Is Tragedy the Only Path When It Comes to Politics among Great Powers?

John Mearsheimer is an international relations theorist whom I hold in high regard. He is excellent because he confronts a country’s political essence, and casts off the hypocritical veil worn by some capitalist politicians. He believes that a nation’s interests are the basic starting point for a nation’s actions, and that winning the most possible international power is the fundamental existence for the game among great powers. From this logic he examined 200 years of American history, and claimed that occasionally, the logical guiding points of liberal and realist ideology by chance pointed toward the same policy. In these circumstances, America found it quite simple to obey the commands of power politics, while also allowing it to dress up its actions in a cloak of liberalism. Nevertheless, when these two kinds of logic were at odds, America’s leaders had no other choice than to place realism above liberal ideals.

Mearsheimer belongs to the school of offensive realism in international relations. In his view, the international system has an innate structural defect, being that sovereign states have no higher authority to impress a system of international order or arbitrate international disputes. As a result, the international system is at its essence anarchic; thus it is necessarily a dangerous and cruel arena. States must think about how to survive and develop amidst it all, for there is no other choice, acting only to compete among one another and develop their power. It does not matter if you are willing or not − the international stage does not trust tears, nor does it trust pretty-sounding words and speeches. In this system, one needs to think about how to become more prosperous, more secure, with the ideal outcome being that your state becomes the system’s hegemon. Only states that possess a power advantage can ensure their existence. On the other hand, weak states invite trouble; as they fall behind they naturally fall into a state of standing passively by as they are beaten up.

Thus, if there is no fundamental change to the international structure, small or weak states must pursue good relations with certain powerful states, so as to procure their protection and support. Or should they present themselves as a neutral state, they seek out room for survival through smooth and slick actions. As the powerful states must invariably pursue the greatest possible amount of international power, then the games played between great powers will lead to war in the end. This is the tragedy of great powers − the unavoidable “Thucydides Trap.”

According to this logic, Mearsheimer expresses doubt as to China’s peaceful rise. His reasoning is that the realist hegemon of the United States will do everything possible to halt China’s rise. A hegemon in power will never allow a great power to rise that has the potential to challenge its position. Historically, America has prevented Wilhelmine Germany, Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union from dominating Europe, and also stopped Japan from dominating Asia. The United States will certainly seek to prevent China’s rise in Asia. This is utterly illogical. If you develop into a powerful nation, then this is harmful and serves as an impediment to me. I will thus look for an opportunity, a reason and an excuse to contain you, to suppress you, and to weaken you. Additionally, Mearsheimer believes that following China’s unceasing economic development, they will necessarily seek to establish great military power, and so to ultimately assume regional hegemony. Because a position of superiority is the best assurance of one’s existence, China cannot go against this logic. This way, the disputes and conflicts between the two powers are unavoidable. Mearsheimer has even envisioned the path that China will tread on its way to hegemony, a path that follows in the footsteps of Uncle Sam. In this way, China will use some of the same methods to realize its hegemony over Asia that the United States employed to gain hegemony over the Western Hemisphere. He imagines that as the first step, China will try to widen the difference in power between it and its neighboring states, especially between the big neighbors of India, Japan, and Russia, so as to make sure that no nation in Asia has the ability to threaten China. Following this, “China will attempt to force America out of the Asia-Pacific region,” carrying out a Chinese version of the Monroe Doctrine. How could a powerful China accept the American military carrying out activities in its backyard? This is exactly like the United States refusing to allow any great powers to dispatch troops to the Western Hemisphere. After resolving its security issues, China will still need to find solutions to its territorial disputes with its neighbors over the land and sea. In this matter, once a state has established itself as powerful, then it holds the upper hand. Following this is the maintenance of strategic interests outside of Asia, for how could a great power not have overseas interests to protect? Actions such as these were the direction America took; it is unavoidable that China will act the same way.

To this end, Uncle Sam must inevitably face off against the Chinese Dragon. According to Mearsheimer’s analysis, America will either employ containment or non-containment as its means of dealing with China’s rise. The best way, or the best strategy is still containment, meaning planning to establish a counterbalancing coalition, which in all likelihood will mean getting the participation of China’s neighboring states. Being well practiced at offshore balancing, America ought to do its best to remain behind the scenes, making China’s neighbors assume most of the responsibility for containing China’s rise. But I am afraid that this will be very difficult to achieve, as the power of China’s neighbors may not be enough to balance it, thus forcing America to become personally involved. And just what is non-containment? Mearsheimer believes that China’s population is massive, its economy will continue to develop at a clip, and its latent power is great, making it difficult to contain it in the future. Adding on the fact that America is separated from China by a grand ocean, its ability to apply military power is greatly hampered, making the use of the force of arms a poor choice. Consequently, the use of containment or other methods to make the Chinese economy suffer a massive slowdown is in the best interest of the United States. “Although this outcome may not be the best for American prosperity, and will be even worse for global prosperity, it will be beneficial to the security of the United States, and this is the most important element.” Looking back throughout the past few years, America’s response to China’s every action from its ruling elites has been almost entirely based on the strategies put forth by Mearsheimer.

Then, do great power politics unavoidably lead to tragedy? We cannot entirely agree with Mearsheimer’s conclusion. In unprecedented historical conditions, America and China have established a cooperative and mutually beneficial new model of great power relations. Although we affirm that this road is one of hardship and setbacks, it still ought to be given a fair shake for it may just achieve success. “Even the green mountains cannot hold back the river, it will flow east after all is said and done.” We believe that the great trends of historical development cannot be controlled by America alone.

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