Face it, Mearsheimer says in his book, quoting the historian James Hutson: the world is a “brutal, amoral cockpit.” To make sure readers get the point, he taps the British scholar E. H. Carr’s 1939 book, The Twenty Years’ Crisis, 1919–1939, which takes a wrecking ball to liberal internationalism. One of its main points: “Whatever moral issues may be involved, there is an issue of power which cannot be expressed in terms of morality.” To wit, in the 1990s we were able to intervene to save lives in the Balkans only because the Serbian regime was weak and had no nuclear weapons; against a Russian regime that was at the same time committing incalculable human-rights violations in Chechnya, we did nothing, just as we did nothing to halt ethnic cleansing in the Caucasus. States take up human rights only if doing so does not contradict the pursuit of power.
But being a realist is not enough for Mearsheimer; he needs to be an “offensive realist,” as he calls himself. “Offensive realism,” he writes in Tragedy, “is like a powerful flashlight in a dark room”: it cannot explain every action throughout hundreds of years of history, but he exhaustively goes through that history to demonstrate just how much it does explain. Whereas Hans Morgenthau’s realism is rooted in man’s imperfect nature, Mearsheimer’s is structural, and therefore that much more inexorable. Mearsheimer cares relatively little about what individual statesmen can achieve, for the state of anarchy in the international system simply guarantees insecurity. Compared with Mearsheimer, Henry Kissinger and the late American diplomat Richard Holbrooke—two men usually contrasted with each other—are one and the same: romantic figures who believe they can pivotally affect history through negotiation. Kissinger, in fact, has written lush histories of statesmen in A World Restored: Metternich, Castlereagh and the Problems of Peace 1812–1822 (1957) and Diplomacy (1994), embracing his subjects with charm and warmth, whereas Mearsheimer’s Tragedy is cold and clinical. Kissinger and Holbrooke care deeply about the contingencies of each situation, and the personalities involved; Mearsheimer, who was always good at math and science in school, sees only schemata, even as his own historical analyses have helped to rescue political science from the purely quantitative studies favored by others in his field.
Just as Mearsheimer’s theory of realism is opposed to Morgenthau’s in being structural, it is also opposed to the structural realism of Columbia’s Waltz in being offensive. Offensive realism posits that status quo powers don’t exist: all great powers are perpetually on the offensive, even if obstacles may arise to prevent them from expanding their territory or influence.
What was Manifest Destiny, Mearsheimer asks the reader, except offensive realism? “Indeed, the United States was bent on establishing regional hegemony, and it was an expansionist power of the first order in the Americas”: acquiring territory from European powers, massacring the native inhabitants, and instigating war with Mexico, in good part for the sake of security. Mearsheimer details Japan’s record of aggression in Korea, China, Russia, Manchuria, and the Pacific Islands after its consolidation as a nation-state following the 19th-century Meiji Restoration. To demonstrate that the anarchic structure of the international system, not the internal characteristics of states, determines behavior, he shows how Italy, during the eight decades that it was a great power, was equally aggressive under both liberal and fascist regimes: going after North Africa, the Horn of Africa, the southern Balkans, southwestern Turkey, and southern Austria-Hungary. He characterizes Germany’s Otto von Bismarck as an offensive realist who engaged in conquest during his first nine years in office, and then restrained himself for the next 19 years. “In fact, [that restraint] was because Bismarck and his successors correctly understood that the German army had conquered about as much territory as it could without provoking a great-power war, which Germany was likely to lose.” But when Mearsheimer picks up the story at the start of the 20th century, Germany is again aggressive, because by now it controls a larger percentage of the world’s industrial might than any other European state. Behind every assertion in this book is a wealth of historical data that helps explain why Tragedy continues, as Richard Betts predicted, to grow in influence.