Anarchy has been acknowledged as being a core concept ininternational relations following the second world war. Realist thinkers inparticular argue that anarchy is at the center of international relations andis the most important aspect of it when explaining state behavior. Despite therealist agreement on the importance of anarchy in the internationalenvironment, the definition is somewhat ambiguous and is often subject todebate. This essay calls the definition of anarchy into question with the helpof mainly the realist literature. My goal is to reveal whether anarchy leads toworld conflict or not, and if the nature of anarchy among states can preventescalation and military action.
To do this, I will not only analyze the theoryof anarchy, but also investigate the emergence of supranational institutions asa result of anarchy and what they do to promote peace as well as if theysucceed in their role. Cooperation between states will therefore also be adiscussion topic in this essay, since this at first glance would appear tocontradict the assumption of anarchy in international relations. In instanceswhere cooperation is not possible, I will look at how the absence of healthyrelations affects how states interact in terms of security. The international system is unpredictable, this much is true.
Whatstates make of this is a problem which is not easy to explain. Whether anarchyis to blame for war or cooperation between nation states is heavily disputed,to which there is no simple answer. From the international military spectaclethat was the World Wars, to the standoff that was the Cold war, scholars haveattempted to explain why such grand-scale conflicts occur between states. Surely,the arena of international relations cannot have a system, since therelationships between states can either lead to mass destruction one day orpeaceful cooperation the other. Societies have structure; if you’re sick,there’s a hospital for you to seek medical assistance and if you’re illnessrenders you jobless, there are centers which offer help for you to find a newone. Our everyday life has structure, or at least everyone has some sort ofsystem of doing things, however international relations does not have ascapegoat when things go wrong, and when they do there is nowhere to turn otherthan the conference room. This is because society is built from the bottom up,whereas international relations exists and always has existed on one level.
There is no authority which provides the answers. This is why manyinternational relations theories claim that the international system isanarchic. Kenneth Waltz asserts that anarchy is the first element of structurein the international system (Milner, 1991). Self-help plays a large part in howstates act in an anarchic international system, and so they must fend forthemselves when times are dire.
Doing so requires a certain degree of security,like keeping a loaded gun in a cupboard in the event of a home invasion. Such aform of security can be interpreted as an offensive move, and in responseanother state will arm itself as well, which only increases tensions betweenthem. These tensions stem from the fear that at any moment, a state can becomesubject to aggression with no authority to turn to (Butt, 2013). So, under theassumption that international anarchy exists, then what stops states from goingto war at any moment, and how do states deal with the fear of such an eventhappening? The first assumption realism makes is that the internationalsystem is anarchic, meaning not that all states compete like in a state ofnature, but rather that certain rules and pacts can be established without thesupervision of a supreme authority. Their argument about anarchy is that it isa power struggle which fosters conflict and competition among states, and thatthese divides mean that states will prefer not to band together with oneanother regardless of the possibility that they share common interests, becausestates are self-interested actors. Disagreements which result from theirdifferences make it difficult for competing states to ally with one another inthe form of a supranational institution due to anarchy’s effects on inter-statecooperation (Grieco, 1988). Following these assumptions, in accordance torealist thought, realism does not see proper international cooperation aspossible. It also argues that institutions are incapable to be used as a forumfor cooperation between nation states.
John J. Mearsheimer (1994) expands onthis point in his seminal article on institutions, The False Promise ofInternational Institutions, where he points out that although discussion in theform of cooperation between states may well occur, however is hampered bystates’ justified suspicion of others due to two factors: relative gainsconsiderations and a state’s concerns about another cheating in cooperation.Mearsheimer’s focus on relative gains suggests a structural realist point ofview, and Waltz (1959) stresses that states are more concerned with relativegains rather than absolute gains in an anarchical international sphere.Relative gains are defined by a state’s actions in relation to another state’sactions against which a balance of power is established. States balance powerin two ways: internal balancing and external balancing. States achieve internalbalancing by improving their military power in terms of the size of theirarmies or modernization of their arsenals as well as improving their productiveeconomies (Islam, 2009), whereas states achieve external balancing by formingcoalitions, by threatening with conflict or trading with other states.
Therefore,”the more a gain for one state will tend to be seen as a loss by anotherand the more difficult, it seems, cooperation will be” (Powell, 1991). The aimto balance power in order to prevent one from assuming an excess thereof andbecoming a dominant hegemon makes cooperation difficult among states, howevernot impossible. When necessary, states cooperate spontaneously for reasons ofsurvival and mutual advantage (Islam, 2009). Anarchy according to realists,then, serves states with opportunities to cooperate when they need to do so. Inwhich case, anarchy in international relations does not always result inconflict, nevertheless states have a constant mistrust of other states whichthey see as competitors toward maximizing their power. It is in a state’sinterest to do so, so anarchy may lead to conflict if a state cannot ensurepeaceful cooperation with another. The likelihood of war may be affected by thedistinction between offensive and defensive realism.
The core principle ofoffensive realism is that states seek to increase their military power in orderto maximize their power. Mearsheimer makes five assumptions about offensiverealism: “(1) the international system is anarchic; (2) great powers inherentlypossess some offensive military capability; (3) states can never be certainabout the intentions of other states; (4) survival is the primary goal of greatpowers; and (5) great powers are rational actors.” (Johnson & Thayer,2016). On the other hand, defensive realism argues that when a state seeks toincrease its military power, other states will increase their military power inresponse, minimizing their overall influence (Johnson & Thayer, 2016). Whatthese forms of realism have in common is the assumption that in increasingmilitary power, states seek to maximize their security. Offensive realism claimsthat in doing so increases security, while defensive realism claims theopposite.
These measures of security are important to states. EricLabs points out that ”a strategy that seeks to maximize security through amaximum of relative power is the rational response to anarchy.” (Johnson &Thayer, 2016). In saying this, he claims that states are rational actors andwill respond to external threats with preventive actions.
These externalthreats from other states put pressure on the government to defend its land,resources and citizens. A state’s defensive measures can change depending onthe type and gravity of the threat as well as its preferences andcircumstances. For example, a state can respond to a military threat withengaging in an arms race in an attempt to scare off the opponent. In the eventof these measures being reciprocated by the opponent, a standoff representingthe likes of the Cold War may occur, where both states are under constantthreat from the other without either engaging in offensive military action.More diplomatically, a state may seek to broker an agreement with theiropponent, or alternatively choose to impose sanctions on the other if they relyon each other economically. Nevertheless, the possibility of state alliancescannot be ignored. In any case, a state may seek to form an alliance with severalother states with similar interests in order to stave off the threat. Thenecessity of alliances may vary depending on the states’ economic abilities -whether it can afford wartime preparations and, ultimately, a war, itsresources and industrial capabilities to manufacture weapons and usefultechnology, and the size of the army in relation to the size of the population.
Waltz explains that states will seek to maximize their economic capabilities inorder to maximize their military strength. This becomes an issue in the longterm as heightened military preparedness leaves states with less resources foreconomic priorities. Moreover, a state with high levels of wealth may be morewilling than smaller, poorer states to pursue such a bold deterrenceinvestment. In the real world, we can observe examples of states prioritizingmaximizing military strength at the expense of advancing economic capabilities,such as the Soviet Union up until the mid-1980s. An opposing example of a statepursuing economic growth at the expense of maximizing their military strength,at least from short term external threats, can be taken from the Soviet Unionin the late 1980s (Brooks, 1997). Since there is a large investment that mustbe made, states therefore require a common enemy in order to motivate them toform security relations (Lake, 1996). Lakeacknowledges that there is a possibility of hierarchy in security relations aswell as anarchy. He outlines the conditions for hierarchy, where a dominantstate “possesses the right to make residual decisions”, while the subordinatedoes not.
In anarchy, no state possesses the right to do so. This is due to acontract between states which they enter into upon forming an alliance.Contracts of this kind state the terms for pooling their resources and defenseefforts. Lake gives The North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) as an exampleof an anarchic security alliance, with the exception of the position of theSupreme Allied Commander which was created later as the organization matured. Itis clear that anarchy motivates states to invest in security arrangements,whether alone or in alliance with other states, to deter potential externalthreats. Without rigid security measures, states might become exposed tothreats from other nations which have an interest in improving their militarycapabilities.
States, smaller states in particular, will rely more heavily oncooperation with other states to ensure their survival. Cooperation istherefore a vital element in the international system for state survival,especially when considering that the international system is anarchic.Fortunately, supranational institutions have been created to promotecooperation among states, however useful they may be.
There is much heated debate on the topic of how wellinstitutions fulfil their purpose. The main disagreement is found between therealist and liberal thought. A third take on institutions can be learned fromthe theory of collective security. The core idea is that institutions exist inorder to provide a forum for cooperation between states for many reasons.States can turn to others for reasons involving the economy, military anddiplomatic topics. States are free todiscuss these issues with one another and broker new agreements, as well asimpose sanctions on wrongdoers. Primarily though, institutions emphasize theimportance of peace between nations, as is noted in the preamble of the Charterof the UnitedNations, in which is stated that the organization is determined to “save succeeding generations from thescourge of war, which twice in our lifetime has brought untold sorrow tomankind”.
Therefore, they are designed to promote healthycooperation to ultimately prevent conflict. In an anarchic internationalsystem, however, institutions might find it difficult to dissolve issueswithout a supreme authority, since this is the assumption of internationalanarchy. Considering that power is assumed to be sought by states, and thatstates fear an imbalance of power among each other, institutions should bedesigned to divide power among its members. In doing so, states can worktogether to provide mutual gains for one another. Ideally, this would not onlybenefit individual states, but the world as a whole.
For example, states cancome together to create agendas focused on non-power related issues such as theenvironment to combat climate change. The Kyoto Protocol, adopted in 1997 bythe United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change and was entered intoforce in 2005, is an example of cooperation in international institutions. Theprotocol sets commitments for its members and targets for greenhouse gasreductions. Where the member states have such commitments in common, potentialconflict between them can be avoided.
This is due to the states having a commoninterest: survival. Since anarchy claims that states are interested in theirown survival, international institutions can be a solution to the problem asthey give these states a structure to follow, preventing escalation of conflictbetween them. The theory on international institutions elaborates on thepromises and malfunctions they bring. Robert Keohane’s seminal work, AfterHegemony: Cooperation and Discord in the Political Economy (1984), popularizedthe theory of liberal institutionalism, which developed in reaction to thetheory of neo-realism. It accepts some of the realist assumptions of theinternational system.
Liberal institutionalism acknowledges that power is amajor influence in international anarchy and that national interests, ratherthan international values, are what drive states to cooperate for mutual gains.It assumes that states are selfish, however this does not prevent them fromworking together via international institutions (Islam, 2009). This is becauseinstitutions work as a tool for overcoming states from cheating.
To do so, theyimplement sets of rules for states to follow, making international cooperationthe key to self-enrichment. The problem for institutions is derived from theprisoner’s dilemma. The prisoner’s dilemma originates from a game theoryapproach to explaining how actors interact in a certain situation.
It is atheoretical concept and is difficult to replicate in real life, however offersa dilemma accepted by liberal institutionalists and realists about the issueswith trust in the international arena. The dilemma involves two actors, bothassumed to be self-interested. Their goal is to get the best deal possible andmaximize utility by avoiding a prison sentence.
They have the choice tocooperate or not, and their decisions carry weight as the ramifications oflosing are costly. For the sake of ensuring that an actor’s decision is basedon self-interest, the two actors are not allowed to communicate about theirdecision. If one actor chooses to cooperate and the other defects, then theself-interested defector walks free and the other loses. The loss equates togoing to prison for a long time. If they both cooperate, they receive a lowerprison sentence than if they were both to defect.
Since the states know theconsequences, they are suspicious of each other which implies mistrust. Whereasthe realist would assume that cooperation is hindered by this suspicion,liberal institutionalists agree that the outcome would be vastly different ifthe actors were given the opportunity to cooperate. Liberal institutionaliststhereby make a case for states to have a forum for cooperation, or morespecifically, an international institution. With an institution, states arerequired to discuss the benefits of their decisions, and are able to deducewhat is the better option for them. Institutions also allow for decisions to bemade over time rather than spontaneously, so decisions can be morewell-informed. According to collective security theorists, the main reasonfor international institutions is to promote peace.
The theory predisposes thatthe anarchic international arena is dominated by armed states. As armed statesbecome more powerful in their advancement of their weapons, and as theseweapons become more powerful due to modernization, they become more concernedwith their own safety. Therefore, collective security theory argues that armedstates prioritize their own safety, and in order to keep the peace betweenthem, as it is in their best interests to do so, they form institutions withthe purpose of managing their resources of military power. In doing so, states focuson cooperation rather than their suspicion of other states and their obsessionwith assuring a balance of power between them. This line of thinking impliesthat states should do their best to reject the option of using force to settletheir differences, and that states which step out of line must be dealt withaccordingly. In other words, when a rogue state attacks a member of such aninstitution, all other members come together to defeat the aggressor.
Thisimplies that states must deal with rogue states in a way that is not influencedby their self-interest. Mearsheimer (1994) criticizes collective security forbeing too normative in that it does not give a reasonable explanation for whystates trust each other. Mearsheimer has a realist perspective, as he sees noindication in the theory which justifies its assumptions of internationalanarchy. It seems as though he accuses collective security as having a naïveperspective of the world system, since states would see the fallacies in thisstrategy in the face of aggression. He also argues that there is no accuratehistorical record of such a theory being represented.
This claim can berebutted by arguing that the existence of The North Atlantic TreatyOrganization (NATO) is an example of states forming an institution whichoperates on the assumptions of collective security. However, NATOs missions areoften intrusive peace keeping missions designed to deescalate local tensions inforeign countries which otherwise would result in conflict and are oftenundertaken in the political interest of those actors involved in theinitiatives (Lepgold, 1998). Peace keeping missions also vary in their degreeof success. An example of an unsuccessful peace keeping mission would be theUnited Nations Assistance Mission for Rwanda.
Lepgold mentions in his articlethat a multinational panel of military leaders ruled the intervention afailure, and that “a peace-enforcement contingent of five thousand troops(including air power, adequate communications, and logistics support) mighthave prevented considerable bloodshed in that situation. According to thispanel, if such a force had intervened immediately after the politicalassassinations that triggered the conflict, hundreds of thousands of deathsmight have been averted”. It is impossible to avoid the point here that,according to the panel, military intervention would have been necessary toavoid the widespread bloodshed. Nevertheless, the goal of such interventionsare to promote peace in areas which have not seen peace in years, in which caseit is fair to assume that these missions accomplish the collective securityagenda in most cases, with the exception of Rwanda.A further theory which aims to promote peace is criticaltheory. Critical theory assumes that it is possible to fundamentally changestate behavior. Whereas previous theories have attempted to find ways forstates to modify their military capabilities to form security coalitions withone another, yet admitting that states tend to operate in their self-interest,critical theory aims for a world community based on inter-state trust andresource sharing. Such a world would be free of military and securitycompetition, where states rely on discourse in order to shape practice for thebetter.
In this sense, institutions are of paramount importance when it comesto preserving international peace, as they present states with the ability toalter their identities and relationships with other states. This in effectcould foster a sense of responsibility among states to the internationalsociety. Whereas critical theory attempts to offer an alternative to thepessimism of realism and replace it with a theory that promotes peace andharmony, however fails to explain what discourse will replace realism and howit will shape the future (Mearsheimer, 1994). In making this distinction,critical theory does very little to convince change to occur in the real world.For this reason it is almost impossible to ally critical theory with the theoryof anarchy in the international system since there are no assumptions made toexplain how states fundamentally interact, rather it shows simply what autopian world could look like. Mearsheimer (1994) goes on to explain, using theend of the Cold War as an example, that the change of discourse from vicious totame that has been observed between states is simply typical of the end ofgreat-power wars, as opposed to the critical theorist argument. This change ofdiscourse, he claims, is to blame on the gradual collapse of the Cold War orderwhich it spawned, and that there is no clear indication of what sort ofdiscourse will replace it in the future.
However, critical theorists claim thecollapse only occurred due to a change of discourse toward the end of the ColdWar which lead to its eventual end. Since then, the Russian government hasabandoned this “new thinking” and in fact have shifted to a more power-orientedform of thought. In the end, critical theory attempts to challenge realism’sview of the international system and indeed international anarchy without anactual claim of what discourse is among states, merely what it could be like.The theory may have been onto something in observing the shift in discourse inRussia following the curtain call of the Cold War, however their mainassumption that peace will replace the mistrust between states has beenincorrect. Especially due to the popular belief that the Cold War stillpersists today. Surely had critical thinking been correct, the military standoff between the United States of America and the Democratic People’s Republicof Korea would not be so apparent. International anarchy makes it difficult for states tocooperate, however states have found a way to curb their fears by establishinginstitutions, fostering agreements and signing trade deals.
Peace promotion ismore sought after than going to war, and states show this by working togetheraway from the “scourge of war”. Although I believe that states will try toavoid conflict at all costs, it is apparent to me that security measures willnever be abolished, and self-interest is perpetual. This is all due to humannature. After all, states are run by humans. I think it is never in anyone’sinterest to start a fight, but rather to end one when one breaks out.
All warsbegin because people become too selfish and others seek to end them.International institutions are natural, since states need a place to communicatefreely on issues relating to themselves. In conclusion, international anarchyitself does not lead to world conflict, rather it leads to cooperation toprevent it.