The False Promise of International Institutions | Study Guide

John J. Mearsheimer

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John J. Mearsheimer | Biography


Early Life and Education

John Joseph Mearsheimer was born on December 14, 1947, in New York, New York. He was raised in New York City and Westchester County, New York. In 1965 he enlisted in the United States Army. After serving for one year he enrolled in the United States Military Academy at West Point. He graduated from West Point in 1970 with a bachelor of sciences degree and then served as an officer in the United States Air Force, eventually attaining the rank of captain.

In 1975 Mearsheimer left the military. He had earned a master's degree in international relations from the University of Southern California in 1974. In 1975 he enrolled in graduate school at Cornell University, where he studied political science. In 1978 Mearsheimer earned a master's degree in government at Cornell, and in 1980 he earned a PhD in government, also at Cornell. Mearsheimer has also earned several honorary doctorate degrees, including one from Panteion University in Athens, Greece in 2011; one from the University of Oradea in Romania in 2018; and three additional honorary professorships from universities in China in 2012 and in 2019.

From 1979 through 1980, Mearsheimer was a research fellow at the Brookings Institution. From 1980 through 1982, he was a postdoctoral fellow at the Center for International Affairs at Harvard University. From 1998 to 1999, he served on the Council on Foreign Relations in New York as the Whitney H. Shepardson Fellow.

Influences and Publications

Mearsheimer was influenced early in his career by the work of Kenneth Waltz (1924–2013), who had founded the school of political thought known as neorealism. According to Waltz's theory, international relations are conducted in an environment of anarchy. Waltz uses the term "anarchy" to indicate an environment in which there is no central governing authority over the sovereign states in the international system. In other words, there is no "government over governments." As a result, the world order is characterized by competing nations compelled to form alliances as a means of neutralizing threats. This perpetual need for security also means that states generally seek to maintain the status quo while formulating foreign policies that are essentially defensive in nature. Mearsheimer came to prominence after formulating the contrasting theory of "offensive realism" which states that the perpetual need for security cited by Waltz actually makes states act aggressively rather than defensively. From Mearsheimer's perspective states only cooperate when they are joined in temporary alliances. Otherwise they seek to diminish the power of competing states while simultaneously seeking to enhance their own power.

Mearsheimer's work has spawned a series of books and other publications. Altogether he has published six books, all of which have received international attention. Conventional Deterrence was published in 1983 and won the Edgar S. Furniss Jr. Book Award. Liddell Hart and the Weight of History was published in 1988. The Tragedy of Great Power Politics was originally published in 2001, won the Joseph Lepgold Book Prize, and has been translated into nine different languages. The Israel Lobby and U.S. Foreign Policy, co-authored with Stephen M. Walt and published in 2007, appeared on the New York Times Best-Seller list and has been translated into 24 different languages. Why Leaders Lie: The Truth about Lying in International Politics was published in 2011 and has been translated into 12 different languages. The Great Delusion: Liberal Dreams and International Realities was published in 2018, won the 2019 Best Book of the Year Award from the Valdai Discussion Conference in Moscow, and has been translated into five different languages.

Mearsheimer has also published dozens of articles for academic journals and magazines such as Foreign Affairs and the London Review of Books, as well as op-ed pieces for the New York Times and the Financial Times. "The False Promise of International Institutions" was published in the Winter 1995 edition of the journal International Security. Prominent publications have sought Mearsheimer's expertise on topics ranging from the Bosnian conflict, nuclear proliferation, and Arab-Israeli relations, to the folly of the Iraq War, the causes and consequences of the crisis in Ukraine, and Iran's efforts to acquire nuclear weapons.

Legacy and Teaching Career

Mearsheimer has received numerous teaching awards, including the Clark Award for Distinguished Teaching as a graduate student at Cornell in 1977, the Quantrell Award for Distinguished Teaching at the University of Chicago in 1985, the Phi Beta Kappa Visiting Scholar award for the 1993–94 academic year, and election to the American Academy of Arts and Sciences in 2003.

Currently Mearsheimer serves as the R. Wendell Harrison Distinguished Service Professor in the political science department at the University of Chicago, where he has been teaching since 1982. Mearsheimer believes that the study of social science theories is necessary to either understand or analyze foreign policy and that no one can make effective foreign policy without first understanding these theories. He describes himself as an international relations theorist and as a realist. He espouses a theory of international relations in which the world's great political powers dominate the system of international economic, political, and military power, constantly engaging one another in security competition that sometimes results in war. Mearsheimer's focus is on academics and scholarship, but he often engages in public policy debates. His most notable recent foray into the arena of political debate may have been in 2003 when he became one of the most outspoken critics of the policies that ultimately led to the Iraq War.

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