Let us give thanks that Anglos came to this country, conquered the natives, and kept expanding for as long as it was prudent to do so.
That is how the world works. If you are stronger than your neighbor, you conquer your neighbor. If you are weaker than your neighbor, you get conquered.
Today I’m thankful that the Native Americans had an open borders policy. I do not wish to repeat their folly.
Due to their low IQs compared to Anglos, there was no way the Native Americans could have resisted the Europeans.
If the Chinese become smarter and powerful than us, they will conquer us just as the West had its brutal way with China in the 19th Century.
(Editor’s Note: The following is the new concluding chapter of Dr. John J. Mearsheimer’s book The Tragedy of the Great Power Politics. A new, updated edition was released on April 7 and is available via Amazon.)
With the end of the Cold War in 1989 and the subsequent collapse of the Soviet Union two years later, the United States emerged as the most powerful state on the planet. Many commentators said we are living in a unipolar world for the first time in history, which is another way of saying America is the only great power in the international system. If that statement is true, it makes little sense to talk about great-power politics, since there is just one great power.
But even if one believes, as I do, that China and Russia are great powers, they are still far weaker than the United States and in no position to challenge it in any meaningful way. Therefore, interactions among the great powers are not going to be nearly as prominent a feature of international politics as they were before 1989, when there were always two or more formidable great powers competing with each other.
To highlight this point, contrast the post–Cold War world with the first ninety years of the twentieth century, when the United States was deeply committed to containing potential peer competitors such as Wilhelmine Germany, imperial Japan, Nazi Germany, and the Soviet Union. During that period, the United States fought two world wars and engaged with the Soviet Union in an intense security competition that spanned the globe.
After 1989, however, American policymakers hardly had to worry about fighting against rival great powers, and thus the United States was free to wage wars against minor powers without having to worry much about the actions of the other great powers. Indeed, it has fought six wars since the Cold War ended: Iraq (1991), Bosnia (1995), Kosovo (1999), Afghanistan (2001–present), Iraq again (2003–11), and Libya (2011). It has also been consumed with fighting terrorists across the globe since September 11, 2001. Not surprisingly, there has been little interest in great-power politics since the Soviet threat withered away.
The rise of China appears to be changing this situation, however, because this development has the potential to fundamentally alter the architecture of the international system. If the Chinese economy continues growing at a brisk clip in the next few decades, the United States will once again face a potential peer competitor, and great-power politics will return in full force. It is still an open question as to whether China’s economy will continue its spectacular rise or even continue growing at a more modest, but still impressive, rate. There are intelligent arguments on both sides of this debate, and it is hard to know who is right.
But if those who are bullish on China are correct, it will almost certainly be the most important geopolitical development of the twenty-first century, for China will be transformed into an enormously powerful country. The attendant question that will concern every maker of foreign policy and student of international politics is a simple but profound one: can China rise peacefully? The aim of this chapter is to answer that question.
To predict the future in Asia, one needs a theory of international politics that explains how rising great powers are likely to act and how the other states in the system will react to them. We must rely on theory because many aspects of the future are unknown; we have few facts about the future. Thomas Hobbes put the point well: “The present only has a being in nature; things past have a being in the memory only, but things to come have no being at all.” Thus, we must use theories to predict what is likely to transpire in world politics.
Offensive realism offers important insights into China’s rise. My argument in a nutshell is that if China continues to grow economically, it will attempt to dominate Asia the way the United States dominates the Western Hemisphere. The United States, however, will go to enormous lengths to prevent China from achieving regional hegemony. Most of Beijing’s neighbors, including India, Japan, Singapore, South Korea, Russia, and Vietnam, will join with the United States to contain Chinese power. The result will be an intense security competition with considerable potential for war. In short, China’s rise is unlikely to be tranquil.
It is important to emphasize that my focus is not on how China will behave in the immediate future, but instead on how it will act in the longer term, when it will be far more powerful than it is today. The fact is that present-day China does not possess significant military power; its military forces are inferior to those of the United States. Beijing would be making a huge mistake to pick a fight with the U.S. military nowadays. Contemporary China, in other words, is constrained by the global balance of power, which is clearly stacked in America’s favor. Among other advantages, the United States has many consequential allies around the world, while China has virtually none. But we are not concerned with that situation here. Instead, the focus is on a future world in which the balance of power has shifted sharply against the United States, where China controls much more relative power than it does today, and where China is in roughly the same economic and military league as the United States. In essence, we are talking about a world in which China is much less constrained than it is today….
OFFENSIVE REALISM IN BRIEF
In its simplest form, my theory maintains that the basic structure of the international system forces states concerned about their security to compete with each other for power. The ultimate goal of every great power is to maximize its share of world power and eventually dominate the system. In practical terms, this means that the most powerful states seek to establish hegemony in their region of the world while also ensuring that no rival great power dominates another area.
The theory begins with five assumptions about the world, which are all reasonable approximations of reality. First of all, states are the key actors in international politics, and no higher authority stands above them. There is no ultimate arbiter or leviathan in the system that states can turn to if they get into trouble and need help. This is called an anarchic system, as opposed to a hierarchic one.
The next two assumptions deal with capabilities and intentions, respectively. All states have offensive military capabilities, although some have more than others, indeed sometimes many more than others. Capabilities are reasonably easy to measure because they are largely composed of material objects that can be seen, assessed, and counted.
Intentions are a different matter. States can never be certain about the intentions of other states, because intentions are inside the heads of leaders and thus virtually impossible to see and difficult to measure. In particular, states can never know with complete confidence whether another state might have its gun sights on them for one reason or another. The problem of discerning states’ intentions is especially acute when one ponders their future intentions, since it is almost impossible to know who the leaders of any country will be five or more years from now, much less what they will think about foreign policy.
The theory also assumes that states rank survival as their most important goal. This is not to say it is their only goal, for states invariably have numerous ambitions. However, when push comes to shove, survival trumps all other goals, basically because if a state does not survive, it cannot pursue those other goals. Survival means more than merely maintaining a state’s territorial integrity, although that goal is of fundamental importance; it also means preserving the autonomy of a state’s policymaking process. Finally, states are assumed to be rational actors, which is to say they are reasonably effective at designing strategies that maximize their chances of survival.
These assumptions, when combined, cause states to behave in particular ways. Specifically, in a world where there is some chance—even just a small one—that other states might have malign intentions as well as formidable offensive military capabilities, states tend to fear each other. That fear is compounded by what I call the “9-1-1” problem—the fact that there is no night watchman in an anarchic system whom states can call if trouble comes knocking at their door. Accordingly, they recognize they must look out for their own survival, and the best way to do that is to be especially powerful.
The logic here is straightforward: the more powerful a state is relative to its competitors, the less likely its survival will be at risk. No country in the Western Hemisphere, for example, would dare attack the United States, because it is so much stronger than any of its neighbors. This reasoning drives great powers to look for opportunities to move the balance of power in their favor, as well as to prevent other states from gaining power at their expense. The ultimate aim is to be the hegemon: that is, the only great power in the system…
Most Americans never think about it, but one of the main reasons the United States is able to station military forces all around the globe and intrude in the politics of virtually every region is that it faces no serious threats in the Western Hemisphere. If the United States had dangerous foes in its own backyard, it would be much less capable of roaming into distant regions.
The United States is the only regional hegemon in modern history. Five other great powers—Napoleonic France, Wilhelmine Germany, imperial Japan, Nazi Germany, and the Soviet Union—made serious attempts to dominate their respective regions, but they all failed. The United States did not end up dominating the Western Hemisphere in a fit of absentmindedness. On the contrary, the Founding Fathers and their successors consciously and deliberately sought to achieve hegemony in the Americas. In essence, they acted in accordance with the dictates of offensive realism.
When the United States finally gained its independence from Britain in 1783, it was a relatively weak country whose people were largely confined to the Atlantic seaboard. The British and Spanish empires surrounded the new country, and hostile Native American tribes controlled much of the territory between the Appalachian Mountains and the Mississippi River. It was a dangerous neighborhood for sure.
Over the next seven decades, the Americans responded to this precarious situation by marching across their continent to the Pacific Ocean, creating a huge and powerful country in the process. To realize their so-called Manifest Destiny, they murdered large numbers of Native Americans and stole their land, bought Florida from Spain (1819) and what is now the center of the United States from France (1803). They annexed Texas in 1845 and then went to war with Mexico in 1846, taking what is today the American southwest from their defeated foe. They cut a deal with Britain to gain the Pacific northwest in 1846 and finally, in 1853, acquired additional territory from Mexico with the Gadsden Purchase.
The United States also gave serious thought to conquering Canada throughout much of the nineteenth century. Indeed, the Americans invaded Canada in 1812 with that goal in mind. Some of the islands in the Caribbean would probably have become part of the United States had it not been for the fact that numerous slaves were in that area and the northern states did not want more slaveholding states in the Union. The plain truth is that in the nineteenth century the supposedly peace-loving United States compiled a record of territorial aggrandizement that has few parallels in recorded history. It is not surprising that Adolf Hitler frequently referred to America’s westward expansion as a model after Germany invaded the Soviet Union in June 1941. “Here in the East,” he said, “a similar process will repeat itself for a second time as in the conquest of America.”
There was another job to be done to achieve regional hegemony: push the European great powers out of the Western Hemisphere and keep them out. This goal is what the Monroe Doctrine is all about. The United States was not powerful enough to act on those principles when President James Monroe articulated them in 1823; but by the end of the nineteenth century, the European great powers had become minor players in the Americas. The United States had achieved regional hegemony, which made it a remarkably secure great power.