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The assumption of anarchy in international relations theory: a critique*

  • Helen Milner

Anarchy is one of the most vague and ambiguous words in language.’ George Coreewall Lewis, 1832.

In much current theorizing, anarchy has once again been declared to be the fundamental assumption about international politics. Over the last decade, numerous scholars, especially those in the neo-realist tradition, have posited anarchy as the single most important characteristic underlying international relations. This article explores implications of such an assumption. In doing so, it reopens older debates about the nature of international politics. First, I examine various concepts of ‘anarchy’ employed in the international relations literature. Second, I probe the sharp dichotomy between domestic and international politics that is associated with this assumption. As others have, I question the validity and utility of such a dichotomy. Finally, this article suggests that a more fruitful way to understand the international system is one that combines anarchy and interdependence.

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1 Cornewall Lewis, George, Remarks on the Use and Abuse of Some Political Terms, Facsimile of 1832 text (Columbia, 1970), p. 226.

2 John, Ruggie, ‘Continuity and Transformation in the World Polity: Toward a Neorealist Synthesis’, World Politics, 35 (Jan., 1982), pp. 261–85.

3 Richard, Ashley, ‘The Poverty of Neorealism’, International Organization, 38 (Spring 1984), pp. 225–86.

4 Hayward, Alker, ‘The Presumption of Anarchy in International Polities’, ms., 3 Aug 1986.

5 The assumption is not progressive in the sense that Lakatos proposes. The propositions it generates do not lead to new questions and their answers. See Imre, Lakatos, ‘Falsification and the Methodology of Scientific Research Programs’, in Lakatos, and Musgrave, (eds.), Criticism and the Growth of Knowledge (London, 1970).

6 Robert, Art and Robert, Jervis, International Politics, 2nd edition (Boston, 1986), p. 7.

7 Robert, Gilpin, War and Change in World Politics (Cambridge, University Press, 1981), p. 7.

8 Kenneth, Waltz, Theory of International Politics (Reading, Mass, 1979), p. 88.

9 Robert, Axelrod, The Evolution of Cooperation (NY, 1984), p. 3.

10 Axelrod, , Evolution, p. 4.

11 Axelrod, , Evolution, p. 190.

12 Robert, Keohane, After Hegemony, chs. 5, 6 esp. pp. 73, 85, 88. He later relaxes this restrictive assumption, citing various forms of interdependence which may mitigate this anarchy. See ch. 7, esp. pp. 122–23.

13 ‘Cooperation Under Anarchy’, World Politics, 38 (Oct. 1985), p. 1.

14 Hedley, Bull, The Anarchical Society (NY, 1977), pp. 2425.

15 Bull, , Anarchical Society, p. 8.

16 Bull, , Anarchical Society, pp. 1516 and ch. 2.

17 Bull, , Anarchical Society, p. 42.

18 Oye, , ‘Cooperation Under Anarchy’, p. 226.

19 Gilpin, , War and Change, p. 28.

20 Tucker, Robert W., The Inequality of Nations (NY, 1977).

21 Waltz, , Theory, p. 102.

22 See Axelrod and Keohane in Oye, ‘Cooperation Under Anarchy’, p. 226.

23 Wight, Martin, Power Politics (Harmondsworth, 1978), p. 101. The essays here were originally written in 1946.

24 Dunn, Frederick, ‘Research Note: The Scope of International Relations’, World Politics, 1 (Oct. 1948), p. 144.

25 Waltz, , Theory, pp. 103–4.

26 Wight, , Power Politics, p. 102–4.

27 Oye, , ‘Cooperation Under Anarchy’, pp. 12.

28 Hobbes, Thomas, Leviathan (Indianapolis, 1958), ch. 14, p. 117.

29 Robert Dahl deals with this issue of monopoly by adding a new dimension to the definition of monopoly. He sees government as having a monopoly over the regulation of what constitutes the legitimate use of force. See his Modem Political Analysis, 4th edition (Englewood Cliffs, NJ, 1984), p. 17.

30 Morgenthau, Hans, Politics Among Nations, 6th edition (NY, 1985), p. 34.

31 Waltz, , Theory, p. 88.

32 Weber, Max, Economy and Society, ed. Roth, Guenther and Wittich, Claus (Berkeley, 1978), I, p. 54. Weber, unlike Waltz, emphasizes elsewhere institutions and legitimacy as well as force to explain politics.

33 Encyclopedia of the Social Sciences, p. 13.The Dictionary of Political Science, ed. Dunner, Joseph (NY, 1964), p. 217, provides a similar definition: government is ‘the agency which reflects the organization of the statal (politically organized) group. It normally consists of an executive branch, a legislative branch, and a judicial branch’.

34 Encyclopedia of Social Sciences, p. 8.

35 Eckstein, Harry, ‘Authority Patterns: A Structural Basis for Political Inquiry’, APSR, 67 (Dec. 1973), p. 1,142.

36 Easton, David, The Political System (NY, 1965), pp. 137–8.

37 Weber, , Economy and Society, I, p. 231; see also I, pp. 31.

38 Dahl, Robert and Lindblom, Charles, Politics, Economics, and Welfare (NY, 1953), pp. 99123.

39 See, for example, Eckstein, , ‘Authority Patterns’; Easton, Political System, pp. 132–3.

40 See Jervis, Robert, ‘Security Regimes’, International Organization, 36 (Spring 1982), pp. 357–78 for a discussion of the legitimate order formed under this system.

41 Waltz, , Theory, p. 88.

42 Waltz, , Theory, p. 112.

43 Waltz, , Theory, p. 113.

44 Waltz, , Theory, pp. 115–16.

45 Waltz, , Theory, p. 81.

46 Waltz, , Theory, p. 81.

47 Waltz recognizes this; see Theory, pp. 8182. But it never influences his very sharp distinction between the ordering of domestic and international politics.

48 See, for example, Katzenstein, Peter, Between Power and Plenty (Ithaca, 1978).

49 Waltz does note the differences in systems in terms of the number of great powers, or poles. He suggests the consequences of this are different levels of stability in the system. Ruggie in ‘Continuity and Transformation’ also sees differences in systems over time. But his focus is on the divide between the medieval and the modern (post-seventeenth century) systems.

50 Ruggie, , ‘Continuity and Transformation’, p. 266.

51 See Ruggie, , ‘Continuity and Transformation’, pp. 148–52, and Waltz, , ‘Reflections on Theory of International Politics, p. 328, in Keohane, R. (ed.), Neorealism and Its Critics (NY, 1986).

52 Waltz, , Theory, pp. 8990, 129-36.

53 Waltz, , Theory, p. 104.

54 Waltz, , Theory, p. 47.

55 Waltz, , Theory, p. 105.

56 Waltz admits that anarchy and hierarchy are ideal types. But he rejects their use as a continuum, preferring for theoretical simplicity to see them as dichotomies. See Theory, p. 115. Moreover, he simply posits that the an anarchic ideal is associated with international politics more than it is with domestic politics.

57 Small, and Singer, J. D., Explaining War (Beverly Hills, 1979), pp. 63, 65, 6869.

58 Waltz, , Theory, p. 103.

59 Morgenthau, , Politics Among Nations, pp. 3940.

60 Carr, E. H., The Twenty Years’ Crisis (NY, 1964), p. 41.

61 Carr, , Twenty Years’ Crisis, p. 79.

62 Carr, , Twenty Years’ Crisis, p. 60.

63 Carr, , Twenty Years’ Crisis, p. 180.

64 Claude, Inis, Power and International Relations (NY, 1962), p. 231.

65 Claude, , Power and IR, p. 231.

66 Claude, , Power and IR, p. 234.

67 For Waltz this is the ultimate test of an assumption, see Waltz, Theory, p. 96.

68 See, for example, Spiro, Herbert, World Politics: The Global System (Homewood, II, 1966), esp. ch. 1.

69 Rosenau, James, ‘Calculated Control as a Unifying Concept in the Study of International Politics and Foreign Policy’, Princeton, Center for International Studies, Princeton University, 1963, pp. 23.

70 Waltz, , Theory, p. 72.

71 Masters, Roger, ‘World Politics as a Primitive Political System’, World Politics, 16 (July 1964), pp. 595619; Gellner, Ernest, ‘How to Live in Anarchy’, The Listener, 3 April, 1958, pp. 579–83; Alger, Chadwick, ‘Comparison of Intranational and International Polities’, APSR, 62 (June 1963), pp. 406–19.

72 Fox, W. T. R., The American Study of International Relations (Columbia, SC. 1968), p. 20.

73 Schelling, Thomas, Strategy of Conflict (Cambridge, Mass., 1960), p. 5.

74 See Baldwin, David, ‘Interdependence and Power: A Conceptual Analysis’, International Organization, 34 (Aut. 1980), pp. 471506. This conception of interdependence does not include the notion of sensitivity, as employed by Robert Keohane and Joseph Nye in Power and Interdependence (Boston, 1977). The notion of vulnerability is the most well-accepted definition.

75 Waltz is confusing on this point. He sees the two as opposed but linked; however, he cannot decide which way the linkage runs. Anarchy for him implies equality, sameness, and hence independence of actors, on the one hand. On the other, he claims interdependence is highest when states are equal. If this is true, then anarchy may well be characterized by very high levels of interdependence, since all states are equal.

76 See Carr, Twenty Years’ Crisis, for example; also see the discussion of neoliberal institutionalism in Grieco, Joseph, ‘Anarchy and the Limits of Cooperation’, International Organization, 42 no. 33 (Summer 1988), pp. 485508.

77 Hirschman, Albert, National Power and the Structure of Foreign Trade (Berkeley, 1980); Keohane, Robert and Nye, Joseph, Power and Interdependence (Boston, 1977); Schelling, Strategy of Conflict: Baldwin, ‘Interdependence and Power’.

78 Richard Little makes this point about symmetric relations and suggests that this is an understudied area; see ‘Power and Interdependence: A Realist Critique’, in Barry Jones, R. B. and Willetts, Peter (eds.), Interdependence on Trial (London, 1984), pp. 121–, Waltz that only symmetric relations can be interdependent, but this position seems untenable; see Theory, pp. 143–6.

79 Jervis, Robert, The Logic of Images in International Relations (Princeton, 1970), and Perception and Misperception in International Politics (Princeton, 1976).

80 Keohane, Robert, makes this point in After Hegemony.

81 A metaphor Waltz resorts to later, see Theory, pp. 129—36.

82 The rules of thumb that Schelling discusses in Strategy of Conflict are one type of tacit communication.

83 Solutions in oligopolistic markets are possible to identify if one assumes away strategic interdependence. For instance, Coernot-Nash and Stackleberg equilibria are identifiable if one holds constant the other’s behaviour in price or quantity decisions.

* I would like to thank David Baldwin, James Caporaso, Alexander George, Joanne Gowa, Stephan Haggard, Ted Hopf, Robert Jervis, Robert Keohane, Fritz Kratochwil, Kathleen McNamara, Henry Nau, Susan Peterson, Kamal Shehadi, and Jack Snyder for their helpful comments.

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Review of International Studies
  • ISSN: 0260-2105
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