Michael KreponMearsheimer on Great Power Politics

Quotes of the week:

“In a world where freedom, not tyranny, is on the march, the cynical calculus of pure power politics simply does not compute.” – President Bill Clinton, 1992

“It is clear, absolutely clear … that this is a battle between the utility of democracies in the 21st century and autocracies.” – President Joe Biden, 2021

John Mearsheimer’s provocative book, The Tragedy of Great Power Politics, is now twenty years old. John adheres to an international relations theory of “offensive realism.” He argues that “great powers seek to maximize their share of world power,” and that “multipolar systems which contain an especially powerful state – in other words, a potential hegemon – are especially prone to war.” After two decades of shelf life, John’s thesis could be tested by Beijing and Washington.

Is war between the United States and China inevitable? Is hegemonism even possible in a multipolar world? Would Xi Jinping throw caution to the winds? It takes enormous nerve and/or epic miscalculation for two major powers armed with nuclear weapons to engage in open-ended conventional warfare.

Much depends upon how much Xi wishes to change the status of Taiwan and what steps Washington takes to dissuade China’s supreme leader from doing so by coercive means. Adept diplomacy will be needed, including restraint by Taipei alongside actions that signal Washington’s intent to come to Taiwan’s defense without crossing China’s red lines.

Even the most diplomatically adept U.S. plans will fail, however, if Xi has resolved to bring Taiwan into the fold by whatever means necessary. If so, Washington will face a monumental choice between acceptance of or active resistance to Beijing’s wishes.

Both Moscow and Beijing wish to rise at Washington’s expense, but Moscow doesn’t have what it takes to regain past glory. Its strong suit, nuclear weapons, won’t get the job done. Beijing’s strong suit — economic power and the things that money can buy — can accomplish much, especially when the United States has badly misspent its power and is deeply divided at home.

China has claimed disputed islands, manufactured new ones to establish military outposts, and considers international waters as its own. All of China’s maritime neighbors feel uneasy about Beijing’s actions.

Taiwan would be the main event in a contest of wills between Washington and Beijing. The outcome of any severe crisis over Taiwan would define the contours of geopolitics in the decades ahead.

The status quo between the PRC and the Republic of China doesn’t appear to be sustainable. Beijing and Taipei are moving in different directions. Xi seems to be in a hurry. Consensual change in the status quo over Taiwan doesn’t seem to be in the cards – certainly not after Beijing’s disregard for the special status it promised Hong Kong. So where are we headed?

Raymond Aron once observed that in the nuclear age, crises have taken the place of warfare between nuclear-armed states. There are still clashes and border disputes, but nuclear weapons have (so far) been holstered and rivals have sought to avoid major conventional war.

The outcome of crises between nuclear-armed states can either be inconclusive, which favors the status quo, or decisive. So far, crises and clashes have been inconclusive — with the crucial exception of the Cuban missile crisis. The reasons why are worthy of reflection in the context of a possible crisis over Taiwan.

Other crises have been inconclusive. A newly nuclear-armed China clashed with the Soviet Union in 1969, but the result was a muddle, at least to me. Thirty years later, Pakistan tried to change the status quo across the Kashmir divide by surreptitiously advancing troops in the dead of winter, but this gambit backfired.

China and India as well as India and Pakistan continue to clash along disputed borders. In these cases, offsetting nuclear weapons have not compelled favored outcomes, regardless of imbalances in nuclear capabilities. The key determinants in the outcome of these crises have been usable forces in being in the zone of contention and the will of the contestants.

If Xi wishes to change the status quo over Taiwan badly enough, and if diplomatic means don’t get the job done, then the remaining options are compellance by quarantine, by conventional power projection, or both. In such scenarios, the outcome will again hinge on contesting wills, logistics, and usable, effective military force that arrives quickly to the scene.

Nuclear weapons are too dangerous to use and too prone to uncontrolled escalation to have military utility. These weapons are useful for deterrence but not war fighting. The most useful U.S. military instruments in the event of a crisis over Taiwan are those that cannot be located and that can destroy China’s surface navy and submarines. Nuclear-powered attack submarines will likely have an outsized role in a severe crisis between Washington and Beijing.

These extremely dangerous scenarios can be avoided. Washington doesn’t have to chart a course by which Xi concludes that war is inevitable, and Xi can seek to avoid a conflict in which he loses more than he gains.

Like the wife of Rumpole of the Bailey, Xi is the leader who must be obeyed at home. If Xi is intent on coercion, and if successful coercion requires, in his judgment, a quarantine or the use of force, then John Mearsheimer is right. If, however, there is enough power for Washington and Beijing to share, if the stakes of conventional warfare are too great, and if nuclear weapons have a sufficiently sobering effect, he’s wrong.

Here are some excerpts from John’s book:

“Hopes for peace will probably not be realized, because great powers that shape the international system fear each other and compete for power as a result… Strength ensures safety, and the greatest strength is the greatest insurance of safety. States facing this incentive are fated to clash as each competes for advantage over the others. This is a tragic situation, but there is no escaping it…”

“The sad fact is that international politics has always been a ruthless and dangerous business, and it is likely to remain that way… Great powers do not merely strive to be the strongest of all the great powers, although that is a welcome outcome. Their ultimate aim is to be the hegemon—that is, the only great power in the system.”

“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. They almost always have revisionist intentions, and they will use force to alter the balance of power if they think it can be done at reasonable price.”

“Just as the United States made it clear to distant great powers that they were not allowed to meddle in the Western Hemisphere, China will make it clear that American interference in Asia is unacceptable.”