Difference between Defensive and Offensive realism

Realism is one of the predominant theories of international relations. Realism emphasizes that the international system is anarchic, with no overarching authority to regulate interactions between sovereign states. States act to ensure their security and survival in this anarchic environment. There are debates within realism about how states pursue security and power. Defensive realism argues that states seek only enough power to maintain their security. They are “security maximizers” focused primarily on deterring threats rather than expanding their power. Offensive realism contends that states maximize power as a means to ensure security. They constantly seek opportunities to expand their power and influence, with hegemony as the ultimate goal. This article will outline the key differences between defensive realism and offensive realism – their core arguments, policy implications, and criticisms. It aims to provide an overview of these major strands of realist thought in international relations theory.

Defensive and Offensive Realism

 Defensive Realism

Defensive realists argue that states are primarily concerned with maintaining their security, not maximizing power. The key proponent of defensive realism is Kenneth Waltz, who argues in his book Theory of International Politics that the international system encourages states to pursue moderate policies.

Waltz contends that states aim to preserve the status quo rather than maximize power. This is because:

  •  Any increase in a state’s power threatens other states, who will then balance against it to prevent it from gaining hegemony. This makes the quest for global domination irrational and extremely difficult.
  • The costs of expansion usually outweigh the benefits. Conquest and imperialism are not profitable in the modern era.
  • Defensive realists believe an international equilibrium is possible through balancing power. States can feel relatively secure without constantly trying to maximize power.
  • States are not inherently aggressive or power-maximizing. They only seek sufficient power to deter attacks and protect their sovereignty and interests.

Overall defensive realists take states as certain moderate status quo powers that focus on security and survival not on maximizing offensive capabilities or opportunities. States compete for power out of fear and mistrust, but systemic limitations make global hegemony impossible.

 Key Principles of Defensive Realism

  • Defensive realists argue that states seek security, not power. Of course, these authors contend that states are “security maximizers,” not hegemonic seekers.
  • Defensive realists argue that states focus on maintaining the status quo and ensuring their continued survival. They gain power and abilities to protect their security rather than to increase their power or seek hegemony.
  • Defensive realists argue that the purpose of states is to maintain their territorial integrity and security. States only desire a sufficient amount of power that would allow them to defend their territory and people. They do not continuously look for chances to expand and conquer territories as the offensive realists claim.
  • Moreover, defensive realists argue that states are status quo powers that want to maintain the order of the status quo. They have no revisionist motives for overturning and changing the world order. States are conservative forces that desire stability and survival.
  • In summary, defensive realists contend that rational states seek security and personal protection as opposed to power and dominance. Their main goal is to safeguard their people and boundaries. As a means to safeguard the status quo, power accrues.

Criticism of Defensive Realism

The critics of defensive realism disapprove of defensive realism for being fundamentally wrong in its assumptions and reasoned logic. The key criticisms are:

  1. Can states ever be secure enough? – Defensive realists contend that states desire only sufficient security and power to preserve the status quo. However, critics argue that there is no specific moment when states would ever feel fully secure or satisfied with the power they possess. The drive to security and power can be unlimited.
  2. Security dilemma- The security dilemma is what happens states may develop their defense buildups and policies in an attempt to improve their security, but these builds ups and actions might look at other states ‘ threatening behavior. This can generate arms races and conflict even if all states pursue security alone. Defensive realism does not provide a sufficient solution to this dilemma.
  3. Balance of power failures- Defensive realism assumes that balances of power form automatically, but historically balances of power have been difficult to achieve. Offensive advantages, miscalculations, or buck-passing can prevent timely balancing against rising powers.

Overall, critics argue that defensive realism relies heavily on the idea that states are easily satisfied with security and rarely seek expansion. However, the history of international relations indicates more aggression, revisionism, and conflict. Defensive realism’s assumptions about state motivations are limiting and flawed.

 Offensive Realism

Offensive realism is most closely associated with political scientist John Mearsheimer and his book The Tragedy of Great Power Politics (2001). Offensive realists argue that states are not satisfied with the status quo and instead seek to maximize their power and achieve hegemony.

The key principles of offensive realism include:

  • States constantly seek opportunities to maximize their power relative to other states. Their ultimate goal is to achieve hegemony, which Mearsheimer defines as becoming the only great power in the system.
  • It is impossible to be certain about other states’ intentions. Since any state may have aggressive intentions in the future, states cannot allow rival powers to gain more power. This makes stability and equilibrium through balancing impossible.
  • Conquest pays off. According to offensive realists, states that start wars end up benefiting versus those that remain on the defensive.
  • All great powers are revisionist, seeking opportunities to alter the balance of power in their favor. Status quo powers tend not to achieve great power status in the first place.

Mearsheimer argues that states should constantly look for opportunities to gain power over potential rivals. He suggests offensive options like war, blackmail, bait and bleed tactics, and bloodletting to weaken opponents and improve one’s relative power.

Key Principles of Offensive Realism

John Mearsheimer is the leading proponent of offensive realists who believe that states seek to maximize power rather than security. They are always looking for chances to further increase their power, and hegemony is what they ultimately aim for.

  • States can never be sure about other states’ intentions and this makes it difficult to achieve equilibrium in international politics through balancing.
  • States are always in search of opportunities to gain more power and hegemony, and the latter is beneficial as it ensures survival.
  • Conquering is profitable for states because war at the beginning of it means winning. States that have offensive realism tendencies are naturally revisionist.
  • Hegemony ensures security and survival. Since states can never know other states’ intentions, they should maximize power to ensure their security.

In offensive realism, the key principle is that states are power maximizers, not security maximizers. They are in their relentless quest to seize power over competitors and hegemony, dominion stands as their ultimate end goals. This worldview views conquest and initiation of war as good.

 Policy Options- According to offensive realism, states need to have several policy options to increase their power to establish their hegemony and at the same time weaken the power of their opponent. These include:

War- Such a state could directly achieve power and weaken opponents by launching an outright war. On the one hand, war could be very costly to states so states have to weigh if the anticipated benefits are greater than the risks and costs. Offensive realists believe that victory through war may be beneficial for the aggressor.

Blackmail-  Blackmail involves making explicit threats to force an opponent to make concessions. For example, a state may threaten military action if demands are not met. The success of blackmail depends on the credibility of threats. Offensive realists argue that rational states should use blackmail if they can achieve aims without actual war.

Buck-Passing-  When threatened by a rising power, states may “pass the buck” by getting another state to bear the costs of deterring or balancing against the threat. This allows the buck-passing state to conserve resources. Offensive realists argue this is a viable strategy for threatened states seeking to increase relative power.

Bait and Bleed- This involves supporting a rival state in a war against the state’s rival. The goal is to have the two rivals “bleed” each other through prolonged conflict, weakening both sides relative to the “baiter” state. Offensive realists argue this bloodletting strategy can be an effective way for states to gain power.

Bloodletting- When a rival state goes to war, offensive realists argue the optimal strategy is to prolong the conflict as long as possible. This “bloodletting” through a costly, dragging war can significantly weaken the rival relative to one’s state. Prolonging wars can thus be an important power-maximizing policy.

Criticisms of Offensive Realism

Offensive realism has faced criticism on moral and practical grounds. The primary moral criticism is that the pursuit of hegemony often involves aggressive policies that can lead to conflict, suffering, and loss of life. Specifically, the policy options suggested by offensive realists, such as war, blackmail, bait and bleed, and bloodletting, are inherently immoral. From a humanistic perspective, these policies prioritize state power over human welfare.

In addition, the assumption that states are purely rational actors concerned only with maximizing power overlooks the moral dimension of international relations. Leaders must consider not just strategic benefits, but ethical costs of policies as well. The single-minded pursuit of self-interest is not universally accepted as appropriate, either domestically or internationally.

On a practical level, some argue that hegemony is rarely achieved and attempts often backfire. Power transitions are complex, and states face domestic constraints on exercising unlimited power. Furthermore, in the modern era, conquest does not necessarily result in increased power and influence. Overall, critics argue that offensive realism promotes morally problematic policies based on questionable assumptions. There are ethical and practical reasons to reject the maximal pursuit of power and seek cooperation.

 Comparison between Defensive and Offensive Realism

Defensive and offensive realism differ primarily in their view of the fundamental goals and behavior of states.

Defensive realists argue that states simply want to maintain their security and are not inherently expansionist. States may take actions to increase their power, but only for defensive purposes and not to achieve hegemony. Defensive realists believe that the international system encourages restraint, as conquest is often not beneficial, and aggressive expansionism will be checked by balancing coalitions.

In contrast, offensive realists see states as power maximizers that constantly seek opportunities to gain greater power over their rivals. The ultimate goal is hegemony, as this is the best way for a state to ensure its security. Offensive realists believe states are inherently threatening to each other and can never be certain of other states’ intentions. This encourages aggressive expansionism and jostling for power and advantage.

These differing assumptions about state goals and behavior lead defensive and offensive realists to profoundly different conclusions about the nature of the international system. There is room for stability and avoiding conflict for the defensive realists. Offensive realists contend that the international system promotes aggressive expansionism and war as states endeavor to gain more dominance and the upper hand.


Offensive realism asks states to seek more power, while defensive realism calls for less power. Defensive realists say that states want just enough power to ensure their security and offensive realists believe that states want as much power as they can get to increase the odds of their survival. In the international system as viewed by defensive realists, a stable balance of power is attainable when states pursue limited objectives. Offensive realists argue that the quest for hegemony is inevitable because states can never be in a position to know each other’s intentions. Defensive realists argue that the costs of conquest typically outweigh the benefits while offensive realists believe that war and expansion can be worthwhile. Defensive realists contend that states are principally focused on maintaining the status quo whereas offensive realists maintain states are always on the lookout for occasions to strengthen their power at the expense of others. Motivations of the state and the nature of the international system are the basis of the fundamental disagreement of the debate between defensive and offensive realism in international relations theory. The fact that these competing perspectives continue to be important also highlights the difficulty of the prediction of state behavior under anarchy and uncertainty. Although the more radical versions of offensive realism are no longer taken seriously, aspects of the core arguments of this theory allow us to understand how aggressive policies are still executed by major powers.