Live-tweeting: “Tragedy of Great Power Politics” by John Mearsheimer

6 thoughts
last posted May 26, 2016, 5:47 p.m.
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It all started with Stephen Walt’s How to Get a B.A. in International Relations in 5 Minutes (onerous paywall, so here’s a pirated copy). I didn’t dare pray for such lucidity on the topic of international relations:

  1. Anarchy There’s no policeman or court that protects you from criminals in the international arena.
  2. Balance of power/threats Therefore, nations are acutely aware of who is more or less powerful than them, and the rates at which they’re getting or losing power; the strength of alliances, and the rates of strengthening or deterioration of those alliances.
  3. Comparative advantage Nations and peoples can get rich by making the best things they can, or providing the best services they can, and with the money they earn doing so, buying things that they’d like and can’t get as well domestically. You probably read about this in microeconomics class.
  4. Misperception & miscalculation Misunderstandings, miscommunications, needless panic, rule the day. Because of all the above.
  5. Social construction People’s attitudes about huge things (god, moral norms, work, slavery, &c.) are both hugely important and can change quickly.

Walt lets a friend sum up international politics (though, note, that it most likely applies to a lot of other things, though just as imprecisely): “three words: fear, greed, and stupidity.” Numbers 1 & 2 above are about fear. Number 3 is about greed. And number 4 is stupidity. And number 5 just says that the specific things you fear, lust for, and get confused about will change.

Walt has a list of important and interesting books for people interested in international relations somewhere, and on it I found Mearsheimer’s book on power politics.


On May 12–13, I highlighted these:

These and other propositions in this book will be controversial. In their defense I try to show that the logic that underpins them is sound and compelling. I also test these propositions against the historical record.

the structure of the international system forces states which seek only to be secure nonetheless to act aggressively toward each other. Three features of the international system combine to cause states to fear one another: 1) the absence of a central authority that sits above states and can protect them from each other, 2) the fact that states always have some offensive military capability, and 3) the fact that states can never be certain about other states’ intentions. Given this fear—which can never be wholly eliminated—states recognize that the more powerful they are relative to their rivals, the better their chances of survival.

“I have every sympathy for their situation, but if we wish to survive we have no choice but to wipe them out.” —Bismark on the Poles

Whether China is democratic and deeply enmeshed in the global economy or autocratic and autarkic will have little effect on its behavior, because democracies care about security as much as non-democracies do, and hegemony is the best way for any state to guarantee its own survival.

Let us continue live-tweeting this book.


Mearsheimer poses the following questions:

First, why do great powers want power? What is the underlying logic that explains why states compete for it? Second, how much power do states want? How much power is enough? … Third, what is power? How is that pivotal concept defined and measured? … Fourth, what strategies do states pursue to gain power, or to maintain it when another great power threatens to upset the balance of power? … The fifth is, what are the causes of war? Specifically, what power-related factors make it more or less likely that security competition will intensify and turn into open conflict? Sixth, when do threatened great powers balance against a dangerous adversary and when do they attempt to pass the buck to another threatened state?

Some guesses. First, without power, states fear they will be subjugated (from Machiavelli, despite Keltner).

Second, every state wants to be the most powerful state, number one—that’s the only way to be secure (assuming an unchanging world).

Third, I… am not sure.

Fourth: war. Shooting or trade war. Though, I’m only partly right, for right here Mearsheimer says, “Blackmail and war are the main strategies that states employ to acquire power, and balancing and buck-passing are the principal strategies that great powers use to maintain the distribution of power when facing a dangerous rival.”

Fifth. See #4.

Sixth. I don’t know.


Early on, Mearsheimer notes,

The [first?] Clinton administration’s foreign policy rhetoric, for example, was heavily informed by the three main liberal theories of international relations: 1) the claim that prosperous and economically interdependent states are unlikely to fight each other, 2) the claim that democracies do not fight each other, and 3) the claim that international institutions enable states to avoid war and concentrate instead on building cooperative relationships.

The likely or eventual correctness of these three hypotheses are not commented on here. Later, Mearsheimer expounds on the differences between the liberal and the realist schools of international relations thought:

liberals tend to be hopeful about the prospects of making the world safer and more peaceful. Most liberals believe that it is possible to substantially reduce the scourge of war and to increase international prosperity. For this reason, liberal theories are sometimes labelled “utopian” or “idealist.”

He horrifyingly continues, and I’m waiting for the beat to drop because this cannot end well:

Liberalism’s optimistic view of international politics is based on three core beliefs, which are common to almost all of the theories in the paradigm. … [The first and the third are not as terrifying as the second] Second, they emphasize that the internal characteristics of states vary considerably, and that these differences have profound effects on state behavior. Furthermore, liberal theorists often believe that some internal arrangements (e.g., democracy) are inherently preferable to others (e.g., dictatorship). For liberals, therefore, there are “good” and “bad” states in the international system. Good states pursue cooperative policies and hardly ever start wars on their own, whereas bad states cause conflicts with other states and are prone to use force to get their way. Thus, the key to peace is to populate the world with good states.

He concludes his description of the pillars of the liberal view of international politics with

Bad states might be motivated by the desire to gain power at the expense of other states, but that is only because they are misguided. In an ideal world, where there are only good states, power would be largely irrelevant.


The first [theory] argues that high levels of economic interdependence among states make them unlikely to fight each other.

I very much suspect this theory is untrue. It seems a cruel joke to think that “prosperous states are more economically satisfied and satisfied states are more peaceful”.

The second theory of liberal international relations in Mearsheimer’s view is the “democratic peace theory, claims that democracies do not go to war against other democracies”. Also seems very naive.

The third involves international institutions, i.e., “sets of rules that stipulate the ways in which states should cooperate and compete with each other” help curb war. The Marquis of Fantailler…


Realists tend not to draw sharp distinctions between “good” and “bad” states, because all great powers act according to the same logic regardless of their culture, political system, or who runs the government. … States may cooperate with each other on occasion, but at root they have conflicting interests.