The Role of Defensive and Offensive Realism in Understanding Inter State Behavior


This essay will discuss the concept of defensive or offensive Realism and explore their contribution towards describing inter-state behaviour.

Realists opined that an interstate political environment comprises several sovereign entities not answerable to any international law. This essay will explore the defensive and offensive approach of Realism in explaining how states behave, act and react towards other states.

This essay will discuss the concept of realism, defensive and offensive Realism in respect to inter-state behavior. While doing so, it will examine whether defensive and offensive Realism are able to give complete and compelling account of states’ behaviour in their political inter-relations.


Realism in respect to inter-state behaviour

Realism is a term indicating a group of theoretical models of the interstate behaviour, which is central to the theory of contemporary international systems. Bevir (2010) states that Realism is based and founded on several pessimistic assertions regarding interstate life. In an interstate environment there are multiple sovereign entities, which do not give recognition to international law (Bevir, 2010). Eckstein (2006), while discussing the basic elements involved in Realist approach to inter-state behaviour, highlighted three concepts on which the approach is founded. First is the prevalence of anarchy, as stated earlier, where there is no international law. This leads to the second concept that is of a self-help regime imposed on states and the impact that it has on group of state actions, for example conducts that maximize power. The third concept is the importance that stability or instability with regard to balance of power (Eckstein, 2006). The founding concepts of Realism mentioned here signify an internal structure of a sovereign state, which asserts and exerts power in order to find a balance of power, both within and without the state.

The balance of power may involve a defensive and an offensive approach towards dealing with other state power. Realism highlights the insecure element inherent in every state and so states seek security (Tang, 2010). In a manner this element on insecurity and the resultant aim to seek security drive the approach of every state towards other states. According to defensive realism, a state must not rashly assume the worst over intentions of other states (Tang, 2010). Kenneth Waltz, the founder of defensive realism, opined that it would be unwise for any state to gain total power. They should power with other states otherwise the system would punish them. According to defensive realists, like him, power is a means to an end (Mearsheimer, 2010). Therefore, according to defensive realists, in a system with no higher authority and no guarantee that a state would not attack another, every state seek the maximum power to be sufficiently powerfully to defend itself at all times (Mearsheimer, 2013).

How does a state define the sufficiently of power to defend itself from other powers? This theory seems to have this inherent insufficiency in this regard. The analysis of the causes involves reviewing a combination of security-dilemma as well as power variables. States have to anaylse the extent of security needed against the variables. While analysing the variables, states may misevaluate the conditions that may affect the state’s security. For example, military evaluation may be often found biased while they assessed international environment. Further, while analysing, state may address the situation by adopting the variable of an offence-defence balance (Glaser, 2014). However, same issue of assessing the balance may arise here too due to state’s misevaluation of the balance (Glaser, 2014). The issue of misevaluation of the balance could be seen in the Iraq war. The US invaded Iraq in 2003 and defeated Saddam Hussein. The use of new technology and weapon in the war by the US was beyond the marginally competent Saddam Hussein’s Army. The invasion did remove the regime of Saddam Hussein; however, his removal was just a start of a longer war involving armed insurgency and resistance forces. This was beyond the expectation of the military and political strategic analysis of the US government. Following events demonstrated that the US was finding it difficult to use the same military strategy used while invading initially against the well organised insurgents (Russell, 2009).

On this line, it could be stated, as what defensive realists observed that major attempts to achieve hegemony would lead to countervailing coalition. Miller (2017) cites the example of US power in relation to the collapse of Soviet Union and the invasion of Iraq. Defensive realists opined that there would be a new balance as US behaved moderately until 9/11 or the invasion of Iraq as it did not pose any major threat to security of other states and did not led formation of any countervailing coalition. US resorted to preventative war and use of arms leading to regime change, which increased perceived threat imposed by US policies. Defensive realists view that this behaviour could lead the other state power create “soft balancing” through diplomatic opposition and lack of cooperation against US’ exercise of freedom of action (Miller, 2017).

Considering the components of defensive Realism and the lack of sufficiency in evaluating a balance, this theory cannot be stated to provide a compelling account of inter-state behaviour. The case of Iraq war where the US used maximum force against the marginal military might of Saddam Hussein is a clear testimony to the failure of defensive Realism in defining the balance that the US sought for. On hindsight though, it could also be an abuse of the power by the US with the motive of invasion and overruling the regime of Saddam Hussein with justification of the use of a defensive strategy to protect the ruled. However, defensive Realism, despite the insufficiency, may be able to provide an essential guidance in that regard. For instance, it could be use to identify variable and possibilities that could help shape states’ policies and decision. They could be used as measures of state’s action or identify misperceived variables in case the state action deviates from the possibilities predicted actions action (Miller, 2017).

Offensive Realism w.r.t. inter-state behaviour

Offensive realists take opposite stand against defensive realists. Mearshemer (2001) and other offensive realists debated that there is a strategic sense for states to maximise power as much as possible and if needed, seek hegemony. They opined that having maximum power ensures survival. They see power as an end (Mearsheimer, 2010). Mearsheimer (2001) sees states as power maximisers and unlike how defensive realists see them as security maximisers. He states that a state cannot be sure of offensive intentions of another state. This uncertainty cannot be avoided and as such that states need to maximise their power. The international political system allows strong incentives to exploit opportunities to gain more power at the rivals’ expense and to gain benefits that outweigh costs. Hegemony is the ultimate goal of a state (Mearsheimer, 2001). According to Mearsheimer, states are liable to advance military superiority. This means offensive concept allows use of military forces against the offensive action or intentions of other rival states. Mearsheimer explained the the inter-state behaviour by citing case of the US and Iraq in relevance to Iraq war (Hough et al., 2020). He stated that containment was not a perfect strategy. Although he favoured Iraq with nuclear weapons, as the war would bring disaster to the US. In his scenario of Iraq with no nuclear weapons, he preferred containment than preventive war (Hough et al., 2020).

The debate of Mearsheimer prioritises power maximisation cause by security dilemma. However, his views present a few questional scenarios. His offensive theory leaves open any limit the state could stipulate in order to gain the level of power it desires. His theory leaves the states with wide discretion of interpretation regarding the type of opportunties and their level of exploitation. This presents a highly motivated individualistic approach twoards seeking a balance of powers amongst states or a balance of security. The issue lies in unlimited use of power driven by the benefits that it would derived. It cannot, therefore, be a reasonable or sensible approach to defining inter-state behaviour as maximising power cannot be the only approach to defining inter-state behaviour in international political system. Glaser (1996) states that any state that is primarily motivated by security must not try to maximise its relative power. He further states that a state by maximising power but failing to differentiate between offensive and defensive potential may not maximise militatry capabilities to defend and secure itself (Glaser, 1996).

Schweller (1996) observes that uncertainty about the rival states in inherent in structural anarchy. Further, if a state does not seel power, it means it is not seeking expanison either. As such, fear generated by a state is misplaced. If there is no intention to expand, then the question of security dilemma does not arise (Schweller, 1996). Relating these observation to the US strategy with respect to Iraq war, it could be stated that US failed in differentiating between offensive and defensive potential, but maximise and exploited its militatry capabilities. The strategy was expansionist and it did not address any security dilemma. Tripp (2013), in this regard, emphasises on identifying the genuine interest of states not based on misunderstanding of another state’s behaviour. She emphasises on determining whether the question of security of a state is assessed on dilemma a real threat or a misperceived one. However, a state behaviour must be determined by a system-based assumption (Tripp, 2013).

Recommended model

A recommended model would be a situation based structure defined on the line of the inherent characteristics of both the concepts guided with other concepts. This model may include defining parameters around the concept and level of threat to security, analysing conditions that may affect the state’s security, determination of genuine interest of the state and factual understanding of other states’ behaviour and adopting a balance between offensive and defensive balance. In this regard, the offence-defence balance may bring the desired balance. Lieber (2004) states that it may provide a strong appeal to tackle intense security competition amongst the states, and reduces such competition to an evitable consequence arising out of the structure of the international political system. This concept will also facilitate understanding and predicting issues, covering not only threats that realists rely on heavily but also the inherent power structure of states, which may disrupt the balance of power (Lieber, 2004).

The testimony to the concept of offence-defence balance may be found in the arms control agreement and policy consideration, which aim to control or prevent arms races, war and conflict (Lieber, 2004). Such balance may facilitate foreign policy debates covering agreements regarding arms control, nuclear deterrence, civil conflicts and other such military conflicts (Lieber, 2004). This should have had been applied in the Iraq strategy, which should have a combination of containment and preventive actions. A different observation and strategy would be that it is not just military power, as is use or sought by both the defensive and offensive realist to ensure security of states. There are alternatives in the form of economic, political and diplomatic strategy, which states could use to achieve the balance. Such an umbrella strategy comprising state's political, diplomatic, economic and military strategies based on offence-defence balance approach may provide a standard framework in accounting inter-state behaviour.


Considering the concepts of defensive and offensive Realism, the end goal of both the two aspects is to find a balance of power to co-exist in an international political society. However, either one of them could not stand alone in giving account of states’ behaviour and their perception, action and reaction toward other states’ behaviour.

Reading the two concepts together, there is an appeal towards adopting a state political structure that could imbibe the inherent components from both the concepts enabling a state to find suitable balance of power and relation with other sovereign states. This statement itself and as observed earlier demonstrates that neither defensive nor offensive Realism provides the most compelling account of inter-state behaviour. The recommended umbrella strategy may be able to define the level of power to maximise, removal of uncertainties, understanding of perception of states and give a more complete account of inter-state behaviour.

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Glaser, C., 1996. Realists as Optimists. In B. Frankel, ed. Realism: Restatements and Renewal. Frank Cass and Company Limite.

Glaser, C.L., 2014. The necessary and natural evolution of sttructural realism. In C. Elman & M. Jensen, eds. The Realism Reader. Routledge.

Hough, P., Moran, A., Pilbeam, B. & Stokes, W., 2020. International Security Studies: Theory and Practice. Routledge.

Lieber, K.A., 2004. Grasping the Technological Peace: The Offense-Defense Balance and International Security. In M.E. Brown, J.O.R. Cote, S.M. Lynn-Jones & S.E. Miller, eds. Offense, Defense, and War. MIT Press.

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Mearsheimer, J.L., 2013. Structural Realism. In International Relations Theories. Tim Dunne; Milja Kurki; Steve Smith.

Miller, B., 2017. International and Regional Security: The Causes of War and Peace. Routlegde.

Russell, J.A., 2009. Innovation and war: The U.S. miliary and the Iraq insurgency. In B. Rubin, ed. Conflict and Insurgency in the Contemporary Middle East. Routlegde.

Schweller, R., 1996. Neorealism and the Status Quo Bias. In Realism: Restatements and Renewal. Frank Cass and Company Limited.

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Tripp, E., 2013. Realism: the domination of security studies. E-International Relations Students , 14.

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