The Tragedy of Great Power Politics
By John J. Mearsheimer


Students of international relations are no doubt familiar with the various competing views of contemporary world politics. In the West, the two major camps are the liberals and the realists. Liberals tend to view world politics in terms of ideas (competing ideologies)and are generally dedicated to the proposition of spreading to the world the ideas of the "Wilsonian Triad": democracy, peace, and free market capitalism. Realists, on the other hand, tend to view the world in terms of security concerns and believe that states will conduct themselves on the world stage accordingly, temporarily placing ideological considerations on the backburner. These are incomplete oversimplifications of the concepts, but they're important for understanding the background of the Tragedy of Great Power Politics. John Mearsheimer -- the author -- falls into the realist camp, but he has conceived a new form of realism that he refers to as "offensive realism." It melds the concepts of human nature realism (HNR) and defensive realism (DR) together. HNR essentially believes that states compete for power because all states are naturally greedy. HNR also says that states will want to acquire as much relative power (how much power a state has compared to the power of another state; this concept will appear again) as is humanly possible with the ultimate goal of global hegemony. Conversely, DR says that states compete for power based on the structure of inter-state system at any given time (i.e. the distribution of relative power among states). Again in opposition to HNR, DR says that states only want that power that is necessary to maintain the balance of power in their favor. Offensive realism claims that states compete for power based on the structure of the inter-state system but that they try to maximize their power in furtherance of the goal of hegemony.


Mearsheimer's theory of offensive realism is based on five main assumptions:

  1. The structure of the inter-state system is essentially anarchic: international law is in its infancy and there is no real entity that governs the actions of the world's states. There's the United Nations, sure, but member nations don't necessarily have to do what they're told. For example, the US was not given authorization to proceed with its invasion of Iraq in 2003, but it did it anyway. Has it been punished by the UN? No, and it really can't be.
  2. Great powers are militarily strong actors: Mearsheimer tends to define a "great power" in terms of wealth, population, military strength, and size. Great powers are states that are able to put up a serious (and conventional) fight against rival powers, possibly to the extent of defeating or destroying them.
  3. States can never know the true intentions of other states: a fairly simple concept to understand...heads of state aren't psychic, after all, so it's not absolutely possible to always know what a potential aggressor state is thinking. This creates anxieties about security and tends to lead to security competitions, as in the nuclear build-up between the USA and USSR during the Cold War.
  4. Survival is a state's primary motive: another easy one. Few states are suicidal and most are not willing to consensually diminish their own power.
  5. Great powers are rational actors: states always act with regard to the structure of the inter-state system and are acutely aware of their place in it. They do not act (militarily or otherwise) if the costs outweigh the benefits or threaten their survival.

Important Concepts

In the book, Mearsheimer advances several interesting notions aside from offensive realism. Chief among them is a condition he terms "the stopping power of water." The stopping power of water is the main reason that states do not actively pursue hegemony in regions from which they are separated by bodies of water. Mearsheimer claims that it is difficult for states to project power across bodies of water because of the problems inherent to such a task. This, he explains, is why Great Britain has not sought to establish regional hegemony on continental Europe, and why planned invasions of the UK (in modern times) have either been totally unsuccessful or were never undertaken effectively. To Mearsheimer's estimation, this also explains why the US has never deigned to militarily conquer Europe and make it a colony.

The next idea is that, when given the opportunity, states will voluntarily take a reduction of relative power if it means that a competing state will lose even more of its share of relative power. Mearsheimer sees absolute power as being more or less irrelevant to the discussion; after all, who cares if the size of the economy doubles domestically if it does the same thing in the enemy's territory? If, however, the size of your economy diminishes by 10% and the enemy's by 25%, there should be much rejoicing. This deals with the comparative position of states within the structure of the inter-state system.

Speaking of the structure of the inter-state system, Mearsheimer describes three conditions in which the system can exist. First, there's bipolarity: a condition in which there are two states of equal or near equal power balanced against one another. Bipolarity is a relatively peaceful condition between great powers because both major powers know that any war between the two would be difficult (if not impossible) to win. The best example of this is the aforementioned Cold War, but Mearsheimer draws on examples from antiquity to help support this claim (Rome/Carthage and Sparta/Athens). Second, there's balanced multipolarity: this is a condition in which several states all have a fairly equivalent share of relative power. In this condition, states are more prone to buck-passing during times of potential conflict. Balanced multipolarity is not by logical necessity a peaceful state of being, but it's not bad. Mearsheimer's prime example of balanced multipolarity is the 1860s-1870s, a time in which Germany was on the rise, but not nearly powerful enough to overrun the entire continent of Europe. Finally, there's unbalanced multipolarity, which Mearsheimer perceives as being the most violent and most prone to war. Unbalanced multipolarity occurs when there is one state in the system that is powerful enough to make a bid for hegemony and no other single state could stop it on its own. Prominent examples of this condition include the Napoleonic Era and the condition of the world in the years leading up to both World Wars.

Another one of Mearsheimer's concepts is that regime/ideology/form of government/domestic sentiment is a negligible concern in describing the actions of states. All states, he claims, are power maximizers and as such generally adhere to his concepts of offensive realism. "The world," he writes, "remains a realist world."


I'll begin by saying that this book was required reading for my International Politics class. I have a feeling that The Tragedy of Great Power Politics will definitely become a popular text for classes such as mine and among political aficianados in general. That said, it is not without its flaws. I'll discuss some of these problems here. I'll ignore things like typos and focus on facts and ideas that Mearsheimer neglects, dismisses, or misconstrues.

First and foremost is Mearsheimer's ideas regarding the influence (or lack thereof) that a state's ideology plays in governing its actions internationally. I find it doubtful that the main reason the United States has thus far elected not to militarily conquer Europe is because it doesn't think it could handle the stopping power of water. I mean, hell, the US had a prime opportunity at the end of WWII to turn the whole place into a parking lot. After all, its troops were already on the continent, and every other nation was decimated by either the Wehrmacht or the Red Army. Both of those fighting forces took extremely heavy losses. France wasn't in any sort of a condition to put up a fight. Surely the opportunity would have been ripe for the US to just take it all, right? Mearsheimer acknowledges this, but says that the United States adhered to offensive realism by not conquering the entirety of Europe at that point. After all, that country had more relative power than any other in the world, so why fix it if it ain't broke? Because that goes against his assertion that states want as much power as they can possibly get, and for the United States to stop right then and there for reasons other than power hurts his hypothesis. He seems to think that indicators of potential power (wealth, population size, physical size) necessarily beget hostile intentions. Wars do not just "break out." Having sex with some loser you met at Hardees behind your boyfriend's back doesn't just "happen." (No, I'm not bitter.) In the same way, states do not just materialize hegemonic ambitions when they believe they have the means to act upon them. Compare the attitudes of France and Germany in the early 1900s. Both were powerful nations in terms of indicators of latent power. And yet, which of the two nations clamored for war in 1914? Germany. Which of the two nations had been agitating against its neighbors for nearly 30 years at that point? Germany. Which of the two nations developed an air of extreme militarism not seen in the other? Germany. I find it hard to believe that the prevalent German mentality regarding its place in the world (Weltmacht oder Niedergang!) was not influenced by its citizens and leaders, but rather by its economy and its size.

There are also little issues that are frustrating. In one section, he casually remarks that the US had no strategic interests in Southeast Asia during the Cold War. Hello? What do you call Vietnam? How could he have ignored this? Later on, in the chapter discussing the different manners in which states seek to maximize power, he describes bandwagoning by saying that although Rumania and Bulgaria started out as German allies at the beginning of World War II, they joined the Soviets when they realized the war was going badly for their "friends." This notion is absurd. Bulgaria and Rumania had had pro-Axis governments installed by Germany, and when the Russians came rolling in, they killed those people and put Soviet-controlled communists in charge. I would hardly call this jumping on the bandwagon; it seems more like a case of the bandwagon jumping on them.

And let's discuss the stopping power of water, shall we? Although it might seem like a fairly reasonable assertion, how exactly does Mearsheimer explain the monolithic British Empire? It's an easy one, kids: he doesn't. And if the stopping power of water deters the US and the UK from colonizing and ruling continental Europe, why didn't it stop Imperial Japan from conquering large portions of the Asian mainland and the South Pacific? Oh, he explains, Europe and Asia are different kinds of targets. Well, yeah, but why didn't you say that initially? And what is it that makes them so different? If it's culture or ideology, it's largely irrelevant to offensive realism.

The main problem is with the application of the theory itself. Offensive realism only has history as its main support, meaning that the whole thing is backward looking. Mearsheimer has treated the whole thing inductively; he started from the conclusion that all states are power-maximizers and then he decided to try and find evidence to support that. Anything that seems to contradict or hurt his theory, he reinterprets in such a way that every single event involving a great power ever adheres to the precepts of offensive realism. He has made his theory invincible. Any evidence that could serve to refute the idea he explains away with ad hoc reasoning (as in the instance of Japan's seeming imperviousness to the stopping power of water). It's a totally unscientific view of political science.

Although I could go on and on, I'll make one more point. At the end of the book, he gives his predictions for the state of the world. He predicts that the United States will eventually withdraw its troops from Europe and Asia and that both parts of the world will be back to their old 1910-era tricks. He thinks Germany will make another bid for regional hegemony with Russia as its main enemy, and the Triple Entente will thusly be reestablished. Considering factors like the Euro and the fact that basically all the nations of continental Europe have now embraced a form of soft socialism, I find this idea absurd. On the other hand, he predicts that China will begin to make racket over Taiwan, thus prompting the Japanese to convert their latent power into military might as a reaction to potential Chinese hostility in the Sea of Japan. This makes more sense than the other claim, especially if the United States was no longer in the area to deter China or to protect/bolster Taiwan and Japan.


In short, this is not what I'd call a fantastic book. It certainly has a lot of use as an instructional tool and it's pretty well-written. Mearsheimer fanatically notes every claim, so he's nothing if not thorough. I think if the theory of offensive realism made some more allowances for ideology and if it used some less contentious proofs, it would be more tenable. As it stands now, however, it seeks to analyze a vast and diverse political world with only one system, and that's always a recipe for disaster. Somewhat recommended for people interested in international politics, but not for general readers who don't know that there are (or who are not versed in) other ways of looking at things and other systems of describing the structure of the world.

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