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Stephen M. Walt's Notion of Threat
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Stephen Martin Walt, “Robert and Renee Belfer Professor of International Affairs at Harward University’s Kennedy School of Government”, is an International Relations theorist from the Neorealist tradition advanced by Kenneth Waltz. In addition to his foreign policy blog,” he serves on the editorial boards of foreign policy, Security studies, International Relations, Journal of Cold War studies, and also serves as co-editor of the Cornell Studies in Security Affairs, published by Cornell University Press” (Interview - Stephen Walt, 2013).

Kenneth Waltz understands Stephen Walt’s approach as a foreign-policy application of the Balance of Power and not as theory reformulation (Waltz, Evaluating theories, 1997, p. 916). Is Walt’s Balance of Threat theory, a reformulation of Waltz’s Balance of Power theory or its foreign policy application? What distinguishes Walt from other Realists and Neorealists?  How are Walt’s views applied to contemporary international affairs? In the light of the above, my paper will explore the significant contribution of Stephen Walt to International Relations and analyze the various critiques for his theory and his own explanations in support of his theory.

Significant contribution to IR Theory

The significant contribution of Stephen Walt, as he himself mentioned was, “it was threats that drove state behavior and not just the distribution of power” (Interview - Stephen Walt, 2013). But, that doesn’t mean that he totally rejects power. He just adds an additional perception variable. States can be threatening depending upon their power mobilization, geographic location and their perceived intentions. With empirical evidence, he argues that some weak states at the proximity are more threatening than the relatively stronger states. He further explains the balancing and bandwagoning behaviour in terms of threat, and proposes the Balance of Threat Theory, first in an article titled “Alliance formation and the Balance of World Power” published in the journal, “International Security” in 1985 and further elaborated in his book ‘The Origin of Alliances’ in 1987” (wikipedia, 2016). At this instance, I shall expound the Balancing and Bandwagoning behaviour as discussed by Walt and his Balance of Threat theory.

Balancing, Bandwagoning and Balance of Threat theory

Walt defines Balancing as, “allying with others against the prevailing threat; Bandwagoning refers aligning with the source of danger” (Walt S. , The Origins of Alliances, 1987, p. 17). Bandwagoning, a term coined by Quincy Wright (A Study of War, 1942) and popularized by Kenneth Waltz (Theory of International Politics, 1979 but incorrectly attributes Stephen Van Evera for coining the term) (Bandwagoning). He contrasts balancing with bandwagoning behavior. According to Waltz, “because power is a means not an end, states prefer to join the weaker of two conditions” (Waltz, Theory of International Politics, 1979, p. 126). But Walt insists on the importance of threat in determining the state behaviour and the alliance formation. He argues that states form alliances to prevent relatively stronger powers dominating them. In other words, they form alliances or coalitions when others pose a threat. States form alliances in a manner, (1) when their survival is at risk and want to curb the aggressive intention of the opponent and (2) when their inclusion in the alliance makes it stronger and they are in a position to dominate the alliance.

Though Walt emphasized more on balancing, he cleverly explains that, in some cases, states bandwagon. Walt argues that “The greater a state’s aggregate capabilities, the greater the tendency for others to align with it” (Walt S. , The Origins of Alliances, 1987, p. 32). Walt relates balancing and bandwagoning as that states mostly choose to balance or ally against the threatening states, a stronger state will naturally choose to balance with the weaker states. The weaker states mostly balance or align with other weak states but bandwagon when they are threatened by the strong states (external threat).

Stephen Walt, through his Balance of Threat theory, feels that Neorealism’s focus on the distribution of capabilities does not provide an adequate explanation for the states in forming alliances. Walt poses logically and intuitively strong argument that though power plays a significant role in formation of alliances, it is not the sole one. It is threats that determine alliance formation. There are four factors by which a state judges its opponents as threats, “aggregate power, proximity to a target, offensive capacity and perceived intentions” (Robert.O.Keohane, 1988 (Vol.13.No.1), p. 171). Aggregate power refers to state’s total population, industry, economy and other resources. Proximity to a target or geographic proximity refers to the situation where the ability to project power declines with distance. Offensive capacity or the offensive military power refers to the ability to threaten the sovereignty or territorial integrity of another state at an acceptable cost. Perceived intentions are those aggressive states which are threatening, problematic to realism. Simply put, Neorealism assumes state as a black box and Walt through his theory, wants this box to be opened to measure the threat. Thus Balance of Threat theory asserts that states tend to ally against most threatening opponents or simply threats rather than power. That is the reason why, England and France allied against Germany only twice, because Kaiser William and Adolf Hitler posed threats and not because they are powerful.

Application of Balance of Threat theory and its distinction with Balance of Power

Walt applies Balance of Threat theory in his books, ‘The Origin of Alliances’ and ‘The Revolution and War’. In The Origins of Alliances, Walt explains how states choose to form alliances and emphasize on scientific approach just like Waltz. But, he challenges Waltz by including a perception variable in his approach. In Revolution and War, Walt applies his theory and argues that states that undergo revolutions sometimes find themselves involved in war. Walt further argues that all the four variables or factors constituting threat could be altered by revolution as it modifies the threat calculation “not only in the revolutionary state but also for other countries leading to more chances of conflict” (Camps). The best example to show the accuracy of Walt’s Balance of Threat theory is the Iran nuclear crisis. The two strong powers of global regional extension, viz., USA and Israel formed alliances (balancing) against the relatively weaker state, Iran (in terms of military capabilities and aggregate power). This is because the nuclear armed Iran was perceived as a threat to the regional and Global Security.

To know the distinction between threat and power, I shall mention here a paradox regarding North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO). As Robert O. Keohane puts it, NATO is a “well established institution of pessimism about the future. If one took policy oriented articles on NATO literally, one might tend to believe that NATO has been on a brink of disaster for thirty five years. Yet, NATO is the most successful multilateral alliance in modern history” (Robert.O.Keohane, 1988 (Vol.13.No.1), p. 169). Walt tries to reformulate Waltz’s theory and apply it to another domain. He tries to sort out the ambiguity in Waltz’s theory i.e., emphasis on capability. Walt varies from Balance of Power Theory which states that states “react to change in relative capabilities” and proposes Balance of Threat Theory by arguing that “states balance not merely against superior power but against perceived threats” (Robert.O.Keohane, 1988 (Vol.13.No.1), p. "171). Walt asserted that if Power was the major criterion for alliance formation, during the cold war, most of the allies of United States would have allied with Soviet Union. Another important fact is that unlike Waltz, Walt never generalized his theory, for example, though he argued balancing as the more prominent and suitable state behavior, he doesn’t forcibly apply to all events. He also explained the act of bandwagoning as exceptional behavior.

Criticisms and his explanations

Robert O. Keohane (1988) uses his review of Walt as a general critique of Neorealism; he says, Balance of Threat theory “requires so much information about perceptions as well as objective facts that it has relatively little theoretical power of its own” (Robert.O.Keohane, 1988 (Vol.13.No.1), p. 172). On specializing in alignment decisions in 1930s Europe, Kaufman blamed Walt for being insufficiently complex (using Christensen and Snyder 1990), and drew the wrong conclusions (R.G.Kaufman, 1992), while Labs investigated the alignment behavior of small states. Labs recommended the differentiation of six different strategies by reinforcing Walt’s theory (E.J.Labs, 1992). Walt accepted Labs’ views by arguing that “Kaufman’s analysis consisted of misinterpretations and that his own results, in contrast, supported the Balance of Threat theory” (Walt S. , The Origins of Alliances Ithaca, 1990).

Another major criticism for Walt’s Balance of Threat theory was given by John Vasquez. He framed his criticism on the basis of ‘Lakatos model of scientific progress’. He critiques Walt by pointing his theory as a direct refutation of the Waltz’s Neorealist Balance of Power theory. He argues that if power and threat are independent entities as perceived by Walt, then, there is some problem in the realist world. He further comments that Walt did not give as much historical evidences to support his theory.

In response to this, Walt finds fault with Vasquez’s ideas and in particular deficit sample size. He asserts that Vasquez tries to critique him and Realism using inadequate resources. Moreover, only when the core assumption of a tradition is debatable, there would be scope for progress.

Other contributions

In addition to Walt’s most significant Balance of Threat Theory, he further argues that revolutions can alter the state’s behavior in his book, “Revolution and War”. His contribution to the middle east issue and US foreign policy favoring Israel in many articles and books including the most controversial, “Israel Lobby and the US Foreign Policy”, co-authored with the offensive realist, John Marshiemer. As stated earlier, ‘Renaissance in Security Studies’, his work on security studies do need mention.


Realism is a much broader tradition and is natural to have different opinions put forth by different theorists mostly contradicting each other. Walt’s theory despite criticisms modified the world of realist thought. One of the important notable is Walt’s non generalization of concepts and his intelligent way of application to various events of the world, past and present. It is true that he derived his theory from Waltz’s Balance of Power theory, yet, he should be credited for proposing a reformulated theory and its application in a different domain. His slight deviation from Neorealist is more or less contextual, rather than theoretical. This can be overall assessed as an important contextual contribution to realist thought at the time of revival of liberal and constructivist ideas.

Vasanthakumar B.G. is a 2nd year student at the Indian Institute of Technology, Department of Humanities and Social Sciences. 


Interview - Stephen Walt. (2013, October 11). Retrieved September 25, 2016, from E-INTERNATIONAL RELATIONS: http://www.e-ir.info

wikipedia. (2016, july). Retrieved spetember 22, 2016, from https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Stephen_Walt

Bandwagoning. (n.d.). Retrieved October 2, 2016, from http://www.wikipedia.org

Camps, H. (n.d.). Revisiting Revolution adn War; a qualitative study of the arab spring.

E.J.Labs. (1992). Do Weak states Bandwagon? . Security Studies 1(3), 383-416.

R.G.Kaufman. (1992). 'To Balance or To Bandwagon?' Alignment decisions in 1930s Europe. Security Studies 1(3), 417-447.

Robert.O.Keohane. (1988 (Vol.13.No.1)). Alliances, Threats and the Uses of Neorealism. international Security summer , 169-176.

Walt, S. (1987). The Origins of Alliances. Cornell University Press.

Walt, S. (1990). The Origins of Alliances Ithaca. New York: Cornell University Press.

Walt, S. (1991,35). The Renaissance of Security Studies. International SecurityQuarterly, 211-239.

Walt, S. (1997). The Progressive Power of Realism. American Political Science Review.

Waltz, K. (1979). Theory of International Politics. McGraw-Hill.

Waltz, K. (1997). Evaluating theories. The American Political Science Review,91(4), 913-917.


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