Document created: 30 November  06
Air & Space Power Journal - Winter 2006

Offense, Defense, and Waredited by Michael E. Brown, Owen R. Coté Jr., Sean M. Lynn-Jones, and Steven E. Miller. MIT Press (http://www-mitpress, Five Cambridge Center, Cambridge, Massachusetts 02142-1493, 2004, 416 pages, $27.00 (softcover).

This book, part of the International Security Readers series, is a compilation of 13 articles published from the mid-1970s though 2003. Offense-defense strategy, an international-relations theory, depends upon the concept that international relations and political interaction are influenced by the nature of the execution of offensive military operations in the prevailing international system. War becomes more likely in this system when offense or conquest is relatively easy to perform. Most of the literature on this theory dates back to World War I. Articles such as Stephen Van Evera’s “The Cult of the Offensive and the Origins of the First World War” and Scott D. Sagan’s “1914 Revisited: Allies, Offense, and Instability” are two of the better known contributions to the topic. Robert Jervis’s article “Cooperation under the Security Dilemma” is the best known theoretical example of the prisoners’ dilemma used during the height of the Cold War to examine US-Soviet relations in light of strategic nuclear weapons.

Although some political scientists used these complex arguments during the Cold War to press for comprehensive or limited arms control, national decision makers tended to use their own calculus to arrive at policies. Military policies can also be guided or formed by offense-defense assessments. If theorists are correct, some policies could drive states to optimal military postures. Currently, analysts in the field hold that the revolution in military affairs has shifted the offense-defense balance toward offense. Other critics maintain that Van Evera’s initial conclusions are flawed and thus need reexamination or modification in light of the many variables he cites. In broad categories, they include technological, doctrinal, geographical, domestic, and diplomatic factors. Another criticism (almost universal with regard to political theory) is that offense-defense theory lacks empirical support.

The most substantial dilemma for advocates of offense-defense theory is that in the current transitional nature of international relations and war, ­offense-defense applies less than transnational terrorism, with its threat of weapons of mass destruction. One cannot define the privatization of war that dominates warfare today with defense-dominance theory. The lack of territorial conquest since the conclusion of Soviet operations in Afghanistan makes offensive-oriented theory appear misplaced into today’s world. However, post-9/11 operations may revive empire theories that look to classical Rome and Athens with regard to international politics and war. Thus, the theoretical arguments of this book no longer hold the relevance they once did. Offering a compact summary of the subject and an extensive bibliography, Offense, Defense, and War is of primary interest to historians and theorists who seek to map out political theories of the Cold War era.

Capt Gilles Van Nederveen, USAF, Retired
Fairfax, Virginia


The conclusions and opinions expressed in this document are those of the author cultivated in the freedom of expression, academic environment of Air University. They do not reflect the official position of the U.S. Government, Department of Defense, the United States Air Force or the Air University.

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