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

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  • Published on: July 28, 2019
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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.

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