A Response to Adam Tooze’s Piece about John Mearsheimer

by Benjamin Studebaker

I ran across this piece by Adam Tooze about John Mearsheimer. Mearsheimer is the University of Chicago professor who gave this controversial talk about Ukraine, which has gone viral:

I was at University of Chicago for my MA in 2014, when John started giving this talk. I took his American Grand Strategy class. I sometimes call him “John” because in his lectures he often refers to himself in the third person by his first name. John describes himself as a “realist par excellence.”

Tooze is an economic historian. Online, he’s become increasingly prominent for his economic analysis. He was a reader at the University of Cambridge while I was doing my PhD there. He’s now at Columbia. I often read his stuff. I like both of these people, and I like both Chicago and Cambridge. I want to talk a little bit about how they relate to each other.

When I was at Cambridge, I noticed that some historians and international relations specialists have a bit of an attitude about American realists like John. This comes from a good place. These theorists are critical of the way the United States leads, and they are especially critical of its international interventions in countries like Iraq and Libya. Those interventions have killed a lot of people and hurt many people’s life chances.

But sometimes it slips into stereotyping. The whole American realist tradition gets talked about as if it were one big, dark thing. Sometimes, I’d hear some of my fellow grad students lump theorists like John in with Henry Kissinger, even though John opposed the Vietnam War and Kissinger escalated it. Incidentally, John also publicly opposed the Iraq War before it started.

Tooze doesn’t get these basic facts wrong. He’s too good an academic to do that. But he does make a point to connect John and the realist tradition to Hans Morgenthau.

Morgenthau’s life is a bridge. He was born in the German Empire in 1904, got his doctorate in Switzerland in 1929, and then came to the United States in 1937. As a young academic, he interacted with Carl Schmitt, the infamous Nazi legal theorist. After crossing the pond, he interacted with George Kennan, who is heavily associated with America’s Cold War strategy. European critics of post-war American foreign policy often use the Morgenthau link to connect American foreign policy with German imperialism.

It is true that Morgenthau influenced the American realists. He is included in John’s lectures. But what do we then do with that fact? There are lots of different realist positions. Some realists identify as “classical realists” and others as “structural realists”. The classical realists argue that war is caused by human nature, or by the nature of specific political systems. The structural realists argue that war is caused by the anarchic character of the international system. Morgenthau was a classical realist while Mearsheimer is structural. Within structural realism, there are further differences. Kenneth Waltz was a “defensive realist.” He argued that it is usually in a state’s interest to preserve the status quo. John is an “offensive realist.” He thinks that the most powerful states often have something to gain from trying to revise the international system in their favor.

Once we asked John where he got his theory from. He said he stole it from Thomas Hobbes. Like Hobbes, John argues that conflict is caused by competition, diffidence, and glory-seeking. States often have interests that conflict. They cannot be sure about each other’s intentions. They know they are capable of hurting each other. They sometimes pre-emptively attack one another to eliminate potential threats, and they often try to intimidate each other by posturing aggressively. Lots of political theorists at Cambridge are interested in what Hobbes has to say. But when John applies Hobbesian logic to international politics, some historians and international relations theorists slag him off by connecting him to spooky Germans.

On John’s website, he has a picture of his face photo-shopped onto Machiavelli’s body:

Hobbes and Machiaveilli are big name theorists. Many Cambridge historians of thought have used them to make interesting interventions into contemporary political debates. Tooze’s piece doesn’t mention Hobbes or Machiavelli at all. Tooze instead mentions Thucydides:

“If you ask Mearsheimer about the historical source for his lucid but dark view of the world, he will most likely tell you that it is an ancient wisdom that originates in the writings of the Greek historian Thucydides. But that is an invented tradition assembled ex-post by the discipline of IR as it established itself at American universities in the Cold War era.

See what Tooze does here? Thucydides doesn’t count as a legitimate influence, because there is no unbroken chain of scholarship connecting the realists to Thucydides. These realists read Thucydides thousands of years after Thucydides’ death and then claimed him as their own.

The thing is, this is how a lot of people at University of Chicago read political theory. Many University of Chicago people have been influenced by Straussianism. Leo Strauss argued that there are a set of “great works.” For Strauss, these works have enduring value that transcends historical context. Straussians read Hobbes and Machiavelli and get inspired by them. They rip ideas straight out of Leviathan and the Discourses on Livy and try to apply them. This is considered a bit sinful by Cambridge historians of thought. They believe all work has a context, and that no book can be understood properly without reading the works that influenced it. When I was at University of Chicago, we would often spend the whole term reading a single important book very slowly, line by line. At Cambridge, you’re often given huge reading lists.

Both approaches have value. The Cambridge approach prevents presentism. If you know what was going on in England and in Hobbes’ life when he wrote Leviathan, it’s harder to read the text through the prism of your own narrow concerns. But the Cambridge approach can also limit the way we engage with bodies of scholarship. Tooze’s reading of the realists treats them as if they all come from a tainted intellectual bloodline. They are intellectually descended from Morgenthau, and therefore from Schmitt, and therefore they are inextricably tied to German imperialism. There’s nothing they can do to escape from this.

The Chicago approach sometimes leads to lazy, presentist readings of historical texts. I once met a Chicago theorist who had persuaded himself that Plato was a secret liberal. But it also allows texts to be read in new ways. Why should John be defined by the fact that he read Morgenthau who read Schmitt? Why can’t John be defined by the fact that he read Hobbes and he liked it?

A lot of structural realists opposed the Iraq War at the time. There weren’t many liberals who got that question right. Whatever the genealogical origins of John’s theory, it led him to oppose a war that killed an enormous number of people. Isn’t that more important than the fact that John read Morgenthau who read Schmitt? Tooze’s piece doesn’t even mention the Iraq War.

Tooze is right to point out that John’s theory doesn’t account for everything that matters in international politics. International political economy is really important. Domestic politics matters. Tooze has made important contributions to those discussions. John would be the first person to admit that his theory doesn’t include everything. John once told us that the point of a theory is to explain as much as possible in the simplest possible way. He knows he doesn’t always get it right, but he thinks if you try to include too much in your theory, you tend to get bogged down. John has been talking about NATO expansion and the possibility of a future conflict between Ukraine and Russia since the 90s. There’s value in John’s simpler approach, just as there’s value in Tooze’s pursuit of the full picture.

You can like both of these ways of doing things. You can see value in both.

The attention John has received recently has made him a bit of a target. As Tooze himself points out, there’s a group of students at Chicago who are accusing John of being a Russian asset.

In this context, it is not cool of Adam Tooze to suggest that John’s tradition has creepy Nazi connections. He makes this suggestion very gently, and he tries to show John a lot of respect while he does it. But the headline gives the game away:

“John Mearsheimer and the dark origins of realism”

Tooze may not have written that headline, but he certainly did not have to sign off on it.

We are living through a period in which it has become routine for political opponents to be denounced as Nazis. The Russians have denounced the Ukrainian government as Neo-fascist. Justin Trudeau’s supporters have denounced COVID-19 protesters as fascist. Many American liberals denounce Putin as a fascist, or they denounce Trump supporters as fascist. This has become an all-purpose justification for treating people we don’t agree with very poorly. At a time like this, suggesting in The New Statesman that John Mearsheimer is intellectually related to Carl Schmitt isn’t a fun, subversive intellectual point. John’s position on Ukraine is way out of step with the American government’s official line. In 2022, you could almost describe him as a dissident.

A friend of mine studied Russian literature in undergrad. In an effort to keep up her Russian, she enrolled in a Russian course through Coursera. A few days ago, she got an email. Coursera cancelled the course. Even during the Cold War, people learned Russian and read Nabokov, Tolstoy, and Pushkin. I do not want to see Cold War Russophobia mix with 21st century cancel culture.

All John has done is make the argument that Russia has legitimate security interests, and that American policymakers need to pay attention to these interests to prevent wars and save lives. I doubt John will lose his job over this. He has tenure, and University of Chicago is pretty good at defending its people. But I don’t like where this is going.

This is not the time to be slagging off structural realists for Hans Morgenthau’s German connections. American political culture is really unhealthy right now. The handful of people at prominent US universities who really scrutinize US foreign policy need support in public from colleagues, regardless of theoretical differences.