Anarchy has been acknowledged as being a core concept in
international relations following the second world war. Realist thinkers in
particular argue that anarchy is at the center of international relations and
is the most important aspect of it when explaining state behavior. Despite the
realist agreement on the importance of anarchy in the international
environment, the definition is somewhat ambiguous and is often subject to
debate. This essay calls the definition of anarchy into question with the help
of mainly the realist literature. My goal is to reveal whether anarchy leads to
world conflict or not, and if the nature of anarchy among states can prevent
escalation and military action. To do this, I will not only analyze the theory
of anarchy, but also investigate the emergence of supranational institutions as
a result of anarchy and what they do to promote peace as well as if they
succeed in their role. Cooperation between states will therefore also be a
discussion topic in this essay, since this at first glance would appear to
contradict the assumption of anarchy in international relations. In instances
where cooperation is not possible, I will look at how the absence of healthy
relations affects how states interact in terms of security.


The international system is unpredictable, this much is true. What
states make of this is a problem which is not easy to explain. Whether anarchy
is to blame for war or cooperation between nation states is heavily disputed,
to which there is no simple answer. From the international military spectacle
that was the World Wars, to the standoff that was the Cold war, scholars have
attempted to explain why such grand-scale conflicts occur between states. Surely,
the arena of international relations cannot have a system, since the
relationships between states can either lead to mass destruction one day or
peaceful cooperation the other. Societies have structure; if you’re sick,
there’s a hospital for you to seek medical assistance and if you’re illness
renders you jobless, there are centers which offer help for you to find a new
one. Our everyday life has structure, or at least everyone has some sort of
system of doing things, however international relations does not have a
scapegoat when things go wrong, and when they do there is nowhere to turn other
than the conference room. This is because society is built from the bottom up,
whereas international relations exists and always has existed on one level.
There is no authority which provides the answers. This is why many
international relations theories claim that the international system is
anarchic. Kenneth Waltz asserts that anarchy is the first element of structure
in the international system (Milner, 1991). Self-help plays a large part in how
states act in an anarchic international system, and so they must fend for
themselves when times are dire. Doing so requires a certain degree of security,
like keeping a loaded gun in a cupboard in the event of a home invasion. Such a
form of security can be interpreted as an offensive move, and in response
another state will arm itself as well, which only increases tensions between
them. These tensions stem from the fear that at any moment, a state can become
subject to aggression with no authority to turn to (Butt, 2013). So, under the
assumption that international anarchy exists, then what stops states from going
to war at any moment, and how do states deal with the fear of such an event

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The first assumption realism makes is that the international
system is anarchic, meaning not that all states compete like in a state of
nature, but rather that certain rules and pacts can be established without the
supervision of a supreme authority. Their argument about anarchy is that it is
a power struggle which fosters conflict and competition among states, and that
these divides mean that states will prefer not to band together with one
another regardless of the possibility that they share common interests, because
states are self-interested actors. Disagreements which result from their
differences make it difficult for competing states to ally with one another in
the form of a supranational institution due to anarchy’s effects on inter-state
cooperation (Grieco, 1988). Following these assumptions, in accordance to
realist thought, realism does not see proper international cooperation as
possible. It also argues that institutions are incapable to be used as a forum
for cooperation between nation states. John J. Mearsheimer (1994) expands on
this point in his seminal article on institutions, The False Promise of
International Institutions, where he points out that although discussion in the
form of cooperation between states may well occur, however is hampered by
states’ justified suspicion of others due to two factors: relative gains
considerations and a state’s concerns about another cheating in cooperation.
Mearsheimer’s focus on relative gains suggests a structural realist point of
view, and Waltz (1959) stresses that states are more concerned with relative
gains rather than absolute gains in an anarchical international sphere.
Relative gains are defined by a state’s actions in relation to another state’s
actions against which a balance of power is established. States balance power
in two ways: internal balancing and external balancing. States achieve internal
balancing by improving their military power in terms of the size of their
armies or modernization of their arsenals as well as improving their productive
economies (Islam, 2009), whereas states achieve external balancing by forming
coalitions, by threatening with conflict or trading with other states. Therefore,
“the more a gain for one state will tend to be seen as a loss by another
and the more difficult, it seems, cooperation will be” (Powell, 1991). The aim
to balance power in order to prevent one from assuming an excess thereof and
becoming a dominant hegemon makes cooperation difficult among states, however
not impossible. When necessary, states cooperate spontaneously for reasons of
survival and mutual advantage (Islam, 2009). Anarchy according to realists,
then, serves states with opportunities to cooperate when they need to do so. In
which case, anarchy in international relations does not always result in
conflict, nevertheless states have a constant mistrust of other states which
they see as competitors toward maximizing their power. It is in a state’s
interest to do so, so anarchy may lead to conflict if a state cannot ensure
peaceful cooperation with another. The likelihood of war may be affected by the
distinction between offensive and defensive realism. The core principle of
offensive realism is that states seek to increase their military power in order
to maximize their power. Mearsheimer makes five assumptions about offensive
realism: “(1) the international system is anarchic; (2) great powers inherently
possess some offensive military capability; (3) states can never be certain
about the intentions of other states; (4) survival is the primary goal of great
powers; and (5) great powers are rational actors.” (Johnson & Thayer,
2016). On the other hand, defensive realism argues that when a state seeks to
increase its military power, other states will increase their military power in
response, minimizing their overall influence (Johnson & Thayer, 2016). What
these forms of realism have in common is the assumption that in increasing
military power, states seek to maximize their security. Offensive realism claims
that in doing so increases security, while defensive realism claims the


These measures of security are important to states. Eric
Labs points out that ”a strategy that seeks to maximize security through a
maximum of relative power is the rational response to anarchy.” (Johnson &
Thayer, 2016). In saying this, he claims that states are rational actors and
will respond to external threats with preventive actions. These external
threats from other states put pressure on the government to defend its land,
resources and citizens. A state’s defensive measures can change depending on
the type and gravity of the threat as well as its preferences and
circumstances. For example, a state can respond to a military threat with
engaging in an arms race in an attempt to scare off the opponent. In the event
of these measures being reciprocated by the opponent, a standoff representing
the likes of the Cold War may occur, where both states are under constant
threat from the other without either engaging in offensive military action.
More diplomatically, a state may seek to broker an agreement with their
opponent, or alternatively choose to impose sanctions on the other if they rely
on each other economically. Nevertheless, the possibility of state alliances
cannot be ignored. In any case, a state may seek to form an alliance with several
other states with similar interests in order to stave off the threat. The
necessity of alliances may vary depending on the states’ economic abilities –
whether it can afford wartime preparations and, ultimately, a war, its
resources and industrial capabilities to manufacture weapons and useful
technology, and the size of the army in relation to the size of the population.
Waltz explains that states will seek to maximize their economic capabilities in
order to maximize their military strength. This becomes an issue in the long
term as heightened military preparedness leaves states with less resources for
economic priorities. Moreover, a state with high levels of wealth may be more
willing than smaller, poorer states to pursue such a bold deterrence
investment. In the real world, we can observe examples of states prioritizing
maximizing military strength at the expense of advancing economic capabilities,
such as the Soviet Union up until the mid-1980s. An opposing example of a state
pursuing economic growth at the expense of maximizing their military strength,
at least from short term external threats, can be taken from the Soviet Union
in the late 1980s (Brooks, 1997). Since there is a large investment that must
be made, states therefore require a common enemy in order to motivate them to
form security relations (Lake, 1996).  Lake
acknowledges that there is a possibility of hierarchy in security relations as
well as anarchy. He outlines the conditions for hierarchy, where a dominant
state “possesses the right to make residual decisions”, while the subordinate
does not. In anarchy, no state possesses the right to do so. This is due to a
contract between states which they enter into upon forming an alliance.
Contracts of this kind state the terms for pooling their resources and defense
efforts. Lake gives The North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) as an example
of an anarchic security alliance, with the exception of the position of the
Supreme Allied Commander which was created later as the organization matured. It
is clear that anarchy motivates states to invest in security arrangements,
whether alone or in alliance with other states, to deter potential external
threats. Without rigid security measures, states might become exposed to
threats from other nations which have an interest in improving their military
capabilities. States, smaller states in particular, will rely more heavily on
cooperation with other states to ensure their survival. Cooperation is
therefore a vital element in the international system for state survival,
especially when considering that the international system is anarchic.
Fortunately, supranational institutions have been created to promote
cooperation among states, however useful they may be.


There is much heated debate on the topic of how well
institutions fulfil their purpose. The main disagreement is found between the
realist and liberal thought. A third take on institutions can be learned from
the theory of collective security. The core idea is that institutions exist in
order to provide a forum for cooperation between states for many reasons.
States can turn to others for reasons involving the economy, military and
diplomatic topics.  States are free to
discuss these issues with one another and broker new agreements, as well as
impose sanctions on wrongdoers. Primarily though, institutions emphasize the
importance of peace between nations, as is noted in the preamble of the Charter
of the United
Nations, in which is stated that the organization is determined to “save succeeding generations from the
scourge of war, which twice in our lifetime has brought untold sorrow to
mankind”. Therefore, they are designed to promote healthy
cooperation to ultimately prevent conflict. In an anarchic international
system, however, institutions might find it difficult to dissolve issues
without a supreme authority, since this is the assumption of international
anarchy. Considering that power is assumed to be sought by states, and that
states fear an imbalance of power among each other, institutions should be
designed to divide power among its members. In doing so, states can work
together to provide mutual gains for one another. Ideally, this would not only
benefit individual states, but the world as a whole. For example, states can
come together to create agendas focused on non-power related issues such as the
environment to combat climate change. The Kyoto Protocol, adopted in 1997 by
the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change and was entered into
force in 2005, is an example of cooperation in international institutions. The
protocol sets commitments for its members and targets for greenhouse gas
reductions. Where the member states have such commitments in common, potential
conflict between them can be avoided. This is due to the states having a common
interest: survival. Since anarchy claims that states are interested in their
own survival, international institutions can be a solution to the problem as
they give these states a structure to follow, preventing escalation of conflict
between them. The theory on international institutions elaborates on the
promises and malfunctions they bring. Robert Keohane’s seminal work, After
Hegemony: Cooperation and Discord in the Political Economy (1984), popularized
the theory of liberal institutionalism, which developed in reaction to the
theory of neo-realism. It accepts some of the realist assumptions of the
international system. Liberal institutionalism acknowledges that power is a
major influence in international anarchy and that national interests, rather
than international values, are what drive states to cooperate for mutual gains.
It assumes that states are selfish, however this does not prevent them from
working together via international institutions (Islam, 2009). This is because
institutions work as a tool for overcoming states from cheating. To do so, they
implement sets of rules for states to follow, making international cooperation
the key to self-enrichment. The problem for institutions is derived from the
prisoner’s dilemma.

The prisoner’s dilemma originates from a game theory
approach to explaining how actors interact in a certain situation. It is a
theoretical concept and is difficult to replicate in real life, however offers
a dilemma accepted by liberal institutionalists and realists about the issues
with trust in the international arena. The dilemma involves two actors, both
assumed to be self-interested. Their goal is to get the best deal possible and
maximize utility by avoiding a prison sentence. They have the choice to
cooperate or not, and their decisions carry weight as the ramifications of
losing are costly. For the sake of ensuring that an actor’s decision is based
on self-interest, the two actors are not allowed to communicate about their
decision. If one actor chooses to cooperate and the other defects, then the
self-interested defector walks free and the other loses. The loss equates to
going to prison for a long time. If they both cooperate, they receive a lower
prison sentence than if they were both to defect. Since the states know the
consequences, they are suspicious of each other which implies mistrust. Whereas
the realist would assume that cooperation is hindered by this suspicion,
liberal institutionalists agree that the outcome would be vastly different if
the actors were given the opportunity to cooperate. Liberal institutionalists
thereby make a case for states to have a forum for cooperation, or more
specifically, an international institution. With an institution, states are
required to discuss the benefits of their decisions, and are able to deduce
what is the better option for them. Institutions also allow for decisions to be
made over time rather than spontaneously, so decisions can be more

According to collective security theorists, the main reason
for international institutions is to promote peace. The theory predisposes that
the anarchic international arena is dominated by armed states. As armed states
become more powerful in their advancement of their weapons, and as these
weapons become more powerful due to modernization, they become more concerned
with their own safety. Therefore, collective security theory argues that armed
states prioritize their own safety, and in order to keep the peace between
them, as it is in their best interests to do so, they form institutions with
the purpose of managing their resources of military power. In doing so, states focus
on cooperation rather than their suspicion of other states and their obsession
with assuring a balance of power between them. This line of thinking implies
that states should do their best to reject the option of using force to settle
their differences, and that states which step out of line must be dealt with
accordingly. In other words, when a rogue state attacks a member of such an
institution, all other members come together to defeat the aggressor. This
implies that states must deal with rogue states in a way that is not influenced
by their self-interest. Mearsheimer (1994) criticizes collective security for
being too normative in that it does not give a reasonable explanation for why
states trust each other. Mearsheimer has a realist perspective, as he sees no
indication in the theory which justifies its assumptions of international
anarchy. It seems as though he accuses collective security as having a naïve
perspective of the world system, since states would see the fallacies in this
strategy in the face of aggression. He also argues that there is no accurate
historical record of such a theory being represented. This claim can be
rebutted by arguing that the existence of The North Atlantic Treaty
Organization (NATO) is an example of states forming an institution which
operates on the assumptions of collective security. However, NATOs missions are
often intrusive peace keeping missions designed to deescalate local tensions in
foreign countries which otherwise would result in conflict and are often
undertaken in the political interest of those actors involved in the
initiatives (Lepgold, 1998). Peace keeping missions also vary in their degree
of success. An example of an unsuccessful peace keeping mission would be the
United Nations Assistance Mission for Rwanda. Lepgold mentions in his article
that a multinational panel of military leaders ruled the intervention a
failure, and that “a peace-enforcement contingent of five thousand troops
(including air power, adequate communications, and logistics support) might
have prevented considerable bloodshed in that situation. According to this
panel, if such a force had intervened immediately after the political
assassinations that triggered the conflict, hundreds of thousands of deaths
might have been averted”. It is impossible to avoid the point here that,
according to the panel, military intervention would have been necessary to
avoid the widespread bloodshed. Nevertheless, the goal of such interventions
are to promote peace in areas which have not seen peace in years, in which case
it is fair to assume that these missions accomplish the collective security
agenda in most cases, with the exception of Rwanda.

A further theory which aims to promote peace is critical
theory. Critical theory assumes that it is possible to fundamentally change
state behavior. Whereas previous theories have attempted to find ways for
states to modify their military capabilities to form security coalitions with
one another, yet admitting that states tend to operate in their self-interest,
critical theory aims for a world community based on inter-state trust and
resource sharing. Such a world would be free of military and security
competition, where states rely on discourse in order to shape practice for the
better. In this sense, institutions are of paramount importance when it comes
to preserving international peace, as they present states with the ability to
alter their identities and relationships with other states. This in effect
could foster a sense of responsibility among states to the international
society. Whereas critical theory attempts to offer an alternative to the
pessimism of realism and replace it with a theory that promotes peace and
harmony, however fails to explain what discourse will replace realism and how
it will shape the future (Mearsheimer, 1994). In making this distinction,
critical theory does very little to convince change to occur in the real world.
For this reason it is almost impossible to ally critical theory with the theory
of anarchy in the international system since there are no assumptions made to
explain how states fundamentally interact, rather it shows simply what a
utopian world could look like. Mearsheimer (1994) goes on to explain, using the
end of the Cold War as an example, that the change of discourse from vicious to
tame that has been observed between states is simply typical of the end of
great-power wars, as opposed to the critical theorist argument. This change of
discourse, he claims, is to blame on the gradual collapse of the Cold War order
which it spawned, and that there is no clear indication of what sort of
discourse will replace it in the future. However, critical theorists claim the
collapse only occurred due to a change of discourse toward the end of the Cold
War which lead to its eventual end. Since then, the Russian government has
abandoned this “new thinking” and in fact have shifted to a more power-oriented
form of thought. In the end, critical theory attempts to challenge realism’s
view of the international system and indeed international anarchy without an
actual claim of what discourse is among states, merely what it could be like.
The theory may have been onto something in observing the shift in discourse in
Russia following the curtain call of the Cold War, however their main
assumption that peace will replace the mistrust between states has been
incorrect. Especially due to the popular belief that the Cold War still
persists today. Surely had critical thinking been correct, the military stand
off between the United States of America and the Democratic People’s Republic
of Korea would not be so apparent.


International anarchy makes it difficult for states to
cooperate, however states have found a way to curb their fears by establishing
institutions, fostering agreements and signing trade deals. Peace promotion is
more sought after than going to war, and states show this by working together
away from the “scourge of war”. Although I believe that states will try to
avoid conflict at all costs, it is apparent to me that security measures will
never be abolished, and self-interest is perpetual. This is all due to human
nature. After all, states are run by humans. I think it is never in anyone’s
interest to start a fight, but rather to end one when one breaks out. All wars
begin because people become too selfish and others seek to end them.
International institutions are natural, since states need a place to communicate
freely on issues relating to themselves. In conclusion, international anarchy
itself does not lead to world conflict, rather it leads to cooperation to
prevent it.