Renowned political theorists speak at Mason

John Mearsheimer discussed Chinese-American relations at Mason's Fairfax campus (photo by Vernon Miles).
John Mearsheimer discussed Chinese-American relations at Mason's Fairfax campus (photo by Vernon Miles).

Two of the world’s foremost political theorists visited George Mason University to discuss the controversial topic of Chinese-American relations.

On March 28 and 29, Francis Fukuyama and John Mearsheimer each gave a lecture on their staunchly opposed views on the future of Chinese-American relations.

For better or worse, both writers agree that the United States is reaching a turning point in its relationship with China. Fukuyama expects a mutually beneficial relationship between the United States and China, while Mearsheimer predicts that if China continues growing at its current rate, it will inevitably come into conflict with the United States.

For Fukuyama, lecturing at Mason is a homecoming. He was a Professor of Public Policy at Mason between 1996 and 2000, before moving to Stanford University. Fukuyama is best known for his controversial book “The End of History and the Last Man.” The book serves as a modern interpretation of the liberal peace theory, which states that a spread of democracy would bring an end to war.

Fukuyama credits China as being one of the oldest modern states and has almost exclusively been ruled by a central leadership, while the United States has a brief and tumultuous history that centers around the democratic ideals of the enlightenment. In a way, for Fukuyama, American foreign policy is still attempting to spread the enlightenment to the rest of the world. Fukuyama continued by saying there are lessons that the US could learn from the Chinese.

“Americans don’t want strong government, so we’ve designed institutions that put locks on our institutions,” Fukuyama said. “Unlike in a Parliament, where majority can make decisions, in the US it is easy for minorities to halt a process.”

For Fukuyama, it is important to approach Chinese-American relations without being caught up in jingoism,

“It doesn’t matter whether you’re democratic or authoritarian,” Fukuyama said. “While the US and China are very much on the opposite ends of the spectrum, the truth is they need to meet somewhere in the middle.”

While Fukuyama argued that the cultural differences between the United States and China make cooperation likely, for Mearsheimer, China is a state like any other and that makes a conflict with the United States inevitable.

Mearsheimer is the author of “The Tragedy of Great Power Politics”, which argued that the anarchic state of international politics is still very much alive. He is a professor of political science at the University of Chicago and one of the intellectual pillars of neorealism.

According to Mearsheimer, the international system is still in a state of anarchy, and the principle goal of states is survival at any cost. Mearsheimer argues that states create a policy where they attempt to use any form of power to protect themselves, sometimes through offensive means. He continued, saying that the world is too big for any state to be a global power, so they focus on controlling their own region. For the United States, this has been the Western Hemisphere. For China, it will be the Asian-Pacific Theater.

“The second goal of states is to make sure no other states dominate their region the way you dominate yours,” Mearsheimer said. “Our whole policy is to keep other countries from doing in the Western Hemisphere what we do in the rest of the world.”

This, Mearsheimer claims, is ultimately what will draw the United States and China into war. He shares a historical narrative that is similar to Fukuyama’s, but believes theorists like Fukuyama ignore the violence that led to this situation. That leads to ignorance of the violence it will take to maintain it.

Mearsheimer argues that as it gets economically more powerful, China will behave like the United States. China will go to great lengths to attempt to dominate Asia and to attempt to be the regional power. He believes China will even go so far as issuing its own version of the Monroe Doctrine, a policy issued by the United States in 1823 that warned Western Powers to stay out of the Americas.

 “If you’re sitting in Beijing and you see America sending troops and sending attack submarines into Asia, are you going to see that as defensive measures? No, you’re going to see it as offensive,” Mearsheimer said. “The United States and China are destined to engage in a security competition with a serious possibility of war if China continues to grow.”

Both Fukuyama and Mearsheimer received enthusiastic applause at Mason following their lectures, and only the years to come will determine which was right.

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