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Making sense of survival: refining the treatment of state preferences in neorealist theory

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  11 February 2013


The assumption that ‘states' primary goal is survival’ lies at the heart of the neorealist paradigm. A careful examination of the assumption, however, reveals that neorealists draw upon a number of distinct interpretations of the ‘survival assumption’ that are then treated as if they are the same, pointing towards conceptual problems that surround the treatment of state preferences. This article offers a specification that focuses on two questions that highlight the role and function of the survival assumption in the neorealist logic: (i) what do states have to lose if they fail to adopt self-help strategies?; and (ii) how does concern for relevant losses motivate state behaviour and affect international outcomes? Answering these questions through the exploration of governing elites' sensitivity towards regime stability and territorial integrity of the state, in turn, addresses the aforementioned conceptual problems. This specification has further implications for the debates among defensive and offensive realists, potential extensions of the neorealist logic beyond the Westphalian states, and the relationship between neorealist theory and policy analysis.

Copyright © British International Studies Association 2013 

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