Realism is the oldest intellectual tradition that provides an image of international relations9 and from its very inception has been dominant in the field. Realist reflections on international relations have been developed for centuries and can be found in the texts of prominent thinkers such as Thucydides, Thomas Hobbes, Niccolo Machiavelli and Kenneth Waltz. It is worth emphasizing that realism does not represent a single theory and ultimately three main strands of this school of thought can be identified, in particular, classical realism, neoclassical realism and neorealism.10 Nevertheless, the thesis author has chosen neorealism, which, in contrast to classical realism, dismissed any idea about human nature and “placed particular emphasis on international anarchy and the distribution of power in the system”.11 The thesis author argues that after the end of the Cold War realism still retains strong explanatory power, which can be backed up by the persisting security dilemma observed in U.S.-Russia relations. This state of affairs finds its manifestation not only in the competing policies in the post-Soviet space, but also in controversies concerning the missile defense system deployment or the conflict resolution in Syria. Thereby, realism can help to grasp the driving force behind U.S.-Russia relations and to uncover reasons of the “reset” failure.
As already mentioned, neorealism rejects normative considerations and neglects the idea of human nature, which according to classical realists is the source of conflicting interests and competition. Kenneth Waltz, who is commonly known as the founder of neorealism, in his outstanding work “Theory of International Politics” is trying to uncover systemic reasons of state behavior, arguing “that the absence of a higher authority that states can turn to in a crisis, coupled with their interest of survival, leaves states little choice but to compete with each other for power”.12 Thus, Waltz in his seminal work demonstrates how the international system is different from any domestic political system and asserts that the former is decentralized and anarchical, where all its parts are formally equal: “None is entitled to command; none is required to obey”.13 Moreover, units of this decentralized system bear similar functions, which in turn means that they are distinguished mainly by their capability to perform these functions.14 Thereby, Waltz dismissed factors such as states’ regime or traditions but stressed the importance of the distribution of capabilities in the so-called self-help system, where each unit has to develop “the means of protecting itself against others”.15
Consequently, “in any self-help system, units worry about their survival, and the worry conditions their behavior”.16 The well-known balance-of-power theory, which can help to grasp the outcome of states’ behavior, says that each unitary actor’s aim is at least to ensure its survival and, at best, to reach universal domination.17 In pursuit of this aim states can choose between two options, in particular, to pursue either internal efforts (e.g. to improve economic and military capability or to elaborate smarter strategies) or external efforts (to weaken opponent’s alliance or to expand its own alliance).18 Hence, the pressure of the international system compels states to seek for more power and clever strategies in order to maintain the balance of power in the system.
John Mearsheimer, another prominent realist author, went even further and made a conclusion that even states that pursue just security because of the anarchic international system are compelled to act aggressively: “Great powers that have no reason to fight each other – that are merely concerned with their own survival – nevertheless have little choice but to pursue power and to seek to dominate the other states in the system”.19 Mearsheimer asserts that states are always aware about the distribution of power in the system and they seek to acquire as much of world power as possible, and this pursuit usually takes place at the expense of their potential opponents.20 Mearsheimer argues “that states employ a variety of means – economic, diplomatic, and military – to shift the balance of power in their favor, even if doing so makes other states suspicious or even hostile”.21 This factor leads to a situation in which states tend to have offensive intentions in regard to each other and to perceive this competition as a “zero-sum” affair.22
However, it is especially important, that even if a great power manages to reach a prominent military superiority over its opponents, it will remain power-seeking and will not miss an opportunity to obtain more power, since it is never clear how much power would be enough to be truly secure.23 States can barely predict how power will be shared among actors in fifteen or twenty years.24 Thus, for example, the United States did not foresee that the USSR would collapse, and, similarly, nowadays it cannot foresee how much power countries such as Russia will hold in the future.25 Consequently, according to Mearsheimer, great powers realize their inability to determine a sufficient amount of power in order to be secure today and tomorrow, which compels them to create the situation in which neither state can challenge them.26 Even if a great power is unable to become a hegemon, “it will still act offensively to amass as much power as it can, because states are almost always better off with more rather than less power”.27 Similarly, Robert Gilpin asserts that “as the power of a state increases, it seeks to extend its territorial control, its political influence, and/or domination of the international economy”.28 “Reciprocally, these developments tend to increase the power of the state as more and more resources are made available to it”.29 Nevertheless, it is worth mentioning that before employing offensive strategies each great power always considers issues such as the balance of power and possible reaction of other states, thus, determining whether the expected costs outweigh the potential gains, though due to imperfect information miscalculation is always possible.30
One must be aware that offensive behavior causes other states to feel insecure and to develop counterstrategies.31 This phenomenon has become known as the security dilemma.32 As Nick Wheeler and Ken Booth explain, the fear and feeling of insecurity is conditioned by uncertainty in regard to other state’s intentions: “The military preparations of one state [can] create an unresolvable uncertainty in the mind of another as to whether those preparations are for defensive purposes only (to enhance its security), or whether they are for offensive purposes [to weaken its security]”.33 Thus, for example, the enlargement of a military alliance can also be perceived with distrust and fear, since intentions of one’s opponent are uncertain and an offensive move can never be ruled out.34 Therefore, such developments can cause not only fear in the eyes of other states, but can also produce a counterbalancing behavior.