The Rule of Force in World Affairs

The doctrine of Realism

Before I write about the second book Regions and Powers by Barry Buzan and Ole Wæver I want to talk about realism for pedagogical reasons. I have written about realism before but only tangentially and without a systematic treatment of the theory.

The dominant formulation of realism (called neorealism or structural realism) was given by Kenneth Waltz in his magnum opus Theory of International Politics which was published in 1979. Waltz lays down a systemic theory of international politics. As opposed to a reductionist theory–a theory in which the properties of constituent units (in this case states) account for what one would observe at the system level–a systemic theory posits that system structure itself (how constituent units sit in relation to one another) has implications about what sort of regularities one would observe. [All quotations below are from Waltz unless otherwise specified.] 

The fundamental assumption is that the international security order is characterized by anarchy. That is, it is a purely self-help system with no authority above the actors to enforce any rules or agreements. Therefore, states fear each other and seek to ensure their survival: “Because some states may at any time use force, all states must be prepared to do so–or live at the mercy of the militarily vigorous neighbours. Among states, the state of nature is a state of war. This is not meant in the sense that war constantly occurs but in the sense that, with each state deciding for itself whether or not to use force, war may at any time break out.” According to William Feller, “It is not advisable to disarm in relation to one’s rivals.” Why not? “Because the potentiality of renewed warfare always exists.” 

The theory is isomorphic to the economics textbook theory of the market. In fact, Waltz is explicit about this connection: “International-political systems, like economic markets, are formed by the coaction of self-regarding units…[they] are individualist in origin, spontaneously generated, and unintended. In both systems structures are formed by the coaction of units. Whether the units live, prosper, or die depends on their own efforts. Both systems are formed and maintained on a principle of self-help that applies to the units.” Moreover, since international politics is more of a anarchic system than economic markets (which operate within laws and regulations) competitive pressure is more pronounced in the former. This then leads to the formation of balances of power. “Balance-of-power theory is micro theory precisely in the economist’s sense.” Furthermore, just as microeconomic theory does not give a theory of the firm but that of the market, neorealism is a theory of the international system not a theory of foreign policy of states.  

Now, since the distribution of power is so heavily skewed, in any given period, the international security system is dominated by a handful of great powers in whose shadow all the other states conduct their affairs. The number of great powers–the polarity of the system–has important implications about the constraints and opportunities available to units. One then talks about bipolar systems being more stable than multi-polar systems and so on and so forth. 

John J. Mearsheimer is a proponent of an important variant of structural realism that he calls offensive realism. He laid out this theory in his impressive book The Tragedy of Great Power Politics. He contends that what matters in conflict between great powers is land-based military power (navies and air forces are important in as much as they support the armies and deliver them in the battlefield). He argues further that the stopping power of water is such that it necessarily makes off-shore powers like Great Britain and the United States balancers instead of potential hegemons. That is, they can’t even hope to conquer great powers on the continent and conversely are insulated from the territorial designs of continental powers. Off-shore balancers are thus natural status-quo powers and that this option is not open to Eurasian powers who are necessarily surrounded by other great powers that remain a threat unless eliminated. Thus in his formulation, all great powers want to be regional hegemons like the United States in the Western hemisphere, the only such example in history and a position acquired quite consciously in the course of the 19th century.

He goes on to show how war becomes likely when a potential regional hegemon arises and threatens the balance of power. Until the Second World War, the international system was multi-polar. This system structure was challenged by potential hegemons like Napoleonic France, Wilhelmine Germany, Imperial Japan, Nazi Germany, and the Soviet Union. All of these potential hegemons prompted the other powers to form alliances to balance and contain them, while the last brought in the United States permanently into the Eurasian balance of power and transformed the system to a bipolar one.

While most realists are content to provide a positive theory, Mearsheimer alarmingly contends that offensive realism is also a prescriptive theory. This is how states ought to behave “because it outlines the best way to survive in a dangerous world”.     

A Unipolar system

Since the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1989, the world has been unipolar. This does not mean that the United States is dominant over every corner of the globe or that it can get its way on every issue. It is unipolar in the technical sense of neorealism–no other power can threaten the US and all other states live in the shadow of US power. Or as Wohlforth puts it “No other major power is in a position to follow any policy that depends for its success on prevailing against the United States in a war or an extended rivalry.” To be sure, much of the rhetoric surrounding the Cold War was just propaganda. The Soviet Union was never much of a threat and barely managed to constrain US power outside its immediate vicinity. Nevertheless, the Soviet Union was the dominant military power in Eurasia and a potential hegemon. Although it had half the income of the United States it matched it in land-based military power by spending twice as much of its GDP (12% vs 6%) on defence. With the collapse of Soviet power, no combination of states can threaten the security of the United States.

Unipolarity is so unprecedented that it wasn’t anticipated by any realist. Waltz, writing exactly a decade before the advent of unipolarity, talks about systems with two, three, four, even five powers but does not even say a word about a unipolar one. He seems to imply that the minimum number needed for a balance of power system is two. Realists quickly moved to pronounce the system highly unstable. There was a lot of talk about “a unipolar moment”, and how a multipolar world was just around the corner with new great powers just a decade or so away (Japan, China, even poor India). Even Waltz argued in a 1993 paper about how “As nature abhors a vacuum, so international politics abhors unbalanced power.”

This is nonsense for a very realist reason. What counts is not the desire of other aspirants to balance the US, what matters is the capabilities of the potential great powers. Until another state can match US military power, the world will remain technically unipolar. In a paper published in 1999, William C. Wohlforth argued that the current unipolar order is in fact quite stable and foresees no change in the system structure in the decades to come. This is now well understood.


Neorealism is the dominant theory of international security for good reason. That does not mean that it does not have significant drawbacks. The most significant one is that it concentrates exclusively on the system level–ignoring all the lower levels (interregional, regional and domestic) that have their own dynamics. This is because it treats great powers as “billiard balls distinguished only by their size”. In particular, cartographic reasons for security competition are swept under the carpet (for instance, Germany threatens Britain and France but not China while Japan threatens China but not Britain). I will take this up when I write about regional security complex theory in my next post.

Another major drawback of realism is that even if one zooms down to the regional level (say in the MidEast or South Asia), balance of power analysis cannot account for why some states are securitized (seen as threats) while others aren’t. For instance, why does Pakistan securitize India and not Iran? Why does Syria securitize Israel but not Egypt? Why does Israel securitize Egypt and Syria but not Turkey? Such questions can’t even be posed in a purely neorealist framework. The filter is too coarse. To do this one needs a thicker description which is provided by securitization studies.

Finally, if we take the isomorphism to market theory seriously (as we should), one immediately notices that the right analogy to the unipolar world is that of a natural monopoly. In particular, the hegemon has enormous wiggle room in foreign policy. Just as a monopolist faces very little competitive pressure and enjoys an enormous surplus, the hegemon has little to worry about in security matters. This opens up a lot of space to pursue other goals. On this neorealism has little to say since it is a systemic theory (market theory as opposed to a theory of the firm). What one needs is a theory of the state: what constitutes US interests, what are American values and so on. Unfortunately, the relevant model for the political economy of the United States is the one outlined by Thomas Ferguson.      


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