The Best Defense

Can John Mearsheimer's analysis of "offensive realism" explain or guide U.S. foreign policy? Better, perhaps, than the author realizes.

Issue: Spring 2002

John J. Mearsheimer, The Tragedy of Great Power Politics (New York: W.W. Norton, 2001), 448 pp., $27.95.

The absence of a sovereign in international politics, the root of what structural realists call the condition of anarchy, encourages states to look to their own security. Power, especially the power to wage war, is the means to this end, and states try to accumulate power because in the event of aggression by others, they must rely on themselves; they live in a self-help world. All structural realists agree on this point. Where they have come to disagree in recent years is whether states satisfice, in Herbert Simona's artful term, or maximize. Do they struggle for power until - for whatever reasons - they feel reasonably secure? Or do they struggle on until they achieve something like hegemony, the domination of their political environment (however they define both domination and environment)?

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