Is Cooperation Possible Under Conditions of International Anarchy?
“Again, men have no pleasure (but on the contrary a great deal of grief) in keeping company, where there is no power able to over-awe them all.” (Thomas Hobbes, Leviathan). Hobbes, famous in part for his exploration of human nature, wisely regarded individuals as being naturally self-interested and purpose driven. Using the idea of the Leviathan, an all-powerful entity capable of subduing and commanding each person, Hobbes was able to explain the only conditions under which human beings were capable of cooperating and living in harmonious society. Thomas Hobbes may have solved the issue of cooperation among citizens of individual states, but a question of a greater scale remains: On a global scale, where international institutions do exist but none with the overarching power of a ‘Leviathan,’ is it even possible to achieve cooperation among individually sovereign states? Just as individuals are motivated by their interests, states too have rational goals which direct their actions. Cooperation is possible under the condition of international anarchy when it is conducive to the achievement of these goals, providing more benefit than other forms of interaction.
Cooperation is made more elusive by the specific conditions under which an interaction can be considered cooperative. Cooperation is not defined solely by actors (states) choosing to pursue a course other than violent conflict or coercion. Rather, cooperation requires two or more actors to implement a course of action which is beneficial to at least one of the actors, without causing detriment to any other actor (FLS 53). This does not mean that no actors involved may experience detrimental effects – interactions between states rarely have insulated consequences. It is only necessary that of all the actors who are interacting, none are harmed. Unlike true cooperation, bargaining is a zero-sum game, because the amount of benefits remains fixed, requiring one actor to give up some benefits for the other to gain. Bargaining and cooperation often co-exist and are intertwined in any given situation. This very combination of bargaining and cooperation can often make deciding to cooperate even more difficult: The decision to cooperate involves a creation of additional gains, and therefore it is often necessary to bargain over how much of the increased benefits go to each actor involved. The Allied Powers in World War II, for example, made the decision to cooperate in removing the Nazi party from power in Germany. The achievement of this goal had obvious benefits (prevent the threat of expansion into the territory of allied countries, prevent the growth of a rival power, prevent further human rights violations), and working together made victory more certain. After the war was over, the allied powers had to decide between themselves the reparations and control of territory that would go to each participant. The act of deciding these terms make up a bargaining interaction between the allied powers.
The paradox of cooperative interaction lies in the seemingly irrational difficulty in persuading state actors to cooperate. It appears, because of the positive-sum nature of this type of interaction, that cooperation should be the default and not the exception to the rule. Hesitancy to cooperate is a completely rational action, made by completely rational actors. This paradox can be explained by examining the motivations of actors; in other words, determining the unlikelihood of cooperation can be accomplished by establishing the interests states are actively pursuing. It is necessary to begin with the assumption that all actors are inherently rational, which is not such a shocking statement as it may seem: The classification of an actor as rational merely implies that they have certain goals and act in ways intended to encourage the achievement of these goals. Actors, whether they be individuals or states or institutions, act in favor of their own goals. Different theories ascribe different primary motivating factors to actors. The Realist theory of international relations proposes that the anarchic state of the world creates a security dilemma, with each state being painfully aware of the fact that they have no sovereignty over the actions of other states. To realists, the international scene mirrors the state of “War of all against all,” which Hobbes ascribes to life without a sovereign power. Liberalism, in contrast, proposes that the focus for state actors is maximizing utility and material benefits. The Constructivist view suggests that states are motivated by historical interactions and the identity which states desire to perpetuate (FLS Chapter 2).
Undoubtedly, all states vary in their goals from situation to situation. Therefore, the most effective way of determining the likelihood of cooperation through the lens of the type of interest an actor is pursuing is by categorizing each situation into one of these theories. When a situation involves an actor that is highly concerned with security matters, cooperation is very unlikely. As realist theory states, the security dilemma is created from an anxiety over the power of other countries, even present-day allies. This anxiety arises from the state of international anarchy which leaves each state in charge of pursuing its own interests and protecting its own territory, without any overarching power to step in during times of conflict with other states. Actors are unable to allow themselves to cooperate in this state, no matter the possible benefits to themselves, because of the future implications of similar benefits for the other actors involved. Any potential increase in power or wealth by another state (allies and enemies alike, as today’s ally may be tomorrow’s enemy) is viewed as a threat to security and safety. Even when cooperative action is obviously in the best and highest good of all actors involved, an issue commonly monikered ‘the commitment problem’ displays how the abstract security dilemma interacts with states in real situations. The commitment problem goes back to the sovereignty of states over their own actions, making it possible for states to promise one thing and take a wildly different course of action. Indeed, often there are considerable gains to be had as a direct result of this type of dissemblance. This makes it very difficult to persuade actors to trust each other to interact cooperatively.
When the primary interests of actors are the maximization of utility or material benefits, cooperation is made much more likely. The somewhat Utilitarian framework of Liberalist international theory rationalizes cooperation based on the idea that in a positive-sum game, no parties will be harmed more than they will gain, and so there is no rational reason to avoid cooperation. This framework even effectively diminishes the influence of the commitment problem which is so prominent in a Realist, security-focused framework. If both actors are focused on the material gains derived from an interaction, and cooperation ensures that there will be material gains to be had, there is no rational reason for any actor involved to deviate from their promise (John S. Mill, Utilitarianism). Constructivist framework, on the other hand, which emphasizes identities and perceptions, can encourage or impede the drive to cooperate. Interests falling under a constructivist framework are diverse because, in this theory, state identities are formed prior to state interests. Previous social interactions and historical processes, as well as the standards and expectations of international institutions and other countries, all serve to influence the identity of a state. States will then, based on these factors, tailor their interests towards achieving the identity they most want to convey to the rest of the world. Therefore, cooperation through Constructivist framing requires that cooperative action reinforce the identity a state wishes to convey. When the United States was asked to lend aid in the French Revolutionary War, for example, cooperation was impossible in part because showing support for a bloody and ill-conceived revolution did not help to build the identity the United States wanted for itself, as a country of freedom, liberty, and order.
There are other ways to make cooperative interaction more likely on the international scale, the most effective of which seems to be the expectation of repeated interactions. The effect of iteration on the likelihood to cooperate rather than defect from a promise is easily illustrated through a common game theory model known as ‘The Prisoner’s Dilemma.’ In a situation where the benefits of breaking a promise provide the best outcome no matter what path of action the other party chooses, the best course of action (the Nash equilibrium of the game) is to break the promise. This is true when an interaction takes place only once, because there is no guarantee that the other actors involved will keep their promises, and no way to recuperate loses or exact retribution once the game (interaction) has ended (FLS 82-87, Morrow). This one-time-only game model enforces the realist security dilemma and virtually eliminates the possibilities for cooperative interaction between parties. A one-time play model also increases the incentives to free-ride in interactions where cooperation would clearly be beneficial. When it is guaranteed that actors will be forced to interact with each other again and again, as is the case in the international world, cooperation becomes more and more likely, mostly because of the possibility for punishment. Punishment does not mean violent conflict, but merely that if one actor chooses to cooperate and the other actor to dissemble, the actor that was shortchanged will be unlikely to cooperate and allow itself to be taken advantage of again – in other words, reciprocal action. In this way, all actors should theoretically be able to reach consistent cooperation through the realization that others involved will not hesitate to deviate from cooperative action if their interests are threatened.
Regardless of the amount of repeated interaction between actors, it is still necessary that cooperation provide greater benefits than other alternatives. This can cause confusion, because in real-world situations actors have more than one interest operating at a time, and situations are far more complex than can be shown in simple game theory models. During the Cuban missile crises, for example, plurality of interests led to the show of brinksmanship that ensued, rather than immediate cooperation. Both parties, the United States and USSR, knew that the other could deliver on threats of war and mass destruction, as each was aware of the nuclear weaponry the other possessed. Nevertheless, neither country immediately decided to cooperate. This is because the benefits of immediate cooperation, while great, were not so numerous as to supersede all interests the actors held for the interaction. Part of each country’s purpose, beyond avoiding the mutual destruction of nuclear war, was to communicate their resolve and let the world know that they would not be pushed around. This prevented the United States and the USSR from being able to concede to each other’s demands too early into the crisis, for fear of being perceived weak by comparison. In addition, the interest of security prevented each country from cooperation until it was certain that the other would heed its promise. This interaction, often modeled in game theory as a game of chicken, combined many different interests, which made achieving a cooperative agreement difficult despite the obvious and immense benefits immediate cooperation would have provided.
Cooperative interaction can also be encouraged, following the vein of Constructivist theory, through hegemony among relevant actors. This relates to the identities which states pursue, and the similarities among countries. Unfortunately, it is not so simple a correlation as to say that all countries with similar forms of government, religious or ethnic composition, or any other typically unifying factor, are more likely to cooperate with each other and less likely to cooperate with others. The only situation in which the correlation between compositional similarity and cooperative action has enough empirical evidence to be considered a legitimate theory is among nations with Democratic type governments. Though the so-called ‘Democratic Peace’ merely deals with a decreased likelihood of war and violent conflict among mature democracies, it necessarily follows that cooperation is a more natural form of interaction among democracies. The Democratic Peace can be viewed as a product of democratic values of freedom and liberty, values which most democratic states view as being in their most true form only within the bounds of democratic governmental systems. Thus, democratic governments face a sort of identity crisis when confronted with the option of conflict with other democracies, because of the shared values of freedom and liberty which do not allow for outside intervention in domestic affairs. On the other hand, there are fewer such qualms when dealing with countries which are not democratic, and especially countries which are authoritarian in nature, because these nations are espousing views opposite of the democratic definitions of freedom and liberty (FLS 166-182, Moore, Dafoe). The predisposition to peace among mature democracies therefore increases the likelihood of their cooperation, because in any given interaction the relevant actors try to find a course of action which does not include violence, theoretically increasing the mathematical chance of cooperative means of interacting.
The most obvious solution to the difficulties of cooperation caused by international anarchy seems to be the establishment of an overarching power which can mediate and directly and credibly punish those who deviate from their promises. Like John Locke’s explanation of the justification for government, the problem with actors (individuals and states alike) having the power to act as judge, jury, and executioner in their affairs lies in the inability to enforce totally and fairly the promises that have been made and dole out the proper amount of punishment when needed. The best solution for this dilemma is the creation of a sovereign power who holds these powers and creates uniform standards for their enforcement, thereby discouraging any deviation from these standards, but while individuals have seen fit to create states to hand these powers over to, states have not yet seen fit to create an ultimate sovereign to settle their international affairs. There have been periods in history, though, where one state or a handful of states obtains so much power, that the threat of interference by this state encourages actors to maintain their promises, at least in some situations. During the Pax Britannica, a period of relative peace lasting from 1815 to 1914 resulting from Britain’s massive reach and military capabilities, the interests of many states were aligned (FLS Chapter 1). The security dilemma was also lessened by the overpowering might of the British. This allowed for prosperous trade and positive relations among industrialized nations especially, both of which are examples of cooperative interaction which were very lucrative to the relevant actors.
Cooperation is often more logical and beneficial to state actors than other forms of interaction, but unfortunately becomes inhibited by the rational and self-serving nature of states. This is not an issue for governments and political scientists, as the nature of states and the mistrust inherent in the international system are results of their composite parts: Individuals. So long as individuals continue to define their interests merely by selfish standards, governments and states will follow. There is a perception that to focus interests and goals outside of oneself, one’s state, or one’s group, will not benefit the actor, but this viewpoint is myopic and creates a vicious cycle where cooperation is elusive and uneasy. Nevertheless, cooperation is possible, even under the anarchic conditions of the international system. Understanding what makes cooperation accessible in today’s international environment is essential in order to foster situations which are conducive to cooperation. Though it is not always possible, with enough repeated interactions, states can reach a state of cooperation beneficial to all.


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