cared about—to be a ‘big impact ball player.'”

He said he has no shame and fully acknowledges the value in being provocative. “I never cared whether people agreed with me or not. Almost by definition, everything you do should be controversial,” he said, adding that he takes pride in always being honest and thinks deception is far too prevalent in the world today.

“You find deception everywhere—there’s deception in the act of boys flirting with girls,” he added. “There’s deception with Bush, our government deceives us.”

Mearsheimer admitted, with a twinkle in his eye, that he was never good at flirting with girls. “I’m not good at deceiving people,” he said. “I’ve always been a straight shooter.”

Born in Brooklyn in the late 40s, Mearsheimer was raised by a German family keen on the importance of hard work. The Mearsheimers—along with most other families in mid-century America—moved to a New York suburb when John was eight. He grew up as a sports fanatic in love with baseball, dreaming of one day becoming a pro athlete. He had no interest in school.

When Mearsheimer failed to win any sports scholarships at the schools to which he applied, his father, an engineer, convinced him to go to West Point. He says he hated the military for “constitutional reasons.”

Mearsheimer also had a distaste for guns and uniforms. “I was a fish out of water,” he said.

Mearsheimer said he was a poor student until his third year when he decided to pursue political science instead of math and science. Once he got into political science, he says, “I got the bug and I decided to get a Ph.D.”

“It shocks my family to think that I am now a professor at the University of Chicago—the most intellectual of all universities,” Mearsheimer said. “I never saw this coming and neither did anyone who knew me as the poor, uninterested student I was back then.”

He cited “hard-wiring and socialization” as the factors that allowed him to overcome his academic setbacks.

Not until the question-and-answer session, which was an hour and 45 minutes into the forum, did the professor talk politics.

Students—many of whom were taking or had taken classes with him—asked a wide variety of questions. One asked him what role he thought morality ought to play in foreign policy.

“Individuals act according to moral precepts,” Mearsheimer responded. “I privilege realism over idealism—not to say that I’m comfortable with that, because I’m not.”

He said he would have been willing to go into Rwanda after the mass genocide in ’94, provided it didn’t hurt the United States strategically.

At one point, he said the U.S. was a giant Hoover vacuum cleaner going around the world and sucking up all the best brains. He said that China would be the main competitor for the U.S. down the road

He also answered questions on U.S. foreign policy in the Middle East, criticizing neo-conservative mentalities in East-West politics. He said that Republicans constantly have a moral story to tell, and that the Bush administration has an interest in westernizing the Arab and Islamic worlds. “This is massive social engineering—they are trying to make them look like us,” he said. “And Turkey—why is Turkey our buddy? Because it’s Democratic.”

An audience member asked if he would ever consider following in the footsteps of other academics who turned political, like Condoleezza Rice. He said that he was called in 1992 and asked if he wanted to be put on the list for Secretary of Defense. He told them no, as he never has wanted to take part in bureaucratic politics. He said he still has no interest in leaving academia.

Wayne Duan, a third-year concentrating in political science and economics, came because he had taken War and the Nation State with Mearsheimer. He said the main reason he came was because Mearsheimer “is an eloquent speaker. I’ve seen how he evaluates the past and I wanted to see how he evaluates current events.”