Offensive and Defensive Realism

March 5, 2013
Offensive and Defensive Realism
 Debate over commonalities and differences
 Debate over whether
 They are both realism
 Whether there are significant differences between them (mostly in
the literature that is cited)
 Possible affinity between defensive realism and
 Classical realism (as opposed to neorealism)
 Constructivism, liberal interntionalism and democratic peace
 In that sense, is it a “softer”, because less totally structural realism?
A realism more amenable to rational choice theory? A realism more
amenable to a sophisticated understanding of psychology and
politics in general?
 Is it “neorealism plus,” or “neorealism minus,” or “not neorealism”?
Taliaferro: Security Seeking Under
Overall question:
Does the international system provide incentives for
aggressive expansion or defensive selective engagement as
the best way of obtaining security?
Offensive realism: international system encourages
offensive strategy because anarchism leads to insecurity,
and only by being the strongest can a state be secure.
What is important is the nature of power balances, and these
lead weak states to fear strong states, strong states to fear
rising states, and neighbors to fear one another. This fear
leads states to tend to strike first, engage in risky behavior
in pursuit of security, and to do everything possible to
build up their military.
Defensive realism: condition of anarchy is
underdetermining. It creates situations in which
measures meant to create security, including
aggression, increase the insecurity of others, thereby
creating a more dangerous situation that encourages
others to balance against one and to contemplate first
strikes. To gain security in many instances, states are
best served by signaling restraint rather than
aggression, though aggression may be necessary in
some instances.
 In this understanding, offensive realists assume
policymakers start with a perception which causes a
concrete policy that has concrete effects (war, building
of alliances, gathering of more resources), where
defensive realists assumm policymakers create policies
that both create concrete effects and which are meant
to create perceptions.
More Differences: Neorealism vs.
Neoclassical Realism
Taliaferro argues that these are complementary rather than
rivals, in that one explain behavior and events that the
other does not:
Neorealism: explain events in an international system that
involve 2 or more states– war, negotiations, alliances, arms
races, etc. Explanatory variables are only at the system
Neoclassical: Why a state pursues particular polices at various
times or why a different states pursue different policies in
the same systemic context. Probablistic predictions
regarding how a state will respond to systems pressures.
Grand strategies, military doctrines, foreign economic
policies. Explanatory variables at different levels.
Offensive vs. Defensive Realism
These are competitors that seek to explain the same
phenomena and cut across the Classical/Neo divide.
Most important difference is that defensive variety
argues that anarchy only provides incentives for
expansion under certain conditions, while offensive
variety holds that anarchy always provides incentives
for expansion.
Defense Neorealists: Waltz, Copeland, Jervis
Offensive Neorealists: Gilpin, Mearsheimer, Schweller
Defensive Neoclassical: Walt, Christenson, Van Evera
Offensive Neoclassical: Zakaria, Wohlforth
Assumptions defensive realists make:
 Always will be security dilemmas– no way to escape them
 However, these dilemmas do not always increase the
probability of war.
 This is because of the presence of intervening variables
between the security dilemma and action, in the form of
military technology, geography and access to raw materials.
 These intervening variables have a greater effect than the
overall balance of power in the system because they create
different contexts that influence the decisions statesment
Assumptions of Neoclassical
Defensive Realists
 Importance of perceptions of capabilities and
intentions among decisionmakers: belief systgems,
images of adversaries
 Domestic politics help shape foreign policies.
Emphasis on leaders and their decisions as constrained
by domestic structures (but not institutions, norms,
interest groups, as is the case with liberal
internationalists, constructivists, democratic peace
Brooks: Dueling Realisms
 Two types of realism:
 Neorealism
 Postclassical realism
Because they are both “realisms,” they have
 Focus on systems
 State centered
 Emphasize material rather than nonmaterial factors
 Assume that states pursue self-help for self-interested
Generally in the areas of:
 Possibilities for conflict and aggression
 How states perceive threats
 How states view long and short term interests
 Whether states primarily pursue power or security
Neorealists and Threats
Brooks argues that neorealists view threats and security in
absolute terms. Because states primarily pursue security,
they are intensely sensitive to security threats. Neorealists
in particular believe that states take seriously:
 The high price of military preparedness for state survival in
case of war
 The fact that they cannot easily or accurately read
intentions, thus must always assume the worst
 Military might the only effective precaution against
agression– not diplomacy, international institutions, etc.
Because of this orientation towards threats, put in terms of the
possibility of a threat, neorealist argue that states will focus on
the short term, discounting the future for the present.
This is because future payoffs in the form of investments in nonmilitary goods (such is the economy) are worthless if in the short
term the state is conquered. Thus even measures to increase
power in the long run (such as economic investment) are
ignored in favor of bringing all possible resources to bear on
current defense needs.
Thus actors are not utility (or power) maximizers; rather, they
attempt to avoid losses or to minimize the types of losses that
might be incurred. This means they will be aggressive rather
than trusting, again even if taking the latter route would pay off
in increased power (and thus security) in the long term.
Postclassical Realists
Brooks holds that postclassical realists see less inherent
conflict in anarchical systems than do neorealists,
though they do not necessarily see the world as
peaceful and cooperative, merely more peaceful and
This is because they see states as rational actors and thus
as utility maximizers, entities that seek to maximize
power because it allows them the flexible means by
which to pursue many ends, including security.
As rational actors, states in the understanding of
postclassical realism:
 Base their strategies on the probabilities of aggression and
threats. If that probability is high, then will invest in
military, alliances and sacrifice cooperation for security. But
if not high, then will do other things that will enhance
 This is because they see devoting resources to security as
costly both in absolute terms and in terms of opportunity
costs. Use resources for those purposes if the threat is real;
if no threat, then such use is wasteful.
Thus states in this view will also not automatically
discount the future for the present. If circumstances
are such that short-term outlays are not necessary,
then it is better to invest resources (of whatever sort–
economic, diplomatic, etc) for long term payoffs that
will maximize power.
Here also differ from classical realists, who saw states
pursuing power as an end in itself. Postclassical see
states pursuing power as the means by which to obtain
other good things; thus, it is to be expended when
necessary, and possibly sacrificed.
Will states move to balance other dominant states even
if it appears that the dominant states do not present a
high probability of threat:
Japan and Germany vs. US
Neorealists: will because US preponderance of power
presents the possibility of a threat
Postclassical: will not because US does not pose a high
probability of threat, thus the rational thing to do is to
concentrate on long term and economic mattes rather
than costly balancing games.
Postclassical and Nonrealist
Postclassical are closer to constructivism, liberal
internationalism and democratic peace theory:
 Nation level factors
 Perceptions
 States as rational actors that respond to contexts and
scenarios that are complicated and diverse rather than
to simple understanding of balances within a universal
Van Evera: Offense, Defense and
the Causes of War
Article about Offensive/Defensive balances as a factor in
the possibilities for conflict and aggression– thus an
additional factor to systemic balances.
Key question: is war more likely if conquest is relatively
easy (i.e., if offense is easier than usual, due to military
technology, new ways of organizing armies, geography,
social systems, diplomatic arrangements, balancing
behaviors– all of which are factors in the
offense/defense balance), not easier than defense as a
Ten ways in which Easy Conquest
leads to War
Empires are easy to conquer; therefore, everyone is
encouraged to engage in opportunistic expansion.
Self-defense is difficult, leading to feelings of
insecurity and incentives for defensive expansion
Expansionism in such contexts leads to fierce
First-strike advantages are large, leading to higher
likelihood of preemptive wars
Windows of opportunity and vulnerability are larger,
leading to higher likelihood of preemptive war
Offensive advantage-- war
6. States more often adopt fait accompli diplomatic
tactics, which often lead to war due to the fact that
neither side can afford to lose face
7. States less likely to negotiation over differences
8. States more security-minded about plans
9. Arms races faster and harder to control
10. Offense dominance is self-perpetuating
Some dangerous dynamics when
offense dominant
 Small gains and losses are magnified in importance
 Greater level of competition
 Aggressors are fed by temptation and fear, rather than
deterred by security measures others adopt
 More weight given to arguments in favor of
preventative war given the high stakes, particularly by
states experiencing, or about to experience, relative

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