John Mearsheimer presents a rather dismal outlook on the hope many place in international institutions to promote stability in geopolitical affairs. In his article “The False Promise of International Institutions,” he systematically dismantles three institutionalist theories by noting flaws in their causal logic. Then he concludes that the institutions will not only fail to maintain peace, but reliance on them will result in more failures in the international arena in the future. Since many of us have plans to be parts of international institutions, should we accept Mearsheimer’s pessimistic outlook of a world where realism, anarchy and the security dilemma are inevitably going to result in international aggression?
It is true that there is ample room for a highly critical view of the role of international institutions and the theories behind them. It is easy to see that the theory of liberal institutionalism plainly ignores the question of relative gains, and is thus “largely obsolete.” The idea of critical theory and changing the way the international system works by changing the predominant thoughts pertaining to it seems highly idealistic and therefore difficult to achieve. However, the third theory (probably strategically located second in Mearsheimer’s article because his argument against this theory is the weakest of the three) of collective security provides a framework that could present some hope for the realistic idealists among us. In “Concerts, Collective Security, and the Future of Europe,” Charles Kupchan argues that, “erecting a collective security structure in Europe is both viable and desirable.” However, the different conclusions by the two authors are partially based on a definitional difference: Mearsheimer believes that concert and collective security are not reconcilable because concerts are based in realism while collective security is not. Kupchan promotes a collective security system with its basis in a concert of nations.
In light of Kupchan’s arguments as well as recent events in the Middle East, it appears that there is a role for international institutions. Although the U.N. was unable to prevent a violent war between Israel and Hezbollah, it was able to play the essential role in bringing an end to the conflict. In Mearsheimer’s world where the U.N. is simply a creation of idealistic Americans who rebel against the ideas of realism (and thus serves no real purpose), the conflict would likely continue today. While it is far from a perfect version of collective security, the U.N.’s ability to unite the international community against the aggressor and bring an end to the major violence opens a crack in Mearsheimer’s conclusion that these institutions “matter rather little.”