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Monday, May 27, 2024
The Observer

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John Mearsheimer talks war and international politics

Students and faculty packed a room in Jenkins-Nanovic Hall for an international relations lecture given by John J. Mearsheimer. The professor of political science from the University of Chicago spoke on his newest paper, titled “War and International Politics.” The lecture was part of a seminar series hosted by the Notre Dame International Security Center.

Mearsheimer began by outlining three key themes that would encompass his lecture. The were, what the essence of international politics was, why states chose to enter into conflict and why escalation of conflicts from a limited to total war were so commonplace.

On the inner workings of international politics, Mearsheimer emphasized that war, or even the threat of conflict, was the most important factor in determining how states behave on a global level.

“War is the dominating feature of international politics,” said Mearsheimer. “It really matters enormously. It matters in terms of influencing how leaders think, and influences how states interact with each other, whether talking about an actual war, or the fact that war is sitting there in the background.”

Due to the devastating destructiveness of international conflict, Mearsheimer stated that over time many nations had attempted to outlaw war entirely. However, he explained that every effort had ultimately failed due to the nature of politics within nations and the architecture of the international system.

“Politics is all about fundamental disagreements on first principles, fundamental differences about questions regarding the good life and these fundamental differences that individuals or societies or states have, are sometimes so profound, that people want to kill each other,” said Mearsheimer.

On the reasoning for states to initiate conflict, he named a variety of motives, some more morally or legally justified than others. 

He stated that there were three cases in which war was considered appropriate by the international community.

“The first case is a preemptive strike. The second case is a UN Security Council resolution and the third is that you're allowed to initiate a war with a country if it's engaging in mass murder or genocide,” he said.

Mearsheimer specified that other justifications, such as wars to prevent an adversary from growing too powerful or simply engaging in conflict to benefit a nation’s economy are considered unjust by the international community.

The Russo-Ukrainian war was brought up as an example, with Mearsheimer explaining, “the Russians clearly invaded Ukraine and the basic argument is that this war was both unjust and unbelievably illegal. And there's just no question that almost everybody thought that war was wrong.”

The last topic of conversation was on the tendency for minor conflicts to escalate into a comprehensive and destructive war.

Mearsheimer staunchly advocated for limiting total war in a world with nuclear weaponry, saying, “once that limited nuclear war starts, you do not want it to escalate. You want to do everything you can to shut it down.”

Despite the threats that these major conflicts pose, Mearsheimer offered a few explanations for why escalation is still commonplace.

The first was that once a war begins, politics becomes subsidiary to military power.

“Winning a limited victory means that you leave your adversary intact. So military leaders like decisive victories. They don't like limited victories. Furthermore, military leaders do not like civilians telling them how to conduct the war,” Mearsheimer said.

He also cited nationalism as a major contributor to fueling greater conflicts, with prime examples being Napoleonic France and Nazi Germany.

“What nationalism allows you to do is raise a mass army and it allows you to get people to think in ways where almost everybody hates the other,” he said.

Mearsheimer concluded with a brief summary of his position, announcing that “war is endemic to politics, and once war is endemic in international politics, fear rules the air, fear that your survival is threatened. Bottom line: war can never be eliminated.”