How Much Anarchy?

May 30, 2009

Realism and neorealism make five central claims about the international politics: 1) An international system exists; 2) The system is anarchic; 3) States are sovereign and the primary units of the system; 4) States seek power; and 5) States act rationally. While each claim complements the others, I believe that realism’s understanding of anarchy is the nucleus of the tradition’s analyses of interstate relations. In this essay, I explore the validity of the proposition that anarchy determines the nature of state interactions in the system. Ultimately, I determine that realism’s strict definition of anarchy is a beneficial tool for understanding international relations in a broad historical sense but deficient when analyzing the current era. Anarchy exists in degrees of intensity dependent on state behavior and the orientation of the great powers. Here, I distinguish two types of anarchy: hard and soft. I use the former label to describe a state of more anarchy and the latter to describe less anarchy. Of note, my use of the term realism in this study encompasses the neorealist approach.

For realists, anarchy is a product of the multitude of sovereign states within the international system. States are free to pursue courses of action without any structural restraints. Without a hierarchical structure providing rules for state interaction, states are situated in relationships of self-help and, consequently, are in direct competition with one another to secure their national interest defined as power. In the realist conception of international politics, power is both an ends and a means. The zero-sum game ignited by anarchy compels states to act rationally, otherwise there is a chance that a competitor will become more powerful and, therefore, threaten another’s national interest. Despite the omnipresence of rational-egoism in the system, cooperation is not absent from the realist model. In fact, anarchy compels states to cooperate – but only temporarily to enhance their interests. Kenneth Waltz’s defensive realism, which articulates the effects of anarchy on balance of power politics, explicates cooperation’s role in the realist framework. In order to protect national interest, Waltz says, states will ally to negate the ascending power of another. Once the power equilibrium is restored, the allied states pursue their interests independently, only to balance again in the future when one state disrupts the distribution of power.[1] International institutions do not play a role in softening realism’s anarchy because no international body exists to extricate states from the self-help principle. Basically, international institutions are a tool for enhancing national interest against the welfare of other states. Thus, zero-sum competition is an enduring feature of the international system.

From the Treaty of Westphalia’s establishment of the nation-state as the primary unit of international relations in 1648 to World War II, realism’s anarchy offers a compelling longe duree perspective of the motivations of states and interstate conflict. During that time, the insubstantial information flows between nation-states exacerbated the question of other states’ policy intentions. Realism’s strict interpretation of anarchy, however, seems anachronistic considering the technological advances of the mid- to late-twentieth century that connected nations and facilitated the integration of national economies into the complex global economy.

Contrary to the central assumption of neo-realism, anarchy is not the sole determinant of state behavior in the modern era. One need only open the newspaper for evidence that states are subject to formal and informal constraints. Liberal theorists like Robert Keohane and Joseph Nye agree that the international system is anarchic but contend that international economic institutions, though voluntary, reduce interstate tensions by linking economic welfare – a rational component of the national interest – to stable and contention-minimizing relationships.[2] In the liberal model, states are concerned with absolute gains instead of relative gains, thus rationalizing anarchy as an opportunity instead of a burden. Institutions need not be located in brick and mortar buildings; instead they can be norms widely accepted by the states in the international system. In today’s world, for example, virtually all states agree that war is only considered ‘just’ if waged for defensive purposes. By and large, the ‘institution’ of just war restrains states from aggressively pursuing military conquest.

The question that then arises is whether the tempered anarchy of the twentieth century is a temporary or permanent deviation from realism’s rigid interpretation of anarchy. Some liberals insist that institutions, once formed, acquire a logic and agenda separate from their constituent states; thus becoming pseudo-sovereign agents in the international system.[3] If this is the case, then a system defined by soft anarchy may be a constant. Another way to predict the degree of anarchy in the future is to question the effects of technological progress through history. From steamboats and the telegraph to television and the Internet, human innovation has created an increasingly interconnected and culturally homogenous world. As the globe becomes smaller, institutions are utilized to mediate between disputant agents and formulate responses to the ills produced by the virtual elimination of spatial barriers. Conversely, anarchy may be intensified by a myriad of factors – ranging from resource scarcity to violence perpetrated by non-state actors. In today’s world, it is not outlandish to imagine a state attempting to protect its national welfare from non-state militant groups by wantonly violating the sovereignty of weak and/or unwilling nations while disregarding formal and informal international institutions. In this case, a system marked by hard anarchy is likely to result.

As demonstrated in the paragraph above, predicting the future severity of anarchy is a tenuous task. One alternative model examines anarchy as the product of vacillating norms of international society. In “Anarchy is What States Make of It,” constructivist Alexander Wendt advises scholars of international relations to examine processes of state interaction instead of focusing on the conditions of interaction. The degree of anarchy in the system is determined, he says, by states’ identities as constructed by the interaction of an ego with alters. In other words, at any one time the system can be more or less cooperative based on the socialization process of states.[4]

The soft anarchy defining the current period of the international system can be attributed to the unipolar dominance of the Untied States and the states socialization vis-à-vis the institution of a single great power. Great powers are informal institutions that play a substantial role in creating norms in the international system either through their interaction, as in a multipolar system, or their unrivaled power, as in a unipolar system. In the former case, the system is likely to be more anarchical. Yet, if a single superpower dominates the system and promotes the idea of absolute gains, as the United States does, then a challenger or coalition of challengers is less likely to emerge. In other words, a loose, non-obligatory order built upon common norms and understandings simultaneously sustains anarchy but also provides structure. The degree of anarchy in a unipolar system, though, is contingent upon the identity of the great power. An aggressive great power with a zero-sum interpretation of interstate events will plunge system into a hard anarchy.

In sum, as long as sovereign states remain the primary actors in the international system, anarchy will remain as the structure influencing states’ action. However, the system can at times be more or less anarchic. The realist and liberal arguments concerning anarchy are both correct when situated within an appropriate context. Constructivist’s process-centric analysis of international politics reconciles these two school’s understanding of anarchy. It accepts the idea that hard and soft anarchies are variant conditions of the system dependent on states’ socialization. To understand the international system’s structure of anarchy, one must look at the dominant institutions mediating state interaction.


[1] Kenneth Waltz, “Anarchic Orders and Balances of Power” in Neorealism and its Critics, ed. Robert Keohane (New York: Columbia University Press, 1986), 129.

[2] Robert O. Keohane “Neorealism and World Politics” in Neorealism and its Critics, ed. Robert Keohane (New York: Columbia University Press, 1986), 18.

[3] Richard K. Ashley, “The Poverty of Neorealism” in Neorealism and its Critics, ed. Robert Keohane (New York: Columbia University Press, 1986), 275.

[4] Alexander Wendt, “Anarchy is What States Make of It,” International Organization 46 (1992): 405.

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