Monday, April 2, 2012

The Tragedy of Great Power Politics

The Tragedy of Great Power Politics
By John J. Mearsheimer

Administrator's Note: I'm going to bet that this will be my least popular post, ever. Not because of what I say, so much, but because this book will look so insanely dry to virtually everyone who visits this blog. It's not, but it is decidedly academic, which makes it a book of limited interest by nature. I've tried to make this entry as fun as possible. Apologies if you don't think so. So, anyway... whiteout further ado.... International relations!


According to John J. Mearsheimer, the controversial international relations theorist and preeminent proponent of offensive realism, anarchy is the most misappropriated word in the English language. Aside from the abjectly idiotic manner in which the Sex Pistols bandied the term about during the first wave of punk rock and the manner in which anarchy has somehow become a catchall slogan for clueless punks (and I say this lovingly, as I am a huge fan of punk rock), anarchy does not, as most of us assume, mean a state of chaos and disorder but rather a system in which there exists no system above in which to appeal for justice.

Such is the international system.

Within nations there exists a system of laws and rules. It is a social contract in which the citizens of said nation agree upon (or, more likely, are born into and therefore have no choice but to abide). These laws and rules function as a means of controlling and tempering or relations with each other and our government. But what of the international system. What laws exist among nations? the answer, of course, is none. Anarchy. Nations exist in a state of anarchy and therefore act in a self-serving manner in order to gain as much wealth, security and power they can achieve at the expense of their rivals. This is a simple matter of survival. Kill or be killed.

This is a central theme of Mearsheimer's theory of offensive realism. Offensive realism is the theory of international relations that outlines how and why nations act the way they do. The theory was first presented, in painstaking detail I might add, in Mearsheimer's classic 2001 book on international relations, The Tragedy of Great Power Politics. While it did take the world of international relations by storm, offensive realism is actually an extension of Hans Morgenthau's older theory known as classical realism, but I digress. I don't want to get to theoretical around here. Offensive realism asserts that:

A) The international system functions in a state of anarchy. (Not just the U.K)
B) All states are rational. (Yes, Even North Korea)
C) All states are concerned with survival (All states want to continue being states... especially Poland).
D) All states have some military capability. (There is some debate about the Canadian navy, but we'll let that go)
E) All states can never be 100% certain of the intentions of other states. (of course)

The end result is that all states attempt to maximize their power and influence while trying to minimize their regional rivals, thus establishing a balance of power or, in the case of America, regional hegemony. Really, when you think about it, offensive realism is simply a massive dose of common sense mixed with a heaping spoonful of duh. But kudos to Mearsheimer. Nobody thought of it prior to this book (or if they did, they certainly didn't think to write it down anywhere) and therefore Mearsheimer wins the Common sense Award for International Relations.

Now, I'll be the first to admit that great power politics is not the sexiest section of the non-fiction aisle but it does have a certain fetish appeal (much like furries), especially to a former history student and an avid fan of European diplomatic history (I didn't have a lot of girlfriends when I was younger, I'll give you a few guesses as to why). While the trend in historical study has shifted over the past fifty to sixty years from the purely political to the purely social (and I do love me some Howard Zinn), there is still need for understanding how and why states act the way they do, not only in order to understand the past, but also in attempts to predict the future course of events. Offensive realism provides that need. And it rings especially true when one thinks about the growing security concerns facing Asia.

Mearsheimer goes on to outlines why, even in the era of vast naval and air forces, land power remains the preeminent indicator of military clout and how large bodies of water deter national power projection. Therefore, even in the modern era with massive navies air forces and nuclear weapons, all power conflicts will be settled by land forces, which makes overseas assaults a virtual impossibility (and would explain why despite their status as a great power, why Great Britain never bothered to amass a formidable army. With the English Channel as a natural barrier and the U.K.'s policy of staying out of continental affair whenever possible, there simply wasn't any reason to build one). Therefore, while America may be a regional hegemon (the only Great Power in the Western Hemisphere and the world's only regional hegemon) they can never fully actualize their power in other regions and can only act as offshore balancers (in other words, America will never be a global hegemon... so all you conspiracy theorists can wipe your brows and go back to discussing the Illuminati), a role they have accepted and maintained since 1945 due to the bipolar nature of great power politics during the Cold War and beyond.

Once the totality of offensive realism is established, Mearsheimer spends the vast majority of this book defending his theory via historical evidence, specifically Great Power politics between 1792 and 1990 (From Revolutionary Era France through to the fall opt the Soviet Union). Throughout, Mearsheimer discusses the nature and fluctuation of great power politics in Europe, Northeast Asia and the Americas. He spends a great deal of time demonstrating how all the great powers during that time (France, Austria-Hungary, The United Kingdom, Prussia/Germany, Russia/The Soviet Union, America, Italy and Japan) have acted in accordance with offensive realism. Anyone that is interested in the decision making processes of the great powers throughout this era will not be disappointed. Why some conflicts remained regional (The Crimean War, The Franco-Prussian War) while other conflicts became total wars (The Napoleonic Wars, World War I, World War II, The Cold War). It is a fascinating look into the rational minds that governed these states and how they strategized.

I don't want to ruin the ending, but the latter half of the book deals with using the theory to make predictions about the future of great power politics and spends a good amount of time hypothesizing about the latent potential of China as an emerging great power and possible Asian hegemon (spoiler: as of 2001, Mearsheimer doesn't see any potential instability in the Northeast Asian theater where there currently exists three great powers: China, Russia and America but in more recent publications he has asserted that China's rise will be not be peaceful and China will make a play for regional hegemony). Mearsheimer even spills a considerable amount of ink discussing the potential destabilizing issue of Taiwan as it relates to China and america, though it is a cursory examination and he doesn't cover any new ground, really.

Anyone who is a nerd for international politics and international relations has probably already read this book. It is regarded as a classic in its field of study (along with the work of Hans Morgenthau, A.J.P. Taylor and the like). If you are a fan and haven't yet read this book, do so at your earliest possible convenience. Whether you agree with him or not, Mearsheimer is the current golden boy of his field, though not without his detractors. In recent years he has come under fire for his assertion that Israelis are the world's new Afrikaners, a statement that has shackled him with the label of Anti-Semite, so bear that in mind before you go throwing his name around at cocktail parties, would you? But that really doesn't come into play in this book and shouldn't cloud your judgment of offensive realism.

As far as books about international relations go, The Tragedy of Great Power Politics is at the top of its field. If they gave Booker Prizes for books about international relations, Mearsheimer would have won. As it stands, they don't and he'll have to content himself with simply being the most outspoken individual in his field.

Good read. I feel smarter.


Bibliomania said...

Lovely review. I feel as though your interest in power politics may be similar to my interest in neuropsychology: not the sexiest section of the nonfiction bookstore: but so damn interesting. How and why people and countries do what they do: doesn't get much more interesting than that.

Also, after your comment about "On Writing", I created a review upon finishing it:

Bibliomania said...

Oh, also: great furries reference.

Ryan said...

Holy moly! Comments!

I think every reader has their non-fiction idiosyncrasies. I've read a few novels that skirted the subject of neuropsychology (The Moral Animal) but I'm not sure I have the patience to read an entire book. Of course, if books become scarce around here, you never know.

Man of la Book said...

Wonderful review and sounds like an interesting (albeit dry) book.

I think the book's theory might become irrelevant in this new world we're living in where the military mission has changed from fighting wars to fighting small organizations. Governments are deathly afraid, and rightly so, of small organizations that, while not an existential threat to the country, could cost politicians their seats (as was evident in Spain).

Ryan said...

Actully, Mearsheimer addesses that exact idea in the conclusion of the book and asserts that any fundamental shift in international relations would have no bearing on how offensive realism works. He doesn't much elaborate, so it will be interesting to watch over the course of time.

Jonathan Wilhoit said...

After reading your review, I feel smarter too. Or dumber, in juxtaposition to you.

It was a great review, and you did a wonderful job livening up what could have been a dry subject (I really appreciated the Pollock joke. Or Poland joke. Almost the same thing, right?) The book was probably a little dry, but the subject itself is fascinating. Great job distilling it down and making accessible for me and the rest of the common folk. ;)

Ryan said...

Heh. There really is nothing like a good Pollack joke.

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