Essay: Does ‘Defensive’ or ‘Offensive’ Realism provide the most compelling account of interstate behaviour?

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  • Does ‘Defensive’ or ‘Offensive’ Realism provide the most compelling account of interstate behaviour?
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Denfensive realism, a variant of Structrual realism was founded by theorist Kenneth Waltz. Waltz was very much interested in the outcomes of states and great powers instead of the behaviour. Defensive realists like Waltz maintain that it is unwise for states to gain total power and should share it between states as the system will punish them if they gain too much. Like Waltz, John Mearshiemer agreed that the system is anarchic, states and especially great powers possess offensive capabilities and states cannot ever be certain about the intentions of others, but stated that the international system compels them to maximise their power. The main point which makes structural realism differ from classical realism and others is the idea that the struggle for power is not simply just human nature, human nature has very little to do with it. States aim to have the most power they can as they have no authoritative figure above them implying there is no guarantee no-one will attack them. States can quickly change their minds and attack, which makes eminently good sense for states to be powerful enough to fight attacks at all times.

Organising principle, differentiation of units, and distribution of capabilities are the three elements that Waltz defined the structure within the international system. Waltz identifies ‘organising principle’ as two, first being anarchy, which corresponds to the decentralised realm of international politics. This is the redistributing or dispersing of functions, powers, people or things away from a central location or authority. Secondly, hierarchy; the basis of domestic order.

He also argues that states within the international system are functionally similar independent states, hence unit-level variation is inconsequential.

Thirdly, the distribution of capabilities is according to Waltz fundamentally the most important thing to understanding crucial international outcomes.

Similar to Waltz and Mearshiemer structural realist argue that relative distribution of power within the international system is the key independent variable in understanding important international outcomes such as war and peace, alliance politics and the balance of war.

J, Baylis, S, Smith, P, Owens, ‘The Globalization of World Politics: An introduction to international relations’, Oxford University Press 2014.
On the belief that the international system is anarchic and that each State must individually seek its own survival, Waltz argues weaker states attempt to find equilibrium with their rivals and try to form an alliance with a stronger state to gain a guarantee of security against offensive action by an enemy state. Defensive realism does accept that security can be balanced in some cases and that the security dilemma is escapable.

Although the forefront of defensive ideologies were originally Waltz’s ideals many other scholars agreed with such and claimed their own versions. Robert Jervis is an American theorist known for his awards regarding his ideas improving world order. Jervis established the offense-defense theory, this theory is to help decide the intensity of the security dilemma. Throughout Jervis uses four scenarios to describe the intensity of the security dilemma. When both offensive and defensive behaviour is not distinguishable but defense has an advantage, the security dilemma is considered ‘intense’ when explaining the states behaviour. In this type of situation a state might be able increase it’s security without it looking like a threat to the other states and without endangering the security of the other states too.

Vice-versa, when offense has an advantage, the security dilemma is considered, very intense and the environment is considered even more dangerous. Jervis argues that the status quo states behave in an aggressive manner and there is every possibility of an arms race. Cooperation between states are low.
According to Robert Jervis, the security dilemma can lead to arms races and alliance formation.

Jervis states the technical capabilities of a state and its geographical position are the two essential factors when deciding whether offensive or defensive action is advantageous. Jervis also argues, at a strategic level technical and geographical factors are of greater favour to the defender.

The constant struggle for power within all states is what Mearshiemer bases his theory upon. Great powers of the world almost all have a similar set of interests to ensure that they are all equipped with the same sort of power/security as one another. This is where Mearshiemer strays from the theory of defensive realism. Offensive realists argue that states are power maximisers and not security maximisers. Anarchy in the eyes of offensive realists encourages states to constantly increase their own power because one state can never be sure of another states intentions.

“Uncertainty about the intentions of other states is unavoidable, which means that states can never be sure that other states do not have offensive intentions to go along with their offensive capabilities”. J. Mearshiemer, ‘The Tragedy of Great Power Politics’ Chapter 2, New York: Norton. Offensive realism does not completely disregard the defensive theory they simply argue that if a state can gain an advantage over another state, they will. Since it’s argued that states cannot trust one another the security dilemma is inescapable. Mearshiemer also states, states are rational actors, meaning that they consider the immediate and long-term consequences of their actions, and think strategically about how to survive.

Scholars such as Mearshiemer and those who are offensive realists argue international system encourages offensive strategy because anarchism leads to insecurity, and only by being the strongest can a state be secure. This sort of insecurity leads to states striking first and engaging in risky behaviour in search of security.

Another scholar which such views as Mearshiemer is, Randal Schweller. Schweller an American theorist and university professor, his main interests and teaching interests include international security and international relations theory. He is best known for his Balance of Interests theory, an interpretation of Waltz’s Balance of power theory and Stephen Walt’s Balance of Threat theory. Schweller is best known for his willingness to consider non-structural explanations of state behaviour.

The cold war of 1945-1991 was arguably the most important change in the of the 20th century. By some it was considered world war three between the eastern communists and the western. Throughout this war no body could have been prepared for what was about to happen and strategies were played. The major players in the war include, Joseph Stalin, John Kennedy, Richard Nixon and Fidel Castro Ruz.

Between the scholars, there was deliberation over why theory had not predicted the end of the Cold War. Two theories which are related and have convincing arguments to why the cold war ended the way it did is, offensive realism and defensive realism. Defensive realism can be used to explain America’s behaviour during the end of the Cold War, and offensive realism can be used to explain the Soviet Union’s behaviour at the end of the Cold War.

Defensive realism (stated above) predicts that when leaders feel threatened and insecure, they are usually inclined to increase their security by pursuing military and diplomatic strategies. In 1979, America felt very vulnerable to an external threat. Due to a number of crises within this time period American morale was low and the media covered all stories extensively. Additionally, the USSR invaded Afghanistan which Jeffrey Taliaferro, another defence theorist, argues was “the most blatant threat since the Cuban missile crisis.”
In addition, the US started following more aggressive political strategies. The aggressive policies that America imposed were to shift the balance of power back against the Communist’s.
Defensive realism also calculates that in the event of an external threat, the government will be able to assemble economic, military and human resources. Defensive realism predicts that when a state’s leaders recognise a relative advantage, they will pursue more security policies.
I think defensive realism explains the behavior of the United States towards the end of the Cold War, but offensive realism gives a practical account for the Soviet Union in the 1980s. Offensive realism expects states to try and maximise their power in the international system, especially when they feel that they have the power and the competence to do so.
Offensive realism would predict that the Soviets would begin to pull back in order to save themselves. They thought to reinvest and reallocate the USSR’s resources in order to maintain the state.
Another ideology of offensive realism is that weaker states tend to liaise with stronger states.

In conclusion I think defensive realism provides the most compelling account of interstate behaviour. I think this because, evidence shows when a state has an advantage such as power, cooperation from other states becomes easier. Nuclear deterrent has also made the defensive argument stronger. If one state were to use a nuclear weapon on another it is almost certain they are to receive one back damaging themselves in process. Also nuclear weaponry in itself is a deterrent.

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