The New Observer Book Reviews,International affairs,Reviews The Tragedy of Great Power Politics – Professor John Mearsheimer

The Tragedy of Great Power Politics – Professor John Mearsheimer

Introduction to the review

This book was first published in 2001 and an updated edition was published in 2014. It was, therefore, written before The Great Delusion – Liberal Dreams and International Realities, which we have already reviewed. In this book scholar of International Relations Professor John Mearsheimer outlines his theory of “offensive realism”. In The Great Delusion Mearsheimer critiques liberal theories of international relations; democratic peace theory, economic interdependence theory and liberal institutionalism. (Chapter 7). In the present book he does not contrast his theory of “offensive realism” with liberal theories but with the rival realist theory of “defensive realism”.

The tragedy of Great Power Politics is that Great Powers are programmed to automatically seek to become more powerful than other Great Powers or potential Great Powers, aiming at becoming a regional hegemon. They do this because this is the safest position for a state to occupy. No state can ever fully trust another state. The international system contains no arbiter or policeman who will control rogue states and keep them inline. It is an anarchic system in which each state must look to its own interests, and safety can only be found in being the most powerful. The struggle to be the most powerful can lead states to start wars, if they think that by doing so they will improve their position. It is not irrational to start wars when an opportunity arises which seems to provide scope to improve your position. The theory is both descriptive and prescriptive. That is; given the reality of power competition states should aim to increase their power and become a regional hegemon, if they have such an opportunity. If they don’t, another state will. The most we can hope for from the theory of offensive realism in terms of peace is that states do not start unnecessary wars, and are cautious in their dealings with other states to avoid accidental wars. It is then, a tragedy. 

In this book Mearsheimer outlines his theory and critiques the alternative realist theory of “defensive realism”. He supports his arguments with historical examples. It is worth pointing out that Mearsheimer believes his theory applies to all states regardless of their internal political composition. Totalitarian states, democracies and autocracies are governed by the rules of offensive realism. 

In this review we will follow our usual pattern of providing summaries of each chapter before concluding with our assessment of the book.

Chapter 1 – Introduction 

In his introduction Mearsheimer outlines, in brief, his theory of offensive realism, which we have described above. He argues, writing in 2001, that it is naive to think China will become peacefully integrated into the “international community of nations”. If China develops economically, (as it now has), it will engage in an attempt to become the regional hegemon in North-East Asia. Mearsheimer’s theory has reliable predictive power; China is indeed now doing just this. 

Mearsheimer defines a “Great Power” as any state which could “put up a serious fight against the most powerful state in the world”. Currently there are three Great Powers in the world; the US, China and Russia, with Russia being the weakest of the three. In the nuclear age Great Powers must have a nuclear capacity to withstand a first strike and strike back.

In his introduction Mearsheimer explains that power is the “currency of International Relations”. By power he essentially means military power. He argues that of the 3 types of military power, air, land and sea, it is land which matters the most. Air power and sea power can contribute to military victories but it is land power which is decisive. Military power in turn depends on the wealth and population size of a country. The discussion about power depends on some fairly simple concepts. The main concepts are that war and blackmail are the main strategies by which states gain power. When facing a rival the main strategies which states use to maintain the status quo are balancing and buck-passing. Balancing involves joining with other states to contain a would-be hegemon. Buck-passing is when states try to get another state to face the rising power instead of them. 

Mearsheimer briefly discusses liberal theories of International Relations. (He critiques liberalism as it applies to International Relations in much more detail in The Great Delusion – Liberal Dreams and International Realities). Unlike realism, for which it doesn’t matter what political arrangement a state has, (e.g. democracy, autocracy) liberalism believes that democratic states are much less likely to go to war with other democratic states. As he discusses in The Great Delusion – Liberal Dreams and International Realities one of the problems with this view is that it leads liberal states to wage war to spread democracy. Mearsheimer discusses human nature realism and defensive realism, two alternatives to his realist theories. Human nature realism says that states seek more power because they are led by individuals who are hard-wired to want more power. Defensive realism argues there is a power contest between states but the impetus is towards maintaining the status quo. 

In contrast to liberalism, which is optimistic, realism offers a pessimistic view of international relations. There is an interesting section in which Mearsheimer says that Americans are drawn to liberalism, in international relations, because it is more aligned with their natural moral and hopeful outlook. Because it does not accept that states (including its own state) act based on power-calculations, liberalism is inclined to explain the wars it is engaged in as “defending democracy” or “fighting tyranny”. Despite deploying the moral rhetoric of liberalism the US in practice bases its foreign policy on hard-core realistic (power) principles, just like everyone else.

Why liberal theories of international relations are not true

An additional note on the three main theories of liberalism in International Relations, democratic peace theory, economic interdependence theory and liberal institutionalism. (This section is taken from Great Delusion – Liberal Dreams and International Realities Chapter 7 and included here for convenience). Against democratic peace theory Mearsheimer points out that if even one state in a system is not a democracy then even if true democratic peace theory has to admit that the democratic states in such a system will have to face a realistic thinking and acting adversary and will themselves need to act like realists. But the theory is not valid; it is flawed. Mearsheimer finds 4 cases where democracies have gone to war with each other; for example in WWI Germany was in fact a liberal democracy and it went to war with other liberal democracies. Mearsheimer continues to argue that none of the explanations for why democracies might be less likely to start wars are convincing, (whether against other democracies or not). For example; the idea that democratic and liberal states will not go to war with other democratic and liberal states because their citizens are used to solving disputes without violence fails because both democracy and liberalism depend on a higher, policing, power in the state which, in the last analysis, imposes order. There is no such superior law-enforcing force in the international arena. Another point is that liberal democracies are not necessarily free from nationalism, which can be a factor in wars. Another point is that the theory might suggest that even when liberal democracies go to war they do so with more respect and care for individual rights. But, this is not the case; American wages its wars just as violently as anyone else, (if not more so). Mearsheimer’s main argument is that liberalism is a potent force at home, but does not translate to international relations. There are various forms of economic interdependence theory which emphasise different factors, such as trade or globally integrated supply chains. Two arguments which Mearsheimer makes against economic interdependence theory are; one, that leaders might underestimate economic costs or allow political considerations to take higher place and two, that there are cases of countries at war continuing economic relations. (A case in point would be that the EU is still, in October 2023, buying significant amounts of Russian gas despite denouncing Russia as a nation of war criminals. EU-Russia trade has fallen but continues in key areas; very approximately EU sanctions only cover 50% of trade). [1] Finally, Mearsheimer argues that the theory of liberal institutionalism which states that international liberal institutions can prevent war is also flawed. International institutions do not prevent war because there is no enforcer. States can and do ignore any international obligations when they perceive their core power interests to be at stake. The above is a very brief summary of Mearsheimer’s critique of liberal theories of international relations. 

Chapter 2 – Anarchy and the struggle for power

In this chapter Mearsheimer presents his theory that states act to increase their power. By power, he essentially means military power – noting that military power is based on economic power. (A state with a large economy has potential military power as it can use its economic strength to build an army). 

At the root of this theory is the observation that the world is an anarchic place – at least for states. Within a state laws can be enforced by the ultimate holder of power, the state itself. Laws are enforceable and citizens can rely on the law to defend them against other citizens. In the international arena, there are laws but no enforcing power above the states, no higher authority. These states have to rely on themselves for security, and the most secure position is to be a hegemon. All Great Powers will strive to be a hegemon. Being world hegemon is not possible, since the vast distances and oceans between continents make it practically impossible for one power to rule the earth. Thus, states aim to be regional hegemons. Worse; a state which has achieved regional hegemon cannot tolerate another state becoming a regional hegemon in another region of the world. This is because it will be afraid that that far-off regional hegemon could form alliances with rival states in its own region and encourage them to challenge its regional hegemony. All this makes for an unstable world, a world of ‘constant security competition’. Great Powers compete to be top hegemon and will use military power in pursuit of this aim. Other contributory factors to this unstable state are the inherent lack of trust between states, who can never really know the intentions of another state, the imperative of states to survive and the fact that they are rational actors. The combination of these factors leads to an inevitable state of security competition. This appears to be similar to what some scholars call the “security dilemma”; one state, to be on the safe side, given that it doesn’t know the intentions of the states around it, develops its army, but to the other states this appears as a risk, and in turn they feel they need to develop their military might. 

Mearsheimer criticises the rival theory of “defensive realism”. In this view states just try to obtain sufficient power to feel defended. Mearsheimer points out that it is not possible to know how much power will be enough and so, in fact, states aim to be the hegemon as this is the only truly safe position. 

Chapter 3 – Wealth and Power 

In this chapter Mearsheimer discusses how he sees power. Essentially he measures power in terms of military might. The reason for this is that military violence is the ultimate decisive factor in international politics. He argues that while military might can be measured it is not possible to simply determine who will win a fight by counting up all the material and forces each side has; other factors such as strategy, weather, disease come into play. (He doesn’t surprisingly mention morale). He is also interested in latent power; this is the power of a state to build a large army and is a function of population size and wealth. He notes that there are cases where latent power is not necessarily reflected in military power, for example Japan has not built an army commensurate with its wealth. 

In his analysis of military power Mearsheimer argues that land armies are all important. Naval and air forces can help armies but as they cannot be used to conquer territory they are not the decisive factor. 

To measure wealth Mearsheimer uses, since 1960, GNP. However, he notes that it is important to be attentive to the level of industrialisation of a state. A semi-industrialised state with a large population may have a similar GNP to a more industrialised state with a smaller population but the latter may have more latent power because it has a higher level of technology. For the period prior to 1960 Mearsheimer uses different measures. There is also not a direct connection between latent power and power. Different countries can convert latent power into military power with different degrees of efficiency.

Mearshaimer notes (this was written in 2001) that China has a much larger population than the US. Furthermore they are industrialising rapidly. This means that they will soon have more latent power than the US. It is in this context that we can understand the current US attempt to prevent China getting access to advanced semiconductor making technology.

In his discussion of wealth Mearsheimer notes that after WWII the US was wealthier than the USSR. He notes that his theory would seem to predict that the European states would have allied to the USSR to balance against the US but this did not happen. He suggests that this was because wealth is not necessarily a fully reliable indicator of military power. (In the next chapter he argues that the European states were afraid of the land army of the USSR – which, from their point of view, was more of a threat than the far-off US army). He does not seem (as far as I can see) to allow the other explanation; that the European states chose to ally with the US, not based on balance of power considerations but because of shared cultural and linguistic affinity. 

Chapter 4 – The primacy of land power 

In this Chapter Mearsheimer argues that of the three forms for military power, sea, air and land, it is land which is of supreme importance. He also discusses the question of nuclear weapons.

A key part of Mearsheimer’s argument about military power relies on the concept of the stopping power of water. It is, for example, the stopping power of the world’s oceans which means that no state can be a true world Great Power. The stopping power of water explains why Great Britain did not become a European hegemon in the 19th century, despite having significantly more latent (economic) power than its rivals. It is just not easy to transport an entire army across water and make a contested landing against a defending power. A navy is more useful for transporting soldiers when the landing will not be contested. 

Mearsheimer evaluates the role that air-power are navies can play and concludes that their value lies in their ability to support land operations. While naval power and air-power can act independently, for example, bombing an enemy’s territory behind the lines, or a battle-ship firing missiles at targets along the coast, these actions are not decisive enough to win a war. 

This chapter contains a very interesting discussion of naval blockades. Blockades have two aims; either they aim to strangle the economy of the target country and weaken its ability to support its armed forces, or they aim to cause such deprivation in the civilian population that that population rises up and overthrows the regime in order to end the war. In general states who impose a blockade do not distinguish between these two aims. While Mearsheimer does not consider modern sanctions regimes in this section it seems to this review that we can transpose the entire discussion to this question since economic sanctions have the same aim and effect as a naval blockade – blocking exports to and imports from a target country. In this context it is interesting that Mearsheimer concludes that blockades are rarely effective. Mearsheimer reviews several historical cases of blockades, for example, by France against Great Britain in the Napoleanic wars. He concludes that in only one case; the US blockade of Japan during WWII did a blockade contribute to the defeat of the losing side, and in this case the blockade was only effective in conjunction with land power, and the nuclear attack on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Blockades fail because over time they become porous, because the target state can develop substitutes, because the target state may during the course of the war seize territory which it can exploit for substitutes. Furthermore, modern bureaucratic states are in a good position to manage the deficiencies caused by a blockade. One cannot help thinking of the example of anti-Russia sanctions. Designed, just like a traditional blockade, to weaken Russia’s military power and/or provoke a civilian rebellion, they are failing for the reasons which Mearsheimer discusses here. Mearsheimer also makes the point that bombing campaigns designed to cause civilians to rise up against their regime also fail. In general they seem to generate more anger against the attacking state. (At the time of writing, during Israel’s campaign against civilians in Gaza, we see, in media reports, anger against the Israelis. I have not seen discontent voiced against the Hamas government, though there could, of course, be an element of media suppression). Another analogy; Mearsheimer points out that if an attacker brutalises a civilian population this will not make that population’s leadership ready to abdicate because they will be afraid that after this they will be subject to revenge by their own people for leading them to destruction. One can see that Zelensky and the other leaders in Ukraine (2023) are now in a position where were they to sue for peace they would be immediately at risk of being deposed (and possibly prosecuted) for having wasted so many Ukranian lives. “Thus, those leaders have a powerful incentive to ignore the pain being inflicted on their population and fight to the finish in the hope that they can pull out a victory and save their own skin”.

In considering air power Mearsheimer again looks at the historical record and concludes that independent air power has not caused the defeat of a target country which was also a major power as the attacker. In several historical cases, for example the allied bombing campaign against Germany in WWII the bombing campaign only came and was only possible after the target state was already well on the way to defeat. In a small number of cases where a major power tried to coerce a minor power through air power alone was this strategy partly successful though even in these cases it was not air power alone which proved decisive. As an example Mearsheimer cites the NATO air campaign against Yugoslavia in 1999. While that campaign did coerce Milosovich into agreeing to NATO demands about Kosovo other factors, such as the threat of a land invasion and doubts about Russian support were also instrumental. In the modern world Great Powers do not seek to coerce rival Great Powers (for example the US and Russia) by bombing their territory because of the threat of nuclear weapons.

Another strategy of air power is the attempt to kill the leader of the target country. The US attempted this in 1991 when they tried to kill Saddam Hussein. This fails either because they miss or because even if they are successful the replacement leader will continue the policies of his predecessor. This sentence I could not help quoting in full: “This strategy is based on the deep-seated American belief that hostile states are essentially comprised of benign citizens controlled by evil leaders.”. This absurd belief receives a prime expression in the film for children “Planet 51” in which a stray US astronaut lands on a foreign planet ruled by an evil dictator. The astronaut befriends a local boy and eventually all the people, even the dictator, now realise that the Americans are truly their saviours. Such is US propaganda. But, as Mearsheimer understands, they really believe these religious-based ideas. 

On nuclear weapons Mearsheimer asserts a realistic view; if two Great Powers both possess nuclear weapons and could survive and retaliate after a first strike, then this will discourage them from going to war. However, it will not, as some claim, completely eliminate the risk of military confrontation and thus land forces still matter. For example; “Therefore, great powers operating in a MAD world are likely to be considerably more cautious when contemplating a conventional war with one another than they would be in the absence of nuclear weapons.”. Looking at present circumstances, again, after this book was written, this seems to be borne out. The US and Russia are involved in an armed confrontation. The US is conscious of a risk of nuclear escalation and this affects its thinking. It contributes to the war while trying to find the level below that at which Russia will escalate to nuclear. This is just as Mearsheimer would predict.

Chapter 5 – Strategies for survival 

It is important to restate that in John Mearsheimer’s theory states’ primary aim is for survival. He does not accept the theory that states struggle for power because of some “will to power” in the leaders. The problem, for Mearsheimer, is that in a dangerous, ungoverned and unpredictable world, the world in which Great Powers find themselves, the best strategy for survival is to be the hegemon.

The two main strategies which states use in pursuit of power are war and blackmail. (We can see an example of the latter in Russian nuclear threats accompanying their attempt to redraw Ukraine in the present, 2023, war). Two further strategies are “bait and bleed” and “bloodletting”. These seem similar; in “bait and bleed” a state tries to provoke a war between its rivals. In “bloodletting” a state seeks to prolong a war which an adversary is already involved in. Again, Ukraine provides an example. The US has in effect publicly announced that their policy towards Russia is one of “bloodletting”, making sure that Russia suffers huge costs as a result of its actions in Ukraine (and defiance of the US world order). While China did not provoke this, some commentators argue that it suits China that the two rival Great Powers are currently fighting each other. “Balancing” is when smaller states combine to oppose a larger one, and “buck-passing” is when a state tries to get another one to fight the adversary for them. Buck-passing is more popular than balancing. “Appeasement” and “bandwagoning” are less successful. Appeasement is obvious – a concession is made to the aggressor state in the hope it will not attack. Bandwagoning is when a threatened state joins with an aggressor state. Both entail a transfer of power to the aggressor state. In this chapter Mearsheimer discusses war as a strategy for gaining power and balancing and buck passing as a strategy for maintaining the balance of power. 

Since wealth is latent power, states aim to be as wealthy as possible. We can also see how targetting the economy of a rival, for example with sanctions, is an attempt to reduce their power potential. Great Power states are more focussed on wealthy areas of the world. They seek to control, though not necessarily occupy, these areas in order to prevent them falling into the hands of a rival who could deny them access to the resources or opportunities for wealth generation. For example; the US seeks to dominate the Middle East so as to ensure a flow of oil, so necessary to its economy. 

Mearsheimer does not always make cheerful reading. His world is a bitter one. For example; against the view that war is a redundant strategy which always leads to loss, he shows, through historical evidence, that between 1815 and 1980 states which initiated war won, and thus improved their position, more than 60 percent of the time. 

Chapter 6 – Great Powers in Action

In this chapter Mearsheimer will use the historical record to support his thesis that Great Powers constantly seek to gain advantage over rivals – they only stop when they become a regional hegemon.. He argues that the evidence does not support the theory of defensive realism. Defensive realists believe that powers tend to seek “enough” power and stop at that. Mearsheimer examines cases which some defensive realists cite to support their viewpoint and shows that these cases can be explained otherwise and without denting his theory of offensive realism. 

In this chapter Mearsheimer examines the historical record in order to support his theory of offensive realism.This lends credence to his theory. He examines; Japan between 1868 and 1945, Germany between 1862 and 1945, the USSR between 1917 and 1991, and Italy from 1861 – 1943. He also discusses the Cold War.

Mearsheimer shows that during the time periods under consideration Imperial Japan followed the dictates of offensive realism, seeking to increase its power and become a regional hegemon. Germany behaved in an equally expansionist manner during the time period in which Mearsheimer studies it except for 1870-1900 when Germany did not behave in an expansionist way, but this was because it did not have enough power at this time to challenge its rivals. Hitler, suggests Mearshimer, may have been motivated by a poisonous racist ideology, but in terms of foreign policy there was continuity with previous German leaders and he sought to expand German power for the same reason that other offensive realists do – because becoming a regional hegemon, his aim, would have made Germany secure. 

In discussing the USSR Mearsheimer writes this (in 2001):

There was a deep-seated and long-standing fear among Russia’s rulers that their country was vulnerable to invasion, and that the best way to deal with that problem was to expand Russia’s borders.

This comment seems to be being proven again in 202/23 as Russia seeks to respond to the threat of NATO in Ukraine by biting off a chunk of Ukraine and expanding their borders. The USSR would, says Mearsheimer, have expanded into Western Europe after WWII but was blocked by NATO.They did manage to capture Bulgaria, Hungary and Romania during WWII even though doing so was not necessary to defeat Germany. The infamous Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact signed between Stalin and Hitler in 1939 saw the Soviet Union expand into Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia. Stalin also attacked Finland. The USSR, despite its nominally Communist ideology, behaved like a Great Power following the rules of offensive realism. There is another insight of Mearsheimer’s which is applicable to the present situation; discussing the Soviet take-over in Eastern Europe after WWII Mearsheimer explains why Stalin did not capture Finland or Yugoslavia:

If either Finland or Yugoslavia had shown an inclination to ally with NATO, the Soviet army probably would have invaded it.

If Mearsheimer is correct that the foreign policy of the USSR was a continuation of the offensive realist policies of the Tsarist era we can then project that line forwards and say that Putin “invaded” Ukraine in February 2022 precisely because Ukraine had (following the coup) committed to joining NATO. Mearsheimer’s theories are consistent over time. Mearsheimer argues that the USSR did not pull back from Eastern Europe at the end of the Cold War because they had given up the idea of expansion and the principles of offensive realism. On the contrary the reforms were designed to reduce East-West competition so they could gain access to Western technology and rescue and fix their failing economy. (Remember that military power depends on economic power). In practice the plan went wrong when the forces unleashed by the reforms unintentionally led to the breakup of the Soviet Union. I find this explanation convincing; the breakup of the USSR was an unintended side-effect of the reforms. Again; if we project forward into the Putin era we can say that this strategy was successful in one sense; Russia (albeit without the newly formed independent countries) did become partly integrated with the West, did gain access to Western technology and did build up its army. 

In discussing Italy between 1861 and 1943  Mearsheimer shows that Italy had a large appetite for expansion and while its goals were often not realised it still managed to acquire, often by allying with a winning side, or taking advantage of the weakness of a rival, substantial amounts of territory. It is important for Mearsheimer’s argument that he shows that Italy was aggressively expansionist both during its liberal political phase, 1861-1922 and in its fascist phase, 1922-1943. In the theory of offensive realism domestic politics are not defining. All states, of all political persuasions, follow the dictates of offensive realism. 

Mearsheimer considers the theory of defensive realism which says that states may be aggressive at times but this is irrational and due to malign domestic policies, rather than being baked into the system. Against this, Mearsheimer argues that the record shows that aggression can sometimes pay dividends; there is nothing irrational about it. And, as per the Italian example, all types of states engage in aggressive expansionism. Mearsheimer also argues that the fact that a state lost a war of expansion which it initiated does not mean it was acting irrationally. This is a post-hoc reading. War is unpredictable and it may be that the decision was based on a rational view, but they just happened to lose. He gives examples of this to support his case.

In discussing the nuclear standoff between the US and the USSR Mearsheimer shows that, as per the dictates of offensive realism, both sides were not content to accept MAD and accept the apparent stability that it provided. Both sides tried to develop technology and or a sheer volume of weapons, which would give them an unquestioned nuclear superiority. 

Chapter 7 – Offshore balancers

In this chapter Mearsheimer discusses America and Britain. Many Americans view their country as a virtuous actor, one which does not act according to Mearsheimer’s brutal, realist logic. Mearsheimer, of course, is keen to show that they do. Mearsheimer considers the case of the US in the period 1800-1900. He then considers the case of America in the 20th century. Despite being a Great Power, in the 20th century the US forwent opportunities to expand into Asia and Europe. When the US did get involved in Europe in the 20th century it was, in general, keen to come home again. Mearsheimer also considers the case of Great Britain. Britain was, in economic terms, the preeminent European power during the 19th century, but did not seek to take advantage of this to become the regional hegemon. In both these cases the reason the state did not expand was the same; the stopping power of water. It is just very hard to project military power across water. (In a previous chapter Mearsheimer has a lengthy discussion of the difficulties of making contested amphibious landings, which we have not covered in this short review). 

America has acted in Europe as an offshore balancer. As a regional hegemon in another region its primary aim in Europe has been to prevent the rise of a European regional hegemon. As previously discussed, Great Powers who achieve regional hegemony will try to prevent another state achieving regional hegemony in another region of the world. This is because were that to happen that state could then ally with minor powers in the region of the world of the first state and act against them. In pursuing this aim, to block the emergence of a rival regional hegemon, a state will, according to offensive realism, at first try to buck pass to local powers and only if that fails will they become involved themselves. Mearsheimer argues that both America and Britain have behaved precisely in line with his theory. Both states have only become militarily involved in Europe as a last resort to block the emergence of a European regional hegemon.

Of interest to the present conflict in Ukraine is Mearsheimer’s citing of the Monroe Doctrine. This was a policy set out by President James Monroe in 1823. It included a principle that America would not accept any European country influencing any of the independent states in the Western Hemisphere:

..with the Governments who have declared their independence and maintained it…we could not view any interposition for the purpose of oppressing them, or controlling in any other manner their destiny, by any European power in any other light than as the manifestation of an unfriendly disposition towards the United States

This is a statement that the US intended to be the sole hegemon in the Western hemisphere. No other power (presumably Europe was the only potential candidate at that time, which is why Asia is not mentioned) would be allowed to control “in any other manner” the destiny of ‘independent’ countries in Central or South America. Mearsheimer has pointed to this policy in the context of the recent Russian “invasion” of Ukraine. He points out that in demanding that a foreign power not perform a military take-over of its immediate neighbour, Ukraine, Russia is simply asserting its own version of the Monroe doctrine.

Mearsheimer explains that the US entered the First World War because there was a prospect of a European hegemon emerging – Germany and the buck-passing strategy, of relying on France, Britain and Russia, had failed. Interestingly, Mearsheimer notes that in 1917, when America joined the war, France and Russia were on the ropes, but also so was Britain. He says that Britain was in a precarious position because of unrestricted German submarine warfare attacking British shipping. This is not the only point in his account when he seems to credit naval forces with a decisive role. However, his overall theory is that naval and land forces are only significant in altering the balance of power when used in a supporting role for land forces. I am not sure if this is a contradiction or the issue is that while naval power can weaken an opponent, as in this case, it, alone, cannot lead to territorial conquest.

Mearsheimer explains the fact that the US stayed in Europe after WWII by saying that after the war there was no power in Europe which could have staved off a Soviet attack. Thus, in order to prevent a regional hegemon emerging in Europe – the USSR – the US had to remain committed to the continent. Again, according to the theory, a regional hegemon will try to prevent a hegemon establishing itself in another region for fear that that hegemon could work with smaller states in the first hegemon’s region to attack the first hegemon. This part of his theory does not seem to be on such solid ground as the main part of his theory; states will either try to be a regional hegemon or, try to buck-pass or balance to prevent another state becoming one – within a region. Even if a hegemon in Europe worked with, for example, Mexico, to attack the US the European hegemon would still need to transport vast amounts of material across the ocean. Though, Mearsheimer might point out that this would be a transport operation rather than an amphibious assault. Even so; this threat seems to this review to be qualitatively lower than the threat from an immediate neighbour on the same continent. 

In discussing the foreign policy of Great Britain from 1791-1990, Mearsheimer notes that Britain has been called ‘Perfidious Albion’. This reflects the role that Britain has played in Europe. In general Britain has tried to buck-pass for as long as possible before becoming involved in European conflicts, letting other states do the work as much as possible. 

Chapter 8 – Balancing versus Buck-Passing 

Balancing and buck-passing are two methods which Great Powers use to deal with opponents. Buck-passing is the preferred option. In buck-passing a state tries to get another state to fight the potential rival. As we discussed in the section on the previous chapter, Britain in the 19th and 20th centuries tried, where possible, to pass the buck to other European states. For example, in the run-up to WWI, Mearsheimer argues, Britain hoped to let France and Russia deal with Germany and only reluctantly became involved when it was clear that would not be sufficient. Balancing is the policy of joining forces with other states to make an alliance against a threat. For example, the Triple Entente between Russia, France and Britain to contain Germany is an example of balancing. According to Mearsheimer, states prefer buck-passing over balancing, as, if it works, there are no costs to them. Balancing is difficult because allies cannot be relied on. The more power a potential hegemon has the more likely is it that its opponents will resort to balancing over buck-passing. Buck-passing does not work in bi-polar systems because there is another Great Power to which a threatened Great Power can pass the buck.

In this chapter Mearsheimer supports his position with historial examples. One of the strengths of this book is precisely the way that the theoretical positions are illustrated and supported with detailed reference to the historical record.

Buck-passing is most common in multi-polar states where there is no single candidate for regional hegemony and power is evenly distributed. Balancing is more common when there is a strong single candidate for regional hegemony. In this case, it makes sense for the other states, who are all immediately threatened, to balance against the would-be regional hegemon. Geography is also a  factor; distant states (without a land-border) with the aspiring hegemon and threat, are more likely to buck-pass.

This chapter includes a fascinating discussion of the period in European history from 1789 – 1815. This was the period when Napoleonic France attempted to become a regional hegemon. Mearsheimer’s account of bucking-passing and balancing by France, Britain, Russia, Prussia and Austria is convincing. It doesn’t “prove” Mearsheimer’s theory but if we imagine a group of young hoodlums fighting a street battle we can imagine them engaging in the strategies of buck-passing (leaving someone else to fight the tough guy) and balancing (joining with others to attack the tough guy if buck-passing is not an option or if it fails). 

Whether states will buck-pass or balance is determined by the distribution of power and geography. In this chapter Mearsheimer has illustrated this with examples from history. 

Chapter 9 – The Causes of Great Power War 

It is a key part of Mearsheimer’s thinking that the international system is anarchic. Unlike the situation within a state there is no global-level police force which can enforce international law. Thus, competition triumphs. But, this alone does not explain why wars between Great Powers break out. The second factor is the distribution of power. Mearsheimer uses the schema of unipolarity, bipolarity and multipolarity. Unipolarity is a situation where there is only one Great Power; this is rare but the world was in this state after the collapse of the USSR for a period. Bipolarity is, of course, when there are two competing Great Powers. Multipolarity is when there are multiple Great Powers in the system. He argues that the most peaceful arrangement is bipolarity. The least stable is unbalanced multipolar systems. Balanced multipolar systems fall somewhere in between. In this chapter he outlines his theory and again supports it with historical examples from the period of European history 1792-1990. (Because of the number of states and conflicts this seems to be a particularly rich field on which to test his theories). 

It is worth emphasising, in case it is not already clear, that Mearsheimer’s analysis is a structural one. He sees the root of conflict primarily in the structure of the international system and, thus, not in human nature, or in the arising of particular leaders, or political ideologies. 

In multipolar arrangements there is simply more likelihood of disparities of power. These disparities lead to more instability. (The explanation almost reads like a physics textbook; it is all about states and forces; this theory has no ‘human factor’ as such). In unbalanced multipolar arrangements one state is a potential hegemon. The logic of offensive realism is that such a state will not be content with its already superior position; rather it will seek to use its tentative superior position to achieve the status of regional hegemon, (or even world supremacy), because this is the only truly safe position. It will thus be motivated to go to war. Other states will recognise this and may form a balancing coalition against the potential hegemon. In turn, the potential hegemon will see this as a threat and may be moved to take steps to increase its security. This, essentially, is the security dilemma. We can see it in the present situation vis a vis Ukraine. NATO is increasing its presence in the Baltics to  ‘defend against Russia’. In turn, Russia sees this as a threat and is taking steps to ‘defend’ against ‘NATO aggression’. 

Mearsheimer reviews the wars between the Great Powers in the period in question; France, Italy, Austria, Prussia, Russia and Great Britain. (The actual presentation is of course more detailed; for example Italy only became a Great Power in 1861).He also includes the US because it became heavily involved in European wars in the 20th century. Mearsheimer then simply tabulates the results; for each of the three arrangements, bipolarity, balanced multipolarity and unbalanced multipolarity he counts up the number of years in which there was a war (between Great Powers or multiple states or between a Great Power and a minor power) and the number of deaths. The results, using both the number of years of war measure and the overall deaths measure resoundingly support his thesis. 

Thus, war was going on 18.3 percent of the time in balanced multipolarity, compared with 2.2 percent in bipolarity and 79.5 percent in unbalanced multipolarity. Regarding deadliness, there were approximately 1.2 million military deaths in the various wars fought in balanced multipolarity, which is far less than the 27 million in unbalanced multipolarity, but substantially more than the 10,000 in bipolarity.

Chapter 10 – Can China rise peacefully?

This chapter was added in 2014 in order to address how China’s emergence as a Great Power might play out. In 2023 China is even more of a Great Power than it was in 2014, though there are some signs its economic growth is beginning to slow.

Mearsheimer’s view is:

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.

Some of Mearsheimer’s predictions are already coming true. For example; he argues that China’s neighbours in Asia are likely to join with the US to form a balancing coalition against China. In 2023 the US and the Philippines renewed a long-standing defence treaty. [2] This treaty update explicitly commits the US to come to the aid of the Philippines if its Coast Guard vessels are attacked. Given the tensions in the South China Sea which have involved challenges to Philippine Coastal Vessels by Chinese ships we are, in fact, already in quite a precarious situation. 

Mearshaimer’s theory predicts that China will aim to become the regional hegemon in Asia. He argues that because China already occupies a large land mass it will not attack its neighbours, though it will seek to dominate and coerce them. He predicts that just as the growing US pushed European powers out of its continent so China will try to push the US out of its region. Sensitive areas are the South China Sea and East China sea.

China has multiple extant disputes with its neighbours. In the South China Sea China’s claims to control of the sea (EEA) conflict with those of the Philippines, Vietnam, Malaysia, Brunei and Taiwan. There is a dispute with Japan over the Senkaku islands. There is a land border dispute with India. And, of course, there is the major dispute over Taiwan which China still claims as part of China. In short; there are multiple potential flashpoints. Mearsheimer’s point is that these disputes provide China with a further incentive to become a regional hegemon, so that it can settle the disputes on its terms. There are also potential conflicts over water resources, for example with India.

In addition to the above points, Mearsheimer also points out that the US and China both see the oil-rich Middle East as a region of strategic importance. They may come into conflict there. In general China has an interest in causing the US problems in their own hemisphere, so as to distract the US from interfering in regions of the world which are important to China.

Mearsheimer suggests that China is following a deliberate strategy of growing peacefully so as to emerge in the future in a strong and dominant position, without the costs of fighting wars at this stage. However; in practice this strategy will not always work and China will not be able to avoid getting involved in conflicts given that it has so many territorial conflicts with its neighbours and that these neighbours fear its growing power. They are more likely to react now before China becomes even stronger.

The security dilemma is in play:

All of this is to say that almost anything China does to improve its military capabilities will be seen in Beijing as defensive in nature, but in Tokyo, Hanoi, and Washington it will appear offensive in nature.

US policy will be to aim to prevent China becoming a regional hegemon in Asia. Mearsheimer says that China’s neighbours, such as Singapore, South Korea, Vietnam and the Philippines will join with the US in a balancing coalition against it. 

Mearsheimer correctly predicted in 2014 the current US restrictions on semiconductors:

There is no reason the United States cannot have substantial economic intercourse with China at the same time it implements a containment strategy…. Even so, there will probably be some restrictions on trade for national security reasons.

Overall, Mearsheimer recommends that the US operate a containment and balancing strategy against China. (His theory is prescriptive as well as descriptive; though the prescriptive aspects are dictated by the logic of offensive realism as well, leading some critics, such as Jeffrey Sachs, to say that he lacks a normative component). He rules out the US starting a war, because of the nuclear dimension that would have. He argues that economic containment is unlikely to be successful. This leaves the option of attempting to interfere with China’s allies and stir up internal unrest, for example around the Uyghurs. He then argues that despite the lack of likelihood of success America should consider attempting to constrain China economically despite the harm that might do to the US economy. 

Mearsheimer contrasts the ‘face-off’ between the USSR and the US with that between the US and China. The former confrontation was localised in a specific place – central Europe, and both sides are enormous nuclear arsenals pointing at the other. The conflict between China and the US, and its balancing coalition, is more geographically dispersed. This means small wars are more likely to break out because planners will not be so deterred by the immediate threat of total annihilation as they were in the Cold War. However; because of reputational concerns both sides will be reluctant to back down even in a small crisis. Possible areas where war between the US and China might break out are: North/South Korea, Taiwan, the disputed Senkaku islands, or even in the sea lanes to the Persian Gulf. 

Applying his theory Mearsheimer points out that as Russia and India are both Asian super-powers or potential superpowers and at the same time China is more powerful than the others the situation in Asia is of “unbalanced multipolarity” – the most dangerous arrangement of states. Mearsheimer also points to rising nationalism in China as another factor which could contribute to a move to war. 

For Mearshsimer there is a direct parallel about the way the Chinese leadership uses a, sometimes Confucinan, discourse about ‘win-win situations’ and seeking peace and the way US leaders often talk about ‘spreading democracy’. Both these idealist narratives are belied by actions which will be based on brutal real-politik. In this section Mearsheimer quotes a number of scholars who assert that China’s foreign policy is driven by real-politik, not Confucianism (or by a peaceful version of Confucianism). however; this section would be stronger if there were actual historical examples to support the claims. 

The argument that conflict between the US and China will not break out because of economic interdependence fails for various reasons. These include that China could calculate that it would gain from a war, for example in resource-rich the South China Sea, that nationalist concerns, for example over Taiwan, could trump economic concerns and that it is possible that trade would continue even during a war; there are historical examples of this happening. 

Mearsheimer concludes this section by stating that his theory predicts not that war between the US and China is inevitable but that it is at least more likely than war was between the US and the USSR in the Cold War. He hopes that his theory is wrong. 


The situation in International Relations described by Mearsheimer is indeed a tragedy. No one wants war. It is not that human beings are evil and lust after power (though Hitler certainly was). No; wars are caused by the very structure of the international system. This system is anarchic, ungoverned. In such a situation each player, that is states, have to look to themselves for their own security. They can never rely on and trust that other states will not have malign intentions towards them. The safest place for a state to be is to be a hegemon. Thus, all states which can, that is Great Powers, will strive to become at least the hegemon in their region. Other states will try to prevent this by buck-passing or balancing against them, or, when that fails, going to war. The result is endless wars. There is no redemption. The system of international law cannot help because it is not enforced by a global policeman. (Mearsheimer explains this specific point in more detail in his book The Great Delusion Liberal Dreams and International Realities). 

Do we accept Mearsheimer’s theory? It is a feature of this lucid and well-argued book that in almost all cases the theory is supported, one could say lavishly, with examples from the historical record. It is likely to be right. This writer finds it convincing because it does not expect political leaders to behave with morality and restraint – for example, the theory of defensive realism, which says (according to Mearsheimer) that states will seek to gain enough power to feel safe and will then stop, just seems unlikely. Is this how the anarchy of gang-warfare on London’s streets works for example? I just find Mearsheimer’s theory inherently plausible. 

One final question; if the system is unstable and prone to war because it is made up of states, is the ‘solution’ then not to transform the world into a world without states? This is not to talk about a unified world-state which Mearsheimer argues is not likely. not least because no one state could control the whole world given the “stopping power of water”. This is more along the lines or anarchism or communism; a world without government at all. But, this dream has known problems, not least that it is probably an unrealizable utopia. Another alternative is, of course, world government by a religious organisation; by a Church. (Or perhaps by an inter-faith council of churches). I don’t see any other way out, if Mearsheimer is right. 

This book is a foundational and key text on International Relations. You cannot talk meaningfully about International Relations unless you understand the theory of offensive realism put forward in this book.