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  • The Tragedy of Great Power Politics
  • Walter L. Hixson
John J. Mearsheimer , The Tragedy of Great Power Politics. New York: W. W. Norton and Co., 2001. 448 pp. $27.95 cloth.

Few books on foreign policy have been received with more fanfare in recent times than John J. Mearsheimer's magisterial theoretical assessment of world politics. Though probably not destined for the sort of shelf life of another work that featured "tragedy" [End Page 149] in its title—the epic by William Appleman Williams, The Tragedy of American Diplomacy (Cleveland: World Publishing Co., 1959)—Mearsheimer's book nonetheless has received and will continue to receive a great deal of notice.

Mearsheimer, a distinguished professor of political science at the University of Chicago, offers a sweeping analysis of nothing less than the entire modern history of international relations. He argues that all of this history can be explained through a single theory, one that also provides a sure guide for understanding the present and future of great-power politics. In short, Mearsheimer's argument constitutes realism with a vengeance. The thesis is so unrelentingly pursued that Paul Kennedy has dubbed Mearsheimer, admiringly, as "our modern Machiavelli." The book's publisher adds Carl von Clausewitz and Henry Kissinger to the list of great statesmen with whom Mearsheimer can now be linked.

The praise stems in part from Mearsheimer's Herculean efforts to master a vast literature on history and world politics over more than two centuries—from the outset of the French revolutionary and Napoleonic wars to the current era. He has read widely and gleaned the essential arguments of scores of academic studies, mainly in history and political science. The Tragedy of Great Power Politics is exceptionally clearly written, accessible to any audience, and nicely packaged with a series of maps and tables.

Any assessment of the importance of this book, of course, must be determined by evaluating its central argument. Mearsheimer offers his own theory, "offensive realism," as a means of explaining the whole history of modern international relations and as a reliable paradigm for predicting the future of world politics.

More restrained than his publishers and some reviewers, Mearsheimer places his work in the tradition of E. H. Carr, Hans Morgenthau, and Kenneth Waltz, as opposed to Machiavelli, Clausewitz, and Kissinger. Mearsheimer admits that his theory is relatively simple and "can be distilled in a handful of propositions," namely, that "great powers seek to maximize their share of world power"(pp. xii–xiii)—always have and always will—and that the danger of war is particularly pronounced in a multipolar world in which a single and especially powerful state seeks hegemony. As this would appear to define the status of the United States in the world today, we are in for unceasing danger in the twenty-first century and very likely a new cold war with China.

To call this argument bold and deterministic would be an understatement. With a few minor exceptions, it explains everything that has happened in great-power politics since the French Revolution. Individual state actors, whether Winston Churchill or Adolf Hitler, Franklin Roosevelt or Josef Stalin, do not matter in the slightest. National culture, ideology, and domestic politics are nearly irrelevant to understanding foreign policy, past and future. Diplomacy and engagement between states will not work. Offensive realism alone explains world politics; answers will not be found in archives or in any other discourse or theoretical construct.

Many will judge such an uncompromising level of deterministic realism as offensive indeed. Theorists from other schools have stressed that language itself must be carefully examined for the meaning it conveys. The term "realism" seized the linguistic [End Page 150] upper hand from the start by positing as its binary opposite "idealism," typically associated with Woodrow Wilson's failed quest to establish a lasting peace after World War I. Mearsheimer assails not only idealism but liberalism, defensive realism, institutionalism, and any other ism that might get in the way of his own.

The impetus for Mearsheimer's book was the post–Cold War euphoria, best encapsulated by Francis Fukuyama's "end of history" thesis on the putative triumph of global liberalism. Mearsheimer anxiously argues that...