Is anarchy a serious obstacle to co-operation?

In International Relations the concept of anarchy has been broadly discussed for several reasons; some scholars may argue that anarchism can be beneficial among the states and even more beneficial in IR dealings between countries. In opposition other scholars believe that anarchism is a serious obstacle to co-operation. This essay will discuss Is anarchy a serious obstacle to co-operation?

Yes; it is. The reason that makes me get in this position is the following: from the definition anarchy is defined as: “a system operating in the absence of any central government. Does not imply chaos, but in Realist theory the absence of political authority.”[1] Furthermore; in order to answer this question correctly, concepts involving Realism, Critical theory and Constructivism arise because they define the path in IR about anarchy most recently in the last years.

 Starting with the Realist conception; basic realist ideas and assumptions are: (1) a pessimistic view of human nature; (2) a conviction that international relations are necessarily conflictual and that international conflicts are ultimately resolved by war; (3) a high regard for the values of national security and state survival; (4) a basic scepticism that there can be progress in international politics. That is comparable to that in domestic political life.[2] As a result, the negative view that anarchy is an obstacle to co-operation is primarily given by our human nature which in realist theories involves states. Nonetheless, in realist thought human are characterized as being preoccupied with their own well-being. In this sense, the same happen between states; national welfare is more important than the international well-being; because interest always come first. Moreover, the fact that all states must pursue their own national interest means that other countries and governments can never be relied upon completely. All international agreements are provisional and conditional on the willingness of states to observe them. All states must be prepared to sacrifice their international obligations on the altar of their own-interest if the two come into conflict.[3] So, is clearly among realist scholars that agreements and international obligations are conditional until certain degree and the reason we have the same opinion is because they are beneficial at the national level; as a consequence also useful at the international level, but is not always the case. This was phrased by Machiavelli as “the only fundamental responsibility of statespeople is to advance and to defend the national interest.”[4] This means that there can be no progressive change in world politics comparable to the developments that characterize domestic political life. This also means that realist IR theory is considered to be valid not only in particular times but all times, because the foregoing basic facts of world politics never change. To a deeper stage Machiavelli, Hobbes and even Thucydides, share the view of the goal of power, the means of control, and the uses of supremacy are a central preoccupation of political activity. In this case the core assumption that world politics unfolds in an international anarchy: i.e. a system with no overarching authority, no world government. So, as the state is the main actor in IR; all other actors are either less important or unimportant.

The main points of foreign policy are to project and defend the interest of the state in world politics. In reality; state are not equal: on the contrary, there is an international hierarchy among the states. In the IR scenario the size of a country like US is clearly in higher hierarchy than a smaller and less powerful as it could be a country like Venezuela for example. The main reason is power, US is much more powerful and as a consequence they are in a higher level at the IR outlook. The most important states are the great powers in world politics.[5] (US, UK, Germany, China, France and Russia) for example. Strictly, the state which is identified as the key actor in international politics must pursue power, and it is the duty of the statesperson to calculate rationally the most appropriate steps that should be taken so as to perpetuate the life of the state in a hostile environment. For realists the survival of the state can never be guaranteed, because of the use of force culminating in war is a legitimate instrument of statecraft[6]. At the end, realists conclude that the first priority for state leaders is to ensure the survival of their state. Under anarchy, the endurance of the state cannot be guaranteed and the same happens with co-operation . Therefore they argue that self-help is the principle of action in an anarchical system where there is no global government. According to Realism, each state actor is responsible for ensuring its own well-being and survival. So, it is it to say that under the realist scrutiny anarchy is evidently an obstacle between states.

The contemporary neorealist thinker Kenneth Waltz in theory of International Politics (1979) argues that “anarchy lead to a logic of self-help in which states seek to maximize their security”. The most stable distribution of power in the system is bipolarity.  Another neorealist thinker called Mearsheimer builds on Waltz’s argument concerning the stability of bipolar systems as compared to multi-polar systems. Waltz claims that bipolar systems are superior to multipolar because they provide greater international stability and as a consequence greater peace and security. In opposition Mearsheimer argues that ‘the long peace’ between 1945 and 1900 was a result of three fundamentally important conditions: the bipolar system of military power in Europe; the approximate military equality between US and the Soviet Union; and the reality that both of the rival superpowers were equipped with an imposing arsenal of nuclear weapons. [7] Even more, according to Mearsheimer the structure of the international system compels states to maximize their relative power position. Under anarchy, he agrees that self-help is the basic principle of action. Finally, he concludes that there are no satisfied quo states. Waltz gives no account to human nature and he ignores the ethics of statecraft. According to Waltz theory, a basic feature of IR is the decentralized structure of anarchy between the states. In this case, countries differ significantly only in regard to their greatly varying capabilities. In other words; the state units of an international system are: “distinguished primarily by their greater or less capabilities for performing similar tasks”[8]. He also assumes that the major problem of great-power conflict is war, and that the major task of IR among the great powers is to provide peace and security.  In the other hand another neorealist thinker Morgenthau argues that: the ultimate political space within which security can be arranged and enjoyed is, of course, the independent state.

 Security beyond the state is impossible. “Politics is a struggle for power over men, and whatever its ultimate aim may be, power is its immediate goal and the modes of acquiring, maintaining and demonstrating it determine the technique of political action”[9] In either case, power seems to be the main plan for states; for that cause anarchy for realists and neorealists is a matter to assistance between countries and co-operation is not possible without previous agreements. So, the main problem is that states are ruled by humans; therefore we are always pursuing self- interests and the way we can accomplish them. In the IR scenario it works similar. In either case the ultimate aim between the states is power and security at the national level. Nonetheless in this aspect neoclassical realists argue that different types of state possess different capacities to translate the various elements of national power into state power. Thus, contrary to Waltz, all states cannot be treated as ‘like units’[10] .Realists claim that in anarchy, states compete with each other states for power and security. The nature of the competition is viewed in zero-sum terms; in other words, more for one actor means less for another. Historically, liberals have agreed with Realists that war is a recurring feature of the anarchic states system. But unlike realists, they do not identify anarchy as a cause of conflict.

Against realism theories, the International Society tradition is critical of realism on two counts. First, it regards realism as a one-dimensional IR theory that is too narrowly focused. Second, it claims that realism fails to capture the extend to which international politics is a dialogue of different IR voices and perspectives. [11] Still, they argue that realism ignores the mutual strain on human nature. It overlook the extend to which international relations from an anarchic society and not merely an anarchical system. States are not only in conflict; they also share common interests and observe common rules which confer mutual rights and duties.  To a deeper level, “Society theorists recognize the importance of the national interests as a value, but they refuse to accept that it is the only significance that is important in world politics.” And to some extend, neoclassical realists could thus reply to the critique as follows. “International Society scholars can be criticized for failing to recognize that while the liberal voice is important in world politics the realist voice is always first in importance”[12]. That is because it is the best perspective on the core problem of IR. In sum; realists usually have a pessimistic view of human nature which affects the political and international view among countries. They are sceptical that there can be progress in international politics that is comparable to that in domestic political life. They operate with a core assumption that world politics consists of an international anarchy of sovereign states. Realists see IR as basically conflictual, and they see international conflicts as ultimately resolved by war.

In Critical Theory according to some scholars there is no world politics or global economics which operates in accordance with immutable social laws.. The social world is a construction of time and place: the international system is also a specific construction of time and place.[13] Robert Cox (1981) expressed that view in a frequently quoted remark: “Theory is always for someone and for some purpose”; according to him critical theory contains an element of historical utopianism. Therefore, in this case is believed that in IR interests always come first. Thus, in an anarchical state this is not beneficial to co-operation. Additionally Cox’s work is an example of how critical theorists struggle with finding their place between these views.

Now, another important concept that comes along anarchy is Constructivism; in an often repeated phrase, Alexander Wendt (1992) captured the core of IR constructivism in the following remark: ‘anarchy is what states make of it’ [14]. In this case, there is no objective international world apart form the practices and institutions that states arrange among themselves. Moreover, in making that statement Wendt argues that anarchy is not some kind of external given which dictates a logic of analysis based on neorealism.

 To a deeper level there are some important implications that follow from constructivist IR methodology. If ‘anarchy is what states make of it’ there is nothing inevitable or unchangeable about world politics. Nothing is given or certain. As an example; states could decide to reduce their sovereignty or even to give up their sovereignty. If that happened there would no longer be an international anarchy as we know it. Instead, there would be a brave new, non-anarchical world. Among other things, that means that a predictive and explanatory social science of IR could not be achieved. Likewise, if everything is uncertain and in instability it would be impossible to predict what international relations will be like tomorrow. The most important fact that constructivist illustrate now is that we can accumulate valid knowledge about the world. But in contrast to positivists, constructivists emphasize the role of ideas, of shared knowledge of the social world. States construct one another in their relations and in so doing they also construct international anarchy that defines their relations. Anarchy is not a natural condition; anarchy is what states make of it So, it can be argued that actually states shapes “anarchy” as they like. Furthermore, generally speaking, scholars nowadays tend to think that the structure of international relations is not institutionalized to any great degree. This is so even for some scholars who think of themselves as constructivists. They believe that countries are highly institutionalized as states, but that states through their agents, conduct their relations in an anarchic world.[15] The term anarchy points a condition of rule among countries in which no one state or group of states rules over the rest. It also implies that there is no institution above the states ruling them. When we say that countries are sovereign, we are saying basically the very same thing. To complement; the fundamental to constructivism is the proposition that human beings are social, and we would not be human but for our social relations. In a few words, social relations make or construct people into the kind of beings that we are. Constructivism holds that people make society, and vice versa.

Now coming back to the question; after exposing these different theories with anarchism in IR it is clear that anarchy a serious obstacle to co-operation and does not sustain the development between countries. Moreover, by calling international relations anarchic, we are not saying that there is an absence of rule. This would be chaos, not anarchy. Instead, we give the impression to be saying that structure and especially a stable pattern of unintended consequences rules the day. In the same sense, we might say that the market rules the behaviour of sellers and buyers. Also, anarchism is a condition of rule in which rues are not directly responsible for the way agents conduct their relations. So in this case it means that anarchism is rule by no one in particular, and therefore by everyone in association, as an unintended consequence of their many, uncoordinated acts. In addition anarchy is a condition of rule unrelated to any agent’s intentions, then IR is no anarchy. In sum, we know that anarchy is a rather abstract and imprecise characteristic of relations between sovereign states.

Consequently, it is tempting to conclude that while the focus on the problems confronting a world of sovereign states without a common superior power was suspended, the concept of anarchy nevertheless continued to provide a common point of departure for discussion in the field of international relations. In addition to the central importance of the idea of anarchy, no matter how it has been constructed, in the disciplinary history of international relations, it is significant that some scholars recognized that an international organization was needed to govern the relations among states. As an example; Edwin Borchard in A History of Political Theories: Recent Times wrote that: “the present anarchical state of international relations, with no present hope of any improvement, is the most tangible evidence of the destructiveness of the theory of state sovereignty in international relations, and for its long survival the political theorists of the 19th century and the analytical school of jurists are largely to blame” .


International Relations in a Constructed World; Nicholas Onuf, Paul Kowert; M.E. Sharpe (1998) Chapter 5: Constructivism.

International Relations a general theory; j.w. Burton; Cambridge university press (1967)Part II anarchy.

Introduction to International Relations; 2nd Edition; Theories and approaches; Robert Jackson, Georg Sorensen; Oxford university press (2003) Chapter 3: Realism.

 -The Anarchical Society; Headley Bull: A study of world politics; 3rd edition; Columbia University press (1977)

The Globalization of World Politics; John Bailys; 4th edition; Oxford (2008) Chapter 5: Realism, Chapter 6: Liberalism.

The Political Discourse of Anarchy (A Disciplinary History of International Relations); Brian Schmidt; State University of New York Press (1998).


[1]  The Globalization of World Politics

[2]  Introduction to International Relations p.68

[3] Idem p.69

[4] Machiavelli, The prince

[5] Introduction to International Relations p.67

[6] The globalization of world politics p.93

[7] Introduction to International Relations p.90

[8] Idem p.85

[9] Idem p.77

[10] The globalization of world politics P.99

[11] Introduction to international Relations P.96

[12] Idem P.97

[13] Idem P.248

[14] Idem P.258

[15] International Relations in a Constructed World .P62


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