Offensive Realism

In the book, The Tragedy of Great Power Politics (2001), John J. Mearsheimer spells out a simplistic theory about international relations called Offensive Realism. Offensive Realism is at its core a theory about political motivation. In its purest outline, it postulates that states put a high premium on security and act self-interestedly because of the non-existence of a central authority above all states. This ordering condition, referred to as a structural anarchy, constrains states considerably and leaves them with extremely limited options: States are, we are told, like “prisoners trapped in an iron cage”. A fixed set of motives, including reasons and inclinations, ensue which impel a distinct pattern of behavior. Eager only to survive, rational states are prompted to constantly maximize power and relative advantage. This pursuit is triggered by mutual uncertainty, distrust and fear. Since all states are revisionist, power competition is unavoidable and the threat of interstate violence is continuously on call. Offensive measures, often military, are to be expected and war is a possible outcome, ultimately explainable as pursuit of self-defense.

It is instructive to formulate Offensive Realism as a set of propositions.

1. The international system is anarchic

2. States are the units of the system and behave rationally

3. Survival is the primary goal of states

4. All states are uncertain about other states’ intentions (“the other mind problem”)

5. All states are aware of the destructiveness of military capabilities and pay close attention to other states’ actual and potential military possessions, which they take as evidence of power

6. The combination of propositions 1, 3, 4 and 5 fosters fear, even if threatening signals are weak, inconclusive, virtually absent or open to interpretation

7. The combination of propositions 6 and 2, (i.e. fear and rationality), encourages states to look for opportunities to maximize their share of power, by military means if necessary, because greater power is believed to be the best way to secure own survival

8. Since all states employ the same logic and prefer dominating the system, a power competition between states ensues

9. One state’s gain in the power competition is another state’s loss (zero-sum game)

10. Awareness of proposition 9 combined with a concern that other states will succeed in their quest for more power, compels states to pursue policies maximizing their relative power, tightening the spiral of competition

11. Use of military force is considered to be a useful and legitimate way of power maximizing

12. Consequently, the international system is on the brink, or in a state, of war.

Offensive Realism is worth thinking through, both because it tersely captures some important features of international politics, and because it fails to account for frequently occurring events in the international system.

By Johannes Rø