[IR-Power and Classical Realism]

[연구] Research 2014. 7. 25. 19:12

The Tragedy of Great Power Politics

Mearsheimer, John J. 지음
W W Norton & Co Inc | 2003-01-01 출간
A decade after the end of the Cold ...
가격비교 글쓴이 평점  

Overview (Mearsheimer)

Offensive Realism - Great Powers Behavior – Perpetual Rivalry

Ø  Main Cause: International System (Anarchy)  (d. Hobbesian, Morgenthau’s classical realism)

Ø  Goal: Survival

Ø  Best Strategy: Maximization of Power at the expense of other rivals (vs. Waltz’s defensive, structural realism)

Ø  Result: Zero-sum perpetual competition, offensive great powers


Mearsheimer’s pessimistic outlook on peace = firm neorealist outlook (Structural theory of international politics)

ð  State actors (Rational) – Structure (Anarchy) – Competition(Zero-Sum) – Maximization of power - Survival

“Hopes for peace will probably not be realized, because the great powers that shape the international system fear each other and compete for power as a result. Indeed, their ultimate aim is to gain a position of dominant power over others, because having dominant power is the best means to ensure one’s own survival (p. xi, Preface)”

Chapter I. Introduction

1.      Firm pessimism on the idea of “perpetual peace(p. 1)” among the great powers

-          Although without outright war, conflicts, competitions persist (e.g. US army bases around the globe, Germany, Japan, China-US on Taiwan) (p. 2)

2.      Great Power Behaviors:

-          Overriding goal = Power Maximization: “maximize its share of world power (p.2)” (power maximization)

-          Perpetual Competition: “rarely content with the current distribution of power”; “almost always have revisionist intentions”; “the desire for more power does not go away, unless a state achieves the ultimate goal of hegemony”; and since “no state is likely to achieve global hegemony, however, the world is condemned to perpetual great-power competition” (p.2)

-          Offensive: “Simply put, great powers are primed for offense(p.3)”

3.      “Why do great powers behave this way” (His Main Question) = “the structure of the international system forces states which seek only to be secure nonetheless to act aggressively toward each other” (His Main Answer – via Structure) (p. 3) = anarchic structure

-          Critical comparison point to classical realism (human nature – Hobbes)

-          3 features of international system pinpointed – anarchy – fear - uncertainty:

1)      “absence of a central authority” above all states (p.3)

2)      “states always have some offensive military capability” (p.3)

3)      Uncertainty: “states can never be certain about other states’ intentions” (p.3)


4.      Offensive Realism (His Theory):

-          Main Task:

1)      Explaining the Great powers behaviors

2)      Explaining the history of politics: To address 8 “historical puzzles(p. 6)

Ø  What accounts for the three longest and bloodiest wars in modern history? The French Revolutionary and Napoleonic Wars, WWI, WWII

Ø  What accounts for the long periods of relative peace in Europe (1816-1852, 1871-1913, and esp. 1945-1990, during the Cold War)

Ø  Why did UK not build a powerful military and try to dominate Europe in the mid-19th

Ø  Why was Bismarckian Germany (1862-90) especially aggressive between 1862-1870, but hardly aggressive at all from 1871 until 1890

Ø  Why did the UK, France, Russia form a balancing coalition against Wilhelmine Germany before World War I, but fail to organize an effective alliance to contain Nazi Germany?

Ø  Why did Japan and the states of Western Europe join forces with US against the Soviet Union in the early years of Cold War, even though the US emerged from WWII with the most powerful economy in the world and a nuclear monopoly?

Ø  What explains the commitment of American troops to Europe and Northeast Asia during the 20th century? E.g.Why did the US wait until April 1917 to join WWI?

Ø  Why did the US and the Soviet Union continue building up their nuclear arsenals after each had acquired a secure second-strike capability against the other?

3) Make predictions about great-power politics in the 21st


5.      Liberalism vs. Realism (pp. 14 – 22) => His Theory


*Morgenthau’s classical realism (human nature)[1] and Waltz’s defensive realism (system, structure) – structural realism (mere aim is to survive, attention on the balance of power – “anarchy encourages states to behave defensively and to maintain rather than upset the balance of power(Mearsheimer, p. 20)” )[2] = human nature for competition vs. structure that drives the competition


6.      Important distinction between his theory of offensive realism:

-          Difference between Mearsheimer (offensive) and Waltz’s defensive/structural realism:

On the question of how much power states want: there are “powerful incentives for states to look for opportunities to gain power at the expense of rivals, and to take advantage of those situations when the benefits outweigh the costs. A state’s ultimate goal is to be the hegemon in the system”

-          Difference between Mearsheimer and Morgenthau:

Competition-prone but not due to personalities/nature, but caused by the structure, which makes competition the best way for survival– “survival mandates aggressive behavior (p. 21)”

-          In between Morgenthau and Waltz.


Virtues and limits of his theory: 

-          abstraction (“broad-gauged” but “a powerful flashlight in a dark room” (p. 11) => supplementary theories, employ “more fine-grained theories such as deterrence theory” (p. 11)

-          descriptive and prescriptive


7.      Plan of the book = 6 questions on power

1)      Why do great powers want power?

2)      How much power do they want/ is enough? (= structure)

3)      What is power? (indicators?)

4)      What strategies do states pursue to gain power or to maintain status-quo (balancing and buck-passing)

5)      What are the causes of war?

6)      When do threatened great powers balance against and when do they do buckpassing?


Chapter 2. Anarchy and the Struggle for Power


His answer to why great powers vie each other = structure that makes it the best way of survival


1.      Bedrock Assumptions (Five):

1)      “anarchy” (international system) – “an ordering principle” not chaos (p. 30)

2)      Great powers’ “inherent offensive military capability”(p. 30)

3)      Uncertainty about other states’ intentions” (p. 31).

4)      “survival” as the primary goal (p. 31)

5)      States as “rational actors” (p. 31)


2.      State Behavior (pp. 32-36)

Anarchy – Uncertainty – Survival – Self-help – Self-interest – absolute vs relative power


3.      Calculated Aggression

4.      Hegemony’s Limits (pp. 40-42) (hegemonic world limited in reality => perpetual competition is inevitable)

5.      Power and Fear

6.      Hierarchy of State Goals

7.      Cooperation among states


“In sum, my argument is that the structure of the international system, not the particular characteristics of individual great powers, causes them to think and act offensively and to seek hegemony. I do not adopt Morgenthau’s claim that states invariably behave aggressively because they have a will to power hardwired to them. Instead, I assume that the principal motive behind great-power behavior is survival. In anarchy, however, the desire to survive encourages states to behave aggressively. Nor does my theory classify states as more or less aggressive on the basis of their economic political systems. Offensive realism makes only a handful of assumptions about great powers, and these assumptions apply equally to all great powers. Except for differences in how much power each state controls, the theory treats all states alike.” (pp. 53-54).

-Rationality - Are we, are they so rational

-Competition(Zero-Sum)? Material capability based on what.

[1] Politics Among Nations (1973)

[2] Theory of International Politics 

George Orwell (1936) “Shooting an Elephant,” New Writing (Autumn).

Short Essay

-          Setting in Moulmein, Burma (Myanmar) in the 1920s when the country was a province of India (British empire)

-          Main character: Young Englishman police officer in Burma


Plot overview

-          Police officer of the British empire (Englishman) acknowledges and is troubled by the unjust practices of occupation in Burma

-          Yet, the Burmese always make mockery of him (offensive)

-          Then one day, a wild elephant roams around a village, killing one man.

-          The officer with rifle is called for by the Burmese, who expect him to shoot the elephant (high expectations, roars in the crowd)

-          But he knows that his small rifle is very weak for confronting the elephant (calculated aggression)

-          Fortunately, when the officer arrives at the scene, the wild elephant has already calmed down. And to his better judgment, the elephant should be kept on hold rather than shooting it (cost). Also, he knows that the rifle is not strong enough in case the elephant becomes violent again.

-          Despite his better judgment, the officer shoots the elephant to kill. Several shots (Gruesome imagery here)


Overall, three conflicts:

-          Unjust practices of occupation in Burma (external structure/conflict)

-          Burmese disregard/mockery on the main character (external structure/conflict)

-          Conflict within the character (self-image and conscience – internal conflict)


Good story to overview/question the key assumptions of realism, esp. Mearsheimer’s

-          Offensiveness is not the internal character but external structure imposed on the actor – system drives the offensiveness (Mearsheimer)

-          Calculated aggression

-          Yet, question on the rationality – despite calculated aggression, the main character shoot the elephant -> actors vie for the maximization of material capability or immaterial?

-          Rationality question -> internal question again? (something inherent in the actor that drives the offensiveness and competition?)


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