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

Title: The Tragedy of Great Power Politics
Author: John Mearsheimer
Scope: 4 stars
Readability: 3.5 stars
My personal rating: 4.5 stars
See more on my book rating system.

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Topic of Book

Mearsheimer analyzes the behavior of the Great Powers of the 19th and 20th Century and argues for his theory of “offensive realism.”

My Comments

This is a classic book of foreign policy “realism” theory.

Realism is the theory that all powers make decisions based upon geography and security interests. The ideology, culture and type of regime do not affect the behavior of states. Realists believe that democratic regimes were just as war-like as authoritarian regimes.

Offensive realists argue that states have a strong incentive to go to war to preserve their own security. Other realists argue for “defensive realism” where smaller states naturally ally with each other against the dominant power in the region to preserve the peace.

While I do not believe that Mearsheimer’s theory accurately describes the behavior Great Powers of the 21st Century, I do think it describes the behavior of Agrarian regimes of the past and modern authoritarian regimes.

Mearsheimer wrote this book specifically to argue against the common idea of the 1990s that the world was entering a “Democratic peace” without wars between the Great Powers. He predicted that “a wealthy China would not be a status quo power but an aggressive state determined to achieve regional hegemony.”

Key Take-aways

The theory of offensive realism argues that global foreign policy has the following characteristics:

  • The world is an anarchic system with no global authority that can keep the peace
  • States can never be certain of the intentions of other states.
  • States can only feel safe by preparing for war.
  • Larger states have an incentive to go to war to preserve their own security.
  • All states want to become regional hegemons because it is the only means to achieve real security. The United States is the only nation that has been able to achieve this goal. Many European and Asian states have tried and failed.
  • All of the above makes it highly unlikely that the world will ever achieve lasting peace.
  • The power of each state is largely determined by the size of their army. The size of the army is decided by a nation’s population and wealth.
  • Bipolar systems (like the Cold War) tend to be peaceful.
  • Multipolar systems (with many competing Powers) tend to have more war, particularly when one of those powers is much stronger than the others.
  • Offshore balancers, like the United States and Britain, can preserve the peace by ensuring that no one continental state becomes too powerful.

Important Quotes from Book

“My theory, which I label “offensive realism”.

“The sad fact is that international politics has always been a ruthless and dangerous business, and it is likely to remain that way…. The overriding goal of each state is to maximize its share of world power, which means gaining power at the expense of other states. But great powers do not merely strive to be the strongest of all the great powers, although that is a welcome outcome. Their ultimate aim is to be the hegemon—that is, the only great power in the system.”

“Simply put, great powers are primed for offense…. Thus, a great power will defend the balance of power when looming change favors another state, and it will try to undermine the balance when the direction of change is in its own favor”

“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 fear—which can never be wholly eliminated—states recognize that the more powerful they are relative to their rivals, the better their chances of survival. Indeed, the best guarantee of survival is to be a hegemon”

“The theory focuses on the great powers because these states have the largest impact on what happens in international politics. The fortunes of all states—great powers and smaller powers alike—are determined primarily by the decisions and actions of those with the greatest capability.”

“Great powers are determined largely on the basis of their relative military capability. To qualify as a great power, a state must have sufficient military assets to put up a serious fight in an all-out conventional war against the most powerful state in the world”

“Structural factors such as anarchy and the distribution of power, I argue, are what matter most for explaining international politics. The theory pays little attention to individuals or domestic political considerations such as ideology. It tends to treat states like black boxes or billiard balls.”

“offensive realism is mainly a descriptive theory. It explains how great powers have behaved in the past and how they are likely to behave in the future. But it is also a prescriptive theory. States should behave according to the dictates of offensive realism, because it outlines the best way to survive in a dangerous world.”

“In essence, great powers are like billiard balls that vary only in size”

“My explanation for why great powers vie with each other for power and strive for hegemony is derived from five assumptions about the international system”

“The first assumption is that the international system is anarchic… the system comprises independent states that have no central authority above them”

“The second assumption is that great powers inherently possess some offensive military capability, which gives them the wherewithal to hurt and possibly destroy each other”

“The third assumption is that states can never be certain about other states’ intentions”

“The fourth assumption is that survival is the primary goal of great powers. Specifically, states seek to maintain their territorial integrity and the autonomy of their domestic political order.”

“The fifth assumption is that great powers are rational actors… states pay attention to the long term as well as the immediate consequences of their actions”

“ there has never been a global hegemon, and there is not likely to be one anytime soon.

The best outcome a great power can hope for is to be a regional hegemon and possibly control another region that is nearby and accessible over land. The United States is the only regional hegemon in modern history, although other states have fought major wars in pursuit of regional hegemony: imperial Japan in Northeast Asia, and Napoleonic France, Wilhelmine Germany, and Nazi Germany in Europe. But none succeeded”

“A state’s potential power is based on the size of its population and the level of its wealth. These two assets are the main building blocks of military power…. A state’s actual power is embedded mainly in its army and the air and naval forces that directly support it… In short, the key component of military might, even in the nuclear age, is land power.”

“Offensive realism certainly recognizes that great powers might pursue these non-security goals, but it has little to say about them, save for one important point: states can pursue them as long as the requisite behavior does not conflict with balance-of-power logic, which is often the case.”

““large bodies of water profoundly limit the power-projection capabilities of land forces… the presence of oceans on much of the earth’s surface makes it impossible for any state to achieve global hegemony… Thus, great powers can aspire to dominate only the region in which they are located, and possibly an adjacent region that can be reached over land.”

“one can distinguish between insular and continental states. An insular state is the only great power on a large body of land that is surrounded on all sides by water… The United Kingdom and Japan are obvious examples of insular states, since each occupies a large island by itself. The United States is also an insular power… A continental state, on the other hand, is a great power located on a large body of land that is also occupied by one or more other great powers. France, Germany, and Russia are obvious examples of continental states”

“Assessing the balance of land power involves a three-step process. First, the relative size and quality of the opposing armies must be estimated.” “1) the number of soldiers, 2) the quality of the soldiers, 3) the number of weapons, 4) the quality of the weaponry, and 5) how those soldiers and weapons are organized for war.”

““The second step in assessing the balance of land power is to factor any air forces that support armies into the analysis”

“Third, we must consider the power-projection capability inherent in armies, paying special attention to whether large bodies of water limit an army’s offensive capability.”

“This conclusion has two implications for stability among the great powers. The most dangerous states in the international system are continental powers with large armies”

“insular powers are unlikely to initiate wars of conquest against other great powers, because they would have to traverse a large body of water to reach their target. The same moats that protect insular powers also impede their ability to project power.”

“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… Furthermore, great powers aspire to have the mightiest land forces in their region of the world… Finally, great powers seek nuclear superiority, although that is an especially difficult goal to achieve”

“military competitions are usually characterized by what Robert Pape has called an “asymmetric diffusion of military technology… the innovator often gains significant, albeit temporary, advantages over the laggard”

“American foreign policy throughout the nineteenth century had one overarching goal: achieving hegemony in the Western Hemisphere… This impressive achievement, not some purported noble behavior toward the outside world, is the real basis of American exceptionalism in the foreign policy realm.”

“The United States established regional hegemony in the nineteenth century by relentlessly pursuing two closely linked policies: 1) expanding across North America and building the most powerful state in the Western Hemisphere, a policy commonly known as “Manifest Destiny” and 2) minimizing the influence of the United Kingdom and the other European great powers in the Americas, a policy commonly known as the “Monroe Doctrine.”

“The real danger that the United States faced in the nineteenth century—and continued to face in the twentieth century—was the possibility of an anti-American pact between a European great power and a state in the Western Hemisphere”

“In general, the more relative power the potential hegemon controls, the more likely it is that all of the threatened states in the system will forgo buck-passing and form a balancing coalition.”

“Whereas the distribution of power tells us how much buck-passing is likely among the great powers, geography helps identify the likely buck-passers and buck-catchers in multipolar systems. The crucial issue regarding geography is whether the threatened state shares a border with the aggressor, or whether a barrier—be it the territory of another state or a large body of water—separates those rivals. Common borders promote balancing; barriers encourage buck-passing.”

“Security competition is endemic to daily life in the international system, but war is not. Only occasionally does security competition give way to war.”

“The core of my argument is that bipolar systems tend to be the most peaceful, and unbalanced multipolar systems are the most prone to deadly conflict. Balanced multipolar systems fall somewhere in between”

“The main causes of war are located in the architecture of the international system. What matters most is the number of great powers and how much power each controls.”

“What is most impressive about international institutions is how little independent effect they seem to have on great-power behavior… the most powerful states in the system create and shape institutions so that they can maintain, if not increase, their own share of world power. Institutions are essentially “arenas for acting out power relationships.”

“But the international system is not unipolar. Although the United States is a hegemon in the Western Hemisphere, it is not a global hegemon… This lack of a hegemonic impulse outside the confines of the Western Hemisphere explains why no balancing coalition has formed against the United States since the Cold War ended.”

 “The central aim of American foreign policy… is to be the hegemon in the Western Hemisphere and have no rival hegemon in either Europe or Northeast Asia. The United States does not want a peer competitor”

“the primary effect of overseas wars on the economies of neutral countries is to redistribute wealth from belligerents to non-combatants, enriching neutrals rather than impoverishing them.” In essence, the United States would probably become more prosperous in the event of an Asian or a European war, and it would probably also gain relative power over the warring great powers.”

“This U.S. policy on China is misguided. A wealthy China would not be a status quo power but an aggressive state determined to achieve regional hegemony.”

  1. “War in World History (Vol 1)” by Morillo, Black and Lococo
  2. “War in World History (Vol 2)” by Morillo, Black and Lococo
  3. “Conquests and Cultures” by Thomas Sowell
  4. “The Pursuit of Power” by William McNeill
  5. “War: What is It Good for?” by Ian Morris
  6. “A History of Warfare” by John Keegan
  7. “Ultrasociety: How 10,000 Years of War Made Humans the Greatest Cooperators…” by Peter Turchin
  8. “Military Revolution and Political Change” by Brian Downing
  9. “The Rise and Fall of the Great Powers” by Paul Kennedy

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