Anarchy and the Struggle for Power Summary

Anarchy and the Struggle for Power” is the second chapter of John Mearsheimer’s The Tragedy of Great Power Politics.

  • In this chapter, Mearsheimer examines how nation-states have acted and will continue to behave in a state of anarchy—that is, in the absence of a global authority. 
  • Promoting his theory of offensive realism, Mearsheimer argues that in an anarchic system like our own, great powers will seek to dominate other states to ensure their own survival.
  • This inevitable competition between states results in an international system that incentivizes aggression and conflict between nation-states.


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In “Anarchy and Struggle for Power,” John Mearsheimer presents his theory of offensive realism with regard to international relations between nation-states, which he refers to as “great powers.” He argues that great powers constantly strive for the goal of hegemony, or dominance, over each other by becoming more and more powerful.

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Mearsheimer bases his theory on five basic assumptions about how the “international system” works. These assumptions, he asserts, are sound and realistic, and taken together, they contribute to the “explanatory power” of his theory about why states often tend toward aggression. The first assumption is anarchy in the world system. Anarchy here does not refer to chaos or disorder but rather a lack of central authority. Second, Mearsheimer assumes that great powers possess the capacity to hurt each other through their “offensive military capability.” Third, states' intentions toward each other are never certain and change rapidly. Fourth, states want to survive, and this desire for security motivates all their actions. Fifth, states are “rational actors” and pay close attention to other states as they plan how to survive. These five assumptions, Mearsheimer explains, “create powerful incentives” for offensive behavior.

Mearsheimer next identifies three possible “patterns of behavior” that arise in great powers. The first is fear. States are continually scared and suspicious of each other, for they know that other powers are capable of attacking at any time, and there is no central authority to call on for help. The potential consequences of such attacks are serious, including war and conquest. Second, states can only count on themselves for their own survival, so they establish patterns of self-help behavior and do whatever they can to remain in existence. Third, states seek maximum power: each one wants to become the most powerful among its rivals. Each one longs to be the hegemon, the dominant state, in the system. Therefore, each tries its best to swing the balance of power in its favor, even if that sometimes entails aggression.

This “pursuit of power” will continue, Mearsheimer explains, until one state becomes a hegemon. States are not satisfied with merely having greater power; they must dominate. They can never know for sure how much power they need to be secure nor how the picture will change in the future. Even if a state has little chance of becoming a hegemon, it will still strive after as much power as possible, taking advantage of other states as necessary and trying to defend itself against aggression from other states. This leads to a “constant security competition” between states. Indeed, a “security dilemma” arises when one state's efforts to increase its security actually decrease other states' security.

Mearsheimer points out that states focus more on relative power than absolute power. States are always comparing themselves to other states, making sure that they have more power then their rivals. This is relative power; even small power gains are important if one state is gaining more than another. Absolute power, on the other hand, strives after power for its own sake rather than in...

(The entire section contains 1279 words.)

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