The Tragedy of Great Power Politics

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The Tragedy of Great Power Politics
Author John Mearsheimer
Country United States
Language English
Genre Politics
Publication date
Media type Print (Hardback)

The Tragedy of Great Power Politics[1] is a book by the American scholar John Mearsheimer on the subject of international relations theory published by W.W. Norton & Company in 2001. Mearsheimer explains and argues for his theory of "offensive realism" by stating its key assumptions, evolution from early realist theory, and its predictive capability. He readily acknowledges the inherent pessimism of offensive realism and its predictions, because Mearsheimer's world is one in which conflict between great powers will never see an end.

Main arguments[edit]

Anarchy and the struggle for power[edit]

Mearsheimer posit that states are always searching for opportunities to gain power over their rivals. He argues that states pursue power because of the anarchic system in which they operate. In international politics there is no hierarchy, no "night watchman" to turn to when one state attacks another. For this reason, states are forced to rely only on themselves for security. Thus states seek to expand their power both militarily, geographically and economically in order to increase their security.

Primacy of land power[edit]

A state's power in international politics, Mearsheimer argues, derives from the strength of its military for two reasons. First, because land force is the dominant military power in the modern era, and second, because large bodies of water limit the power projection capabilities of land armies.

The stopping power of water[edit]

Mearsheimer argues that the presence of oceans in the world prevents any state from reaching world hegemony. He posits that large bodies of water limit the power projection abilities of militaries and thus naturally divide up powers in the globe.

He uses the example of the isolation provided to Britain by the English Channel which allowed it to act as an offshore balancer on the European continent. Britain, he argues, never had ambitions to control or dominate continental Europe. Instead it aimed only to maintain the balance of power and ensure that no state could become so powerful as to achieve regional hegemony on the continent. For much of the 19th century, Britain had an industrial capacity that would have allowed it to easily invade and dominate much of Europe. However, Britain chose not to attempt domination of the continent in part because it calculated that its aims of achieving security could be more cheaply achieved if the European powers could be played off against each other. By so doing they would be occupied on the European continent and unable to challenge Britain across the English Channel or interfere with Britain's economic interests in Asia and Africa.

State strategies for survival[edit]

Objective 1 - Regional hegemony[edit]

In addition to their principal goal which is survival, Great powers seek to achieve three main objectives. Their highest aim is to achieve regional hegemony. Mearsheimer argues although achieving global hegemony would provide maximum security to a state, it is not feasible because the world has too many oceans which inhibit the projection of military power. Thus the difficulty of projecting military power across large bodies of water makes it impossible for great powers to dominate the world. Regional hegemons strongly try to prevent other states from achieving regional hegemony. Instead, they try to maintain an even balance among of power in regions and act to ensure the existence of multiple powers so as to keep those multiple powers occupied among themselves rather than being able to challenge the regional hegemon's interests which they would be free to do if they were not occupied by their neighboring competitors. Mearsheimer uses the example of the United States which achieved regional hegemony in the late 1800s and then sought to intervene wherever it looked as though another state might achieve hegemony in a region. These interventions are:

Objective 2 - Maximum wealth[edit]

Great powers seek to maximize their share of the world's wealth because economic strength is the foundation of military strength. Great powers seek to prevent rival powers from dominating wealth-producing regions of the world. The United States, for example, sought to prevent the Soviet Union from dominating Western Europe and the Middle East. Had the Soviets gained control of these areas, the balance of power would have been altered significantly against the U.S.

Objective 3 - Nuclear superiority[edit]

Mearsheimer asserts that great powers seek nuclear superiority over their rivals. Great powers exist in a world of multiple nuclear powers with the assured capacity to destroy their enemies called mutually assured destruction (MAD). Mearsheimer disagrees with the assertions that states are content to live in a MAD world and that they would avoid developing defenses against nuclear weapons. Instead he argues that great powers would not be content to live in a MAD world and would try to search for ways to gain superiority over their nuclear rivals.

Rise of American power; 1800–1900[edit]

The United States was a strongly expansionist power in the Americas. Mearsheimer points to the comment made by Henry Cabot Lodge that the United States had a "record of conquest, colonization and territorial expansion unequaled by any people in the 19th century". In the 1840s Europeans began speaking about the need to preserve a balance of power in America and contain further American expansion.

But by 1900 the United States had achieved regional hegemony and in 1895 its Secretary of State Richard Olney told the UK's Lord Salisbury "today the U.S. is practically sovereign on this continent and its fiat is law upon the subjects within its interposition...its infinite resources and isolated position render it master of the situation and practically invulnerable against all other powers".


Charles Kupchan of the Council on Foreign Relations called it a "important and impressive book", in which Mearsheimer "elegantly lays out his theoretical approach to the study of international politics". However, he is very critical of the way Mearsheimer "(mis)uses history" to compound his theory. Furthermore, Kupchan decries Mearsheimer's conviction in his own theory and his inability to be "more open to eclecticism in explaining politics among the great powers".[2] John A. Hall of McGill University found the book's arguments strengthened by "a tightness and coherence".[3]


One review held that rapprochement between Britain and the United States at the turn of the twentieth century and the success of the European Union in transforming Europe’s geopolitical landscape cast serious doubt on the notion that balancing and destructive rivalry are inescapable features of international system. Had Mearsheimer analyzed episodes of lasting peace that defy the predictions of balance-of-power theory, perhaps he would be less convinced of the pervasive logic of offensive realism.[4]

Another critique of Mearsheimer is it ignored transnational superstructures like Capitalism and non state actors and individual agencies within the state like the institutions. Mearsheimer argues that states cannot provide each other with guarantees that they do not harbor hostile intentions. However, as with the assumption that domestic politics are irrelevant, he simply asserts that this is fact. Thus the question still remains, as Harrison Wagner[5] skillfully points out, whether democracy or trade or some other mechanism could lead states not to fight, which is also consistent with the broader perspective of Kantian Peace Triangle.

Mearsheimer argues that the type of polarity in the international system is the cause of war. He argues that[6] the configuration of power that generates the most fear is a multipolar system that contains the potential hegemon: "unbalanced multipolarity". Balanced multipolarity -where there is no potential hegemon, can still have power asymmetry, but, the asymmetries will not be as articulated as in the case of unbalanced mulipolarity and that is why the fear is less in Balanced multipolarity. Fear is least in bipolarity where there is usually a rough balance of power between the two major states. However the bargaining theory[7] of war refuted this claim with the fact that war is costly. Given that war is costly, and states are rational actors there has to have something more than the polarity that would instigate nations to incur the cost of war that is non-negative.[8]

See also[edit]


  1. ^
  2. ^ Kupchan, Charles A. (September 2003). "Review of The Tragedy of Great Power Politics". The International History Review. 
  3. ^ Hall, John A. (Autumn 2003). "A Perpetual and Restless Desire of Power After Power". The Canadian Journal of Sociology 28 (4): 561–569. 
  4. ^
  5. ^ Wagner 2007 pg. 23
  6. ^ Chapter Eight of the book
  7. ^ Werner, S. and Filson, D. (2002).
  8. ^ Fearon, J. (1995). Rationalist explanations of war. International Organization, 49(3):379-414

External links[edit]