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About the Author

John Mearsheimer is an American Political scientist and international relations scholar who belongs to the realist school of thought, best known for his theory of offensive realism. After graduating from United States Military Academy (WestPoint) in 1970, Mearsheimer served as an officer in the air force, rising to the rank of captain.

John received a master’s degree (1974) in international relations from the University of Southern California, as well as a master’s degree (1978) and a PhD (1981) in government from Cornell University. Later, in 1982, he became a professor of political science at the University of Chicago.

John Mearsheimer was deeply influenced by Kenneth Waltz, the founder of the school of international relations known as neorealism. Whereas classical realists like Hans Morgenthau have traced international conflicts to the human natures, the structural/neo-realists such as waltz located the cause of war in the archaic structure of international relations.

In waltz theory, the absence of authority above the states forces the state to ally in order to contain the threats posed by rival powers. In other words, the international order is determined by the balance of power between the states. (Defensive realism)

However, Mearsheimer here differs and holds the need for security forces states to maximize their power. Hence, states are inherently aggressive because of the structure of the system. States do not cooperate, except during temporary alliances, but constantly seek to diminish their competitors’ power and enhance their own. (Offensive realism)

Professor Mearsheimer has written extensively about security issues and international politics more generally. He has published six books:

  • The Tragedy of Great Power Politics (2001, 2014), which won the Joseph Lepgold Book Prize and has been translated into nine different languages;
  • The Israel Lobby and U.S. Foreign Policy (with Stephen M. Walt, 2007), which made the New York Times bestseller list and has been translated into twenty-four different languages;
  • Why Leaders Lie: The Truth about Lying in International Politics (2011), which has been translated into twelve different languages;
  • The Great Delusion: Liberal Dreams and International Realities (2018), which has been translated into five different languages and received the 2019 Best Book of the Year Award from the Valdai Discussion Conference, Moscow.


John Mearsheimer is a prominent international scholar and the founder of the Offensive realism school of thought.

Mearsheimer based his theory on five core assumptions:

  1. The international system is archaic. (Anarchy)
  2. All states have some military capability. (Offensive military capabilities)
  3. States can never fully ascertain the intentions of other states. (uncertainty)
  4. States value survival above else. (survival)
  5. States are rational actors. (rationality)

All these conditions of the international structure create strong incentives for states to behave aggressively towards each other.

So, he concluded, since it is impossible to know the intentions of other states, it is very rational for any states to be ready for all kinds of scenarios, hence increasing their military strength and adopting a solid position whenever their core security interest is at stake.

Assessment of the Author

Undoubtedly, the Author is one pessimist and arguably one of the most prominent skeptics of the “peaceful rise of China” narrative. Author’s theory as presented in this book The Tragedy of Great Power Politics, he had predicted with his theory of offensive realism that the rise of China would inevitably be not peaceful and may cause conflict or instability in the system.

The assumptions which underlie his theory and the conclusion that Mearsheimer claims those assumptions logically generate are consistent in this book. He concludes that states will continue to maximize their power. By extrapolating his theory to the rise of China, we can predict that powerful China first wants to have a regional hegemony in their backyards, North-East Asia.

Mearsheimer’s Theory and the Rise of China (Assessment of the Book)

This book’s central argument is that “the Tragedy of great power politics is that even security-seeking great powers will be forced to engage in competition and conflict with one another. The book is an impressive work with plausible assumptions. The author focuses on how states in the international system seek to establish themselves. Mearsheimer has a theory he calls offensive realism that explains why a peaceful world is unlikely and shows strategies great powers use to advance over other great powers.

Mearsheimer boldly states that great-power rivalry is not over. The major powers still fear each other. His view “offensive realist” argues that an archaic international system compels excellent powers to act aggressively with other rivals. The Great powers rarely seek the status quo but instead go for a total hegemony in the international power structure. The author tests his theory by citing examples from the 19th and 20th centuries. Like imperial Japan, Imperial Germany, Nazi Germany, and USSR.

As a result, Mearsheimer predicts after the cold, war there will be an inevitable coming of power politics international politics. He even expected with his theories that China’s rise would not be peaceful, but it will create instability and a challenge to the United States.

Just as Thucydides deemed the Peloponnesian War inevitable as Athens rose and the relative power of Sparta declined, history will repeat itself as China rises. The relative strength of the United States has declined.

The East Asian region is a strategic location. Most of these countries follow a free-market

capitalist economy and export a lot to the world. The presence of the United States in the new cold war in this region helped it achieve stability and check rivalry between the nations.

But with the immersive rise of China’s economy and subsequently their Military started

again, the debate of balancing or band wagoning for the smaller neighbors in this region.

Also, in South Asia, China has established its footprints which are considered the zone

of India’s influence. Thus, making India anxious and imbalance the regional balance of

powers. While in Central Asia, China has become the new tsar replacing Russia and gaining strategic footprints in central Asian countries.

The belligerent behaviour of China in the last decades has made these smaller

nations insecure, and they started to see China as a regional hegemon. Due to unilateral steps of China in the South China seas, and its aggressive stance on maritime borders, many small

countries fear a regional Chinese hegemon.

They started to seek stability and balance with the U.S. but also don’t want to antagonise

China due to fear of economic losses. Gradually, but firmly many countries like Japan, South Korea, Singapore, Malaysia and recently Vietnam and the Philippines have started to build more military and defence cooperation ties with the U.S. to make this region stable and balance China.

Criticism of his assumptions

Mearsheimer writes at length about his theory’s implications regarding the rise of China in the Tragedy of Great Power Politics (2001) but more specifically in subsequent writings (2005, 2006, 2010). He argues that there is no way to accurately predict China’s current or future intentions, that it is difficult to distinguish between China’s defensive and offensive military capabilities and that China’s past peaceful behavior is an unreliable indicator of future behaviour.

Another limitation is, in Asia, there are powerful actors like India, Japan and Russia which makes it very difficult for China to make a regional hegemon in its backyard. As a rational actor China would never want that these states would balance against China with the United States. So, an aggressive China seeking regional hegemony beyond a limit is incomprehensible.


As a realist, my opinion is that the Asian region is going to see a great power competition

between China, the U.S. and its allies. This has already begun.

Present data suggests that Asian countries are outspending Europe and other parts of the world on Military spending. This means that Asian countries are arming themselves. Further, we have seen the footprint of India in this region in the form of Quad, bilateral defence Maritime cooperation with Vietnam and Malaysia and the Philippines.

The U.S. strategy of Indo-pacific is certainly aimed to contain China. Japan is restarted building a Powerful Navy and Military. Australia has also pledged to increase spending for the next 20 years.

Hence, this Indo-pacific region is going to witness a new kind of cold war between China and the U.S. for influence. And Smaller nations prefer to have economic benefits with China but wanted security arrangements and ties with the U.S.

Most of the countries either have military cooperation agreements with the U.S. or have

started to begin some defence cooperation with the U.S. in the view of China.

Taiwan is another major flashpoint and the U.S. has just increased defence cooperation with it. The U.S. has also committed to defending Taiwan in case of invasion. Japan is also becoming ready for a possible confrontation with China for Islands disputes. Evidently from the geo-strategical viewpoint the U.S. and its allies are in a better condition than China.

Ankit Kumar is a student of Masters in International Relations, (MA, PISM), JNU. He has graduated in Political science from St Xavier’s College, Ranchi. He has also cleared UGC NET JRF in Political Science.

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