Offensive Realism Acts Like a Porcupine & Smells Like a Skunk

Offensive realism smells like a skunk, but it acts like a porcupine. It is born and functions with a porcupine’s deep-rooted sense of insecurity and a tunnel vision.

Professor John J. Mearsheimer, the provocative author of offensive realism, has just published a policy essay on US-China relations in Foreign Affairs as the November/December 2021 cover article. In it, he legitimizes and naturalizes the current strategic standoff between the two countries with his theory. The title of his essay “The Inevitable Rivalry: America, China, and the Tragedy of Great-Power Politics” resonates fully with the title of Graham Allison’s book Destined for War and Samuel Huntington’s book The Clash of Civilizations and the Remaking of World Order. Like its predecessors or siblings, this theory primes big powers such as the US in its effort to counter the emergence of its rivals and in its pursuit for sustained dominance around the world of “anarchy” in the 21st century.

Dangerous collusion

Offensive realism, bordering on a militant and military theory, brings readers from the world of human civilization back into the lawless jungle roamed by animals and beasts where the adage that “Might is right” and the principle of the survival of the fittest prevail. In the author’s mind, the international society made up of nation-states, in extension the human society, is no more civilized than the animal world. Thus, it is natural, inevitable, and thus imperative for nation-states to attack and conquer their rivals with all available means and resources to secure a zero-sum result regardless of laws, norms, and regulations about international relations overseen by UN and other international bodies.

The timing of the publication of the essay at the current juncture when the rivalry between the United States and China is intensifying seems to be the result of a strategic calculation and choice by the editorial board of Foreign Affairs. Its main purpose seems to legitimize and embolden the Trump-Biden foreign policy of containment towards China when this policy has been recently under growing criticism both at home and abroad. Though it is wrapped in offensive realism, an off shoot of the realist school of thought in International Relations theory, Mearsheimer’s theory of great power politics resonates well with Graham Allison’s Destined for War: Can America and China Escape Thucydides’ Trap and Samuel Huntington’s The Clash of Civilizations and the Making of World Order. The only difference is that Mearsheimer’s theory of great-power politics and offensive realism applied to US-China rivalry is sharper and more operationalizable among the three as it literally and nakedly advocates for the status quo superpower to use all available means, be it hard such as conventional weapons and WMD such as the nuclear weapons or soft and covert such as coercion and disinformation, to slow down or destroy the economy of the rising power such as China with little regard to basic human decency, humane values, ethics and sense of justice.

John Mearsheimer speaks at the University of Chicago Center in Beijing on Oct. 22, 2019. (Photo/University of Chicago Center in Beijing)

It is the most naked, the bloodiest, and animalistic “theory” crafted and trumpeted consistently and constantly by Professor Mearsheimer, a tenured full professor in the title of R. Wendell Harrison Distinguished Service Professor of Political Science in University of Chicago. In his theorizing and policy suasion, the author strips all values and norms of basic human civilization which regulate human behavior and does not at all take the possible disastrous consequences of this US-China war (be it cold or hot) to all the parties, the US, China and the rest of Asia and the rest of the world into consideration.

Mearsheimer’s theory feeds right into the unsatiable lust for gold and egoistic ambitions for maintaining global dominance on the part of the military-industrial complex and neoconservatives of the US against any emerging rivals such as China. Contrary to Joseph Nye’s warning in his recent Syndicate commentary against both the US and China to prevent from sleepwalking into a hot war, Mearsheimer is saying that such a war is ultimately inevitable and rivaling parties should be proactive for such a war. If this is not warmongering, what is it then?! Mearsheimer would not be afraid of a hot war or a nuclear war between the US and China probably because he would not participate in such a war in person and his relatives might not participate in it, either. Plus, he lives in the Midwest of the US and would not be hit by a nuclear warhead which most probably would hit the West Coast or the East Coast on condition that a nuclear war broke out between the US and China with his provocative theory and advice. In fact, he would be excited that his theory would be proved correct again.

I guess that the proposal of forming a new concert of powers by the President of the Council of Foreign Relations, Richard N. Haas, which was published in March 2021, must have been frowned upon by the all-powerful special interest group — the military-industrial complex of the US which has been hijacking the US democracy for long. As the CFR President who oversees its flagship publication Foreign Affairs, Mr. Haas might have been pressed to solicit and present a more militant proposal backed up by the infamous IR theory, offensive realism, to bolster the US offensive military strategy towards China.

A container ship of China’s COSCO Shipping docks at a new container terminal of the Port of Long Beach in California, the United States, Aug. 20, 2021. (Photo/Xinhua)

A recipe for disasters

Nothing is inevitable in human affairs. But Mearsheimer’s inevitablistic reasoning masks and discounts human agency in preventing war and creating peace and rhetorically naturalizes rivalry (be it in the form of cold war or hot war including nuclear war) among great powers. Called as offensive realism, it is a mere scholarly way for the author to advocate such rivalry as the law of the jungle. Nation-states are the designs of groups of educated elites. If a given design such as nation-state tends to cause rivalry or war, then the elites should and can revise the design to minimize or prevent it from happening. That is what FDR did when he spearheaded the founding of the UN 76 years ago.

After all, in today’s world, war means a disaster for all. That is why all the US presidents who forged the engagement strategy with China, from Nixon to Obama, pursued engagement as a major policy in dealing with China. It has passed the test of time as a mutually beneficial policy. However, Mearsheimer paints all these great American statemen with their groups of advisors and American businesses as “stupid” and asleep while implying he, together with Trump and his likes, is singularly awake and smart.

Inheriting, expanding, and deepening this engagement paradigm, China has been championing for a new type of great power relationship to the US which is characterized by the three principles of no rivalry, no confrontation, and mutual benefit through dialogue and collaborations for more than 11 years since its inception. That is also why the grand vision of the community with a shared future for mankind has been articulated and implemented by China for the past 10 years.

Unfortunately, Both Mearsheimer and the leading decision makers of foreign policy in Washington DC remain both deaf and blind to the Chinese proposal for building the community with a shared future for mankind. If they keep remaining a deaf ear and does not remain open to Chinese President Xi’s repeated proposal for the new type of great-power relations fundamentally different from Mearsheimer’s outdated great-power politics rooted in the American colonial, hegemonic, and imperialistic experience during the 19th century and the first half of the 20th century, they may end up paying a hefty price for trumpeting and buying in offensive realism in dealing with China and should solely bear responsibility for the likely disastrous consequences caused by this wrong turn.

People walk across a street backdropped by the U.S. Capitol building in Washington, D.C., the United States, on March 10, 2021. (Photo/Xinhua)

Offensive realism smells like a skunk, but it acts like a porcupine. It is born and functions with a porcupine’s deep-rooted sense of insecurity and a tunnel vision. It would also benefit the special interest of the military-industrial complex. If every nation-state is armed like a porcupine, this special interest group would always be able to keep fattening their wallet. Therefore, this skunk-smelling theory is poisoning the air of the IR field and attempts to dampen all hopes and efforts for a multipolar world order enshrined by the UN Charter only to benefit the few oligarchies.

The foreign policies and military strategies generated out of this porcupine type of skunk-smelling IR theory would be reckless in thinking, disastrous in consequences, and most probably suicidal for any aggressor. It is in fact a contemporary mutation of the Western powers’ adages for colonialism and imperialism such as “Might is right” and a reincarnation of the genocide plan of “Manifest Destiny” to legitimize the genocide of Native Americans and bolstering the whim of extending “the moving frontier” to Asia and the rest of the world.

The purpose of Professor Mearsheimer’s effort to sell this skunk-stinking theory to the policy circle of US-China relations is perhaps spawning or emboldening a masterplan to decimate the Chinese nation and engineer a new genocide of the Chinese race beyond the North American continent deep into South China Sea and beyond. CFR, self-styled as a non-governmental, non-profit, and public institution, has now accepted offensive realism whole-heartedly, and presented it enthusiastically to the world of foreign policy making as a cover essay of Foreign Affairs as a result of commissioning to Mearsheimer. CFR has misjudged it a new source of fragrance and as a charming offensive when in fact it is a recipe for disaster.

Look at how low both the parties are going! I urge every educated professional or any person of human decency to reject this IR theory as it is applied to the US-China relations. It smells like a skunk and acts like a porcupine. Do not mistake skunk smells as fragrance.


The article reflects the author’s opinions, and not necessarily the views of China Focus.