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Does the advent of cyber warfare threaten to change the global balance of power?

King's College London 2022.


For centuries, philosophers, scholars and people have tried to make sense of conflicts and world politics. The development of the academic discipline of International Relations (IR) has not only helped us create unique theories and debates surrounding the nature of the system and nation-states, but it has also opened the door to pursuing contemporary international debates. While many examples can illustrate the porous relationship between theory and practice-focused perceptions, there are specific subjects that can push the boundaries of academic literature. One of these examples can be found in the following research question: does the advent of cyber warfare threaten to change the global balance of power? In order to make sense of the variety of sources that can answer this question, a critical analysis of the available literature is required. To achieve this, we will first identify the existing literature related to Realism and the Balance of Power Theory (BPT), and cyberwarfare. Second, we will evaluate how each group of literature uses a specific approach and how it has sparked key debates in IR. Finally, we will critically assess the literature’s strengths and weaknesses and how it may affect the understanding of our research question. Overall, this essay argues that an extensive critical analysis of literature is most relevant when treating subjects that are both theory-oriented (BPT) and practice-focused (cyberwarfare).


Realism and the Balance of Power Theory

In the discipline of IR, Realism has been the dominant school of thought emphasizing the competitive, crude, and conflictual side of International Relations. Realism, “in both its classical and structural varieties, assumes a theory of agency”.[1] This means that the behaviour at the individual and state level is a product of fear and aggression, both characteristics heightened by an anarchical system. Historically, realism’s roots are found in some of humankind’s earliest historical writings such as Thucydides (The Peloponnesian War, 431-404 BCE) and in the great works of Machiavelli, Rousseau, Hobbes, Richelieu, Stalin and even Roosevelt.[2]  As such, for the past 150 years, Realism has been the dominant way (at least in the West), for explaining world politics by focusing on the shifting distribution of power amongst states.[3]  20th-century Realism (or classical realism) was born in response to the idealist perspective that dominated IR scholarship after the First World War. Authors such as E.H. Carr pushed the IR debate towards the importance of creating a realist theory based on universally acknowledged norms and values.[4],[5]  As such, most pre-Cold-War literature focuses on the importance of developing a theoretical perception allowing the creation of universal laws on the effects of human behaviour and the anarchic system. However, since the 1970’s, new approaches seeking to understand state power have brough forward important debates on the role of realist theory and its application on practice-focused perceptions. The advent of Neo-Realism, especially the role of defensive realism (introduced by Kenneth Waltz in 1979) and offensive realism (introduced by John J. Mearsheimer in 2001) depicted an important perception on global security[6],[7]. While the first asserts that states develop policies and programs aimed at promoting common or regional security, the second posits that the programs and policies developed by states are mainly aimed at increasing their power to dominate the international system.[8]   Even though realist theory has seen important mutations that seek to adapt to world politics, the BPT is one of the oldest and most fundamental concepts in IR, but also the most ambiguous one.[9] Throughout the literature on this subject, authors such as Hans Morgenthau referred to it as an “iron law of politics”, while others, such as Henry Kissinger considered it more or an art than a science which is practiced more skillfully by some leader than others.[10] However, contrarily to the popularity of Realism in IR, the BPT is not always perceived as a theory by scholars due to a lack of agreement on the key assumptions or what it seeks to explain. As such, the literature surrounding the BPT diverts from a unique theoretical frame because “there is no single theory, but instead a variety of theories” and in many cases the hypotheses, the causes or effects vary according to what it seeks to explain. This means that certain authors will argue that a BPT will maintain the peace while other will posit it assures the independence of certain states in the international system. The overall literature illustrates that Realism and the BPT still divides academia due to its difficulty interpreting issues and linkages among issues, especially those outside the security sphere.[11]


By analysing a group of literature on Realism and the BPT, four important observations come to light. First, there are paramount differences between classical realism, neo-realism and structural realist approaches, even when it comes to understanding the role of the BPT (one of the oldest ideas in IR). As such, some scholars will try to reaffirm the use of Realism in the 21st century, while others will focus on the specific nuances of neo-realism and its application in contemporary policymaking. The second core argument present in most (if not all) of the literature is that even though these different approaches to Realism have strong arguments, the role of theory in IR is still uncontested. In fact, according to some authors, understanding IR cannot be done without theory.[12],[13] This supposes that theories are still considered to be explanatory in nature and their purpose is to uncover regularities in human behaviour and the social world.[14] Additionally, other authors, such as Stephen Walt, address an important issue regarding the relationship between theory and policymaking. They argue that “those who conduct foreign policy often dismiss academic theorist [even if] there is an inescapable link between the abstract world of theory and the real world of policy”.[15] The third observation is that most literature regarding the BPT is still used to analyse dualistic historical accounts (East-West) which can be accounted by regionalism and state power conflicts. In fact, most of the contemporary literature focuses on regional and economic accounts which leads some authors to consider the gaps and inconsistencies of Realism and the role theories such as the Balance of Power. This issue also pushes the debate on the role of non-state actors in modern conflict. However, most authors agree that “even if realists acknowledge the importance of non-state actors as a challenge to their assumptions, the theory still has important things to say about the behavior and motivations of these groups.”[16]



The historical accounts of technology and military practice have been at the core of modern warfare since the 20th century. Since the 1990’s, the increasing wired world has not only created new channels for communications services, but such revolution has also brought an array of new channels to waging war. In fact, some recent studies suggest that over 40 percent of the globe uses internet for information, communication, and commerce. This unprecedented development in the use of technology has also opened the door for cyber warfare and unique challenges to our understanding of war. [17] Contrarily to IR theory, the vastness and the intangibility of cyberwarfare has put forward unique debates, mostly around the definition of cyberwarfare and the measurement of violence. As such, most authors agree with the existing link between military practice and technology but cannot agree on the measured outcomes of material and human damages caused directly by cyber warfare.[18] However, the theoretical challenges presented by cyberwarfare are consistent in most literature. This can be explained by a lack of theoretical model that can provide scholars with conceptual tools to analyse the use of the Internet and not just the way media influence is used in conflict.[19] Another important debate on cyberwarfare concerns its physical boundaries and how it may affect the interaction between states and non-state actors. Some authors posit that cyberwarfare depends on global patterns and operations managed by hegemonic powers while other scholars believe that cyber conflicts are generally confined to regional interaction rooted in specific territorial conflicts. A final observation proves the existence of a critical gap in cybersecurity literature. According to some authors, “scholars and policy makers have struggled to examine cyber operations empirically”. Such issue has emphasized the importance of cyber operations analysis and the role it has in determining modern forms of political warfare[20]. This suggests the existence of a literature gap on the logic behind cyber conflicts, the realities, and limits of cyberwarfare. The overall literature on cyberwarfare confirms that its understanding and analysis is mostly based on practice-focused perceptions and that much of its literature is focused on creating theoretical links which could improve the conceptual tools and the effects it has in IR.


The strengths and weaknesses of the literature.

Overall, the literature of these two core themes suggests five important strengths and weaknesses. The biggest weakness in the overall literature is that they (still) don’t have the ability to predict change. Such weakness also permeates in the world of strategic studies, especially the one that concerns cyberwarfare. In fact, much like the literature on IR theory, cyber warfare literature cannot predict how modern warfare will affect conflicts and world politics in the future. A second point to consider it that in the literature on BPT and Realism, most contemporary authors posit that none of the latter can fully grasp all the questions and answers when it comes to explaining politics in the ‘global era’. As such, while theory may be determined by certain ‘maxims’, some authors cannot agree on the vastness of the subjects related to IR. A third consideration supposes that the link between theory and policymaking in a globalized era is more difficult to create and thus properly analyse. While the BPT highly focuses on the power capabilities of each state it does not consider decision-making processes related to policy nor does it consider the role of non-actors as catalysts of regional conflict. Such an issue is also manifested in cyberwarfare literature, mostly because a unique definition has not been created, allowing policy to use a vast array of interpretations and definitions. Another important observation is that some sceptics and critics of classical realism posit that the BPT is irrelevant in the face of growing social forces while proponents of the neo-realist theory argue that the dynamics of the BPT still operate in world politics and its future will be even more relevant as future power capabilities change.[21]  On a final note, it’s important to highlight that most of the scholars working on aligning theory and cyberwarfare use basic realist theories such as deterrence theory, game theory, and basic tenets of offensive and defensive realism to create a potentialy accurate and acknowledged theoretical frame. Such observation can only suppose that the literature of cybersecurity is still growing and much of the research question will be determined by theory literature.



The link between theory (BPT) and practice-focused perceptions (cyberwarfare) blurry at times, even if they both play an important role in understanding world politics, security, and IR. The available literature on both subjects suggests that answering our research question can be achieved by finding common denominators to each theme. The most predominant areas of our analysis will require to close the gap between Realism theory and cyberwarfare. In order to link the latter, there is still much to be done in the field of military innovation studies, not only because of its increasing multidisciplinary character but also because it is lightly mentioned in cyberwarfare and in the general debates in IR. Overall, amalgamating realist theories of BPT with emerging strategic studies on cyberwarfare will eventually require re-evaluating the extent of future theory development. Such research will have to be left in the hands of current IR students who are witnessing growing changes in modern warfare, especially in the fields of cybersecurity and cyberwarfare.



[1] Williams, Michael, Sr., and Williams, Michael, eds. Realism Reconsidered: The Legacy of Hans Morgenthau in International Relations. (Oxford: Oxford University Press 2008): 11.

[2] While Realism as a theory did not exist until the 20th century, the works of each author reflect the precepts of Realism; an explanation of the world as it “really is” and a map of immutable laws of international politics governed by several states living under an anarchic system. Some literature may focus on historical accounts or policymaking, they all reflect Realism’s timeless logic.

[3] Jack Snyder,“One World, Rival Theories.” Foreign Policy, no. 145 (2004): 53.

[4] Michael Cox. “E.H. Carr and the Crisis of Twentieth-Century Liberalism: Reflections and Lessons.” Millennium 38, no. 3 (2010): 525.

[5] E.H. Carr’s goal was not only to highlight the importance of power in world politics, but rather, to illustrate the ‘reality’ post World War One. According to Carr, the on-going conflict was largely the result of a serious mismatch between the Liberal tradition and the depth of the world’s political disorders.

[6] Kenneth Waltz. Theory of International Politics. New York: McGraw Hill (1979).

[7] John J. Mearsheimer. The Tragedy of Great Power Politics. New York: W. W. Norton (2001).

[8] The work of Mearsheimer must be highlighted because his theory has had an important place in contemporary strategic studies. Important analysis include the rise of China and the expansion of NATO and its effects on the Russian regime.

[9] T. V Paul, James J., Wirtz, and Michel Fortmann, eds. Balance of Power: Theory and Practice in the 21st Century. (Palo Alto: Stanford University Press, 2004): 29.

[10] Ibid.

[11] Robert Keohane. International Institutions and State Power: Essays in International Relations Theory. (Milton: Taylor & Francis Group, 2020): 44.

[12] Patricia, Owens, John Baylis & Steve Smith. The Globalization of World Politics: an Introduction to International Relations. (Oxford: Oxford University Press,2017): 5.

[13] While most authors still consider the importance of theory, Mearsheimer and Walt agree that the merits of methodological techniques have diverted certain research from the critical role of theory and empirical analysis. According to them, this diversion is not the result of a collective decision by IR scholars but instead, an unintended consequence that requires further understanding of the structural features of the academic world.

[14] Patricia, Owens, John Baylis & Steve Smith. The Globalization of World Politics: an Introduction to International Relations. (Oxford: Oxford University Press,2017): 9.

[15] Stephen M Walt,. “International Relations: One World, Many Theories.” Foreign Policy, no. 110 (Spring 1998): 29.

[16] Jack Snyder. “One World, Rival Theories.” Foreign Policy, no. 145 (2004): 55.

[17] Allhoff Fritz, Adam Henschke and Bradley Jay Strawser. "Introduction: Editors’ Introduction." In Binary Bullets: The Ethics of Cyberwarfare. (New York: Oxford University Press, 2016): 2.

[18] Idem, 3.

[19] The theoretical debate surrounding cyberwarfare has become more critical as technology and growing regional conflicts have evolved in the past 20 years. Authors such as Athina Karatzogianni, Merrit Baer, and Brandon Valeriano and Ryan C. Maness extensively analyse the role of theory in cyberwarfare.

[20] Brandon Valeriano, Benjamin Jensen, and Maness, Ryan C. Cyber Strategy: The Evolving Character of Power and Coercion. (Oxford: Oxford University Press USA,2018):202.

[21] T. V Paul, James J., Wirtz, and Michel Fortmann, eds. Balance of Power: Theory and Practice in the 21st Century. (Palo Alto: Stanford University Press, 2004): 2.





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Cox, Michael. “E.H. Carr and the Crisis of Twentieth-Century Liberalism: Reflections and Lessons.” Millennium 38, no. 3 (2010): 523–533.


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Merritt Baer. “The Uses and Limits of Game Theory in Conceptualizing Cyberwarfare.” International Conference on Information Warfare and Security (2011): 23–34.


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Tickner, J. Ann. “Hans Morgenthau’s Principles of Political Realism: A Feminist Reformulation.” Millennium 17, no. 3 (December 1988): 429–40.


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