Global Politics: Characterised more by Conflict or Cooperation?

International Relations, Medium Reads
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Why do states funnel vast pools of resources into developing their means of bringing about death and destruction? The answer is simple: states often cannot fulfil their desires without depriving another state of the ability to do the same, resulting in a situation of conflict. The realist school of International Relations suggests that this problem is inherent to an anarchic world order of power-hungry humans. By contrast, liberal theory holds that social norms, globalizing forces and international institutions regulate the tendencies of states to engage in conflict, providing binding forces that lead states to cooperate. The latter view better represents the modern world at both the intra-state and inter-state level.

Conflict, or a state of ‘discord’, refers to a scenario in which “actors’ policies hinder the realization of others’ goals, and are not adjusted to make them more compatible.’ Cooperation, or a state of ‘harmony’, “requires that the actions of separate individuals or organizations- which are not in pre-existent harmony- be brought into conformity with one another through a process of policy coordination” (Keohane, 1984:51). In a state of cooperation, parties willingly adjust their behaviour contingent on reciprocity from others. This may be due to altruism, idealism, shared cultural values or simply pragmatic incentives. Crucially, conflict and cooperation are often not mutually exclusive or exhaustive: wealthy countries can cooperate with one another in the exploitation of poorer ones, and countries can coexist without either infringing on each other’s interests or adjusting their actions in consideration of other states.

Global Anarchy and the Inevitability of Conflict

Both conflict and cooperation are widely observable on the international stage. However, realists such as John Mearsheimer believe that instances of cooperation are either short-lived and doomed to fail or wholly ineffective in achieving harmony. The premise of this concept is twofold. First, the primary actors in international relations are states, as opposed to non-governmental organisations, private companies and other institutions. Secondly, states are egoistic, rational entities which seek to maximise their own interests, with a special emphasis on the ability to acquire power and safeguard national security (Donnelly, 2000).

This is by no means a perfect model of global politics. Institutions such as the IMF and the EU have played roles in shaping interactions between states, and states have a variety of motivations other than egoism. Woodrow Wilson’s idealism following the First World War led to the creation of the League of Nations, and each year $150 billion is given in aid to low-income countries[1]. However, it reaches a reasonable degree of accuracy as an approximation of international relations. Today and throughout history, the greatest concentration of power has always been states, with their ability to gather resources and engage in violence on a unique scale. As a result, the majority of politics is conducted on the state level. Furthermore, whilst states are influenced by many incentives, the greatest priority of states has been their own self-preservation and the acquisition of power. The reason for this is clear: states which cannot achieve these things tend to decline on the international stage and are replaced by others which do. 

Crucially, if states are the largest concentrations of power and there are not higher bodies with greater power, it follows that the international order can broadly be characterised as a state of anarchy, in which states are not regulated or controlled. Given these assumptions, realists believe that conflict dominates global politics, for three broad reasons. Firstly, the zero-sum distribution of resources and territory often necessitates that states violate each other’s interests in order to secure their own interests. One of the greatest motivating factors behind the start of the Second World War and other conflicts was the scarcity of natural resources (David and Gagné, 2006).

Secondly, the maximization of security leads to what structural realists call the ‘Security Dilemma’: when states try to guarantee their own self-preservation, through the increasing of military strength, the expansion of territory and alliances or the establishment of buffer zones, they threaten the self-preservation of other states, who are forced to take those same measures (Herz, 1950). The result of these feelings of insecurity is a ‘spiral model’ where a vicious cycle of competition increases tensions to the point where conflict occurs, or at least until sufficient trust has been destroyed such that cooperation is impossible. The arms race between the Soviet Union and the United States during the Cold War was an example of this, with proxy conflicts occurring around the globe and the world brought to the brink of nuclear war by the Cuban Missile Crisis.

Thirdly, classical realists such as Hans Morgenthau emphasise the role of human nature in promoting conflict. States are either controlled by their human leaders or represent the collectivised preferences of their human citizens. These humans are supposedly guided by the ‘animus dominandi’- the desire to achieve power, which allows them ‘to live, to propagate and to dominate.’ This leads to conflict as states seek to dominate each other but also to not be dominated themselves (Morgenthau, 1946). The desire to dominate can both be seen on an individual level in leaders such as Napoleon Bonaparte, and on a collective level, such as in England during the British Empire, where domination of other states was considered to be a matter of national prestige and honour (Saada, 2002).

Within countries, the state monopoly on the use of force allows conflict to be suppressed, but in the international arena where there is no such government, conflict according to realism must be the prevailing state of affairs. For example, whilst the League of Nations tried to arbitrate between countries during disputes, its lack of enforcement power meant it failed to prevent conflict in Manchuria.

Liberal Optimism and the Reconciliation of Interests

Liberal theorists such as Robert Keohane dispute the concept that nongovernmental actors and international institutions cannot influence and regulate states, even if states remain the main centres of power. One crucial role they play is the reduction of the uncertainty and transaction costs which often make cooperation impossible. According to Douglass North, such transaction costs refer to the ‘costs of specifying and enforcing the contracts that underlie exchange.’ International institutions at every level, from the global academic community to organisations such as United Nations, facilitate cooperation by acting as fora for multilateral international diplomacy and monitoring states, providing crucial information which allows governments to stabilize their expectations and trust each other enough to engage in mutually beneficial relationships (Keohane, 1988).

The role of communication and information in developing cooperation cannot be understated. International treaties and contracts, such as the 2015 Paris Climate Change Agreement, fall under cooperation. States compromise and agree to submit themselves to contractual obligations under the assurance that other states will alter their behaviour in some way. If states cannot monitor the compliance of their counterparts, then cooperation is likely to break down as states lack incentives to meet their obligations in the first place. Liberals point to the success of the World Trade Organisation in facilitating international trade. By providing dispute resolution and frameworks for negotiating agreements, the WTO has had a significant positive impact in encouraging trade (Goldstein et al., 2007).

Furthermore, liberals suggest that the Security Dilemma can be escaped or transcended. Firstly, the vastly greater global distribution of information, facilitated through technologies such as the internet, is another mechanism by which states can gain greater knowledge concerning the intentions of political situations in other countries. For example, countries around the world have the extensive ability to scrutinise and monitor American elections.  This reduces the presence of uncertainty, which propels feelings of insecurity that push states towards conflict as they defer towards escalation of conflict in order to safeguard their security.

Rather than security being the only concern of states, economic and environmental factors are also crucial to the wellbeing of countries. States have strong incentives to engage in cooperation for several reasons. The first is the solution of collective action problems. Countries around the world adhere to international maritime law in the significant majority of cases (with high profile exceptions including China’s aggression in the South China Sea), even though there is no hierarchical enforcement. This is because of the strong collective benefits of things such as standardised regulations, combined with the selfish desire of states to maintain their reputation and credibility in order to form relationships with others in the future. Another collective action problem is the global environment: the Montreal Protocol in 1987 successfully phased out the production of substances responsible for ozone depletion on a global scale. Other benefits include the economies of scale achieved by the pooling of resources, such as the research carried out by institutions like the World Health Organization.

The second force driving cooperation in the status quo is comparative advantage. States have incentives to engage in trade with one another because it allows them to take advantage of the lower opportunity costs of producing certain goods in other countries, whilst they themselves can specialize on the goods they are best suited at producing (Ricardo, 2012). This is a form of cooperation: agreements such as the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade in 1947 oblige states to forgo protecting their industries by reducing trade barriers on a reciprocal basis. From 2000 to 2019, the global trade value of exported goods went from $6.45 trillion to $19 trillion[2]. Importantly, trade is an example of where cooperation actively reduces the chance of conflict and encourages future cooperation. This is because as economies become interdependent, the incentives of states begin to align, and the costs of engaging in conflict increase. For example, Donald Trump’s trade war with China is estimated to have cost 400,000 American jobs[3]. Empirical studies have verified that conflict tends to decrease as trade links form[4], and historically strained relations between countries have often been improved by economic engagement, such as in the case of Chile and Bolivia.

Finally, the classical realist conception is an oversimplified characterisation of how humans behave. Whilst the desire for power is a potential source of motivation, it is regulated by social norms and beliefs. Liberals point to the democratic peace theory, in which it has been observed that democracies are less likely to go to war with each other, as an example of this: rather than simply trying to maximise power, norms concerning issues such as national sovereignty and human rights also guide behaviour. Humanitarian interventions from NATO’s intervention in Kosovo in 1999 and America’s intervention in Somalia in 1992 demonstrate that states can be motivated by feelings of obligation and morality. This has been accelerated by the force of ‘cultural globalisation’, or the increased sharing of ideas and values. Shared values promote cooperation due to increased trust between parties, and a mutual affinity that encourages reciprocation.


Many states, particularly in the West, have recently documented increases in nationalistic sentiments which many fear will undermine cooperation. However, the isolated incidents of conflict which we see today must be put into perspective against the backdrop of a world in which the vast majority of interstate relationships are cooperative. Whilst Britain’s departure from the European Union and America’s rivalry with China have not been ideal for trade, the fact remains that the global economy still depends on international exchange. Whilst states in the Middle East encroach on each other’s borders, what has not changed is that the vast majority of countries around the world have come together to agree common standards on things from the laws of war to laws of the sea.

Even assuming the rational, egoist nature of states in the world of realism, the pragmatic incentives to engage in cooperation compel states to work together, particularly when collective threats to humanity are on the horizon. Trade and interdependency have turned the global distribution of resources from a zero-sum game to a positive-sum one. Greater availability of information allows states to monitor each other, mitigating the security dilemma whilst reducing the transaction costs of cooperation. Although higher authorities than states do not exist, governments have incentives to meet their contractual obligations to achieve the benefits of agreements and protect their own reputations. Furthermore, cultural bonds and shared values have allowed vast inter-state projects to function, such as the European Union.

In the nuclear age, the worst-case scenario of conflict would render human life impossible. By contrast, cooperation between states has the potential to create a vastly more peaceful and prosperous world. States have begun to realise just how preferable one outcome is to the other. There is reason to be optimistic. 


Donnelly, J. (2000). Realism and International Relations (Themes in International Relations). Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. doi:10.1017/CBO9780511612510

David, C., & Gagné, J. (2006). Natural Resources: A Source of Conflict? International Journal, 62(1), 5-17. doi:10.2307/40204241

Herz, J. (1950). Idealist Internationalism and the Security Dilemma. World Politics, 2(2), 157-180. doi:10.2307/2009187

Anderson, W. (1947). MORGENTHAU, HANS J. Scientific Man vs. Power Politics. Pp. ix, 245. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1946. $3.00. The ANNALS of the American Academy of Political and Social Science250(1), 135–136.

Saada, E. (2002). The Empire of Law: Dignity, Prestige, and Domination in the “Colonial Situation”. French Politics, Culture & Society, 20(2), 98-120. Retrieved April 19, 2021, from

Keohane R.O. (1989) International Institutions: Two Approaches. In: Hartwich HH. (eds) Macht und Ohnmacht politischer Institutionen. VS Verlag für Sozialwissenschaften, Wiesbaden.

Goldstein, J., Rivers, D., & Tomz, M. (2007). Institutions in International Relations: Understanding the Effects of the GATT and the WTO on World Trade. International Organization, 61(1), 37-67. doi:10.1017/S0020818307070014

Ricardo, D., 2012. Principles of Political Economy and Taxation. Dover Publications.





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