Book Discussion Series 5

The Tragedy of Great Power Politics

John Mearsheimer

The Tragedy of Great Power Politics (Professor John J. Mearsheimer, updated edition 2014) is one of the most significant international relations books in the past half century as its author has become one of the most important authorities in the field. In this book, Mearsheimer presents his new realist theory of international relations that he calls “Offensive Realism” as supposed to the Liberal theory and Classical or Structural Realism theory. His theory is based on five assumptions as follows: (1) that the international system is anarchic as supposed to hierarchic (i.e. there is no central authority above the states); (2) that great powers possess some offensive military capability that gives the possibility of hurting or destroying other states; (3) that states can never be certain about the intentions of other states; (4) that survival is the ultimate goal of great powers including maintaining territorial integrity and autonomy of their domestic political order; and (5) that great powers are rational actors (this last assumption does not necessary always hold in all cases especially when ideology trumps strategic interest.) Mearsheimer argues that fearing other states is the primary factor in state behavior. He effectively applies his theory on major conflicts involving great powers in the last two hundred years. The strength of his theory, he argues, is in its ability to have a high predictability value of the behavior of great powers towards each other (he suggests a success rate of predictability of at least 75%). He meticulously analyzes all major great power conflicts and convincingly argues when there are exceptions. The book provides great insight in some of the most important and vital concepts in power politics and international relations such as global vs. regional hegemon, balanced vs. unbalanced system, latent vs. military power, land power vs. naval power or air superiority, insular vs continental power, strategies for gaining power, balancing, and many other important concepts. This book is indispensable for any serious student of international relations. For example, Mearsheimer explains in detail on how the U.S. has become a great power globally in less than 120 years. One cannot understand how great powers behave unless one is armed with the tools needed to unlock the mysteries of such behaviors. This book is one such great tool box that paves the road to such understanding.

By: Dr. Sami A. Al-Arian (Director, Center for Islam and Global Affairs)


The Great Delusion

John Mearsheimer

Liberalism claims that spreading liberal democracy across the world can be accomplished through open international economy and international institutions for promoting peace in the international system. Throughout his mainly theoretical contribution, Mearsheimer argues that liberal democracy destructs and harms the United States and the international system. In his view, liberal democracy leads America to become a highly militarized state fighting unceasing wars. He proposes that understanding this failure can be examined by considering the interactions between liberalism, nationalism and realism and how they affect international politics. Mearsheimer’s book elaborates on very significant questions, such as, what happens when a powerful state adopts liberalism as its foreign policy? Mearsheimer claims that liberalism functions well inside states; nevertheless, he acknowledges that it cannot provide a sound basis for a state’s foreign policy. In fact, it becomes a source for trouble as it is extreme interventionism involving regime change and social engineering to transform the state, be it even by military. For example, Mearsheimer demonstrates how the U.S. foreign policy failed in Ukraine, Georgia and the Middle East. He describes the failures in the Middle East by stating that, “Washington’s performance in Afghanistan, Egypt, Iraq, Libya and Syria has been dismal. Not only has the United States failed to protect human rights and promote liberal democracy in those countries, it has played a major role in spreading death and disorder across the greater Middle East” (p.168). Despite the fact that the book presents liberalism as a good doctrine with a decent intention, Mearsheimer’s book is superb, very informative and well-argued in its critique of liberalism — especially liberal democracy — and how it failed in the past and why it will fail in the future.

By: Fadi Zatari (CIGA Senior Research Associate)