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Thucydides, Machiavelli, Clausewitz and Great Power Politics Brent M. Eastwood, PhD (2004) John J. Mearsheimer’s The Tragedy of Great Power Politics ultimately asks two central questions: 1) Why do states compete for power? 2) How does this explain their behavior in strategy and war? His theory, offensive realism, argues that states must be aggressive to survive. The structure of this system allows no choice but for states to practice “calculated aggression” within their region. This pursuit of power spawns regional powers or hegemons. Mearsheimer believes that these regional hegemons provoke fears which ultimately lead to distribution of power problems and aggression. He also explains the dangers of transitioning or “rising” powers who challenge the status quo with their differential rates of growth. Mearsheimer believes that states are prisoners of this system and as a result, are involuntarily forced to become aggressive. I challenge this notion of offensive realism. States are not always forced to be aggressive. Individual leaders may accept the “bedrock assumptions” of realism, but they make “human” choices. The leaders of these states choose the path to war and peace, they are not handcuffed, and there is not always a gun to their head. Fear, jealousy, glory, ambition, hubris… these are the “bedrock” motivations of the individuals who control state behavior. Therefore, the theory of offensive realism is overstated. Even though all academic models must be simplified, his theory is simplified past the point of reasonable parsimony. I also find the supposed prescriptive quality of offensive realism problematic. Classical realists such as Thucydides, or “human fundamentalists” as Doyle calls them, recognize that fear and power in the system play a role, but they focus on the individual’s aggressive instincts.
2 Calculated aggression is more a by-product of an individual leader’s definition of interest, their own hubris, and the leader’s political objectives. Mearsheimer dismisses this critique as “human interest realism” and derides the writings of Carr and Kennan for lacking theory. But this is where Mearsheimer misses the point. Classical realism has already answered the questions he claims to have enlightened us with in The Tragedy of Great Power Politics. Offensive realism already existed in Thucydides’ Greece and Machiavelli’s Italy, but the real story was individual leader reactions to the system. Both of these classic works focus on individual choice and their role in international relations. Mearsheimer believes that the individual does not matter, but structures and systems in certain historical periods prove otherwise. For evidence, I rely on writings from the classical realists Thucydides and Machiavelli, and the war theorist Clausewitz. The reasons that states compete for power can be traced to choice and what influences individual leaders’ choice. For Thucydides, the influence on choice is interest. For Machiavelli, the influence is hubris. For Clausewitz, the influence is policy. Thucydides, according to Michael W. Doyle (1997), is the grandfather of the basic realist mantra that the moral norms of individuals do not apply to international relations. However, individual choice does matter to Thucydides. This notion is illustrated in what Doyle calls human fundamentalism. Leaders are human in this model. Sometimes they are good, sometimes they are bad, and sometimes they are lucky. Thucydides believes that leaders are always driven by the “struggle for individual political power” (Doyle 1997, p. 65). This ambition leads to miscalculation, overreaction, and under-reaction. A leader struggling to stay in power will push his state to war, even if the public does not want it. Scholars do not agree on this “complex” model
3 (there are several schools of thought on Thucydidean realism); even Doyle admits that Thucydides simply “belongs to realism,” in the more general sense. However, human fundamentalism makes up for a large component of what is missing from Mearsheimer’s work. Clearly Athenian and Spartan leaders interacted in domestic politics, “He (Thucydides) saw factions within the state as contributing to choices of foreign policy…he meant politics to be understood as relatively autonomous public deliberation: choosing (emphasis added) among competing interests and values” (Doyle 1997, p. 66). Other realist interpretations, such as Mearsheimer’s, completely discount this complex relationship with human nature and choice. The other important choice leaders face in the Thucydidean model is “interest.” As Doyle points out, the “famous trinity of security, honor, and interest applies to personal and political motivation.” Again, here is the oft-heard realist mantra: states are motivated by interest. Mearsheimer believes the problem is more of power distribution and leader’s miscalculating in this distribution. Both Mearsheimer and Thucydides cite fear and power as the main currency in the system. They differ in their beliefs in choice. Mearsheimer argues that leader choice does not matter; fundamental realists say that it does. This can be illustrated by the Peloponnesian War. Differences in culture, economics, wealth and political institutions set the Athenians apart from the Spartans. The Athenians were powerful and the Spartans were threatened. The Athenians ruled the seas and the Spartans greatly feared their overwhelming sea power. Mearsheimer, in comparison, discounts the importance of naval power throughout history, even though the numerical advantage of the Athenian fleet could be used as historical proof to back his
4 own theory on the imbalance of power in Greece! But above all, it was the human nature of the leaders from both Sparta and Athens which was “rooted in competition, the struggle for power, and the desire to dominate” (Doyle 1997). The individual statesman chose war to carry out the state’s interest. If Thucydides writes a warning about what can happen to “human” leaders when faced with excessive fear and power, Machiavelli in the The Prince writes a manual on how to succeed in an environment filled with fear and power, as Doyle call it, a personal action guide on realist behavior. This manual is on individual conduct, thus it is in contrast to the Mearsheimer model of offensive realism. Machiavelli was able to describe and explain a certain mindset among leaders. He calls this virtu. Virtu has to do with basic human instinct and the drive for honor, treasure, and glory. In the Machiavellian model, it is virtu that ultimately motivates the leader, which in turn drives the state towards war and peace. Virtu develops into hubris— an exaggerated pride or cockiness that often results in vengeance or aggression. The leader is also motivated by self-defense (Doyle 1997). He must maneuver and make decisions to protect the state (Doyle 1997). Therefore, in the Machiavellian model, leaders choose between virtu/hubris or self-defense. These choices decide the fate of war and peace. The choices in human nature, of hubris, run much deeper than the Mearsheimer theory of offensive realism, which ignores these basic instincts of human nature. Mearsheimer believes the imbalance of a multipolar system leads to miscalculations in the system. But this is only part of the story. Machiavellian leaders afflicted by hubris supercede this system. The Machiavellian leader MUST stay in power. He may “act contrary to humanity” to stay in power, but he will exhibit
5 courageous ambition for his own political survival. The Machiavellian has choices. One choice is war because war can help secure the state or help the leader acquire glory, treasure, and esteem. The Prince may also seek alliances or other forms of statecraft. Doyle (paraphrasing Morgenthau) explains the variations and strains of Machiavellian realpolitik-- from imperialism to balancing. The question is then who better explains why and how states compete for power-Machiavelli or Mearsheimer? Doyle says the record of modern “republican imperialist” states (if we consider the United States to fit this moniker) is one of episodic intervention. This holds true if we compare the US to Rome in terms of overextension, as many do. Machiavellian republics are more prone to expand; they want to grow and prosper; they want prestige and glory; they are willing to fight wars to get it. These human nature arguments seem to outweigh the Mearsheimer offensive realism premise. Machiavellian leaders make choices that drive state behavior and these choices will trump the system. A more modern example strengthens my argument against offensive realism. Carl Von Clausewitz, the 19th century Prussian military theorist known for his more tactical expertise on the study of war, was also aware of larger geopolitical issues. Influenced by Immanuel Kant, Clausewitz was quite aware of revolutionary political movements and individualism. By focusing on the political, economic, and social conditions, he also was able to bring these more libertarian views into his theories on strategy— (Paret 1976, p. 6). What emerged was a model that based warfare not on simple power distributions or miscalculations, as Mearsheimer would have it, but on political objectives.
6 A Clausewitzian leader tries to define the end state of a political situation. Achieving this end state sometimes requires warfare. A Clausewitzian leader never wages war unless he knows what he wants. He asks, “What are the goals?” “What are the threats?” “What should be done about the threats?” Thus the Clausewitzian leader constantly makes choices. These choices drive the state in international affairs. The prudent Clausewitzian can choose against war if it is not in his political interest. He may also balance or choose imperialist ventures, but all actions must be grounded in policy; they must have a clear objective. Simply having an objective is not enough for the Clausewitzian. He must also observe the “remarkable trinity.” The trinity is made up of the government (leader), the people, and the military. The people (public opinion) must support the political objective. If the political objective includes warfare, they must support it. The military is subjugated to the government and the people. The military must have support of the people and have a clear objective. Individual leaders choose to observe or ignore the “remarkable trinity.” When they observe it, the state can achieve its objectives, when they ignore it, the leader loses legitimacy. Mearsheimer has little use for Clausewitz. He makes only passing mention of these principles and often bungles them when he does, “The Clausewitzian concept of warfare is anathema to most American” (Mearsheimer 1991, p. 24). I would argue that the Clausewitzian concept of war is the very essence of America. It is most democratic. In the remarkable alliance, the people must support the policy of war. Clausewitz does not simply give leader a blank check to wage war, as most realists assume. He believes
7 in the individual liberties that Kant espouses. To think of it another way, the Clausewitz model would be the antithesis of the Vietnam War-incrementalization approach. The leader has choices in this model. The public rewards the leader with support which, in turn, allows the leader to stay in power. He can choose to use statecraft or isolation and self-defense. The choices affect economic, political, and social conditions inside the state. Once again, individual choice and human nature trump offensive realism. Individual leaders matter because they set the state in motion. They make choices. These choices are influenced by “interest” according to Thucydides, by “hubris” according to Machiavelli, and by “policy” according to Clausewitz. Mearsheimer has an interesting worldview. It is extremely modern. He attempts to fill the niche in realism post-Waltz, post-Gilpin, and post-September 11. In his haste and exuberance to make a mark in neorealism, he forgets that the classic realists have all ready addressed his arguments. I return to my original questions. 1) Why do states compete for power? 2) How does this explain their behavior in strategy and war? States compete for power because individual leaders must stay in power. Leaders perform a variety of different acts based on human nature. These actions drive the state in international relations, and ultimately toward war or peace. Mearsheimer says that states have no choice on this path. Interchange the leaders in different states and it is all the same. The “tragedy” in Mearsheimer’s work is that he does not realize that states can choose and thereby avoid miscalculations that lead to war.
Clausewitz, Carl Von. 1976. On War. Ed. Howard, Michael and Paret, Peter. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press. Doyle, Michael W. 1997. Ways of War and Peace. New York: W.W. Norton and Company. Mearsheimer, John J. 2001. The Tragedy of Great Power Politics. NewYork: W.W. Norton and Company.
“Fundamental Realism Meets Offensive Realism”
Brent Eastwood Dr. Hagan 14DEC03 IR Theory Final Paper
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