Great Power Rivalries: The Case for Realism – In International Relations, Better to be Godzilla than Bambi
When assessing the geopolitical landscape, the primary aim of any state, whether democratic or authoritarian, is to ensure its own survival. That comes down to military might and alliances
Le Monde Diplomatique
John J. Mearsheimer
August 2023 Issue
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 the great powers is an unalterable fact of life and inevitably leads to tragic results. Finally, realism maintains that all states – whether they are liberal democracies or not – act according to the same logic. In the West, however, most people believe that regime type matters greatly and that liberal democracies are the good guys while authoritarian states are the main instigators of war.
Unsurprisingly, liberal theory, which is the main alternative to realism, is privileged in the West. Nevertheless, the US has almost always acted according to the dictates of realism and disguised its behaviour with a more moral rhetoric. It allied with the Stalinist Soviet Union during the second world war, and it backed a host of ruthless autocrats during the cold war – Chiang Kai-shek in China, Mohammad Reza Pahlavi in Iran, Rhee Syngman in South Korea, Mobutu Sese Seko in Zaire, Anastasio Somoza in Nicaragua and Augusto Pinochet in Chile.
The one exception is the ‘unipolar moment’ (1991-2017), when both Democratic and Republican administrations abandoned realism and tried to create a global order based on the values of liberal democracy – rule of law, market economies and human rights – under the benign leadership of the US. Unfortunately, this strategy of ‘liberal hegemony’ was a near-total failure, and it played a major role in creating the troubled world of 2023. Had American policymakers adopted a realist foreign policy after the cold war ended in 1989, the world would be considerably less dangerous today.
There are different realist theories. The political scientist Hans Morgenthau famously argues that human nature drives states to pursue power. Leaders, he maintains, possess an animus dominandi – an innate desire to dominate others. In contrast, the principal driving force in my theory is the structure or architecture of the international system. Its defining features push states – especially the great powers – to compete relentlessly for power. In effect, states are trapped in an iron cage.
The starting point is recognising that states operate in an anarchic system, where there is no all-powerful protector to call upon if another state threatens them. Therefore, states must take care of themselves in what is essentially a self-help world. This task is complicated by two other aspects of the international system. All great powers have offensive military capabilities, although some more than others, which means they can cause considerable mutual damage. Furthermore, it is difficult if not impossible to be certain that another state has benign intentions, mainly because intentions – unlike capabilities – are hidden inside the minds of policymakers and cannot be fully discerned. It is even harder to anticipate what another state might do in the future, because one cannot know who will be in charge, and a state’s intentions will almost certainly change if the circumstances it is facing are altered.
States operating in a self-help world where they might confront a powerful rival bent on attacking them are naturally going to fear each other, although the level of fear will vary across cases. The best way for a rational state to survive in such a dangerous world is to be especially powerful relative to other states, and certainly to make sure it is not weak. As the Chinese experience during the ‘century of national humiliation’ (1839-1949) shows, when a country is weak, more powerful states are likely to take advantage of it. In international relations, it is better to be Godzilla than Bambi.
The European Union might appear to be an exception, but it is not. It emerged under the protection provided by the American security umbrella, which made war among member states impossible and freed them from the need to worry about each other. This basic fact of life explains why European leaders of all stripes live in fear that the US will pivot to Asia and leave Europe in the rear-view mirror.
In short, great-power politics is characterised by relentless security competition, where states not only look for opportunities to gain relative power, but also seek to prevent the balance of power from shifting against them. This latter behaviour is called ‘balancing’, which can be done by building up one’s own power or forming an alliance against a dangerous opponent with other threatened states. In a realist world, power refers mainly to a state’s military capabilities, which ultimately depend on having an advanced economy and a large population.
Advantages of a regional hegemon
The ideal situation for a great power is to be a regional hegemon – to dominate its area of the world – while making sure that no other power, medium or great, is able to challenge it. The US is the paradigm of this logic at play. During the 18th and 19th centuries, it worked assiduously to achieve hegemony in the Western Hemisphere. During the 20th century, it helped prevent imperial Germany, imperial Japan, Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union from becoming regional hegemons in either Asia or Europe.
Survival, of course, is the primary goal of states, because if a state does not survive, it cannot pursue any other goals, such as prosperity or spreading an ideology. Relatedly, great powers can cooperate if they have mutual interests and cooperation does not undermine their position in the balance of power. For example, the superpowers cooperated during the cold war in signing the 1968 Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, although US-Soviet relations remained competitive at their core. Moreover, there was substantial economic intercourse among the European great powers before the first world war, but there was also significant security competition among those same countries, which trumped economic cooperation and eventually led to war. These examples point up that great-power cooperation always takes place in the shadow of security competition.
Some critics maintain that realism is dismissive of international institutions, which are the key building blocks of a rules-based international order. This view is incorrect: realists recognise that institutions are essential for waging security competition in an interdependent world – as NATO and the Warsaw Pact did during the cold war – and for facilitating economic and political cooperation – as the WTO and the UN do today. They emphasise, however, that the great powers write the institutions’ rules to suit their own interests, and under no circumstances can institutions coerce a great power to act in ways that threaten its security. In such cases, a great power will simply violate the rules or rewrite them in its favour.
That logic flies in the face of the widely held belief in the West that liberal democracies behave differently from authoritarian states. Authoritarian states, so the argument goes, are the real threat to the rules-based order and more generally the chief obstacle to creating a peaceful world. But this is not how international politics works. Regime type matters little in a self-help world where states constantly worry about their survival. The US is the quintessential liberal state, for example, but its leaders illegally attacked Yugoslavia in 1999 and Iraq in 2003, and waged a covert proxy war against Nicaragua during the 1980s. Great powers of all types act ruthlessly when they think their vital interests are threatened.
Some scholars argue that the ‘nuclear revolution’ has made realism less relevant today. Nuclear weapons, they suggest, guarantee a great power’s survival – who would dare attack the homeland of a nuclear-armed state? – thus eliminating the need to compete for power. Relatedly, they maintain that the fear of nuclear escalation will also deter two countries with nuclear arsenals from fighting a major conventional war. There is no evidence, however, that the great powers have ever embraced this logic. The Soviet Union and the US spent trillions of dollars competing for power throughout the cold war, and China, Russia and the US are doing the same today. These nuclear-armed great powers feared for their survival and prepared for conventional war against their rivals. This is not to deny that great-power war is less likely in a nuclear world, but it remains an ever-present threat, thus keeping realism as relevant as ever.
Where should the US fight?
Realism also suggests that the only areas of vital strategic interest to great powers – beside their own region – are those containing other great powers or an abundance of some critical resource on which the world economy depends. Thus, American realists maintained during the cold war that there were just three areas of the world outside the Western hemisphere where the US should prepare to fight: Europe, Northeast Asia, where the Soviet Union was located, and the oil-rich Persian Gulf. Almost every realist opposed the Vietnam war, because it was fought in Southeast Asia, a region of little strategic significance at that time. Today, however, Southeast Asia matters greatly to the US, because China has become a great power. This explains why Washington is prepared to defend the status quo in Taiwan and the South China Sea.
Liberalism, in contrast, does not prioritise among different regions of the world. Its primary goal is to spread democracy and capitalism as widely as possible. Although liberal rhetoric emphasises the evils of war, proponents of a liberal foreign policy are often willing to use force to achieve this ambitious objective. The Bush Doctrine, which aimed to democratise the greater Middle East at the end of a rifle barrel, was a manifestation of this. It is no accident that almost every prominent realist opposed the 2003 Iraq war. That war was the brainchild of neoconservatives, who are especially hawkish advocates of spreading liberalism abroad, and was widely supported by proponents of liberal hegemony.
Ironically, liberal approaches to foreign policy contain a decidedly illiberal element. At its core, liberalism emphasises the need for tolerance, because it recognises that individuals will never fully agree on the best way to live or be governed. Accordingly, liberal societies try to create space for individuals and groups to operate as much as possible according to their own beliefs. But when liberals turn to foreign policy, they act as if they know for certain what type of regime would be best for every country. Specifically, they believe the rest of the world should become like the West and they use the various tools at their disposal to push them in that direction. This illiberal approach to dealing with the world is doomed to fail, not only because there is no consensus about the ideal political system, but also because of realist logic. States are sovereign entities that defendtheir vital interests against threats, especially those which come from a competing state that is trying to change their system of government.
When the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991, the bipolar world that underpinned the cold war gave way to a unipolar system centred on the US. Unipolarity then turned into multipolarity in around 2017, with China’s rise and the resurrection of Russian power. The US is still the most powerful country in this new world, but China, with its formidable economy and growing military might, is a peer competitor. Russia is clearly the weakest of the three. Two new rivalries have emerged in this multipolar system, each operating according to a different realist logic. Like the US-Soviet antagonism after the second world war, the US-China security competition is mainly about regional hegemony, even though it could, like the US-Soviet antagonism, spread worldwide. The current US-Russia rivalry is due not to any fear that Russia could dominate Europe, but rather to the US’s aggressive behaviour.
The US-China rivalry
Throughout the 19th and 20th centuries, China was not considered a great power. It certainly had the population size to qualify, but it did not have the wealth needed to build sufficient military forces. That situation began changing in the early 1990s, when the Chinese economy started growing rapidly. Today, China has the second largest economy in the world and the capability to develop cutting-edge technologies. Predictably, Beijing is using its economic might to build up its military.
China’s goal is to become by far the most powerful state in Asia and to gradually push the US military out of East Asia, thereby establishing itself as a regional hegemon. Beijing is also building a blue-water navy, which indicates it is committed to projecting power all around the globe. In essence, China is imitating the US, which makes perfect sense as that is the best way for a country to maximise its security in an anarchic world. Chinese leaders have another reason for wanting to dominate Asia. They have territorial goals based on nationalist logic – like taking back Taiwan and dominating the South China Sea – that can only be achieved if China is a regional hegemon.
The US has long sought to prevent any other country from achieving regional hegemony, as it demonstrated repeatedly throughout the 20th century. Thus, it is fashioning a containment policy to prevent China from dominating Asia. That balancing effort has both a military and economic dimension.
Regarding the former, Washington is refashioning alliances originally forged to contain the Soviet Union into a coalition to contain China, and creating new arrangements to reinforce it. This campaign includes building – or reviving – security pacts like AUKUS (Australia, the UK and US) and the QUAD (Quadrilateral Security Dialogue: US, Australia, Japan and India), and strengthening the longstanding bilateral alliances the US has with Japan, the Philippines and South Korea.
On the economic side, Washington seeks to limit China’s development of cutting-edge technologies in a bid to ensure that the US controls the commanding heights in this all-important sector. This economic competition could create a serious rift in transatlantic relations because European countries – which are already hurt by the cut-off of economic intercourse with Russia – are looking for customers in China.
China and the US are destined to compete ever more intensely for power in the foreseeable future. That struggle will be fuelled in part by the famous ‘security dilemma’, where what one side does to defend itself is interpreted by the other side as evidence of offensive intentions. There are two additional reasons this security competition will be especially dangerous. First, it centres on Taiwan, which almost every Chinese person considers sacred territory that China should control, but which the US is determined to keep as a de facto independent state allied with Washington.
Second, any future war between these bitter rivals is likely to be fought over islands in the waters off China’s coast, largely by air, missile and naval forces. It is not difficult to imagine plausible scenarios where a war breaks out in that geographical setting, even by accident. A China-US war on the Asian mainland would be far more deadly and thus much less likely, as was the case with a possible war between NATO and the Warsaw Pact in the heart of Europe during the cold war. A major land war in Asia therefore seems unlikely, but it will still take astute diplomacy on both sides to avoid one.
The US helped to create this perilous rivalry by ignoring realist principles. In the early 1990s the US faced no rival great powers and China was economically underdeveloped. As liberalism prescribes, American leaders embraced a policy of engaging with China: helping fuel its economic growth and seeking to integrate it into the international order. They assumed that a wealthy China would become a ‘responsible stakeholder’ in that American-dominated order and eventually evolve into a liberal democracy. In short, a powerful but democratic China would be a peaceful China that would not challenge the US.
Engagement was a colossal strategic blunder. If American policymakers had been guided by realist logic, they would not have sought to speed Chinese growth and would have tried to maintain the power gap between Washington and Beijing instead of reducing it.
The conventional wisdom in the West regarding the Ukraine war makes it sound like Russia is behaving in Europe the way China is acting in Asia. Putin is said to have imperial ambitions that begin with creating a greater Russia along the lines of the old Soviet Union and then re-conquering the former buffer countries of the Warsaw Pact, ultimately threatening the security of all Europe. Ukraine, which he purportedly aims to conquer and integrate into Russia, is his first but not his last target. In this view, what NATO is doing in Ukraine is containing Russian power, much the way it prevented the Soviet Union from dominating all of Europe during the cold war.
This story, no matter how often it is repeated, is a myth. There is no evidence that Putin wants to incorporate all of Ukraine into Russia or seeks to conquer any other country in eastern Europe. Furthermore, Russia does not have the military capability to achieve that ambitious goal, much less become a European hegemon.
While there is no question Russia attacked Ukraine, it is equally clear that the conflict was provoked by the US and its European allies when they decided to make Ukraine a Western bulwark on Russia’s borders. They sought to bring Ukraine into NATO and the EU and turn it into a pro-Western liberal democracy. Russian leaders have repeatedly emphasised that this policy is an existential threat to Moscow and will not be tolerated. There is no reason to think they do not mean it.
The US ambassador to Moscow in April 2008, when the decision was made to bring Ukraine into NATO, said in a memo to then secretary of state Condoleezza Rice, ‘Ukrainian entry into NATO is the brightest of all red lines for the Russian elite (not just Putin). In more than two and a half years of conversations with key Russian players… I have yet to find anyone who views Ukraine in NATO as anything other than a direct challenge to Russian interests.’ Angela Merkel, Germany’s chancellor at the time, opposed bringing Ukraine into NATO: ‘I was very sure… that Putin [was] not going to just let that happen. From his perspective, that would be a declaration of war.’
The Ukraine conflict
The conflict in Ukraine began in February 2014, six years after NATO declared it would become a member. Putin subsequently tried to settle the conflict diplomatically by convincing the US, which was driving the policy, to abandon the idea of bringing Ukraine into the alliance. But Washington refused and instead doubled down at every turn – arming and training Ukraine’s military and including it in NATO military exercises. Fearing that Ukraine was fast becoming a de facto NATO member, Russia sent letters on 17 December 2021 to President Biden and NATO itself demanding a written commitment that Ukraine would not join the alliance and instead be a neutral state. Secretary of state Antony Blinken tersely replied on 26 January 2022, ‘There is no change; there will be no change.’ A month later, Russia attacked Ukraine.
From a realist standpoint, Moscow’s reaction to NATO expansion into Ukraine is a straightforward case of balancing against a dangerous threat. Putin is committed to preventing a military alliance dominated by the most powerful state in the world, which was a mortal foe of the Soviet Union, from making Ukraine, which ‘is on the doorstep of our house’, a member. In fact, Russia’s position is akin to America’s Monroe Doctrine, which says that no distant great power is allowed to station military forces in its backyard. Given that diplomacy failed to deal with what the Russians saw as an existential threat, Putin launched a preventive war aimed at keeping Ukraine out of NATO. Moscow views this as a war of self-defence, not a war of conquest. Of course, Ukraine and its neighbours see it quite differently. To say this is not to justify or condemn the war, but simply to explain why it happened.
Given the myth that Putin is committed to open-ended expansion, one might think NATO enlargement, too, was based on realist logic: the US and its allies were aiming to contain Russia. But that view would also be wrong. The decision to enlarge NATO was made in the mid-1990s, when Russia was militarily weak, and the US was well-positioned to force expansion on Moscow. Again, we see the perils of being weak in the international system. Nor did Russia pose a threat to Europe in 2008, when the decision was made to bring Ukraine into the alliance. So, there was no need to contain it then or now. Indeed, the US has a deep interest in pivoting out of Europe to East Asia, and enlisting Russia in the balancing coalition against China, not getting bogged down in a war in eastern Europe and driving the Russians into the arms of the Chinese.
Like the misguided policy of engagement with China, NATO enlargement was a component of the liberal hegemony project. The aim was to integrate eastern and western Europe, ultimately turning all of Europe into a giant zone of peace. Realists like George Kennan opposed NATO expansion because they recognised it would threaten Russia and lead to disaster.
Europe would be in far better shape today if realist logic had carried the day and NATO had not expanded eastward, and especially not committed itself to eventually including Ukraine. But the die is now cast: unipolarity has given way to multipolarity and the US and its allies are now engaged in serious geopolitical rivalries with both China and Russia. These new cold wars are at least as dangerous as the original one, and maybe more so.