The Tragedy of Great Power Politics (Updated Edition)


Political historian John J. Mearsheimer details nations’ paths to hegemony in this compelling description of the sources and applications of state power.

Prolific political author John J. Mearsheimer – professor of political science and co-director of the Program on International Security Policy at the University of Chicago – offers a detailed and incisive study of the bloody, ruthless business of international politics, in which major nations unendingly compete to assure their survival. This updated edition of his now-classic 2001 work proves Mearsheimer’s sobering theses to be no less true, and his insights no less accurate, than they were at the beginning of this century.


Major nations conduct the business of global politics with ferocity. The international system leaves great powers no alternative, because no superior, global authority guarantees security. The most important goal of a great power is survival, and hegemony – being the single great power in a region or the world – offers the best prospect for survival. Thus, great powers need strong militaries.

Realism is at odds with the deep-seated sense of optimism and moralism that pervades much of American society.John J. Mearsheimer

More power is always better than less power. Continually seeking more power enhances a state’s chances of survival – and the more powerful the nation, the greater the effects of any power grab.


The United States is a regional hegemon; the Atlantic and Pacific oceans constrain it from global dominance. Japan, Germany and Napoleonic France attempted to achieve regional hegemony but failed. Regional hegemons try to subdue strong states in other regions, because another regional hegemon might stir up trouble.

The more powerful a state, the more trepidation it inspires in its rivals. States with common land borders are at risk of conquest, and so they appropriately fear each other. Bipolar systems maintain a balance between two major states; an unequal distribution of power characterizes multipolar systems. When one state has the power to become a hegemon, war is more likely to ensue.

Land Armies

Wealth and population contribute to military strength. Cooperation between countries is possible, but only insofar as it serves each state’s self-interests. The United States and the USSR allied during World War II, for example, but the Cold War began after Germany and Japan surrendered. Any balance of power depends on each great power’s armed strength.

States have two kinds of power: latent power and military power.John J. Mearsheimer

The most powerful states have the strongest land armies. Airborne tactics, such as strategic bombing, have historically failed to coerce an enemy’s surrender.


Countries separated from other powerful nations by large expanses of water, like the United States and the United Kingdom, enjoy significant protection from attack.

What money is to economics, power is to international relations.John J. Mearsheimer

Great Britain was a major sovereign for more than 400 years before 1945, and it never experienced a foreign invasion in that time. France has endured seven invasions since 1792, four of which resulted in its conquest. Russia, another continental great power, suffered onslaughts by Napoleon in 1812, by France and Britain in the Crimean War of 1854, by Germany in World War I, by Poland in 1921, and by Germany again in World War II. All but the Crimean War were overland invasions.

Nuclear Superiority

Great powers seek the maximum possible dominance of global wealth to maintain the strongest land armies. Over the last 250 years, a few states have amassed the economic and military strength to become regional hegemons: France under Napoleon, Germany under Kaiser Wilhelm and the Nazis, and the Soviet Union.

Any state that achieves nuclear superiority over its rivals effectively becomes the only great power in the system.John J. Mearsheimer

A major sovereign country with nuclear capacity can destroy an adversary without fear of retaliation. To achieve nuclear superiority, a state ideally enjoys a nuclear monopoly. Alternatively, a country might possess a lesser nuclear arsenal and a stronger defensive capability against nuclear attack. Former US Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara, for example, argued that nuclear weapons were useful only as deterrents.

Passing the Buck

Countries may attempt to maintain a balance of power by signaling their commitment through diplomatic channels. A great power may form defensive alliances by partnering with lesser powers, as the United States did with the Soviet Union during the Cold War. 

Conceding power to a dangerous adversary might make sense as a short-term strategy for buying time to mobilize the resources needed to contain the threat.John J. Mearsheimer

Great powers prefer to have other nations do their fighting. France and the Soviet Union tried to pass the buck to each other in the 1930s: Each sought good relations with Adolf Hitler while hoping he would target the other.

The United States declared war against the Axis powers in 1941 but did not land troops in France until 1944. It emerged from World War II stronger than France or Russia. Joseph Stalin believed the United States and the United Kingdom let Germany and the Soviet Union drain each other to assure American and British dominance of postwar Europe.

Leaders might concede power under some circumstances. For example, a state passing the buck may let another other nation increase its power to better stand alone against a mutual adversary. Conceding power temporarily might give the conceder time to become stronger.


China’s neighbors will try to impede its hegemony and will likely join the United States in a balancing coalition. A Chinese economic slowdown would be to the advantage of the United States.

Taiwan is likely to be part of an American-led balancing coalition aimed at China, which will surely infuriate Chinese of all persuasions and intensify the security competition between Beijing and Washington.John J. Mearsheimer

An unequal distribution of military power makes hostilities between the United States and China more probable than they were between the USSR and the United States during the Cold War. Even countries with extensive mutual economic ties go to war.

Now, As Then

Mearsheimer is not exactly cynical, but he isn’t sentimental, either. Morality plays no part in this cold-eyed analysis of how and why nations pursue power and what happens when one gains more than another. The author demonstrates an effortless authority regarding history and diplomacy that speaks of decades of research and original insights. Anyone with an interest in economics, politics, history and strategy will welcome Mearsheimer’s pragmatic, realistic assessment, which offers as much food for thought about the future as it supplies an eye-opening portrait of the past.

Among John J. Mearsheimer’s other books are The Great Delusion, Why Leaders Lie, and Liddell Hart and the Weight of History.

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