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International political system is anarchic

International political system is anarchic

Why do scholars say that the international political system is anarchic? What does anarchy mean in our class and what consequences does it have for global politics? Use two of the dominant theories in IR to explain anarchy in the international system (i.e. Realism, Liberalism, Constructivism). Be sure to discuss the strengths and weakness of the theories you choose.   


The concept of anarchy (worldwide relations) is considered differently dependant upon which worldwide associations idea one subscribes to. In fact, the topic of anarchy is among the central points of debate in the international relations theory community. For example, in the case of political realism, an anarchical society leads states to defend for themselves. This sort of world–one in which there is not an overarching authority to command adherence to a specific set of actions or behavioral guidelines, leads states to have to find ways to defend themselves. In this anarchical world, no one else can be trusted, since there is no external force to punish the actors in the international system. So, for realists, states will seek power (or at least defense) in an anarchical system, since the only way that one can get someone else to do something is through coercion, or if they themselves choose to comply (Slaughter, 2011). For the realists, anarchy leads to an environment of distrust. This can best be captured by the prisoner’s dilemma, in which actors, without an overarching authority to punish behavior, will look out for their best interests, even if at the expense of everyone else (Milner, 1991). As Holsti (1985) writes: “According to classical realists, “structural anarchy,” or the absence of a central authority to settle disputes, is the essential feature of the contemporary system, and it gives rise to the “security dilemma”: in a self-help system one nation’s search for security often leaves its current and potential adversaries insecure, any nation that strives for absolute security leaves all others in the system absolutely insecure, and it can provide a powerful incentive for arms races and other types of hostile interactions” (4).

Additionally, as a result of anarchical mother nature around the globe, not only can realists claim that one cannot trust other individuals, but this may have ramifications on connections. If states do interact with one another, then according to realists, that country must be very careful in ensuring that while they gain, that their power and/or gain is not weak relative to other others’ gain. So, relative power matters very much in the case of realism and anarchy (Walt, 1998).

Liberalists, like realists, acknowledge the position of anarchy in international associations. However, liberalists differ from realism in that they view anarchy as possibility; state and non-state actors can come together (within an anarchical system) and set up institutions and rules in which can help make the world better off. Through joint cooperation, world actors can work together on a series of issues, and because of this, they can all increase their own absolute power. So, for the liberalist, anarchy is not something that will lead to violence and distrust, but rather, it is merely a condition that those in the world system can overcome by cooperation and joint ventures. So, scholars of liberalism/pluralism in international relations examine the different ways that cooperation comes out of this anarchical system (in Milner, 1991). Again, the main differences between realists and liberalists regarding anarchy are the implications that arise in terms of how actors will behave in this anarchical system (Powell, 1994). In addition, for liberalists, they do not worry about relative power, but rather, argue for absolute power; as long as both sides are benefitting from cooperation, this will be good for both parties involved; they do not need to worry about relative power with one another.

Interpersonal constructivists acquire more of a middle placement between realism and liberalist international associations thought. For constructivists, anarchy is neither bad, nor good (in the sense of the type of behavior that will arise out of anarchical conditions). So, they challenge realist ideas that anarchy drives states to act in certain ways (Wendt, 1992). Rather than anarchy leading to a specific type of behavior, constructivists argue that anarchy in international relations has no set behavioral responses; states can make what they want out of anarchy (Wendt, 1992). From anarchy, conditions of insecurity and distrust can surely arise. But so can conditions of peace and harmony. It is not the notion of anarchy that itself will cause a specific behavior, but rather, as Alexander Wendt has argued, actors in the international system themselves can make of anarchy what they will. He notes that “self-help and power politics do not follow either logically or causally from anarchy and that if today we find ourselves in a self-help world, this is due to process, not structure” (394) (Others such as Mercer 1995 look at notions of identity within anarchy in international relations).

Some, like Powell (1991) have stated that checking out anarchy in international interaction with attention to not enough superior expert is itself ‘misplaced’, expressing the next: “Two disputes suggest that our concentrate on anarchy has been missing if by anarchy we suggest lacking a main power. These arguments suggest that conclusions often claimed to follow from the absence of a central authority do not. These conclusions require other supporting assumptions. The first argument is really an empirical observation. Keohane notes in his assessment of the debate between neorealism and neoliberalism that the modern state system, conventionally dated from 1648, has always been anarchic in the sense that it lacked a common government. Thus, anarchy, while perhaps a necessary condition, is certainly not sufficient to explain any of the variation in international politics during the modern era ” (331-332). Powell (1991) goes on to add that there is too much attention on anarchy to explain behavior, when rather, one can look at state actions based on their consumption to military expenditure patterns, and that this will affect their balancing of power in the anarchical system. So, it is not just about anarchy, but rather, how they behave that will dictate actions; anarchy is not the driving force here.