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Realism, reckless states, and natural selection

Rendall, Matthew



Why is daredevil aggression like Russia’s war on Ukraine such an important factor in world politics? Neither offensive nor defensive realists give a fully satisfactory answer. This paper maintains that the problem lies in their shared assumption that states pursue security. Tracing neorealism’s roots in evolutionary economics, and hence indirectly in biological theories of natural selection, I argue that many policies are compatible with state survival. What is hard is surviving as a great power. States that rise to that rank, and remain there, behave as if they sought to maximize their influence, not their security. This Darwinian competition selects in favor of states with expansionist institutions and ideologies. Failing to recognize this phenomenon risks conferring a spurious legitimacy on imperialism. At the same time, neorealists have also committed a fallacy familiar to biologists: assuming that traits enhancing group fitness are selected even when they diminish fitness in intragroup competition. Whereas interstate competition selects in great powers for traits that promote influence-maximization, with the spread of democracy, intrastate competition increasingly selects for security-seeking. Yet the former process sometimes still dominates the latter, above all in authoritarian great powers.


Rendall, M. (2022). Realism, reckless states, and natural selection. International Relations, Article 004711782211369.

Journal Article Type Article
Acceptance Date Oct 13, 2022
Online Publication Date Dec 4, 2022
Publication Date Dec 4, 2022
Deposit Date Dec 5, 2022
Publicly Available Date Dec 7, 2022
Journal International Relations
Print ISSN 0047-1178
Electronic ISSN 1741-2862
Publisher SAGE Publications
Peer Reviewed Peer Reviewed
Article Number 004711782211369
Keywords democratic peace; evolution; imperialism; multilevel selection; neorealism; structural realism
Public URL
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