Academic journal article Canadian Journal of Sociology

A Perpetual and Restless Desire of Power after Power

Academic journal article Canadian Journal of Sociology

A Perpetual and Restless Desire of Power after Power

Article excerpt

John Mearsheimer, The Tragedy of Great Power Politics. New York: Norton, 2001

John Mearsheimer, perhaps the most hard-boiled of American theorists of international relations, has written a book of major importance which sociologists would be foolish to ignore. (1) Very great pleasure is to be derived from the tightness and coherence of the argument, and from the author's insistence on facing its consequence head on. Something of the flavor of the book is present in the account given of the foreign policy of the United States. For one thing, he sees clearly that the United States had a record of conquest and of destruction in the nineteenth century without compeer (2001: 238). For another, he has no truck with any view that American foreign policy has seriously been infused with moral ideals:

... Somalia (1992-3) is the only instance during the past one hundred years in which U.S. soldiers were killed in action on a humanitarian mission. And in that case the loss of a mere eighteen soldiers in an infamous firefight in October 1993 so traumatized American policymakers that they immediately pulled all U.S. troops out of Somalia and then refused to intervene in Rwanda in the spring of 1994, when ethnic Hutu went on a genocidal rampage against their Tutsi neighbors. Stopping that genocide would have been relatively easy and it would have have had virtually no effect on the position of the United States in the balance of power. Yet nothing was done. (2001: 47).

This is an author who has no time for what he regards as pious cant. If it is refreshing to see skepticism so thoroughly sustained, it is as important to say that the author is very often convincing. But in order to appreciate fully Mearsheimer's position, it is necessary to say something about the state of play within the study of war and peace, and of sociology's place within it. Once that is done his contribution can be outlined, and criticized.

It is only fair to say at the outset that I write parti pris, that is, as a sociologist with prior intellectual commitments. One such commitment can be mentioned immediately. Basic fiscal sociology convinced me years ago that for most of the historical record states were but machines for fighting war. Equally, it was impossible to understand revolutions, democratization and many social movements--together with the character of the twentieth century!--without considering the impact of war. Given this, it seemed vital for sociologists to pay attention to war and peace. But sociology had most of its intellectual roots in the long nineteenth century, the drama of which age was urbanization, and the social changes consequent upon it. The few distinct sociological theories of war and peace, notably those of Comte and Spencer, suggested that peace would come with industrialization--or, as for Schumpeter, with the replacement of an aristocratic warrior ethos with bourgeois pragmatism. Little sustenance was to be found here. Nor did marxism help. Capitalism could scarcely explain war, or imperialism, given that these forms pre-dated its emergence. The structural-functionalism of Talcott Parsons had nothing to offer--amazingly so, really, given Parsons's own experience of interwar Germany. However, there were some exceptions to this bleak picture. Ratzenhofer, Gumplowicz and Oppenheimer, the historian Otto Hintze, and of course Max Weber were aware of the impact of war on state and nation formation. This was not surprising: they were German, and their historical experience was in part that of the creative and destructive potential of war.

Still, only international relations offered a sustained theory--that of realism. The basic presuppositions of that elegant and powerful theory are well known. The fact that states live in what Kant termed "an asocial society," bereft of any Leviathan ruling over them, means that they must engage in self-help tactics in their search for security. This is likely to lead to a continual balancing and re-balancing of power between states, so that an equilibrium will be reached designed to prevent the imperial pretensions of any single power. …

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