Anarchy and the Struggle for Power

by John Mearsheimer

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Last Updated on September 6, 2023, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1232

Anarchy and the Struggle for Power” appears as the second chapter of John Mearsheimer's book The Tragedy of Great Power Politics. While the piece can easily stand alone as an exposition and explanation of Mearsheimer's theory of offensive realism, seeing the chapter within the context of its book provides a broader perspective of the author's ideas. For instance, the book's introduction offers a helpful definition and overview of offensive realism as well as discussions of realism (as opposed to liberalism) and the various kinds of realism. 

While this background is not strictly necessary to an understanding of “Anarchy and the Struggle for Power,” it does provide a comprehensive depth that makes the chapter clearer and more accessible. Successive chapters expand on ideas presented in “Anarchy and the Struggle for Power.” The third chapter, for example, discusses the relationship between wealth and power, while the fifth chapter looks more closely at survival strategies.

Context aside, the author has a clear and distinct purpose for this chapter, namely to present the basics of his theory of offensive realism. To do this, he proposes, explains, and begins to defend a specific thesis (only begins because the defense of the thesis continues throughout the rest of the book). Mearsheimer asserts that nation-states are “always searching for opportunities to gain power over their rivals, with hegemony as their final goal.” As the chapter progresses, the author proceeds to explain the various aspects of his thesis in detail. He first identifies the assumptions behind his thesis, making sure readers know his starting points exactly. He then discusses the behavior patterns states follow because they accept those basic assumptions. Mearsheimer's description of the security competition between states follows logically after as does his definitions of relative and absolute power.

Indeed, as the chapter continues, the author's logical exposition of his thesis does as well. His presentation of states' calculated aggression qualifies his thesis a bit, admitting that states are not committed to aggression at all costs but only when the benefits of such actions outweigh the risks. The inclusion of such a discussion balances Mearsheimer's theoretical argument with practical considerations, anticipating and answering readers' questions and giving the thesis greater credibility.

Mearsheimer's carefully constructed definition and discussion of hegemony also provides his thesis with greater validity. Again, the author anticipates questions by defining hegemony, distinguishing between types of hegemony, and laying out the practical, real-world considerations (and examples) of states seeking such dominance. In so doing, Mearsheimer again efficiently explains his scholarly theory in a way even people not particularly familiar with political science can understand. Readers are likely to nod in agreement and lean toward accepting the author's ideas as they recognize the situations they have studied in history and see each day in the world around them.

The author does not hesitate to offer more in-depth explanation of parts of his theory when he feels such is necessary. In the section “Power and Fear,” for instance, Mearsheimer delves into the relationship between those two aspects of the theory. Although he has discussed them separately previously, he recognizes the need to relate the two elements more clearly, showing how each one affects and is affected by the other.

Mearsheimer's sections “The Hierarchy of State Goals,” “Creating World Order,” and “Cooperation Among States” logically anticipate and answer potential questions. The first acknowledges that states do indeed pursue more goals than survival and the quest for hegemony, but the author asserts that other goals (like economic prosperity and ideology) are in a firmly secondary position and are quickly set aside when a state's survival and...

(This entire section contains 1232 words.)

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power are threatened. He offers several illustrations of this to defend and strengthen his theory. In the second section, Mearsheimer again assumes that readers will think about issues of world peace, and he shows how that relates to his theory. States, he claims, may say they are striving toward world order and peace, but they will still hurry to defend themselves and their own power when faced with any perceived threat. The author uses a similar argument in the third section, explaining that states can and do cooperate with each other—but only to serve their own individual interests. His theory of offensive realism stands the test of these questions and answers them convincingly.

Mearsheimer is meticulous not only in expecting and responding to potential questions from readers but also in directly replying to proponents of opposing theories. While he affirms offensive realism, for instance, he recognizes that other scholars promote defensive realism. He takes the time to briefly explain that theory and then respectfully refutes it with evidence from history. The author may not agree with his opponents, but he takes their arguments seriously and courteously shows how his own theory better explains historical and current circumstances. 

Mearsheimer frequently uses examples from history and current world politics to illustrate his points and strengthen his descriptions and arguments. In his section “Power and Fear,” for instance, he refers to the increasing fear of nations toward Germany throughout the 1930s as the country grew in power. He uses examples from World War II in his discussion of cooperation between states, showing how the cooperation between Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union quickly disintegrated when Germany became a threat to Soviet power.

However, Mearsheimer sometimes fails to supply examples in places where they would serve to clarify his points. In the discussion of relative and absolute power, the author notes that states seeking relative power are willing to “forgo large gains” of power if other states gain even more and that states seeking absolute power pursue any possible gains no matter what their rivals obtain. While this explanation is clear and logical, real-world examples would further enhance his analysis. The same holds true for Mearsheimer's discussion of states' means for shifting the balance of power. Historical or current examples would have completed his explanation.

Such minor criticisms notwithstanding, Mearsheimer does provide both a solid, easy-to-follow organization as well as a clear and often entertaining style through the chapter. The author is a master of logical organization. He moves smoothly from point to point, breaking down his descriptions and explanations into well-ordered sections and helpful bullet points, like the five basic assumptions and the three state behavior patterns. He takes the time to define and contrast pairs like relative and absolute power, potential and relative power, and relative and absolute gains. Mearsheimer stays focused throughout the piece, not straying off-topic but logically connecting his sections and the ideas within sections. All of this makes his intricate and potentially difficult to understand ideas accessible and clear.

Mearsheimer even adds a bit of humor to his work with his style, which often assumes a light and entertaining tone. For example, when presenting his definition of anarchy, the author metaphorically refers to it as “the 9-1-1 problem.” States do not have a central authority to reach in emergencies; they cannot dial 9-1-1 for help. Mearsheimer also sprinkles his writing with informal, metaphoric comments like states needing to “pay careful attention to how the pie is divided” and “The trick . . . is to figure out when to raise and when to fold.” This informal style allows readers to relate more easily to Mearsheimer's words and ideas. He brings a complex subject down to a readable, interesting level while remaining perfectly clear in his definitions, explanations, arguments, and examples.