Bismarck and Defensive Realism – An analysis of Otto Von Bismarcks Foreign Policy


By Shahvaiz Fawad

Writer is a UK based Pakistani student of Essex University UK.

Defensive Realism can be used to explain Bismarck’s foreign policy after German unification (1870-71)

Defensive-Realism being one of the sub-branches of Neo-Realism (theory presented by Kenneth Waltz, John Mearsheimer) has played a very influential role in International politics. Waltz and Mearsheimer have both made tremendous contributions in promoting the theory of Neo-Realism, however there has been a difference of opinion between these two regarding how neo-realism should be applied in politics. Kenneth Waltz puts more stress on Defensive-Realism, where he argued   that States were more concerned with survival and guaranteeing their own security, which they manage to, do by gaining power. John Mearsheimer on the other hand puts greater emphasis on offensive realism, presenting the argument that States are concerned with power and want to become a Hegemon. After analyzing both points of views, I believe that Kenneth Waltz stance on Defensive-Realism is more practical, since the security of a State within a region is the most important factor to its survival. Even though Internal Balancing (military buildup) is important for any State, External Balancing (maintaining strong alliances) is the key to the survival of any State in the region where it is located. A great historical example of how Defensive- Realism has been used by a nation in order to preserve its power and security is the foreign policy of Otto Von Bismarck. Bismarck was renowned for his implementation of Realpolitik (politics based on Realism), which was very beneficial to the German Empire (1871-90) in terms of security for the state. To further support my argument as to why I prefer Defensive-Realism as a political theory, I will also give examples of how Waltz believed Defensive-Realism needed to be practiced by States, whilst also highlighting the arguments presented by Mearsheimer and why I disagree with them.

Germany’s triumph over France in 1871(Franco-German war),following her previous victory over Austria in 1866,not only unified the German states under Prussia, but also made the German Empire the strongest military power on the continent. This event upset the existing balance of power in Europe, as many European States feared that the new German Empire would continue to pursue an aggressive foreign policy. Bismarck however, harbored no further expansionist designs. According to him Germany was a satisfied power and dismissed any further conquest as “folly beyond all political reason”. Even though European powers such as Great Britain, France, Russia, and Austria-Hungary all in some ways feared for German hegemony on the continent, this concern turned out to be futile. For Bismarck had achieved his aim of a Prussian-dominated German state, his main objective was about the security of the German Empire. For German security to be guaranteed on the continent, Bismarck shrewdly made a series of alliances that was beneficial to German interests, and made sure that Germany was not in direct conflict with any of the European powers. This approach by Bismarck is in line with Kenneth Waltz, who believes that the preferences of States are that, above all, they seek self-preservation. This however does not mean that all States want to ensure their survival, or that some States are not offensive minded at all. It just highlights the main priority of all States, regardless of what else they want to achieve.

So even if Bismarck did have some sort of plan to expand the borders of the German Empire through warfare, his main objective was always about maintaining the security of Germany. With regards to the nature of States, John Mearsheimer asserts that powerful States “maximize their relative power” because there is a limitless power struggle among nations as they set out to achieve security in an anarchic international system. Mearsheimer also points out that States that have the ability to cause harm to each other, will try to amass as much power in order to defend themselves from a possible attack. In short, Mearsheimer emphasizes that the search for power and security among States is insatiable, whilst Waltz believes that power for States has its limits. Mearsheimer thus disagrees with Waltz theory and negates the premise of Defensive-Realism. Whilst Mearsheimer does have some good points regarding the behavior of states and their appetite for power, I believe that there are limits on how much power States can achieve in the International system. For this reason, Waltz has a more practical approach to power politics among nations. Waltz states that: “In anarchy, security is the highest end. Only if survival is assured can states safely seek such other goals as tranquility, profit and power. The first concern of states is not to maximize power but to maintain their positions in the system”

Bismarck’s rule as Chancellor of the German Empire, to a great extent followed the ideas set out by Waltz, since he was more concerned about establishing Germany’s place in the multipolar European system rather than continuously trying to maximize German power. The geographical position of Germany also played an important role in Bismarck’s defensive minded policies. Since Germany was located in central Europe, it was vulnerable to attack on three fronts, from it western border France could cause it problems, from its eastern border Russia could launch an attack and even Germanys southern border was not safe due to the presence of the powerful Austria-Hungary. Hence Bismarck needed to find a way to keep Germany safe on at least two fronts and prevent France from forming an alliance with either Russia or Austria-Hungary, which would make Germany prone to an invasion. Bismarck therefore attempted to be on good terms with both Russia and Austria-Hungary despite the fact that these two powers had very tense relations with each other due to the declining Ottoman Empire in the Balkans.

The first alliance set up by Bismarck was the Three Emperors Alliance (Dreikaisersbund) in 1873 between Germany, Russia and Austria-Hungary. This alliance brought three authoritarian powers of Europe into one pact, with the German Kaiser, Tsar of Russia and the Habsburg Emperor all coming to a mutual understanding. The purpose of this alliance was for the three Emperors to stand together in the interests of Monarchical solidarity against the threats of Republicanism and Socialism. It was also a way for Bismarck to reduce tensions between Austria and Russia, due to their differences in the Balkans, which could have resulted in a war. The main premise of the pact was “to consult together so that these divergences do not take precedence over considerations of a higher order,-that is, peace and stability”. This alliance was useful for Bismarck as he found a way to isolate France on the continent and made Germany’s position stronger.

Waltz theory of Defensive-Realism in some ways gives importance to Revisionist States i.e. States that are not satisfied with the current situation of alliances among major powers, and want to shift the alliance system in their favour.The alliance set up by Bismarck in 1873 between Russia and Austria-Hungary is also an example of how Germany behaved like a Revisionist state. Since Bismarck wanted to shift the balance of power in Europe to Germany’s advantage, Status Quo powers such as Great Britain and France felt this change would disturb their plans for a European alliance system according to their requirement. With regards to the desire for power, Waltz emphasizes caution; “The excessive accumulation of power will be self-defeating, because it will merely trigger balancing.” Bismarck, in some ways was probably aware of the effects of trying to obtain more power through expansionism, for that reason he pursued a defensive policy for European affairs. Waltz however does point out that competition for power and security ensues even when all states seek only security.

After some tensions between Germany and France in 1875, where both countries almost went to war, Bismarck knew that his priority was to keep France isolated in Europe and make sure that no sort of anti-German alliance was to be formed. For this reason, Bismarck drastically changed his approach towards foreign policy and made a great effort to influence events which would ensure Germany’s security. This led to the creation of a Bismarckian alliance system (1879-87), with the purpose of influencing European rivalries to the advantage of Germany. Bismarck even stated that “an overall political situation in which all the powers except France have need of us and are…kept from forming coalitions against us by their relations with one another”

In 1879 Bismarck initiated his new alliance system by signing a pact with Austria-Hungary i.e. the Dual Alliance, which acted as a military alliance between Germany and Austria-Hungary in case any of these two countries was attacked by Russia. Bismarck greatly benefitted from this alliance as it had secured the German Empire’s southern border, and could also be used to lure Russia back into an alliance with Germany. This shrewd move of Bismarck worked as Russia had been willing to mend its previous hostilities with both Germany and Austria-Hungary, even though Austria had been skeptical about an alliance with Russia due to their rivalry over the Balkans. Nevertheless, in 1881 the Three Emperors alliance between Germany, Russia and Austria-Hungary had been formed, this was a renewal of the 1873 alliance was made between these monarchical powers. By the terms of the Dreikaiserbund of 1881, each member of the alliance could count on the neutrality of her partners if she was at war with another power. Germany was thus liberated from a Franco-Russian combination against her; hence Germany’s security was boosted. Bismarck reinforced his ground even more, as he utilized Franco-Italian friction over Tunis, formed an alliance with Italy and also integrated it into the Dual Alliance (1879), which resulted in the formation of a Triple Alliance between Germany, Austria-Hungary and Italy in 1882.Biismarck felt that an alliance with Italy was necessary since Russia could not be trusted and there was still a chance of a Franco-Russian alliance being formed and Russia’s reliability seemed dubious. However Italy was considered to be a second-rate power by Bismarck and he was quite skeptical of Italy’s abilities. Bismarck even remarked privately that “she (Italy) had a large appetite but small teeth” Regardless of this fact, Bismarck’s main objective was to increase France’s isolation and Italy seemed to be a useful ally against France.

This clever use of diplomacy by Bismarck in European affairs was very beneficial to Germany’s interests on the continent. His non-aggressive foreign policy shows the practicalities of Waltz’s’ Defensive- Realism and further negates Mearsheimers offensively oriented States theory.Mearsheimer presents his argument for offensive realism by using the analysis of Herz and points out that “the best way for a state to survive in anarchy is to take advantage of other states and gain power at their expense. The best defence is a good offence”. However the foreign policy of the German Empire under the rule of Bismarck presents a different picture. Even though the German Empire was a strong military power and could have defeated France in another war. Bismarck realized that France was able to form an alliance with Russia due to mutual interests, and a Franco-Russian coalition would be very harmful to German interests, since Germany could not fight both countries on two fronts. Bismarck knew that geographically, Germany was sandwiched in central Europe between both France and Russia, so Bismarck knew that securing Germany’s borders from attack was much more important than trying to carry out expansionist policies.

Mearsheimer is skeptical of defensive realists such as Waltz, because they emphasize that offensive strategies are self-defeating, because they trigger balancing countermoves. The argument that Mearsheimer lays out is that offensive military action by a state is not, or need not be, “self-defeating.”Mearsheimer believes that conquest is more often successful and profitable, since territorial expansion is a means to achieving security. The problem of Mearsheimers theory is that there are a number of factors which influence a State’s behavior that he does not address in great detail. Things such as geopolitics, nationalism, multipolarity of system, type of regime and leadership are very influential, especially with regards to foreign policy. If Bismarck had wanted to, he could have extended Germany’s borders through military expansion, yet his great awareness on international issues prevented him from making such irrational moves. Bismarck knew that other European powers, especially France and Russia looked at the German Empire with suspicion due to its strong military, rapid industrialisation and a unique semi-autocratic system. So he made sure that Germany didn’t pursue an aggressive foreign policy which would backfire.

The last of Bismarck’s great foreign policy strokes was the Mediterranean agreement signed in 1887.Under the terms of this pact Britain concluded a formal agreement with Italy and Austria-Hungary to defend the status quo in both the Mediterranean and the Near East. Bismarck had realized that there was too much bad blood between Russia and Austria-Hungary over the Balkans that it became very difficult to include Russia in an Austro-German alliance. Even though Bismarck was still interested in an alliance with Russia for security purposes, the increased friction between German and Russian foreign policy ambition made reconciliation between both nations increasingly unlikely. For this reason Bismarck looked to Great Britain as an alternative to Russia and supervised the Mediterranean agreement. This agreement also allowed Britain and Austria-Hungary to check Russian interests in the Balkans and the Straits of Dardanelles respectively. This agreement was a sort of anti-Russian alliance amongst West European nations in order to stop Russia from attempting to expand its borders or to gain influence in the declining Ottoman Empire.

The alliance system set up by Bismarck (1873-1887) made Germany the major player in International diplomacy amongst European powers. For Bismarck the security of Germany was the most important factor which was considered by Bismarck when he set up various alliances. Bismarck was aware of the fact that Europe during his rule was multipolar with very diverse with both authoritarian regimes and democratic regimes, so he needed to find the right balance in terms of Foreign policy to keep German interests safe and not let Germany be embroiled in a conflict it could not handle. Another consideration made by him was whether the policies he pursued produced solutions that were lasting or only brought short term advantages.

Kenneth Waltz points out that an international system in balance is like a political system of checks and balances. The impulses of a State to behave in arbitrary and high-handed fashion are constrained by the presence of other states which have comparable power. If a State or a combination of States is unable to balance the might of the most powerful is like a political system without checks and balances. Waltz also believes that a benevolent despot is able to fashion wise policies that the compromises of democracy impede. The observations of Waltz on international relations give the regime of Bismarck even more importance, in my opinion. Despite being an authoritarian statesman Bismarck managed to maintain peace in Europe and set up alliances in such a way that would not only benefit Germany, but also reduced the risks of conflict amongst European powers. Even though Great Britain was democratic, it did not play as an important role in European affairs at the time and Britain also did not set up an alliance system as technical as the Bismarckian alliance system. Germany under Bismarck was also able to maintain a balance in a rather unstable multipolar European system where war had been prevented on many occasions between Austria-Hungary and Russia, due to conflicting interests in the Balkans.

Throughout this essay I have highlighted the importance of defensive realism as the basis for behavior of a state in terms of international politics. The foreign policy of Bismarck endorses the theory presented by Kenneth Waltz as to why security is the main objective of a state and the dominance of other states is a secondary objective. For Waltz, the balances of power were recurring outcomes of international relations, and could be derived without the assumption that all states seek to maximize material power. Although material power does significantly matter, it is not an end in itself, but rather is a means to achieving an end. Waltz theory does bring to mind an interesting question i.e. what is the relation between power, state preferences, and state behavior? According to Neo-Realism there is an assumption that all states seek self-preservation, yet it also assumes that states have other preferences, which can differ from one state to another. Otherwise, capabilities would merely be an instrument of self-preservation, which once obtained, would render relative gains useless. Regarding this assumption, Waltz further stressed that the distribution of capabilities is a component of system structure. Relative material power is considered to be the most important commodity of influence an anarchic world. Hence it is important both in terms of self-preservation and the degree of opportunity, that States implement their external preferences, beyond the limits of self-preservation.

When I analyse the way Bismarck conducted international diplomacy, the interesting point which can be considered is that whilst self-preservation of Germany had always been the focus of Bismarck, He did also pursue other interests which would be beneficial for German interests. Bismarck carried out many military reforms in order to strengthen the armed forces of Germany and also made the German Empire a great industrial power due to the high factory production of textiles, coal mining and Iron. Germany had also been rapidly changing from a predominantly rural country in 1870, to a very urbanized one by 1890.This was due to the fact that there was a transformation in the growth of German trade and commerce. Even in terms of Foreign policy, Bismarck obviously wanted to protect Germany from any possible French or Russian attack; there was another purpose of setting up the complex Bismarckian alliance system. Bismarck aimed to make Berlin the diplomatic capitol of Europe and wanted Germany to play a leading role in international diplomacy and affairs. This would, in essence increase the prestige of Germany amongst other European powers and would also make other European countries reliant on Germany in order to solve their respective problems.

Yet Bismarck was always aware that an aggressive foreign policy or an attempt to wage war for the purpose of expanding Germany’s borders would be devastating. This was one of the reasons as to why Germany did not expand to include Austrian Germans in its borders since it would end their dominance as Germany would lose its importance as the main German power of Europe. Bismarck’s skepticism for war-mongering can be highlighted after the Austro-Prussian war in 1867 which unified the Northern German states. Bismarck told a member of the Free German conservative party: “If foreign ministers had always followed their sovereigns to the front, history would have fewer wars to tell of. I have seen on a battlefield and what is far worse in the hospitals is the flower of our youth carried off by wounds and disease; from this window I look down on the Wilhelmstrasse and see many a cripple who looks up and thinks that if the man there had not made that wicked war I should be at home, healthy and strong. With such memories and such sights I should not have a moment’s peace if I had to reproach myself for making war irresponsibly or out of ambition, or the vain seeking of fame”. It is true though that Bismarck was prepared to use war whilst he was Chancellor, but only if it was absolutely necessary and if it could be limited in aim.

Throughout this essay I have shown how Otto von Bismarck’s foreign policy is in line with Kenneth Waltz theory of Defensive Realism. Bismarcks use of Realpolitik and defensively-oriented alliance system was not only advantageous for German interests on the continent, it is also a great example of how Defensive- Realism has been applied by a State in the past. Whilst John Mearsheimer does raise some interesting points regarding the behavior of states in international politics and how obtaining power is important for States, the way Bismarck conducted his foreign policy proves that not all States try to maximize their power or expand their borders. Kenneth Waltz, on the other hand has a much more practical view on international politics and the behaviour of States in a system. I completely agree with Waltz on his point that self-preservation is the main objective of a State, but once self-preservation has been achieved only then can a State try to increase its power and influence in a region. The way a State carries out these acts does not necessarily mean the use of military force, but can be achieved through industrialization, trade, treaties and the setting up of conferences.


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