Assessing offense-defense theory: A structural explanation for intrastate war and ethnic conflict

Date of Completion

January 2009


Political Science, General




The relative ease of attack and defense—the offense-defense balance (ODB), is a widely used explanatory concept in international politics. This dissertation proposes that there is a unique and significant effect of the offense-defense balance (ODB) on intrastate war. This project seeks to advance the literature on utilizing ODB to explain domestic outcomes. It will be argued that, in contrast to previous scholars holding that the specific systemic condition of defense-dominance following a period of offense-dominance, in this case the end of the Cold War, correlates with and accounts for internal contraction and ethnic conflict, states do not necessarily contract when the ODB becomes defense-dominant. Instead, the argument will be made that the offense-defense balance within the international system should not be viewed as a cause of ethnic conflict, however, a model of ODB at the state level or the second level of analysis can be utilized as a domestic theory elucidating the causes of intrastate conflict. ^ At the domestic level, a theory of the offense-defense balance based on military factors, social and political order, and diplomatic factors finds that the ODB affects the domestic balance of power and domestic competition for political power and material resources. An ODB of offense dominance leads to the strengthening of an ethnic or secessionist movement when the secessionists perceive that they have the ability to prevail over their rival or the state quickly, the result of increased confidence in the legitimacy of their self-determination claims due to increased capability relative to their opponents. The sides then face a security dilemma in which mobilization by any side can pose a real offensive threat to others. However, this sometimes will lead to intrastate war and sometimes will not. As a proximate cause of intrastate conflict, the interaction of particular domestic variables is still necessary. First, there could be a member of the power elite there to manipulate the domestic situation to stay in power or to get into power. In addition, pre-existing ethnic cleavages or ancient hatreds may play a significant role in identity politics. ^