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The Tragedy of Great Power Politics [Paperback]

John Mearsheimer
4.8 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (4 customer reviews)
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Book Description

6 May 2014
To John J. Mearsheimer the anarchy of the international system requires states to seek dominance at one another's expense, dooming even peaceful nations to a relentless power struggle. The best survival strategy is to become a regional hegemon and to make sure that no other hegemon emerges elsewhere. He predicts that China will attempt to dominate Asia while the US will be determined to remain the world's sole regional hegemon. The tragedy of great power politics is inescapable.

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Product details

  • Paperback: 592 pages
  • Publisher: W. W. Norton & Company; Revised edition edition (6 May 2014)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0393349276
  • ISBN-13: 978-0393349276
  • Product Dimensions: 23.4 x 15.5 x 3.3 cm
  • Average Customer Review: 4.8 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (4 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Bestsellers Rank: 23,711 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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A signal triumph. --Robert D. Kaplan"

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Many in the West seem to believe that "perpetual peace" among the great powers is finally at hand. Read the first page
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Most Helpful Customer Reviews
Format:Paperback|Verified Purchase
Very interesting and well written book! I am usually a slow reader but this book got me fascinated so much that I read it in less than a week when I expected it to take me at least 3 months.
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2 of 4 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars A new perspective on International relations 5 Feb 2010
Format:Paperback|Verified Purchase
I really enjoyed this book it gave me (a non academic)a new perspective on history, international relations and politics.
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8 of 15 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars the book that persuaded me to study Geopolitics 13 July 2009
Format:Paperback|Verified Purchase
I now study Geopolitics at University because of this book. Absolutely fascinating insight into the world of political decisions. The theory in a nutshell is this:

Countries all work for their own benefit for survival. The result is a power hungry system.

There are some who disagree with this offensive realism theory like my flatmate, Sissi for example. But you shouldn't listen to her because she is a Finn. this book and check it out.
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1 of 3 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars !!!! 11 Mar 2013
Format:Paperback|Verified Purchase
The order came earlier in perfect condition. I am very happy with the purchase. 10 from 10. And the book is definitely 'must have' for people interested in International Relations !!!
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Most Helpful Customer Reviews on (beta) 3.7 out of 5 stars  58 reviews
80 of 91 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Destined to Become the Standard Realist Text 2 Jan 2002
By Eric Gartman - Published on
Those of us who are familiar with John Mearsheimers' illuminating and provocative work have been waiting quite a few years for him to put all his thoughts together in one coherent and all-encompassing book. The wait is finally over, and the result does not disappoint. Mearsheimer has written what is sure to be the standard text for the Realist paradigm for years to come. It is clear that he is in fact trying to place himself in the Realist cannon as the logical successor to Morgenthau and Waltz. Whereas Morgenthau could not explain why states are driven to be as aggressive as they are, and Waltz's Defensive Realism did not adequately describe the constant struggle for power among states, Mearsheimer's Offensive Realism claims to explain both. States are aggressive due to the anarchic nature of the state system, which leads them to not only seek to ensure their survival, but to also try to acquire power at every opportunity possible.
Mearsheimer's lengthy volume is divided roughly into two parts. The first half is the theoretical section, in which he presents his Offensive Realist theory in detail, along with an explanation of how to measure state power (population and wealth). Also included in this part is an entire chapter called "The Primacy of Land Power," in which he not only tries to explain why land power is the most important, but also goes into the limits of sea and air power, and the limited effectiveness of blockades and strategic bombing campaigns. It is somewhat surprising that these issues have generally been overlooked by IR theorists until now. Hopefully that will no longer be the case. The second half of the book is more empirical, including the histories of all the recent Great Powers, focusing on why and how they have been aggressive in their foreign affairs. Also included are chapter on the "Offshore Balancers" (UK and US), alliance behavior, and the origins of major wars.
Critics of this book are likely to be the usual assortment of Liberals, post-Modernists, Critical Theorists, and other Realists. But Mearsheimer has not only created the most coherent Realist theory yet, he has also solved some of the major contradictions within the Realist paradigm as well. It is a stunning accomplishment, and this is a book to be read by the general reader and seasoned IR Theorist alike. Indeed, Mearsheimer has written it in a style that is accessible to all, but with generous footnotes for those interested in more details. If you only read one book on International Relations in your life, let this be the one! It will explain more of the world around you than you would think possible.
35 of 41 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Mearsheimer Takes the Offensive 26 Jun 2003
By "frodo10" - Published on
Before any reader digs into Mearsheimer's tome, they should be aware of two things: First, the book is a study of GREAT POWER politics (which is why one should not expect the U.S.-led war against minor power Iraq or the terrorist attacks of 9/11 to be accounted for; nor should they be cite these as examples of what the book lacks). Second, the book is not an international politics primer. Rather it is the most advanced presentation of the theory of offensive realism. Mearsheimer is the theory's leading proponent, and his book is not meant to be a balanced debate between realism and international liberalism, constructivism, etc.
That said, Mearsheimer's book is well-written and essential reading if one wishes to have a balanced view of international relations. The "Tragedy" of great power politics occurs when the power-maximization that nations pursue (which is almost mandated under international anarchy) leads to awesomely destructive hegemonic wars. Mearsheimer shatters the rhetoric surrounding great wars, reducing them to the basic elements of power. His theory is backed up by historical example, making for compelling reading. In addition, Mearsheimer looks to history and applies offensive realism in predicting that China will continue its rise and potentially challenge U.S. power in the near future.
Many will not agree with Mearsheimer's theory (this is the man, after all, who called for the nuclearization of Germany after the Cold War and pronounced NATO dead over a decade ago) but he is the leading Realist mind and strongest Realist voice in the IR community today. Love it or hate it, offensive realism does not get any more lucid than this.
23 of 27 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Clearest Articulation of Offensive Realism 18 Nov 2005
By marshak - Published on
First off, the book is very easy to get through - the primary theoretical points are clearly laid out and easy to understand, the selected empirical evidence is interesting, and the style is fluid and coherent. This is the strength of realist theory - clarity of thought, and results in a much more enjoyable read than something by a radical-constructivist or critical theorist. The disagreement over theory is clear from the wide range of ratings in the reviews, but I'd like to briefly cover some of the issues brought up by other reviewers.

Offensive realism, as posited by Mearsheimer is NOT a rehash of Waltz's structural realism but rather adds some important new elements to realist theory. As a result, it is still susceptible to some of the critiques of realist theory in general but also adds new theoretical problems.

Mearsheimer uses Waltz' assumptions on the anarchic nature of the international system and its implication for state behaviour but goes in a very different direction. Using the same assumptions, Waltz believes great powers will essentially be status-quo and defensive while Mearsheimer believes they will be revisionist and aggressive power-maximizers. Mearsheimer thus can avoid the argument against Waltz's defensive realist theory that it leaves no room for transformation of the international system. The potential for conflict is a direct result of the distribution of power in the anarchic system.

The assumptions used by both are by no means "given" and disagreement over them has come from liberal institutionalists, the English School, and the various subsets of constructivist theory. Whether state interests and identities are exogenous or endogenous, and whether there is any room for interests to be shaped by domestic politics, culture, ideology, or institutions is the primary diagreement. Realism says there are only structural variables.

If you think you're a realist, you might want to take note that no prominent realists supported the Iraq War. Realists would also pay no attention to the government of China - a hegemonic democratic China is as dangerous as a hegemonic authoritarian China. Also, the environment and potential for conflict in Europe is the same as in Asia - NATO and the EU, as institutions, are merely tools for great powers to position themselves in hegemonic struggle(this might be included because Mearsheimer said NATO was to be disbanded shortly after the end of the Cold War and needs to find a reason why it is still around). Ideational factors simply have no place in the theory.

Returning to Mearsheimer, he adds another variable to his theory, the impact of geopolitics on state interest. So not only does the distribution of power affect the potential for conflict, geographical factors also play a role. This complicates matters because no longer is there a single variable that can be used to determine causality, and it might be seen as a theoretical crutch. The US and UK both are exceptions to the rule that great powers expand aggressively. Some would say it is because they are liberal democracies, but Mearsheimer argues that it is because they are "offshore balancers", insular states that find it difficult to project power but also derive security from this. An exception to that exception is Japan in WWII, which Mearsheimer explains didn't have a lot of resistance and so couldn't help itself.

Another reviewer wrote of the unverifiability of Mearsheimer's theory. I think that the two variables and the stipulations he puts on power-maximization do make the theory a bit "slippery". Mearsheimer concludes the book by saying that, "Of course, states occasionally ignore the anarchic world in which they operate, choosing instead to pursue strategies that contradict balance-of-power logic." This is a contradiction of the book and realist theory in general. States shouldn't be able to choose how they behave but should be bound by the structure of the system (and geopolitics in Mearsheimer's version) to behave in a certain manner (offensively or defensively according to Mearsheimer or Waltz, respectively).

There are too many exceptions and stipulations to Mearsheimer's rule to make it particularly useful. Whereas the strength of Waltz's theory is its simplicity, Mearsheimer believes he combines theoretical simplicity with policy applicability. He succeeds in neither. Nevertheless, the book is the clearest articulation of offensive realism. Perhaps more comprehensive reading would be Mearsheimer's article on international institutions in International Security Winter 1994/1995, followed by responses from John Ruggie, Robert Keohane, Alexander Wendt, and the Kupchans, and a concluding reply by Mearsheimer.
56 of 71 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Thought-provoking, but in the end fundamentally incomplete 30 Jun 2002
By Amazon Customer - Published on
According to Mearsheimer, nations base their policies on a relentless drive for greater power and to check the power of potentially rival nations. Human rights, ideology, and peace considerations are secondary at best. Nor does a country's political system make much difference; no matter how free and democratic a country may be at home, it will still behave in the same dog-eat-dog way abroad.
Perhaps one of the most interesting ways to look at Mearsheimer's thought is how neatly it dovetails with the most left-wing critiques of American foreign policy. The United States did not enter World War II to liberate the victims of Hitler's genocide; it did so to prevent the emergence of a single dominant European power. The Cold War was not waged to free the world from communism, but simply to contain a rival power. Similarly, Soviet policy during the Cold War was not based on a fanatical desire to tyrannize the globe, but simply to expand its own power. Democracy and authoritarianism both ultimately respect the one ideology of international affairs: nationalism.
But although he may be correct in the motivations behind state behavior, his discussion is deeply flawed by its near-exclusive concentration on military power. Economics is only important insofar as it can be used to finance and develop the military.
As such, Mearsheimer hardly touches on international trade or finance. This is deeply shortsighted, since in practice that is where a large part of the conduct of foreign policy lies. Nor would such a discussion weaken his theory; it would only strengthen it.
It explains why the United States never tried to form a colonial empire as Britain and France did; it was content, instead, to allow other regions to retain their independence and govern their own affairs as long as the U.S. had access to their resources and labor.
If economics is added, this almost perfectly explains U.S.-Canadian relations along the most leftist lines. According to a purely territorial application of Mearsheimer's theory, the US would have invaded and conquered Canada in the mid-19th century; it did not because it already has as much access to Canadian resources and markets as it needs. It also explains the situation today, where Canada is permitted to maintain political independence, but economically remains essentially an American protectorate.
Mearsheimer points out that the existence of nuclear weapons on both sides of an arms race does not prevent the race from continuing in conventional weapons. Nuclear weapons do not buy security, but increase insecurity. By his logic, states like Iraq and North Korea that seek to acquire nuclear capability are doing so in perfectly rational self-interest, giving the lie to fatuous "axis of evil" claims - revealed as the rhetoric they are to promote simple American interest in remaining the "offshore balancer" in each respective region.
More troubling, though, is his assertion at the end of the book that the U.S. should seek to slow or reverse China's economic growth. Taken literally, this seems to mean that it is apparently in the American interest to sabotage or undermine the Chinese economy, despite its growing importance as a market for American products. Implied by this is the spectre of renegade economic warfare, various schemes to undermine a rival's economy and thus its military capability. If that happened, the Chinese would undoubtedly try to retaliate in kind, and before long every great power would descend into al-Qaeda type small attacks and subversions. Not a pleasant prospect.
Perhaps what is most saddening about this book is that the reason for war is given simply as the desire by states to either become a hegemon or prevent someone else from doing so. Dusty, academic theories of the balance of power are the reason millions of people are killed in senseless and brutal fighting.
Another flaw in the book is it concentrates largely on Europe and northeast Asia, paying scant attention to the rest of the world. This flaw becomes most glaring when he portrays the bipolar Cold War as a peaceful period, ignoring the fact that it was peaceful only in Europe. People in El Salvador, Nicaragua, Chile, Angola, Mozambique, Vietnam, Indonesia, Ethiopia, Somalia, and many other countries that had oppressive dictatorships installed, or brutal insurgencies financed (or both) by superpower meddling would beg to differ.
What really happened is actually described in the book, albeit in a different context - buck-passing. The Soviets, rather than fighting the U.S. directly, armed their proxies in North Vietnam and elsewhere. The Americans, similarly, overthrew the government of Chile and funded armed rebellions in several countries against regimes believed to be friendly to the USSR. While the superpowers played their chess game, millions in the Third World paid with their lives.
This is a well-written and thought-provoking book, but cannot be relied upon for a complete overview of world affairs. More and diverse perspectives are needed.
10 of 11 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Realism is back (with an offensive flavor) 8 Dec 2001
By "manjeet" - Published on
It is widely assumed the world over that the end of the Cold War marked a new era - where the cynnical calculus of power politics will not apply and where the trading state will replace the warring the state. In short, many proclaim that interdependence (and globalization) forces states to cooperate and forgo relative gains. John Mearsheimer challenges this view. With his theory of 'offensive realism' he successfully shows that states are power-maximizers and the end of the Cold War did not change the anarchic nature of international politics. Nuclear weapons may have reduced the probability of war between the great powers, but great powers still try to maximize their share of power and this may very well lead to conflcit in the 21st century. (That the Great Powers are power maximizers is evident from the fact that the US plans to go ahead with the NMD and plans to develop an aerospace force - in the post-Cold War era without any systemic threats to US interests). There is no systemic proof for the liberal view that interdependence reduces the likelihood of war. In fact, globalization (with diffusion of technology and capital) will cause uneven growth rates around the world and will allow potential peers (China) to modernize and create wealth and ultimately challenge the leading power (US). In this book Mearsheimer shows that land power is still the dominant form of military power (even in the information age) and that states prefer buck-passing over balancing. This book is a must-read for all students and scholars in the fields of international relations and strategic studies. This book is in a league of its own and challenges among others Waltz's defensive realism (and supersedes it).
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