John Mearsheimer

John Mearsheimer

: Photo from Wikimedia Commons / Author of Photo: John Mearsheimer


* Longtime Political Science professor at the University of Chicago
* Developed the philosophy of “offensive realism” as a lens with which to clarify the foreign policy of a nation
* Claims that the “Israel lobby” causes America to act against its own best interests
* Describes Israel’s foreign policy as an intentional strategy to make Palestinians “hapless subjects of a Greater Israel”


John Mearsheimer was born in Brooklyn, New York on December 14, 1947, and relocated with his family to the Westchester County town of Croton-on-Hudson when he was 8 years old. He eventually enlisted in the U.S. Army when he was 17, and a year later he obtained an appointment to the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, which he attended from 1966-70. After graduating from West Point in 1970, Mearsheimer served for five years as an officer in the United States Air Force.

In 1974, while still in the Air Force, Mearsheimer earned a master’s degree in International Relations from the University of Southern California. From 1978 to 1979, he was a research fellow at the Brookings Institution in Washington, D.C.   In 1980 he received his doctorate from Cornell University, and from 1980-82 he worked as a research associate and postdoctoral fellow for Harvard University’s Center for International Affairs (CFIA).

In 1982 Mearsheimer took a teaching job at the University of Chicago (UC), where he has been a faculty member in the Political Science department ever since. He became an associate professor in 1984 and a full professor in 1987, and was appointed the R. Wendell Harrison Distinguished Service Professor in 1996 — a title he continues to hold.

Mearsheimer launched his writing career in the early 1980s with a number of articles, and with books like Conventional Deterrence (1983); Nuclear Deterrence: Ethics and Strategy (1985); and Liddell Hart and the Weight of History (1988).

In addition to his professorial and writing activities, Mearsheimer was the Whitney H. Shepardson Fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations during the 1998–99 academic year.

Offensive Realism as a Political Philosophy

In 2001 Mearsheimer began to lay out his own political philosophy, termed “offensive realism,” which Oxford University Press defines as follows:

“Offensive realism … envisions great powers as disposed toward expansion. Under conditions of anarchy, intentions do not matter because the existence of capabilities, in and of itself, creates a threatening situation between and among states. Thus a rational response for a great power to this predicament is to go on the offensive. The more power that can be accumulated, all other things being equal, the higher the level of security that results. Security, however, proves elusive because all of the great powers are thinking the same way. The result is that great power war can be expected to recur within the international system.”

Mearsheimer articulated his own view of offensive realism in his 2003 book, The Tragedy of Great Power Politics, wherein he argued that while “it is virtually impossible for any state to achieve global hegemony,” the United States was “the only regional hegemon in the world […] a status quo power” that “would go to considerable lengths to preserve the existing distribution of power” in its own favor. He explained that while nation-states, especially powerful ones, are usually motivated exclusively by a desire to attain and maintain power, “America’s world leaders pa[y] considerable lip service” to such concepts as “peace and justice,” not for the global good, but so as to uphold their own self-interest. “Given the difficulty of determining how much power is enough for today and tomorrow,” added Mearsheimer in his book, “great powers recognize that the best way to ensure their security is to achieve hegemony now, thus eliminating any possibility of a challenge by another great power. Only a misguided state would pass up an opportunity to be the hegemon in the system because it thought it already had sufficient power to survive.”

Collaboration with Stephen Walt: “The Israel Lobby”

In 2006 Mearsheimer began his professional collaboration with Stephen M. Walt, a professor of international affairs at Harvard University’s John F. Kennedy School of Government. In a March 2006 essay titled “The Israel Lobby,” which appeared in the London Review of Books, the two scholars derided America’s longtime alliance with Israel. Together they proposed a controversial theory that the “Israel lobby” in America — which they defined as “a loose coalition of individuals and organizations who actively work to steer U.S. foreign policy in a pro-Israel direction” — had often caused the U.S. to act against its own self-interest. As Mearsheimer would later express it in 2010, “Israel is a strategic liability for the United States, not the strategic asset that the Israel lobby has long claimed it was.”

Mearsheimer and Walt also argued in their 2006 piece that Israel was the recipient of an undeserved amount of financial support from the United States. From the 1990s onward, said the authors, American backing of the Jewish state had been rationalized “by the claim that both states [the U.S. and Israel] are threatened by terrorist groups originating in the Arab and Muslim world, and by ‘rogue states’ that back these groups and seek weapons of mass destruction.” Mearsheimer and Walt disputed this line of reasoning, asserting that “Palestinian terrorism is not random violence directed against Israel or ‘the West’; it is largely a response to Israel’s prolonged campaign to colonise the West Bank and Gaza Strip.”

In the same essay, Mearsheimer and Walt suggested that, “[v]iewed objectively, [Israel’s] past and present conduct offers no moral basis for privileging it over the Palestinians.” The authors also argued that Israel was not the democratic nation that many in America claimed it to be:

“Some aspects of Israeli democracy are at odds with core American values. Unlike the US, where people are supposed to enjoy equal rights irrespective of race, religion or ethnicity, Israel was explicitly founded as a Jewish state and citizenship is based on the principle of blood kinship. Given this, it is not surprising that its 1.3 million Arabs are treated as second-class citizens, or that a recent Israeli government commission found that Israel behaves in a ‘neglectful and discriminatory’ manner towards them. Its democratic status is also undermined by its refusal to grant the Palestinians a viable state of their own or full political rights.”

Listing an array of alleged Israeli human-rights violations against Palestinians, Mearsheimer and Walt stated that the “tragic history of the Jewish people does not obligate the US to help Israel today no matter what it does.” And although Palestinian terrorism is “wrong,” they explained, it “isn’t surprising,” given Israel’s abuses. “The Palestinians believe they have no other way to force Israeli concessions,” the co-authors wrote.

Citing Israel’s support among prominent American Christians and Republican leaders, Mearsheimer and Walt in their 2006 essay charged that the Jewish state exerted considerable “influence in Congress”:

“The Lobby pursues two broad strategies. First, it wields its significant influence in Washington, pressuring both Congress and the executive branch. Whatever an individual lawmaker or policymaker’s own views may be, the Lobby tries to make supporting Israel the ‘smart’ choice. Second, it strives to ensure that public discourse portrays Israel in a positive light, by repeating myths about its founding and by promoting its point of view in policy debates. The goal is to prevent critical comments from getting a fair hearing in the political arena. Controlling the debate is essential to guaranteeing US support, because a candid discussion of US-Israeli relations might lead Americans to favour a different policy.”

Further, Mearsheimer and Walt emphasized that the Israel Lobby not only maintained influence within the federal government, but also with the “mainstream media”:

“News reports are more even-handed, in part because reporters strive to be objective, but also because it is difficult to cover events in the Occupied Territories without acknowledging Israel’s actions on the ground. To discourage unfavourable reporting, the Lobby organises letter-writing campaigns, demonstrations and boycotts of news outlets whose content it considers anti-Israel. One CNN executive has said that he sometimes gets 6000 email messages in a single day complaining about a story. In May 2003, the pro-Israel Committee for Accurate Middle East Reporting in America (CAMERA) organised demonstrations outside National Public Radio stations in 33 cities; it also tried to persuade contributors to withhold support from NPR until its Middle East coverage becomes more sympathetic to Israel. Boston’s NPR station, WBUR, reportedly lost more than $1 million in contributions as a result of these efforts. Further pressure on NPR has come from Israel’s friends in Congress, who have asked for an internal audit of its Middle East coverage as well as more oversight.”

Regarding the Israel Lobby’s additional alleged control over American think tanks and academia, Mearsheimer and Walt wrote that “[p]erhaps the most disturbing aspect of all this is the efforts Jewish groups have made to push Congress into establishing mechanisms to monitor what professors say.” “If they manage to get this passed,” they argued, “universities judged to have an anti-Israel bias would be denied federal funding.” Mearsheimer and Walt also claimed that the Israel Lobby frequently weaponized charges of antisemitism against those who openly held anti-Israel views:

“Anyone who criticises Israel’s actions or argues that pro-Israel groups have significant influence over US Middle Eastern policy – an influence AIPAC [American Israel Public Affairs Committee] celebrates – stands a good chance of being labelled an anti-semite. Indeed, anyone who merely claims that there is an Israel Lobby runs the risk of being charged with anti-semitism, even though the Israeli media refer to America’s ‘Jewish Lobby’. In other words, the Lobby first boasts of its influence and then attacks anyone who calls attention to it. It’s a very effective tactic: anti-semitism is something no one wants to be accused of.”

In August 2007, Mearsheimer and Walt revisited the themes of their March 2006 essay, in a book titled The Israel Lobby and U.S. Foreign Policy.

Two months later, Mearsheimer became a subject of controversy when he was invited to speak at Columbia University‘s Heyman Center for the Humanities, on a panel funded with a $100,000 grant from the Ford Foundation. Protesting the Foundation’s support for a speaker so hostile to Israel, a number of lawmakers and organizations claimed that Ford was becoming increasingly engaged in a the promotion of anti-Israel radicalism.

In September 2007, Mearsheimer and Walt thanked Zbigniew Brezinski, a foreign-policy advisor for then-presidential candidate Barack Obama, for his “incisive defense” of their book. In response to Brezinski’s praise for The Israel Lobby and U.S. Foreign Policy, Harvard Law School professor Alan Dershowitz said: “It is a tremendous mistake for Barack Obama to select as a foreign-policy adviser the one person in public life who has chosen to support a bigoted book.” Dershowitz had previously suggested that Mearsheimer and Walt “copied” the book’s contents from neo-Nazi propaganda.

Condemning Israeli Actions

Mearsheimer described Israel’s 2005 decision to withdraw from Gaza as an underhanded scheme designed to oppress the Palestinian people. “Even before Hamas came to power,” he wrote in February 2009, “the Israelis intended to create an open-air prison for the Palestinians in Gaza and inflict great pain on them until they complied with Israel’s wishes.”

In a January 2009 piece, Mearsheimer also condemned Israel’s “disastrous 2006 Lebanon war” and its 2009 anti-terror campaign in Gaza as an “Iron Wall strategy to get the Palestinians in Gaza to accept their fate as hapless subjects of a Greater Israel.”

In March 2010, Mearsheimer claimed that Israel’s “expansionist policies in the Occupied Territories” had finally created a palpable split between Israeli and American interests — and were “doing serious damage to U.S. interests in the region” — as evidenced when Hillary Clinton asked Israel to reverse its plan to construct new settlements near Jerusalem. Mearsheimer also accused Israel’s Netanyahu-led government of being “filled with hard-line opponents of a two-state solution.” According to the professor: “[T]his is an awful situation for the lobby to find itself in, because it raises legitimate questions about whether it has the best interests of the United States at heart or whether it cares more about Israel’s interests.” Israel was “acting in ways that at best complicate U.S. diplomacy, and at worst could get Americans killed,” Mearsheimer concluded.

Why Leaders Lie

In 2011, Mearsheimer published the book, Why Leaders Lie: The Truth About Lying in International Politics.

Endorsing a Book by Gilad Atzmon, a Self-Described “Self-Hating Jew”

Later that year, Mearsheimer endorsed the book, The Wandering Who?: A Study of Jewish Identity Politics, by Gilad Atzmon. A self-described “self-hating Jew,” Atzmon wrote that “American Jews do try to control the world,” and that “Zionists, the most radical, racist and nationalistic Jews around, have already managed to turn America into an Israeli mission force.” Atzmon has also argued that Adolf Hitler’s persecution of Jews was a response to American and Jewish world leaders’ “declaration of war on Germany” that predated his rise to power. Mearsheimer praised The Wandering Who? as follows:

“Gilad Atzmon has written a fascinating and provocative book on Jewish identity in the modern world. He shows how assimilation and liberalism are making it incredibly difficult for Jews in the Diaspora to maintain a powerful sense of their ‘Jewishness.’ Panicked Jewish leaders, he argues, have turned to Zionism (blind loyalty to Israel) and scaremongering (the threat of another Holocaust) to keep the tribe united and distinct from the surrounding goyim. As Atzmon’s own case demonstrates, this strategy is not working and is causing many Jews great anguish. The Wandering Who? Should be widely read by Jews and non-Jews alike.”

Supporting the Iran Nuclear Deal

In 2015, Mearsheimer was a signatory of a letter sent to Members of Congress in an effort to persuade them to support the Iran Nuclear Deal that the Obama administration was pursuing. Organized by the National Iranian American Council, the letter was also signed by such notables as Noam Chomsky, Stephen Walt, and Peter Beinart.

Asserting That Russia “Is Not a Serious Threat to American Interests”

In a November 2016 article, Mearsheimer wrote that the incoming presidential administration of Donald Trump should “abandon liberal hegemony and adopt a realist foreign policy.” Moreover, Mearsheimer claimed that “Trump should also make a concerted effort to improve relations with Russia, which is not a serious threat to American interests.” Asserting that “the two countries should be allies,” he argued that Russia would “likely … join in this effort” to help the U.S. combat a rising China.

The Great Delusion: Liberal Dreams and International Realities

In 2018, Mearsheimer published The Great Delusion: Liberal Dreams and International Realities. According to The National Interest, Mearsheimer’s book “argues that the disappearance of the constraints imposed by Cold War bipolarity vouchsafed the United States the luxury of trying to reshape the world to conform to America’s domestic political creed of liberalism.” Mearsheimer claimed in the book that global “liberal hegemony will not achieve its goals, and its failure will inevitably come with huge costs.”

Supporting Bernie Sanders for President

In 2019 Mearsheimer stated that he hoped to see Senator Bernie Sanders secure the Democratic presidential nomination in 2020 — because Sanders would be the candidate best equipped to address “the greatest problem the United States faces today … economic inequality.”

Examining the History of U.S.-China Relations from the Perspective of Offensive Realism

In October 2021, Mearsheimer wrote an article in Foreign Affairs magazine titled “The Inevitable Rivalry: America, China, and the Tragedy of Great-Power Politics.” In this piece, he examined the history of U.S. relations with China from the perspective of offensive realism. Some key excerpts:

“Three decades ago, the Cold War ended, and the United States had won. It was now the sole great power on the planet. Scanning the horizon for threats, U.S. policymakers seemed to have little cause for concern—and especially not about China, a weak and impoverished country that had been aligned with the United States against the Soviet Union for over a decade. But there were some ominous signs: China had nearly five times as many people as the United States, and its leaders had embraced economic reform. Population size and wealth are the main building blocks of military power, so there was a serious possibility that China might become dramatically stronger in the decades to come. Since a mightier China would surely challenge the U.S. position in Asia and possibly beyond, the logical choice for the United States was clear: slow China’s rise.

“Instead, it encouraged it. Beguiled by misguided theories about liberalism’s inevitable triumph and the obsolescence of great-power conflict, both Democratic and Republican administrations pursued a policy of engagement, which sought to help China grow richer. Washington promoted investment in China and welcomed the country into the global trading system, thinking it would become a peace-loving democracy and a responsible stakeholder in a U.S.-led international order.

“Of course, this fantasy never materialized. Far from embracing liberal values at home and the status quo abroad, China grew more repressive and ambitious as it rose. Instead of fostering harmony between Beijing and Washington, engagement failed to forestall a rivalry and hastened the end of the so-called unipolar moment. Today, China and the United States are locked in what can only be called a new cold war—an intense security competition that touches on every dimension of their relationship. […]

“None of this should be surprising. China is acting exactly as realism would predict. Who can blame Chinese leaders for seeking to dominate Asia and become the most powerful state on the planet? Certainly not the United States, which pursued a similar agenda, rising to become a hegemon in its own region and eventually the most secure and influential country in the world. And today, the United States is also acting just as realist logic would predict. Long opposed to the emergence of other regional hegemons, it sees China’s ambitions as a direct threat and is determined to check the country’s continued rise. The inescapable outcome is competition and conflict. Such is the tragedy of great-power politics.

“What was avoidable, however, was the speed and extent of China’s extraordinary rise. Had U.S. policymakers during the unipolar moment thought in terms of balance-of-power politics, they would have tried to slow Chinese growth and maximize the power gap between Beijing and Washington. But once China grew wealthy, a U.S.-Chinese cold war was inevitable. Engagement may have been the worst strategic blunder any country has made in recent history: there is no comparable example of a great power actively fostering the rise of a peer competitor. And it is now too late to do much about it. […]

“Most Americans do not recognize that Beijing and Washington are following the same playbook, because they believe the United States is a noble democracy that acts differently from authoritarian and ruthless countries such as China. But that is not how international politics works. All great powers, be they democracies or not, have little choice but to compete for power in what is at root a zero-sum game. […]

Had U.S. policymakers accepted the logic of realism, there was a straightforward set of policies they could have pursued to slow economic growth in China and maintain the wealth gap between it and the United States. […] Given its market reforms and latent power potential, China would still have risen despite these policies. But it would have become a great power at a much later date. And when it did, it would still have been significantly weaker than the United States and therefore not in a position to seek regional hegemony. […]

“Given the liberal triumphalism that pervaded the Washington establishment in the 1990s, there was little chance that realist thinking would inform U.S. foreign policy. Instead, U.S. policymakers assumed that global peace and prosperity would be maximized by spreading democracy, promoting an open international economy, and strengthening international institutions. Applied to China, this logic prescribed a policy of engagement, whereby the United States would integrate the country into the global economy in the hopes that it would become more prosperous. Eventually, it was thought, China would even mature into a rights-respecting democracy and a responsible global actor. Unlike realism, which feared Chinese growth, engagement welcomed it.

“For such a risky policy, the breadth and depth of support for engagement was remarkable, spanning four administrations. U.S. President George H. W. Bush was committed to engaging with China even before the Cold War ended. […]

Bill Clinton criticized Bush for ‘coddling’ China during the 1992 presidential campaign and tried playing tough with Beijing after moving into the White House. But he soon reversed course, declaring in 1994 that the United States should ‘intensify and broaden its engagement’ with China, which would help it ‘evolve as a responsible power, ever growing not only economically, but growing in political maturity so that human rights can be observed.’ Clinton led the way in convincing Congress to grant China permanent most-favored-nation status, which laid the groundwork for its entry into the WTO. […]

“George W. Bush also embraced efforts to bring China into the global economic fold, promising as a presidential candidate that ‘trade with China will promote freedom.’ In his first year in office, he signed the proclamation granting China permanent most-favored-nation status and took the final steps to guide the country into the WTO.

“The Obama administration was more of the same. ‘Since I’ve been president, my goal has been to consistently engage with China in a way that is constructive, to manage our differences and to maximize opportunities for cooperation,’ Barack Obama said in 2015. ‘And I’ve repeatedly said that I believe it is in the interests of the United States to see China grow.’ […] ‘A thriving China is good for America,’ [Secretary of State Hillary Clinton] wrote. […]

“As the years went on, it became clear that engagement was a failure. China’s economy experienced unprecedented economic growth, but the country did not turn into a liberal democracy or a responsible stakeholder. To the contrary, Chinese leaders view liberal values as a threat to their country’s stability, and as rulers of rising powers normally do, they are pursuing an increasingly aggressive foreign policy. There is no way around it: engagement was a colossal strategic mistake. As Kurt Campbell and Ely Ratner—two former Obama administration officials who recognized that engagement had failed and now serve in the Biden administration—wrote … in 2018, ‘Washington now faces its most dynamic and formidable competitor in modern history.'”

Views on the Hamas Terror Attacks of 2023 & Israel’s Response

At daybreak on October 7, 2023 — which was the major Jewish holiday of Simchat Torah — the Islamic terror group Hamas carried out a massive, multi-front, surprise attack against Israel, firing thousands of rockets from Gaza into the Jewish state, while dozens of Hamas fighters infiltrated the Israeli border in a number of locations by air, land and sea. The attack had been planned in conjunction with officers from Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, along with agents of three other Iran-sponsored terrorist groups. “In an assault of startling breadth,” reported CBS News, “Hamas gunmen rolled into as many as 22 locations outside the Gaza Strip, including towns and other communities as far as 15 miles from the Gaza border. In some places they gunned down civilians and soldiers as Israel’s military scrambled to muster a response.” By October 8, at least 600 Israelis had been killed and 1,800 wounded, making it the bloodiest day Jews had experienced since the Holocaust. Moreover, Hamas took more than 240 Israelis hostage, including dozens who were American citizens, and moved them to the Gaza Strip. The terrorists also paraded Israelis’ mutilated bodies in Gaza, to cheering crowds of Palestinians. By October 19, the official casualty toll in Israel had reached more than 1,400 dead (including at least 32 Americans) and 4,500 injured.

On December 11, 2023, Mearsheimer, in an analysis of Israel’s military response to the carnage of October 7, posted a piece titled “Death and Destruction in Gaza.” Some key excerpts:

“What Israel is doing in Gaza to the Palestinian civilian population – with the support of the Biden administration – is a crime against humanity that serves no meaningful military purpose…. Let me elaborate….

“Israel is purposely massacring huge number of civilians, roughly 70 percent of whom are children and women…. [I]t is clear from the results of the bombing campaign that Israel is indiscriminately killing civilians…. Thus, it is hardly surprising that the UN Secretary General, Antonio Guterres, said that ‘We are witnessing a killing of civilians that is unparalleled and unprecedented in any conflict since’ his appointment in January 2017….

“Israel is purposely starving the desperate Palestinian population by greatly limiting the amount of food, fuel, cooking gas, medicine, and water that can be brought into Gaza. Moreover, medical care is extremely hard to come by for a population that now includes approximately 50,000 wounded civilians. Not only has Israel greatly limited the supply of fuel into Gaza, which hospitals need to function, but it has targeted hospitals, ambulances, and first aid stations….

“Israel is not just killing, wounding, and starving huge numbers of Palestinians, it is also systematically destroying their homes as well as critical infrastructure – to include mosques, schools, heritage sites, libraries, key government buildings, and hospitals. As of 1 December 2023, the IDF had damaged or destroyed almost 100,000 buildings, including entire neighborhoods that have been reduced to rubble. Consequently, a stunning 90 percent of Gaza’s 2.3 million Palestinians have been displaced from their homes. Moreover, Israel is making a concerted effort to destroy Gaza’s cultural heritage; as NPR reports, ‘more than 100 Gaza heritage sites have been damaged or destroyed by Israeli attacks.’ […]

“[A]lthough the Israelis are doing the slaughtering, they could not do it without the Biden administration’s support. Not only was the United States the only country to vote against a recent UN Security Council resolution demanding an immediate ceasefire in Gaza, but it has also been providing Israel with the weaponry necessary to wage this massacre….

“[W]hile most of the focus is now on Gaza, it is important not to lose sight of what is simultaneously going on in the West Bank. Israeli settlers, working closely with the IDF, continue to kill innocent Palestinians and steal their land….

“As I watch this catastrophe for the Palestinians unfold, I am left with one simple question for Israel’s leaders, their American defenders, and the Biden administration: have you no decency?”

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