Clash of the Titans: Tragedy of Great Power Politics and Soft Power, the Means to Success in World Power Politics

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International relations academia shaped by many schools of thoughts and different schools of ideologies. The evaluation process of the field dominated by these ideological groups and different school of thoughts in altered time frames. These groups describe the phenomenon of International System based on their straightforward aspirations, because of that the field itself found ambiguous and complicated to define. Through, this paper the researcher attempt to define a few major concepts of international relations based on two competitive theoretical aspects. To address this requirement the researcher selected two emulative classics; which represent two contested realist schools. The first classic was “The Tragedy of Great Power politics” written by John J. Mearsheimer and the second classic was “Soft Power: The Means to Success in Word Power Politics” which authored by Joseph S. Nye, JR. Based on these two classics the researcher collects offensive realist and defensive realist accounts on major concepts of International Relations like Interest, Power, International Order, War, Survival, and Hegemony.

The paper selected these two classics in terms of the relevance on the field. The realist ideology shaped the discipline since World War I under any circumstances. The realist account divided into parallel sub theoretical scholarly groups due to the changes in international politics and international relations, although these groups never fed away from the big picture of international relations. Mearsheimer argues that world politics can be identified through the survival of fittest theory, although the concept of soft power is providing a contradiction position over the offensive realist argument. Essentially, Joseph Nye describes “soft power as an ability to attract and co-opt with rather than by coercion and hard power tools, using the force of giving money as a means of persuasion.” (Nye, 2004) This account contradicts with the basic arguments of hard power or offensive realist arguments. According to hardcore offensive realists, actors of the international system should need to address their national interests based on power capabilities and based on military capabilities of respective countries.

These two schools of thoughts maintain separate lenses to describe the world affairs and state behaviour, in a similar account they maintain analogical arguments as well. Based on these diversities and similarities the researcher selected Mearsheimer and Joseph Nye’s ideology on international relations to describe the main elements of the field. The researcher describes the theoretical aspects of hard power realists and soft power thinkers based on their ideology of the key features of International Relations.

International System

According to offensive realists, the sovereign state is the main actor of the international system. State shaped the international system largely based on their national interests. Essentially, offensive realists did not address the role of non-state actors. Because the state is the only actor in the international system who concern to maximize their power capabilities to achieve national interests of particular states.

“…offensive realists assume that the international system strongly shaped the behaviour of states” (Mearsheimer, 2001)

Power shaped the behaviour of sovereign states in international relations. Offensive realists offer diminutive attention to domestic or individual political considerations of the states. Strongly, offensive realists believe that sovereign states as black boxes or billiard balls which not shaped by domestic politics or individual aspirations. They excluded the domestic politics and the other major elements which shaped the national foreign policy decision-making process of the country from the main picture of their ideology and conclude offensive realist argument on a state. According to this perspective, all the states can be identified as a power maximizers and their ultimate goal is to address power requirements to fulfil national interests. For that, all the states are contesting with each other to mobilize relative power capabilities of the state and ultimately in great power politics states consider to achieve hegemonic power over other great powers. The account of offensive realism draws a picture of international order with the concern for power. On this account, they placed power as a core ideology of the international system. International order shaped necessarily by the power elements of the states.  Power shaped the relations and behaviour among the states.

Joseph Nye and main thinkers who develop the theory of soft power is holding a different picture of international order. This ideology naturally altered the offensive realists’ an account of international order. Soft power ideologists describe the international order as a complicated system which contesting state actors as well as non – state actors. Thought, soft power theorists highlighted the centrality of the state in an international system, they emphasize the role of international organizations and the soft power capabilities which exercise by these institutions in the international system. Joseph Nye in his soft power analysis highlighted that all the states pursuit national interests and ultimately all the states focus on maximizing their power over other states. But for that, they need to use soft power strategies rather than cohesive power. According to soft power analysis domestic factors essential to define the concept of power and utility of soft power which emerges within the great power entities. But hardcore offensive realists rejected the value of domestic factors in term of state behaviour and the creation of power. Constructivists highlighted this miscalculation as a mistake of offensive realism. According, alternative views on offensive realists emphasize that exclusion of domestic factors, domestic leadership, and characteristics of bureaucratic system influence to the offensive realist account and it may provide a mythical picture of foreign policy and power.

“… it does not matter for the theory whether Germany in 1905 was led by Bismark, Kaiser Wilhelm, or Adolf Hitler, or whether Germany was democratic or autocratic. What matters for the theory is how much relative power Germany possessed the time. These omitted factors, however, occasionally dominate a state’s decision-making process, under these circumstances, offensive realism is not going to perform as well.” (Mearsheimer, 2001)

Soft power argument on international system highlighted that with technological development; the international system became more complex than it used to be. Thus, America does not act as a unipolar power in word affairs anymore and they make three parameters to describe an international system.

‘the agenda of the world politics can be identified through three dimensions. On the top board of classic interstate military issues, the United States is indeed the only superpower with global military reach, and it makes sense to speak in traditional terms of unipolarity or hegemony.’ (Nye, 1990)

“The middle board of interstate economic issues. The distribution of power is multipolar. The United States cannot obtain the outcomes it wants on trade, antitrust, or financial regulations issues without the agreement of the European Union, Japan, China, and others. And on the bottom, a board of transnational issues, like terrorism, international crime, climate change, and the spread of infectious diseases, power is widely distributed and chaotically organized among state and non-state actors.” (Nye, 2004)

On this basic soft power account and the ideology of international system marked by offensive realists can be recognized as competitive concepts.

Different between soft power and hardcore offensive realism was the way they explain the concept of power and the utility of power in the international system. Offensive realists highlighted the power as a coercive and arbitrary mechanism and soft power describes the concept of power as an ability to co-opt and get others to the concern without using military capabilities.

Interest Power and hegemony

Both hardcore offensive realists and soft power thinkers identify the concepts of national interests, power, and hegemony as interconnected concepts. However, they provide a different account of these concepts based on the core idea of respective theories.

Offensive realist identified the concept of national interest based on power maximization. All the great powers ultimately shaped their national interests to achieve the survival and the portrait the hegemonic power over the other great powers. Thus, all the great powers maximizing their power to achieve hegemony. This account differs from the liberal perspective of interest and power. Similar to offensive realists, liberal thinkers also accept the state as the main actor in international politics. Liberal thinkers emphasize that the internal characteristics of the state were largely shaped the state behaviour in international politics. Offensive realist intentionally neglected internal factors from their explanation of state behaviour. Soft power thinkers and hard care offensive realists-are holding a similar count and they believe that the behaviour of great powers influenced mainly by the external factors.

“… liberal theorists often believe that some international arrangements are inherently preferable to others. For liberals, therefore, there are good and bad states in the international system. Good states pursue cooperative policies and hardly ever start wars on their own, whereas bad states cause conflicts with other states and are prone to use force to get their way.” (Mearsheimer, 2001)

“Liberal thinkers believe that calculations about power matter little for explaining the behaviour of good states,” (Mearsheimer, 2001) but this account completely different from the offensive realists argument. Realists agreed that creating a peaceful world might be necessary, but they see no particular way to do that because world order fundamentally shaped by the security competition and war.

The realists calculate power competition as a zero-sum game between states actors, for that they should need to utilize military power capabilities of the state. However, Joseph Nye marks his remarks on “Soft Power” and emphasize that appropriate way to address national interests is the use of soft power skills of the country. Among the great power politics, no state was able to declare victory against another great power. Mainly, all the great powers maintain nuclear warheads to counter the external aggregations. International organizations and other non-state actors in the international system continuously maximizing power capabilities and threaten the state supremacy in the international system. Thus, Joseph Nye describes that a single state cannot counter the activities of non-state actors, mainly terrorist groups. Because of that states, should needs to exercise soft power capabilities to win the heart of the people and citizens of respective countries.

The United States of America can be identified as a remaining superpower in the international system in terms of military capacity. The 9/11 attack substantiated that single countries cannot counter-terrorism. Thus great powers should need to make alliances with each other to address national interest, survival and protect their hegemonic power. Soft power account identifies the value of cooperation for winning the peace. However soft power should need to play a major role in creations of cooperation.

Joseph Nye describes the concept of power as an “ability to get what you want through attraction rather than coercion or payments. It arises from the attractiveness of a country’s culture, political ideals, and policies. When our policies are seen as legitimate in the eyes of others, our soft power is enhanced.” (Nye, 2004)

But offensive realists hold a different picture of power. Offensive realists maintain similar accounts with the idea of power given by Morgenthau. Classical realists marked that sovereign states are governed by humans based on their willpower. Morgenthau describes it as a “limitless lust for power.” (Snyder, 2003)

States continuously takes opportunities to take the offensive and dominate other states. All the states are continuously seeking the opportunities and they are fighting to take the maximum share of the world power. There is no space to maintain the status quo and ultimately all the states accumulate their power against other states. Offensive realists-are rejecting the idea of relative power maximizing. The international system is anarchical. It means there are no central authority or central governance body over the sovereign states. Offensive realists describe the anarchy as lack of ordering principles. Thus, all the states should need to protect and promote their national interests based on the status of self-help. According to the realist perspective, international system pleasure great powers to compensation for the balance of power. But offensive realists argued that all the great powers have continuous power struggle among them. Based on that account, relative power capabilities are not enough for survival. Ultimately, great power needs to target to accumulate absolute power to reach the hegemony over other states by maximizing the hard use of military power.

But Joseph Nye highlighted the power as the ability to get outcomes one wants.

“When we measure power in terms of the changed behaviour of others, we have first to know their preferences. Otherwise, we may be as mistaken about our power as a rooster who thinks his crowing makes the sunrise.” (Nye, 2004)

The concept of power always depends on the context of the international system and the relations among nations. Soft power highlights “the state ability to take the consent of other states and influence to their behaviour without commanding it.” (Nye, 2004) Sometimes great powers can use their objective power capabilities: culture, language, religion. The second definition of soft power is finding the capabilities and possessions of the state.

“the possessions of capabilities or resources that can influence the outcomes… they consider a country powerful if it has relatively large populations and territory, extensive natural resources, economic strength, military force, and social stability.” (Nye, 2004)

According to soft power theorists, hard power or offensive military power cannot address the national security concerns or outcomes which states want to have, without damaging the state itself.

For instance, Joseph Nye highlighted ‘in terms of resources the United States was far more powerful than Vietnam, yet America lost the Vietnam War. And America was the world’s only superpower in 2001, but they failed to prevent September 11.’ (Nye, 2004) Accounts of Nye emphasize that offensive realists and generally all the scholarly groups of realists’ umbrella failed to describe the reasons behind these incidents. But soft power thinkers draw the line on American foreign policy and less identification over the soft power skills as a foreign policy tool. Because of that America failed to create a popular culture over other great powers, the rest of the states and non-state actors.

Offensive realists mainly focus on the national interests of great powers because they have much for potentiality to influence the international system. Thus, through national interests, all the great powers seek opportunities to gain more power over their rivals. Hegemony can be identified as an ultimate goal of the great powers but in a similar account, great powers work as a revisionist idea as well. Mainly they are forced on,

  • To change their status quo
  • To change their positions in the international system
  • Maximizing the power share on international power relations. (Mearsheimer, 2001)

The “bedrock assumptions” (Wilson, 2008), which describe by realists thinkers stressed that great powers inherently possess some offensive military capabilities. In the international system, states can find uncountable causes for aggression, and no state can believe other states or their behaviour. As rational actors in the international system all the states aware of their external environment and looking for strategical solutions to address the state survival. Interpretations gave by offensive realists over the concept of survival is analysis it as a fundamental goal of the state.

“…soviet leader Josef Stalin put the point well during a war scare in 1927, ‘We can and must build socialism in the Soviet Union. But to do so we, first of all, have to exit.” (Mearsheimer, 2001)

‘Great powers always fear each other. Because of that, all the great powers can attack or conquer other great powers, because survival is their ultimate goal. Fear creates suspicion among the great powers and because of that, there has limited room for trust. In this account, realists make an argument that all the great powers are potential enemies and the best thing is to make power capabilities to dominate others.’ (Snyder, 2003)

Under the self-help, offensive realists do acknowledge the formation of alliances. But according to their point of view the alliances are “temporary marries of convenience.” (Mearsheimer, 2001) But soft power theorists make a counter-argument on this factor.

‘In the early period of history, great powers had liberal space to access to the power resources. Because of that, all the states exercise their power capabilities as a strength for war. But with the development of the international system with technology and nuclear power, the strength of war necessarily changed.’ (Nye, 2004) Because of this evaluation, any of the single power failed to dominate the world system. Thus, states need to co-opt with each other by using non-cohesive methods. Soft power can be described as the second face of power. ‘Soft power provides the different type of currency to address the national interest of the state, to engender cooperation without devaluating self- infrastructure facilities and self-wealth.’ (Nye, 2004)

The major difference between hard power and soft power which picked up by Joseph Nye can be described following way.

“The distinction between hard power and soft power is one of degree both like the behaviour and in the tangibility of the resources. Command power- the ability to change what others do- can rest on coercion or inducement. Cooperative power the ability to shape what others want- can rest on the attractiveness one’s culture and values or the ability to manipulate the agenda of political choices in a manner that makes others fail to express some preferences because they seem to be too unrealistic… soft power resources tend to be associated with the cooperative end of the spectrum of behaviour, whereas hard power resources are usually associated with command behaviour.” (Nye, 2004)

End of World War I, the Americans changed their foreign policy dimension and hunt the dream to be a global hegemon over the world. Wilson and Roosevelt, they did not place themselves on an offensive realist paradigm and they used the American democratic model, American values to address the other great power. By using soft power resources they attracted great powers and got the world consent to follow the American model and American values.

But offensive realists talked about the hegemony in terms of a regional and global hegemon. Generally, all the regional hegemons do check and balance over other regional powers and their power capabilities. Since other hegemons develop their power capabilities and ultimately it threatens to self – survival. On this basis, scared states utilize their hard power to enhance national security. State population and the wealth of the state facilitate to develop hard power capabilities. ‘Population and wealth can straightforwardly transfer to military power. The fear of great powers and the inherent features of the international system did not allow great powers to put aside power considerations and promote peace. Ultimately, great powers cannot trust each other and as well as their effort on peace.’ (Snyder, 2003)


Offensive realists detected power in terms of materialist and based on resources of the state. Secondly, they defend it as an ability of one influence over other states. The balance of power in the international system depicted by offensive realists in term of a balance of military power. To accumulate military power over other great powers, states should need to mobilize resources and population. This mobilization process ultimately directed states to highlight their power- projection capabilities. The decisive level of the power projection portraits the capacity of great powers to influence global affairs by using their military power. Mearsheimer screamed four possible ways to draw state influence over other great powers. ‘Blackmail, war, balancing and buck-passing’ (Mearsheimer, 2001) identified as four possible ways to pursuit power. All the states including great powers are pursuing self-survival and hegemony. To do that states have to accumulate the maximum level of military power while deterring external powers which capable enough to be a treat to self-national interest.

However, in the modern technological world offensive power get limited due to nuclear deterrence. All the regional hegemons acquired nuclear power. Because of this matter balance of nuclear power shaped the international order. None of the great power declared open war against other great powers because of nuclear capability. On another hand, larger sea spaces counter the offensive military power of greater powers. Because of that modern-day international system and states power over other states largely shaped by soft power capabilities of the states. Rendering to Joseph Nye, great powers address their respective national interest through soft power capabilities and survival, hegemony also relays on the ability to co-opt with other states.

Interdependency and Inter-connection shaped the current international system. Thus, all the great powers consume their soft power over other states and international institutions subjected to the influence of soft power utility of great powers. The United States of America can be a significant actor in soft power politics. Most of the multi-national organizations and business faces operated by Americans. American cultural soft power, political values, and foreign policies directly influence to other great powers. The UK, and Norway posture the peacebuilding capabilities of them over external countries and influence to other nations. China utilizes their language, market economy, and Confucius institutions to develop its hegemony over the world order.

Finally, offensive realists and soft power account on international relations are holding a parallel interpretation. The major contradiction is the way they describe the power and utility of the power resources to address the national interest of the respective countries. Both of the groups represent the realist school of thoughts, thus the best way to address survival and hegemony is implementing these two ideologies in a parallel account.


Mearsheimer, John J. (2001). The Tragedy of Great Power Politics. (p.1-6, 11-13, 16-23, 30-45, 51-87, 139-161, 170-186, 255-261, 355- 361), Fifth Avenue, New York: W. W. Northern & Company.

Nye, Joseph S. Jr. (1990). Soft Power. Foreign Policy, 80, 153-171.

Nye, Joseph S. Jr. (2004). Soft Power The Means to Success in World Politics. (p. X-XI, 2-13, 16-31, 34-39, 42-67, 75-85, 91-100, 105-115, 142), New York: PublicAffairs.

Snyder, Glenn H. (2003). [Review of the book The Tragedy of Great Power Politics, by John J. Mearcheimer]. International Security, 27. 151-157, 161-170.

Wilson, Ernest J. (2008). Hard Power, Soft Power, Smart Power. The ANNALS of the American Academy of Political and Social Science, 616, 110-124. DOI 10.1177/0002716207312618.

Harsha Senanayake is a researcher at Social Scientists’ Association- Sri Lanka and a visiting lecturer at the University of Colombo, Sri Lanka. He has acquired a masters degree in International Relations from the Department of International Relations, South Asian University, New Delhi, India and a specialised degree in International Relations from the Department of International Relations, University of Colombo. Harsha serves as an AIPE fellow- TFAS USA. He has authored few books including The Changing Patterns of USA- Japan Security Relations: Case Study of Okinawa and The Human Security Discourse and Seeking Peace: Field Work Analysis Based on the Sri Lankan Civil War.




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