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Review by Francis P. Sempa

The Tragedy of Great Power Politics. By John J. Mearsheimer. (New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 2001. Pp. 555. $27.95 cloth.)

The First and Second World Wars of the twentieth-century each produced in their aftermath visions of a new world order where the great powers would resolve their disputes by peaceful means. Alas, the failures of the previous collective security schemes–the League of Nations and the United Nations–to prevent renewed great power struggles after each conflict, have not diminished the dreams of many that the post-Cold War world can be free of great power wars.

In his new book, John J. Mearsheimer refutes the currently fashionable theory that treats great power wars as a thing of the past. According to the author, that flawed argument holds that “international politics underwent a fundamental transformation with the end of the Cold War,” and that “cooperation, not security competition and conflict, is now the defining feature of relations among the great powers.” Somewhat reminiscent of sentiments in the pre-World War I years, this theory of a perpetual peace among the world’s great powers is based not on a collective security scheme, but rather on an optimistic belief in a benign transformation of the international system. Mearsheimer counters what he terms this “liberal” world-view with his theory of “offensive realism,” which holds that great powers are engaged in a never-ending struggle for power.

The author’s argument is based on his contention that in an “anarchic” world composed of sovereign nation-states, each great state tries to acquire the maximum amount of power feasible under the circumstances. This struggle for power may at times subside for practical reasons, but it never ends. This is so because the first goal of every great power is to survive, and the more power a nation-state has, the greater its chances of survival in this anarchic world. According to Mearsheimer, the only circumstance in which a great power will stop trying to gain more power is when it has achieved global hegemony, a circumstance that has never occurred in world history. Great powers that strive for regional or global hegemony, he argues, inevitably provoke other great and lesser powers to form coalitions designed to counter the potential hegemon.

Mearsheimer supports his theory of “offensive realism” by analyzing great powers “in action” from 1792 (the beginning of the wars of the French Revolution and Empire) to the end of the Cold War in 1990. He contends that all great powers, regardless of their form of government, seek to expand their power in relation to other nation-states. He dismisses the notion that democracies are less likely to go to war with each other than other forms of government. He discerns little difference, for example, in the current and future power relationships among states in Asia and those in Europe. Here, he is at odds with that more famous realist, Henry Kissinger, who in his recent book, Does America Need a Foreign Policy, convincingly argues that for the foreseeable future there is little or no likelihood of the nations of Western Europe going to war with each other or with the United States, but that war is much more possible among the nations of Asia or between America and Asian powers. As regards non-democratic great powers, however, Mearsheimer is surely correct (and would get no argument from Kissinger) that in geopolitical terms it would have made no significant difference to the other powers whether it was Hitler’s or the Kaiser’s Germany that dominated Europe; Napoleon’s or Louis XIV’s France that dominated Europe; or Stalin’s or Nicholas II’s Russia that dominated Europe.

That explains why Great Britain and the United States have followed similar security strategies with Eurasia. Mearsheimer rightly calls them “offshore balancers,” meaning that both Great Britain and America, being insular powers separated by water from the Eurasian land mass, have–in the famous words of Sir Eyre Crowe–sided with whatever power or group of powers that opposed the most powerful state on the continent. From the late eighteenth-century to the early years of the Second World War, the British formed, joined, or supported coalitions opposed to potential Eurasian hegemons. When British power waned during World War II, the United States became the geopolitical successor to the British Empire. Henceforth, Washington would play the role of “offshore balancer” of Eurasia.

In his analysis of how great powers behave, Mearsheimer pays tribute to his realist predecessors Hans Morganthau, E.H. Carr, and Kenneth Walz. But his theory of “offensive realism” is closer to the thinking of Yale’s Nicholas Spykman, who like the author, emphasized the anarchical state of international relations and the never-ending struggle among nation-states for global domination and survival.

Mearsheimer argues that the structure of the international system affects the behavior of great powers. The balance of power within a bipolar or multi-polar world also affects the relative stability of the international system. Global stability and peace are more likely to be maintained, he asserts, in a bipolar world of two dominant powers rather than in a multi-polar world of several competing global powers in which at least one is a potential hegemon.

While the author admits that “the power structures that are now in place in Europe and Northeast Asia are benign,” he does not believe that that will remain the case during the next twenty years. Mearsheimer argues that it is likely that the United States will leave Europe and that Germany will emerge as the dominant European state. He further contends that China will likely emerge as a potential hegemon in Asia. Rather than “engage” China economically, he recommends that Washington try to curtail Bejing’s rapid economic growth because “China and the United States are destined to be adversaries as China’s power grows.

For all its strengths, Mearsheimer’s work unfortunately reads in places like a legal brief in support of his theory of “offensive realism.” In other places it sounds like lecture notes that he presumably uses in his classes at the University of Chicago. There is needless repetition and a lack of any kind of nuance and elegant prose one finds in other realist tomes such as Kissinger’s Diplomacy or in George F. Kennan’s numerous volumes. These defects notwithstanding, Mearsheimer’s contribution deserves a place on the bookshelves of statesmen, strategists, and citizens interested in how great powers have behaved and are likely to continue to behave in our still dangerous post-Cold War world.End.

Francis P. Sempa is an attorney and a senior deputy attorney general for the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania. He also serves as an adjunct professor of political science at Wilkes University and has written extensively on national security issues for a number of publications.


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