The False Promise of International Institutions | Study Guide

John J. Mearsheimer

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The False Promise of International Institutions | Main Ideas


The Post-Cold War World Order: Institutionalism and Realism

The introduction provides the context for Mearsheimer's analysis. Immediately after the collapse of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR) in 1991, many policymakers voiced increased support for the view that international institutions can effectively challenge realism as a means of affecting state behavior. Mearsheimer cites the views of policymakers in the Clinton administration (1993–2001) who "have sought to create security arrangements ... based on international institutions" and who "explicitly reject [the] balance-of-power politics'' that was the organizing force prior to and during the Cold War. American president William Clinton (b. 1946) stated that the post-Cold War world was characterized more by freedom than tyranny. As a result, "the cynical calculus of pure power politics simply does not compute." Clinton's National Security Adviser Anthony Lake (b. 1939) criticized the policies of Clinton's predecessor American president George H.W. Bush (1924–2018) as "viewing the world through a 'classic balance of power prism.'" Warren Christopher (1925–2011), Clinton's Secretary of State, stated that there was no reason for the reach of institutions to "stop at [the] old frontiers of the Cold War." Prominent scholars and academics support this view. Robert Keohane states that whether post-Cold War Europe manages to avoid conflict depends on the degree to which "the next decade is characterized by a ... pattern of institutional cooperation." American political scientist John Ruggie (b. 1944) states that the ability of institutions to help provide international stability "appear[s] to be playing a significant role in ... a broad array of ... changes in the world system today."

Mearsheimer states that "realists and institutionalists particularly disagree about whether institutions markedly affect the prospects for international security." Institutionalism proposes that international institutions can effectively promote peace and deter states from engaging in war. Realism proposes that the actions and decisions of states themselves are the source of institutional power. Institutionalists argue that the success of international institutions during the Cold War is evidence of their inherent power to effect change. Realists argue that the perception of these institutions' effectiveness is illusory because their ability to act successfully resulted directly from the actions and decisions of the states who created them.

Mearsheimer is a realist whose "central conclusion is that institutions have minimal influence on state behavior." Institutions therefore "hold little promise for promoting stability in the post-Cold War world." He proposes to prove his theory by analyzing each of the three major institutionalist theories: liberal institutionalism, collective security, and critical theory.

Prior to his analysis, Mearsheimer devotes the next two sections to defining "institutions" and "realism." Institutions are sets of rules similar to laws that tell governments specifically how to interact with one another. These rules may indicate which types of actions governments may take and which types of actions are not allowed. The rules themselves are developed by representatives of the governments they regulate and must be accepted by all of the parties who become part of such agreements. Institutions may be administered by officially designated international organizations, but such organizations cannot force states to obey any of the rules. As a result, "institutions are not a form of world government."

Realism "paints a rather grim picture of world politics." This theory proposes that the world is characterized by independent governments who are mostly hostile toward one another. Relationships among governments involve constant competition to protect against attack. As a result, "the possibility of war [is] always in the background." Realism is based on five assumptions. First, there is no central governing authority over sovereign states, and this is an idea that realists refer to as "anarchy." Second, every country possesses some degree of military force. Third, no country can ever be completely certain that other countries are not planning an attack or some other type of hostile or aggressive action. Fourth, most states make decisions motivated by the goal of maintaining their own independence. Fifth, as a result of these competing interests, states' foreign policies are influenced mostly by strategies of how to survive. These five assumptions lead realists to expect states to act defensively.

Mearsheimer adds three incentives to the five basic assumptions of realism that may encourage states to move from a defensive to an offensive stance. First, because states fear one another, they generally take steps to prepare for war. Second, each state's goal is survival, so each state will usually act in its own self-interest. Third, part of survival is ensuring that competing states do not become a threat, so most states try to conduct international relations in such a way that they accumulate more economic, political, and military power than competing states.

Thus states will routinely act both offensively and defensively to take advantage of the weaknesses of competing states while also defending against the similar actions of those competing states. From a realist perspective, both international cooperation and international conflict result from the self-interested actions of individual states. Furthermore, states do not regard international institutions as authorities whose approval they must seek. Instead, states create international institutions as tools for the specific purpose of achieving their own self-interested goals.

Logical Analysis of Liberal Institutionalism

Mearsheimer states that this theory is based on the premise that "cheating is the main inhibitor of international cooperation" and that institutions can solve this problem by creating rules that regulate states' behavior. However, liberal institutionalism does not "challenge the fundamental realist claim that states are self-interested actors." Proponents claim that this theory applies only when states have a mutual interest in cooperating. It does not address situations in which "states' interests are fundamentally conflictual." Thus this theory assumes that "international politics can be divided into two realms—security and political economy." Furthermore, liberal institutionalism applies itself mainly to concerns about political economy but not security.

This theory proposes that the primary obstacle to economic cooperation among states is the potential for cheating; i.e., that one or the other party to an economic agreement will renege on its obligations once it gets what it wants from the relationship. Institutional rules can deter cheating in four primary ways. First, they can increase the number of transactions among particular states over time, thereby making cooperation more profitable. Second, linking rules to important issues in other areas of foreign policy can make cheating potentially more costly and dangerous. Third, rules that allow information to become more widely available make cooperation more transparent, thereby making cheating more difficult. Fourth, by ensuring that the transaction costs of negotiating, monitoring, and enforcement are prohibitively expensive, rules can make honest cooperation more cost-effective.

However, economic rules provide less benefit in the security realm. The main flaw in this theory's logic is that it ignores the differences between absolute-gains concerns and relative-gains concerns. States concerned about absolute gains focus only on how much they will profit from any given cooperative relationship; states concerned about relative gains are motivated to negotiate on the basis of whether their gains will place them in a more or less powerful position relative to competing states. Liberal institutional theorists have attempted to resolve this flaw in the theory's logic, but their responses are largely theoretical and do not succeed when applied in practice. In addition the "available empirical evidence provides little support" for this theory's claim that international institutions can promote or foster cooperation among states.

Logical Analysis of Collective Security

Collective security is "explicitly anti-realist." It accepts the basic premise of realism by "recogniz[ing] that military power is a central factor of life in international politics.'' Realism views balance-of-power politics as the norm and uses the resulting conditions as the basis of policy making. Collective security regards realist conditions as problematic. Because military and security concerns can never be eliminated, it proposes that the problem should be managed by international institutions.

This theory traces its origins to the Woodrow Wilson administration (1913–21), whose policies resulted in the establishment of the League of Nations (1920–39). The League of Nations was the first collective security organization and was established at the end of World War I under the administration of the Allied powers who had won the war. In the introduction to this essay, Anthony Lake (b. 1939) is quoted as referring to former president Clinton's "neo-Wilsonian" foreign policy. The League of Nations is an early example of a collective security apparatus. Although the League of Nations ultimately failed, collective security theorists have noted that "the Wilsonians ... succeeded in establishing the conviction that collective security ... [is] vastly superior to ... the balance of power system." However, Mearsheimer states that such systems can never successfully "be realized in practice."

The theory's causal logic requires states to accept three fundamental conditions. First, states "must renounce the use of military force" as a means of resolving disputes. Second, states must align their national interests "with the broader interests of the international community." They must reinterpret the way they define self-interest with the understanding that their own interests will be served best by considering "the national interest of other states." From this perspective "an attack on any state is considered an attack on every state." Third, "states must trust each other." Specifically, they must not only adhere to the first two principles but also trust that other states will act with integrity. Mearsheimer argues that trust "is the most important of the three norms because it underpins the first two." The effectiveness of collective security reactions against aggressors depends on the degree to which member states trust their fellow members. Aggressor states and "free-riders" who understand this weakness are likely to exploit it.

The two major flaws in this theory's logic follow from the third condition. First, the theory "does not provide a satisfactory explanation for how states ... learn to trust one another" considering that states act in an anarchic system and have mutual military capability. Furthermore, the purpose of collective security systems is to defend against aggressors, so it contradicts itself by requiring that all states trust that no state will act aggressively or maliciously. Second, Mearsheimer cites nine factors that may prevent states from placing their trust in a collective security system:

  1. States may not be able to distinguish quickly enough between aggressor and victim.
  2. States in which aggression may be desirable complicate matters.
  3. Historical alliances may discourage states from attacking one another.
  4. Historical opposition may discourage alliances.
  5. Determining the distribution of costs may complicate implementation.
  6. The unpredictability of military engagements makes it impossible to guarantee a rapid response.
  7. Unwanted involvement in unrelated conflicts may deter membership.
  8. Forced compliance erodes sovereignty.
  9. Member states must renounce war, so they may not be willing to mount effective military action.

Finally, the historical record provides little support for claims of collective security's effectiveness. The League of Nations ultimately failed, the United Nations has never been seriously tested, and no other collective security organization has emerged in the post-Cold War world. Some proponents have argued that peacekeeping and concerts can serve as alternative forms of collective security. However, peacekeeping is "mainly useful for helping implement cease-fires in wars involving minor powers," and concerts such as the Concert of Europe (1815–1914) are "arrangements[s] in which great powers ... have no incentive to challenge each other militarily." Collective security theory is therefore not a viable long-term option for managing disputes among states.

Logical Analysis of Critical Theory

This theory "directly address[es] the question of how to bring about peace." It also "make[s] bold claims about the prospects for changing state behavior." Its main goal is to transform the nature of the international system into a "world society." This system would be characterized by states motivated not by constant competition but by "norms of trust and sharing." Critical theorists recognize that realism has been the dominant political theory for most of history. Nonetheless, their goal is to undermine realism and alter the international system to the extent that "states stop thinking and acting according to realism." However, this theory does not address how these changes should be made or whether the resulting system of international relations will necessarily improve once the proposed changes are implemented.

The causal logic of this theory states that realism can be defeated if "states ... renounce the use of military force" in favor of a "'generally shared expectation of peaceful change.'" Critical theory's goal is to create a "'postmodern international system' ... characterized not by anarchy, but by community." Each state will have a radically altered identity, and sovereignty will be devalued. This theory approaches international relations from a fundamentally different philosophical perspective than realism. Realism accepts that there is an "objective and knowable world"; critical theorists "deny the possibility of objective knowledge." Critical theory acknowledges that realism has been dominant throughout history and requires the abandonment of established ideas in favor of change. However, it displays intolerance for other discourses, and realism in particular. Mearsheimer cites four reasons for this intolerance:

  1. Critical theory proposes that ideas themselves are an important factor in "shaping international politics."
  2. When "particular theories triumph in the marketplace of ideas, the result is hegemonic discourse."
  3. Critical theorists depart from critical theory by distinguishing between good and bad ideas.
  4. Critical theorists believe the "hegemonic discourse" must follow the path they see as best.

Mearsheimer cites many flaws in this theory's logic. Its "explanation of how change occurs is at best incomplete, and at worst, internally contradictory." Critical theory "maintains that state behavior changes when discourse changes," but it fails to state why some discourses become dominant while others do not, what determines the rise and fall of discourses, why realism has been dominant for so long, why now is the right time to displace realism, and why realism is likely to be replaced by something more peaceful. The historical record offers little support for this theory's claims. Realism has been the dominant discourse for the past 1,200 years. Furthermore, the end of the Cold War is too small a time period to support claims that the corresponding changes represent a permanent shift.

The American Worldview

Mearsheimer concludes by considering why institutions continue to receive policymakers' support "when there is so little evidence that they are an important cause of peace." Realism is extremely pessimistic and violates the "deep-seated American belief that ... reasonable individuals can solve important social problems." Realism regards war as inevitable and often necessary, whereas Americans tend to regard war as something that should be done only for idealistic purposes. Realism rejects that states can be described or understood in moral terms, thus displaying a mindset that is alien to the American conception of the Cold War as a war against evil. Finally, America "has a rich history of thumbing its nose at realism." Institutionalism's optimism therefore "purvey[s] a message that Americans long to hear." Mearsheimer nevertheless concludes that "misplaced reliance on institutional solutions is likely to lead to more failures in the future."

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