Even though cooperation is a very
renowned topic, achieving it can prove tricky and very complex in the
international arena. It is difficult because this arena has an anarchic status
as there is no governing body enforcing cohesion throughout nations. In order
to help us understand this, we first need to know how to clearly define what some
of these key terms are.

In the context of international
law, a state is recognised when a population within a defined territory is
controlled by a government; such entities are seen as maintaining sovereignty,
which is recognised by other states in the international system (Baylis et al.
2013: 544). Anarchy is what defines the international system as there is no overall
sovereign power. In a realist view, this creates a self-help system as this
environment pushes states in the direction of being suspicious of others and therefore
they strive to become self-reliant to safeguard their own safety (Baylis et al.
2013: 156). Autonomy theory focuses on the rationality of individuals, in this
cases the states in place of individuals, in reference to their capacity to
make moral choices (McKinnon 2015: 325). State autonomy is an ability to
formulate and act on independent ideas without consideration for others. This
is reflected in an international state system which promotes competition as
opposed to cooperation (Grieco 1988: 485). State systems are devised from
regular communication and engagement between two or more states, but without
any implication of shared values between them (Baylis et al. 3013: 545). A less
realist, more liberal or constructivist view, contrasts this with the idea of
an international society in which states share common values and perceive themselves
to be bound by rules, such as an agreement not to trade nuclear weapons between
nations (IAEA 1970: 2). Depending on which theory you look at, the way you see
the international arena varies. Throughout this essay, I will be analysing
differences between these IR theories so that I can evaluate which best
explains state cooperation.

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Cooperation is “an interaction in which two or more actors
adopt policies that make at least one actor better off relative to the status
quo without making others worse off” (Frieden et al. 2015: 53) and this can
only come into fruition in circumstances with “conflicting and complementary
interests” (Axelrod and O. Keohane 1985: 226). States are not harmonious as
this would suggest states were already acting in a natural order.
Nineteenth-century liberals believed a natural order was somewhat corrupted
with distortions, such as the balance of power, and that there would be no
conflict if these distortions were not there (Baylis et al. 2013: 534). In
realist theory, balance of power refers to an equilibrium between states;
classical realists regard it as the product of diplomacy, whereas structural
realists regard the system as having tendency towards natural equilibrium (Baylis
et al. 2013: 527).

Though the focus of this question
is on states, this does not mean they are the only international actors with
roles to play in cooperation. In this essay, I will mention non-state actors
though they are not what I will concentrate on.


Realism is the theory that considers
all IR as the “relation of states engaging in the pursuit of power” (Baylis et
al. 2013: 542). With this view, international anarchy “inhibits a willingness
to cooperate”, even with shared interests, and states adopt competition and
conflict (Grieco 1988: 485). Power is a state attribute and defined by Dahl:  “State A has power over State B to
the extent that he can get State B to do something that State B would not
otherwise do” (Dahl 1957: 202). We use this as a mechanism to understand
the motivation of states. The big ‘idea’ for classical realism, the main IR
paradigm up until the release of Waltz’s Theory
of International Politics (1979), is rooted in the fundamental aspect in human
nature which drives an endless struggle for power (Thucydides 1954). This
essentially says that the phrase ‘power politics’ could be used interchangeably
with international politics. This view appears frequently in the works of
classical realists and was known to be held by Morgenthau. In a constant battle
for power, realist-viewed states will only base possible cooperation on the
absolute gains achieved by the transaction. This total effect of an exchange
will be the deciding factor on whether or not to cooperate as this is more
important to a state that the gains, if any, of others. The most pessimistic realist
will not take any ethical concerns into consideration if their gain is
desirable. Moreover, Machiavelli in The
Prince talks about how, if security is under threat, “all obligations and
treaties with other states should be disregarded” (Baylis et al. 2013: 104). In
contrast to this, however, Thucydides supports better moral consideration. He
has shown, through his study of Athens’ pursuit for power, that acting on the
basis of power alone, and without ethical and moral regards, can lead to
self-defeating policies.

An underlying cause of the Peloponnesian
War was the increase in Athenian power which sparked a growing fear in Sparta.
This can be reflected throughout time as this is a classic example of state behaviour
being influenced by a changing distribution of power. In this case, Sparta’s
national interest of survival lead to the conflict we have all read about, as
opposed to cooperation. A “seemingly endless cycle of war” confirmed to
realists in Morgenthau’s era that human nature is inherently aggressive and
egotistic (Baylis et al. 2013: 104). A present example we can try and transpose
this theory on is the rising superpower China. China is a big hegemon on Asia.
This growing threat to the rest of Asia as well as the US would lead you to
believe in the possibility of another power-based war when we consider what we
have just studied. Nevertheless, the clash between China and everyone else means
there is a shared interest with the ‘everyone else’. The US is the current
global superpower in our unipolar system. The power and security of the US are
both threatened by the rise of a new superpower so the US would cooperate with
other states in order to prevent this. Mearsheimer believes that the US and
large Asian states, such as Japan, will cooperate in order to reduce the likelihood
of China growing any more powerful than it already has (Mearsheimer 2014). His
belief comes from the notion that each state in this proposed alliance is acting
based on self-interest, versus the liberal theory that these states would be
acting based on shared interest. Contrasting this with the Peloponnesian War, we
are able to see differences between classical realism and structural realism.

Neorealism/structural realism differs
from classical realism as the latter bases conflict on human nature whereas the
former believe it’s the “architecture of the international system that explains
how states behave” (Mearsheimer 2014). In further contrast to classical
realism, Waltz claims that the “ultimate concern of states is not for power but
for security” (Waltz 1988: 616). This divides structural realism in two:
offensive (Mearsheimer) and defensive (Waltz). How you believe each state would
behave depends on which strand of the realist theory you would take. In offensive
realism, the ever-present threat of anarchy compels states to improve their
relative power positions. In order to balance power, it may be crucial for multi-state
cooperation though there is a risk that the quality of the relative gains will
be less than expected due to states having imperfect information. Egotistical
states may not persist in being the best allies as they always have their own
interests in the foreground. From this point of view, cooperation would only
occur if it was essential to do so. Relative gain is similar to a zero-sum game
such that the result of the latter is pareto optimal; given a specific example,
the sum of each outcome is always zero – no gain. Such games are not integrative
so the only way a state can become better off is to ‘take’ it from another
state (Waltz 1979). This provides incentives for a state to expand their territory
which cannot be achieved with relative gain alone. Defensive realists support
the same idea as offensive realists, that cooperation should be concept if
necessary but rather not at all, though they would approach cooperation with
the conflicting idea that cooperation should be conceptualized with an ‘enemy’
if necessary. Otherwise, cooperation is not deemed off the table and more so

A key assumption for realism is
statism, where the values and beliefs of a state are protected by substantial
centralized control. Two claims of this assumption are 1) states are the
pre-eminent actors in the international system and, 2) sovereignty of states implies
an independent political community that has its own jurisdiction over its
territory (Baylis et al. 2013: 110). From this, it looks like non-state actors
don’t have a role to play in the international system and they cannot
accommodate them in their analysis. I personally believe this view is wrong as
there is an increasing dependence on these non-state actors, though I will talk
more about this later on in this essay.

Realism better explains why and
when states conflict and so far I cannot see it being the IR theory that does
best explain state cooperation. It seems that from a realist view, cooperation
is more of a last resort than valid option.

Securitisation theory isn’t a general
IR theory though I feel it can well critique the realist viewpoint. There is
nothing natural on earth that is a specific hazard; you name a certain security
problem and the way you interact with this now-hazard changes once it has been
labelled. When you label something a threat, you’re saying that there is
something existential overriding normal issues and so the way it is dealt with
it is “outside the normal political bounds” (Waever 2014). In order for these
extraordinary measures to be realised, the ‘audience’ must accept these would
take place. It is this event that takes the issue from being one kind to another.
An example could be war and the audience has to agree to conscription. Neorealists
are unsupportive when movements seek to open public debate about such issues
(Baylis et al. 2013:137). The fact that the threat exists means it is something
that has to be solved. The discussion on a solution is about correcting the
problem, despite likely high trade-offs. This contrasts to realism because
states could have all sorts of reasons for not tackling the problem. For example,
realism claims states focus on self-help but that doesn’t always provide a good
enough solution. If a less economically developed state, like Bangladesh, tried
to tackle climate change on its own, it couldn’t. They don’t produce nearly
enough carbon emissions that if they were to reduce this even further, the
effect would not be strong enough to fix the problem for the rest of the world.
Keeping on this topic, if states do act on self-help then they would not reduce
their carbon emissions as this would likely result in a reduced economic growth
rate. How come, then, there were 195 signatories to COP21 in 2015 (United
Nations 2016)? As valid as realism might be when looking at smaller scale
inter-state cooperation, when it comes to larger global issues, realism doesn’t
explain why states do cooperate.


Liberalism is a theory that
focuses less on power and more on a state’s interests. It believes the “fundamental
force in world politics is globalisation” (Moravcsik 2014) which “minimises the
scope of authority of the state and turns most decisions over to the market”
(McKinnon 2015: 331). This bottom-up theory bestows liberty on individuals and
groups, allowing them to be ‘basic’ actors and their interests are represented
globally through the state. This domestic difference in preferences leads to
states acting differently than they would if they took on the realist
approaches discussed above. This basis of globalisation promotes the concept of
interdependence of groups across the international society. Cooperation is
promoted through state/state and state/non-state interdependence. Formed
alliances become mutually beneficial and the more a state gains from an
alliance, the more likely there is for consistent cooperation.

In IR, the Prisoner’s Dilemma
(figure 1) is often used because it represents challenges faced by collective
action. If B confesses, A is better off staying silent; if A confesses, B is
better off staying silent. This means that both states would get ‘5 years’ in
prison as staying silent (cooperating) is both their dominant strategies,
though neither would have chosen to stay silent if they had had perfect
information and known the choice of the other state. This is an example of a
Nash equilibrium where a state will do the best they can given what the other is



State B

State A

Silent (Cooperates)

Confess (Defects)

Silent (Cooperates)


0, 10

Confess (Defects)

10, 0

2, 2

Figure 1: Prisoner’s Dilemma

State A’s best pair of choices

State B’s best pair of choices

Each number represents years in prison


This model has downsides, for
instance, when we assume that every actor in this scenario has perfect
knowledge. In reality, states will choose whether or not to cooperate but they
may not know every outcome and/or the decision that the other state is thinking
of making. A lack of information may lead to a state behaving in an unexpected
manner and therefore the expected outcome would also change. Plus, this
represents only one encounter between two states. The perspective that should
be taken sees that cooperation is about continuous communication and not
one-offs. Although, the aspect of continuity should take states out of the
short-termist survivalist mind set and into more long-term cooperative thinking
(Wheeler 2014: 1). Many domains have a repetitive structure so the Prisoner’s Dilemma
may slowly turn into a Tit-for-Tat-like regime (Fearon 1998: 271). Because of
uncertainty and the possibility of freeriding, states are reluctant to
cooperate. A good example of this is protection of the environment: “Everyone
agrees that the environment should be protected, and it is recognised that this
is a collective action problem” (Viotti and Kauppi 2012: 496). Environmental
matters, like clean air, are classed as public goods – non-excludable and non-rival
– and provision of public goods will always lead to collective action problems.
Each individual would prefer to free ride, meaning to fail in contributing to a
public good while benefiting from the contributions of others (Frieden et al.
2015: 60), but if everyone chose to free ride then it would be as if both
states confessed and from this there is still a price to pay. This is where a
government would intervene if the public good was purely domestic though
environmental concerns aren’t restricted to governmental territories.

This is where neoliberal
institutionalism comes in. The phenomenon sees international institutions as
key actors in IR. Institutions act on behalf of and as representatives of states’
interests. Institutions can combat the problem of imperfect knowledge as all
information is brought and displayed in one place. States then are less
uncertain and are more likely to cooperate with the institution and/or each
other. One of the best known examples of this is the International Whaling Commission
(IWC) which banned the killing of whales in 1982. Though it could be argued
that the effectiveness of the ban was not solely due to the IWC as there was a
change in the US domestic law at the same time (Frieden et al. 2015: 540).
Neoliberal institutionalists see institutions as the “mediator and means” when striving
for cooperation; this cooperation is a means to securing national interests
(Baylis et al.2013: 133). Despite this, it is recognised that cooperation would
be more difficult to gain if the interests of leaders were conflicting. If
states believe institutions are seen as beneficial with increasing
opportunities they will shift loyalty here in order to secure (inter)national interests,
dissimilarly to realism. Though one core assumption of neoliberal institutionalists
that is closer to realism is that we are in a competitive environment and so
seek to maximise absolute gains through cooperation. States are less concerned
with gains achieved by others and this may be why they choose to shift loyalty
to institutions. Another cause of shift may be because of one of the biggest
challenges in cooperation: ‘cheating’ by other states (Baylis et al. 2013: 133).
Moving loyalty to institutions can appear to be states safeguarding themselves
from the risk of being cheated by others.

At this stage, I would say
neoliberal institutionalism is the best theory when explaining state
cooperation. There is a growing dependence on non-state actors, particularly
institutions. Accepting that, in the global system, states are the “most
significant and influential units” does not mean the only view is a
state-centric one (Wilkinson 2007: 17). As liberalists support an international
‘society’ more than they do a ‘system’, they believe states share common values
that they will work together to achieve in these institutions, unlike realists,
and they understand the importance of state-institution cooperation as much as
it does state-to-state. This is one of the largest differences between neorealists
and institutionalists. Though both seek maximisation of absolute gains,
institutionalists are less pessimistic and so are more likely to cooperate,
even if it’s not through direct state-to-state engagement. Realists claim that
it doesn’t matter what a state’s domestic motivations are, states will always
act on the same basis of the distribution of power. In terms of relative gains,
neorealists suggest neoliberals overlook their importance and the aim of
cooperative relationships should be to restrict others acquiring more.

Neorealists believe that
cooperation will not happen unless states make it happen; they feel it is state
power dependent and difficult to achieve and maintain (Baylis et al. 2013, 134).
Neoliberalists juxtapose this saying cooperation is easy to gain (where states
have mutual benefits).


As a consequence of increasing
dissatisfaction with mainstream IR theories by the end of The Cold War, constructivism
was created. It concerns itself with norms and rules influencing states’
identities and as a social theory it looks at the relationship between agents
and structures. Constructivism is often compared to rational choice which
offers a framework for understanding fixed preferences of states. Constructivists
think the structure of the international system is normative and itself socially
constructed meaning the social world is not independent of the social actors
inhibiting it. Constructivists argue that ideational forces, the role of ideas
in politics, shape international politics. These ideas not only help make sense
of the international system, but also influences state behaviour.
Constructivism has two contrasting logics of behaviour. The logic of
consequences acts on anticipated costs and benefits whereas the logic of appropriateness
focuses on whether something is the right thing to do (Baylis et al. 2013: 159,
538). It is ideational elements that shape international politics and therefore
the likelihood for cooperation. Constructivists try to come up with why people
have more power than others and try to challenge this. Power is not only the
ability to get another actor to do what you want but the production of “identities,
interests and meanings” that reduce an actor’s ability to control their fate
(Baylis 2013: 162). Wendt suggests that our approach to the anarchic system
should be dependent on the meaning we give it. Constructivists don’t see the
realist claim of power politics and self-help as necessary to anarchy but
rather that they are institutions impacting on the structure of IR. Because of
this, they are seen as being more optimistic, especially compared to the
pessimistic realists. Constructivists believe identities change over time,
allowing cooperation to be where conflict once was before (Dornan 2011), like
The United Kingdom with Germany. Moreover, constructivists don’t endorse that
war in inevitable but otherwise suggests observing and changing identities and interests
of conflicting states; in this way, constructivists would testify that anarchy
doesn’t make states do anything, rather there is no need for engagement in
conflict. This is a very clear dissimilarity between realist and constructivist
theories. Realists are unable to see the possibility for cooperation in the
international system so they have no other way to act than with their own
interests at the forefront of their behaviour. This continued fear will lead to
never-ending conflicts as long as the system is still anarchic (Dornan 2011).
Constructivists counteract this by saying fear can be overcome through
cooperation; this signifies the importance of changing identities.


Overall, I believe that
neoliberalism is the best IR theory when explaining why and when states
cooperate. This is because, to me, it provides the most simple but logical
explanation, in anarchy, for state’s actions while still taking non-state
actors into account. Even though the theory itself is not perfect, it reflects
the international system in the best light for the consideration of collective
action. With the amount of non-state actors gaining more and more influence in
the political arena, I don’t think we can be naïve enough to say they can’t be
considered in our analyses. Of course every state wants to be the most secure
they can be but that shouldn’t stop them helping out other states. Cooperation
is key for survival as each actor can share their knowledge, skills and
resources; in this case all states would be better off.


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