“The Tragedy of Great Power Politics” by John Mearsheimer


After the terrorist attack of September 2001, the idyllic illusions were shattered, and John Mearsheimer’s book, The Tragedy of Great Power Politics, took an opportunity to explain why these harmonious visions remain utopian. Mearsheimer makes a defensive case as to why the traditional pattern of rivalry is expected to continue, especially on the geopolitical within the world’s great powers. The anarchism in the international system requires countries to seek dominance at each other’s expense. As a result, nations end up in a relentless power struggle. Through analysing The Tragedy of Great Power Politics, the review shall argue out Mearsheimer’s claim on the international system, balancing and buck-passing, and the rise of China.

Mearsheimer Claim on the International System

Firstly, the international system has no hieratic superiority, and no coercive power can guarantee limits on the state’s behavior. For a state to navigate this system and ensure its survival, it requires to pursue domination and “maximize their relative power” (Mearsheimer, 2021, p. 21). For this reason, countries under thereat require to pursue global and regional hegemony among the great powers giving rise to constant security competition with the potentiality of war. Mearsheimer argues that the security-seeking nations should engage in conflict to ensure their security. His rationale is that a more vital state and one that holds more power is less likely to be a target as weaker states will be dissuaded from challenging it (Mearsheimer, 2021). Due to these uncertainties of less powerful states uniting with the anarchical nature of the international system, it makes the powerful states adopt expansive, offensive, and competitive frameworks whenever the opportunity’s advantage exceeds the costs. It mostly happens as states’ intentions are always hidden and are bound to change in the future; becoming aggressive makes powerful states adopt worse-case scenarios. It expands their power, leading to high competition in the international system.

I agree with Mearsheimer’s claims on using offensive realists in navigating the international system. In the first instance, he says that the global system does not provide incentives to states for expansion purposes and structural modifiers. His claim on this is valid as based on the geopolitics policies and experience within the international system, there is no policy that facilities in unit level and domestic pathologies. It includes perceptions, beliefs, log-rolled imperial coalition, self-encirclement, defense military geography, and balanced offenses (Mearsheimer, 2020). He states, “States are disposed to think offensively toward other states even though their ultimate motive is simply to survive. In short, great powers have aggressive intentions” (Mearsheimer, 2014, p.34). Due to the international states providing little to no incentives, the states are pushed to acquire power by creating opportunities that benefit them more than the cost.

Mearsheimer’s second instance on security issues is correct. The security issue states that as countries strive to abstain from attacks, they are motivated to acquire more power to escape the impact of other powerful states. States are compelled to prepare for the worst in a system characterized by powerful competitive states and competing units that aim to withhold their status quo (Mearsheimer, 2014). The claim is valid for security threats from a state because the threatened state undertakes countermeasures. Ozturk supports the claim that state security and power competition among states use the social dilemma where one takes similar countermeasures to the threat of another state to maintain the status quo (Ozturk, 2021). However, a state cannot know the intentions of one state but can recognize its motive. In that, effective security measure in a state matches the real threat to others.

Lastly, Mearsheimer’s claim on creating opportunities at others’ expense is correct. Mearsheimer states that “the best way for a state to survive in anarchy is to take advantage of other states and gain power at their expense. The best defense is a good offense” (Mearsheimer, 2014, p.31). He was right on this, as the international system guarantees insecurity, and a state must protect itself. It leads to states having security competition where rivalry states try to attain an advantage through aggressive behaviors as long as the benefits outweigh the cost.

Balancing’ and Buck Passing

According to Mearsheimer, balancing and buck-passing are the principal strategies only states use to maintain and distribute their power when faced with threats. According to Mearsheimer, balancing occurs when a country allies with another country to balance the powerful regions (Mearsheimer, 2014). Balancing is the action undertaken by a state to equalize their power with the threat making it difficult for powerful nations to exert military advantage over the less powerful countries. However, Chandramonah denotes that balancing prevents nations from acquiring hegemony, making others join the coalition against the bidder for hegemony (Chandramohan, 2021). Mearsheimer rejects this as a nation can never be secure, and only power maximization can ensure its survival.

In contrast, buck-passing involves shifting the blame and responsibilities to another state which means that a state lets other nations balance the threatening power. If great regional power cannot comprehend a threat, it is best suitable when a distant hegemon balances it. This makes the regional balances act as offshore balancers (Kropatcheva, 2018). Mearsheimer argues that bulk balancing could turn the international geopolitical system into three possible balanced multipolar, bipolar, and unbalanced multipolar structures. In the balanced multipolar structure, there are equal capabilities of the great power holding off an aggressor and capable of accepting the buck, making it an attractive option. On the bipolar, there is no state to catch the buck by the super-states, making it impossible (Salah, 2021). Lastly, in an unbalanced structure, a state is more potent than the other making it impossible for the weak state to accept the buck-passing, making other states interested in balancing against the mighty state.

However, Mearsheimer does not advocate for bulk balancing due to its challenges. Firstly, balancing makes states incur the cost of their ally, making them weaker compared to buck passing, where the state does not incur any charge unless their security is endangered (Mearsheimer, 2014). For instance, during World War II, the U.S. was reluctant to join the war until an attack of war occurred on Pearl Harbour. In addition, the buck-passing can result in an inefficient outcome as it causes a collective issue in the international economy rather than individuals within states. For instance, the United States allowed Asian and European states to deal with the Nazis, Japan, and Germany, first leading to an economic crisis. However, balancing can be unreliable on power-hungry nations as lower disincentives are bidding for power to attain hegemony (Mearsheimer, 2021). Due to this and the threat that other states possess, the only remaining approach for survival is to pursue hegemony through balancing. Balancing will allow power maximization between states for their survival.

Mearsheimer view on the rise of China

Mearsheimer’s view in The Tragedy of Great Power Politics discusses the rise of China in length, which cannot be peaceful. He states that it is challenging to predict China’s future and current intentions from his writing. It is difficult to distinguish the county’s offensive and defensive capabilities based on its past peaceful behavior. It makes China’s intentions uncertain, as the leaders have been well known for lying to the public and foreign states as “talk is cheap and leaders have been known to lie to foreign audiences” (Mearsheimer, 2014, p.383). The false talks make China’s relations within the international system trustworthy, primarily if their intentions are associated with cost (Kirshner, 2019). Mearsheimer argues in such a case, a country should undertake the cost-benefit analysis. In addition, a nation should consider the probability of the treaty posing a threat as well as assume that the state has the worst intention. No state knows China’s true intentions for the future, and it is safe to consider their worst. For the uncertainty of China’s intentions, countries have developed fear towards China since it is unpredictable. In such a case, it increases the cost of conflict by China and decreases fear concerns from other states’ intentions.

I agree with Mearsheimer’s view on the rise of China being un-peaceful. I will illustrate using a comparison of the rise of the U.S. to China. The U.S. rose by taking a position of dominance and posting military superiority within the Western countries that creates an offensive realism. It is based on “state that is so powerful that it dominates all the other states in the system. No other state has the military wherewithal to put up a serious fight against it” (Mearsheimer, 2014, p.40). It can be illustrated by several samples, such as the U.S. acquiring the Louisiana state by purchasing it in 1803 from France. The purchase caused France’s geopolitical burden, thus forcing the country to create an alliance (Modebadze, 2020). It illustrates that the U.S. became a powerful nation due to the absence of balancers within other regions. In contrast to China, the alliance efficiency does no balance. For instance, Chinas alliances are Japan, Russia, India, and powerful states in the military such as Vietnam and Korea, and the U.S. that has the project military power globally.

Lastly, Mearsheimer is against China’s peaceful rise because we cannot tell if the state’s military capabilities are only for defensive purposes. However, I can’t entirely agree with his justification as the international system benefits from Chinas powerful military capabilities. The military capabilities reduce the intensity of insecurity in states as it balances off the power. In addition, China has a doctrine of mutually assured destruction, which states a notion attack by one superior State would be met by an overwhelming nuclear attack, making it difficult for China to bid on hegemony (Myšička, 2021). For this reason, a hegemony bid by the Chinese on any nuclear weapon would draw the rest of the powerful states to target China, such as Russia, the U.S., and India, or motivate states like Japan and South Korea to create nuclear weapons.


By evaluating Mearsheimer’s claim on the international system, balancing and buck-passing, and the rise of China, it is clear that he illuminates the theory of offensive realism. On the global system, he argues that a country should engage in conflict to ensure their security and survival by pursuing domination and maximizing their power. He also advocates this by advocating that states undertake bulk passing as balancing can be unreliable on power-hungry nations as there are lower disincentives when biding for influence to attain hegemony. Lastly, he states the rise of China is unpeaceful as we should consider China’s intentions uncertain.


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Kirshner, J. (2019). Offensive realism, Thucydides traps, and the tragedy of unforced errors: classical realism and US–China relations. China International Strategy Review, 1(1), 51-63.

Kropatcheva, E. (2018). Power and national security. In Routledge Handbook of Russian Foreign Policy (pp. 43-59). Routledge.

Mearsheimer, J.J. (2014). The Tragedy of Great Power Politics: Updated Edition. Norton Publishing, New York, NY. 2014.

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Mearsheimer, J. J. (2021). The inevitable rivalry: America, China, and the tragedy of great-power politics. Foreign Affai , 32-48.

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Ozturk, Ö. (2021). John J. Mearsheimer, the Great Delusion: Liberal Dreams and International Realities. Uluslararası İlişkiler Dergisi, 18(71), 153-155.

Salah, M. (2021). The Buck-Passer’s Dilemma: Evidence from Japan. Peter Rutkowski, 77-89.

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