Skip to content

Qplot Satellite

The Tragedy of Great Power Politics

June 25, 2020

The quotes below are made for personal study.



The claim that security competition and war between the great powers have been purged from the international system is wrong.

For example,

  • even though the Soviet threat has disappeared, the United States still maintains about one hundred thousand troops in Europe and roughly the same number in Northeast Asia.
  • almost every European state, including the United Kingdom and France, still harbors deep-seated, albeit muted, fears that a Germany unchecked by American power might behave aggressively
  • fear of Japan in Northeast Asia is probably even more profound, and it is certainly more frequently expressed.
  • the possibility of a clash between China and the United States over Taiwan is hardly remote.

This is not to say that such a war is likely, but the possibility reminds us that the threat of great-power war has not disappeared.

Great powers are rarely content with the current distribution of power; on the contrary, they face a constant incentive to change it in their favor.

Great powers are rarely content with the current distribution of power; on the contrary, they face a constant incentive to change it in their favor.

Thus, a great power will defend the balance of power when looming change favors another state, and it will try to undermine the balance when the direction of change is in its own favor.

Why do great powers behave this way? My answer is that the structure of the international system forces states which seek only to be secure nonetheless to act aggressively toward each other.

Three features,

  1. the absence of a central authority that sits above states and can protect them from each other
  2. the fact that states always have some offensive military capability
  3. the fact that states can never be certain about other states’ intentions

Given this fear—which can never be wholly eliminated—states recognize that the more powerful they are relative to their rivals, the better their chances of survival.

If China becomes an economic powerhouse it will almost certainly translate its economic might into military might and make a run at dominating Northeast Asia.

Whether China is democratic and deeply enmeshed in the global economy or autocratic and autarkic will have little effect on its behavior, because democracies care about security as much as non-democracies do, and hegemony is the best way for any state to guarantee its own survival.

In short, China and the United States are destined to be adversaries as China’s power grows.

Strategies for Survival

In sum, great powers pursue four main goals:

  1. to be the only regional hegemony on the globe,
  2. to control as large a percentage of the world’s wealth as possible,
  3. to dominate the balance of land power in their region, and
  4. to have nuclear superiority.

Let us now move from goals to strategies, starting with the strategies that states employ to increase their relative power.

  • War
  • Blackmail
  • Bait and Bleed
  • Bloodletting
the general claim that conquest almost always bankrupts the aggressor and provides no tangible benefits does not stand up to close scrutiny.

Regarding the benefits argument, conquerors can exploit a vanquished state’s economy for gain, even in the information age. Wealth can be extracted from an occupied state by levying taxes, confiscating industrial output, or even confiscating industrial plants.

  • Coercive and repressive conquerors can make defeated modern societies pay a large share of their economic surplus in tribute.
  • It is also possible for conquerors to gain power by confiscating natural resources such as oil and foodstuffs.
  • The conqueror might employ some portion of the vanquished state’s population in its army or as forced labor in its homeland.
  • Conquest sometimes pays because the victor gains strategically important territory. In particular, states can gain a buffer zone that helps protect them from attack by another state, or that can be used to launch an attack on a rival state.
  • War can shift the balance of power in the victor’s favor by eliminating the vanquished state from the ranks of the great powers. Conquering states can achieve this goal in different ways.
    • They might destroy a defeated rival by killing most of its people, thereby eliminating it altogether from the international system.
    • Alternatively, conquering states might annex the defeated state.
    • The victor might also consider disarming and neutralizing the beaten state.
    • Finally, conquering states might divide a defeated great power into two or more smaller states,

A state can gain power at a rival’s expense without going to war by threatening to use military force against its opponent.

However, blackmail is unlikely to produce marked shifts in the balance of power, mainly because threats alone are usually not enough to compel a great power to make significant concessions to a rival great power.

The Tragedy of Great Power Politics (Updated Edition) (p. 186). W. W. Norton & Company. Kindle Edition.

This strategy involves causing two rivals to engage in a protracted war, so that they bleed each other white, while the baiter remains on the sideline, its military strength intact.

The fundamental problem with a bait-and-bleed strategy, as the Lavon affair demonstrates, is that it is difficult to trick rival states into starting a war that they would otherwise not fight.

Finally there is always the danger for the baiter that one of the states being baited might win a quick and decisive victory and end up gaining power rather than losing it.

The aim is to make sure that any war between one’s rivals turns into a long and costly conflict that saps their strength.

There is no baiting in this version; the rivals have gone to war independently, and the bloodletter is mainly concerned with causing its rivals to bleed each other white, while it stays out of the fighting.

Strategies for checking aggressors

But occasionally, highly aggressive great powers that are more difficult to contain come on the scene. Especially powerful states, like potential hegemons, invariably fall into this category. To deal with these aggressors, threatened great powers can choose between two strategies:

  • Balancing
  • Buck-Passing

The initial goal is to deter the aggressor, but if that fails, the balancing state will fight the ensuing war.

Threatened states can take three measures to make balancing work.

  • First, they can send clear signals to the aggressor through diplomatic channels. The emphasis in the balancer’s message is on confrontation, not conciliation.
  • Second, threatened states can work to create a defensive alliance to help them contain their dangerous opponent. There are no potential great-power alliance partners, although it is still possible to ally with minor powers.
  • Third, threatened states can balance against an aggressor by mobilizing additional resources of their own. Nevertheless, when faced with a particularly aggressive adversary, great powers will eliminate any slack in the system and search for clever ways to boost defense spending.

A Buck-passing attempts to get another state to bear the burden of deterring or possibly fighting an aggressor, while it remains on the sidelines.

The buck-passer fully recognizes the need to prevent the aggressor from increasing its share of world power but looks for some other state that is threatened by the aggressor to perform that onerous task.

  • They can seek good diplomatic relations with the aggressor or at least not do anything to provoke it, it the hope that i will concentrate its attention on the intended “buck-catcher”
  • Buck-passers usually maintain cool relations with the intended buck-catcher, not just because this diplomatic distancing might help foster good relations with the aggressor, but also because the buck-passer does not want to get dragged into a war on the side of the buck-catcher.
  • Great powers can mobilize additional resources of their own to make buck-passing work. It might seem that the buck-passer should be able to take a somewhat relaxed approach to defense spending, since the strategy’s objective is to get someone else to contain the aggressor.
  • It sometimes makes sense for a buck-passer to allow or even facilitate the growth in power of the intended buck-catcher. That burden-bearer would then have a better chance of containing the aggressor state, which would increase the buck-passer’s prospects of remaining on the sidelines.

Strategies to Avoid

Some argue that balancing and buck-passing are not the only strategies that threatened states might employ against a dangerous opponent.

  • Appeasement
  • Bandwagoning

Both of those strategies call for conceding power to an aggressor, which violates balance-of-power logic and increases the danger to the state that employs them. Great powers that care about their survival should neither appease nor bandwagon with their adversaries.


Kenneth Waltz has made famous the argument that security competition drives great powers to imitate the successful practices of their opponents. The result of this tendency toward sameness is clearly maintenance of the status quo. After all, balancing is the critical conforming behavior, and it works to preserve, not upset, the balance of power. This is straightforward defensive realism.

Furthermore, great powers not only imitate each other’s successful practices, they also prize innovation. States look for new ways to gain advantage over opponents, by developing Furthermore, great powers not only imitate each other’s successful practices, they also prize innovation. States look for new ways to gain advantage over opponents, by developing new weapons, innovative military doctrines, or clever strategies. Important benefits often accrue to states that behave in an unexpected way, which is why states worry so much about strategic surprise.

The Causes of Great Power War

Anarchy alone, however, cannot account for why security competition sometimes leads to war but sometimes does not. The problem is that anarchy is a constant—the system is always anarchic—whereas war is not. Thus, to explore the effect of the distribution of power on the likelihood of war, we need to know whether the system is bipolar or multipolar, and if it is multipolar, whether or not there is a potential hegemony among the great powers. The core of my argument is that

  • bipolar systems tend to be the most peaceful, and
  • unbalanced multipolar systems are the most prone to deadly conflict.
  • Balanced multipolar systems fall somewhere in between.

Structure and War

A system that contains an aspiring hegemony is said to be unbalanced; a system without such a dominant state is said to be balanced. Power need not be distributed equally among all the major states in a balanced system, although it can be. The basic requirement for balance is that there not be a marked difference in power between the two leading states. If there is, the system is unbalanced.

Balanced vs. Unbalanced Multipolarity

Unbalanced multipolar systems are especially war-prone for two reasons. The potential hegemonies, which are the defining feature of this kind of system, have an appreciable power advantage over the other great powers, which means that they have good prospects of winning wars against their weaker rivals.

  • when potential hegemonies come on the scene. Their considerable military might notwithstanding, they are not likely to be satisfied with the balance of power.
  • The emergence of a potential hegemony, however, makes the other great powers especially fearful, and they will search hard for ways to correct the imbalance of power and will be inclined to pursue riskier policies toward that end.
  • A potential hegemony does not have to do much to generate fear among the other states in the system. Its formidable capabilities alone are likely to scare neighboring great powers and push at least some of them to create a balancing coalition against their dangerous opponent.

In short, potential hegemonies generate spirals of fear that are hard to control. This problem is compounded by the fact that they possess considerable power and thus are likely to think they can solve their security problems by going to war.

Can China Rise Peacefully?

The rise of China appears to be changing this situation, however, because this development has the potential to fundamentally alter the architecture of the international system. If the Chinese economy continues growing at a brisk clip in the next few decades, the United States will once again face a potential peer competitor, and great-power politics will return in full force.

We must rely on theory because many aspects of the future are unknown; we have few facts about the future. Thomas Hobbes put the point well: “The present only has a being in nature; things past have a being in the memory only, but things to come have no being at all.”2 Thus, we must use theories to predict what is likely to transpire in world politics.

Instead, the focus is on a future world in which the balance of power has shifted sharply against the United States, where China controls much more relative power than it does today, and where China is in roughly the same economic and military league as the United States. In essence, we are talking about a world in which China is much less constrained than it is today.

Offensive Realism in Brief

Following in Uncle Sam’s Footsteps

Furthermore, like the United States, a powerful China is sure to have security interests around the globe, which will prompt it to develop the capability to project military power into regions far beyond Asia. The Persian Gulf will rank high on the new superpower’s list of strategically important areas, but so will the Western Hemisphere. Indeed, China will have a vested interest in creating security problems for the United States in the Western Hemisphere, so as to limit the American military’s freedom to roam into other regions, especially Asia.

A much more powerful China can also be expected to try to push the United States out of the Asia-Pacific region, much as the United States pushed the European great powers out of the Western Hemisphere in the nineteenth century. We should expect China to devise its own version of the Monroe Doctrine, as imperial Japan did in the 1930s. In fact, we are already seeing inklings of that policy.

What would security competition look like?

Is War Likely?

with strategy, design, system and more ...