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A Neoclassical Realist Approach to Military Doctrines

  • Paolo Rosa
Chapter

Abstract

This chapter describes some of the major explanations of military doctrines. In particular, three approaches are analysed: The balance of power model; the organisational model; and the strategic culture approach. The balance of power model emphasises the role of international factors to explain the development of military doctrines. It emphasises the international structure, the distribution of power and the role played by external threats and action-reaction logic in stimulating the development of military doctrines. The organisational model stresses the role played by organisational culture and bureaucratic interests. The strategic culture approach stresses the importance of socially embedded images of international politics and war for the development of military doctrine. After a review of these approaches, a neoclassical realist model is advanced.

Keywords

Military doctrine Nuclear doctrine Neoclassical realism 

A nuclear doctrine is part of a nation’s military doctrine, i.e., the set of beliefs and norms that regulates the use of weapons. Nuclear doctrine refers to the principle underlying the selection of targets and how nuclear weapons are employed. Military doctrines are influenced by several factors: the international situation; the interest and subculture of military organizations; and policymakers’ images of war and international politics.

2.1 Military Doctrine and Nuclear Doctrine

The Atlantic Alliance (NATO) defines military doctrine as follows: “Fundamental principles by which the military forces guide their actions in support of objectives. It is authoritative but requires judgement in application”.1 Every nation elaborates its military doctrine/doctrines. Military doctrines are strongly influenced by the strategic situation, cultural traditions and other domestic factors. Maoist military doctrines resulted both from the ancient military thought of imperial China and from Mao Zedong’s approach to war and international politics, which itself was influenced by Leninist philosophy and historical contingencies (Powell 1968).

The language used in Chinese official texts to define military thinking is very complex. By borrowing from Soviet terminology, China’s policymakers distinguish between military doctrine, military science and military strategy (Tan Eng Bok 1984).2 To avoid confusion, in this study I use the terminology of Barry Posen, not the official terminology used by national military services. Posen defines military doctrine as follows: the subcomponent of grand strategy that deals explicitly with military means. It addresses the question of what means shall be employed and how they shall be employed. Military doctrine reflects the judgements of professional military officers and civilian leaders concerning what is and is not militarily possible and necessary (Posen 1984: 13, 14).

Nuclear doctrine is a subcomponent of military doctrine that includes the beliefs, principles, and operational concepts concerning what types of nuclear device to produce (e.g., ground-launched missile, bomb, submarine-launched missile), when and how they are employed (i.e., strategically or tactically), and against what types of target (i.e., civilian or military targets).

Military doctrines are important because they affect many dimensions of military behaviour. As Posen states, military doctrine affects the offence/defence/deterrence balance. Some military doctrines are more defence-oriented: they privilege an approach to war and military affairs that stresses the dominant role of cautious strategies and passive defence. Conversely, an offensive doctrine underlines the virtues of mobility, preventive/pre-emptive attacks, outflanking manoeuvres, encircling and so on. The “cult of the offensive” on the eve of First World War is an example of such a type of military doctrine. The cult of the offensive refers to the fact that (Van Evera 1984):
  • The military prefers offensive strategies and elaborates plans centred on offensive actions.

  • Offensive actions are deemed superior to defensive actions because they can achieve a quick victory through striking a decisive blow.

  • Offensive actions are considered the best method for addressing threats to national security.

The Maoist doctrine of the “People’s War” stressed a strategy of active defence based on luring the adversary deep into Chinese territory to exploit the knowledge of the terrain and the support of the people to defeat a militarily superior force.

After World War II and the development of nuclear weapons, the balance between offence/defence/deterrence tilted towards the last term. Because of the destructive power of nuclear weapons, nuclear doctrine elaborated on changing the probability of a war more than the probability of winning a war (Huntington 1961).

Military doctrines also affect the relationships among the different components—military, political, economic, cultural—of a national grand strategy (Posen 1984). Maoist military doctrine stressed the multifaceted nature of military strategy. For many years, the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) has been considered to be a “political” army more than a professional army, and it has often been used for economic and political/revolutionary tasks (Gittings 1967).

Finally, military doctrine affects the balance between innovation and stagnation (Posen 1984). Many military doctrines are characterized by a conservative attitude that tends to discourage military innovation, concerning both weapons development and operational concepts. Military services are very reluctant with regard to changing their routines and traditional procurement methods. They prefer minimal civilian intrusion in their affairs and autonomy, and normally, only a dramatic event, such as a defeat on the battlefield, can produce a change in behavioural routines and doctrines.

2.2 International Source of Military Doctrine: The “Balance of Power” Model

The development of military doctrine is influenced by the position of a state in the international system and by the level of conflict. The balance of power and the emergence of military threats can stimulate policymakers to devise new methods to cope with external events.

Wilhelmine Germany’s position in the middle of Europe favoured the elaboration of a highly offensive military doctrine based on a two-front war: the notorious Schlieffen Plan. It resulted from the perception of a strategic predicament that could be solved only using a very risky military behaviour that envisaged attacking on both the western front and the eastern theatre.

Strategic position is not the only determinant of military doctrine. As Gunther Rothenberg states, the delicate position of Germany was clearly evident to the Prussian General Staff. However, the response of General Helmut von Moltke the Elder was very different compared to the risky plan later developed by Alfred von Schlieffen (Rothenberg 1986). Moltke was not convinced that Prussia could defeat France first and then move troops to the eastern front to defeat the Russian armed forces. After the Franco-Prussian War of 1870–1871, he realized that a blitzkrieg was very hazardous and was not very likely to succeed. Thus, he proposed a prudent strategy based on limited attacks on the two fronts to build strong defensive positions. Schlieffen modified Moltke’s plan. He developed a new strategy centred on striking a decisive blow to the west that aimed to knock out France and then move troops against Russia, which was slower to mobilize.

Germany’s offensive military doctrine was the result of the perception of a change in the balance of power between Berlin, Paris, and Moscow. However, the different responses of Moltke and Schlieffen also illustrate how leaders’ personalities, their different evaluations of the strategic situation, and the different domestic climates (the Schlieffen plan appeared in a period characterized by the cult of the offensive) can affect the final result.

The very different position of insular countries such as Great Britain and the United States can explain their insistence on a naval doctrine and the importance attributed to the control of sea-lanes. Prussia, encircled by powerful enemies, developed a sort of garrison state and devised a very aggressive military doctrine. The UK and the US, defended by the sea and with no vital interest threatened, could allow a more relaxed doctrine and give less importance to the development of a standing professional army. As Stephen Krasner writes about the US:

The weakness of the American polity is deeply embedded in the country’s history. America has never needed a strong state. The political, social, and economic imperatives that have enhanced the role of the state in Japan and continental Europe have been much less compelling in the United States. First, with one minor exception (the war of 1812), the United States has never been confronted with foreign invasion. Second, American society has been unusually cohesive, and dominant social values have been congruent with the needs of a modern economy. Third, the American economy has performed extraordinarily well without much direct government intervention, and the abundance generated by the economic success has mitigated the demands placed upon the state. (Krasner 1978: 66)

This strategic position affected not only the strength of political institutions—producing a weak state—but also military doctrine, with a prominent role played by the prophets of naval power, such as Alfred Thayer Mahan (Crowl 1986).

Mao’s doctrine of the “People’s War” was partially the result of the balance of power between the Red Army and Chang Kai-shek’s nationalist army. Mao adapted communist military strategy to the reality of power relations in China. His analysis of the strategic situation was more correct than the analysis of Moscow’s advisers, who proposed a strategy based on the classical occupation of cities. The clash between Li Lisan and Mao’s line was a clash between an orthodox doctrine that pretended to apply to China the strategy that resulted in the victory of the Russian revolution and a doctrine based on the analysis of the actual conditions in China that had been developed in the 1930s and 1940s to fight, first, Guomindang and, then, Japan.3

To summarize how the international position/balance of power affects military doctrines, Posen states that (1984: 78–79):
  • Expansionist powers prefer an offensive doctrine.

  • The prospect of great damages leads to a preference for an offensive doctrine that shifts the burden of war onto the adversary’s territory.

  • An encircled state can prefer a pre-emptive/preventive doctrine.

  • States without allies prefer an offensive doctrine to use their military power as a diplomatic bargaining chip.

  • Weak states and status quo states favour defensive doctrines.

  • Defeats on the battlefield can stimulate military innovation and integration between the different elements of the grand strategy.

2.3 Domestic Sources of Military Doctrine (1): The Organizational Model

“Military doctrines are in the day-to-day custody of military organizations. Such organizations have a large part of the responsibility both for the construction of military doctrine and for its execution in wartime […] certain attributes of modern military organizations affect their attitude to offense, defence, and deterrence; to political-military integration; and to innovation” (ibid.: 42). Military organizations have different conceptions of national security and propose different military doctrines.

One of the main factors influencing the support for one type or another type of military doctrine is concerned with parochial interests. According to Miles’s law , “where you stand depends on where you sit” (Allison 1971; Halperin 1974). The role influences the way that actors see both the problems and the solutions to address them. People tend to identify with their organization (which determines their careers) and its interests. The behaviour of policymakers reflects the interests of the organization for which they work. Doctrines that translate into an increase in the organization’s budget, a strengthening of its role, and an improvement in staff morale or that allow the single military service strict control over the management of policies are favoured (Halperin 1974: 28–58).

For Posen, military organizations support offensive doctrines because these doctrines reduce the uncertainty arising from a strategy that leaves the opponent to make the first move (the attacker decides how, where and when to move; in other words, the attacker defines the characteristics of the battlefield). Offensive doctrines also justify greater autonomy from civilian authorities and encourage the growth, in terms of size and budget, of armed forces. Furthermore, organizational interests prompt a doctrine that is less inclined to innovation and that is poorly integrated with the other components of a national grand strategy (Posen 1984: 58).

The pivotal role of the infantry in the Chinese military structure contributed to the persistence of the doctrine of the “People’s War”. For a long period of time, the Navy (PLAN) and the Air Force (PLAAF) played an ancillary role in China’s armed forces (Shambaugh 2002).

The main support for the Eisenhower policy of massive retaliation, which was formulated in a climate of great concern for the growth of the federal budget, was from the Air Force, which, with its ability to delivery atomic bombs to targets, was the only military organization able to ensure strategy implementation. The New Look doctrine resulted in a reduction in appropriations for the Army and the Navy and in an increase in funding for the Air Force (Snyder 1962).

In the case of the New Look doctrine, military organizations pushed for a highly offensive doctrine. In other cases, however, the interests of military organizations can promote the emergence of a defensive doctrine. Elizabeth Kier studied the influence of the organizational subculture of the French Army on military doctrine between the two world wars (Kier 1995). She focuses on how the different organizational subcultures of the armed forces, and the interaction between them and domestic political dynamics, favoured a shift from a preference for an offensive doctrine, which had been dominant until the First World War, to a defence-orientated doctrine thereafter.

According to Kier, the reason the French military supported a defensive doctrine after World War I is to be found in the internal political debate on the societal role of the armed forces and in the manner in which the organizational culture of the military services affected their response to this debate. In the late 1920s, the political forces of the centre-left enacted a law for the reduction of military service to one year, forcing the army to reform its military doctrine. For Kier, the choice of a defensive strategy was not predetermined by external structural factors (as neorealism would expect). It was the organizational culture of the French military to push them toward this type of solution. The choice made by France’s leaders to shorten military service was a response to internal problems that had no connection to the German threat. As Kier notes:

Despite the compelling strategic environment, French policymakers responded to domestic, not international factors when deciding on the organizational structure of the army. The reduction in the term of conscription to one year responded to the left’s fear of domestic threats, not to German capabilities or alliance diplomacy. The army reacted to this decision within the constraints of its organizational culture. Instead of choosing an offensive doctrine as posited by functional arguments, the French army adopted a defensive doctrine. (Kier 1995: 72)

French officers were convinced that a one-year military training would not produce a soldier who would be able to perform offensive actions.

Kier’s study shows that military organizations are not necessarily inclined to support offensive doctrines. In response to particular domestic political events, military organizations may opt for a defensive doctrine. By having to cope with an army of poorly trained conscripts, the French General Staff chose the only path that its organizational subculture indicated as correct: the adoption of a defensive doctrine. This consideration warns against approaches that do not take into account the interplay between domestic politics and other factors.

2.4 Domestic Sources of Military Doctrine (2): Strategic Cultures

An early study on the cultural sources of military doctrine is that by the American anthropologist Ruth Benedict (1946). Benedict’s research, which was funded by the Military Intelligence Service of the US government, aimed for a better understanding of how a country that was culturally distant from the United States waged war. The work of Ruth Benedict was centred on the idea that cultural traditions influence a country’s approach to international politics, war and the use of force. Although this idea fell into disuse during the post-war period for diverse reasons (e.g., theoretical, methodological and practical), in the mid-1990s, international relations (IR) scholars have resumed analysing the ideational/cultural basis of the international behaviour of states (Katzenstein 1996; Checkel 1998; Farrell 1998).

The introduction of the concept of strategic culture facilitated the systematic analysis of the relationship between culture and security policies (Johnston 1995; Desch 1998; Lantis 2009; Zaman 2009). Johnston differentiates three generations of studies on strategic cultures. The first generation includes studies that were conducted in the late 1970s and early 1980s on the behaviour of the US and USSR in the field of nuclear doctrine.

In the early 1970s, there was a major shift in US nuclear doctrine concerning the principles of target selection (Freedman 1989: Chapter 25). The new policy allowed the possibility of using nuclear weapons not only as a tool of deterrence but also for limited attacks on an enemy’s military targets. This revision was driven both by the need—more or less felt by all administrations—to provide policymakers with a greater number of viable options if deterrence should fail and by the process of nuclear weapons modernization (O’Sullivan 1990: 177). The new nuclear doctrine, established in memorandum NSDM-242, was announced in March 1974 during a congressional hearing with Secretary of Defence James Schlesinger (Cordesman 1982: 14). The core of the Schlesinger doctrine was the concept of “limited strategic options”: the nuclear arsenal would be used against non-military targets with a low population density and military targets in the territory of the Soviet Union and its Warsaw Pact allies. The premise of this review was that a restrained American behaviour on the nuclear battlefield would be matched by a similar behaviour by the Soviets.

Against the theoretical postulates of the Schlesinger doctrine, i.e., Soviet leaders would act in a manner similar to their American counterparts, in 1977, Jack Snyder published a work on Soviet strategic culture. Snyder argued that it was wrong to think that Soviet leaders would tackle nuclear issues in the same way as American leaders. Russian leaders were not abstract actors seeking to maximize their payoff, according to the formal logic of game theory, but “politicians and bureaucrats who have developed and been socialized into a strategic culture that is in many ways unique and who have exhibited distinctive stylistic predispositions in their past crisis behavior” (Snyder 1977: 4).

Two other social scientists helped pave the way for the study of strategic cultures: Ken Booth and Colin Gray. The first focused on the relationship between ethnocentrism and strategy. For Booth, the concept of strategic culture includes national traditions and values, socially shared attitudes, and behavioural patterns related to the problem of the use of force (Booth 1979). These elements have a cultural dimension because, over time, they resist changes in military technology and the international system. Ethnocentrism generates a sort of “cultural fog” that can mislead military planners.

In an article on the American military style, Colin Gray highlighted the importance of studying strategic culture. “In the late 1970s, American defense commentators ‘discovered’ something they really had known all along–that the Soviet Union did not appear to share many of the beliefs and practices that are central to the American idea of international order” (Gray 1981: 21). According to Gray, the strategic culture provides the context within which security issues are debated and defence policies are processed; knowledge of the strategic culture helps better understand why certain military decisions are made.

According to Johnston, this generation was plagued by two errors: an unrigourous definition of the concept of strategic culture and an overdeterministic approach. The second generation of studies in the late 1980s was characterized by an instrumental vision of ideational factors. This generation considered culture to be a simple expedient that was employed to hide the real motivations of actions (Klein 1988). The problem with this approach was that it missed the possibility of rhetorical entrapment, that is, the fact that political elites can be constrained by the words and myths that they use.

The third generation of studies on strategic cultures appeared in the 1990s in the wake of the constructivist turn in IR, and it was characterized by a greater methodological rigour and a more careful specification of the independent and dependent variables. This generation has three main characteristics. First, it attempts to avoid overdeterministic affirmations. Second, it is interested in comparing and empirically testing hypotheses that are derived from different models.4 Third, the studies performed by the third generation share a similar conception of culture: “culture either presents decision makers with limited range of options or it acts as a lens that alters the appearance and efficacy of different choices” (Johnston 1995: 42).

Thus, if military doctrines are the subcomponents of a grand strategy that addresses the question of what means shall be employed and how they shall be employed, then strategic culture is an important theoretical tool to explain how states develop their specific military doctrines: whether they are oriented more towards an offensive strategy or a defensive strategy; whether the strategy is more or less integrated with the other components—economic, political, cultural—of a nation’s grand strategy; and whether it is more or less prone to innovation or stagnation. Because a strategic culture is relatively stable for a prolonged period of time, it is very useful in explaining a conservative attitude, despite change at the international structural level. However, this approach has some problems explaining changes in military doctrine when no particular dramatic event, which would be able to modify the basic cultural tenets of an actor, is at work. Thus, in the case of Chinese nuclear doctrine and its modification in the mid/late 1980s, the strategic culture approach has little to say because there was no significant change at the level of the political-military culture of Chinese policymakers between the two periods analysed in this study.

One way to solve this puzzle is to systematically consider all the variables underlined by the approaches analysed above: international variables; domestic variables; and ideational variables. This task is what neoclassical realism attempts to do by reinserting unit-level variables, such as domestic politics and the perceptions of elites, into the balance of power model.5

2.5 A Neoclassical Realist Framework of China’s Nuclear Doctrine Formation

Neoclassical realism emerges as a reaction to the incapacity of neorealism (or structural realism) to offer a theory of foreign policy and explain what states do and why. It is true that some scholars have attempted to show that is possible to develop a foreign policy theory using neorealist assumptions (Elman 1996), but leading neorealists, and Kenneth Waltz in primis (1979), have insisted that this theory is mainly concerned with international politics (i.e., recurring patterns of state interactions), not foreign policy (i.e., the external behaviour of a single state).

Neoclassical realism starts from an established realist position: the main actors in international politics are states, and their behaviours are stimulated by changes in the balance of power. To this basic tenet it adds several specifications: between the change in the balance of power and state (re)action there is not a direct link; there are many intervening variables, located at the unit level (individual and domestic variables), which affect how a government responds to international events.

William Wohlforth’s (1987) work on perception and balance of power moved in this direction. He analysed the perception of national power on the eve of WWI, showing that European policymakers misperceived the strength of Russia. In particular, French, English and Italian policymakers inclined to overrate Russian power, whereas Central Empires tended to underrate it. Thus, according to Wohlforth, the perception of elites is “clearly an important medium- and short-term explanatory variable. In some ways, it links long-term changes in the distribution of power with short-term perceptual explanation of the onset of war” (Wohlforth 1987: 381).

Many studies published by scholars during the 1990s used an approach that criticized neorealism’s disinterest in unit-level variables.6 Randall Schweller’s study on revisionist states is a case in point (Schweller 1994, 1998). Starting with the incapacity of neorealism to explain when states choose a balancing or bandwagoning strategy, Schweller introduced a unit-level factor to understand states’ different behaviours. In 1994, he developed a typology, reprised and refined in his book on the balance of power between the two world wars, which classified states according to two dimensions: power (i.e., great, middle, and small powers) and international goals (i.e., from a minimum goal of defence to a maximum goal of world hegemony). In this manner, he was able to group states according to their inclination towards a status quo goal (i.e., lions, owls/hawks, and doves) or a revisionist goal (i.e., wolves, foxes, jackal) or based on indifferent interests (i.e., ostriches, lambs) (Schweller 1998: 84–89).

Introducing unit-level variables, Schweller departed from the neorealist tenet that only systemic pressures are important in explaining international behaviour. For Schweller, ideological factors were very important in understanding states’ attitudes towards world affairs. Fascist ideology was critical in explaining the foreign policy of major revisionist states (e.g., Hitler’s Germany, a wolf) and minor revisionist states (e.g., Mussolini’s Italy, an example of a jackal).

Another important example of a study that uses an approach that anticipates neoclassical realism is Fareed Zakaria’s From Wealth to Power. The main argument of Zakaria concerning the rise of the US as a world power is that the weakness of American political institutions prevented/retarded the possibility of extracting social resources that could be transformed into political influence at the international level. The state-society relationship, and how it affects the government’s reaction to international events, represents an important research area in contemporary neoclassical realism.7

Thomas Christensen’s study on Sino-American relations in the 1950s follows an approach that is consistent with the neoclassical realist attention to studying the interplay between systemic and unit-level variables (Christensen 1996). Christensen analyses how the domestic turmoil produced by the Great Leap Forward prompted an international crisis in the Taiwan Strait in 1958. According to Christensen, the main problem with the industrial crash program envisioned by the Great Leap Forward was that it demanded great material sacrifices from the people. The program engendered a sharp increase in the price of goods and a general worsening of living standards due to the massive shift of investment from the consumer sector to heavy industry. Mao believed that this problem could be overcome with a return to the revolutionary fervour that characterized the years of the anti-Japanese War and the civil war, when people, motivated by a political cause, worked hard without any material compensation. Because, in 1958, there were no conditions that could justify the sacrifices that the Great Leap Forward required, Mao had to create them. He decided to militarize the society by launching the “everyone a soldier” mass campaign. To have people be willing to accept sacrifices, an external enemy that could produce a “rally round the flag” effect was needed. The creation of an international crisis functioned to create popular support for the policy of the Great Leap Forward. Prime Minister Zhou Enlai declared that the bombardment of Jinmen “had two steps: the first was to recover the offshore islands; the second, to liberate Taiwan. Later, after we began shelling Jinmen, our bombardment played a role in mobilizing the people of the world, especially the Chinese people […] if we need tension, we can shell Jinmen and Mazu; if we want relaxation, we can stop shelling”.8 The propaganda machine of the CCP was put to work to convince the Chinese people of the connection between Guomindang and the American threat and support for the Great Leap Forward.

As Gideon Rose—who coined the term “neoclassical realism”—sums up:

Its adherents [to neoclassical realism] argue that the scope and ambition of a country’s foreign policy is driven first and foremost by its place in the international system and specifically by its relative material power capabilities. This is why they are realist. They argue further, however, that the impact of such power capabilities on foreign policy is indirect and complex because systemic pressure must be translated through intervening variables at the unit level: This is why they are neoclassical. (Rose 1998: 146)

Since the publication of Rose’s article, neoclassical realism has developed a sweeping research agenda.9 In the “manifesto” by Steven Lobell, Norrin Ripsman and Jeffrey Taliaferro (2009), the main characteristics and the variables that need to be taken into consideration are presented in detail.

The neorealist approach identifies three groups of variables to be taken into account to explain foreign policy decisions: systemic factors (i.e., balance of power); domestic factors (i.e., state-society relations, elite cohesion/fragmentation, regime vulnerability, and strategic cultures); and individual factors (i.e., policymakers’ perceptions and misperceptions). Domestic and individual factors represent the transmission belt between the change in the balance of power (i.e., international windows of opportunity and vulnerability) and the (re)action of states. As Schweller puts it, only in the case of a strong coherent fascist state can scholars expect governments to behave as a billiard ball, reacting to the moves of other actors, according to the neorealist’s previsions (Schweller 2006: Chapter 5). States actually are strongly divided along political, economic, ethnic, and cultural dimensions; the perceptions of elites can be biased by several factors, from wishful thinking to groupthink; governments may not have the capacity to extract from society the resources that are needed to respond to international inputs; the vulnerability of the regime prevents bold action that can jeopardize its stability; the strategic culture affects elites’ perceptions of available options and their efficacy. All these things considered, to explain specific foreign policy decisions, it is necessary to analyse both change at the international level and the characteristics of policymakers and their domestic environment.

In neoclassical realism, the most important systemic factor is the balance of power, i.e., the distribution of material resources at the international level. The anarchical nature of the international system, the homogeneity/heterogeneity of the actors (e.g., democratic states, authoritarian states, liberal regimes, theocratic regimes, etc.),10 the distribution of power (i.e., unipolar, bipolar or multipolar), and the level of conflict are all important factors in explaining states’ behaviours. However, as neoclassical realists state, systemic factors alone cannot explain why states adopt a particular decision in a particular moment. To understand this fact, it is important to reintroduce individual and domestic variables.

Changes at the international level can affect foreign policy decisions only if they are perceived and framed by policymakers. The perceptions of elites can be correct but can also be either overly optimistic or overly pessimistic. This phenomenon can be the result of processes of self-delusion, motivated/unmotivated biases, attempts to seek relief from decisional stress that results from values trade-off, or other psychological mechanisms, such as cognitive consistency and groupthink.

In the case of cognitive consistency, the balance between cognitive factors and emotional factors drives people to interpret a particular action using the overall assessment of that actor as a benchmark. Decision makers positively consider the actions of a state about which they have a good evaluation and negatively consider those of a country who they despise (ignoring the actual content of the action). Moreover, there is a process of interaction between the manner in which policymakers judge information and the manner in which they judge the source from which it comes: people believe information from sources that are considered in a positive manner and disregard information from discredited sources (Jervis 1976, 1989).

Groupthink occurs in highly cohesive groups that are characterized by social homogeneity, relative isolation, and strong leadership and who find themselves in a situation of decisional stress. In these cases, it is easy for a number of symptoms to emerge, which can produce an underestimation of external threats or an overestimation of the probability of success (Janis 1982).

Policymakers’ perceptions represent an intervening variable that filters both the effects of systemic factors on policy and the input from the domestic environment. The strength of elite cohesion is critical at the domestic level. Because of their strategic culture, role, and parochial interest, different policymakers can propose and support different strategies to cope with external events. Regime vulnerability, power competition, and politicians’ interest in maintaining power can spur both overreaction and underbalancing.11 Decisions that can be rational, from the international perspective, can be completely irrational, from the domestic perspective. “The unusual complexity of this two-level game is that moves that are rational for a player at one board (such as raising energy prices, conceding territory, or limiting auto imports) may be impolitic for the same player at the other board” (Putnam 1988: 434). Some external threats pose a greater risk to regime stability than to national security.

Other domestic variables that are important in explaining a state’s behaviour are linked to the availability of power resources and a state’s extractive capacity: some state can easily translate societal resources into instruments of power projection (strong states); other states (weak states) are captured by societal interests and cannot translate potential power into actual power (Rosa 2006). Strategic cultures can produce an overemphasis on military instruments or, conversely, on non-coercive diplomatic tools. Domestic interest groups can try to affect decisions according to their parochial interests, complicating the formulation of a coherent national foreign policy. The neoclassical realist approach is sketched in Fig. 2.1.
Fig. 2.1

A neoclassical realist explanation of foreign policy decisions

(Source Ripsman et al. 2016: 31)

Neoclassical realism seems particularly valuable to understand China’s military behaviour: it takes into account both the systemic pressures stemming from changes in the international balance of power and the domestic influences that a contentious political system such as China’s (especially during the Cultural Revolution) exercise on decisions about how to respond to external events.12

To explain the development of China’s nuclear doctrine, it is necessary to consider the international environment in which Mao’s decisions concerning atomic weapons matured, Chinese policymakers’ perceptions of the balance of power, and the domestic constraints within which they decided. Given the particular nature of the communist regime, which was centred on the dominant position of the Party/State, the dynamics of elite politics and the vulnerability of the regime are the most important variables between systemic factors and the reaction of the state. Variables related to social cohesion and the role of interest groups or the extractive capacity of the state are less significant.13

Even after the changes introduced by Deng Xiaoping and Jiang Zemin, the elitist nature of Chinese politics has remained unchanged (Pye 1981; Unger 2002; Bo 2007, 2010). As Joseph Fewsmith writes: “The picture of the Chinese politics laid out above suggests that important changes in state-society relations, in the role of ideology, in the impact of norms and institutions and in the broader political atmosphere have not so much changed the fundamentals of Chinese politics and the rules of the game, as conditioned their exercise” (Fewsmith 2002: 272).

The implication is not that things are always the same: the patterns of elite coalition-building change according to the degree of internal cohesion and the distribution of power (Dogan and Higley 1998; Dittmer 2002). Foreign policy decisions under Mao were made differently vis-à-vis the period of the reforms. Throughout Mao’s time in power, the foreign policy of China was Mao’s foreign policy. In the period from 1949 to 1966, all major international initiatives (e.g., the Korean War, the split with the USSR, the nuclear programme, the Sino-Indian conflict, and the “third front” policy) stemmed from Mao or had his strong approval (Bachman 1998). Politics in China, until the outbreak of the Cultural Revolution, resembled a “palace game” in which leaders attempted to guess Mao’s true intentions to position themselves on the winning side, i.e., the side supported by the dominant leader (Teiwes 1990). This situation was the result of an elite structure characterized by a strong ideological consensus and a vertical distribution of power resulting from the special position occupied by Mao Zedong (Teiwes 1990; Goldstein 1991). The power of Mao was a combination of tradition (his resemblance to emperors of ancient dynasties), charisma (Mao was regarded as the most brilliant political and military strategist), and formal authority (based on control over the armed forces) (Teiwes 1984).

During the years of the Cultural Revolution, politics was characterized by hard factionalism (Nathan 1973; Goldstein 1991: 34–66; Tsou 2002). This situation resulted from two processes: the weakening of Mao’s ability to control the CCP and the emergence of increasingly sharp divisions among the various components of the party, which culminated in armed clashes between Red Guards and other factions. If, in the previous period, foreign policy decisions were the result of a top-down process in which Mao represented the ultimate arbiter, then, in the 1966–1976 period, the process was more similar to a competitive model in which the final choice was the result of the formation of complex political alliances between various factions vying for power and in which Mao’s role was that of the “decisive weight” rather than that of the supreme decision maker.

Since 1978, the model of elite politics prevalent in China can be described as a moderate factionalism based on a rough balance between political players (Bo 2007, 2010; Zhao 1992; Lieberthal and Lampton 1992; Rosa 2014). It is characterized by a new consensus internal to the elites and by a greater dispersion of power. The implication is that, while not fading, the struggle between factions has transformed. “With the exception of the remnant Orthodox ‘leftist’ and neo-Maoists, the parameters of elite factionalism have narrowed and a more centrist consensus across a range of policy issues is evident” (Shambaugh 2000: 181). In this new phase, foreign policy decision making includes a greater number of actors with multiple interests at stake and with resources coming from political-bureaucratic constituencies. The dominant leader, at the summit, plays a key coordinating role.

The different patterns of elite politics that dominated the Chinese political system during the two periods considered in this study (1964–1971 and 1978–1989) have decisively affected the capacity of policymakers to develop a nuclear doctrine. The two periods are not very different regarding international predicaments, even if the second period was noticeably less dangerous. The most striking difference relates to the domestic environment: the first period is characterized by hard factionalism and a “winner-take-all” logic. In this conflict-prone domestic environment, nuclear doctrine is captured by factional struggle. The second period is characterized by forms of moderate factionalism (a renewed cohesion and more harmonious intra-elite relations); thus, even if Deng Xiaoping’s ideas concerning the Bomb were not very different from Mao’s ideas, the domestic climate allowed a freer debate concerning nuclear weapons, the rules of employment and targeting.

The complete model is outlined in Table 2.1. The independent variable of the model is14:
Table 2.1

A neoclassical realist explanation of China’s nuclear doctrine formation

Balance of power

Intra-elite relations

Regime vulnerability

Policymakers’ perceptions

Policy outcome

Non-threatening/threatening

Conflictual/non-conflictual

High/low

Non-consistent/consistent

Under-developed nuclear doctrine/a better articulated nuclear doctrine

  • Systemic factor: Balance of power.

The intervening variables are:
  • Domestic factor (1): Intra-elite relations resulting from elite cohesion plus power distribution.

  • Domestic factor (2): Regime vulnerability.

  • Individual factor: Consistent/non-consistent policymakers’ perceptions of external threats and of correct strategies.

The dependent variable is:
  • Nuclear doctrine development/underdevelopment.

Independent variables. The systemic factor is defined mainly in terms of changes in the balance of power and the threats they generate. Because military doctrines are elaborated to cope with external military menaces, analysing a country’s strategic situation is important to understand how policymakers react to international inputs. The dire international predicament of the PRC in the years of the Cultural Revolution, when it confronted a two-front military menace, i.e., the US in Indochina and the USSR on the northern border, is analysed in this study. The balance of power—centred on the making of the US-USSR-PRC strategic triangle—was particularly threatening for China, which was the weakest of the three poles.

From a neorealist perspective, this situation should produce a strong and well-articulated nuclear doctrine and not a simple “no-first-use” declaratory policy. As Robert Powell aptly puts it:

More generally, a militarily weak but resolute state that already has nuclear weapons will be advantaged by a doctrine, posture, and force structure in which the potential risk rises rapidly as more power is brought to bear […] In order to deter a militarily stronger adversary from threatening its vital interests, [a state should eschew] a no-first-use nuclear doctrine […]. This in turn require[s] the operationalization of nuclear weapons as ‘usable war-fighting instruments’. […] A state that expects to be weaker but more resolute than its adversary has an incentive to adopt doctrines and deploy forces that make the use of force riskier and thus easier to transform a contest of military strength into a test of resolve. (Powell 2015: 25, 32)

Conversely, a neoclassical realist approach expects that, to understand China’s development of a nuclear doctrine, it is important to consider whether the intervening variables—domestic and individual—converge to uphold a specific response.15 This study’s hypothesis is that, in the first period, they did not converge.

During the second period, even if the balance of power was less threatening for China (but still dangerous due to the invasion of Afghanistan by the USSR, the poor performance of the PLA during the Vietnam War of 1979, and the development in the early 1980s of Reagan’s Strategic Defence Initiative, which could strike a mortal blow to China’s small nuclear arsenal), a more relaxed domestic climate allowed a better articulated strategic debate on nuclear doctrine.

Intervening variables. The intervening variables related to the domestic environment are as follows: the level of elite cohesion, i.e., the power struggle between the different components of the Chinese leadership; the regime vulnerability; and elite’s perception.

Intra-elite relations result from two processes: the presence of division inside elites along cultural, ideological, political, and economic dimensions (Schweller 2006: 54); and the vertical or horizontal nature of power relations. Chinese elite in the aftermath of the revolution was characterized by strong ideological unity. There were recurrent campaigns of purge and rectification; however, the normal activities of the party were not so dramatic, and even a purged leader could re-enter the political game after a session of more or less harsh self-criticism (Teiwes 1990, 1993). The Yan’an spirit was the dominant note in the CCP, indicating a sense of brotherhood and strong consensus regarding ends and means among the main political actors. Elite cohesion suffered a serious downturn during the Cultural Revolution and was partly reaffirmed only in the post-1978 period after the denouement of the leadership succession issue.

With regard to intra-elite power distribution, at one pole, power can be concentrated in the hands of one leader; at the other pole, power can be completely dispersed among several actors. In China’s elite politics, the 1949–1965 period approximated the pole of power concentration, with Mao occupying an undisputed position. The second period, 1966–1976, was characterized by a fragmentation of power among several factions, with the Red Guards playing the role of political maverick. The third period, 1978–the present, demonstrated a more even distribution of power among the main political leaders, with Deng Xiaoping occupying a position of prominence.

The combination of low cohesion and power diffusion during the period of the Cultural Revolution produced a highly conflictual pattern of intra-elite relations. High cohesion plus a moderate power balancing (Bo 2007) within the elites during the reform period produced a less conflictual domestic environment. As Schweller states: “when the elite is fragmented, it is highly unlikely that the state will be able to construct a coherent and effective balancing strategy” (Schweller 2006: 55). Similarly, it is difficult for policymakers involved in a power struggle to elaborate a sweeping nuclear doctrine.

The second domestic intervening variable is regime vulnerability.

In the most basic sense, the concept of government or regime vulnerability “asks what is the likelihood that the current leadership will be removed from political office”. Specifically, do the governing elite face a serious challenge from the military, opposing political parties, or other powerful political groups in society? Are such groups threatening to prematurely remove the current leaders from office? Have they done so in the recent past? (ibid.: 49)

In his analysis, Schweller also considers the elite-mass relationship, under the concept of regime vulnerability. In the case of the PRC, due its authoritarian nature and the paramount role of the Party/State, this aspect of regime vulnerability is less important compared to intra-elite opposition.

When policymakers’ legitimacy and stability are challenged and elites attempt to arrange an inclusive compromise concerning the issues on the table, domestic politics pushes towards a low-profile foreign policy (Hagan 1995). China’s nuclear doctrine during the turbulent period of the Cultural Revolution, when the regime threatened to fall apart, is a case in point. The “politicization” of nuclear weapon, with its possible negative effect on the Maoist doctrine of a “People’s War” and, in turn, the role of Mao himself, was the result of the power struggle that was unravelling the social fabric of China. In the second phase, after the difficult transition following the death of Mao and the arrest of the Gang of Four, the consolidation of the regime and the downsizing of the cleavages within the elite “liberated” the nuclear doctrine from the constraints of political struggle.

Policymakers’ perceptions (the individual intervening variable) relate to the image of international politics held by the main leaders. Policymakers’ perceptual consistency “is the most proximate cause of a state response or nonresponse to external threats” (Schweller 2006: 47). I attempt to analyse how Chinese politicians considered the strategic scenario during the two periods by taking into account the images held by Mao Zedong, Zhou Enlai, Lin Biao, Deng Xiaoping, Nie Rongzhen and other important leaders who were involved in the nuclear programme. The concept of policymakers’ perceptions runs parallel to Schweller’s concept of elite consensus. It includes the following research questions (ibid.: 48):
  • Is there a consensus on the presence of an external threat?

  • Is there a consensus on the nature of this threat?

  • Is there a consensus on the type of response to be adopted?

  • Is there a consensus on the domestic repercussion of the strategy selected?

Dependent variable. As stated above at the outset of the chapter, nuclear doctrine refers to the beliefs, principles, and operational concepts concerning what types of nuclear device to produce, when and how they are employed (strategically or tactically), and against what types of target (civilian or military targets).

From the above analysis, several propositions can be inferred. The neorealist baseline proposition is:
  • P 1. The emergence of an external threat will push a state to develop/deploy its best weapon system and elaborate a military doctrine tailored to the characteristics of the external threat and weapons capacity.

The neoclassical realist propositions are:
  • P 2. The emergence of an external threat will push a state to develop/deploy its best weapon system, according to the state extraction capacity, and elaborate a military doctrine tailored to the characteristics of the external threat if domestic conditions—intra-elite relations, elite consensus and regime stability—do not trump security considerations.

  • P 2.1. If domestic environment is characterized by a unified elite, a consensus on the source and nature of external threat, and regime stability, the most likely result will be the innovation of military doctrine.

  • P 2.2. If domestic environment is characterized by a conflictual elite, lack of consensus on the source and nature of external threat, and regime vulnerability, the most likely result will be the preservation of the old military doctrines or their marginal fine-tuning.

The study’s general hypothesis is that, international predicaments notwithstanding, China’s domestic politics prevented the possibility of articulating a clear and detailed nuclear doctrine during the first period, when such a doctrine was more necessary (P 2.2). Conversely, in the 1978–1989 period, the change in elite politics (a shift from hard factionalism to soft factionalism) and the reduction in the regime’s vulnerability to domestic turmoil supported the development of a more nuanced nuclear doctrine. Thus, the second period is expected to be characterized by clearer statements concerning deterrence/war-fighting options, target selection and rules of employment for nuclear weapons (P 2.1).16

Footnotes

  1. 1.

    AAP-6(V) NATO Glossary of Terms and Definitions (https://fas.org/irp/doddir/other/nato2008.pdf).

  2. 2.

    Soviet definition of military doctrine included both the socio-political dimension of war and the military-technical aspects of security policy (Odom 1988/1989). In this study, the concept of military doctrine mainly refers to the second aspect. On the different terminologies used by Chinese military policymakers, see also Shambaugh (2002: 56–60).

  3. 3.

    “Actually, there is little in the principles, strategy and tactics of Maoist military doctrine that is original. Mao was deeply influenced by the heroic literature and the military classics of China’s past. He is also indebted to the Marxist-Leninist military tradition and especially to the writing of Lenin. Yet Mao’s military concepts have also been heavily influenced by the long military experience of his own Communist Party” (Powell 1968: 247, italics added).

  4. 4.

    See Glenn et al. (2004).

  5. 5.

    A strong argument for an eclectic approach that considers variables from different levels of analysis is in Sil, Katzenstein (2010).

  6. 6.

    For an in-depth review, see Rose (1998).

  7. 7.

    On this point, see Taliaferro (2006).

  8. 8.

    October 05, 1958 Meeting Minutes, Zhou Enlai ’s Conversation with S.F. Antonov on the Taiwan Issue (excerpt) (Wilson Center/Digital Archive, International History Declassified, hereafter WC/DAIHD: http://digitalarchive.wilsoncenter.org/document/117018).

  9. 9.

    See Finel (2001/2002), Schweller (2004a, b, 2006), Lobell et al. (2009, 2012), Rathbun (2008), Devlen and Özdamar (2009), Kitchen (2010), Toje and Kunz (2012), and Ripsman et al. (2016).

  10. 10.

    This is a point underlined by Raymond Aron (1966), who is considered to be one of the main sources of inspiration for neoclassical realism (Battistella 2012).

  11. 11.

    On overreaction caused by domestic processes, see Hagan (1995). On domestic sources of underbalancing, see Schweller (2004b, 2006).

  12. 12.

    On this point, see in particular Christensen (1996) and Ross (2009).

  13. 13.

    On this point, see Rosa (2008).

  14. 14.

    The model draws heavily on Schweller (2004, 2006).

  15. 15.

    This line of argument draws from Steven Lobell’s idea that policymakers are not free to decide on foreign policy when “constraints and inducements that emanate from systemic, subsystemic, and domestic levels” do not converge (Lobell 2009: 64).

  16. 16.

    This is a case of intentional selection of observations, in particular of “selection on the dependent variable”, to see whether the observed change of values of the dependent variable is associated with the expected variations of the indipendent variable (King et al. 1994: 141–142).

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© The Author(s) 2018

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.University of TrentoTrentoItaly

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