John Mearsheimer is one of the three most important international analysts in the world still living, along with Henry Kissinger and Joseph Nye.
The University of Chicago professor was almost alone in forecasting in 2001 that China’s rise would imply strategic competition with the United States for international supremacy. Back then very few people took him seriously. The liberal international order, hyper-globalisation and “engagement” (China’s growing participation in international institutions like the World Trade Organisation) were all bedrocks which appeared inexpugnable.
Mearsheimer says that some even dared to call him mad. But the years have vindicated the world’s most famous “offensive neo-realist,” the author of books like The Great Delusion: Liberal Dreams and International Realities and The Tragedy of Great Power Politics.
In an exclusive interview, Mearsheimer went over point by point the most significant issues in international politics – the dispute between Washington and Beijing; the impact of that rivalry on Latin America; the role of Russia; what advice he would suggest for US foreign policy. The academic blames the US foreign policy élite, which he defines as “idiotic” for feeding the growth of its competitor.
“China has an interest in causing security problems for the US in the Western Hemisphere, in order to force it to focus on its own backyard and be unable to fix all its attention on Asia or China itself,” he assures, seated at home in front of his bookshelves along with a miniature Napoleon, a matryoshka doll and lots and lots of books.
In an interview with Nikkei Asian Review you said that China will try to dominate East Asia in a similar way to the US in the Western Hemisphere. Will Beijing try and undermine Washington’s hegemony in the Americas?
I think China’s principal goal will be to establish hegemony in Asia and having done so, it will wander into the Western Hemisphere in a serious way. Most people never ask why the US wanders all over the planet, interfering in the policies of countries everywhere. The reply is that its superiority in the Western Hemisphere is so clear and safe that it is free to interfere in the policies of other countries all over the globe. That’s something China does not want. What China wants is the US having to focus plenty of its attention on South and Central America so that it cannot do the same with Chinese politics.
In which South and Central American countries will China try to interfere?
China has an open mind regarding its relations with Western Hemisphere countries. Obviously Venezuela and Cuba are their natural partners. But I imagine they’ll go to great lengths to have a good relationship with Canada, Mexico, Brazil and Argentina.
Do you think the competition between the US and China could culminate in a war?
It’s a real possibility but I don’t think it’s certain. One should recall that the security interests of the US and the Soviet Union competed intensely for 45 years during the Cold War and came close to confrontation in the Cuban missile crisis but were never directly involved in any hot war, waging war by proxy. It’s possible that the US and Chinese will have a security competition for decades without war. We hope so.
But an armed conflict is possible, far more between the US and China than between the US and USSR in the Cold War – for geographical reasons. In large measure a war with the Soviet Union was very difficult because the principal point of conflict was in Central Europe and a war there would have been catastrophic. That’s why it was almost impossible. But if you look at Asian geography, the most significant points in competition are China’s seas, Taiwan and the Korean peninsula. There it would be easier to envision a limited war between China and the US.
I would not be surprised if the US and China get involved in a war in the South China Sea sometime in the next year. I’m not saying it’s likely to happen, I’m saying it’s a possible scenario because it would imply a war at sea which would not automatically escalate – it would be a limited conflict. During the Cold War it was almost impossible to imagine such limited conflicts because so much of the competition between the US and the Soviet Union was centred on Central Europe, where there were massive armies armed to the teeth with thousands of nuclear weapons battling in one of the most densely populated parts of the planet.
What would the White House have to do to win this competition with China?
The US basically has to form a balancing coalition to contain China, very similar to what it did in the Cold War to contain the Soviet Union. It needs a military alliance in Asia similar to NATO to contain China’s rise. The Donald Trump administration has done a terrible job in dealing with our allies in Asia.The second thing the US has to do, and here Trump is trying, is to decelerate China’s growth and assure that it does not transform itself into the country dominating the world with the most sophisticated technologies. The Chinese have left it very clear that they intend not only to challenge but also to beat the US in artificial intelligence, 5G, etc. We have to contain China with a balanced coalition and defeat it on the economic and technological fronts.
Would US foreign policy change if Joe Biden wins the elections in November?
If Joe Biden becomes president, the US will continue treating China as a dangerous rival, pushing policies of containment. The pivot to Asia, which is when the US began to think seriously of containing China, occurred in 2011 when Barack Obama was president and Hillary Clinton [was] Secretary of State.
The Democrats consider China a serious threat which must be contained. In that sense we won’t see too many changes. But there will be positive changes in the relationship with the Asian allies – Biden administration will do a better job in handling them.
The only interesting question-mark is what is to be done on the economic and commercial fronts. There I think he will make less noise with less heated rhetoric but nevertheless, Biden will go to great lengths to slow down Chinese growth and facilitate the US’s.
In your article “Bound to Fail: The Rise and Fall of the Liberal International Order,” you wrote: “An intense competition in the security interests of China and the US will be the central issue in the international politics of the 21st century.” What military alliance could China form to confront Washington?
The Chinese will probably construct a system of military alliances in Asia to counter the US coalition. There will be a handful of countries in that alliance, among them North Korea, Cambodia, Laos and Pakistan. My doubt is whether Myanmar will go with the Chinese – I think there’s a big chance. And most important still, what about the Russians? Today they are pretty close allies of China.
I think that with the passage of time, the US will make a huge effort to peel Russia away from China and bring it into its balancing coalition but that’s clearly not the situation today.
Vladimir Putin seems to be a great geopolitical strategist. What incentives would he have to play on the US side?
There is no doubt that Putin is a brilliant strategist and I think that for a long time he wanted the best possible relationship with the US. But with the expansion of NATO and the European Union and the colour revolutions in Eastern Europe, the West poisoned relations with Russia, pushing them into the arms of the Chinese.
The US interest lies in having Russia as an ally against China. What should the Russians do? I think that the most intelligent strategy would be not to ally too closely with either the US or China, trying to stay on the sidelines and not get involved too much in a security competition nor in any war between Beijing and Washington if one is declared. Through sheer stupidity we Americans are pushing the Russians towards the Chinese. But at the same time I think that the Russians are nervous about going too far and getting completely into bed with Beijing. What they definitely will do is to try and have a good relationship with Beijing, especially given the hostility between the West and Russia, but without getting too close at the same time because they do not want to alienate the West and the US more than they have to.
The key question as to what Russia will do in the future depends on how powerful China becomes. If China keeps up its impressive economic growth, I believe the Russians will ally with the US. They share a long frontier with China. They almost went to war in 1969. They have plenty to fear. At the same time the US is hard pressed to contain this rising China and will need all the help it can get, which will lead it to forming an alliance with the Russians.
Many analysts sustain that the US is trying to disconnect its economy from China’s. What economic cooperation do you think there’ll be in future between the two countries?
Obviously there has been enormous economic cooperation between the US and China in recent decades. Indeed the US has played a key role in aiding China’s economic growth. Now US is moving to slow down, if not roll back, much of that economic intercourse.
The US and China will not be so economically interdependent in 10 years as they are now, no doubt about that. Washington will try to break up its current supply chains in order to become less economically dependent on Beijing. Yet there will still be an enormous amount of economic intercourse between the two, as well as between China and its East Asian rivals such as Japan, South Korea, Australia and the Philippines. No way that could all end.
In future the situation in East Asia will be analogous or similar to Europe before the First World War, when there was a significant security competition. You had the Triple Entente of France, Britain and Russia against the Triple Alliance of Germany, the Austro-Hungarian Empire and Italy, and that intense competition of security competition led to the First World War in August, 1914. At the same time there was an enormous volume of economic interchange between the main players.
In the future of East Asia there will be plenty of economic intercourse and at the same time an intense security competition.
Advice for Argentina
What advice would John Mearsheimer offer the Argentine government regarding its dealing with the growing rivalry and hostility between China and the United States?
“I think that the main thing Argentina should do is to offer assurance against any military involvement with China because that would leave it trapped between the US and China,” replies the academic, criticising the military adventurism of his country and its “eternal wars” in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Faced with this hypothetical scenario, Mearsheimer has no doubts: “The US would go to enormous lengths to force Argentina to break up its military relationship with China.”
“What Argentina should do is to make a big effort to have strong economic relations with both China and the US. Taking advantage of both those countries in the best of senses and using those relations for economic growth,” he adds.
His recipe: stay away from the military competition between the two superpowers and at the same time maximise economic interchange with both.
Meanwhile, Mearsheimer does not believe that the Chinese space station in Neuquén Province would be a possible target in the event of an armed conflict with the US.
“If there were a big Chinese naval base in Argentina, that would be the target,” assures the prestigious academic.