Keir A. Lieber

John Mearsheimer, the R. Wendell Harrison Distinguished Service Professor of Political Science at the University of Chicago, has a gift for generating controversy. In an address he gave in 1997 to the entering freshman class about the aims of an undergraduate education, Mearsheimer argued that Chicago and all other major colleges and universities in this country are remarkably amoral institutions. The main reason that universities like Chicagowhose principal benefactor, John D. Rockefeller, was deeply interested in promoting Christian values at the universitymake little effort to provide students with moral guidance is that doing so would violate their most important mission: to teach critical thinking. Critical thinking, in turn, involves asking the important questions, challenging prevailing truths when one believes they are wrong and making convincing arguments of one’s own.

In The Tragedy of Great Power Politics Mearsheimer tackles truly big questions of international life, challenges the prevailing optimism about the obsolescence of great-power war in the 21st century and offers a bold and provocative realist theory of international politics. The basic argument is clear, if grim: in a world of independent states with no central governing authority above them, great powers fear and seek to dominate each other in a relentless, zero-sum struggle for power.

The attacks of Sept. 11 did much to tarnish the optimistic belief that the spread of democracy, free trade and liberal values in the post-cold war world had ushered in a new era of peace and prosperity. This book, completed before the attacks, dismantles that happy illusion. Great-power security competition and military conflict are not just matters of historical record; they are also enduring features of international politicssomething that will become all too apparent in the coming decades.

The source of the problem lies not with evil states (though surely these exist) or the insatiable lust for power in human nature (as argued by earlier realists, such as Hans Morgenthau and Reinhold Niebuhr), but in the structure of the international system. Although merely concerned with their own survival, states can never be certain that others have benign intentions and cannot count on being rescued when they dial 911. The only certainty in a world of uncertainty is that greater power equals more security. States therefore look for and take advantage of opportunities to gain power over their rivals whenever they have the chance. In short, survival mandates aggression. The logical conclusion is that the ultimate aim of every great power is to be the hegemonthe mightiest power in the system.

Those wishing to reject this sad depiction of international politics as an inherently ruthless and dangerous business, must confront Mearsheimer’s rigorous and compelling logic (which is refreshingly free of academic jargon) and impressive historical evidence. Indeed, even the casually interested reader will find gripping the account of how great powers have behaved in the modern era. One chapter, Strategies for Survival, sketches the various approaches states use to shift the balance of power in their favor, ranging from war, blackmail and balancing to buck-passing, appeasement and bandwagoning (as well as the evocative bait and bleed and bloodletting strategies). Another chapter, Great Powers in Action, is a vivid portrayal of the five dominant great powers of the past 150 years ruthlessly employing these strategies, showing how each state took advantage of almost every favorable shift in the balance of power to improve its position aggressively.

It is fair to ask whether Mearsheimer’s theory, which he labels offensive realism, is in fact realistic. Have the United States and Britain, for example, been as opportunistically motivated as nakedly expansionist Nazi Germany, post-Meiji Restoration Japan and the Soviet Union? After all, the 19th-century Pax Britannica did not see British forces running roughshod over the European continent; nor did the United States seek territorial conquest in Europe or Asia in the first half of the 20th century, when its preponderance of power gave it the opportunity for further gain. If anything, Americans view their country’s mission in idealist (not power political) terms, and American leaders have always had to contend with the public’s reflexive desire to bring the troops home. Mearsheimer explains the apparent contradiction by arguing that the United States, having achieved hegemony in the Western Hemisphere, did not attempt to extend its power abroad because of the difficulty of projecting military forces across the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans. All states desire global hegemony, he argues, but the stopping power of water limits state aspirations to achieving regional hegemony.

Mearsheimer further turns the challenge on its head by arguing that only his theory can explain why the United States sent forces to fight in Europe and Asia when it did: Whenever a potential peer competitor emerged in either of those regions, as happened in both world wars and the cold war, the United States sought to check it and preserve America’s unique position as the world’s only regional hegemon. The United States, like Britain, thus acts as an offshore balancer, passing the buck to local great powers to check any aspiring hegemon, but stepping in with its own forces to defeat and eliminate the rising power when the danger of regional hegemony becomes too great.

Other apparent empirical anomalies and logical inconsistencies are harder to explain. Why do U.S. forces remain in Europe a decade after the collapse of the Soviet Union and in the absence of any local great power trying to dominate the region? If oceans make for formidable barriers to expansion, why would the United States feel threatened or even care if a hegemon emerged in another region? Is territorial conquest likely in a nuclear world? More broadly, if opportunistic expansion and the pursuit of hegemony are the best strategies for survival, why have their most committed practitioners so often ended up on the ash heap of history? Perhaps Napoleonic France and Nazi Germany would have survived and prospered had they not pursued such self-defeating behavior.

Although Mearsheimer anticipates and responds to these and similar questions, he rightly acknowledges that any social scientific theory is bound to face anomalies. Despite these inherent theoretical limitations, Mearsheimer (unlike too many scholars) is willing to predict the future and offer policy guidance. The current structure of power in Europe and Asia, which has resulted in relatively low-key competition among the great powers over the last decade, is unsustainable. One likely scenario is that the United States will withdraw from Europe, Germany will emerge as a potential hegemon and the continent will face an intense security competition and possibly war. In Asia, the United States and China are destined to be adversaries if the trajectory of Chinese growth continues. Hence engagement with China is doomed to fail. According to the author, the United States should instead do everything in its power to slow the rise of China.

The future of international politics may be as nasty as its past. Some readers will reject this conclusion, while others will regretfully concur. But coming to grips with The Tragedy of Great Power Politics will be absorbing for all.


Keir A. Lieber is assistant professor of government and international studies at the University of Notre Dame.