This essay examines and reformulates the realist-neoliberal debate. It focuses initially on the issue of the attribution of instrumental goals to states—the goals they pursue as a function of the environment they confront—and argues not only that such goals are epiphenomena of other things but also that their specification constitutes a mere redescription of the alternative equilibria that states can achieve in anarchic systems. The world orders that realists and neoliberals envision are but alternative equilibria to a more general game. In that game cooperation, regardless of its form, must be endogenously enforced, and a debate over instrumental goals (whether it is best to model states as relative or absolute resource maximizers) is not central to the development of a theory that explains and predicts world orders.
Instead, the realist-neoliberal debate should be recast. The central research agenda should be to develop models that illuminate the following: how the equilibrium to a game in which states structure international affairs influences the types of issue-specific subgames states play, how countries coordinate to equilibria of different types; how the coordination problems associated with different equilibria can be characterized; how institutions emerge endogenously to sustain different equilibria; how states can enhance the attractiveness of an equilibrium; and how states can signal commitments to the strategies that are part of that equilibrium.