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Article Review: ‘Back to the Future: Instability in Europe After the Cold War’ by John Mearsheimer

John J. Mearsheimer, “Back to the Future: Instability in Europe After the Cold War,” International Security, Vol. 15, No. 4 (Summer 1990)

‘Back to the Future’ is an article in three main parts. The first is a review of what Mearsheimer calls “the long peace” in Europe following the conclusion of World War Two. In this part Mearsheimer also outlines the reasons why this long peace was maintained, all of them related to precepts of realism such as the balance of power, stable bipolarity and nuclear deterrence. The second part of Mearsheimer’s article considers four possible scenarios for a post-Cold War Europe. In turn, Mearsheimer outlines and assesses a Europe without nuclear weapons; a Europe with nuclear weapons states “on the flanks”; a poorly managed nuclear proliferation regime in Europe; and, finally, a well-managed nuclear proliferation regime across the continent. Mearsheimer concludes that the first two scenarios are highly unlikely and, of the latter two, the fourth is much preferred. Finally, in the third section of his article Mearsheimer assesses the counter arguments made by those primarily of a liberal-institutionalist perspective who regard the end of the Cold War optimistically. Specifically, Mearsheimer rejects three key arguments of the post-Cold War optimists and concludes, pessimistically, that, “the stability of the past 45 years is not likely to be seen again in the coming decades”.

Mearsheimer notes that there are some within the foreign policy elites of Europe and North America who would seek to make Europe a nuclear weapons-free zone. Such an outcome would necessarily demand not only a halt to further proliferation but also that the existing European nuclear powers – Britain, France and the Soviet Union – denounce and destroy their existing nuclear capacity. Mearsheimer argues that this will potentially lead to problems for the states of Europe as the “pacifying effects of nuclear weapons” – the security, caution and rough equality they impose – would be lost.

A nuclear free Europe would be more dangerous for all but particularly the post-socialist states of Eastern Europe, which would, once again, find themselves positioned between two continental powers. Of the four scenarios he offers, Mearsheimer holds the least hope for this particular eventuality.

Alexandre Mishvelidze

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