Offensive Realism and Foreign Policy

Offensive realism supports formulation of practical, cost-effective, and stable foreign policies that safeguard the survival and prosperity of nation-states in the 21st century international system.

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This entire post (with exception of titles) is a adapted from a paper published in Swript.com

The status of any state within the highly-fluid international geopolitical system is determined by its geostrategic strengths and vulnerabilities. For this reason, state behavior is heavily influenced by need to maximize its de facto power while leveraging its strategic weaknesses. Nonetheless, pure military strength does not usually equate to a favorable geostrategic position within the international system. This necessitates a militarily powerful nation to leverage diplomatic power with astute foreign policy approaches so as to ensure that vital interests of the state are protected. Offensive realism conceptualizes the international system as inherently anarchic, and for this reason, postulates that a nation must act aggressively to protect its vital interests.

A foreign policy strategy pillared on offensive realism is bound to be aggressive, but such a strategy also risks upsetting international peace and order. Expectedly, this leads one to question the appropriateness of offensive realism as a foreign policy strategy in the 21st century. Does the inherency of fac fortia et patere in offensive realism promote national well-being and international order? This essay argues that offensive realism is an appropriate foreign policy strategy for the 21st century, though the extent of its influence on foreign policy should be limited to only those aspects (of foreign policy) that relate to international politics, international diplomacy, international security, and strategic affairs.

The essay concludes as follows:

Offensive realism supports formulation of practical, cost-effective, and stable foreign policies that safeguard the survival and prosperity of nation-states in the 21st century international system. Nonetheless, this theory suffers from shortcomings that define its non-applicability in specific situations. These shortcomings include its restrictive nature and de-prioritization of domestic politics from analysis. Even so, offensive realism is an appropriate foreign policy strategem for this century; and its applicability must extend to all aspects of foreign policy that relate to international politics, international diplomacy, international security, and strategic affairs.

Possession of powerful offensive military capabilities by a nation-state has a deterrence value. It discourages hostile rivals and state actors with ill-intent from overtly undermining the vital interests of the nation. Thus, military advantage affords greater security to a nation-state. If this nation state possesses disproportionate military advantage over its neighboring nation-states, then it becomes the regional hegemon, which gives it significant clout to influence and determine the course of regional politics to its favor (Hendriks, 2015). This is the case of present-day Iran that has accumulated enough military power to serve as a regional hegemon in the Persian Gulf, and it has used offensive realism to formulate foreign policies that curtail the diplomatic and military capacitance of its Sunni rival, the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, which is the largest nation in Gulf of Arabia (Gause III, 2007). Iran has capacitated (that is, created durable and proven) military power through incremental investments in domestic military capabilities, and creation of a set of military doctrines that blend battlespace dynamism with Shiite ideology, as well as building-up a formidable and robust network of clastic expeditionary forces made up of Shiite fighters recruited from Afghanistan, Lebanon, Syria, and Iraq (Wehrey, 2017).

Survival of the nation-state is assured by possession of both defensive and offensive military capabilities (Elman & Jensen, 2014). Defensive military capabilities define the low spectrum of national survival as the nation-state strives to balance between its basic needs and security overhead. This is done in pursuance of idealized maximalist powers and optimization of survival prospects (of the nation-state) (Van Evera, 2013).

Examples of Use of Offensive Realism

Iran in Syria

Hegemony can be achieved if offensive military power is used to create and sustain it. This is what Iran got right, and it has paid off in Syria where Iran, with Russian support, have preserved the government of Bashar al-Assad, while Saudi Arabia and its Gulf partners have abandoned the Sunni fighters that they (previously) supported and financed (Wehrey, 2017).

Containment of Iran by the Arab-Sunni Alliance led by Saudi Arabia

A nation-state that has created a regional hegemon must, in addition to use of offensive military force, strive to use international politics to stymie the rise of any power-seeking state in the region (Elman & Jensen, 2014). This defensive action by the hegemon is meant to counter rise of hostile powers in the region. For instance, the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia has used offensive realism to formulate foreign policies that enable it to exploit international politics to stymie the rise of its regional rival, the Islamic Republic of Iran (Gause III, 2007). This initially involved close collaboration with the United States Government (USG) and cooperation with partner states within the regional alliance of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC). However, the fraying of Saudi-Qatari relations and cooling of Saudi-USG relations were exploited by Iranian strategists to upend Saudi influence in Iraq, as well as erode Saudi power in its backyard by covertly aiding Houthi Shiites in Yemen to persevere the military offensive by the Saudi-led Sunni Coalition. This shows how exploitation of international politics can cause a regional hegemon to lose, cement, or upgrade it status (Wehrey, 2017).

Saudi Arabia, Egypt, United Arab Emirates, and the Muslim Brotherhood

If a regional hegemon is threatened by a coalition of weak nation-states and non-state actors; it may decide to use buck-passing to redistribute the threat it faces, usually by distributing the threat to all the aspiring power-maximizing nation-states in the region (Cantelmo, 2015). In the case of Saudi Arabia, it chose to redistribute the threat it faced from a Houthi-led Yemen and Morsi-led Egypt to members of the GCC – with the exception of Qatar that later decided to host activists from the dethroned Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood. United Arab Emirates (UAE) has actively undermined the Muslim Brotherhood, while cooperating with the Saudi military on its mission in Yemen. This shows congruence of interests of allied nations within a framework of collective security. Likewise, both UAE and Saudi Arabia welcomed the overthrow of Muhammad Morsi in 2013, and gave the new Egyptian administration financial support to help alleviate the economic crisis in Egypt (Wehrey, 2017). Essentially, this shows that cooperation with allies – rather than operating as a maverick – in taking on the adversarial coalition of rival states and non-state actors increases the odds of success.

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