Mearsheimer: The Tragedy of Great Power Politics
In The Tragedy of Great Power Politics, author John Mearsheimer outlines a new theory of international relations which he calls “offensive realism.” Mearsheimer’s theory is a spin-off of Kenneth Waltz’s neorealism, also known as structural or defensive realism. Mearsheimer follows on the premises of Kenneth Waltz’s theory by deriving the behavior of states from the “structure” of the international system.
Mearsheimer outlines five assumptions or premises comprising his theoretical foundation: 1) the international system is anarchic (no world government) 2) all states posses some offensive capability and are thus capable of using force ...view middle of the document...
36). Of course the security dilemma cannot operate unless we also include the premise that no state can be insured that another state will not attack it (Wagner 2007, pg 26).
In chapter eight Mearsheimer offers an explanation of the causes of war, or so he claims. In reality, he simply outlines three plausible structures of the international system and the relative probability of war under each structure.
From his analysis of the structure of the international system and state’s interests, Mearsheimer concludes that states strive for at least regional hegemony and the prevention of the rise of another regional hegemon. Mearsheimer argues that this is precisely the strategy of the United States and that it can best achieve its goals through what he calls “buck passing” and “off shore balancing.” Mearsheimer argues that the balance of power in Europe is currently stable and that the US need not employ an active foreign policy there. In fact, he argues the US should bring its troops home from Europe as European security provision is not vital to American interests. Mearsheimer similarly argues that security provision in Northeast Asia is not a vital American interest. In contrast to Europe, however, he argues that China has the latent power potential to become a regional hegemon in Northeast Asia and thus the US should employ an active foreign policy of offshore balancing in relation to China.
Mearsheimer’s theory is an example of deduction. In order for a deductive theory to be logically valid, the conclusion(s) must follow from the premises. Mearsheimer, as all realists do, fails on this account. A fully developed critique of Mearsheimer, and the lack of validity within his argument, is outside the scope of this assignment. Therefore, my critique of his logic will focus primarily on anarchy.
I will outline three general critiques of Mearsheimer’s argument which I believe are most important for better understating international politics, particularly US-China relations. First is the anarchic logic of structural realism. In creating this logic, realists draw on Hobbes’ theorizing about the state of nature for individuals. Mearsheimer and Waltz adopt Hobbes’ theory to the anarchic structure of the international system. In order to complete this step in their theorizing, both Waltz and Mearsheimer argue that that neither the domestic politics nor the leaders of states matter, thereby treating states as individuals with one monolithic goal—survival.
This is a fatal flaw in realism and in Mearsheimer’s theory. Neither Mearsheimer nor any other realist makes any attempt to explain why or how they can leap from Hobbes’ state of nature for individuals to a Hobbesian state of nature in the international system. They just assert that it is the case. It is not possible to understand the behavior of states in the international system without accounting for the domestic structure of the state. I will give two examples...