Tragedy or Triumph? Breaking the Cycle of Great Power Conflict


In his seminal work, “The Tragedy of Great Power Politics,” John J. Mearsheimer posited that great power conflict was an unavoidable result of nation-states efforts to alter the distribution of world power in their favor.1 Mearsheimer argues that states must seek to expand their power, dominate their region, and prevent the emergence of rival states. Nation-states have no choice but to dominate or be dominated. The tragedy is “Great powers that have no reason to fight each other … nevertheless have little choice but to … seek to dominate other states” to ensure their survival.2

Russia has already played a leading role in this great power tragedy. Europe in 1914 was wealthier, more interconnected, and more powerful than at any point in its previous history. Yet the European great powers – Russia, United Kingdom, Germany, France and Austria-Hungary – had spent the first fourteen years of the decade lurching from crisis to crisis and coming closer to all out war.3 Russia, in particular, psychologically recovering from its defeat in the Russo-Japanese War, became more assertive in supporting Slavic independence movements in the Balkans. This directly challenged Austria-Hungary for dominance in the region. Nationalist leaders stoked anti-Austrian and anti-German sentiment in Moscow and St. Petersburg. The assassination of Austrian Archduke Fran Ferdinand in the streets of Sarajevo by a Serbian radical was the spark that ignited a conflict that nearly destroyed European civilization.4

Was this bleak reality inevitable? Are great powers bound to collide by some immutable law in the same way that gravity demands an apple fall to the ground? On July 29th, at 9:20 p.m., moments before Russian Tsar Nicholas II was preparing to issue an order for general mobilization of the Russian army (the preamble to war), he received a telegram from his cousin Kaiser Wilhelm II of Imperial Germany. The telegram, building off of their family relationship, implored the Tsar not to issue the mobilization order to prevent “precipitating a calamity we both wish to avoid.” The Tsar, moved by the telegram, cancelled the mobilization order, exclaiming, “I will not be responsible for a monstrous slaughter.” Unfortunately, this diplomatic moment was not seized. The fearful logic of war quickly returned and the mobilization order was issued on July 30, 1914.

The ghosts of World War I whisper that such a cynical and brutal reality is avoidable if nation states forego the paradigm of the zero-sum game. Unfortunately, the loudest voices in the world’s two greatest powers (as measured by their nuclear capacities), the United States and Russia, are pushing their countries toward rivalry and conflict, not cooperation and understanding. In order to break the cycle of recriminations, the United States and Russia must do what the European great powers at the beginning of the 20th century could not; use diplomacy to advance collective security.

Certainly, the thuggish behavior of Vladimir Putin has contributed to the current freeze in relations. Allegations that Russian intelligence operatives hacked the servers of the Democratic National Committee and facilitated the leak of emails to influence domestic U.S. politics, if true, would be a serious violation of U.S. sovereignty. The annexation of Crimea from Ukraine, fostering a frozen conflict in the Donbas, and aggressive military maneuvers toward NATO forces in the Baltic region contribute to the perception that Russia is a hostile power locked in a new “Cold War” with the United States.

At the same time, U.S. conduct has contributed to increased Russian hostility and insecurity. The United States showed a serious lack of understanding regarding Russia’s concerns about the eastward expansion of NATO. Similarly, the United States did very little to convince Russia it was a partner in creating a new European security architecture rather than a victim of its Cold War defeat. Outside of Europe, primarily unilateral interventions in the Arab world have showcased U.S. offensive military capacity and heightened Russian anxiety about U.S. power.            

The United States and Russia are not implacable adversaries. Even in strained periods like today, the United States and Russia cooperate on a host of issues, including nuclear non-proliferation and counterterrorism. These areas of cooperation must be built on and expanded. The United States and Russia both benefit from a Europe that is peaceful, the destruction of radical jihadist groups such as ISIS, and an Asia-Pacific region that is not dominated by a hegemonic China.

Where U.S. and Russian interests clash, as in Ukraine, the Baltics, and Syria, the United States and Russia must work to create outcomes that are tolerable to both sides. Viewing these conflicts as zero-sum confrontations, with a winner and loser, only creates insecurity. These conflict areas provide an opportunity for the patient work of diplomacy to prove that great power conflict is not an immutable law.

Ultimately, the United States and Russia, as victors of World War II, have a moral and ethical responsibility to ensure that the world remains free from the type of global conflict that World War I, World War II, and the Cold War, represented. Both countries should never forget that legacy which so many of each country’s citizens died to establish. Perhaps, remembering the times when the United States and Russia sacrificed together, the countries can, in the wise words of Kayne West, “turn tragedy into triumph.”

1 Mearsheimer, John J., The Tragedy of Great Power Politics, University of Chicago Press, New York (2001).

2 Id.

3 Clark, Christopher, The Sleepwalkers: How Europe Went to War in 1914, Harper Collins, New York (2012).

4 Id.

Matthew Fontana is a labor and employment attorney at Drinker Biddle and Reath. He is an avid follower of U.S.-Russian relations and a student of Russian history.

Photo Source: CA


3 thoughts on “Tragedy or Triumph? Breaking the Cycle of Great Power Conflict

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