Stephen Walt (left) is an American professor of international affairs at Harvard University’s John F. Kennedy School of Government and a famous defensive realist. John Mearsheimer (right) is an American political scientist at the University of Chicago and founder of offensive realism.

Sam Seitz

*This post is modified from my paper, Offense or Defense: That is the Question.

In Beyond Victory: Offensive Realism and the Expansion of War Aims, Eric J. Labs defends John J. Mearsheimer’s theory of offensive realism.[1] Lab’s article primarily seeks to expand upon offensive realism in two ways. First, it offers new case studies to support the general thesis of Mearsheimer’s theory. Labs specifically analyzes four conflicts: the Austro-Prussian War, the Franco-Prussian War, the Korean War, and the British involvement in WWI. To test the theory of offensive realism, Labs examines the war aims of countries involved in these conflicts to determine their motivation for conflict, concluding that the causes of these conflict and the expansion of war aims during the conflicts support offensive realism. Second, Labs seeks to refine Mearsheimer’s theory by positing that states are offensive realists surreptitiously, taking territory as they can, as opposed to deliberately attempting to expand even in the face of severe opposition. He argues that states that constantly seek to expand aggressively, such as Nazi Germany, are often successfully counterbalanced. However, states that slowly accumulate new territory and power generally avoid balancing.[2]

The theory of offensive realism, as argued by Labs and Mearsheimer, rests on five key assumptions: the system is anarchic, states always possess offensive capabilities, there exists existential uncertainty, states primary goal is power, and states are rational actors.[3] From these assumptions, Labs argues that “In the absence of specific threats… states will seek to maximize their power and influence because they cannot be sure when or where the next threat will arise.”[4] In other words, in an anarchic system, states must always seek to accumulate power because other states’ hidden motives and offensive capabilities represent a potential threat. In this post, I will evaluate offensive realism’s explanatory power relative to its three main challengers: defensive realism, liberalism, and constructivism.[5] While I believe that all of these theories possess some explanatory value, I find that defensive realism best explains countries war aims and grand strategy.

Defensive Realism

Defensive realism rests on the same assumptions as offensive realism. Thus, the underlying concepts of anarchy, incomplete information, rationality, focus on survival, and other states’ possession of offensive military capabilities remain unchanged. However, unlike offensive realism, defensive realists posit that states value security above all else, not power. Thus, defensive realists view great powers as predominantly status quo powers, not revisionists.[6] They argue that offensive realists misread the implications of the five primary assumptions of offensive realists. Moreover, they contend that fear is not a systemic condition, but rather a psychological unit-level variable. Thus, offensive realists’ claim to explain conflict through purely systemic explanations falls short.[7]

Ultimately, this theory diverges with its offensive cousin most clearly on the question of how states achieve security. For defensive realists, it is best to maintain status quo power distributions to prevent the risk of dangerous balancing coalitions. For, while offensive realists are correct that being the hegemon affords states almost complete security, seeking hegemony almost always results in defeat and collapse.[8] This is because one state rapidly expanding and aggressively defeating other states triggers a balance of power dynamic that encourages rival states to create balancing coalitions to contain the rising power. Ultimately, defensive realists have a better explanation for state interaction because instead of assuming blind expansion, they focus on the balance of threats. States that are powerful but not expansionist are perceived as peaceful, thus avoiding balancing coalitions. However, states that are powerful and seek even more power through aggressive expansion are viewed as threatening and thus face resistance.[9] This is why most states that are cited in support of offensive realism end up defeated.[10] While Labs refines the idea by introducing the expansion of war aims – states becoming more ambitious during successful campaigns – this is not incompatible with defensive realism. After all, defensive realism would also predict that states would desire the absolute defeat of dangerous, aggressive states to increase security.

Defensive realists also challenge the empirical record of offensive realism by pointing out that the U.S. didn’t expand into Canada and Mexico. Why, when the U.S. is the only state to successfully create unchallenged regional hegemony, did it not expand war aims and seek to claim more territory from its relatively weak neighbors?[11] After all, if Labs is correct that states incrementally expand when there is weakness, a system where one power is vastly stronger than its neighbors should be particularly prone to offensive expansion. The U.S. case proves this is not universally true. Instead, it supports the idea that once states establish a relatively secure position, they become a status quo state just as defensive realists would predict. Thus, while the theory offers some plausible explanations for why states aggressively expand, it offers very little explanation for periods of enduring peace and stability.

Liberalism

Neoliberalism focuses on two systemic features that might explain state behavior. The first is multilateral institutions. Specifically, liberals argue that multilateral institutions lower transactions costs and increase transparency, making it easier to avoid conflict through diplomatic means.[12] The second primary systemic factor in liberalism is trade flows between states. Neoliberals argue that increased trade raises the costs of conflict by making states risk economic pain through loss of trade.[13] Thus, the neoliberal school is far more optimistic than realists, arguing that states are generally willing to take absolute gains even if they trigger occasional relative losses.

The neoliberal explanation for interstate war would thus focus, at the systemic level, on trade patterns and the number and type of multilateral institutions. When institutions are weak, and trade levels are low, conflict is more likely to ensue due to decreased cooperation, less transparent interactions, and lower costs for war. Neorealists push back by arguing that institutions are weak when they are needed most. Thus, weak institutions don’t cause war, but rather the conditions that make war likely weaken institutions by creating intractable conflict and divergent interests among the members of the organization. In other words, states always prioritize their interests, so if a conflict occurs, states will not subordinate their interests to the desires of an institution made up of outside, sometimes hostile powers.[14] Regarding trade, offensive realists argue that trade is conflict-inducing due to the fact that one state must become relatively weaker through trade. Thus, even if all trading states gain absolutely, trading states also become dependent on other states, may incur a trade deficit, and may not benefit as much as their trade partners. Because offensive realists focus on the uncertainty and constant risk of betrayal inherent in an anarchic system, these relative losses are dangerous and might force states to lash out to prevent further decline.[15]

Defensive realism best fuses these two positions. In terms of institutions, defensive realism agrees with offensive realism that when vital interests are at stake, states will largely ignore institutional constraints and defend their interests and security. However, defensive realism is less pessimistic about international cooperation and multilateral institutions because it views states as largely defensive and security-seeking, thus mitigating – though certainly not eliminating – some of the problems of trust and private information that offensive realists stress as so important in causing conflict.[16] Thus, defensive realists are more optimistic about contingent cooperation within institutions on broadly shared goals and interests, even while sharing offensive realisms’ view that institutions are weak. In terms of trade, defensive realism stresses probabilistic thinking.[17] Defensive realism posits that trade is both possible and not necessarily conflict-inducing because states often view the risk of war as lower than the benefits from trade. Trade dependency might cause war if it appears likely that an aggressive state will use its trade power to coerce another.[18] However, trade does not always trigger conflict because most states view the probability of war as low, and thus are willing to risk becoming dependent.[19] The fact that many states trade for long periods of time with other states without triggering war suggests that offensive realism overstates the risks of relative loss through trade.

Constructivism

Constructivism argues that the international sphere is socially constructed. Thus, it focuses on ideational factors and discourse in explaining interstate interactions and conflict. Constructivists argue that norms and identity are powerful forces, and while most constructivists think material power is important, they view the social fabric as the controlling factor in international relations. Identities are constituted and created through mutual recognition. Thus, states are shaped both by how they view themselves and how others view them. This can create rival identities and “us versus them” dynamics.[20] However, this socially constructed reality also can be a force for peace. In his seminal work, Anarchy is what states make of it: the social construction of power politics, Alexander Wendt argues that even at the systemic level, social norms and identities are the primary factors shaping state relations.[21] Thus, the way states view themselves and other states is what determines inter-state interaction. In this worldview, offensive realism is true only if states believe in its logic and utility. If states identify and relate to other states, even ones who are powerful and potentially dangerous, there can often be peace and cooperation because of shared norms and values.

Offensive and defensive realists both offer strong criticisms of the ideational aspects of constructivism. Realists view the nature of anarchic politics to be so constraining that countries’ ideologies and narratives are of little importance. In other words, even if norms exist against conflict, and even if states are of similar ideological backgrounds, the desire for security and the fear of betrayal will always override shared values and ideologies. To be sure, there are examples of ideological and culture aspect overwhelming strictly materialistic considerations of power. During the 7 Years War, for example, the Prussophile Czar Peter III ended hostilities against Prussia, even though Russia and her allies would likely have defeated Prussia and gained territory and prestige. His decision was largely due to his love of German culture and the similar national identities of the Russian and German states.[22] This stands in sharp contrast to Labs’ offensive realist predictions that assume states will always seek to expand against weakened opponents when the opportunity arises. However, the record is mixed for ideology and its relation to war and alliances. While there is no doubt that ideology certainly has played a role in conflict and alliances (the Cold War, for example), there are also many examples of states allying with states of opposing ideologies and coming into conflict with states of similar ideologies and identities. Moreover, the degree of ideological conformity within alliances is often weak.[23]

The historical record also supports the realist assertion that states most identify with states of similar identities during times of relative peace, when the vicious dynamics of anarchy and the security dilemma are muted. However, during times of conflict or war, security overrides ideational and ontological considerations.[24] Thus, realism is generally better at explaining state relations in conflict, even if constructivism provides some utility on the margins. Consistent with my thesis, though, defensive realism provides the best middle ground position and better incorporates the contributions of constructivism. For, unlike offensive realism which posits that ideology is irrelevant due to anarchy, defensive realism’s use of balance of threat theory allows it to incorporate ideology into considerations of power. Because states often find other states with similar identities and ideologies less threatening, there is a lower chance of balancing and spiraling arms races because ideationally similar states are not perceived as aggressive or dangerous.[25] Thus, balance of threat theory best combines realism’s balance of power with constructivism’s social identity, providing a more nuanced theory than offensive realism.[26]

Conclusion

Ultimately, offensive realism suffers from a number of explanatory flaws. While it accurately explains aggressive state behavior, it does not adequately describe the vast number of peaceful and stable state interactions. Liberalism offers some important contributions regarding trade and institutional cooperation, but is too optimistic, inverting the error of offensive realism. Constructivism also offers some important contributions, pointing out that non-material factors, such as the distribution of ideational power, are also important components of power and an influential variable. However, it understates the power of anarchy and the need for security, focusing too much on ideology over material power. Defensive realism provides a better, though imperfect, lens for evaluating interstate relations because it best incorporates attributes from all three theories. It recognizes the anarchic nature of world politics and the risks of private information, yet it also recognizes that states are not strictly power-maximizing, but are probabilistic and seek security over absolute hegemony. Finally, balance of threat theory realizes that perception of threats plays a role in balancing and war. It understands that international relations is not solely determined by considerations of power, but is also influenced by how states view each other and the perceptions they have of others’ intentions.[27]

 

 

End Notes

[1] See Mearsheimer, John J. 1994-1995. “The False Promise of International Institutions.” International Security 15(3): 5-56. Also see Mearsheimer, John J. 2001. The Tragedy of Great Power Politics. New York, NY: W.W. Norton.

[2] Labs, Eric J. 1997. “Beyond victory: Offensive realism and the expansion of war aims.” Security Studies 6(4): 12.

[3] For a critical look at offensive realism using only deductive logic from these five assumptions, see Pashakhanlou, Arash Heydarian. 2013. “Back to the Drawing Board: A Critique of Offensive Realism.” International Relations 27(2): 202-225.

[4] Labs, Eric J. 1997. “Beyond victory: Offensive realism and the expansion of war aims.” Security Studies 6(4): 11.

[5] For the purposes of this paper, I will focus on the systemic level of analysis because that is the level that offensive realism seeks to operate in and explain.

[6] For an explanation of defensive realism, see Snyder, Jack. 1991. Myths of Empire. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press.

[7] Pashakhanlou, Arash Heydarian. 2013. “Back to the Drawing Board: A Critique of Offensive Realism.” International Relations 27(2): 206-207.

[8] Pashakhanlou, Arash Heydarian. 2013. “Back to the Drawing Board: A Critique of Offensive Realism.” International Relations 27(2): 215. Some offensive realists argue that because aggressors possess a 60% success rate in conflict, their theory that aggressive expansion pays holds up. However, this analysis ignores that fact that 80% of the states pursuing regional hegemony in the past 200 years have been defeated and dismantled.

[9] While this fear and perception of aggression is not necessarily a systemic factor, even systemic theories occasionally dip into the second or third levels of analysis.

[10] Walt, Stephen M. 1987. The Origins of Alliances. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press.

[11] Pashakhanlou, Arash Heydarian. 2013. “Back to the Drawing Board: A Critique of Offensive Realism.” International Relations 27(2): 210-211.

[12] Keohane, Robert. 1984. After Hegemony. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

[13] Oneal, John R., and Bruce M. Russet. 1997. “The Classical Liberals Were Right: Democracy, Interdependence, and Conflict, 1950-1985.”Inernational Studies Quarterly 41(2): 267-294; Oneal, John R., Bruce M. Russett and Michael L. Berbaum. 2003. “Causes of Peace: Democracy, Interdependence, and International Organizations, 1885-1992.” International Studies Quarterly 47(3): 71-93.

[14] Mearsheimer, John J. 1994-1995. “The False Promise of International Institutions.” International Security 15(3): 5-56.

[15] Barbieri, Katherine. 1996. “Economic Interdependence: Path to Peace or Source of Interstate Conflict.” Journal of Peace Research 33(1): 29-49; Barbieri, Katherine. 2002. The Liberal Illusion: Does Trade Promote Peace? Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press. For relative gains, see Grieco, Joseph. 1998. “Anarchy and the Limits of Cooperation: A Realist Critique.” International Organization 42(3): 485-529.

[16] On the formation of multilateral and bilateral institutions and hierarchical relationships through a primarily rationalist lens, see Lake, David. 2009. Hierarchy in International Relations. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press; on cooperation under defensive realism, see Glaser, Charles. 2010. Rational Theory of International Politics. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press. Also, see Glaser Charles. 1994-1995. “Realists as Optimists.” International Security 15(3): 50-90.

[17] See especially Brooks, Stephen G. 1997. “Dueling Realisms.” International Organization 51(3): 445-447.

[18] For example, Japan struck the U.S. in part due to the U.S. exploiting its trade advantage through an oil embargo.

[19] For probabilistic trade expectations and their relationship to war through a defensive realist lens, see Copeland, Dale C. 2015. Economic Interdependence and War. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

[20] Mercer, Jonathan. 1995. “Anarchy and Identity.” International Organizations 49 (March): 229-252.

[21] For a non-state-centric approach see, see Holzscheiter, Anna. 2005. “Discourse as Capability: Non-State Actors’ Capital in Global Governance.” Millennium: Journal of International Studies 33 (June): 723-746.

[22] Simms, Brendan. 2014. Europe: The Struggle for Supremacy, From 1453 to the Present.  New York, NY: Basic Books. Page 115. Of course, this decision was made primarily by an individual, and thus is not perfectly applicable to the systemic level. Nonetheless, it illustrates the power of identity and ideology.

[23] Walt, Stephen M. 1987. The Origins of Alliances. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press. Chapter 6.

[24] Ibid.

[25] For a realist explanation of ideology and conflict using the lens of balance of threat theory, see Walt, Stephen M. 1996. Revolution and War. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press.

[26] While a strictly materialist version of defensive realism would likely discount ideology as much as offensive realism, the theory has evolved since Waltz first focused exclusively on materialistic capabilities.

[27] Of course, it is foolish to argue that one paradigm is absolutely correct, as all offer important insights. For example, see Lake, David. 2011. “Why ‘Isms’ Are Evil: Theory, Epistemology, and Academic Sects as Impediments to Understanding and Progress.” International Studies Quarterly 55 (March): 465-480.

Bibliography

Barbieri, Katherine. 1996. “Economic Interdependence: Path to Peace or Source of Interstate Conflict.” Journal of Peace Research 33(1): 29-49

Barbieri, Katherine. 2002. The Liberal Illusion: Does Trade Promote Peace? Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press.

Brooks, Stephen G. 1997. “Dueling Realisms.” International Organization 51(3): 445-447.

Copeland, Dale C. 2015. Economic Interdependence and War. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

Glaser, Charles. 2010. Rational Theory of International Politics. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

Glaser Charles. 1994-1995. “Realists as Optimists.” International Security 15(3): 50-90.

Grieco, Joseph. 1998. “Anarchy and the Limits of Cooperation: A Realist Critique.” International Organization 42(3): 485-529.

Holzscheiter, Anna. 2005. “Discourse as Capability: Non-State Actors’ Capital in Global Governance.” Millennium: Journal of International Studies 33 (June): 723-746.

Keohane, Robert. 1984. After Hegemony. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

Labs, Eric J. 1997. “Beyond victory: Offensive realism and the expansion of war aims.” Security Studies 6(4): 1-49.

Lake, David. 2009. Hierarchy in International Relations. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press.

Lake, David. 2011. “Why ‘Isms’ Are Evil: Theory, Epistemology, and Academic Sects as Impediments to Understanding and Progress.” International Studies Quarterly 55 (March): 465-480.

Mearsheimer, John J. 1994-1995. “The False Promise of International Institutions.” International Security 15(3): 5-56.

Mearsheimer, John J. 2001. The Tragedy of Great Power Politics. New York, NY: W.W. Norton.

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Oneal, John R., and Bruce M. Russet. 1997. “The Classical Liberals Were Right: Democracy, Interdependence, and Conflict, 1950-1985.”Inernational Studies Quarterly 41(2): 267-294.

Oneal, John R., Bruce M. Russett and Michael L. Berbaum. 2003. “Causes of Peace: Democracy, Interdependence, and International Organizations, 1885-1992.” International Studies Quarterly 47(3): 71-93.

Pashakhanlou, Arash Heydarian. 2013. “Back to the Drawing Board: A Critique of Offensive Realism.” International Relations 27(2): 202-225.

Simms, Brendan. 2014. Europe: The Struggle for Supremacy, From 1453 to the Present.  New York, NY: Basic Books. Page 115.

Snyder, Jack. 1991. Myths of Empire. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press.

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Wendt, Alexander. 1999. Social Theory of International Politics. New York, NY: Cambridge University Press.