International Security Studies

Events

The Tragedy of Great Power Politics

February 10, 2002 // 11:00pm

John J. Mearsheimer, author, R. Wendell Harrison Distinguished Service Professor of Political Science and co-director of the Program on International Security Policy, University of Chicago; G. John Ikenberry, Professor, School of Foreign Service, Georgetown University; former Woodrow Wilson Center Fellow

The meeting focused on Professor Mearsheimer's new book, The Tragedy of Great Power Politics. C-SPAN's Booknotes program taped the meeting for broadcast.

The two main theories of international relations are realism and liberalism. These competing theories offer contrasting answers to such central questions as: how do we achieve international peace? Whereas realists focus on the distribution of power between states as the key factor, liberal theorists focus on the internal organization of states. In academia, most of the great intellectual battles among international relations scholars take place either across the divide between realism and liberalism, or within those paradigms. John Mearsheimer is an undiluted realist whose new book has been hailed by reviewers as an instant classic in the tradition of Hans Morgenthaus's Politics Among Nations and Kenneth Waltz's Theory of International Politics.

The impact of the debate between realist and liberal conceptions of international order is not merely academic. The history of American foreign policy reflects the interplay, and often the tension, between the contending realist and liberal conceptions of international relations. As Mearsheimer observed, "General theories about how the world works play an important role in how policymakers identify the ends they seek and the means they choose to achieve them." It was particularly apt that a discussion of the issues engaged by John Mearsheimer in his new book took place at the Woodrow Wilson Center since America's 28th president was the leading practitioner of the liberal school in the last century.

Mearsheimer's starting point was five realist assumptions about the international system: that states dominate an anarchic international system in which there is no higher authority; that all states have some offensive military capabilities; that states can never be certain about the long-term intentions of another state; that survival is the highest goal of the state; and that states are rational strategic calculators. These assumptions have three implications: that states fear each other; that states understand it is a "self-help" world because there is no higher authority (an international "911") to which a state can appeal; and that, therefore, the best way to insure survival is to be the most powerful state in one's region. Mearsheimer argues that this formula is precisely that which the United States has pursued since its inception through policies such as the Monroe Doctrine and "Manifest Destiny."

Like Britain in the nineteenth century, Mearsheimer regards the United States as an "offshore balancer," maintaining dominance in the Western hemisphere and preventing any other power from encroaching in the American sphere or establishing a similar hegemonic position in Eurasia. The primary goal of American strategy should be to prevent the rise of a "peer competitor" which can challenge the United States. In this context, Mearsheimer questioned the current American engagement strategy toward China. He concluded that an ascendant 21st century China (contrary to the liberal school's key assumptions that the extension of democracy and market economics will create a pacific international system) will inevitably behave according to the assumptions of structural realism and challenge the United States as a "peer competitor."

In his commentary to initiate dialogue among participants, Professor Ikenberry praised the book for reminding readers that power does still matter in international politics. But he went on to query why the post-Cold War era did not unfold as realist theory would have predicted. Specifically, in the face of American "hyperpower," no counter-alliance of states emerged to balance U.S. power. One possible explanation for this historical anomaly is American participation in the web of international organizations, which channel U.S. power and make it less threatening to others. Moreover, Russia and China have not aligned to counter the United States as Washington has pursued policies of accommodation and integration toward both its former Cold War adversaries.

Experts & Staff

  • Robert S. Litwak // Vice President for Scholars and Academic Relations and Director, International Security Studies
  • Tonya Boyce // Program Assistant, International Security Studies

Wilson Center Photo Gallery

Browse or share photos from the Wilson Center’s events.

To Attend an Event

Unless otherwise noted:

Meetings listed on this page are free and open to the public. Reservations are not required unless otherwise noted. All meetings take place at the Woodrow Wilson Center in Washington, DC. Please see map and directions. Allow time for routine security procedures. A photo ID is required for entry.

To confirm time and place, contact Maria-Stella Gatzoulis on the day of the event: tel. (202) 691-4188. Check this page for the latest updates and notices.