The Tragedy Of Great Power Politics (2001)

I’m reading John J. Mearsheimer’s 2001 classic:

* Great powers that have no reason to fight each other—that are merely concerned with their own survival—nevertheless have little choice but to pursue power and to seek to dominate the other states in the system. This dilemma is captured in brutally frank comments that Prussian statesman Otto von Bismarck made during the early 1860s, when it appeared that Poland, which was not an independent state at the time, might regain its sovereignty. “Restoring the Kingdom of Poland in any shape or form is tantamount to creating an ally for any enemy that chooses to attack us,” he believed, and therefore he advocated that Prussia should “smash those Poles till, losing all hope, they lie down and die; I have every sympathy for their situation, but if we wish to survive we have no choice but to wipe them out.”

* If China becomes an economic powerhouse it will almost certainly translate its economic might into military might and make a run at dominating Northeast Asia. Whether China is democratic and deeply enmeshed in the global economy or autocratic and autarkic will have little effect on its behavior, because democracies care about security as much as nondemocracies do, and hegemony is the best way for any state to guarantee its own survival. Of course, neither its neighbors nor the United States would stand idly by while China gained increasing increments of power. Instead, they would seek to contain China, probably by trying to form a balancing coalition. The result would be an intense security competition between China and its rivals, with the ever-present danger of great-power war hanging over them. In short, China and the United States are destined to be adversaries as China’s power grows.

* 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. For example, politics in almost every region of the world were deeply influenced by the competition between the Soviet Union and the United States between 1945 and 1990. The two world wars that preceded the Cold War had a similar effect on regional politics around the world. Each of these conflicts was a great-power rivalry, and each cast a long shadow over every part of the globe.

* 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.54 In particular, realism is at odds with the deep-seated sense of optimism and moralism that pervades much of American society. Liberalism, on the other hand, fits neatly with those values. Not surprisingly, foreign policy discourse in the United States often sounds as if it has been lifted right out of a Liberalism 101 lecture.

Americans are basically optimists.55 They regard progress in politics, whether at the national or the international level, as both desirable and possible. As the French author Alexis de
Tocqueville observed long ago, Americans believe that “man is endowed with an indefinite faculty of improvement.”56 Realism, by contrast, offers a pessimistic perspective on international politics. It depicts a world rife with security competition and war, and holds out little promise of an “escape from the evil of power, regardless of what one does.”57 Such pessimism is at odds with the powerful American belief that with time and effort, reasonable individuals can cooperate to solve important social problems.58 Liberalism offers a more hopeful perspective on world politics, and Americans naturally find it more attractive than the gloomy specter drawn by realism.

Americans are also prone to believe that morality should play an important role in politics. As the prominent sociologist Seymour Martin Lipset writes, “Americans are Utopian moralists who press hard to institutionalize virtue, to destroy evil people, and eliminate wicked institutions and practices.”59 This perspective clashes with the realist belief that war is an intrinsic element
of life in the international system. Most Americans tend to think of war as a hideous enterprise that should ultimately be abolished from the face of the Earth. It might justifiably be used for lofty
liberal goals like fighting tyranny or spreading democracy, but it is morally incorrect to fight wars merely to change or preserve the balance of power. This makes the Clausewitzian conception of warfare anathema to most Americans.6

The American proclivity for moralizing also conflicts with the fact that realists tend not to distinguish between good and bad states, but instead discriminate between states largely on the basis of their relative power capabilities. A purely realist interpretation of the Cold War, for example, allows for no meaningful difference in the motives behind American and Soviet behavior during that conflict. According to realist theory, both sides were driven by their concerns about the balance of power, and each did what it could to maximize its relative power. Most Americans would recoil at this interpretation of the Cold War, however, because they
believe the United States was motivated by good intentions while the Soviet Union was not Liberal theorists do distinguish between good and bad states, of course, and they usually identify liberal democracies with market economies as the most worthy. Not surprisingly, Americans tend to like this perspective, because it identifies the United States as a benevolent force in world politics and portrays its real and potential rivals as misguided or malevolent troublemakers. Predictably, this line of thinking fueled the euphoria that attended the downfall of the Soviet Union and the end of the Cold War. When the “evil empire” collapsed, many
Americans (and Europeans) concluded that democracy would spread across the globe and that world peace would soon break out. This optimism was based largely on the belief that democratic America is a virtuous state. If other states emulated the United States, therefore, the world would be populated by good states, and this development could only mean the end of international conflict.

About Luke Ford

I've written five books (see My work has been covered in the New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, and on 60 Minutes. I teach Alexander Technique in Beverly Hills (
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