Matthew Rendall

16 karmaJoined Apr 2023


Stephen Van Evera [1] argues that for purposes of explaining the outbreak of war, what's most important is not what the objective o/d balance is (he thinks it usually favours the defence), but rather what states believe it is. If they believe it favours the offence (as VE and some other scholars argue that they did before World War I), war is more likely.

It seems as if perceptions should matter less in the case of cyberattacks. Whereas a government is unlikely to launch a major war unless it thinks either that it has good prospects of success or that it faces near-certain defeat if it doesn't, the costs of a failed cyberattack are much lower.

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Mearsheimer does claim that states rationally pursue security. However, the assumption that states are rational actors--shared by most contemporary realists--is a huge stretch.  The original--and still most influential--statement of neorealist theory, Kenneth Waltz's Theory of International Politics, did not employ a rational actor assumption, but rather appealed to natural selection--states that did not behave as if they sought to maximize security would tend to die out (or, as Waltz put it, 'fall by the wayside'). In contrast to Mearsheimer, Waltz at least motivated his assumption of security-seeking, rather than simply assuming it.

In subsequent publications, Waltz argued that states would be very cautious with nuclear weapons, and that the risk of nuclear war was very low--almost zero. Setting aside the question of whether almost zero is good enough in the long term, this claim is very questionable. From outside the realist paradigm, Scott Sagan has argued that internal politics are likely to predispose some states--particularly new nuclear states with military-dominated governments--to risky policies. 

In a recent critique of both Waltz and Mearsheimer (, I myself argue that (a) on Waltz's natural selection logic, we should actually expect great powers to act as if they were pursuing influence, not security--which should make them more risk-acceptant; and (b) Sagan's worries about internal politics leading to risky nuclear policies should be plausible even within neorealist theory, properly conceived (for the latter argument, see my section 'Multilevel selection theory').

Bottom line: When you dig down into neorealist logic,the claim that states will be cautious and competent in dealing with nuclear weapons starts to look really shaky. Classical realists like Hans Morgenthau and John Herz had a better handle on the issue.

Gorsuch wrote that the law would impose costs on farmers but that it 'serve[d] moral and health interests of some (disputable) magnitude for in-state residents.' These considerations were, supposedly, 'incommensurable', and should thus be left up to the voters. 

Interestingly, he does not specify whether he means human or non-human in-state residents. Almost surely he meant the first. The magnitude of the interests involved becomes indisputably overwhelming if we factor in the latter. However, the rationale for respecting the judgement of the voters is correspondingly weakened, since the majority of those affected are disenfranchised.

Indeed. Sharing the work--and the links--was an important step to ensure it lives on in the work of other writers. I'd seen two of the papers, but not the dissertation, which I expect to eventually read and draw on. It's very sad he won't be able to turn it into a book.

Good you're doing this! One suggestion concerning your argument: when assessing the impact of nuclear weapons, it's helpful to think about their likely effects over the short and long term. 

Nuclear war probably is 'somewhat, but not extremely unlikely' over the next few decades. If we retain nuclear weapons for centuries, on the other hand, it's very likely indeed. 

Similarly, I agree that it's important to recognise that nuclear weapons have significant advantages for their possessors (as you mention in your '9 mistakes'), including increasing their security in the short term. But a state that tries to keep up nuclear deterrence forever is almost surely dooming itself to an eventual nuclear war.

I elaborate on these considerations in a recent paper here: Here, as elsewhere, we need to take the long view as well as the short one.