On Monday I attended a lecture given by John Mearsheimer, the eminent political scientist and foreign affairs specialist. It was hosted by a group called the Committee for the Republic, which stands in plucky opposition to American empire. It was held at the National Trust for Historic Preservation, a Victorian manor just off Washington's Dupont Circle, and it was attended by about a hundred concerned citizens, including businessmen, lawyers, journalists, and activists.
Mearsheimer, a professor at the University of Chicago and graduate of West Point, was for the most part preaching to the converted. He is a self-styled foreign policy "realist" who favors military intervention abroad only in response to a clear and direct threat, and he is critical of the kind of foreign entanglements—in particular Washington's alliance with Israel, about which he co-wrote a controversial article in 2006—that the founding fathers warned against. In his 40-minute speech, which he delivered without notes, he called for the closure of U.S. bases in Europe and the Persian Gulf, and he defended, though he did not embrace, the case for isolationism as being stronger today than in the 1930s, given Europe's unprecedented political stability and America's unrivaled military power.
Like his hosts, Mearsheimer lamented how the Obama administration has perpetuated the policy of "global dominion"—a commitment to control the choke points of planetary commerce through armed expeditionary might—as the touchstone of U.S. foreign policy. He condemned the influence of liberal interventionists as well as neoconservatives as the inspiration for ruinous military adventures, particularly in the Middle East. (The outcome of NATO's Libya enterprise is too early to project, he said.)
It was Mearsheimer's impressions of China, however, that diverged markedly from the views of his hosts. As a proponent of "offshore balancing," the policy of intervening in strategically important regions only when one country emerges as a dominant force that could threaten U.S. interests, Mearsheimer called for the Pentagon's forward bases in Asia to remain in place as a deterrent to an ascendant Chinese. "I am nervous about a powerful China free to roam about," he told the audience. He also challenged members of the audience to contemplate what he implied were the dire consequences of a Chinese economy four times larger than America's
Here was the skunk at the garden party. During the question-and-answer period, Mearsheimer was cross-examined by audience members who found little difference between his position on China and those held by the very foreign policy militarists he routinely lambasts. Reflexively interpreting China as a threat to U.S. interests, one participant remarked, risked making Sino-American conflict a self-fulfilling prophecy. Maintaining costly U.S. bases in Asia, said another, allowed Washington's allies a security umbrella under which they could exploit America's open markets with mercantilist policies of their own. In response to Mearsheimer's concerns that China would one day overtake the United States in economic power, a guest pointed out that no one but the Chinese could control the pace of their country's growth and to suggest otherwise was a decidedly neoconservative conceit.
It was moderator Chas Freeman, the Sinologist and former U.S. ambassador, who furnished the most elegant response to Mearsheimer's China strategy. Proclaiming himself in "emphatic agreement" with Mearsheimer about the logic of offshore balancing in foreign affairs, he turned the tables on his guest by sketching a virtual map of the Far East. China, Freeman pointed out, is surrounded by U.S. allies and able balancers: India, Japan, South Korea, and the Southeast Asian states of Vietnam, Thailand, Malaysia, Indonesia, and the Philippines. Even Russia, though hardly a Washington ally, has for centuries had adversarial relations with its giant East Asian neighbor.
Given the weight of Asian geography, Freeman asked simply, "Why confront China directly?"
Mearsheimer was unmoved. Having distinguished himself by calling out the militarists' instinct to inflate the capabilities of America's rivals, he succumbed to the related impulse of dismissing its allies' capacity to take care of themselves. Sino-myopia, a common and growing affliction in Washington, stands in counterpoise to Freeman's clarity, informed as it is by a lifetime of living and working in that country. (It was Freeman, as a young Foreign Service Officer, who served as Richard Nixon's interpreter during his historic 1972 visit to Beijing.)
In the 1950s and 1960s, Washington buried its China experts and paid for it by marching blindly into Vietnam. It risks paying a much higher price should it commit the same error today.