Neorealist Theory and the India-Pakistan Conflict*-I

Rajesh Rajagopalan,Research fellow,IDSA



The most important characteristic of the India-Pakistan conflict is its persistence. The resolution of specific disputes did not lead to peace; new disputes arose to take the place of those that were resolved. The Indus river system dispute, probably the most dangerous dispute between India and Pakistan, was resolved successfully in 1960. The less serious territorial dispute over the Rann of Kutch was successfully settled in the mid-1960s.1 Neither settlement had any lasting impact on India-Pakistan relations. The Tashkent and Simla Agreements, which ended the 1965 and 1971 wars respectively, were expected to provide the basis for a lasting peace in South Asia, but neither did. Also, the salience of some disputes waxed and waned: between 1965 and 1989, the dispute over Kashmir seemed to disappear from the India-Pakistan agenda, with other issues—the Bangladesh rebellion, nuclear weapons, conventional arms race, Siachen dispute, and so on -- taking pride of place. By the early 1990s, Kashmir had replaced the other issues as the most important dispute between the two countries. This suggests that the specific disputes are only symptoms of a deeper conflict between India and Pakistan. If this underlying conflict is not recognised and addressed, resolving specific disputes, say over Kashmir or nuclear weapons, is not likely to lead to peace.

In this essay, I attempt to explain this underlying conflict, using the neorealist perspective on international politics. There are two reasons for using the neorealist approach to explain the India-Pakistan conflict. First, neorealism claims to explain inter-state conflict by reference to the underlying sources of conflict between states rather than by focussing on specific disputes. If this is a valid claim, neorealism should provide useful insights into the India-Pakistan conflict. Secondly, despite its wide use in studying inter-state conflicts in other parts of the world, it has never been used to study the India-Pakistan conflict. This assertion requires some explanation, because some students of the India-Pakistan conflict have been characterised as "realists" or even as "neorealists." Itty Abraham, for example, has characterised many works on South Asian security as neorealist because of the emphasis on the state in such works.2 But a focus on the state, by itself, does not make an analysis "neorealist." Indeed, by this criterion, Abraham's explanation of the 1971 war as a carefully planned venture by the Indian state sounds suspiciously like a neorealist account, which would clearly be a nonsensical interpretation of Abraham's perspective. Similarly, conflating the writings of so-called "hawks" with neorealism is also a common error. Though both hawks and neorealists focus on the state and explain state behaviour with reference to power and interest, there is a fundamental difference between them. Hawks trace international conflict to the aggressive behaviour of adversary states. Neorealists seek the source of conflict in the structure of the international system rather than the avarice or aggressiveness of individual leaders or states.3

Neorealism, identified most closely with Kenneth Waltz, has been the most prominent and influential approach in the field since the early 1980s.4 A structural theory, it focusses attention on the influence of the international system on states and on the outcomes of inter-state relations. However, neorealism has faced increasing challenges since the late 1980s. New approaches based on culture and identity have challenged the neorealist assertions of international-structural conditioning of state behaviour.5 A resurgent liberal-institutionalist and democratic-peace perspectives have presented more mainstream criticisms. Though neorealists have spiritedly defended the theory, the utility of neorealism is increasingly under question. Part of the problem, I argue, is that neorealists have made extravagant claims about a theory which, as Kenneth Waltz correctly pointed out in his Theory of International Politics, provides only a few insights into international politics, even if these are important and essential insights. I argue that neorealism provides its best insights in its spare, structural version rather in the bloated adaptations which many neorealists have employed, which have traded parsimony for what are essentially inconsequential gains in explanatory power. Further, I argue that neorealism could be used successfully in conjunction with some of its theoretical challengers in order to provide a fuller understanding of state behaviour and inter-state relations. Thus, neorealism and its challengers, far from being contending theories, might actually be complementary.

In the first part of this paper, I examine neorealist theory and its application. I argue that many neorealists have made exaggerated claims for the theory and suggest a more restrictive interpretation. In the second part, I examine the India-Pakistan case. I argue that the natural imbalance of material power between India and Pakistan, and the resulting Pakistani insecurity is the main cause for the India-Pakistan conflict. In the concluding section, I examine the implications of this analysis for both the theoretical study of insecurity and conflict in the international system as well as for the study of the India-Pakistan conflict.

Models of Realism

The realist approach to international politics focusses attention on the importance of power in the relations between states. Realists believe, as Robert Gilpin writes, "...the final arbiter of things political is power."6 The absence of a sovereign to provide order and arbitrate disputes forces states to rely on themselves, the logic that Waltz refers to as "self-help." This compels states to build up their own power, worry about the power of other states and define their interests in terms of power. Though this pursuit of power can sometimes become an end in itself, it is mainly caused by the insecurity of states, condemned to existence in an anarchic international order.7 However, attempts to increase one's own power can threaten other states, who are forced to keep pace, thus reducing security all around. This security dilemma is an enduring characteristic of the anarchic international order. Arms races, shifting alliances, and war are the consequences of this security dilemma.

Though all realists see the anarchic nature of the international political order as the most important permissive cause of the security dilemma and war, many realists also count human nature as an important variable in explaining the pursuit of power by states. A few, variously described as neorealists or structural realists, focus on the influence of the international system as an intervening variable in explaining international politics and the behaviour of states. While not denying the existence or influence of human nature as a factor in international politics, they nevertheless see human nature as an unnecessary ingredient in explaining international politics. The most comprehensive and rigorous statement of this brand of realism is provided by Kenneth Waltz in his Theory of International Politics. In examining the realist perspective and its applicability in the South Asian case, I draw exclusively on Waltz's perspective.8

Waltz's Neorealism: The Problem of Indeterminacy

Though Waltz's theory is very rigorous, there are two fundamental drawbacks to his approach which present problems for generating hypotheses and testing theory. The first, and most basic, is that Waltz's theory is very indeterminate, as Waltz himself points out. Waltz focusses on the effect of the structure of the international system on the behaviour of states and on international outcomes. Structures, Waltz argues, work their effects indirectly and indeterminately:

"Structures limit and mold agents and agencies and point them in ways that tend toward a common quality of outcomes even though the efforts and aims of the agencies vary. Structures do not work their effects directly. Structures do not act as agents and agencies do...In itself a structure does not directly lead to one outcome rather than another."9

Waltz's explication of the balance of power theory includes similar disclaimers about the determinacy of the theory:

"Though balance-of-power theory offers some predictions, the predictions are indeterminate. Because only a loosely defined and inconstant condition of balance is predicted, it is difficult to say that any given distribution of power falsifies the theory...Because the theory does not give precise answers, difficult."10

In addition to the general indeterminacy of his systemic theory, a second difficulty is that the theory does not seek to explain foreign policy. Waltz focusses on international outcomes and the constraints in the international system that states have to deal with, rather than explain or predict the behaviour of states. A theory of international politics, Waltz argues, "bears on the foreign policies of nations while claiming to explain only certain aspects of them. It can tell us what international conditions national policies have to cope with. To think that a theory of international politics can in itself say how the coping is likely to be done is the opposite of the reductionist error."11 Writing about the balance-of-power theory, Waltz elaborates on the inadequacy of the theory in explaining state behaviour:

"Balance-of-power theory is a theory about the results produced by the uncoordinated actions of states. A theory makes assumptions about the interests and motives of states, rather than explaining them. What it does explain are the constraints that confine all states. The clear perception of constraints provides many clues to the expected reactions of states, but by itself the theory cannot explain these reactions. The theory explains why a certain similarity of behavior is expected from similarly situated states. The expected behavior is similar, not identical."12

For Waltz, the only way to explain the behaviour of a state is by adding a theory of the state, which will look at domestic factors, to his systemic theory. The task he sets out to do, however, is to explain the systemic influences on international outcomes and state behaviour, not specific international outcomes or state behaviour. Thus, for Waltz, these inadequacies in determinacy are unimportant.

Applying Waltz: The Continuing Indeterminacy Problem

This is, however, a problem for those who seek to use Waltz's perspective to explain particular international outcomes or state behaviour, and there have been several such attempts, including those by Barry Posen, by Jack Snyder and Thomas Christensen, and by Stephen Walt.13 Posen attempts to explain the military doctrines of European great powers during the inter-war years and Snyder and Christensen build on some of the insights provided by Posen. Waltz's attempt has significantly improved the balance-of-power theory. Yet, these efforts have failed in overcoming the difficulties that Waltz envisaged in using his systemic approach as a theory of foreign policy, and suggest another, more limited way of using Waltz's approach to explain state behaviour.

Posen draws on Waltz's systemic approach, but in framing hypotheses about the realist perspective on military doctrine, he admits to moving away from structural realism to the classical, prescriptive view of realism, or realpolitik. Posen's solution to the indeterminacy problem in Waltz's theory is to add greater detail and additional assumptions. Instead of Waltz's general assumption about state behaviour—that at the least they seek survival and at the most universal domination14—Posen attempts to specify both the international circumstances facing particular states and the motives that drive the state. Because such internal and external conditions can vary widely, Posen is forced to draw thirteen different hypotheses, corresponding to a variety of state circumstances. Thus, offensive doctrines are favored by expansionist powers, states fearing high collateral damage, states "suffering (power) erosion," states facing multiple adversaries, states geographically encircled, states without allies, and states with far-flung dependencies. States with dependencies might also accept deterrent doctrines, as would small states. Status-quo states will generally prefer defensive doctrines.15 However, even with this high level of specification of state circumstances, many hypotheses are still indeterminate. As Posen points out, states in alliances might prefer either defensive or offensive doctrines. Status-quo states might opt for offensive, deterrent or defensive doctrines. Small states could opt for either deterrent or offensive doctrines. In short, despite specifying the international circumstances of states, it is still not possible to determine doctrinal preferences.

On the other hand, this eliminates one of the greatest advantages of Waltz's theory: its parsimony. Parsimony is, of course, not the sole criterion of a good theory. As Robert Keohane suggested, it is well worth sacrificing a little parsimony if such sacrifice improves the explanatory power of the theory.16 Unfortunately, Posen sacrifices parsimony without gaining much in explanatory power. The sensitivity that Posen displays in his analysis clearly indicates his awareness of the problem. Posen's failure only reaffirms Waltz's conviction that structural realism provides few determinate predictions about state behaviour.

Could it be that Posen's attempt to include additional variables to Waltz's theory to make it more determinate did not go far enough? Could the addition of more factors, the specifying of more conditions, make Waltz's theory more determinate? Jack Snyder and Thomas Christensen attempt to do just this. Waltz had suggested, consistent with his argument about the indeterminacy of his structural theory, that in a multipolar world, states might choose to either "chaingang" themselves to reckless allies, or do exactly the opposite, pass the cost of balancing to others ("buckpassing"). Posen had suggested, in trying to explain these contradictory tendencies, that perceptions of offensive or defensive military advantages might explain the variations. Perceptions of offensive advantages led to chainganging tendencies before 1914, while perceptions of defensive advantages led to buckpassing tendencies before World War II. Snyder and Christensen add to this Robert Jervis's hypothesis that offensive technological or geographical advantages lead to more intense security dilemmas, and defensive advantages lead to lesser security dilemmas. In addition, they explain the mistaken perceptions of the offence-defence balance by reference to the formative experiences of each generation. Thus, where Waltz would argue that no determinate predictions could be made on the basis of his structural theory about balancing or bandwagoning tendencies of states in a multipolar world, Snyder and Christensen would argue that such determination can be made if we know the formative experiences of leaders, if we know the pattern of civil-military relations, as well as the geographical and technological factors that determine the offence-defence balance. However, the inclusion of these additional variables does not help in increasing determinacy. Snyder and Christensen admit that explaining the stability of the 1880s requires the use of even more variables, such as Bismarck's diplomatic skills.17

Stephen Walt's Origins of Alliances represents yet another attempt to solve the indeterminacy problem. Walt's attempt alters and improves existing balance-of-power theory by focussing on the perception of threat rather than the international power balance. Though Waltz's theory expects states to balance in general against threats in the international system, it is not clear from his theory how states determine threats and which threats they will balance against. Though military power is in general the greatest source of threat, it cannot be concluded that states will define threats on the basis of the balance of power alone. Walt suggests that states will attempt to balance against the greatest threat in the international system, and outlines four factors that determine such perceptions of threat: aggregate power, geographic proximity, offensive power and aggressive intention.18 This modification of traditional balance- of-power theory acknowledges the problem of indeterminacy of the old theory but like other attempts examined above does not solve it. "Aggressive intentions" and even "offensive power" cannot be determined objectively. Cuba is considered a greater threat by the United States than by its smaller Caribbean neighbours. These different perceptions of the threat Cuba poses have to be taken as given; they cannot be determined a priori.19 The problem of indeterminacy, of course, is not limited to simple determination of threat; it also presents itself in determining how to meet the threat.

Clearly, the problem with developing determinate predictions from Waltz's systemic theory is not the result of the parsimony of Waltz's theory, which is how Posen and others have viewed it. If indeterminacy were a consequence of the parsimony of Waltz's theory, then additional or maybe even different factors, could help in making his theory more determinate. This error, the assumption that indeterminacy is the result of parsimony, results from the belief that the international system "teaches" states to behave in a particular manner, that the international system provides incentives for one type of behaviour rather than another. As Fareed Zakaria argues, "defensive realists" like Posen, Walt and Snyder mistake the effects of the international system on the states with the lessons they believe states should learn from the operation of the international system.20 Waltz suggests that through socialisation and competitive selection, the range of outcomes and behaviour is reduced within the international system.21 Waltz explicitly discounts that the international system teaches states any particular behaviour.22 As Zakaria points out, to say that socialisation and competition make states more alike does not mean that the system teaches states wisdom.23

The Use of Incentives and Constraints in Waltz's Neorealism

The belief that the international system provides incentives for one type of behaviour rather than another follows from a mistaken reading of the effects of the international system in Waltz's approach. Waltz sees the international system encouraging certain types of behaviour and discouraging others. Defensive realists focus on the first part, the incentives provided by the international system. A misreading of Waltz is probably responsible for this, though, admittedly, Waltz himself is not very clear on this point. In writing about the effect of the international system on the units, he sometimes talks about the system as a constraining force:

"If the same effects follow from different causes, then constraints must be operating on the independent variables in ways that affect outcomes. One cannot incorporate the constraints by treating them as one or more of the independent variables with all of them at the same level, because constraints may operate on all of the independent variables and because they do so in different ways as systems change." (p. 68)

"Structure designates a set of constraining conditions." (p. 73)

"Structure explains why methods (of realpolitik) are repeatedly used despite differences in the persons and states who use them." (p. 117)

"To the extent that dynamics of a system limit the freedom of its units, their behavior and the outcomes of their behavior become predictable." (p. 72)

At other times he suggests that the international system encourages particular kinds of behaviour:

"Systems theories are...theories that explain how the organization of a realm acts as a constraining and disposing force on the interacting units within it." (p. 72)

"Structures limit and mold agents and agencies and point them in ways that tend toward a common quality of outcomes." (p. 74)

"Structures select by rewarding some behaviors and punishing others." (p. 74)

It is more likely that Waltz sees constraints and incentives as two sides of the same coin; through constraints, the system disposes states toward some choices. Whatever Waltz intended, scholars who have used Waltz's theory have seen the international system more as encouraging certain behaviour rather than as constraining state behaviour.

A more appropriate way to think of the effect of the international system on states might be to see it as a set of constraints that limits the choices that states have. States behave as they do because they have few other viable choices, given their international circumstance. Examples of such constraints in operation can illustrate this point. One example can be American and Soviet Third World policies during the Cold War years. There is a striking similarity in what Waltz calls American and Soviet "overreactions" in various parts of the Third World.24 "Defensive Realists," believing that American overreactions were unnecessary because any Soviet expansion would create opposing balances even without American involvement, called for "finite containment."25 They argued that the United States was mistaken in assigning value to distant conflicts in the Third World. This assumes that the United States—and the Soviet Union—had a choice about being involved in these conflicts; they were involved in these conflicts precisely because they did not have any choice in the matter. Through leadership changes in both countries, through the Cold War, detente, and the new Cold War, through direct and indirect involvement, American and Soviet Third World policies step-danced with each other. Both sides also recognised the costs of such involvement, and tried to reduce them, to no avail. Though specific strategies adopted by the two powers changed, the international systemic constraints prevented any change in their fundamental commitment to their Third World allies. Not surprisingly, the collapse of the Soviet Union, a change in the structure of the international system, also removed the Third World as a source of conflict between the United States and Russia, the successor to the Soviet Union.

Sometimes the effect of such constraints can be reflected in more specific policy choices. Posen points out that one of the factors that prevented the French Army from changing its military doctrine before World War II was the fear that such change could not be completed while the threat of war remained high. War might break out before the transition to a new doctrine could be made, leaving the Army unable to fight at all.26 Armies in the midst of organisational and doctrinal changes are highly vulnerable to attack.27 Thus, the expectation of war prevented France from changing its stagnant military doctrine.28 The international system determined behaviour in this case not by providing incentives for one doctrine rather than another, but by eliminating the possibility of changing an inadequate doctrine.

On the other hand, such a constraint based view explains very little about the specifics of state behaviour. For example, states facing international threats are expected to balance against this threat. This says little about how states will balance, given the policy choices they have in attempting to balance. States could attempt to balance threats with their own resources (internal balancing) or seek out other states that share their fear and ally with them (external balancing). The limitations of this view of the effect of the international system are clear in the examples above. American and Soviet Third World policies in general are amenable to such explanations; why the United States decided to ally with Pakistan rather than India in South Asia cannot be explained by reference to systemic forces. Similarly, the pattern of French military doctrines for most of the inter-war years is left out of the above explanation. This would be a problem if Waltz's theory claimed to explain all or most of the behaviour of states. Such a claim would require the theory to provide a much fuller explanation, detailing, for example, why France chose or did not choose particular military doctrines. Since it claims to explain only some aspects of state behaviour, this is not a major problem.

Thus, neorealism expects state choices to be limited by international constraints. Because structural constraints have general impact, they are usually better at explaining general rather than specific policies. On the other hand, such systemic forces can, at times, also explain specific policies. Such instances are admittedly limited; thus, this approach is too indeterminate to be a general theory of foreign policy or state behaviour. Nevertheless, neorealism should be able to explain international outcomes. Neorealism expects states will worry about possible adversaries, and attempt to balance them, even if such efforts will not always be successful. In the next section, I will look at the South Asia case to examine how neorealism might explain the India-Pakistan conflict.



1. Though the Indus river dispute and its settlement has not received as much attention as it should, there are two excellent accounts that provide both the technical details of the problem as well as the negotiations that led to its resolution. See Aloys A. Michael, The Indus Rivers: A Study of the Effects of Partition (New Haven, CT.: Yale University Press, 1967) and Niranjan D. Gulhati, Indus Waters Treaty: An Exercise in International Mediation (Bombay: Allied Publishers, 1973).

2. Itty Abraham, "Towards a Reflexive South Asian Security Studies," in Marvin G. Weinbaum and Chetan Kumar eds., South Asia Approaches the Millenium: Reexamining National Security (Boulder, CO.: Westview Press, 1995), 17-40.

3. During the Cold War period, neorealists argued that fear of Soviet expansion was exaggerated because any Soviet expansion would lead to balancing efforts by the threatened states. See Stephen M. Walt, The Origins of Alliances (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1987) In the post-Cold War world, similarly, neorealists have argued that American hegemony will lead to the creation of opposing coalitions. See Kenneth Waltz, "The Emerging Structures of International Politics," International Security, 18:2 (1993): pp. 44-79.

4. Kenneth Waltz, Theory of International Politics (Reading, Mass.: Addison-Wesley, 1979).

5. See, in particular, Elizabeth Kier, "Changes in Conventional Military Doctrines: The Cultural Roots of Doctrinal Change" (Ph.D. diss., Cornell University, 1992); Jeffrey W. Legro, Cooperation Under Fire: Anglo-German Restraint During World War II (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1995); Stephen Peter Rosen, Societies and Military Power: India and Its Armies (Ithaca, NY.: Cornell University Press, 1996); and Alastair Iain Johnston, Cultural Realism: Strategic Culture and Grand Strategy in Chinese History (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1995).

6. Robert Gilpin, "The Richness of the Tradition of Political Realism," in Robert O. Keohane, ed. Neorealism and Its Critics (New York: Columbia University Press, 1986): p. 304.

7. Kenneth Waltz, "The Origins of War in Neorealist Theory," Journal of Interdisciplinary History, 18, Spring 1988: pp. 615-28.

8. For a recent review of the differing realist perspectives, see Randall L. Schweller and David Priess, "A Tale of Two Realisms: Expanding the Institutions Debate," Mershon International Studies Review 41, May 1997, pp. 1-32.

9. Ibid., p. 74. Emphasis added.

10. Ibid., p. 124.

11. Ibid., p. 72.

12. Ibid., p. 122.

13. Barry Posen, The Sources of Military Doctrines: France, Britain and Germany Between the World Wars (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1984); Jack Snyder and Thomas Christensen, "Chain Gangs and Passed Bucks: Predicting Alliance Patterns in Multipolarity," International Organization 44:2, Spring 1990, pp. 137-68; Walt, n. 3.

14. Waltz, n. 4, p. 118.

15. Posen, n. 15, n. 67-79.

16. Robert O. Keohane, "Theory of World Politics: Structural Realism and Beyond," in Keohane, ed. n. 6, p. 188.

17. Snyder and Christensen, n. 13, p. 167.

18. Walt, n. 3, pp. 21-26.

19. I have benefited from discussions with Himadeep Muppidi on this point, who also suggested this example.

20. Fareed Zakaria, "Realism and Domestic Politics: A Review Essay," review of Myths of Empire: Domestic Politics and International Ambition, by Jack Snyder in International Security 17:1 Summer 1992, p. 195. The term "defensive realism" is used by Jack Snyder in Myths of Empire: Domestic Politics and International Ambition (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1991), pp. 10-13. See also John Mearsheimer, "The False Promise of International Institutions," International Security 19:3, Winter 1994-95, pp. 11-12 on the differences between defensive realism and offensive realism. On the other hand, Mearsheimer classifies Waltz also as a defensive realist.

21. Waltz, n. 4, pp. 74-77.

22. Ibid., p. 74.

23. Zakaria, n. 20, p. 193.

24. Waltz, n. 4, pp. 170-73.

25. Stephen Walt, "The Case for Finite Containment: Analyzing U.S. Grand Strategy," International Security 14:1, Summer 1989: pp. 5-49. Walt made this argument first in The Origins of Alliances, p. 282. Barry Posen and Stephen Van Evera make a similar argument in "Reagan Administration Defense Policy: Departure From Containment," in Kenneth Oye, Robert J. Lieber and Donald Rothchild, eds., Eagle Resurgent? The Reagan Era in American Foreign Policy (Boston, MA.: Little, Brown and Company, 1987),94-97. See also, Michael C. Desch, "The Keys That Lock Up the World: Identifying American Interests in the Periphery," International Security 14:1, Summer 1989, pp. 86-121.

26. Posen, n. 13, pp. 132-33.

27. Ibid., pp. 30-31.

28. Obviously, a much closer study would be required to determine the validity of this thesis. French doctrine had been stagnant for most of the inter-war years. Thus, it is possible that France would not have changed its doctrine, even if there was no immediate threat of a German attack. On the other hand, French military strategy did undergo dramatic change, entirely out of character with its strategy of the previous two decades, when war broke out in 1940 (as indicated by the Breda variant of Plan Dyle). French strategy had been as stagnant during the inter-war years as French doctrine was. This suggests that innovation and change was neither foreign to the French Army nor entirely determined by the experience of the inter-war years.