Realism and Strategic Theory

Realism, There is an essential unity to all strategic experiences in all periods of history because nothing vital to the nature and function of war and strategy changes. Strategic theory is the branch of social theory concerned with the use of force to achieve the goals of one community in conflict with others. It explores how to employ armed forces to advance political, social, economic, cultural, or ideological interests.

Strategic theory offers a lens through which to view the interplay of force and diplomacy between actors, and to understand how power is leveraged in pursuit of objectives Strategic theory does not prescribe what ought to be done – this is dependent on the values, means and goals of an actor Thus, strategic theory is a conceptual elucidation of strategic behaviour in general, rather than a prescription to follow any strategy.


The notion of Strategic Theory as a method of analysis has permeated into the wider domain of International Relations and Political Studies via the work of scholars like Bernard Brodie and Thomas Schelling and has been increasingly employed as a tool to assist in the comprehension of decision-making, particularly for the use of military power. One of the best statements about the utility of Strategic Theory is provided by Harry Yarger 

“Strategic theory opens the mind to all the possibilities and forces at play, prompting us to consider the costs and risks of our decisions and weigh the consequences of those of our adversaries, allies, and others”

The Key Features of Strategic Theory

1: The study of ends, ways, and means:

Strategy is concerned with how available means are employed to achieve desired ends. Analysis using Strategic Theory therefore involves the study of the ‘use of available resources to gain any objective’ Here, the term ‘resources’ (the ‘means’) refers not simply to the tangible elements of power, but also to the many intangible factors that might impose themselves on a decision-maker – most notably the degree of will that an actor can mobilize in the pursuit of its goals.

2: Interdependence of decision-making

A second key feature of Strategic Theory is that decision-making is influenced by the existence of a willful adversary set on achieving its ends This in turn means that the quality of strategic decision-making must be measured not against any fixed standard of efficacy, but in light of the response it can be expected to elicit from an adversary.

3: Interdependence of decision-making

This feature and the uncertainty it causes distinguishes strategy from administrative behavior, and  it is the consideration of how interdependent decisions are reached in a fluid environment that provides Strategic Theory with a great deal of its richness  Many of the key insights provided by thinkers like Clausewitz and Thomas Schelling are based on the proposition that strategic decision-making is dependent on the choices & actions of others in the political system

4: The study of the political actor as the central unit of analysis

Principally, strategic theorists concern themselves with the calculations of what is termed ‘unitary’ political actors, be they states, sub-state entities, or any other social grouping Strategic Theory analysis is interested in describing the choices available to such actors and evaluating the quality of their decision-making. Thus, strategic theorists will invariably attempt to trace the line of thinking of a particular political entity to comprehend how it seeks to achieve its objectives

5: The assumption of rationality

Strategic Theory assumes the existence of rational actors. To be considered rational, actors must exhibit behavior that is consistent with the attainment of their desired end. The assumption of rationality does not suppose that the actor is functioning with perfect efficiency or that all decisions always produce the ‘correct’ or maximum outcome for the actor. It is merely a presupposition that an actor’s decisions are made after some kind of cost-benefit calculation that results in a decision to employ means to optimize a desired end by an actor’s values

6: The observance of moral neutrality

As Schelling elucidates, this is for two reasons first, strategic analysis is usually about the situation, not the individuals – about the structure of incentives, information and communication, the choices available, and the tactics that can be employed Second, Strategic Theory cannot proceed from the point of view of a single favored participant. It deals with situations in which one party has to think about how the others are going to reach their decisions.

Overlap with Realism

The nation-state (‘state’) is the principal actor in international relations the state is a unitary actor. National interests, especially in times of war, lead the state to speak and act with one voice Decision-makers are rational actors in the sense that rational decision-making leads to the pursuit of the national interest  States live in a context of anarchy – that is, in the absence of anyone being in charge internationally

Classical realist theory explains international relations through assumptions about human nature. The theory is pessimistic about human behavior and emphasizes that individuals are primarily motivated by self-interest and not higher moral or ethical aspirations. It can be differentiated from the other forms of realism because of the specific emphasis on human nature and domestic politics as the key factors in explaining state behavior and the causes of inter-state conflict.

Morgenthau’s Politics Among Nations (1948) helped to meet the need for a general theoretical framework for realism Politics is Governed by Objective Laws National Interest Defined in Terms of Power Interest Cannot be Fixed for all Times Moral Principles cannot be applied to State’s Action No Identification between the Moral Aspirations of a Nation and Universal Moral Laws Political Sphere is Autonomous.

Neorealism or structural realism is a theory of international relations that emphasizes the role of power politics in international relations, sees competition and conflict as enduring features, and sees limited potential for cooperation Defensive realism and offensive realism are theories within the school of neorealism that provide distinct assumptions that collectively explain the behaviors and actions of states relative to the supposed anarchy in the international system.

Defensive realism and offensive realism first emerged from the separate and contradicting works of two American political scientists. Defensive realism traces its roots from the 1979 book “Theory of International Politics” by Kenneth Waltz while offensive realism finds its foundation from the 2001 book “The Tragedy of Great Power Politics” by John J. Mearsheimer.

If classical realism sees the world as driven by competitive self-interest, then strategic theory considers how to navigate this situation to advance one’s interests Strategic theory can be thought of as ‘operationalizing’ some of realism’s tenets. It shares with realism certain assumptions around, for example, the centrality of power, and how the unique moral codes of a particular polity will render fallacious any notion of universal moral laws As with realism, strategic theory has been derided for its pessimistic reading of human nature. Strategic theory’s association with nuclear deterrence is emblematic of this critique

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