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The evolution of offensive realism: Survival under anarchy from the Pleistocene to the present

  • Dominic D. P. Johnson (a1) and Bradley A. Thayer (a2)

Offensive realism, a theory of international relations, holds that states are disposed to competition and conflict because they are self-interested, power maximizing, and fearful of other states. Moreover, it argues that states are obliged to behave this way because doing so favors survival in the international system. Debate continues as to whether modern states actually do, or should, behave in this way, but we are struck by a different question. In this article, we ask whether the three core assumptions about behavior in offensive realism—self-help, power maximization, and outgroup fear—have any basis in scientific knowledge about human behavioral evolution. We find that these precise traits are not only evolutionarily adaptive but also empirically common across the animal kingdom, especially in primate and human societies. Based on these findings, we hypothesize that states behave as offensive realists predict not just because of anarchy in the modern international system but also because of the legacy of our evolution. In short, offensive realism may really be describing the nature of the human species more than the nature of the international system. If our hypothesis is correct, then evolutionary theory offers the following: (1) a novel ultimate cause of offensive realist behavior; (2) an extension of offensive realism to any domain in which humans compete for power; and (3) an explanation for why individual leaders themselves, and not just states, seek power. However, a key insight from evolution is that the primacy of self-help, power maximization, and outgroup fear does not necessarily condemn individuals or groups to competition and conflict; rather, these traits can in themselves give rise to cooperation and alliances.

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Corresponding author
Correspondence: Dominic D. P. Johnson, Alastair Buchan Professor of International Relations, Department of Politics and International Relations, University of Oxford, St. Antony’s College, 62 Woodstock Road, Oxford OX2 6JF, United Kingdom. Email:
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