John Mearsheimer

The Tragedy of Great Power Politics

An excerpt

Chapter 10: Great Power Politics in the Twenty-first Century

A large body of opinion in the West holds that international politics underwent a fundamental transformation with the end of the Cold War. Cooperation, not security competition and conflict, is now the defining feature of relations among the great powers. Not surprisingly, the optimists who hold this view claim that realism no longer has much explanatory power. It is old thinking and is largely irrelevant to the new realities of world politics. Realists have gone the way of the dinosaurs; they just don't realize it. The best that might be said about theories such as offensive realism is that they are helpful for understanding how great powers interacted before 1990, but they are useless now and for the foreseeable future. Therefore, we need new theories to comprehend the world around us.

President Bill Clinton articulated this perspective throughout the 1990s. For example, he declared in 1992 that, "in a world where freedom, not tyranny, is on the march, the cynical calculus of pure power politics simply does not compute. It is ill-suited to a new era." Five years later he sounded the same theme when defending the expansion of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) to include some of the formerly communist Warsaw Pact states. Clinton argued that the charge that this expansion policy might isolate Russia was based on the belief "that the great power territorial politics of the 20th century will dominate the 21st century," which he rejected. Instead, he emphasized his belief that "enlightened self-interest, as well as shared values, will compel countries to define their greatness in more constructive ways . . . and will compel us to cooperate in more constructive ways."[1]

The optimists' claim that security competition and war among the great powers has been burned out of the system is wrong. In fact, all of the major states around the globe still care deeply about the balance of power and are destined to compete for power among themselves for the foreseeable future. Consequently, realism will offer the most powerful explanations of international politics over the next century, and this will be true even if the debates among academic and policy elites are dominated by non-realist theories. In short, the real world remains a realist world.

States still fear each other and seek to gain power at each other's expense, because international anarchy—the driving force behind great-power behavior&#151did not change with the end of the Cold War, and there are few signs that such change is likely any time soon. States remain the principal actors in world politics and there is still no night watchman standing above them. For sure, the collapse of the Soviet Union caused a major shift in the global distribution of power. But it did not give rise to a change in the anarchic structure of the system, and without that kind of profound change, there is no reason to expect the great powers to behave much differently in the new century than they did in previous centuries.

Indeed, considerable evidence from the 1990s indicates that power politics has not disappeared from Europe and Northeast Asia, the regions in which there are two or more great powers, as well as possible great powers such as Germany and Japan. There is no question, however, that the competition for power over the past decade has been low-key. Still, there is potential for intense security competition among the great powers that might lead to a major war. Probably the best evidence of that possibility is the fact that the United States maintains about one hundred thousand troops each in Europe and in Northeast Asia for the explicit purpose of keeping the major states in each region at peace.

These relatively peaceful circumstances are largely the result of benign distributions of power in each region. Europe remains bipolar (Russia and the United States are the major powers), which is the most stable kind of power structure. Northeast Asia is multipolar (China, Russia, and the United States), a configuration more prone to instability; but fortunately there is no potential hegemon in that system. Furthermore, stability is enhanced in both regions by nuclear weapons, the continued presence of U.S. forces, and the relative weakness of China and Russia. These power structures in Europe and Northeast Asia are likely to change over the next two decades, however, leading to intensified security competition and possibly war among the great powers.

In the next section, I analyze the claims that international politics has changed or is about to change in essential ways, thus undermining realism. Because of space limitations, it is impossible to deal with each argument in detail. Nevertheless, it should be apparent from my analysis that the basic structure of the international system did not change with the end of the Cold War, and that there is little reason to think that change is in the offing. I attempt to show in the following section the considerable evidence from the decade 1991-2000 that security competition among the great powers is not obsolete, either in Europe or in Northeast Asia. In the subsequent four sections, I make the case that we are likely to see greater instability in those important regions over the next twenty years. Finally, in a brief conclusion, I argue that a rising China is the most dangerous potential threat to the United States in the early twenty-first century.


1. William J. Clinton, "American Foreign Policy and the Democratic Ideal," campaign speech, Pabst Theater, Milwaukee, WI, October 1, 1992; "In Clinton's Words: 'Building Lines of Partnership and Bridges to the Future,' " New York Times, July 10, 1997. Rhetoric aside, Clinton's foreign policy was largely consistent with the predictions of realism. See Stephen M. Walt, "Two Cheers for Clinton's Foreign Policy," Foreign Affairs 79, No. 2 (March-April 2000), pp. 63-79.
Tragedy of Great Power Politics book jacket

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October 2001 / hardcover / ISBN 0-393-02025-8 / 6" x 9" / 448 pages / Political Science
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