The Downside of Imperial Collapse
When Empires or Great Powers Fall, Chaos and War Rise
Foreign Affairs: Your article is about the likelihood of great-power competition in Europe and Northeast Asia over the next 10 years or so. Should the United States withdraw the forces it has maintained in those regions for more than fifty years, especially since you argue that they have had a pacifying effect in each region? Also, you argue that Europe is bipolar now with Russia and the United States as the reigning great powers, but that if the United States withdraws Europe is likely to become multipolar with Britain, France, Germany, Italy, and Russia as the great powers. Indeed, you argue that Germany would be a "potential hegemon" in a multipolar Europe. Is multipolarity always unstable? And what characterizes a "potential hegemon"?
John J. Mearsheimer: I argue that U.S. troops will and should remain in Europe and Northeast Asia only if there is a potential hegemon in those regions that the local great powers cannot contain by themselves. I do not believe that the United States will maintain a military presence in those regions 1) if there is a potential hegemon that can be contained by other states, or 2) for the purpose of keeping peace among the great powers. There are a number of reasons why the present alliance structures in Europe and Northeast Asia are likely to fall apart over time. But the main reason is costs-both the financial costs to the United States of maintaining huge military establishments in those regions and, more importantly, the potential human costs that come with putting American men and women in harm's way.
Like virtually all other peoples, Americans are only willing to fight and die when vital interests are at stake. Although it is certainly in America's national interest to contain a potential peer competitor, it will prefer that other states assume that burden, if it is possible to pass the buck to them. To put it bluntly, why should the United States defend countries that are capable of defending themselves? While preserving peace in Europe and Northeast Asia might be in America's interest, that goal is not important enough to justify the loss of American lives, as the United States demonstrated clearly in NATO's 1999 war against Yugoslavia.
Regarding multipolarity, it is not always unstable. If one compares multipolar Europe between 1900 and 1945 with bipolar Europe between 1945 and 1990, it might seem that multipolar systems are especially prone to deadly wars. However, Europe was also multipolar from 1815 to 1853, as well as 1871 to 1914, and there were no wars between the European great powers during those two lengthy periods. Thus, some multipolar systems are more stable than others. The key determinant of stability in multipolarity is whether or not the system contains a potential hegemon. If one state thas the wherewithal to dominate all of its rivals-like Napoleonic France, Wilhelmine Germany, orNazi Germany-multipolarity is likely to be especially dangerous. In the absence of a potential hegemon, war among the great powers is still possible, but not nearly as likely.
A potential hegemon is more than just the most powerful state in the system. It is a great power with so much actual military capability and so much potential power that it stands a good chance of subduing and controlling all of the other great powers in its region of the world. A potential hegemon need not have the wherewithal to fight all of its rivals at once, but it must have excellent prospects of defeating each opponent alone, and good prospects of defeating some of them in tandem. The key relationship, however, is the power gap between the potential hegemon and the second most powerful state in the system: there must be a marked gap between them. To qualify as a potential hegemon, a state must have-by some reasonably large margin-the most formidable army as well as the most latent power among all the states located in its region.
FA: U.S.-China relations have been turbulent since President Bush took office, leaving many Americans confused about what Beijing's intentions are and what Washington's approach should be. You criticize the policy of "constructive engagement" with China that prevailed in the last decade. In your view, although China is not yet a potential hegemon in Northeast Asia, it is a rising power that could become a superpower capable of rivaling the United States. U.S. policy should therefore be directed toward thwarting China's rise. Do you have a sense of what tack the Bush administration will take? Is there a particular issue-i.e. Taiwan, human rights, China's relations with Russia-that could tip the balance?
Mearsheimer: It is important to emphasize that China still has a long way to go before it can be a potential hegemon that needs to be contained. The key to its future is what happens to its economy. I believe that the United States has a deep-seated interest in making sure that China does not become a wealthy country, because it will translate its economic might into military might and seek to dominate Asia. The United States and its allies in Asia would have their hands full trying to contain China, because a wealthy China would be a particularly formidable foe. Better to head that problem off at the pass by doing everything possible to slow down China's modernization.
There is considerable evidence that the Bush administration understands that a wealthy China would present a serious threat to its neighbors in Asia and to the United States. Nevertheless, some Republican voices, mainly from the business wing of the party, say that a rich and democratic China will be a peace-loving state and a likely friend of the United States. What these individuals fail to recognize is that a prosperous China would have good strategic reasons for wanting to dominate Asia. The United States, after all, worked assiduously throughout the nineteenth century to gain hegemony in the western hemisphere, and it has gone to considerable lengths since then to maintain that exalted position. China would be foolish not to try to imitate the United States, because regional hegemony greatly enhances a state's prospects for survival.
It is possible that some event or issue might galvanize the United States into pursuing policies designed to frustrate China's rise, much the way the Korean War spurred a huge increase in defense spending during the 1950s. Those kind of precipitating events, however, are difficult to anticipate. But more importantly, the key to the future of U.S.-China relations will not be any particular event, but whether or not the Chinese economy continues growing at a rapid pace. If it does, the United States is likely to seek to slow it down so as to prevent the rise of a peer competitor. Failing that, the United States will move to contain China, much the way it contained the Soviet Union in the Cold War.
FA: In recent years, advocates of missile defense in Washington have floated the idea of theater missile defense (TMD) systems as a way for the United States to continue to ensure the security of key allies, even without having forces on the ground. In essence, TMD would be "theater" only in the sense of covering areas of U.S. interest-such a system would actually provide national missile defense for the small nations covered within, such as Germany or Japan. But you see a U.S. military withdrawal from Europe and Northeast Asia as an instigator of arms proliferation-and potential nuclear proliferation-because it would leave the states in those areas to provide for their own security. The regional powers would build up their defenses first to protect their own security, and then increasingly in competition with each other. If deployed, could a TMD system mitigate the great-power security competition in either region, thus averting this cycle of weapons proliferation? If so, would this be a sufficient reason for Washington to develop TMD?
Mearsheimer: There are two problems with the claim that we might prevent security competition in Europe and Northeast Asia in the absence of American troops if states like Germany and Japan possess TMD systems, which effectively means having ballistic missile defenses over their heads.
First, no state facing nuclear-armed adversaries will rely exclusively on ballistic missile defenses for its survival. Not only is there the strong possibility that those defenses will not work as advertised, but they are also largely useless against enemy cruise missiles and airplanes carrying nuclear weapons. The best way for any state to deter a rival from using its nuclear arsenal for political gain is to have its own nuclear retaliatory force. This basic fact of life in the nuclear age explains why the United States has no intention of giving up its nuclear weapons, even if it deploys a sophisticated national missile defense system. Therefore, we should not expect Japan and Germany, both of which face nuclear-armed neighbors, to abstain from developing their own nuclear weapons because they have a ballistic missile shield above them.
Second, security competition in the absence of the American pacifier is likely to take place at the conventional as well as nuclear level. As we learned during the Cold War, the presence of massive nuclear arsenals does not stop great powers from worrying about conventional force balances or from competing with each other to control territory and water. Thus, in the absence of U.S. troops in Europe and Northeast Asia, Japan and Germany are likely to increase the size and strength of their conventional forces as well as their interest in controlling the land and the sea lanes around their borders. Of course, other states in those regions will have the same concerns, thus fueling competition and conflict among them.
In sum, there may be good reasons to develop TMD systems, but they are not a useful means for producing peace in Europe and Northeast Asia in the absence of the American pacifier.
FA: The European Union's Common Foreign and Security Policy, as well as its planned rapid-reaction force, partially arose out of member-states' apprehensions about a U.S. military withdrawal from the continent now that the Soviet threat has disappeared. Many Europeans appear eager to develop a cooperative defense system for the post-Cold War world. But you do not think that this move toward defense integration-or in fact the advanced European economic integration-will prevent security competition from breaking out among the major powers in Europe. Why is the European Union not a sufficient antidote to the great-power tensions and rivalries you see in the event of an American troop withdrawal?
Mearsheimer: Although there certainly has been substantial economic integration among the states in the European Union, there has not been commensurate political integration. For sure, there has been much talk about developing a Common Foreign and Security Policy as well as the need to pool resources to create a formidable rapid reaction force that is independent of the United States. But rhetoric aside, little has been done to realize those goals.
In fact, the states of western Europe are simply not willing to surrender their sovereignty and join together to create an integrated superstate along the lines of the United States. Consider the comments of French president Jacques Chirac to the German Bundestag in June 2000. He said that he envisioned a "united Europe of states rather than a United States of Europe." He went on to say that, "Neither you nor we envisage the creation of a European superstate that would take the place of our nation states and end their role as actors on the international stage.... In the future, our nations will stay the first reference point for our people." In short, western Europe, not to mention eastern Europe, will remain a collection of individual states for the foreseeable future.
One might concede that the state system is alive and well in western Europe, but argue that over the past half-century relations among those states-especially France and Germany-have undergone a fundamental transformation, and consequently they no longer view each other as potential rivals. Instead, they now see themselves as part of what Karl Deutsch famously called a "pluralistic security community." But this line of argument is unconvincing. Relations among the states of western Europe have been largely free of fear and security competition for decades because the United States has stood astride that region, making it virtually impossible for Germany or any other state to start a war with its neighbors. Take the American pacifier away, however, and Germany and France will quickly start to worry about each other, because there will no longer be a night watchman on the premises to protect them from each other.
But even if I am wrong and the European Union provides a mechanism for keeping peace in western Europe in the absence of U.S. troops, there is still likely to be an intense security competition between Germany and Russia for control of the large buffer zone between them. Russia is not a member of the European Union and is not likely to join it anytime soon. Thus, that institution is not well-suited for ameliorating conflict between Germany and Russia, states with a rich history of competing for power in Eastern Europe.
FA: The Foreign Affairs article is drawn from the final chapter of your forthcoming book, The Tragedy of Great Power Politics. Why did you choose this particular chapter to develop into an article? And in your view, what makes great-power politics tragic?
Mearsheimer: The last chapter of my book (10) deals with contemporary policy issues, while the first nine chapters deal with theory and history. I thought that my take on some important policy debates-i.e., the future of U.S. troops in Europe, and how the United States should deal with a rising China-would be what most interested readers of Foreign Affairs. Nevertheless, those who want a more complete understanding of the arguments put forth in my article should look at the book, because it provides the logical and empirical support for those arguments.
Great-power politics is tragic because the structure of the international system forces states that seek only to be secure nonetheless to act aggressively toward each other. Three features of the international system combine to cause states to fear one another: 1) the absence of a central authority that sits above states and can protect them from each other, 2) the fact that states always have some offensive military capability, and 3) the fact that states can never be certain about other states' intentions. Given this fear-which can never be wholly eliminated-states recognize that the more powerful they are relative to their rivals, the better their chances of survival. Indeed, the best guarantee of survival is to be a hegemon, because no other state can seriously threaten such a mighty power.
This situation, which no one consciously designed or intended, is genuinely regrettable. Great powers that have no reason to fight with each other, but are merely concerned with their own survival, nevertheless have little choice but to pursue power and seek to dominate the other states in the system.