Great power rivalries: the case for realism, by John J Mearsheimer (Le Monde diplomatique

United we stand: G7 leaders during the joint declaration of support for Ukraine at the NATO summit in Vilnius, Lithuania, 12 July 2023

Beata Zawrzel · NurPhoto · Getty

Three decades ago, many experts in the West believed we had reached the end of history and that great-power war had been relegated to the dustbin of the past. That illusion has been shattered. The world faces not just one great-power rivalry, as it did during the cold war, but two: the US vs Russia in eastern Europe (over Ukraine) and the US vs China in East Asia (over Taiwan). Both security competitions could easily turn into hot wars.

In essence, there has recently been a great transformation in international politics, which is bad news for the West. What went wrong? What explains this change and where is the world headed? Answering these questions requires a theory of international relations: a general framework that can explain why states act as they do and help us make sense of a complicated and uncertain world.

Realism is the best theory for understanding world politics. States are the key actors in the realist story, and they coexist in a world where there is no supreme authority that can protect them from each other. This situation forces them to pay close attention to the balance of power, because they understand that being weak can leave them vulnerable. Thus, states compete among themselves for power, which is not to say they do not cooperate when their interests are compatible. But relations among states — especially great powers — are competitive at their core. Moreover, realist theory acknowledges that war is an acceptable instrument of statecraft and that states sometimes start wars to improve their strategic position. As Clausewitz argues, war is a continuation of politics by other means.

Realism isn’t popular in the West

Realism is not popular in the West, where war is widely considered an evil that can only be justified as a means of self-defence, as it is in the UN charter. Politics by other means? No way. It is also unpopular because it is so pessimistic: it assumes that security competition among (…)

Full article: 3 945 words.

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