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The Tragedy of Great Power Politics Hardcover – October, 2001

3.9 out of 5 stars 77 customer reviews

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Editorial Reviews

Amazon.com Review

This hardheaded book about international relations contains no comforting bromides about "peace dividends" or "the family of nations." Instead, University of Chicago professor John J. Mearsheimer posits an almost Darwinian state of affairs: "The great powers seek to maximize their share of world power" because "having dominant power is the best means to ensure one's own survival." Mearsheimer comes from the realist school of statecraft--he calls his own brand of thinking "offensive realism"--and he warns repeatedly against putting too much faith in the goodwill of other countries. "The sad fact is that international politics has always been a ruthless and dangerous business," he writes. Much of the book is an attempt to show how the diplomatic and military history of the last two centuries supports his ideas. Toward the end of The Tragedy of Great Power Politics, he applies his theories to the current scene: "I believe that the existing power structures in Europe in Northeast Asia are not sustainable through 2020." Mearsheimer is especially critical of America's policy of engagement with China; he thinks that trying to make China wealthy and democratic will only make it a stronger rival. This is a controversial idea, but it is ably argued and difficult to ignore. --John Miller

From Publishers Weekly

The central tenet of the political theory called "offensive realism" is that each state seeks to ensure its survival by maximizing its share of world power. Mearsheimer, professor of political science at the University of Chicago, sets out to explain, defend and validate offensive realism as the only theory to account for how states actually behave. He proceeds by laying out the theory and its assumptions, then extensively tests the theory against the historical record since the Age of Napoleon. He finds plenty of evidence of what the theory predicts that states seek regional dominance through military strength. Further, whenever a condition of "unbalanced multipolarity" exists (i.e., when three or more states compete in a region, and one of them has the potential to dominate the others), the likelihood of war rises dramatically. If history validates offensive realism, then the theory should yield predictions about the future of world politics and the chances of renewed global conflict. Here Mearsheimer ventures into controversial terrain. Far from seeing the end of the Cold War as ushering in an age of peace and cooperation, the author believes the next 20 years have a high potential for war. China emerges as the most destabilizing force, and the author urges the U.S. to do all it can to retard China's economic growth. Since offensive realism is an academic movement, readers will expect some jargon ("buckpassing," "hegemon"), but the terms are defined and the language is accessible. This book will appeal to all devotees of political science, and especially to partisans of the "tough-minded" (in William James's sense) approach to history. Maps.

Copyright 2001 Cahners Business Information, Inc.


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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 448 pages
  • Publisher: W. W. Norton & Company; First Edition edition (October 2001)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0393020258
  • ISBN-13: 978-0393020250
  • Product Dimensions: 9.5 x 6.4 x 1.6 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 2.1 pounds
  • Average Customer Review: 3.9 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (77 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #931,555 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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Top Customer Reviews

Format: Hardcover
Those of us who are familiar with John Mearsheimers' illuminating and provocative work have been waiting quite a few years for him to put all his thoughts together in one coherent and all-encompassing book. The wait is finally over, and the result does not disappoint. Mearsheimer has written what is sure to be the standard text for the Realist paradigm for years to come. It is clear that he is in fact trying to place himself in the Realist cannon as the logical successor to Morgenthau and Waltz. Whereas Morgenthau could not explain why states are driven to be as aggressive as they are, and Waltz's Defensive Realism did not adequately describe the constant struggle for power among states, Mearsheimer's Offensive Realism claims to explain both. States are aggressive due to the anarchic nature of the state system, which leads them to not only seek to ensure their survival, but to also try to acquire power at every opportunity possible.
Mearsheimer's lengthy volume is divided roughly into two parts. The first half is the theoretical section, in which he presents his Offensive Realist theory in detail, along with an explanation of how to measure state power (population and wealth). Also included in this part is an entire chapter called "The Primacy of Land Power," in which he not only tries to explain why land power is the most important, but also goes into the limits of sea and air power, and the limited effectiveness of blockades and strategic bombing campaigns. It is somewhat surprising that these issues have generally been overlooked by IR theorists until now. Hopefully that will no longer be the case. The second half of the book is more empirical, including the histories of all the recent Great Powers, focusing on why and how they have been aggressive in their foreign affairs.
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Format: Paperback
Before any reader digs into Mearsheimer's tome, they should be aware of two things: First, the book is a study of GREAT POWER politics (which is why one should not expect the U.S.-led war against minor power Iraq or the terrorist attacks of 9/11 to be accounted for; nor should they be cite these as examples of what the book lacks). Second, the book is not an international politics primer. Rather it is the most advanced presentation of the theory of offensive realism. Mearsheimer is the theory's leading proponent, and his book is not meant to be a balanced debate between realism and international liberalism, constructivism, etc.
That said, Mearsheimer's book is well-written and essential reading if one wishes to have a balanced view of international relations. The "Tragedy" of great power politics occurs when the power-maximization that nations pursue (which is almost mandated under international anarchy) leads to awesomely destructive hegemonic wars. Mearsheimer shatters the rhetoric surrounding great wars, reducing them to the basic elements of power. His theory is backed up by historical example, making for compelling reading. In addition, Mearsheimer looks to history and applies offensive realism in predicting that China will continue its rise and potentially challenge U.S. power in the near future.
Many will not agree with Mearsheimer's theory (this is the man, after all, who called for the nuclearization of Germany after the Cold War and pronounced NATO dead over a decade ago) but he is the leading Realist mind and strongest Realist voice in the IR community today. Love it or hate it, offensive realism does not get any more lucid than this.
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Format: Paperback
First off, the book is very easy to get through - the primary theoretical points are clearly laid out and easy to understand, the selected empirical evidence is interesting, and the style is fluid and coherent. This is the strength of realist theory - clarity of thought, and results in a much more enjoyable read than something by a radical-constructivist or critical theorist. The disagreement over theory is clear from the wide range of ratings in the reviews, but I'd like to briefly cover some of the issues brought up by other reviewers.

Offensive realism, as posited by Mearsheimer is NOT a rehash of Waltz's structural realism but rather adds some important new elements to realist theory. As a result, it is still susceptible to some of the critiques of realist theory in general but also adds new theoretical problems.

Mearsheimer uses Waltz' assumptions on the anarchic nature of the international system and its implication for state behaviour but goes in a very different direction. Using the same assumptions, Waltz believes great powers will essentially be status-quo and defensive while Mearsheimer believes they will be revisionist and aggressive power-maximizers. Mearsheimer thus can avoid the argument against Waltz's defensive realist theory that it leaves no room for transformation of the international system. The potential for conflict is a direct result of the distribution of power in the anarchic system.

The assumptions used by both are by no means "given" and disagreement over them has come from liberal institutionalists, the English School, and the various subsets of constructivist theory.
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