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Great Power Politics: Retrospect and Prospect

ISSUE:  Winter 2003
The Tragedy of Great Power Politics. By John J. Mearsheimer. W.W. Norton. $27.95.

The least turbulent distribution of international power, John J. Mearsheimer reminds us, is the bi-polar standoff of two superpowers, such as that which ended when the Soviet Union dissolved as a political entity and, by this, filled the world with hope. But the “end of history” that ensued, the anticipated Pax Americana, the advance of market capitalism, a drift worldwide toward democratic governance—all these encouraging trends have not yielded the pacific condition expected. On the contrary. Since then, Europe has experienced three wars; there has been genocide in Africa; the Israeli-Palestinian conflict worsened beyond all expectations; Islamic militancy has become virulent in the Middle East and Asia, a nuclear exchange is at least possible between India and Pakistan. Also, heretofore unimaginable terrorist atrocities have occurred in the United States, one of which provoked the administration in Washington to destroy the Taliban regime in Afghanistan, and lay plans for other crusades. With the new demon of International Terrorism on the horizon to replace Ronald Reagan’s “evil empire,” Americans are asked to expect war without end. One longs for the reassuring silence of shots not fired, the chilly comfort of Mutual Assured Destruction.

And yet, things could get worse. And Mearsheimer, an international relations theorist at the University of Chicago, expects they will. Why? Because the world remains as it always was, an anarchy in which the major states within it continue to struggle and maneuver constantly for advantage. They are all players in a zero sum game: no state advances but another falls behind. Only military and economic strength assures survival, power built upon large populations and strategic geographical locations. Smaller states, the Icelands and Uruguays of the world, the tiny desert statelets, are left to curry protection of stronger states, which extend it only because it is in their interest to do so. The army of Kuwait did not expel the Iraqis in 1991. The army of the United States did, and not for love of the Kuwaitis.

No country can permit itself to be comfortable with things as they are, not even the United States, which despite its preeminence, continues to work assiduously to debilitate and intimidate its potential and actual enemies, and to strengthen its supposed friends, but not too much.

Even the bi-polar architecture of the Cold War, predicated as it was on the certainty that neither superpower could survive a nuclear exchange, was not as stable as we remember it. It was shaken by two bellicose confrontations (over Berlin and Cuba), and characterized by a ceaseless struggle by each to gain absolute nuclear superiority over the other. In the 1960’s, each power possessed several hundred deliverable nuclear weapons, enough, it was thought, to deter the other. But neither could accept this status quo. When the Soviet Union went out of business in 1991, each country possessed more than 10,000 nuclear weapons, more than could ever be used.

Mearsheimer concentrates on the great powers because they make things happen. But his strictures apply to all, since every state must make its way in the prevailing anarchy, the existence of which enables his theory. He favors the first and simplest definition of that word: anarchy is what obtains when there is no government; it is a situation when violence and chaos are potential, and only sometimes actual. This is the way the world remains, despite a proliferation of international institutions during the past century, from the League of Nations to the United Nations to the European Union, to a virtual blizzard of human rights agencies and charities, all established to mitigate the rough environment that prevails. Yet sovereignty, and the power that attends it, remains invested in the states; it has not seeped outward. When trouble arises, states are on their own, unless they have cultivated allies against larger aggressors, and all states are aggressive when it serves their interests. Mearsheimer’s metaphor is the 911 number—or the absence of it. In the world as he sees it, there is no number to ring up, no help on the line. “Since no state is likely to achieve global hegemony,” he writes, “the world is condemned to perpetual great-power competition.”

This world view is pure Realist and follows the lead of Hans Morgenthau, Henry Kissinger, and Kenneth Waltz. Mearsheimer darkens the already pessimistic views of these scholars—of Morganthau who argues that states are aggressive because they reflect impulses inherent in human beings, or Waltz who believes states can be satisfied with their place in the balance of power, so long as the balance keeps the peace.

Offensive Realism is what Mearsheimer calls his dialect in the dialogue among the Realists. (Capitals are appropriate because not everyone accepts that the Realist perspective is always realistic). The continuing struggle of which he writes does not go on because of the aggrandizement of individual leaders: It is outside the range of human choice, ineluctable owing to the anarchy in which states operate. It is tragic because it is Hobbesian, and cannot be anything else because the leviathan, a world hegemon, cannot arise to force an iron peace; it is tragic in the Greek sense because it is a destiny; it is tragic also because peace and the idea of international community remain a chimera, and “the threat of great power war has not disappeared.”

Metaphors in nature come to mind. Think of the tiny shrew, among the more aggressive creatures alive, afflicted as it is with a racing metabolism that requires it to spend every waking second hunting and eating. Aggression is protection; pays off more often than not; the appetite for power is unabatable. Thus, there are precious few status quo states in the system, Mearsheimer argues, not even the United States, the most powerful state ever seen.

Mearsheimer describes the United States as a regional hegemon, the only one to emerge in the modern world. Within the Western Hemisphere no state or combination of states, not even all together, could threaten it. No regional hegemon has arisen and remained preeminent elsewhere, not in Europe nor Asia. The United States is not a world hegemon. There has never been one of these, and there is not likely to be. And the only state that might possibly emerge as another regional hegemon, as a peer and competitor of the United States, is China. Mearsheimer thinks the United States is foolishly fostering that evolution through its policy of “engagement,” which encourages China to develop its economy, build its wealth, and thereby unleash the productive capacity of a population four times that of the United States. In this way China will gain the capability to create an ever larger military force, which eventually will be directed against us.

He warns that those who argue for engagement because it will encourage the development of democracy in China are wrong-headed because it wouldn’t change the outcome if it did. It doesn’t matter what kind of government China has, democratic, authoritarian, Communist—even vegetarian. None of this would affect how it, or any other state, would act. The belief that democracy is a factor for restraint in international relations Mearsheimer sees as one of the disabling flaws in the thinking that dominates the other side in the bipolar universe of international relations theory: the Liberal camp.

Not only do many liberals believe democracy is important, some think democracy could not even survive in the world Mearsheimer describes. One of these, Alan Gilbert, professor of international relations at the University of Denver, asks: “What effect would such cutthroat power rivalry have on democracy at home? The answer is: a devastating one.”

Liberal theorists really do see the world differently. The international system is not inevitably anarchic, or immune to human manipulation and betterment. Perpetual war and struggle, they believe, can be reduced by human evolution. And though the events of the 20th century set that idea back considerably, to liberal theorists, the term “international community” is not laughable, and morality is an impulse in the relations among states, if never the strongest one. Liberals believe in the pacific effects of economic interdependence among states: nothing has bound the states of Europe so tightly as the postwar coal and steel pact between the continent’s two traditional enemies, France and Germany, that evolved into the European Union. Liberals put faith in international organizations. The creation of the United Nations was a gesture rooted in optimism, an opportunity to amend the failure of the League of Nations. Liberals believe democracy is the political system by which the worst elements can be screened from rising to the leadership of states, and that the democratic state is, on the whole, less aggressive.

To Mearsheimer all this is, well, unrealistic: Americans who subscribe to it don’t understand how the world works, or how their own country operates within it. Most think their government comports itself in accord with these Liberal theories, but it doesn’t. “Americans tend to be hostile to Realism because it clashes with their basic values. Realism stands opposed to Americans’ views of both themselves and the wider world. Realism is at odds with the optimism and moralism that pervades much of American society. Liberalism, on the other hand, fits neatly with those values.”

So how does the political and foreign policy elite in America get around this? They do it, Mearsheimer writes, by talking “Liberal” and acting “Realist.” Mearsheimer draws on the writings of E.H. Carr, author of The Twenty Years’ Crisis, 1919—1939. The English-speaking peoples, Carr wrote, are “masters in the art of concealing their selfish national interests in the guise of the general good.” They (we) are hypocrites, and have been denounced for this ongoing perfidy many times.

This is not new. The lords and administrative satraps of the British Empire publicly professed to rule their colonial subjects for their own good, and some of them probably believed it. No doubt some of their subjects did, too. The United States, which never lets up on its effusive praise of the democratic way, has helped destroy democracies for reasons of state, in Guatemala, Iran, Chile, to name just a few.

It is evident that those who have set America’s course over the past two centuries are and were less likely to think like Woodrow Wilson or Jimmy Carter, who emphasized the self-determination of peoples and human rights as elements of America’s foreign policy, than like Henry Kissinger or, say, President Franklin Pierce, who best explained how the United States fulfilled its “Manifest Destiny” in the 19th century and shaped itself into the world’s only regional hegemon: by acquiring “certain possessions not within our jurisdiction.” Which is to say, through extortion, intimidation, and conquest—of Spain, Britain, France, Russia, Mexico and, not least, of the Indian nations.

All this was carried out, as Mearsheimer writes, behind a mask of “idealistic rhetoric” that sought to conceal “the brutal policies that underpinned the tremendous growth of American power in the nineteenth century.”

Not much changed in the 20th century. The mask still fits the American face, though it seems to be slipping these days. The current administration in Washington is blatantly Realist. It’s disdain for international accords on the environment, chemical and biological weapons, and various other swaggering, go-it-alone postures all suggest that. The practice of frequent consultation on strategy and policy across the Atlantic that had characterized the post World War II years, languishes. The pumping up of the defense budget, and strategies implemented in the name of peace that are clearly intended to mortify and restrict our erstwhile challenger, Russia—moving the NATO alliance closer to its borders, basing troops in and cultivating states on its eastern reaches; throwing over the ABM treaty and, especially, going all out for a missile defense—seem to be an attempt to achieve absolute nuclear superiority and become the history’s first world hegemon.

The academic study of international relations theory has the atmosphere of the game board about it, and most of its prescriptions rarely have impact outside the seminar room. As a discipline, it draws heavily on other social sciences, especially history, to adduce its “proofs.” Mearsheimer remains aware that the history is rooted in nationalism, and sometimes not much more than “agreed upon” opinion about what went on at a certain time and place, who won, and why. He made me recall a conversation I overheard in a London pub some years back between an American and an Englishman. The latter raised his pint and said, “I like you Yanks. We couldn’t have won the war without you.” Hoisting his own glass, the Yank said, “Thanks, but I thought we won the war.”

Actually Russia won the war, or was, as Mearsheimer says, the key power in two of the three major conflagrations of the past two centuries that involved all of the world powers, the French Revolution and Napoleonic Wars (1792—1815) and World War II (1939—1945).

Also interesting are the author’s analyses of the traditional forms of conventional war, which he tells us still matter greatly in the nuclear era. (And of them all, the oldest form, the deployment of big armies to seize and hold territory, remains paramount. Everything else, naval war, embargos and blockades, air power, smart bombs are all secondary.) That was evident in the Cold War when the competition by the superpowers to build powerful conventional forces was intense. Despite their nuclear weapons, both countries sought to achieve superiority or at least a standoff at that lower level. Why? Would an un-nuclear state be so rash as to launch such an attack against a nuclear power?

Indeed, Egypt and Syria attacked Israel in 1973, fully aware it was nuclear armed. And in 1969 China fought major battles with Russia along the Ussuri River that almost led to all out war.

A book such as Mearsheimer’s might wind up on the night table of Condoleezza Rice or Donald Rumsfeld, but probably wouldn’t offer much they didn’t already accept as obvious. Mearsheimer’s identification of certain weaknesses in the administration’s realpolitik, however, might catch their attention, however. Mearsheimer’s theory of Offensive Realism is bluntly deterministic; it brings its hard truths to the table and, in effect, advises one and all to avoid investing intellectual and material resources to cultivate international cooperation that is not of the strategic sort. I do not think it will make those who are so inclined to go away.

The world is an anarchy, of course, but certainly more than just a neighborhood fraught with peril. It is a place rich in opportunities, many of which cannot be perceived and grasped if the mind is closed to possibilities outside the Realist’s purview. There are just so many variables thrown up by the interactions of states; effects that cannot be predicted, outcomes good and bad, which arise from this welter of ungoverned circumstance. Such a situation makes certitude about state behavior hard to accept.

Take the matter of the mitigating effect of democracy. Mearsheimer regards it as non-existent, a conclusion which the sometimes thuggish behavior of the two largest Anglo-Saxon democracies (Britain and the United States) would seem to justify. But this deserves a closer look.

Hitler, Mearsheimer points out, made his fatal mistake when he attacked the Soviet Union, the same mistake Napoleon made, when he attacked Czarist Russia. Before those two misadventures, each of these countries reigned supreme in Europe. Had one of these leaders restrained himself, his country might have emerged as a regional hegemon in Europe, as the United States became in the Western Hemisphere, unassailable in its bailiwick. But they didn’t and that lack of personal restraint ruined them. Can one honestly believe that had there been a powerful internal constraint at work against these leaders within the French Empire or German Reich our world would not look different today?

Of course it would, and this suggests that different kinds of governments do affect state behavior. Where choice and direction of policy remain the prerogative of one person (perhaps sick or sadistic) or a junta of like minds, fewer controls exist against the drift toward self-destruction, which is never in a state’s interest. Different systems do yield different kinds of leaders. In democracies sociopaths infrequently rise to elevated levels of leadership, nor is anyone allowed to remain in control long enough to do fatal damage. Also, democracies, if they are wide enough in their participatory scope, have mechanisms to correct mistakes, (like term limits on the presidency) and forces that move leaders this way or that, as elected governments are beholden to various constituencies, many of which are strong and do not share the government’s perception of the national interest. Democracies are better equipped to discern the true interests of the state, if only because, owing to the wider flow of information, many more people are identifying them, publishing and writing about them. The need to form a consensus is an annoyance to all democratic governments, one that doesn’t seriously constrain dictators or the elites in one-party states. Of course, the public can be manipulated in democracies, and certainly the American people have been, and continue to be, as evidenced by the wide gap between the values they profess and our government’s behavior in the world. And there are even times when large sectors of the public seem to want to be. But not “all the people all the time,” as our most famous wartime president once said.

The American intervention in Vietnam, which stained the careers of three presidents, seemed to fit comfortably within the framework of the agreed upon Realist policy of containment of the Soviet Union, which tried to globalize the Communist doctrine in order to enhance its own power. It was a violent war, if never a total war. Its purpose was probably one most Americans endorsed to the end. It was stopped for a variety of reasons, economic, social, political. The discontent it engendered among a large fraction of the American population created much turmoil, until the leadership finally concluded the price was too high. A majority is not always necessary to effect change in a democracy.

All this is meant to say is that though realpolitik tends to guide most American administrations, Realists have no lock on the formation of policy at the higher levels. There are forces that can offset Realist prescriptions, and some of these forces may even share the government’s point of view but disagree with its strategies. The engagement of China, for instance, may certainly lead to the outcome Mearsheimer predicts, but the pressure to maintain that policy is supported not only by those hoping for a democratic evolution in that country, (Liberals) but by powerful economic interests eager to exploit the market. These same forces may one day pressure a hard right administration, such as the current one, to normalize relations with Cuba. Anyway, doing so would be in keeping with a cardinal principle of realpolitik: to deal with states without regard to the nature of their internal politics.

Mearsheimer laments a further weakening of Realist strategy that he foresees in the near future: the withdrawal, probably within the next 20 years, of American troops from Europe and Northeast Asia. There are about 100,000 in each region, and for decades they have helped keep the peace by offering protection, in the East to Japan, South Korea and Taiwan, and in the West to the states of Western Europe. That policy has also prevented the emergence of an hegemon in those areas, which has served the interests of the United States, an effect that supports Mearsheimer’s description of state behavior.

Turmoil would be the likely consequence of this troop withdrawal, Mearsheimer believes. In Asia, considering the future he already anticipates for China, Japan would likely respond by re-arming. Owing to its aggressive past, this in itself would pitch the region into a turmoil of reaction. In the West, the giant at the center of European continent, Germany, might seek a nuclear force as a protection against Russia’s. Those who regard economic alliances as prophylactic against great power war, even an alliance as tightly bound as the European Union, should recall the very real fears manifest a little over a decade ago in France on the eve of the reunification of the German state.

Mearsheimer’s predictions are encased in certitude. His theory is perfectly made, a condition from which it may actually suffer: for what is more removed from the world as it is, things as they are, than perfection? Still, such intellectual ventures as his, and others like it, are useful because they offer new perspectives and perhaps illuminate unexpected outcomes. This is good because the last thing the actual makers of the country’s strategic policies need, especially these days, are unwanted surprises.


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