What are the prospects for world peace? Zero. At least according to Chicago professor of Political Science, John J. Mearsheimer.
In his Tragedy of Great Power Politics, Mearsheimer argues that great powers are engaged in competition with one another to become the global hegemon – the world’s most powerful state – and since no state is likely to achieve global hegemony the world is condemned to great power competition.
Mearsheimer’s bleak, but persuasive, account of international politics is based on five key assumptions:
1. The international system is anarchic; there is no ‘government over governments’.
2. States are seen to always possess some level of offensive military capability that they can use at any time.
3. States can never be certain about the intentions of other states.
4. The first priority of states is to survive; if they cannot survive then by definition they cannot achieve any of their other goals.
5. States are rational actors; they are aware of their external environment and think strategically about how to survive in it.
Based on these assumptions, Mearsheimer argues that states are compelled to pursue offensive, that is, aggressive, foreign policies in an attempt to maximise their power and eventually become global hegemon. ‘The overriding goal of each state,’ writes Mearsheimer, ‘is to maximise its share of world power, which means gaining power at the expense of other states’.
Mearsheimer explains that it is the structure of the international system that compels states to behave in this way. Indeed, in the absence of a higher authority, states are forced to operate in a self-help system; a state of nature.
Mearsheimer uses his theory, called offensive realism, to argue that China – a rising power – will not be able to rise peacefully and thus conflict between China and the United States is inevitable.
For realists like Mearsheimer, the prospects for world peace are zero, for the simple reason that the structure of international politics does not allow it.