Impediments to Cooperation: The Realist Doubts on International Organizations – Paige Moeller

Power relations today are different than they were in 1995. They are different than they were before the collapse of the Soviet Union and will probably shift again in coming years. However, there are main tenets to power relations that remain consistent, although the degree that they affect the international order has shifted. Since Thucydides’ recount of the Peloponnesian War, realpolitik has been prevalent in power relations where stronger nations will aim at maximizing power, according to realist theory. Generally, uncertainty and mistrust have prevented full cooperation; however, today there is a greater connection of the states in the international system which has led to ambiguous obligations which is also preventing full cooperation.

Because of the persistence of competition in the international system, neorealist John Mearsheimer believes that states have and will continue to have impediments to their attempts to cooperate on the international level. The competition breeds mistrust which creates greater desire to maximize relative security which leads to greater mistrust: a vicious cycle. This view aligns with offensive neorealism, the school of thought that Mearsheimer prescribes to which differs from the view of balance-of-power and defensive realism by focusing on having the advantage. If a state desires a strategic advantage, there is a great chance that the state act with self-interest and will do what is necessary to achieve its goal. Constantly, we see this played out in the form of military action to establish dominance. However, if cooperation stands in the way of relative gains, states are less inclined to participate. Uncertainty is another factor that Mearsheimer discusses. During the Cold War, uncertainty and misperception fueled the arms race as the two super powers overestimated the other and raced to maximize their nuclear arsenal in an attempt to equalize the perceived balance of power (Khrushchev). Cooperation in an environment was difficult to obtain.

Today, uncertainty still causes havoc on the international system. The world is no longer dominated by the bipolar power relation that dominated the second half of the twentieth century, rather there is a multipolar world where the voices of smaller nations are better heard and desire for their interests to also be met. Decisions tend to be at least discussed in international organizations. However, cooperation on the international level is still difficult. These organizations still do not have the enforcement power to dramatically change the power play of states. So although there might be superficial cooperation, states still do not feel pressured to cooperate. For example, while many states had opinions as to the course of action that should be taken in regard to Russia and their intervention in the Ukraine, some have not spoken out which prevents action on the international level (Banks and Schroeder). This suggests that there is a weakness in the international system, one that supports the realist idea of the inability for a supranational organization in power relations.

Realists will point out any of the aforementioned problems when discussing the impossibility of international cooperation; states are too self-interested to properly cooperate. With more and more rising ‘major powers’, as opposed to the bipolar world after World War II, international cooperation requires more effort and more corroboration with the major states. However, states will still try to maximize their power and protect their interests, despite the cost as they have for centuries.


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