Wither Power Politics?

A Study of the United States' Approach to the Caspian Sea Region 1991-2001

Master's Thesis, 2009

136 Pages



1. introduction

2. Offensive Realism
Bedrock Assumptions
States’ Operational Goals
Behavioral Models for States Under Anarchic Conditions

3. Literature Review

4. Timeline: 1991-1994
The Phantom Superpower
Russia’s Southern Belt
The Democracy Project
Putting Russia First
The New Great (Energy) Game
Pipeline Politics
US Military Command and the Caspian Sea Region
Appeasement, Blackmail and Democracy
The Tajik Civil War

5. Timeline: 1995-2001
NATO and the Security Dilemma
Toward an Eurasian Corridor
The Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan Pipeline: A Strategic Imperative
Reshuffling the Caspian Team
Evidence of Balancing
Enter China

6. conclusion


It is the conviction [of the US government] that the US most basic national security interests would be endangered if a hostile states or group of state were to dominate the Eurasian landmass—that part of the globe often referred to as the world’s heartland… Since 1945, we have sought to prevent the Soviet Union from capitalizing on its geostrategic advantage to dominate its neighbours in Western Europe, Asia and the Middle East and thereby fundamentally alter the global balance of power to our disadvantage.[1]

National Security Strategy of the United States, 1988

illustration not visible in this excerpt


Political history of international relations can be viewed through many different theories. Sometimes in democracies foreign policy is thought to be a direct result of domestic policy and the values and principles of its people. There is also a tendency to view history through the lens of ideology. Of the United States, the historian Richard Hofstadter lamented: “It has been our fate as a nation not to have ideologies but to be one.”[2]

The United States has seemed to struggle to define its role in the world suitable to its self-perception. The founding fathers of the American republic defined their nation as a distinct and separate member of the community of states, belonging to an enlightened class and a modern entity that all states would emulate. John Quincy Adams described this:

Wherever the standard of freedom and independence has been or shall be unfurled, there will her [America’s] heart, her benedictions and her prayers be. But she goes not abroad, in search of monsters to destroy. She is the well-wisher to the freedom and independence of all. She is the champion and vindicator only of her own.[3]

Henry Kissinger describes the thinking of this generation as recognizing no incompatibility between “high-minded principle and the necessities of survival.[4]

Symptomatic of American exceptionalism, this sentiment challenged the foreign policy of great powers that put survival at all costs ahead of morality. The US had the luxury of its location in North America, a large landmass without any great powers firmly established there. It became an insular great power, protected by oceans and the fruits of its triumphs over American Indians, Mexicans and the British. As the US grew in strength, so too did its interests. The growth of the American national interest created conflict with various states at various times in the last couple hundred years. Throughout its short history, seldom has the US been vulnerable to existential threats. Nor has the US often been in the role of conqueror. Just as the Romans in the republican era cursed the word King as morally repugnant, Americans have always shunned the idea of empire. As the American historian Walter Lippmann observed: “Our imperialism is more or less unconscious.”[5]

Yet, in the 20th century Washington had accrued power enough for a grand imperialism, but chose not to imitate the much-maligned European powers. At times the US was forced to go abroad, joining war in conflicts to prevent the domination of a region by one great power who threatened all the rest, but its military did not conquer or colonise for wealth. The US joined an alliance to balance against Germany twice to prevent its domination of Europe and to defeat Japan’s attempt to control the resources of South and East Asia. America emulated its former master, Great Britain, only in its way of engaging militarily as an offshore balancer to stabilize the balance of power. Like Great Britain during the Great War, the US entered the European theater because Germany possessed the potential to achieve hegemony and challenge the security of the United States from across the Pacific Ocean. After a period of isolationism in the 1920s and 1930s, the US went abroad again to combat Nazi Germany and Japan.[6]

At the end of the Second World War the Soviet threat compelled the US to stay in Europe and in Japan.[7] The international system suddenly became bipolar as former great powers bled their strength away leaving two heavyweight powers centred around Moscow and Washington. The security vacuum in the continent also compelled Moscow toward control of Eastern and Central Europe creating a security dilemma that pushed and pulled until the Cold War established a balance of power between two superpowers and their alliance blocs.[8] John J. Mearsheimer describes the tragedy of international relations in this way. Despite the US ideology of principle, its survival imperative demanded it take a more aggressive coarse of action than it would otherwise prefer. Harry Truman, president of the US during the start of the Cold War, demonstrates this observable tragedy in a letter he wrote to Josef Stalin of the USSR in 1945:

It is often implied… that we have imperialistic designs, and thus constitute a threat to your own security and that of the newly emerging nations. There not only is no evidence to support such a charge, there is solid evidence that the United States, when it could have dominated the world with no risk to itself, made no effort whatsoever to do so… May I say, there is absolutely no substance to charges that the United States is guilty of imperialism or attempts to impose its will on other countries[9]

Regardless of the sentiment, both states firmly engaged in a rivalry that determined the foreign policy of virtually all states in the world. The Cold War had the side effect of challenging US exceptionalism, a challenge that became very pronounced when it ended suddenly without a giant bang. Robert Levgold described the enormity of change in US foreign policy thinking:

For three decades, Soviet power has obsessed American foreign policy. By it we have judged our own; because of it we have committed ourselves far from home and justified our commitment in terms of the menace it represents; around it we have made a world order revolve. For us, Soviet power has been the ultimate measure and the central threat, a seminal idea and source of orientation.[10]

The period between the end of the Cold War and the start of the War on Terror provides an opportunity to test the veracity of the notion that the post-Cold War world was somehow different than the patterns of states’ behaviour contained in the history of international politics. The structure of international politics was defined by the predominance of US power at this time giving Washington an enormous freedom of action. On September 11, 1990, as US forces prepared for the Gulf War against Iraq, George H.W. Bush described a “New World Order” in which “the principles of justice and fair play… protect the weak against the strong…” suggesting a revolution in international politics. He described: “a world quite different from the one we’ve known. A world where the rule of law supplants the rule of the jungle. A world in which nations recognize the shared responsibility for freedom and justice.”[11]

This world did not reflect the politics understood by Realists. Was there reason to suspect that the world was made different by the example of the United States? Toward that end: Did principle guide the US’ pursuit of the national interest in search of security instead of power considerations? Did its principled approach to foreign policy succeed in suppressing threats to its security? For this to be evident it is necessary to ask: Did other states accept the same principles of this new order and forego opportunities for power accumulation? These hopes and President Bush’s assertions about a different world was punctuated by Francis Fukuyama’s End of History thesis, which celebrated liberal democracy as the final development in human political organisation. As the Soviet Empire became the democratic Russian Federation, liberal theories shunned Realism for its cynical portrayal of politics and its role in condoning war. According to the Realist, Robert Gilpin: “Liberals want to make the world over in the liberal’s image,” and they target “malevolent ‘untruths’ such as those held by realists… lest they cause mischief.”[12] Presumably, in the new world order anarchy was not on the menu.

On the other hand, the balance of power, according to Realism, is an expression of constant pushing and pulling tendencies between states. States act according to a set of assumptions that predict the behaviour of other states seeking to protect themselves from the dangers of the anarchic international system. Denying these assumptions result in suffering the consequences of diminished security and a weaker standing in the balance of power. It is now possible to examine the historical record to assess the relevance of Realism and the wisdom of its warnings.

Using John J. Mearsheimer’s Offensive Realism as contained first and foremost in his book The Tragedy of Great Power Politics, this thesis will answer the above questions by focusing on the US approach to the Caspian Sea Region. This region emerged from the Soviet Union and became strategically significant due to its vast resource potential. Its resources also attracted interest that created competition between great powers and elicited comparisons to the Great Game, a rivalry between Great Britain and Russia in the 19th century. Confirming a New Great Game in the Caspian Sea between 1991-2001 is then useful for identifying a security dilemma, which Realism is well-equipped to analyze. The conclusions reaped from a Realist analysis of a state’s behaviour during a specific era in a specific geographical space provide a deeper understanding of its present predicament. My methodology will feed US policies and actions into historical models of behaviour and relate Realism’s predictions with actual and expected outcomes during this time.

I will prove that US foreign policy toward the Caspian Sea Region was governed by principles not balance of power considerations, led by the false notion that democratic Russia would act in accordance with western norms. Using Realism I will show how the US suffered the consequences of this approach by losing relative power to Russia, and later to China—both of whom did maximise power in the region largely by the absence of the US. Significantly, the 2000 Sino-Russian Strategic Partnership Agreement and the strengthening of the SCO as an anti-hegemony—anti-Pax Americana—organisation follows balancing tendencies that Realism is aptly capable to explain. Consistent with this trend, Christopher Layne, another prominent Offensive Realist, predicts “new great powers will merge to offset U.S. power, and these new great powers will coalesce to check U.S. hegemonic ambitions.”[13]

Offensive Realism is the ideal tool to analyse the US approach to the Caspian Sea Region during the 1990s for several reasons. Like all broader Realist theory, Offensive Realism is pessimistic. Offensive Realism does not embrace the illusion that the US relative power advantage can or could overcome the perils of anarchy without first eliminating all great powers from all regions on the planet. Contrary to Layne this, Defensive Realists embrace the stability of US primacy and predict its durability. That does not seem likely given the lessons of history and balance of power tendencies. In the Caspian Region, following the first decade of independence, signs of conflict and competition within and between the eight Caspian states is a bitter confirmation of the anarchy that drives security competitions. That insecurity is a threat to Russia and therefore an inevitable target of its expansion.

Offensive Realism is best suited to describe the 1990s, because it does not accept unipolarity as a state of order, and views the developments in one distinct region to be components of the international system on the whole.[14] In other words, the distribution of power at the global level does not provide an accurate depiction of the relative power relationships in individual regions. Regions are critical component parts of a state’s Grand Strategy, illustrating pieces of international political developments as they pertain to Great Powers. The international system is an expression of the set of interacting, interdependent regions.

Typically, East Asia, Europe and the Middle East have been the strategic or vital regions of interest on account of the exploitable wealth and power located there. I will explore the Caspian Sea Region, which became the focus of Great Power competition after the discovery of vast deposits of oil and gas. It is in this region over which Imperial Russia and Great Britain competed during the 19th century in what Rudyard Kipling popularised as the Great Game. Following the collapse of the Soviet Union a New Great Game manifested, constituted by a scramble to exploit the region’s fossil fuels, worth as much as $12 trillion.[15] In 1998 Dick Cheney commented that: “I can't think of a time when we've had a region emerge as suddenly to become as strategically significant as the Caspian.”[16]

Comprised of the three states of the Caucasus and the five states in Central Asia, the Caspian republics emerged from decades behind Soviet hegemony to an international system defined as much by the power of the United States as by the absence of the Soviet Union. Of the eight states, only Georgia has access to the open sea, the rest being landlocked in a potentially dangerous part of the world. They share borders with Turkey, Iran, Afghanistan, China and Russia. The distribution of power in this group of states, including two great powers, was not balanced in 1991-1992. Into this field the eight Caspian states emerged weak and plagued by ethnic tensions and even civil war as the leaders clung to power. The US maintained both in rhetoric and legislation, the goal of ensuring the independence of these states. In this way, no power could dominate the region and rise to challenge the international system with the US on top.[17]

I have split the main text into two parts after a chronology that reflect two distinct phases of US engagement. The first part examines the events during the first four years into independence. US policy, especially the FREEDOM Support Act of 1992, will be explained and analysed to measure how effective it was in helping the newly independent states strengthen their sovereignty. I will describe the US strategy, based on a Russia First principle, and demonstrate how it was incompatible with the logic of Realism’s balance of power. The democratization and human rights agenda will be analyzed to test whether security improved.

I will illustrate how legislation isolated Azerbaijan and had the side effect of constraining Turkey, whom Washington assumed would balance against Iran’s expansion into the Caspian. I will illustrate how US behaviour during 1991-1994 created the conditions that damaged its ability to secure the Caspian states’ freedom in the later development of the oil and gas resources.

In the second part, I will explain how the New Great Game began in earnest, how the US clung to a win-win strategy in continued sympathy for Russia’s democratic movement and I will illustrate how the US refused to take a prominent leadership role until 1998. This refusal continued well toward the end of the decade even though Russia’s shrewd actions proved it was the region’s only potential hegemon. Two cases of Russian intervention—in Nagorno-Karabakh and Tajikistan—will be analyzed to demonstrate Russia acted according to Realism’s portrayal. I will describe how this transpired in the scramble for control over oil and gas fields and in the competition over pipelines. Russia’s strategy of monopolizing the transit infrastructure competed with the US struggle for a main export pipeline to transit oil from lucrative finds in Azerbaijan’s section of the Caspian Sea.

The implications of the failure in the US Caspian strategy are evidenced today by Russia’s dominant role in European energy security. In edition, the growth of China’s influence in Central Asia through the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO) illustrates the failure of NATO’s Partnership for Peace program to sustain multilateral initiatives that held promise of establishing a stronger security profile for Washington. The SCO represents a framework capable of excluding Washington from the Central Asian security dialogue. It has the potential to evolve into a type of Asian NATO able to push the US out of Central Asia and potentially out of East Asia should Russia and China’s strategic partnership hold together in common pursuit of achieving multipolarity.

Examining the US approach toward the Caspian Region through the lens of a Realist methodology will illuminate which policies succeeded for the US and whether they were effective in suppressing the security competition.


As one of the earliest contributions to the school of Realism, Thucydides’ History of the Peloponnesian War employed strict standards to gather evidence and explain events in a manner synonymous with “scientific history”.[18] Through history, the tenets of Realism—without necessarily being identified as such—have provided explanatory answers and prescriptions to states in the hostile arena of international politics. Like Thucydides, Realism has striven to shave away any superstitious or normative biases that prevent objective analysis. It is, as Robert Gilpin points out, as much a philosophical position as it is a theory.[19] He observes a “liberal intolerance” in academia toward Realists due to their refusal to “believe that, with the defeat of the Soviet Union and the end of the cold war, the liberal millennium of democracy, unfettered markets, and peace is upon us.”[20] The liberal bias spawns from its dislike for Realisms amoral approach to politics, most notable in the Classical Realism of Hans Morgenthau.

“[P]olitics, like society in general, is governed by objective laws that have their roots in human nature,” wrote Morgenthau in 1954 following two global conflicts and the onset of the Cold War.[21] Morgenthau saw the inherent lust for power within the psyche of the human species behind the motive to compete for power. While new versions of Realism have appeared to refine its core tenets, all respect the parsimonious approach to objectively ascertaining why states behave as they do. Morgenthau argued that states strive to gain power as an end in itself.

On the other hand, Kenneth Waltz in his seminal work The Theory of International Relations focused on the structure of the international system as the root cause for security competition. Anarchy, not human nature drive states to find security where they can because of the dangers inherent in the structure of politics. Waltz’ Structural Realism holds that states first and foremost try to maintain their position in the balance of power, going on the offense only out of miscalculation or desperation.[22]

This thesis utilizes a successor branch of neo-Realism. Called Offensive Realism, the theory was established by John J. Mearsheimer in The Tragedy of Great Power Politics. This theory builds on the Realist assumptions and “falls thus in the tradition of Realist thinkers such as E.H. Carr, Hans Morgenthau, and Kenneth Waltz.”[23] Like these theoreticians, Mearsheimer too argues that “theories about how the world works play an important role in how policymakers identify the ends they seek and the means they choose to achieve them.”[24] As a methodology, Realism can provide answers to real-world questions in addition to elucidating insights into the emerging political reality. My intention is to use Offensive Realism to analyse the case of the US approach to the Caspian Sea Region in order to identify and explain political developments there.

I have chosen to use Offensive Realism because of critical nuances it contains in its regard of the balance of power. The theory puts great emphasis on geography as a factor in explaining events in the real world. The Offshore Balancer concept provides a key for explaining both why the US has maintained superior power advantages without suffering balancing and why its influence in Europe and Asia did not expand following the disappearance of the Soviet Union. Separating US global forces as an expression of its power from its actual influence in a remote region can thus be achieved to better reflect the balance of power in the Caspian Sea Region. Similarly, the concept of the Potential Hegemon is an indispensable tool in describing Russia’s impact on the region.

Like this, Offensive Realism is well-developed to explain the post-Cold War period better than other Realist tracts, which tend to treat international politics as if it were an enclosed room full of paranoid alpha-male gorillas eyeing each other suspiciously. Great Powers have distinct regional interests and can cooperate or compete at the same time in different places based on their specific objectives. Cooperation between the US and China and Russia on the Korean peninsula is an example of common goals that bring states together in partnership; whereas disagreement over the sanctions regime against Iran can appear to resemble rivalry by the same states. Too often, the Caspian Sea Region is viewed through the lens of Taiwan, Europe or the Middle East, which provide too many distortions.

Offensive Realism also distinctly explains and predicts that states are never status quo powers.[25] That does not mean that they act when there is no room to advance objectives. It means that states always seek advantage over other states. To deny a chance to weaken a state and strengthen one’s own without suffering a balancing action is illogical to the survival imperative.[26] This pushing and pulling tendency offers a more compelling description of balance of power under anarchy than other Structural Realist literature claiming that states seek only to maintain their position in the balance of power.

I will describe further the assumptions of Offensive Realism, its logic, and outline the models that will classify foreign policy behaviour and project an image of their expected or actual outcome. In this way, I can induce an answer to the questions about US foreign policy and the structure of the international politics between 1991-2001. The concepts of the Potential Hegemony, the Offshore Balancer and power versus security. Whereas Waltz holds that states act primarily out of defence, both Morgenthau and Mearsheimer portray great powers as relentlessly seeking power.[27]

Offensive Realism focuses primarily on the relative strengths of great powers because their influence on regional and international politics is greatest. Great powers are defined as actors capable of fighting a conventional war against the most powerful state in the world.[28] According to Mearsheimer, great powers must also possess a nuclear deterrence capability; but nuclear capabilities do not make a power great if it still lacks conventional assets to challenge the system leader. Furthermore, in the unlikely scenario of a nuclear hegemon emerging, conventional forces would be rendered obsolete.[29] The inherent insecurity in the structure of the international system drives states to seek power and, ideally, refuge in the seldom attained hegemony. This element is a departure from other structural realist branches.

Controversy over power and restraint vis-a-vis balance of power theory led to controversy within realism, creating two diverging positions contesting about how much power can sufficiently secure the state. This debate has spawn from two pairing sets within the realist camp, according to Stephen Van Evera: between hawkish realists versus dovish realists and pessimistic realists versus optimistic realists.[30] In a more concise manner, the split revolves around power versus security. Waltz believes states' preferences will oscillate between pursuing power and pursuing security.[31]

Offensive realists portray the international system as an unregulated free market. Like corporations seeking to maximize profits, similiarly: “States are driven by the system’s competitive imperative, which produces what could be termed ‘influence-maximizing’ behavior.”[32] They believe that a state will pursue power as a means to acquire the means to better protect itself with the ultimate goal of regional hegemony. When the leading power in a given system enjoys primacy relative to its peerage, there is little need to coercively modify the balance of power because security has reached a surplus for that state.[33] According to the most prominent offensive realist, this makes the hegemon a status quo power, while the secondary powers act according to their capabilities.

The overriding goal of each state is to maximize its share of world power, which means gaining power at the expense of other states. But 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.[34]

Keeping contenders down through preponderance—in other words, the best defence is a good offence—is the reasonable pursuit according to this realist strain. For the United States, the Monroe Doctrine (1823) was about keeping the European powers out of Latin America, maintaining a sphere of influence that the US enjoys today. Regional hegemony has proven a pacifying element, lending credibility to the peace through preponderance hypothesis that offensive realists contend form the basis for a great power's expansion.[35] The awkwardness of external balancing, as exhibited by the allies' attempt to stop German expansion in the 1930s further supports the offensive inclination to use force when opportunity arises. Coalition building is inefficient and a clever aggressor can single out weaker states to buckpass or freeride in order to attenuate the counterbalancing potential. Rather than spawn a security dilemma, primacy or preponderance can keep trouble from lesser states to a minimum, while hegemony can keep them adequately complacent. Hegemony must first be achieved, and that is the faultline between these two contemporary realisms. Trying for hegemony is the obvious choice for offensive realists, but doing so prudently by applying the means at the state's disposal without engaging in a potentially damaging scenario is in keeping with the rational appraisal of one's relative power vis-a-vis other powers in the system. The U.S., for example, has often been concerned about appearing 'imperialist' during its Cold War competition in places like the Middle East, committing forces to the region when possible, but warily nonetheless.[36] It is, however, the aggressor that has the advantage, according to Offensive Realists, who have succeeded when using force more often than not, due to the tendency to buck-pass and the inefficiency of balancing.[37] Furthermore, using information technologies to control populations is viewed as a means to counter the inevitable nationalist insurgencies within occupied territory if appropriately used. This belief combined with the recognition that states need not be occupied, but can rather be sliced up or modified to create a preferred geopolitical condition.

Defensive realists on the other hand argue that the balancing imperative does not permit concentrations of power after which a hegemon seeks. Most definitely will action arise if restraint is not employed, causing a backlash that will eventually overwhelm the system leader. Expansion or conquest is, accordingly, neither necessary nor helpful when security is not compromised. Defensive realists, therefore, are security-maximisers. Furthermore, states on the defensive are considered having the advantage against an aggressor that is unfamiliar with the terrain, and not fighting for one's homeland. Wars of choice, and unilateralism will expedite the balancing imperative and is thus a strategic error because it draws attention to the aggressive motives of a capable power. Defensive realists point both to the tendency of the system leaders to commit abroad ushering in an overextension of resources and to the advantages bestowed upon defenders of territory as ample reasoning behind showing strategic restraint. Proponents explicitly consider pursuit of hegemony foolish, choosing rather what Waltz declares “an appropriate amount of power”.[38] Pursuit of hegemony is unrealistic given the absence of hegemonic powers in human history. When a great power pursues hegemony it increases the likelihood of central wars, defined as war involving most if not all of the great powers. While warfare is not unique, provoking an attack rather than being the aggressor is tantamount to suicide. Therefore, Defensive Realists “will only seek the minimum level of power that is needed to attain and to maintain their security and survival.”[39]

But since the U.S. has achieved hegemony—without much controversy at least in North America and Central America—and Napoleanic France and Wilhamite Germany likewise came close in the early 19th and early 20th centuries respectively, it must be assumed states still want hegemony; that, rather than being a myth concocted by a realist conspiracy to perpetuate the destruction of human lives as some well-known commentators suggest,[40] the systemic pressures of unipolarity act as a restraint against great power war. This appears to reflect the successful pursuit of hegemonic preferences, maintaining the status quo by avoiding a redistribution of power; and if we were to accept the 'lump concept of power—that is the aggregated economic, military, technological, cultural and diplomatic assets of a nation—it would confirm America's international influence.[41]

Another distinction Offensive Realism notes is the geographical limitations of power. Accordingly, the United States is the preeminent power in the world but its influence is constrained by the “stopping power of water”. I will discuss this later, but it is important in establishing how the distribution of power defines the international political architecture. A system can be hegemonic (directed by a single great power), bipolar (controlled by two great powers), or multipolar (dominated by three or more great powers).[42] Another crucial element is the identification of a potential hegemon. The presence of a potential hegemon makes the system unbalanced and therefore prone to war.[43] Mearsheimer defines a potential hegemon here:

A potential hegemon is more than just the most powerful state in the system. It is a great power with so much actual military capability and so much potential power that it stands a good chance of subduing and controlling all of the other great powers in its region of the world. A potential hegemon need not have the wherewithal to fight all of its rivals at once, but it must have excellent prospects of defeating each opponent alone, and good prospects of defeating some of them in tandem. The key relationship, however, is the power gap between the potential hegemon and the second most powerful state in the system: there must be a marked gap between them. To qualify as a potential hegemon, a state must have-by some reasonably large margin-the most formidable army as well as the most latent power among all the states located in its region.[44]

Bedrock Assumptions

Offensive Realism lies on five “Bedrock Assumptions”, each to represent an important aspect of life in the international system.

- The international system is anarchic compelling nation-states to rely on themselves in the absence of a higher authority
- All states possess some offensive military capability
- States can never be certain about the intentions of other states
- Survival is the primary goal of great powers; they seek to buttress the security of their sovereignty
- All states are rational actors considering their strategic environment and the interests of other states vis-à-vis their own.[45]

These five assumptions are mutually reinforcing elements that encourage great powers to behave offensively in the international system. The patterns of behaviour can be confined to three identifiable tendencies.

The first pattern is based on fear. States concerned with their security need to consider the potential that other states endowed with the ability to use force for gain will do so. States’ interests are never subordinated to the interests of another.

The second behavioural response is to initiate self-help. States faced with fear of attack must guarantee their own survival. Absent a world authority or policeman, a state is its own first and last line of defence.

The final pattern is based on power maximization. Cognizant of the self-help reality in the system, states naturally pursue power as a means to ensure their survival. “The stronger a state is relative to its potential rivals, the less likely it is that any of those rivals will attack it and threaten its survival.”[46] A state will seek to increase its share of power in a system relative to all others because it understands and views any change in the status quo as zero-sum. Trapped in this paradigm great powers ultimately harbour aggressive intentions.

A state can never have too much power and therefore seeks hegemony as the ultimate refuge in the anarchic and unpredictable system. What the balance of power will look like ten or twenty years from now cannot be divined. Security, being finite, may only increase for a state at the expense of another. Thus, the zero-sum quality depicts the difficulty facing a state seeking to “increase its own chances of survival without threatening the survival of other states”.[47]

States must prepare for the worst. Great powers with the potential can do so by pursuing hegemony despite the balance of power logic. Potential hegemons will be confronted, by states alone or in alliance seeking to check the leader. Yet the fruits of hegemony are too irresistible. The struggle for and against hegemony, in opposition to or in support of an offensive state will maintain or change the balance of power based on the outcomes. Offensive Realism considers the balance of power in terms of the distribution of material capabilities. In the above context, power is viewed in terms of relative gains as opposed to absolute. Since states think strategically, great powers will pass up opportunities to increase their power if it provides a rival state with an opportunity to make similar or superior gains. “In short, great powers are not mindless aggressors so bent on gaining power that they charge headlong into losing wars or pursue Pyrrhic victories.”[48] A great power will only act aggressively after considering its ability to achieve its goals in a cost-benefit analysis. Differing from Defensive Realists, Mearsheimer is more skeptical of systemic factors that will quickly create a balancing coalition. Nor does he view the role of a state on the defence as more advantageous than the state that initiates an attack. On the other hand, Offensive Realism does focus on misrepresentation as strategy in itself that can lead states to miscalculate. Deception is an element of international relations and therefore can lead a state to believe a potential target is infinitely more weak or stronger than its observable capabilities. Misrepresentation can also lead aggressor states to discount the wherewithal of third party states that may have the capabilities to join battle and turn the tide. Germany did not believe the United Kingdom was capable of joining the French and Russians in the summer of 1914 proving decisive in the Great War.[49]

States’ Operational Goals

Having stated the bedrock assumptions, followed by the three patterns of states’ behaviour, it leads into what great powers’ operational goals are. Mearsheimer details four: 1) Great Powers Strive for hegemony in their region 2) Wealth supports military power 3) Armies supported by air and sea capabilities are the core ingredient of military power, and 4) Nuclear superiority[50]

The ideal situation for any state is to be the hegemon in the system. Even Immanual Kant acknowledged: “It is the desire of every state, or of its ruler, to arrive at a condition of perpetual peace by conquering the whole world.”[51] Hegemony can, accordingly, conquer anarchy. “Only a misguided state would pass up the opportunity to be the hegemon in the system because it thought it already had sufficient power to survive.”[52] Mearsheimer illustrates this point by considering the hypothetical scenario of replacing Canada with China, Mexico with Germany; and noting that the US would prefer its hegemony over its neighbours rather than competing in a balance of power in its region.[53] Peace in North America is the dividend of American hegemony for which the US would never trade. Hegemony is also the explanation that describes US benevolence in North America. Hegemony has removed the threat of future and potential challenges to the US in its region.

The US has the luxury of geography. It is an insular great power, without any other great powers on a large body of land surrounded by water on all sides.[54] Off-shore balancers, like the US and the UK enjoy a geographical protection that continental powers do not. When oceans act as buffers to off-shore balancers, they intervene against states abroad only when the presence of a potential hegemon warrants their engagement. For the United States, it did not enter the First World War until the risk of German domination became a real threat. Rather, buck-passing the balancing role to another is the first choice. If the local players cannot balance, the distant great power will move in and balance against it. Containment is the main goal of any offshore balancer, while seeking out opportunities to undermine the threat only when they present themselves.[55]

Maximising wealth is also a prominent goal. States care about relative wealth because economic might is the foundation for a strong military. A strong economy enhances both the welfare of a state’s populace and supplies the wherewithal to gain military advantage over rivals. The ideal economic situation for any state is to experience sharp growth while its rivals’ economy grows slowly or not at all. A large population and a dynamic economy therefore are attributes of a great power not to be taken lightly when predicting their future behaviour. Great powers that slide down the economic food chain become less of a concern individually. Invariably, they will affect the balance of power, meaning if one goes down, one is likely to go up.

Critics of this Realist view of economic competition argue that the free-flow, instantaneously movement of capital investment has created an interdependence that binds states together in common cause, removing zero-sum considerations. Since 1945, the US dollar has been the preferred currency for central bank reserves,[56] integrating states into the US economy and vice-versa. President Clinton believed this presented: “a new structure of opportunity and peace through trade, investment, and commerce.”[57] The Sino-US relationship underscores the virtues of this argument. The Chinese central banks have acquired extraordinary sums in American bonds, buying up dollar assets to suppress its currency in support of exports.[58] Any crisis in one economy would damage the other, supporting the anti-Realist argument. However, in the decade before 1914, Niall Ferguson notes, economic interdependence between Great Britain and Germany made war seem unlikely to contemporaries.[59] His point is that sudden shifts and shocks due to an unexpected crisis can break an equilibrium. The argument for protecting American jobs during a recession could be that lightening rod that sparks conflict.

Great powers also seek to prevent rivals from controlling influence in wealth-generating areas of the world. This usually means industrial regions, but will also include areas endowed with critically important raw materials like oil. Areas with little intrinsic wealth are of less concern to great powers. “The United States paid less attention to Africa, the rest of the Middle East, Southeast Asia, and the South Asian subcontinent, because there was little potential power in those regions.”[60] Charles V led Spain to threaten hegemony over all of Europe due to gold and silver exploited in its South American colonies in the early 16th century.

Great powers pay close attention to the balance of land power. They seek to be the preeminent land power. States spend a significant portion of their military budget on creating the most powerful regional army because they aim to dominate the balance of land power. It is the best way to maximize their share of military might.[61]

The last goal great powers pursue is nuclear superiority. A state achieving nuclear superiority would be the global hegemon. It would require that it possessed the only arsenal in the world, or that it was impervious to attack rendering other great powers’ nuclear capabilities marginal. Such a state of affairs would also render armies irrelevant. Despite Defensive Realists’ belief that MAD is a force for stability, it does not guarantee perpetual peace. States won’t be satisfied with the prospect that another great power could launch an existential threat, or might achieve nuclear superiority, so they are compelled to seek advantage.[62] Although the US ballistic missile shield reflects this impulse, it would not render the US impervious to nuclear weapons delivered by other means, including cruise missiles and aerial drop.

Behavioral Models for States Under Anarchic Conditions

Operational goals provide tactical and strategic guidance on policy choices. Throughout history patterns emerge that reveal probable outcomes with each identified behavioral tactic. Establishing the methodology is dependent upon identifying these tactics and these expected outcomes to test US actions against Realist predictions.

Aggressive Power Seeking Tactics

Operational goals trickle down into strategic thinking when states consider their environment. Depending on the distribution of power, states pursue eight different tactics for improving their chances for survival.

The first tactic is also the most unpopular path to gaining power. Waging war will most likely change the balance of power in any given system. Mearsheimer, in contrast to Defensive Realist objections illustrates that since 1648 the state commencing war is victorious 60% of the time.[63] Still, there are several criticisms evident in contemporary literature questioning the feasibility of war as a tool. Mearsheimer deals with these each in its turn and concludes by noting warfare demands sound judgment and allocation of resources to improve a state’s position.[64] In short, war must be efficiently and effectively executed for optimal results. Not all wars are run well, and many occupations fail.

In the aftermath of the recent US invasion and occupation of Iraq, Mearsheimer points to Peter Liberman’s study of conquest, which concludes: “Coercive and repressive conquerors can make defeated modern societies pay a large share of their economic surplus in tribute.”[65]

Blackmail is the second tactic a state employs. The threat of force, that is intimidation as a coercive tool intended to achieve or acquire a desired outcome without the commitment of military resources is most desirable. Blackmail is not effective when dealing with another great power that has a comparable military, nor does it shift the balance of power as an action on its own. Germany’s success in preventing Russian intervention in the Austrian annexation of Bosnia in 1909 is one such successful use of blackmail. Russia’s comparative weakness following war with Japan was the cause.[66] Blackmail involves high stakes and can escalate tensions into conflict and great power war. The First World War was a consequence of states’ attempt to blackmail others, ending in bloody multi-state war.[67] These tend to be useful for great powers in relations with minor powers.

The third tactic, bait and bleed, involves manipulating two powers to square-off against each other and fight in order to drain them of resources while the provocateur husbands its strength on the sidelines. Optimally, a conflict between two rivals is the result most desired. The case of Russia manoeuvring Austria and Prussia into war with France following the French Revolution is cited as the best example.[68] States are mindful of dangers associated with peripheral wars when a great danger looms. It is difficult to trap a state into waging a war it otherwise would not initiate on its own.

The aim of bloodletting is to sap the strength of one’s rival by supplying its opponent with support to enhance the damage it can inflict on the rival state and bleed it dry as much as possible. Weakening one’s rival to enhance one’s relative power is most attractive and often employed as a tactic. Initial support to Iraq during its war with Iran was a US strategy to attenuate the Islamic Republic. Supplying the Mujahadeen in Afghanistan against the Soviet Union in the 1980s is also case in point here. Truman also uttered this thought vis-à-vis Germany and the Soviet Union in June 1941 saying, “If we see that Germany is winning we ought to help Russia, and if Russia is winning we ought to help Germany, and that way let them kill as many as possible.”[69]

Checking the Aggressor

Survival by gaining power over their rivals is only one strategy great powers pursue. States will also try to prevent other states from gaining power due to the zero-sum element. Balancing and buck-passing then is the fifth strategy to which states resort. Threatened Great Powers, unable to contain a rival from challenging its security, resort to buck-passing to encourage another state to check the aggressor. If left no option, they will engage in balancing against the threat.

Balancing occurs when a great power assumes direct responsibility for preventing an aggressor from upsetting the balance of power. By drawing lines in the sand to deter an aggressor, the emphasis is on confrontation rather than conciliation. This involves clear signals and enunciated lines, like trip wires that would automatically stimulate a response. The Iron Curtain, with enemy soldiers standing vigil on either side of the divide, represented this line during the Cold War. Episodes like the Cuban Missile Crisis demonstrate theaters where the two superpowers pushed and pulled at the fabric of the balance of power.[70]


[1] “National Security Strategy of the United States, 1988,” quoted in: Simon Dalby, “American Security Discourse: The Persistence of Geopolitics,” Political Geography Quarterly, Vol. 9, No. 2 (Spring 1990), X

[2] Richard Hofstadter, Quoted in, Seymour Martin Lipset, “The Sources of Political Correctedness on American Campuses,” Howard Dickman (ed), The Imperiled Academy (London: Transaction, 1993), 72.

[3] John Quincy Adams, “Address of July 4, 1821,” quoted in John Quincy Adams and American Continental Empire: Letters, Papers and Speeches, Edited by Walter Lefeber (Chicago: Times Books, 1965), 45.

[4] Henry Kissinger, Diplomacy (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1994), 34.

[5] Quoted in Niall Ferguson, Colossus: The Rise and Fall of the American Empire (New York: Penguin Books, 2004), 62. Ferguson discusses in several chapters the US’ “imperial denial”.

[6] Ibid., 14-15.

[7] Mearsheimer, The Tragedy of Great Power Politics (New York: W.W. Norton & Company) , 327-327.

[8] Mearsheimer (2001), 49-51.

[9] Quoted in Kissinger (1994), 317.

[10] Robert Legvold, “On Power: The Nature of Soviet Power,” Foreign Affairs 56, no. 1 (1977): 49.

[11] George H.W. Bush, “Address Before a Joint Session of the Congress on the Persian Gulf Crisis and the Federal Budget Deficit,” 11 September 1990; accessed online via: www.presidency.ucsb.edu, 11/09/07.

[12] Robert G. Gilpin, “No One Loves A Political Realist,” in Realism: Restatement and Renewal, ed. Benjamin Frankel (London: Frank Cass, 1996), 3-4.

[13] Christopher Layne, “The Offshore Balancer Revisited,” The Washington Quarterly 25, no. 2 (2002): 238.

[14] Christopher Layne, “The Unipolar Illusion Revisited: The Coming End of the United States’ Unipolar Moment,” International Security 31, no. 2 (2006): 12.

[15] Quoted in: “The Great Gas Game,” Christian Science Monitor, October 25, 2001,

www.csmonitor.com (accessed 19/09/06).

[16] Ibid.

[17] Michael Klare, Blood and Oil: How America’s Thirst for Petrol is Killing Us (London: Penguin, 2005), 146-152.

[18] Leo Strauss, The City and Man (Chicago: Rand McNally, 1964), 139.

[19] Robert G. Gilpin, “No One Loves a Political Realist,” Security Studies 5, no. 3 (1996), 5.

[20] Ibid., 3.

[21] Hans J. Morgenthau, Politics Among Nations: The Struggle for Power and Peace, 3rd ed. (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1954), 4.

[22] Kenneth Waltz, “The Origins of War in Neorealist Theory,” in Rotberg & Rabb (eds), The Origin and Prevention of Major Wars (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1989), 40.

[23] John J. Mearsheimer, The Tragedy of Great Power Politics (New York: W.W. Norton & Company, Inc., 2001), xii.

[24] Ibid., 10.

[25] Christopher Layne, “The ‘Poster Child for Offensive Realism’: America as a Global Hegemon,” Security Studies 12 (2002/2003): 128-129.

[26] On this point, Layne contests Mearsheimer’s claim that the Hegemons in the own region can become status quo powers. He defines Mearsheimer’s theory as “diet Offensive Realism” and his version as “robust Offensive Realism”. Christopher Layne, “The ‘Poster Child for Offensive Realism’: America as a Global Hegemon,” Security Studies 12, no. 2 (2002/2003): 129.

[27] Ibid., 21.

[28] Ibid., 5.

[29] Though for this to occur, all other nuclear powers would have to lose their capabilities.

[30] Stephen Van Evera, “Elements of the Realist Paradigm: What Are They?” typescript, 27 January 1992, 4; quoted in Benjamin Frankel, “Restating the Realist Case: An Introduction,” in Frankel (1996), xix.

[31] Waltz, Theory, 118.

[32] Fareed Zakaria, “Realism and Domestic Politics: A Review Essay,” in, The Perils of Anarchy: Contemporary Realism and international Security, eds. Brown, Michael E. et al (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1995), 479.

[33] Mearsheimer, “Structural Realism,” 81.

[34] Mearsheimer (2001), 2.

[35] This also washes with Power Transition Theory. See Douglas Lemke, “Great Powers in the Post-Cold War World: A Power Transition Perspective,” in Balance of Power: Theory and Practice in the 21st Century, eds. T.V. Paul et al (Stanford, CA: University Press, 2002), 52-75.

[36] The case of the Suez crisis illustrates U.S. Concern over the perception of imperialism toward the U.S. and her allies due to the Anglo-French campaign. The U.S. ultimately feared a Soviet supported counterattack. See, Spiegel, The Other Arab-Israeli Conflict, 71.

[37] Mearsheimer, “Structural Realism,” 76.

[38] Waltz, (1979) , 40.

[39] Joseph Grieco, “Realist International Theory and the Study of World Politics,” in New Thinking in International Relations Theory, eds. Michael W. Doyle (Boulder: Westview Press, 1997), 167.

[40] Christopher Hitchens, “What 'realism' has wrought in Africa,” The Slate Online, 7 Monday, November 2005, www.slate.com/id/2129657 (12/01/07).

[41] Stephano Guzzini, “The Use and Misuse of Power Analysis in International Relations Theory,” in Global Political Economy: Contemporary Theories, ed. Ronen Palan (London: Routledge, 2002), 55.

[42] Mearsheimer, (2001), 12.

[43] Ibid., 44-45.

[44] foreignaffairs.org (author update), Interview with John J. Mearsheimer, September 2001. Access via: www.foreignaffairs.org, 01/04/06.

[45] Mearsheimer, (2001) , 30-32.

[46] Ibid., 33.

[47] Ibid., 36.

[48] Ibid, 37.

[49] Ibid., 138.

[50] Ibid., 140-147.

[51] Quoted in Martin Wight, Power Politics (London: Royal Institute of International Affairs, 1946), 40.

[52] Mearsheimer (2001) , 35.

[53] Ibid., 415-416.

[54] Ibid., 126.

[55] Ibid., 141.

[56] Ronald McKinnon, “The Dollar Standard and Its Crisis-Prone Periphery: New Rules for the Game,” quoted in Ferguson, (2004) , 283.

[57] Quoted in, Steven Erlanger & David Sanger, “On the World Stage, Many Lessons for Clinton,” New York Times, 29 July 1996, www.nytimes.com (accessed 11/09/07).

[58] For example, between April 2002 and August 2003, the Chinese and Hong Kong central banks acquired US$96 billion in American securities. David Hale, “The Manchurian Candidate,” Financial Times, 29 August 2003, www.ft.com, (accessed 23/11/08).

[59] Ferguson, (2004) , 285.

[60] Mearsheimer, (2001) , 145.

[61] Ibid., 83.

[62] Ibid., 146-147.

[63] Ibid., 147.

[64] Ibid., 148-149.

[65] Peter Liberman, Does Conquest Pay? The Exploitation of Occupied Industrial Societies (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1996), 28; cited in Mearsheimer, (2001), 148. See his defence of war as a feasible tool of statecraft, pages 147-152. It should be noted that Mearsheimer was and remains a vocal opponent of the strategy to wage war against Iraq, arguing that it would end up hurting US standing in the balance of power.

[66] Mearsheimer, (2001), 153.

[67] Ibid.

[68] Ibid., 139.

[69] Ibid., 155; quoted in David McCoullough, Truman (New York: Touchstone, 1992), 262.

[70] Ibid., 155.

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Wither Power Politics?
A Study of the United States' Approach to the Caspian Sea Region 1991-2001
US Foreign Policy, International Relations in the Caspian Sea Region
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Caspian Sea, energy security, foreign policy, geopolitics, realism
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Bradley Axmith (Author), 2009, Wither Power Politics?, Munich, GRIN Verlag, https://www.grin.com/document/206231


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