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Tragedy of Great Power Politics

Presentation for PLSC 8250

Ryan Overfield

on 2 November 2013

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Transcript of Tragedy of Great Power Politics

What is power and how is it measured?
Latent Power
Combination of population and wealth

While Mearsheimer claims military power is primary, it cannot be present without latent power (p. 55)

Large population required to generate wealth and pay for military
Military Power
Primary force in international politics

Policies of states are important in determining power as different states covert varying portions of wealth into military might, have different efficiencies in doing so, and choose to invest differently in the type of military the produce.
Different types of military power
Independent Sea Power
Strategic Air Power
Land Power
Nuclear Weapons

Mearsheimer contents land power is most important and sea and air power play subordinate but supportive roles

However, in nuclear age, nuclear superiority is the ultimate measure of military might due to its destructive force and is required, along with substantial land force, in order to achieve great-power status
Strategies to shift balance of power

Blackmail - threat of war

Bail and Bleed - provoke long and costly war

Bloodletting - make sure war is protracted and deadly for another

Balancing - threatened state(s) commit to contain opponent

Buck-passing - remain on sidelines and let other great power check aggressor

Appeasement - modify aggressor behavior by conceding power

Bandwagoning - join forces with dangerous foe taking over your country
Strive for hegemony

Aim to be wealthy

Aspire to have mightiest land forces

Seek nuclear superiority
The Tragedy of Great Power Politics
by John Mearsheimer

Graduate of West Point
Professor of Political Science at the University of Chicago
The Tragedy of Great Power Politics published in October 2001
Offensive Realism and "The Tragedy"
Offensive Realism
Based on "great" powers specifically
States ultimate goal is to maximize power for survival
Great powers are primed for offense
Great powers will thwart efforts of others to gain power
Offensive Realism
Defensive Realism
Balance of Power
Human Nature Realism
perspectives on
Why do great powers want power?
How much power do states want and
how much is enough?
What strategies to states pursue to gain or maintain power when another great power threatens to upset the balance of power?
What are the causes of war and what raises security competition to open conflict?
Different Power Arrangements
Bipolar - ruled by two great powers

Balanced Multipolar - three or more powers with no aspiring hegemon (no significant military gap between system's two leading states

Unbalanced Multipolar - three or more powers with a potential hegemon (significant military gap between system's two leading states)
Prospects for Peace or War
Comparison between bipolar and balanced mulitpolar worlds
Unbalanced Multipolar
More Likely
More Likely
Less Likely
Less Likely
fewer opportunities for conflict
power evenly distributed
discourages miscalculation
fear/anxiety magnified less
More potential conflict dyads
More power imbalance
Potential higher for miscalculation
When do threatened powers balance against a dangerous adversary and when do they pass the buck to another threatened state?
Strategies for Survival
Assumptions behind competition for power
International system is anarchic

Great powers posses some offensive military capability

States can never be certain about other states' intentions

Survival is primary goal of great powers

Great powers are rational actors
Assumptions of power competition lead states to act in the following ways:
Power Maximization

Mearsheimer quotes Immanuel Kant: "It is the desire of every state, or its ruler, to arrive a condition of perpetual peace by conquering the whole world, if that were possible." (p. w34)

Regional vs. Global Hegemony
Distribution of Power
Balanced Multipolar - more frequent
aggressor is likely powerful enough to beat any other state

Unbalanced Multipolar - less frequent
existence of potential hegemon so states more likely to work together

Bipolar - no buck-passing
threatened great power has no option of passing the buck
Shared borders make balancing more likely

Easier to stage military defense
Feel more vulnerable
Explanatory Power
Historical examples tend to agree with Mearsheimer's tenants:
States pursue power aggressively
Struggle for nuclear superiority
War more likely in unbalanced multipolar world
Buck-passing/Balancing according to power distribution and geography
Revolve around U.S. troops in Europe and Northeastern Asia:

American exit in Europe coupled with emergence of Germany as the dominant state

China either emerges as potential hegemon or not. If not, U.S. pulls troops and Japan becomes powerful in a balanced multipolar system. If China does, U.S. keeps forces in region and left with unbalanced

Mearsheimer says "...a wealthy China would not be a status quo power but an aggressive state determined to achieve regional hegemony." (p. 402)
Defensive realist claims of "self-defeating" behavior

Certain major cases of states not behaving offensively (U.K./U.S.)

Argument for land power primacy unnecessarily subordinates naval and sea power

Great power politics relevant only to great powers and not to majority of the world also struggling with various power issues

Minor powers have shown they can survive without being a great power

Theory does not have anything to offer on non-state actors
Discussion Questions
In discussing the lack of U.S. global hegemonic power, Mearsheimer says, “Furthermore, hardly any evidence indicates that the United States is about to take a stab at establishing global hegemony. It certainly is determined to remain the hegemon in the Western Hemisphere, but given the difficulty of projecting power across large bodies of water, the United States is not going to use its military for offensive purposes in either Europe or Northeast Asia.”(p. 382)
Has the U.S. reached a point whether they have overcome “the stopping power of water” or is Mearsheimer correct?
Mearsheimer says, “…hardly any evidence before 1990 shows that the United States is willing to commit troops to those regions to maintain peace. American armies were sent there to prevent the rise of peer competitors , not to maintain peace.” (p. 389)
Is there a practical difference between preventing the rise of peer competitors and maintaining the peace?
“Of course, states occasionally ignore the anarchic world in which they operate, choosing instead to pursue strategies that contradict balance-of-power logic. The United States is a good candidate for behaving in that way, because American political culture is deeply liberal and correspondingly hostile to realist ideas. It would be a grave mistake, however, for the United States to turn its back on the realist principles that have served it well since its founding.” (p. 402)
After an entire book about offensive realism, Mearsheimer acknowledges that the U.S. doesn’t appear to be behaving according to his theory and says they should. Do you believe it is a mistake for the U.S. to continue to operate in this fashion as Mearsheimer does?
Do you agree with Mearsheimer that the American public detests realist rhetoric and ideas?
Do you believe as Mearsheimer does that actual policy will always be set according to realist ideas regardless of public distaste?
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