The False Promise of International Institutions | Study Guide

John J. Mearsheimer

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The False Promise of International Institutions | Summary



Introduction and Definition of Terms

This essay begins with a discussion of Western policymakers' increased efforts to promote institutionalism after the end of the Cold War (1947–91). Mearsheimer argues that this approach represents a departure from traditional balance-of-power politics in favor of the "neo-Wilsonian view" that emerged as President William Clinton (b. 1946) assumed office. This new view of global politics rests on the belief that institutions such as the European Community (EC), the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), the Conference on Security and Cooperation in Europe (CSCE), and the Western European Union (WEU) can work cooperatively, not only to help states avoid conflict with one another but to move nations beyond war and effectively create world peace. Mearsheimer argues that institutions have only "minimal influence on state behavior, and thus hold little promise for promoting stability in the post-Cold War world." Mearsheimer's goal in this article is to examine three major international relations theories in which institutions are the central concept. In the two sections that follow the introduction, he defines "institutions" and "realism" as they will be used throughout the essay.

What Are Institutions?

Mearsheimer begins his argument by defining essential terminology. The first term he defines is "institution." According to Mearsheimer this term is not clearly defined anywhere in the "international relations literature." To help readers understand how he intends to use this term, Mearsheimer offers a definition of institutions as "a set of rules that stipulate the ways in which states should cooperate and compete with each other."

What Is Realism?

According to Mearsheimer realism is a political theory that "paints a rather grim picture of world politics." The realist perspective sees daily life in the arena of international relations as "a struggle for power, where each state strives not only to be the most powerful ... but also to ensure that no other state achieves that lofty position." This struggle is characterized by constant competition for advantages in state security, in which war is always a possibility. Cooperation among states under these conditions is possible but limited by the concerns of the security competition. World peace is unlikely according to the realist theory.

Institutionalist Theories

The next section examines the three major institutionalist theories: liberal institutionalism, collective security, and critical theory. Liberal institutionalism is the least ambitious of these theories; i.e., it offers the least support for the argument that institutions can act to prevent war. Collective security is the next most ambitious, and critical theory is the most ambitious. Detailed analyses of each theory follow.

Mearsheimer states that liberal institutionalism "does not directly address ... whether institutions cause peace, but instead focuses on the less ambitious goal of explaining cooperation in cases where state interests are not fundamentally opposed." This theory is more concerned with economic and environmental issues than with military and security issues. Mearsheimer offers a general overview of this theory, an examination of its causal logic and the flaws in its causal logic, and a detailed assessment of whether this theory's flaws can be repaired to make it a workable theory of international relations policymaking.

The theory of collective security "deals directly with the issue of how to cause peace," so Mearsheimer considers it more ambitious than liberal institutionalism because it does more to challenge the established claims of realism. This theory argues that the balance-of-power politics of realist theories are undesirable. Collective security theory argues that this problem can be effectively managed. As with the previous theory, Mearsheimer examines the causal logic of collective security theory and the flaws in this logic. He concludes that claims of this theory's potential success do not have enough historical support.

Finally, Mearsheimer examines critical theory. This theory "directly address[es] the question of how to bring about peace and ... make[s] bold claims about the prospects of changing state behavior." This very ambitious theory's goal is "to relegate security competition and war to the scrap heap of history, and create instead a genuine 'peace system.'" Mearsheimer again examines this theory by analyzing its causal logic, the flaws in its causal logic, and the historical record.


Mearsheimer states that his analysis has shown why institutionalism is not likely to replace realism. Specifically, Mearsheimer's logical analyses of liberal institutionalism, collective security, and critical theory illustrate the flaws in the causal logic of each theory, none of which have been resolved by their respective proponents. In addition, the historical record does not provide any substantial evidence to support claims by theorists that any of these institutions can substantially change the way nations conduct international relations. Mearsheimer also offers a possible explanation for the paradox of policymakers' continued optimism about institutionalism's potential for altering the course of international relations, despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary.


Examining the New World Order

The context for this theoretical analysis is a debate about the belief that international institutions can effectively alter the behavior of states that emerged after the collapse of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR). Mearsheimer supports realism as an opposing view to institutionalism. He proposes to prove his theory by examining three institutional theories. Before analyzing these theories, Mearsheimer defines both "institutions" and "realism."

Liberal Institutionalism

This theory proposes that "cheating is the main inhibitor of international cooperation." Institutions can solve this problem without challenging realism's basic assumptions by implementing rules to regulate state behavior. This theory does "not ... challenge the fundamental realist claim that states are self-interested actors." The main flaw in its causal logic is its failure to account for relative-gains concerns. Absolute-gains concerns focus only on how much a state may profit from any given cooperative relationship. Relative-gains concerns focus on whether those gains will place that state in a more or less advantageous position than that of competing states. This flaw violates the theory's premise that economic and security concerns can be considered separately. Finally, Mearsheimer claims that evidence in the historical record does not support claims that liberal institutionalism can be effective.

Collective Security

The theory of collective security originated in the Woodrow Wilson (1856–1924) administration, whose policies led to the establishment of the League of Nations, an organization for international cooperation established in 1920. Collective security "recognizes that military power is a central factor of life in international politics''; however, it is "explicitly anti-realist." Realism accepts balance-of-power politics as the norm. Collective security theory regards balance-of-power politics as problematic and proposes a method of management using institutions. Collective security theory requires states to accept three fundamental conditions:

  1. They "must renounce the use of military force to alter the status quo."
  2. They must align their national interests "with the broader interests of the international community."
  3. They must trust one another.

Mearsheimer notes several major flaws in this theory's causal logic. First, it fails to explain how states can learn to trust one another. Second, it fails to propose resolutions to at least nine possible barriers that would impede the formation of international alliances in such a system. Finally, the historical record "provides little support for [the claims of] collective security." The League of Nations ultimately failed, the United Nations has never been meaningfully tested, and no other collective security institution has emerged. Collective security is thus not a viable option for managing the affairs of international relations.

Critical Theory

Mearsheimer regards this theory as very ambitious because it challenges the basic assumptions of realism. Rather than suggesting how institutions can resolve international disputes, critical theory proposes a method of creating peace by "directly address[ing] the question of how to bring about peace." Critical theory also "make[s] bold claims about the prospects for changing state behavior." This theory's goal is to radically change international relations by eradicating realism. Proponents of critical theory are very clear about their goal of "alter[ing] the ... norms of the international system so that states stop thinking and acting according to realism." However, the theory itself "says little about either the desirability or feasibility of achieving that particular end." Critical theory is fundamentally different from realism. Realism accepts that there is an "objective and knowable world" whereas critical theorists "deny the possibility of objective knowledge." This theory also has several flaws in its causal logic. Most importantly its "explanation of how change occurs is at best incomplete, and at worst, internally contradictory." Moreover, the historical record offers little if any support for this theory's claims—especially since the end of the Cold War has not resulted in the fundamental changes its supporters predicted. Critical theory must therefore be regarded as a marginal concern.


Mearsheimer restates his view that there is little support for the belief that international institutions can promote peace. Flaws in causal logic and a dearth of empirical evidence disprove the claims of institutional theories. The paradoxical support for institutionalism may result from "core elements of American political ideology" that are more readily placated by institutionalism than by realism. Realism is pessimistic and therefore unpopular. America "has a rich history of thumbing its nose at realism" which is "largely alien to American culture." Institutionalism's optimism "purvey[s] a message that Americans long to hear." However, continued support for institutionalism will continue to prove a poor basis for policymaking.

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