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As a part of my International Relations course last semester, I did an assignment on John Mearsheimer’s contribution to the discipline. I read his book “The Tragedy of Great Power Politics” and I was thoroughly impressed by his arguments. He calls his theory “offensive realism”, in opposition to Kenneth Waltz’s “defensive realism”, although both belong to the school of “structural realism”. Mearsheimer gives the basic assumptions of the realist theory –

  1. The international system of states is anarchic in the sense that there is no central authority above states.
  2. States, especially great powers, possess offensive military capability.
  3. No state can be certain about other states’ intentions.
  4. Survival is the primary goal of states.
  5. States are rational actors and engage in strategic thinking, i.e., long-term and immediate consequences of actions are taken into account.

States focus on the maximization of their power, at the cost of other states. Therefore, realism places emphasis on the role of relative gains. The ultimate goal of the state is to achieve hegemony. According to Mearsheimer, global hegemony is not possible, and therefore, states aspire to be regional hegemons. In that capacity, they try to prevent the rise of a hegemon in other regions of the world.

The best measure of power is the size of the state’s military, especially the land forces. Mearsheimer relegates the navy and the airforce to supporting roles to the army because only the latter can occupy and conquer territory.

Mearsheimer then proceeds to list out the different strategies that states use. To gain power, they go to war, blackmail other states, bait and bleed their rivals, and make them bleed themselves white in an unnecessary war. In order to check aggressors, states either balance against them or pass the buck around, depending on their geographical positions. In order to avoid aggression, states engage in appeasement or bandwagoning.

“Defensive realists” such as Waltz argue that expansion is misguided, and is a recipe for national suicide. They say that conquests do not pay because aggressive states are defeated, and therefore wars are irrational unless they are fought for limited objectives. Mearsheimer, on the other hand, states that expansion can pay big dividends, and that all states adopt offensive military policies. Defeat in war doesn’t indicate irrational decision-making but lack of accurate information about the opposing forces.

He then comes to the structural part of his theory, where he presents two factors – a universal constant (anarchy) and a variable (the distribution of power among great powers). By definition, the universal constant has always existed and will always exist. Anarchy can never be transformed because there can’t be any power greater than the state. Anarchy plays both a permissive and a causative role in the generation of wars. The participants in these wars are decided by the variable factor. The structural theory, however, can only predict that wars will occur among these states; it can predict when these wars will occur. In order to know that, one has to look into non-structural factors such as domestic politics, nationalism, etc.

Mearsheimer then delves deeper into the distribution of power among states, and states that there are three possibilities –
1. Bipolarity – presence of two great powers which balance each other promptly and efficiently
2. Balanced Multipolarity – Many great powers which form large balancing coalitions
3. Unbalanced Multipolarity – Many great powers with the presence of a potential regional hegemon, which causes a lot of buck-passing.

Bipolarity is considered to be the most stable (and therefore most peaceful) because of the low possibility of great-power wars. On the other hand, unbalanced multipolarity will most definitely cause a great-power conflict, leading to either the victory or defeat of the potential hegemon.

Mearsheimer provides immense historical backing for his theory. He considers the following Great Powers – Britain, France, Prussia (later Germany), Italy, Russia (later USSR), USA and Japan, from 1792 to 1990. He examines the great-power conflict of the Napoleonic era, Bismarck’s wars, Japan’s victory over Russia and its ramifications for Britain, First and Second World Wars and the Cold War, and explains his theory as he illustrates it with these examples.

There are several different critiques of Mearsheimer’s theory of offensive realism. An important contention is that his theory is not empirically powerful because of the small time frame taken into account (1792 – 1990) and the limitation of the theory to great powers. The behavioral patterns in this time frame could probably be attributed to particular relations between the powers and not necessarily the structure. Also, there is just one instance of bipolarity, and the presence of nuclear weapons means that he cannot disaggregate the effects of nuclear stability and bipolarity. Another major criticism is that the structure does not necessarily predict when wars will occur. The fact that the system is a balanced multipolarity does not translate into anything concrete in foreign policy.

The most fundamental criticism of Mearsheimer arises from the constructivist camp. Mearsheimer suggests that the structure of international system (anarchic) largely determines how states think and act towards each other, and thus realism has dominated international political discourse. However, as constructivists argue, the “self-help” aspect of anarchy is not derived from the anarchical structure, and that the behavior of states in the past has been so because realism has dominated IR discourse, and not the other way around.

Mearsheimer has addressed some criticisms in the book itself. He recognizes that we have only one example of bipolarity, and that it coincided with a period of nuclear weapons. Despite this, he claims his theory still holds good during the Cold War era. He also agrees that structural factors alone cannot predict when war will break out in a system. Nonstructural factors such as nationalism and domestic political calculations play an important role in determining whether would go to war and when it would do so.

Offensive realism is a great revision of the defensive theory in structural realism. The latter could barely explain all the different wars that took place in the modern times, and these wars were treated as anomalies. Mearsheimer’s theory gives a more coherent explanation of the wars that occurred from 1793 to 1990, and treats those wars as normal behavior and not anomalous. His introduction of geography as a variable that influences state behavior clarifies the differences in the behavior of different states at different times – especially the behavior of offshore balancers. However, I feel that structural realism completely neglects domestic political considerations. The state doesn’t have behavior of its own, but the people who control the state machinery do. Therefore, the ideas of those in power are highly important – and this is something missing from Mearsheimer’s theory. On the whole, however, it is the best theory within structural realism to explain the workings of international politics.