The Tragedy of Great Power Politics

The Tragedy of Great Power Politics
The Tragedy of Great Power Politics

The Tragedy of Great Power Politics, by John J. Mearsheimer (University of Chicago), New York: Norton, 2014

A great and highly interesting study on the subject of international relations, with a specific focus on the power games great nations play on the international scene that have often devastating consequences for the populations of those nations.

Not everybody will be interested in such a subject with all the dirty games great nations play with the alleged purpose to ‘survive’ while in truth, they all speak, always, pro domo, and something like honesty or true speech does simply not exist in the domain of international affairs.

I know this very well as I was trained as an international lawyer, which is one of the reasons I bought this book, which has precisely the realistic outlook that anybody interested in the subject must have—for while all those great nations use idealistic and euphemistic rhetoric, in truth they are the greatest liars and cheaters that are on the globe, and they are even proud of it.

This book is recommended for all those who, like myself, are experts in the field, but also those who are aspiring, as law students or students of international relations, to get a realistic perspective about what this particular kind of public theater is all about. To anticipate the end result, let me only say this: this is a perfect book to rob you of all the illusions and all the idealism you may still foster in the deeper recesses of your mind about international law and politics. I have given up the law profession after obtaining my doctorate for precisely that reason: there is no truth and no objectiveness at all in this body of laws called ‘international law.’ It is rather international conflict coming in an elegant costume, and wanting to exude a certain ‘nobility’ while in truth, the motives great powers have to validate themselves on the international scene are most often not only not noble, but most of the time simply outright rapacious, brutal and insensitive.


The updated edition of this classic treatise on the behavior of great powers takes a penetrating look at the question likely to dominate international relations in the twenty-first century: can China rise peacefully? In clear, eloquent prose, John Mearsheimer explains why the answer is no: a rising China will seek to dominate Asia, while the United States, determined to remain the world’s sole regional hegemon, will go to great lengths to prevent that from happening. The tragedy of great power politics is inescapable.
—Source: Backcover


Let me first inform about the structure of the book. It is clearly divided in ten chapters that are as follows:

I Introduction

II Anarchy and the Struggle for Power

III Wealth and Power

IV The Primacy of Land Power

V Strategies for Survival

VI Great Powers in Action

VII The Offshore Balancers

VIII Balancing versus Buck-Passing

IX The Causes of Great Power War

X Can China Rise Peacefully?

It jumps to the eye that the last chapter may be the ultimate goal why the book was written in the first place, for the narrative is clearly revealing an unfoldment of arguments that ultimately prepare the reader for giving the final answer to the final question, and this answer is a clear ‘No’ (to the question if China can rise peacefully).

Instead of paraphrasing the author, which is what other reviewers do—and which I find not only boring for the reader of the review, but also quite presumptuous, especially when it’s about books written by recognized and reputed experts in their field—I will proceed right away to presenting some quotations I have taken during my lecture and that I present in the context of the table of contents presented above, thus reiterating the chapter titles and putting the quotes into context.

I Introduction

This unrelenting pursuit of power means that great powers are inclined to look for opportunities to alter the distribution of world power in their favor. They will seize these opportunities if they have the necessary capability. Simply put, great powers are primed for offense. But not only does a great power seek to gain power at the expense of other states, it also tries to thwart rivals bent on gaining power at its expense. Thus, a great power will defend the balance of power when looming change favors another state, and it will try to determine the balance when the direction of change is in its favor. Why do great powers behave this way? My answer is that the structure of the international system forces states which seek only to be secure nonetheless to act aggressively toward each other. Three features of the international system combine to cause states to fear one another: 1) the absence of a central authority that sits above states and can protect them from each other, 2) the fact that states always have some offensive military capability, and 3) the fact that states can never be certain about other states’ intentions. Given this fact—which can never be wholly eliminated—states recognize that the more powerful they are relative to their rivals, the better their chances for survival. /9


If China becomes an economic powerhouse it will almost certainly translate its economic might into military might and make a run at dominating Northeast Asia. Whether China is democratic and deeply enmeshed in the global economy or autocratic and autarkic will have little effect on its behavior, because democracies care about security as much as non-democracies do, and hegemony is the best way for any state to guarantee its own survival. Of course, neither its neighbors nor the United States would stand idly by while China gained increasing increments of power. Instead, they would seek to contain China, probably by trying to form a balancing coalition. The result would be an intense security competition between China and its rivals, with the ever-present danger of great-power war hanging over them. In short, China and the United States are destined to be adversaries if China’s power grows. /4


Because Americans dislike realpolitik, public discourse about foreign policy in the United States is usually couched in the language of liberalism. Hence the pronouncements of the policy elites are heavily flavored with optimism and moralism. American academics are especially good at promoting liberal thinking in the marketplace of ideas. Behind closed doors, however, the elites who make national security policy speak mostly the language of power, not that of principle, and the United States acts in the international system according to the dictates of realist logic. In essence, a discernable gap separates public rhetoric from the actual conduct of American foreign policy. /25


It should be obvious to intelligent observers that the United States speaks one way and acts another. In fact, policymakers in other states have always remarked about this tendency in American foreign policy. As long ago as 1939, for example, Carr pointed out that states on the European continent regard the English-speaking peoples as ‘masters in the art of concealing their selfish national interests in the guise of the general good,’ adding that ‘this kind of hypocrisy is a special and characteristic particularity of the Anglo-Saxon mind.’ /26

II Anarchy and the Struggle for Power

In international politics God helps those who help themselves. This emphasis on self-help does not preclude states from forming alliances. But alliances are only temporary marriages of convenience: today’s alliance partner might be tomorrow’s enemy, and today’s enemy might be tomorrow’s alliance partner. For example, the United States fought with China and the Soviet Union against Germany and Japan in World War II, but soon thereafter flip-flopped enemies and partners and allied with West Germany and Japan against China and the Soviet Union during the Cold War. /33


Because one state’s gain in power is another state’s loss, great powers tend to have a zero-sum mentality when dealing with each other. The trick of course, is to be the winner in this competition and to dominate the other states in the system. Thus, the claim that states maximize relative power is tantamount to arguing that states are disposed to think offensively toward other states, even though their ultimate motive is simple to surive. In short, great powers have aggressive intentions. /34


My argument, which I develop at length in subsequent chapters, is that except for the unlikely event wherein one state achieves clear-cut nuclear superiority, it is virtually impossible for any state to achieve global hegemony. The principle impediment to world domination is the difficulty of projecting power across the world’s oceans on to the territory of a rival great power. The United States, for example, is the most powerful state on the planet today. But it does not dominate Europe and Northeast Asia the way it does the Western Hemisphere, and it has no intention of trying to conquer and control those distant regions, mainly because of the stopping power of water. Indeed, there is reason to think that the American military commitment to Europe might wither away over the next decade. In short, there has never been a global hegemon, and there is not likely one anytime soon. /41


V Strategies for Survival

It is time to consider how great powers go about maximizing their share of world power. The first task is to lay out the specific goals that states pursue in their competition for power. My analysis of state objectives builds on previous chapters’ discussion of power. Specifically, I argue that great powers strive for hegemony in their region of the world. Because of the difficulty of projecting power over large bodies of water, no state is likely to dominate the entire globe. Great powers also aim to be wealthy—in fact, much wealthier than their rivals, because military power has an economic foundation. Furthermore, great powers aspire to have the mightiest land forces in their region of the world, because armies and their supporting air and naval forces are the core ingredient of military power. Finally, great powers seek nuclear superiority, although that is an especially difficult goal to achieve. /138


The second task it to analyze the various strategies that states use to shift the balance of power in their favor or to prevent other states from shifting it against them. War is the main strategy states employ to acquire relative power. Blackmail is a more attractive alternative, because it relies on the threat of force, not the actual use of force, to produce results. Thus, it is relatively cost-free. Blackmail is usually difficult to achieve, however, because great powers are likely to fight before they submit to threats from other great powers. Another strategy for gaining power is bait and bleed, whereby a state tries to weaken its rivals by provoking a long and costly war between them. But this scheme is also difficult to make work. A more promising variant of the strategy is bloodletting, in which a state takes measures to ensure that any war in which an adversary is involved is protracted and deadly. /138-139


Balancing and buck-passing are the principle strategies that great powers use to prevent aggressors from upsetting the balance of power. With balancing, threatened states seriously commit themselves to containing their dangerous opponent. In other words, they are willing to shoulder the burden of deterring, or fighting if need be, the aggressor. With buck-passing, they try to get another great power to check the aggressor while they remain on the sidelines. Threatened states usually prefer buck-passing to balancing, mainly because the buck-passer avoids the costs of fighting the aggressor in the event of war. (…) The strategies of appeasement and bandwagoning are not particularly useful for dealing with aggressors. Both call for conceding power to a rival state, which is a prescription for serious trouble in an anarchic system. With bandwagoning, the threatened state abandons hope of preventing the aggressor from gaining power at its expense and instead joins forces with its dangerous foe to get at least some small portion of the spoils of war. Appeasement is a more ambitious strategy. The appeaser aims to modify the behavior of the aggressor by conceding it power, in the hope that this gesture will make the aggressor feel more secure, thus dampening or eliminating its motive for aggression. /139

Categories International Relations, Political ScienceTags ,

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