The Tragedy of Great Power Politics: Review

nicked off

Earlier in the year, I wrote a review of an additional chapter John Mearsheimer had written for a revised edition of The Tragedy of Great Power Politics and published online – as I said at the time, I hadn’t actually read the original book. In my defence, the politics library at my university appeared to be a single room with some Spanish books in it, so I wasn’t confident I’d find it. Anyway, I’m back in London, and I’ve read it now. Review after the jump.

Normally when I read an essay or article and am left unconvinced, I figure the book-length version of the argument will be better, what with the author having more time to lay out their points and less need to overstate their case for attention*

John Mearsheimer’s The Tragedy of Great Politics is the exception to this rule. It’s a bit of a doorstop of a book, and I’m really not sure it needs to be. This is both a flaw with the book and, I think, Mearsheimer’s offensive realism. As a theory of, among other things, why great powers go to war with each other, it is dependent on about five cases where great powers have gone to war – the Napoleonic Wars, a couple of wars in the Nineteenth Century, WW1, WW2, and the Cold War. His analysis of these cases is solid, for the most part – he’s clearly manipulating it to fit them into his theory, and definitely underplays  aspects of the situations that don’t necessarily go with his argument – mostly the role of domestic politics and ideological concerns (in keeping with realism’s disdain for them) – but not to outrageous degrees. The problem is, he’s talking about five cases over about two hundred years involving, for the most part, the same half-dozen nations. It’s never overly clear whether the tendencies identified by offensive realism aren’t historically contingent – the way the book is written, it would suggest that in five hundred years, when a vague sense of disappointment and bad weather are the key determinants of national greatness, we should expect to see the UK behaving like Wilhelmine Germany. Most Realist writing has a tendency to define itself as a theory that will never go out of date, so this isn’t all Mearsheimer.

Indeed, a lot of the flaws are not unique to Mearsheimer or even International Relations – all kinds of social science theories are dependent on limited data and grand pronouncements. It’s just more apparent than usual here – by the third consideration of how World War One proved Mearsheimer right I was getting ready to skip to the end of the book and be done with it.

Nevertheless, there’s a lot that’s compelling, if worryingly dark, about the theory of offensive realism, and for that, the book is probably worth reading. Skim-reading, maybe. It also suffers from being one of those big IR books that has to retread a certain amount of basic stuff, so it feels like doing one of UCL’s terrible political science courses (heyo. Narrow-appeal-burn).

That’s the review done. I’m now going to go and see if the questions I came away from the chapter on China were answered by the full book, as I hoped. Bear with.

OK I read through my review and I only had one question. I also realised that on the basis of my summary I understood the theory of offensive realism as well then as I do now, 400 pages later. FFS. Anyway – this was the question:

First of all, importantly, I think, though this is one of the things the book probably deals with – I’m not 100% convinced dominance in Asia is really important enough to justify the danger and expense that would come with trying to contain China on its home turf.

I mean I guess he answered the question – Mearsheimer points out that the USA has gone to war twice and was on a war footing for almost forty years afterwards, all to prevent the emergence of a peer competitor.  This suggests they’ll go to the expense of containing China’s rise, I guess. Worth noting that the book is ten years old, and already, Mearsheimer identifies China’s latent power potential (population+wealth, more or less) as reason to believe it could well overtake the USA and be too much for it to handle at some point. This is not to say they won’t try though.

PS: Two days after writing this review, Adam Elkus linked to this rather excellent multi-part look at why the USA probably won’t want/need/bother to contain China too much, investigating the sort of domestic political and cultural factors that Mearsheimer dismisses. I’m linking it in the reading list, but this is well worth reading as a counter-point here. Or, alternatively if you’re more sympathetic to Mearsheimer – this is the kind of short-sighted thinking that allows great powers to delude themselves into avoiding the necessities of power maximization or something. He’s actually quite hazy on the extent to which states get away with not behaving according to offensive realism’s dictates – he suggests they must comply or be doomed.

*admittedly this doesn’t apply to the covers/marketing of some books: I’m thinking of the thoroughly underwhelming Dead Aid here.


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