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


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.

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1 Sheehan, James, German History, 1770–1866 (New York: Oxford University Press, 1989), p. 67.

2 Fazal, Tanisha, ‘State Death in the International System’, International Organization, 58:2 (2004), pp. 311–44; Powell, Robert, ‘Game Theory, International Relations Theory, and the Hobbesian Stylization’, in Katznelson, Ira and Milner, Helen (eds), The State of the Discipline (New York: Norton, 2002), pp. 773–8; Brooks, Stephen, ‘Dueling Realisms’, International Organization, 51:3 (1997), pp. 449–53; Paul, Darel, ‘Sovereignty, Survival and the Westphalian Blind Alley in International Relations’, Review of International Studies, 25:2 (1999), pp. 217–31; Howes, Dustin E., ‘When States Choose to Die: Reassessing Assumptions About What States Want’, International Studies Quarterly, 47:4 (2003), pp. 669–92; Karen Ruth Adams, State Survival and State Death: International and Technological Contexts (Unpublished doctoral thesis, Berkeley: University of California, 2000).

3 Waltz, Kenneth N., Theory of International Politics (Reading, Mass: Addison-Wesley Pub. Co., 1979), pp. 91–2.

4 See, for example, Owen, John M. IV, The Clash of Ideas In World Politics (Princeton, New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 2010); Downes, Alexander and Lilley, Mary Lauren, ‘Overt Peace, Covert War?: Covert Intervention and the Democratic Peace, Security Studies, 19:2 (2010), pp. 266306.

5 Most notably, Mearsheimer, John J. and Walt, Stephen M., ‘An Unnecessary War’, Foreign Policy, 134 (2003), pp. 50–9.

6 Waltz, Theory, p. 66, empasis added. Furthermore, Waltz implies that neorealism can have explanatory power whenever the system in question is anarchic and comprised of units such as ‘tribes, petty principalities, empires, nations, or street gangs’. Ibid, p. 67.

7 In fact, both anarchy and survival assumptions are built on a foundational premise: states, which are in turn assumed to be sovereign and ‘functionally alike’ units, are the key actors in world politics and they could be treated as unitary actors.

8 See, for example, Posen, Barry, The Sources of Military Doctrine: France, Britain, and Germany between the World Wars (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1984); Snyder, Jack, Myths of Empire: Domestic Politics and International Ambition (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1991); Walt, Stephen, The Origins of Alliances (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1987); Mearsheimer, John, The Tragedy of Great Power Politics (New York, NY: W. W. Norton, 2001); Glaser, Charles, ‘Realists as Optimists’, International Security, 19:3 (1994/5), pp. 5090; Glaser, Charles, Rational Theory of International Politics: The Logic of Competition and Cooperation (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2010).

9 See for example, Buzan, Barry, People, States, and Fear: The National Security Problem in International Relations (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1983), pp. 36–9; Cederman, Erik Lars, Emergent Actors in World Politics: How States & Nations Develop and Dissolve (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1997), pp. 85, 175; Gilpin, Robert, War and Change in World Politics (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1981), pp. 497–8; Keohane, Robert O., Neorealism and Its Critics (New York: Columbia University Press, 1986), p. 194; Keohane, Robert O. and Martin, Lisa L., ‘The Promise of Institutionalist Theory’, International Security, 20:1 (1995), pp. 3951; Keohane, Robert O. and Nye, Joseph S., Power and Interdependence: World Politics in Transition (Boston: Little, Brown, 1977), p. 27; Mearsheimer, Tragedy, p. 32; Posen, The Sources of Military Doctrine, pp. 16, 24–5; Powell, Robert, In the Shadow of Power: States and Strategies in International Politics (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1999), pp. 44, 57; Walt, The Origins, p. 18; Waltz, Theory, pp. 91–2; Wendt, Alexander, Social Theory of International Politics (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1999), p. 235.

10 Morgenthau, Hans J., Politics Among Nations: The Struggle for Power and Peace (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1948).

11 See, for example, Glaser, ‘Realists’.

12 Waltz, Theory, pp. 91–2.

13 Mearsheimer, Tragedy, p. 31.

14 On balancing, see Nexon, Daniel H., ‘The Balance of Power in the Balance’, World Politics, 61:2 (2009), pp. 330–59.

15 Wendt, Alexander, ‘The State As A Person in International Theory’, Review of International Studies, 30:2 (2004), p. 295; Paul, ‘Sovereignty’, p. 218; Fearon, James, ‘Domestic Politics, Foreign Policy, and Theories of International Relations’, Annual Review of Political Science, 1 (1998), p. 299.

16 On Hobbes and IR theory, see Williams, Michael C., ‘Hobbes and International Relations: A Reconsideration’, International Organization, 50:2 (1996), pp. 213–36; Hobson, John M., The State and International Relations (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2000), pp. 21–2.

17 Williams, ‘Hobbes’, p. 232.

18 Brooks argues that neorealism smuggles first-image explanations into third image analysis. Brooks, ‘Dueling’.

19 Waltz, Theory, pp. 88–93; Fearon, ‘Domestic Politics’. The term ‘firm’ is used more than 100 times in TIP. For a similar approach to states, see Bean, Richard, ‘War and the Birth of the Nation State’, Journal of Economic History, 33 (1973), pp. 203–21.

20 Waltz, Theory, pp. 91–2.

21 Powell, ‘Game Theory’, p. 774. Also, Fearon, ‘Domestic Politics’, pp. 294, 305.

22 Waltz, Theory, p. 52.

23 Brooks, ‘Dueling’; Powell, ‘Game Theory’.

24 Paul, ‘Sovereignty’, p. 218.

25 Ibid, p. 221.

26 Ibid, p. 222.

27 Ibid, pp. 218–19.

28 Howes, ‘When States Choose to Die’, p. 671.

29 Ibid., p. 689. For an earlier and similar approach, see Krasner, Stephen D., Defending the National Interest: Raw Materials Investments and U.S. Foreign Policy (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1978).

30 Fazal, Tanisha M., State Death: The Politics and Geography of Conquest, Occupation, and Annexation. (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2007).

31 Fazal, State Death: The Politics, p. 25.

32 For example, in the most important revisiting of neorealist theory since Mearsheimer's Tragedy, Glaser does not even cite Fazal. Glaser, Rational Theory.

33 Even when realist scholars challenge TIP's original treatment of state preferences, the meaning of survival remains unproblematised. See, for example, Schweller, Randall, ‘Bandwagoning For Profit: Bringing The Revisionist State Back In’, International Security, 19:1 (1994), pp. 72107. Also see Brooks, Stephen, ‘Dueling Realisms’, International Organization, 51:3 (1997), pp. 449–53.

34 Mearsheimer, Tragedy, p. 31.

35 Waltz, Theory, p. 92. Charles Glaser slightly misquotes this statement by replacing ‘motive’ with ‘assumption’ such that the quotation appears ‘the survival assumption is taken as the ground of action in a world where the security of states is not assured’. Glaser, Rational Theory, p. 37, fn. 39.

36 See, foe example, Glaser, Rational Theory; Layne, Christopher, ‘The Unipolar Illusion: Why New Great powers Will Rise’, International Security, 17:4 (1993), p. 11.

37 Glaser, Rational Theory, p. 150, fn. 6. Also see Mearsheimer, John, ‘The False Promise of International Institutions’, International Security, 19:3 (1994/5), p. 11.

38 Also, see Glaser, Charles, ‘Structural Realism in a More Complex World’, Review of International Studies 29:3 (2003), pp. 403–14; Mastaduno, Michael, Ikenberry, John, and Lake, DavidToward a Realist Theory of State Action’, International Studies Quarterly, 33:4 (1989), pp. 457–74.

39 Betts, Richard K., ‘Must War Find a Way?: A Review Essay’, International Security, 24:2 (1999), p. 170.

40 A largely accepted definition of security would read ‘the probability that one's core interests will not be challenged or violated over some reasonable time span’. Snyder, Glenn H., ‘Mearsheimer's World: Offensive Realism and the Struggle for Security’, International Security, 27:1 (2002), p. 153. However, the definition itself suffers from ‘elastic’ concepts; ‘core interests’ can be defined as almost anything and how long a ‘reasonable time span’ is left unclear. Probably the best contemporary analysis of the use and abuse of the concept of security so far is Baldwin, David, ‘The Concept of Security’, Review of International Studies, 23:1 (1997), pp. 526. Also see Walt, Stephen, ‘The Renaissance of Security Studies’, International Studies Quarterly, 35:2 (1991), p. 213.

41 Mearsheimer, Tragedy, p. 31.

42 Toft, Monica Duffy, The Geography of Ethnic Violence: Identity, Interests, and the Indivisibility of Territory (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2003), pp. 19, 32.

43 See, for example, Huth, Paul K., Standing Your Guard: Territorial Disputes and International Conflict (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1996); Hensel, Paul R., ‘Territory: Theory and Evidence on Geography and Conflict’, in Vasquez, John A. (ed.), What Do We Know about War? (Lanham, MD: Rowman and Littlefield, 2000); Vasquez, John, The War Puzzle (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1993).

44 Agnew, John, ‘The Territorial Trap: The Geographical Assumptions of International Relations Theory’, Review of International Political Economy, 1:1 (1994), pp. 5380.

45 See, for example, Teschke, Benno, ‘Geopolitical Relations in the European Middle Ages: History and Theory’, International Organization, 52:2 (1998), pp. 325–58.

46 The seminal work on the territorial state in IR literature is Herz, John H., ‘Rise and Demise of The Territorial State’, World Politics, 9:4 (1957), pp. 473–93. Also see Spruyt, Hendrik, The Sovereign State and Its Competitors: An Analysis of Systems Change (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1994).

47 I take nation-state as a ‘state that is controlled by members of one dominant nation, in whose interests the state functions’. Kaiser, Robert J., ‘Geography’, The Encyclopedia of Nationalism, Volume 1 (San Diego: Academic Press, 2001), p. 315.

48 Luard, Evan, War in International Society: A Study in International Sociology (London: I. B. Tauris, 1986).

49 Mark Zacher argues that territorial integrity has become an important ‘norm’ for states only following World War II. Zacher, Mark, ‘The Territorial Integrity Norm’, International Organization, 55:2 (2001), pp. 215–50.

50 This conclusion is from Robert Powell, ‘Game Theory’. Also, see Fearon, James D., ‘Rationalist Explanations for War’, International Organization, 49:3 (1995), pp. 379411; Walter, Barbara F., ‘Explaining the Intractability of Territorial Conflict’, International Studies Review, 5:4 (2003), pp. 137–53.

51 For a similar realist interpretation of the origins of the European Union, see Rosato, Sebastian, Europe United: Power Politics and the Making of the European Community (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2011).

52 Paul, ‘Sovereignty’, p. 221.

53 See, for example, Mearsheimer and Walt, ‘An Unnecessary War’.

54 On this distinction, see Snyder, Glenn H., ‘Mearsheimer's World – Offensive Realism and the Struggle for Security: A Review Essay’, International Security, 27:1 (2002), pp. 149–73.

55 Brooks, ‘Dueling’.

56 Different theories building on different interpretations are not, as many neorealists claim, making the same assumptions. Powell, ‘Game Theory’, p. 777.

57 On the importance of conceptual clarity for generating theories, see Laudan, Larry, Progress and its Problems: Toward a Theory of Scientific Growth (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1977); Johnson, James D., ‘Conceptual Problems as Obstacles to Theoretical Progress in Political Science: Four Decades of Political Culture Research’, Journal of Theoretical Politics, 15 (2003), pp. 87115.

58 Waltz, Theory, p. 92.

59 Luard, War; Kagan, Donald, On the Origins of War and the Preservation of Peace (New York: Doubleday, 1995). My argument here is not that honour, however defined, plays no role in the conduct of world politics today. On honour and IR, O'Neill, Barry, Honor, Symbols, and War (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1999).

60 See, for example, Gilpin, War and Change; Wolforth, William, ‘Unipolarity, Status Competition and Great Power War’, World Politics, 611 (2009), pp. 2857.

61 Mercer, Jonathan, Reputation and International Relations (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1996); Tingley, Dustin H. and Walter, Barbara F., ‘The Effect of Repeated Play on Reputation Building: An Experimental Approach’, International Organization, 65:2 (2011), pp 343–65.

62 Rosecrance, Richard, The Rise of the Trading State: Commerce and Conquest in the Modern World (New York: Basic Books, 1986).

63 Mearsheimer, Tragedy, p. 31.

64 Note that these two elements can be thought of as ‘minimum’ requirements for what states are concerned about.

65 On ‘strong’ versus ‘weak’ states, see Migdal, Joel, Strong Societies and Weak States: State-Society Relations and State Capabilities in the Third World (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1988). On infrastructural power, see Mann, Michael, The Sources of Social Power (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1986).

66 The dotted frontier represents a ‘weak state’ where autonomy is strongest in the capitol but gradually declines as we move towards the borders. Such configuration would be in line with, for example, Jeffrey Herbst's representation of ‘power gradient’ in most African states or the relatively weak ‘infrastructural power’ of the territorial states of Europe during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. The frontier to the farthest left, in relation, would refer to so-called failing or failed states such as Somalia circa 1991 where, despite the existence of internationally recognised borders, state's authority barely extends outside the center and does not exist at all in some regions. Herbst, Jeffrey, States and Power in Africa: Comparative Lessons in Authority and Control (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2000). For a similar approach, see Atzili, Boaz, Good Fences, Bad Neighbors: Border Fixity and International Conflict (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2012).

67 Wright, Quincy, A Study of War (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1964), p. 154.

68 Krasner, Stephen, Sovereignty: Organized Hypocrisy (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1999).

69 On Weber's reading of the modern state, see Swedberg, Richard, Max Weber and the Idea of Economic Sociology (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1998), p. 56; Skocpol, Theda, States and Social Revolutions: A Comparative Analysis of France, Russia and China (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1979), pp. 30–1; Mastanduno et al., ‘Toward a Realist Theory’.

70 Glaser, ‘Realists’, p. 55.

71 Note that such specification does not mean that neorealist framework should be replaced with a focus on the ‘private costs and benefits’ that leaders look into when making their foreign policy choices. For an example of such approach, see Chiozza, Giacomo and Goemans, Hein. E., Leaders and International Conflict (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2011), p. 4.

72 See, for example, Copeland, The Origins; Mearsheimer, Tragedy; Mearsheimer and Walt, ‘An Unnecessary War’.

73 On this issue, see Byman, Daniel, and Polack, Kenneth, ‘Let Us Now Praise Great Men: Bringing the Statesman Back In’, International Security, 25:4 (2001), pp. 1046.

74 Howes suggests that an emphasis on ‘regime survival’ can be traced to Machiavelli. Howes, ‘When States Choose to Die’, p. 669.

75 Waltz, Kenneth N., ‘The Origins of War in Neorealist Theory’, in Rotberg, Robert I. and Rabb, Theodore K. (eds), The Origin and Prevention of Major Wars (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1989), p. 39.

76 I define microfoundations in this context as causal explanations of ‘the behavior of the political actors under study’. On this definition, see Achen, Chris, ‘Toward a New Political Methodology: Microfoundations and ART’, Annual Review of Political Science, 5 (2002), p. 437. Also, see Little, Daniel, Microfoundations, Method and Causation: On the Philosophy of the Social Sciences (New Brunswick, NJ: Transaction Publishers, 1998).

77 Stephen Walt claims that neorealism needs to pay further attention to developing microfoundations that would be consistent with the neorealist programme. Walt, Stephen, ‘The Enduring Relevance of the Realist Tradition’, in Katznelson, Ira and Milner, Helen (eds), The State of the Discipline (New York: W. W. Norton and Co., 2002), pp. 197230.

78 Chiozza and Goemans. p. 5. Also, see Goemans, Hein E., ‘Fighting for Survival: The Fate of Leaders and the Duration of War’, Journal of Conflict Resolution, 44:5 (2000), pp. 555–79. Chiozza and Goemans' arguments are inspired by and in fact improve upon Bueno de Mesquita et al,'s ‘selectorate’ theory. Bueno de Mesquita, Bruce, Morrow, James D., Siverson, Randolph M., and Smith, Alastair, The Logic of Political Survival (Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 2003).

79 Owen, The Clash, p. 2.

80 Gellner, Nations, p. 1. In this context, I define nation as a ‘socially mobilized body of individuals, believing – or imagining – themselves to be united by some set of characteristics that differentiate them from outsiders, striving to create or maintain their own state’. Haas, Ernst B., ‘What is Nationalism and Why Should We Study It?’, International Organization, 40:3 (1986), p. 726.

81 On nationalism see Anderson, Benedict, Imagined Communities (London: Verso, 1983); Gellner, Ernest, Nations and Nationalism (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1983); Hobsbawm, E. J., Nations and Nationalism Since 1780: Programme, Myth, Reality (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1990); Brubaker, Rogers, Nationalism reframed: Nationhood and the National Question in the New Europe (Cambridge & New York: Cambridge University Press, 1996); Smith, Anthony D., The Ethnic Origins of Nations (Blackwell: Oxford, 1986); Deutsch, Karl, Nationalism and Social communication: An Inquiry into the Foundations of Nationality (Cambridge: MIT Press, 1953); Breuilly, John, Nationalism and the State (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1985); Hechter, Michael, Containing Nationalism (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000).

82 Also see Hall, Rodney Bruce, National Collective Identity: Social Constructs and International Systems (New York: Columbia University Press, 1999); Herz, John, ‘The Territorial State Revisited – Reflections on the Future of the Nation-State’, Polity, 1 (1968), pp. 23–6; Bukovansky, Mlada, Legitimacy and Power Politics (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2002).

83 Fearon, James D., ‘Domestic Political Audiences and the Escalation of International Disputes’, American Political Science Review, 88:3 (1994), pp. 577–92.

84 On nationalism and territoriality, see Penrose, Jan, ‘Nations, States and Homelands: Territory and Territoriality in Nationalist Thought’, Nations and Nationalism, 8:3 (2002), pp. 277–97; Nootens, Geneviève, ‘Liberal Nationalism in Italy’, Nations and Nationalism, 12:1 (2006), pp. 3550.

85 Walt, Stephen, ‘The Progressive Power of Realism’, American Political Science Review, 91:4 (1997), p. 932.

86 See, for example, Fischer, Markus, ‘Feudal Europe, 800–1300: Communal Discourse and Conflictual Practices’, International Organization, 46:2 (1992), pp. 427–66; Copeland, Dale, The Origins of Major War (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2000), pp. 209–34.

87 Neorealism already attributes significant, if not necessarily structured, attention to nationalim. See, for example, Mearsheimer, Tragedy; Van Evera, Stephen, ‘Hypotheses on Nationalism and War’, International Security, 18:4 (1994), pp. 539; Pape, Robert A., Dying to Win: The Strategic Logic of Suicide Terrorism (New York: Random House, 2005). Also, see Posen, Barry, ‘Nationalism, the Mass Army, and Military Power’, International Security, 18:2 (1993), pp. 80124.

88 Owen, The Clash, p. 2.

89 Bukovansky, Legitimacy.

90 Luard, War.

91 Cederman, Lars-Erik, Warren, T. Camber, and Sornette, Didier, ‘Testing Clausewitz: Nationalism, Mass Mobilization, and the Severity of War’, International Organization, 65:4 (2011), pp. 605–38.

92 Schweller, Randall L., ‘Neoclassical Realism and State Mobilization’, in Lobell, Steven E., Ripsman, Norrin M., and Taliaferro, Jeffrey W. (eds), Neoclassical Realism, The State, amd Foreign Policy (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2009), p. 229.

93 See, for example, Black, Jeremy, European Warfare: 1494–1660 (London: Routledge, 2002).

94 For a similar, if not neorealist, approach to the African states, see Herbst, States and Power.

95 Mearsheimer and Walt, ‘An Unnecessary War’.

96 Owen, The Clash, p. 3.

97 Alexander B. Downes and Jonathan Monten, ‘FIRCed to be Free: Foreign-Imposed Regime Change and Democratization’, Paper prepared for the International Studies Association annual meeting, New Orleans (2010). Also, see Fazal, State Death, p. 77.

98 Ibid., p. 3.

99 See, for example, Rosato, Sebastian, ‘The Flawed Logic of Democratic Peace Theory’, The American Political Science Review, 97:4 (2003), pp. 590–1.

100 Owen, The Clash, p. 8.

101 Note that my claim is not that neorealists are missing such insights. My argument is that, without specific conceptualisation of the survival assumption, it is not clear if these insights follow from the neorealist logic or are merely ad hoc modifications to it.

102 Examples are too many to list here, but some are soft balancing, balance of threat/risk/interest, omnibalancing, bandwagoning for profit, piling-on, and leash-slipping. See Pape, Robert Anthony, ‘Soft Balancing against the United States’, International Security, 30:1 (2005), pp. 745; Walt, Origins; Taliaferro, Jeffrey W., ‘Power Politics and the Balance of Risk: Hypotheses on Great Power Intervention in the Periphery’, Political Psychology, 25:2 (2004), pp. 177211; Schweller, Randall L., Unanswered Threats: Political Constraints on the Balance of Power (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University, 2006); David, Steven R., ‘Explaining Third World Alignment’, World Politics, 43:2 (1991), pp. 233–56; Schweller, ‘Bandwagoning for Profit’; Layne, Christopher, ‘The Unipolar Illusion Revisited: The Coming End of the United States' Unipolar Moment’, International Security, 31:2 (2006), pp. 741.

103 See, for example, Vasquez, John A., ‘The Realist Paradigm and Degenerative versus Progressive Research Programs: An Appraisal of Neotraditional Research on Waltz's Balancing Proposition’, The American Political Science Review, 91:4 (1997), pp. 899912.

104 On these issues, see Collier, David and Levitsky, Steven, ‘Democracy with Adjectives: Conceptual Innovation in Comparative Research’, World Politics, 49:3 (1997), pp. 430–51.

105 Moravcsik, Andrew, ‘Taking Preferences Seriously: A Liberal Theory of International Politics’, International Organization, 51:4 (1997), pp. 513–53. Also see Rose, Gideon, ‘Neoclassical Realism and Theories of Foreign Policy’, World Politics, 51:1 (1998), pp. 144–72.

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