Book Review: “The Tragedy of Great Power Politics” by John Mearsheimer

Book information: New York : W. W. Norton & Company, 2014.  561 p. 24 cm.

There are some hopefuls who trust the flourish of global institutions would help countries to be in solidarity and rescue them from the scourge of war. Others claim that it is economic interdependence that glued the state actors and move them near to perpetual peace. Yet for John Mearsheimer (also the author of my previous review “Why Leaders Lie“), he made best use of his Offensive Realism theory, along with historical evidences from Napoleon period to the end of Cold War, to reflect great countries’ unrelenting power pursuit at each other’s expense, which in turn, security dilemmas prevail and hostile war is still a possibility. This is admittedly an unpalatable fact, but inevitable.

According to Realism, since no higher authority stands beyond the nations – even neither arbiter nor leviathan – in an anarchical system, states are primary actors in the global platform and some powerful ones, nevertheless, inherited offensive military capabilities for self-help. Due to their uncertainty over other states’ changeable intentions, states, not just great powers, become prudently rational with thorough cost-calculation. Survival, consisting of the maintenance of territorial integrity and domestic autonomy, is ranked at the utmost top of national security. However Offensive realism, which is different from Defensive realism that upholds the maintenance of existing balance of power, advocates the best way to survive in international anarchy for great powers are to gain irresistible strength of existing forces and to alter the distribution of power in their favour, and eventually gallop to be the sole regional hegemon with their prevention of rival’s dominance.

It is undeniable that power lies at the fundamentals of Realism, so does International Politics. Though non-material factors might be influential, the material capabilities, specifically the sum of latent and military power, are deemed to be the driving force lead for power maximization. Latent power encompasses state’s abilities of mobilizing own demographic power and wealth to the military ones. While for the military one, armed land forces becomes the main instrument for conquering land and expeditiously defeating the opponent, rather than those independent naval, strategic air forces or destructive nuclear power. At best, the more superior the aforementioned capabilities countries own, the more successful the final outcome would be. However at worse, one great power’s varied maneuver of power would only stir up fear among the others, thereby each laying multifarious survival strategies out no matter in bipolar, balanced multipolar or unbalanced multipolar system.

Mearsheimer points out that multipolar systems are more war-prone than bipolar ones due to more occurrence of potential conflict. Unbalanced multipolar, which consists of potential hegemons, are the most unstable among all. He further suggests that, to acquire relative power, strategies like war, blackmail (the threat of force), bait and bleed (causing two rivals to engage in a protracted war) as well as bloodletting (ensure rival’s war into a costly long conflict) be encouraged and that appeasement and bandwagoning be avoided, so that balance of power would not shift against the threatened state. In terms of checking the aggressors, this book offers us a comprehensive glimpse towards the merits and demerits of balancing (including resource mobilization and alliance formation) and buck-passing (getting another state to bear the burden of deterring rivals). Additionally, the writer also examines the way of foreign policy behaviour of driving five dominant powers, comprising Napoleonic France, Wilhelmine Germany, Nazi Germany, the Soviet Union and Japan, towards to the road of expansion in hope of achieving regional hegemony. Whereas, the United Kingdom and the United States, who are the offshore balancers that are formidable for projecting power across oceans, are still acting in compatible to offensive realism though they seem to be in no attempt to dominate Europe at first glance.

The last yet updated chapter, however, sheds pessimistic light to China’s rise in the contemporary 21st century based on the predictions of Offensive realism. By virtue of impressive economic boom and gradual military growth, on one hand, China endeavours to broaden its power gap with the neighbours and on the other, attempts for dominance in Asia. China’s staunch resolution of pushing the United States from her backyard and out of the Asia-Pacific would likely menace America’s continuous pursuit of hegemony. In face of China’s ambition, in no way would the United States tolerant of the emergence of a new competitor but exerts herself to limit China with balancing coalitions. In the long run, both would probably enmesh in intense security competitions and there is even a likelihood that Sino-American war would thereby break out.

In sum, this eye-opening grasp of this seminal work does prompt me to have a thorough revision of a major branch of International Relations theory. Mearsheimer’s blunt honesty and close scrutiny in constructing the structure of this must-read classic, deserves credit. Every time when glancing his writing, it is as if I am attending a fruitful lecture taught by a scholar of high acumen. Yet if you expect reading the bright side of global politics same as those hopefuls, I am afraid you would be disappointed by the distressing paint of international relations like the title suggests. And would Mearsheimer’s bleak predictions in the last chapter be against the backdrop of this 21st century?  I hope his depressingly persuasive viewpoints will not become reality, for peace’s sake. ♦


2 thoughts on “Book Review: “The Tragedy of Great Power Politics” by John Mearsheimer”

    1. I also wish you joy in this New Year of Monkey! It is still one of my favourite books that I often refer to, and some ideas do help me to understand the world situation and countries’ motives better to a certain extent. Hope you enjoy the reading too.

      Liked by 1 person

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