The False Promise of International Institutions | Study Guide

John J. Mearsheimer

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The False Promise of International Institutions | Symbols


The North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO)

Mearsheimer uses NATO as an "example of realist thinking about institutions." Realists argue that institutions themselves do not have any inherent power or authority to compel states to act and therefore cannot be instrumental in influencing states to alter their behavior. Institutionalists disagree with the premise that only military force can effectively compel states to do or not do anything they are not already willing to do. Institutionalists often point to the successes of World War I (1914–18), World War II (1939–45), and Cold War (1947–91) institutions to support their claims that institutions can be extremely effective in altering the way states behave. For example, NATO was an institution that helped the Western powers win the Cold War.

Mearsheimer uses NATO as a symbol to illustrate what he views as the flaw in the reasoning of institutionalists. He states that, although NATO was instrumental in defeating communism during the Cold War, NATO did not have any inherent power or authority. Instead it derived its power directly from its member states. Thus, it was "not NATO per se that provided the key to maintaining stability" in Europe during the Cold War but its usefulness to America as a "tool for managing power in the face of the Soviet threat."

The Prisoners' Dilemma

The prisoners' dilemma is an analogy that illustrates the propensity and motivations of parties engaged in binding relationships to act dishonestly toward each other. Mearsheimer uses this analogy to symbolize the concerns about cheating in the international system that the theory of liberal institutionalism attempts to address.

According to the prisoners' dilemma, "each of two states can either cheat or cooperate with each other." Both sides in such international relationships share similar concerns. Each side wants to maximize their own gains from any transaction or relationship, and each side is essentially indifferent about whether the other side gains anything. Each side cares about the strategies the other side employs in negotiations, but only to the extent that those strategies will interfere with their own ability to obtain the maximum gain from the relationship.

The best possible strategy in such a scenario is for each side to deceive the other side by convincing them that they are going to fully cooperate. Each side can further maximize their gains by "cheating" after they have gained the trust of their negotiating partner and obtained the full benefit of the transaction. Reneging on their part of the deal allows them to retain a greater advantage once the transaction is complete. Both sides operate under similar conditions, so both sides will try to cheat, and this will produce worse results for both sides than if they had simply cooperated from the outset. Liberal institutionalism attempts to address this problem by implementing rules that encourage cooperation.

The League of Nations

The League of Nations serves as a symbol of how collective security theory has been applied in the past and its potential effectiveness in the future. Early in his discussion of collective security theory, Mearsheimer states that Woodrow Wilson led the effort to develop the theory of collective security "which formed the basis for the League of Nations." Because the League of Nations was the world's first collective security apparatus, Mearsheimer uses it as a symbol to illustrate both the successes and failures that have been attributed to such systems. He states that the "League of Nations ... was a serious attempt to make collective security work." He lists some of its "minor successes" as the resolution via mediation of the Aaland Islands dispute between Finland and Sweden in 1920 and the removal of Greek, Italian, and Yugoslav troops from Albania in 1921.

The League of Nations subsequently failed to stop the Greco-Turkish War of 1920–22 or the Russo-Polish War of 1920, and France hostilely rejected the League's efforts to resolve the dispute resulting from the 1923 French occupation of the Ruhr. This unimpressive record occurred during a decade of relative peace and stability. During the 1930s, an era marked by tremendous unrest and conflict, the League of Nations failed to achieve its objectives in each of the six separate occasions it intervened: the 1931 Japanese invasion of Manchuria, the 1932–35 Chaco War, the 1937 Japanese invasion of China, the 1935 Italian invasion of Ethiopia, the 1936 German occupation of the Rhineland, and the 1939 Soviet invasion of Finland.

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