Mearsheimer a balance of power so weaker states

Mearsheimer and E.H.Carr on Power


The so-called offensive neorealist, such as Mearsheimer portray states to be power maximisers. He believed that no individual state is content with their position in an anarchical system, “rather all states are continuously searching for opportunities to gain power at the expense of other states” (Dunne and Schmidt, 2014, p.106). In other words, states are in competition over ‘power after power’ and if it feels threatened by other states it should seek to augment its own power by increasing its offensive military competence. Upon accumulation of a sufficient degree of power, it will increase their security prospects of survival which for realist is the fundamental goal for all states. In an anarchical system, there is a balance of power so weaker states can prevent any form of hegemonic rule from dominating the other states by forming alliances. However, if “the balance of power breaks down, which is likely in a multipolar system there is a very real likelihood that war will break out” (Heywood, 2014, p.64). This materialistic understanding of power thus shares a commonality with Morgenthau’s contention of power.

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An example of a contemporary power struggle, from a realist lens, is witnessed by a violent conflict between the People’s Republic of China and Japan over the separation of the East China Sea as a struggle for regional power with which to protect their respective national securities while at the same time projecting their power as major regional (and potentially global) powers (Bendini, 2014). Both countries believe that the water that separates them, may be of high-value which is important to the security of their economic political, military and national. The ramifications of a conflict of this sort will be a huge problem to other major states as these two countries are big economic players in an increasingly globalised world. Such a conflict would paralyse many economies in South-East Asia as a result of reduced sales and massive reductions in foreign direct investment. A simmering conflict of this sort could potentially serve to add greater fear, as well as strengthen nationalistic sentiments. This example is illustrating what Morgenthau means by ‘…all politics being a struggle for power’ and shows us how power has a huge impact on the behaviour of states. Therefore, to be seen as weak and vulnerable is to be seen as a target from more powerful states.


E.H. Carr, a classical realist, in his book Twenty Years Crisis critiques liberal internationalism and agrees with Morgenthau that the international is a struggle of power politics. The world, out there, is this objective reality of forces and relations of power which we cannot change. He asserts that after the end of World War One, a popular idea in diplomatic circles is that only irrationality and aggression could possibly start another war. Hence, the construction of international institutions, like the league of nations, could prevent a similar world-wide outbreak of aggression. This ‘hope’ which Carr identifies as a naïve and empty sentiment is perhaps the most conspicuous sentiment of what he calls utopianism. Carr associates the liberal internationalist as ‘utopians’ and states that they put their moral ideals before political observation and empiricism. He thus traces utopianism to the wield persisted belief in ‘the harmony of interests’ (Carr, 2016, p.78). This assumption conveys that Carr illustrates that the utopians are blind to the realities of the world and must therefore, understand that due to survival being the primary mechanism of states, the only way of ensuring this is to seek power in order to attain ‘articles of peace’ in an anarchical system.


What is politics for realist?

As illustrated by Carr and Mearsheimer, politics for realist is essentially about power and survival. They relentlessly seek power and security because states exist in a self-help system. In a world, where you cannot trust anyone and that is very dangerous, you do not want to be interdependent. Realist will thus agree with the Hobbesian position of a war of ‘all against all’ in the state of nature. For realist, it does not mean that war always occurs, it just means that the danger and fear of war is lurking in the background in international politics. This reinforces that the world is an unpleasant place for the realist as sovereign states look to maximise their relative gains in response to the actions of their neighbours.  For critical theorist, such as Marxism and Feminism, politics is a struggle for you to impose your view of the world. Struggle of ideas rather than military force or pursuing weapons of mass destruction. This notion of what power and politics is for the critical theorist will be discussed further down the essay.


Morgenthau’s six principles in relation to power


An academic political scientist, Morgenthau established the principles of political realism in his book Politics Among Nations. First published in 1948, the book argued that the main goal of states was to accumulate power. Power guarantees the security of the state in an international anarchical system, one where no central authority exists. Relations among states are a struggle to increase the relative gains. In an international anarchical system, power is often balanced between states. Suppose two states hold similar levels of power, they avoid war because neither could win without suffering major losses. Political realism, Morgenthau adds, a state’s actions have moral significance, but these moral principles are not universal however, they are personal to the state in question and depend on the time and place in which they occur. Thus, meaning states cannot have aspirations that are universal. His theory contradicted the popular liberalist thought at the time which suggested that universal principles were shared by all states. In fact, Morgenthau believed that liberal idealism was naïve. He believed it brought about fascism and ultimately led to the second world war.


We can understand Morgenthau’s idea of power play but applying it to dominant animals such as, lions/tigers looking for territory. Dominant animals will avoid fighting each other for territory because the risk of injuring themselves in the battle is highly likely. Instead, they seek to maintain their relative power gains from less dominant animals. Thus, if an animal with less dominant territory challenges them in gaining more, they will fight. This can also be applied to the anarchical system where states will fight with weaker states to maintain such power. Morgenthau believed that this political realist idea was the key to achieve international peace since it described how a distribution and the balance of state power serves to prevent conflict amongst them.





–       Politics among nations (Morgenthau)


Epistemological critique to Morgenthau’s six principles


An important feminist standpoint theorist is J Anne Tickner, who deconstructs and criticises Morgenthau’s six principles of political realism. Tickner argues that IR state based theories that personifies the sovereign state as a rational actor do not represent women politically or epistemologically. She reformulates Morgenthau’s principles of political realism which she argues reflects male values and definitions of reality. For example she says Morgenthau states “politics is governed by objective laws based in unchanging human nature. Rational theories can reflect these objective laws”. Tickner thus argues that objectivity is a cultural construct associated with masculity supposedly objective laws of human nature are based on a partial masculine view of human nature. Human nature however, is both masculine and feminine. It contains elements of social reproduction and development as well as domination.


The second principle Morgenthau states is “interest to find power is an objective category which is universally valid but not with the meaning that is fixed with once and for all”. Power is the control of man over man. Tickner retaliates by saying that power does not have a universally valid meaning. Power as domination and control privileges masculity and ignores the possibility of collective empowerment and aspect of power associated with femininity. Morgenthau’s third principle of the “autonomy of the political sphere must be maintained”. To development an autonomous theory of political behaviour, political man must be abstracted by other aspects of human nature. For Tickner, the assertion that the political is an autonomous realm of human activity is unsustainable. In western culture, autonomy is associated with masculinity, building boundaries around a restricted political realm to find the political in a way that excludes women’s concerns and contributions.


Some scholars have criticised standpoint feminism by stating that it doesn’t impose a rigid binary division between male and female experiences of the world and hence, distinctive male and female epistemologies. Also, assuming that there is one authentic women’s experience that can serve as the basis for knowledge claims. The argument is that we need to unpack the diverse sort of experiences and understanding of the world that various women have.