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HONOLULU — One of the advantages of living in Hawaii is that you get to spend weekends at the beach. I spend mine with the Grizzled Old Vet, a longtime observer of East Asia who has spent a lifetime straddling academia and the minefields that litter the Beltway. Between waves, the Gov (as I will call him) and I speculate about the world beyond the surf.

Recently, we have spent a lot of time talking about “realism.” Our focus makes sense, given the Bush administration’s seeming fixation on military strength as the most important determinant of national power, the growing number of military crises that dot the planet, and a new book, “The Tragedy of Great Power Politics,” by John Mearsheimer, a University of Chicago professor of political science and a leading international-relations theorist.

“Realism” has a specific meaning in the foreign-policy world. As the name suggests, it is a bare-bones conception of international relations. There are three principle assumptions:

* The world is anarchic;

* States are the only real actors on the global stage; and

* Security and survival are all contingent on self-help.

In other words, a state has to maximize its own power to protect itself. All other things — values, international organizations, international law — are pretty much superfluous. They exist and everyone pays lip service to them, but no government can rely on them for protection. When Soviet leader Josef Stalin asked “how many divisions does the pope have?” in response to a suggestion that the Vatican might be consulted on Europe’s postwar future, he was speaking for every realist.

Mearsheimer argues for a particular brand of realism that he calls “offensive realism.” He argues that states will keep trying to acquire power to protect themselves; the only time a government will stop is when it becomes a global hegemon, but that has never happened in world history, although the U.S. comes close. Regional hegemons exist; the U.S. is one. Regional hegemons will try to block other countries from achieving that status elsewhere since a rising power will use that power to challenge other regional hegemons. Why? Because they want to maximize security and can only rely on themselves; remember axiom three.

Mearsheimer’s theory has special significance for Asia, since it posits that the United States will have to block China’s rise. In fact, he argues that rather than “engage” China economically, the U.S. should try to block Beijing’s rapid economic growth because the two countries are destined to be adversaries as China’s power grows.

Realism has an intuitive appeal. It seems to reflect the way the world works. Military power is the ultimate determinant of national strength; governments that wait for the international cavalry put their survival at risk. And, most disturbingly, I hear echoes of Mearsheimer’s thinking in both Beijing and Washington.

The Gov snorted when I asked him about Mearsheimer’s work. Realism is all about the military balance of power, he said, and “balance of power thinking is lazy; it takes the guess work out of our work. Realism claims to explain how the world is, but it leaves out people and history.”

A couple of big breakers rolled in, we rode them to the beach and when we got back into the surf, he continued. The Gov was just getting warmed up.

“Nations don’t do things,” he explained, “people do things. People learn, and they change their behavior. We develop new paradigms.”

He turned to me as we bobbed on the waves. The sun formed a halo around his head; it might have been a trick of the light. “Maybe it is just the liberal enlightenment rationalist in me, but I see progress. We develop new paradigms.”

Another big wave broke and I rode it in, cutting left and right through the surf. I paddled back out feeling a bit cocky, so I challenged him.

“OK, paradigms change; shift happens. But where is the alternative to self-help? International law? I don’t think so. Ask the Rwandans. Ask the Bosnians.”

He snorted again, although this time it might have been a mouthful of sea water. “People change the way they think. In the real world there is learning and working in the experience of the concrete world. The collapse of the existing intellectual structure means we have to challenge the basis of the structure; that is what Japan and Germany have learned.”

“Look at Europe. A lifetime ago, war was a fact of life; now it’s incomprehensible.”

We stopped for a minute to watch a para-sailer do some tricks. He bounced off the tops of waves and spun in the air. I pondered the metaphor. Then I turned to China.

“People — and nations — change, but that requires a history of relations, a larger institutional setting, and an international framework that allows for the reconciliation of differences. None of that exists in Asia, and given the stakes, shouldn’t we err on the side of caution when dealing with Beijing?”

There may have been pity in the Gov’s eyes as he pondered my question, but it quickly passed. “China is a revisionist power, but people learn and we don’t know what the Chinese will learn. The conventional wisdom — like Mearsheimer’s argument — is that Beijing will learn and throw its weight around. But will learning occur? So far, we have seen a change in China’s response to proliferation and multilateralism.”

He was right, of course. Beijing has become more supportive of multilateral initiatives like the ASEAN Plus Three project and the Shanghai Cooperation Organization; it joined the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty and has promised to abide by the terms of the Missile Technology Control Regime. Rather than balance against the U.S. in Asia, as the realism would have predicted, Beijing has joined the U.S. in important initiatives, especially fighting terrorism.

There seems to be a convergence in thinking in Beijing and Washington, and that, says the Gov, is the key. “The question is will we have more or less shared assumptions with China.”

Maybe I had been in the sun too long, but it began to seem like values mattered after all. The Gov nodded sagely. “It all comes down to change. Ideas and values are part of the timber we have to shape.”

He continued more softly. “There is more than pure power. There is the power of ideas, that’s what we mean by ‘soft power.’ ” For the uninitiated, soft power is the influence that countries have by virtue of their values, their image and their cultural attraction; Hollywood is an example of U.S. soft power; the popularity of Japanese animation is an example of that country’s soft power. The trouble with the concept is that it is awfully difficult to pin down or quantify.

The Gov had just returned from a visit to China and he explained that a number of the people he met had been very explicit about their warm feelings for the U.S. and the influence it had on their thinking.

“Countries accept the U.S. as a benign hegemon because they acknowledge there is good in what the U.S. does. We have allies, not just because of our strength, but because of our ideas and our ideals.”

As he spoke, the tide shifted. The clouds came in. We called it a day.

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