Losers locked in an endless game

The Tragedy of Great Power Politics
June 21, 2002

In The Tragedy of Great Power Politics , John Mearsheimer promulgates a variant of international relations theory that he unabashedly labels "offensive realism". This is offered as both a proscriptive and descriptive account of the brutish world of power politics, in which states are both obliged to behave in the self-aggrandising modes he outlines, but also ought to take due notice of the dictates of offensive realism if they want to play up and play the game most effectively.

The "game" - which we might call Hegemon - proceeds as follows. It can (indeed must, in Mearsheimer's view) be played by states of all sizes and ages, although more propitious outcomes will result for all involved when the game is dominated by two players of equally matched strength. Each contender strives to achieve world hegemony. But since no player has ever achieved enduring global suzerainty - and, under the rules of engagement, cannot - the contest is destined to endure, endlessly, with its unfulfilled and fractious players locked in tragic competition over an unreachable goal. In struggling for hegemony the players are limited to a narrow repertoire of "moves" by which they may augment their relative share of power at the expense of others (this being a decidedly zero-sum game).

Waging war is a common resort of Hegemon's more ambitious, though sometimes misguided, contenders. Short of this gamble, players may choose between Balancing, Buck-passing, Blackmailing, Baiting or Bleeding. Although there will never be a decisive champion, the pole position can be deduced from relative amounts of power commanded by the players. Power is straightforwardly reckoned by population size and wealth - together permitting the construction of larger armies with which to engage in war or various of the more assertive B-moves.

An inescapably anarchic international system ensures that, for Mearsheimer, this is (and will remain) the only game in town. Without a world government - an omnipotent Leviathan - to check ambitious would-be hegemons, allaying insecurities about others' intentions, all states are destined to fearful mistrust. Ceaseless self-aggrandisement constitutes the best insurance against future annihilation. Striving for hegemony is thus structurally determined, not somehow "pre-programmed" into states' DNA. And the structure itself is unsusceptible to change, for why should states trust any supranational body, composed of others fashioned in their own insecure image, to answer pleas for assistance against aggressors?

This condition of endemic existential anxiety, in which all are obliged to act on worst-case assumptions, constitutes Mearsheimer's "9/11 problem". When trouble comes, there is "no central authority to which a threatened state can turn for help". "In international politics," he insists, "God helps those who help themselves".

But does She? The problem with Mearsheimer's analysis is that by treating states as the sole significant actors, and power as such a crudely fungible asset, it isolates conflictual behaviour as the only international phenomenon warranting explanation. "It pays to be selfish in a self-help world" is the governing dictum, and great power relations since Westphalia are read as entirely reflective of it. Dismissing at a stroke liberal or constructivist alternatives (now dominant on this side of the Atlantic but not on his), Mearsheimer defiantly insists that "the real world remains a realist world", and sagacious statespersons would do well to calibrate their actions accordingly.

Those hitherto unconvinced by this proposition are unlikely to find anything in "offensive realism" to win them around. As in other forms of realism, states are wilfully reduced to "billiard balls", colliding with one another in various configurations - their inner composition entirely irrelevant to trajectories arced across the green baize. For all the historical examples offered, this is a profoundly ahistorical mode of theorising: states' essential behaviour is unchanging, irrespective of time, place or polity. What Mearsheimer claims as distinctive about his own account is that, unlike other realists, he treats states' search for power as unlimited (with world hegemony the ultima ratio of international politics), and bipolarity as the most stable configuration of power.

Hankering for the mutual assurance of the cold war, Mearsheimer regards the contemporary world as a dangerous, if seemingly more pacific, place. Naive liberals rest content on Hegelian laurels, believing the game of Hegemon decisively won, unaware that time is merely out but not over. In particular, he warns (repeatedly and bluntly) against the threat posed by a dynamic China - whose economic rise and integration into the structures of global capitalism the US should do everything possible to thwart.

Such optimism as existed, however, was surely punctured by the events of September 11. But Mearsheimer's preoccupation with the "9/11 problem" renders him incapable as a commentator on the 9/11 problem. For all the Hobbesianism of a world view whose bottom line is that "for every neck, there are two hands to choke it", Mearsheimer seems incapable of anticipating a rude interruption of the rule-bound game by an unseemly pitch invasion. Couched in pugnacious prose, dismissive of identities and allegiances that break the billiard ball's smooth surface, Mearsheimer's theory is left looking rather more "offensive" than "realistic".

Susan Carruthers is senior lecturer in international politics, University of Wales, Aberystwyth.

The Tragedy of Great Power Politics

Author - John Mearsheimer
ISBN - 0 393 02025 8 and 97839 7
Publisher - Norton
Price - £22.00 and £16.95
Pages - 555

Please login or register to read this article

Register to continue

Get a month's unlimited access to THE content online. Just register and complete your career summary.

Registration is free and only takes a moment. Once registered you can read a total of 3 articles each month, plus:

  • Sign up for the editor's highlights
  • Receive World University Rankings news first
  • Get job alerts, shortlist jobs and save job searches
  • Participate in reader discussions and post comments

Have your say

Log in or register to post comments