Offensive Realism

Gunboat diplomacy

I have been thinking a lot about Mearsheimer’s formulation of offensive realism.[1] I have come to the conclusion that there is a slight of hand involved. Not that I think that the theory isn’t a radical improvement over neorealism. Indeed, my position is considerably closer to Mearsheimer’s than Waltz’. The slight of hand is that Mearsheimer has split the atom of power in two distinct ways only one of which he barely acknowledges and the other he completely ignores. In neorealism, the explanatory variable is the system structure: the distribution of power among states. That is, the distribution of aggregate war-making capabilities. Industrial capability, geopolitical position, economic strength, population size, natural resource endowment, and so on and so forth, are all lumped together into a uni-dimensional quantity called power.[2] This is not true of offensive realism.

What Mearsheimer is saying is that the proponents of air power and sea power are wrong, and what really matters in major power war is land-based military power. Naval bombardment and blockades may be useful for police operations against minor powers but play virtually no role in military contests between great powers. It is true that air power and sea power provide indispensible support to ground forces, which warrants using the term land-based military power instead of just armies.

The ace up the naval power’s sleeve – the naval blockade – only has limited usefulness, and then only against great powers that are extremely dependent on essential supplies from overseas. The only example of partial success is Japan during the Second World War, which was singularly dependent on imports of critical war materials.

Strategic bombing has proven to be similarly ineffective in producing a decision. During the Second World War, strategic bombing by Great Britain inflicted great horror on German cities but was unable to alter the balance in Europe by even an iota. It was, in fact, the Soviet Union’s formidable land-based military which ultimately defeated the Wehrmacht. On the other side, German bombing of London was intended to sap the British will to fight. It ended up strengthening the resolve of the British instead.

The atom of power is split further in Mearsheimer’s formulation of offensive realism. This comes from the historical observation that it is basically impossible to carry out a sea-borne invasion of a territory well-defended by a great power, what Mearsheimer calls ‘the stopping power of water’. The only example in history, the Normandy landings, reinforce this law: “Imagine the Normandy invasion against a Wehrmacht that controlled the skies above France and was not at war with the Soviet Union: the Allies would not have dared invade.”

These observations together imply that the balance of power is a regional phenomena. Further, it implies that there is a straightforward prescription as to what a great power should do to maximize its long-term security: it should try to become the regional hegemon. That is, eliminate all powerful neighbors and maintain an economy of weapons that guarantees its long-term preponderance in the region. Furthermore, Mearsheimer notes that “all great powers know it and act accordingly”.[3]

This specific splitting of the atom leads Mearsheimer to the conclusion that the most dangerous configuration is what he calls ‘unbalanced multipolarity’. That is, a multipolar system structure with a lopsided distribution of power that includes a state so powerful that it can consider making a run on the entire system. The term ‘unbalanced multipolarity’ is quite misleading because he is not actually taking about the system structure á la Waltz. The operative definition turns out to be the existence of a potential regional hegemon: “The United States, which dominates the Western Hemisphere, is the only regional hegemon in modern history. Five other great powers have tried to dominate their region – Napoleonic France, Imperial Germany, Imperial Japan, Nazi Germany, and the Soviet Union – but none have succeeded.”

In fact, a potential regional hegemon by itself does not lead to hegemonic wars. When the United States emerged as a potential regional hegemon in the late-nineteenth century it did not prompt a coalition of other great powers to check it. There was a major power war – the United States had to kick out Spain from the Western Hemisphere in 1898 – but other great powers did not try to prevent the US’ emergence. Why? Simply because they were more worried about the threat in their own region. Between 1895 and 1905, Great Britain resolved all outstanding disputes with other powers to focus on the German menace. France was even more worried about Germany. Indeed, she feared being conquered outright.

Similarly, Japan’s emergence as a potential regional hegemon in northeast Asia in the early twentieth century did led to a major power war in 1904-1905 when Japanese forces crushed the Russian army in Manchuria. However, other great powers did not coalesce to prevent Japan from achieving regional hegemony, even though most of them – Great Britain, France, and the United States – had a considerable presence in the region. The French were not far away in Indochina, the Americans were in the Philippines, and the British were everywhere. Yet, these powers allowed Japan to conquer large parts of Pacific Asia and did not balance against it until the 1930s.

The point is simply that a potential regional hegemon is not enough to prompt a balancing coalition to emerge, much less trigger a world war by itself. Turns out, what is required is unbalanced multipolarity in a given region. The most dangerous configuration is the emergence of a potential regional hegemon in a region that is home to other great powers. The tragic systemic logic is most acute when great powers fear being conquered outright. The emergence of a balancing coalition is then virtually guaranteed.

At this point, Copeland’s insight provides the trigger for the potential regional hegemon to make a run on the system: it decides to go to war when it goes into relative decline and can no longer guarantee its long-term survival without achieving regional hegemony.[4] Germany could no longer wait to go to war in 1914 because Russia’s ongoing armament program would’ve made it stronger than Germany by 1917. In other words, Germany went to war out of fear. German decision-makers were scared that once Germany was no longer the dominant military power in Europe, it would not be able to prevent its hostile neighbors from conquering it.

Let us remark here that Mearsheimer is approaching Spykman’s geopolitical realism, although in a rudimentary form.[5] Unlike Spykman, who is making geopolitical maps of the extant world relevant to his time, Mearsheimer is constructing an abstract theory. As we have seen, this still works because the implicit premises are still taking into account the dominant geopolitical realities. This suggests the following strategy to analyze world politics. We construct an abstract theory that is inapplicable by itself, but when supplied with era-appropriate geopolitical data becomes applicable to any specific period. That is, as we move across the centuries of world history, we carry around a skeleton of a mental frame, inserting the meat on the bone when we examine a particular period. This is a matter of intellectual hygiene.

Notice that Mearsheimer discards the distribution of sea power among states – the aggregate war-making capabilities of a state on blue waters – as an explanatory variable. This is absolutely unacceptable in my view because sea power has played a major role in world history. US naval primacy adds considerably to US’ power position. Indeed, according to Barry Posen, US’ command of the commons is the principal component of US global power:

The US military currently possesses command of the global commons. Command of the commons is analogous to command of the sea, or in Paul Kennedy’s words, it is analogous to “naval mastery.” The “commons” in the case of the sea and space, are areas that belong to no one state and that provide access to much of the globe. Airspace does technically belong to the countries below it, but there are few countries that can deny their airspace above 15,000 feet to US warplanes. Command does not mean that other states cannot use the commons in peacetime. Nor does it mean that others cannot acquire military assets that can move through or even exploit them when unhindered by the United States. Command means that the United States gets vastly more military use out of the sea, space, and air than do others; that it can credibly threaten to deny their use to others; and that others would lose a military contest for the commons if they attempted to deny them to the United States. Having lost such a contest, they could not mount another effort for a very long time, and the United States would preserve, restore, and consolidate its hold after such a fight.[6]

Ikenberry, Mastanduno, and Wohlforth point out in a special issue of World Politics on unipolarity:[7]

While other powers can contest US forces operating in or very near their homelands, especially over issues that involve credible nuclear deterrence, the United States is and will long remain the only state capable of projecting major military power globally. This dominant position is enabled by what Barry Posen calls ‘command of the commons’ – that is, unassailable military dominance over the sea, air, and space. The result is an international system that contains only one state with the capability to organize major politico-military action anywhere in the system. No other state or even combination of states is capable of mounting and deploying a major expeditionary force outside its own region, except with the assistance of the United States.

Robert Gilpin pointed out that the international order during the nineteenth century had two distinct components. A multipolar balance of power in Europe that Great Britain managed as an offshore balancer, and the maritime realm where the Royal navy ruled supreme.[8] This was enabled by British naval mastery. According to Paul Kennedy, naval mastery is “a situation in which a country has so developed its maritime strength that it is superior to any rival power, and that its predominance is or could be exerted far outside its home waters, with the result that it is extremely difficult for other, lesser states to undertake maritime operations or trade without at least its tacit consent. It does not necessarily imply a superiority over all other navies combined, nor does it mean that this country could not temporarily lose local command of the sea; but it does assume the possession of an overall maritime power such that small-scale defeats overseas would soon be reversed by the dispatch of naval forces sufficient to eradicate the enemy’s challenge.”[9]

It is the claim of the present writer that the maritime realm is a natural monopoly which has, inter alia, to do with the existence of natural control points, what Admiral Lord Fisher called “the five keys that lock up the world”: Gibraltar, Dovar, the Strait of Malacca, the Cape of Good Hope, and Alexandria. To this list we may now add the Panama canal, the Suez canal, and the Strait of Hormuz. The reason why these control points are so effective is, paradoxically, because they allow land-based firepower to be projected from sheltered positions onto sea-lanes. Lord Nelson once joked that “a ship’s a fool to fight a fort.”

Maritime stability – synonymous with the existence of a naval hegemon due to the natural monopoly of the maritime realm – is a key variable in centered realism. It is a Boolean variable: the system is centered if there is a naval hegemon and decentered otherwise.

Given that the maritime realm is a natural monopoly we shouldn’t be surprised to find naval hegemons throughout world history. Roughly speaking, the Dutch enjoyed naval primacy that underpinned their primacy in world trade and finance for a century after the Peace of Westphalia (1648). By the mid-eighteenth century, Great Britain had overtaken Holland, a process that culminated when she mercilessly crushed the latter in the Third Anglo-Dutch War (1780-84). The Portuguese had the Indian Ocean to themselves from the early sixteenth century until the arrival of the Dutch. Venice dominated the key trade routes of the Eastern Mediterranean in the fifteenth century.

Since the trade between East Asia and Europe has been such a crucial piece of the global trading jigsaw, naval control of the Strait of Malacca serves as the truest bellwether of established maritime hegemonies: Iberian (1511-1640), Dutch (1640-1780), British (1780-1945), and American (1945-).


The United States did not acquire command of the commons by default with the expiry of British naval mastery. Indeed, much like hegemony in the Western Hemisphere, US’ command of the global commons was acquired quite consciously and with the utmost deliberation. During the Second World War, US planners met and carefully laid out plans for the post-war international order.

US planners realized that to prevent the emergence of a challenger there are only three key regions that the United States needed to dominate: Western Europe, Northeast Asia, and the Persian Gulf. Permanent military bases were constructed in the first two, and the last was partially left to be managed by Britain until London decided it could no longer play that role in 1968. Since then Washington has increasingly followed a policy of maintaining itself as the dominant power in the region.

In the bipolar era, this could perhaps be explained by Mearsheimer’s prescription: the US wanted to prevent the Soviet Union from dominating any of these key regions for if it were to accomplish that, it would become the dominant power in Eurasia capable of threatening the United States. Since the advent of unipolarity, there has been no potential regional hegemon in sight. Yet, the United States is not leaving any of these regions. Why?

The United States has stayed in Europe to underwrite the EU security community: Germany would immediately become a potential regional hegemon as soon as the US withdrew, and an intense security competition would ensure. US domination of the Persian Gulf gives it a veto over other powers that are dependent of imported oil. This includes not just China but also the original targets of this strategy: Germany and Japan. It has found no reason to leave Northeast Asia because China’s power has been growing.

I made no mention of Iran and North Korea because that is hogwash intended for public consumption. US presence in these regions is driven by a grand-strategy aimed at preventing the rise of other great powers – Germany, Russia, Japan, and China – not a constabulary mission to ‘contain’ regional powers like Iran and North Korea. These miscreants are a nuisance, not a threat. [This is a simple test to separate realists from apologists for US power.]

The second thing that US planners decided during the Second World War was that the United States should maintain global naval primacy. In effect, the United States would take over the British imperial system which rested on a maritime encirclement of the Eurasian landmass which was maintained by the predominance of her naval power along the ‘circumferential maritime highway’. There are nearly a thousand bases around the globe, most of them located along the Eurasian rim. All the key control points are heavily garrisoned. Major naval bases dot the Atlantic, Pacific and Indian oceans, as well as the marginal seas near the three key regions. The United States has such a preponderance of power on the world’s oceans that British naval mastery looks decidedly Portuguese by comparison.

The international order is strongly centered, something that is completely out of the frame in Mearsheimer’s formulation of offensive realism but absolutely critical to centered realism. To the offensive realist, all this is just a massive waste of American resources. To the centered realist, this is a necessary condition for the polarization of the world economy, the reproduction of the anti-market, and the attendant concentration of wealth and surplus in New York.

Another key feature of deliberate policy since the Second World War has been unceasing military technology promotion which has served a dual purpose. Not only does it bolster US power directly, it also serves as an alliance management tool par excellence. First, it makes the United States an attractive alliance partner since access to advanced military hardware gives US clients a strong advantage over their regional rivals. Second, it makes allies dependent on the United States and thereby enhances US leverage.

The United States can finely manipulate its clients by regulating the flow of advanced weapons. For instance, in response to Israel’s proposed sale of unmanned aerial vehicle parts to China, the United States suspended access to the JSF program, forcing Israel to cancel the transaction with Beijing. More recently, Obama cancelled the delivery of F16 fighter jets to Egypt to express his displeasure after the generals gunned down dozens of Morsi supporters in the aftermath of the coup d’état. These are not isolated examples of course: every year furnishes at least a few dozen.

The United States has been an enthusiastic supporter of weapons globalization because, somewhat paradoxically, it enhances US leverage. “Modern weapons’ complexity and economies of scale tend to produce monopolies, and the value chain for the production of these monopolistic goods is dominated by the systems integration techniques of prime contracting firms. In turn, these prime contractors remain largely enthralled by US market power. The United States gains international influence by controlling the distribution of these weapons.”[10]

We should note that this is not merely a result of military firms’ political influence in Washington: “Instead of leveraging its market dominance through monopolistic pricing, the United States foregoes a portion of the economic and technological gains in order to enjoy security rents.”[11]

To summarize, the United States is not merely the only regional hegemon in modern history. Since the Second World War, it has maintained itself as the dominant power in the three key regions of the Eurasian rimland that have most of the world’s power potential. It has also maintained a robust presence on the circumferential maritime highway in order to secure command of the global commons. It has maintained an extensive network of alliance partners that enhance its capacity for politico-military action around the globe. When Mearsheimer says that the United States is not a global hegemon he means that it is not a global military hegemon. That is true. The point of centered realism is to emphasize that the United States is a maritime hegemon, and that this matters greatly since the US controls access to global markets and resources. This is not true of a decentered system and contributes greatly to its instability.

This is not merely a theoretical exercise. Offensive realists expect China’s rise to lead to an intense security competition with a strong possibility of major war. Mearsheimer says: “To put it bluntly, China cannot rise peacefully.” Centered realism shares this outlook but with a qualification. Namely, hegemonic war is unlikely if the world becomes bipolar but remains centered. That is, if China becomes strong enough to balance the United States – matching the US in land-based military power – without challenging US’ command of the global commons. On the other hand, if the system becomes decentered, hegemonic war is extremely likely.

The Natural Zone of Chinese Influence

From the standpoint of Chinese grand-strategy, it must prioritize land power and aim to become preponderant on the continent before it can challenge US’ command of the global commons and kick it out from its natural zone of influence (see map above). [Strongly recommend reading Kaplan’s article in Foreign Affairs titled The Geography of Chinese Power.] Ultimately, it must do both if it is to replace the United States as the dominant power of the international order. Note that we are saying that it will become a regional hegemon in Northeast Asia without prompting a hegemonic war in direct contradiction to the prediction of offensive realism.

In particular, China may be able to kick out the United States from the Korean peninsula and Taiwan without prompting a hegemonic war. At some point, it will become so powerful that close to its center of power in Northeast Asia, the United States will not be able to balance it. US forces will have to withdraw outside the zone of Chinese preponderance which may roughly taken to be the first island chain.


To be fair to Mearsheimer, he does recognize the centrality of China’s ‘Malacca dilemma’ although he does not see how it directly conflicts with his primacy of land-based military power since this is exclusively a question of sea power. Indeed, I believe that it is not the case that Mearsheimer misunderstands the nature of the problem. He gets it. It’s just that as a theory offensive realism hasn’t kept up with his thinking. Let’s end by quoting him.

The picture I have painted of what is likely to happen if China continues its impressive economic growth is not a pretty one. Indeed, it is downright depressing. I wish that I could tell a more optimistic story about the prospects for peace in the Asia-Pacific region. But the fact is that international politics is a nasty and dangerous business and no amount of good will can ameliorate the intense security competition that sets in when an aspiring hegemon appears in Eurasia. And there is little doubt that there is one on the horizon.”[12]

[1] Mearsheimer, John J. The Tragedy of Great Power Politics. WW Norton & Company, 2001.

[2] Waltz, Kenneth N. Theory of International Politics. Reading, MA: Addison-Wesley Pub., 1979. Print.

[3] Mearsheimer, John J. “The Gathering Storm: China’s challenge to US power in Asia”. Chinese Journal of International Politics (2010) 3 (4): 381-396.

[4] Copeland, Dale C. The Origins of Major War. Ithaca: Cornell UP, 2000. Print.

[5] Spykman, Nicholas J. America’s Strategy in World Politics, the United States and the Balance of Power. New York: Harcourt, Brace and, 1942. Print.

[6] Posen, Barry R. “Command of the commons: the military foundation of US hegemony.” International Security 28, no. 1 (2003): 5-46.

[7] G. John Ikenberry and Michael Mastanduno and William C. Wohlforth. “Introduction: Unipolarity, State Behavior, and Systemic Consequences.” World Politics 61, no. 1 (2009): 1-27. Print.

[8] Gilpin, Robert. War and Change in World Politics. Cambridge University Press, 1981.

[9] Kennedy, Paul M. The Rise and Fall of British Naval Mastery. New York: Scribner, 1976. Print.

[10] Caverley, Jonathan D. “United States hegemony and the new economics of defense.” Security Studies 16, no. 4 (2007): 598-614.

[11] Ibid.

[12] “The Gathering Storm: China’s challenge to US power in Asia”.

4 thoughts on “Offensive Realism

  1. “US presence in these regions is driven by a grand-strategy aimed at preventing the rise of other great powers – Germany, Russia, Japan, and China ”

    That would be a “negative” aim. A strategy aimed at only preventing a possible outcome. That isn’t really the true U.S. strategy. The U.S. strategy is a much more dynamic, active and “positive” one. One aimed at maintaining political and military primacy over its european and asian allies in order to build up and maintain a U.S. global order.


  2. “US domination of the Persian Gulf gives it a veto over other powers that are dependent of imported oil.”

    U.S. must guarantee persian gulf oil for its allies in europe as well as Japan – they are far more reliant on persian gulf oil than the U.S. U.S. must provide these services to its allies otherwise they might re-arm themselves to defend their interests in the middle east and U.S. will lose its primacy over its allies.

    “In other words, while outspending allies like Germany and Japan on defense, the United States should be prepared to fight wars on behalf of Germany and Japan, sparing them the necessity of re-arming — for fear that these countries, having “renationalized” their defense policies and rearmed, might become hostile to the United States at some future date…”

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