Anarchy is seen as one end of the spectrum whose other end is marked by the presence of a legitimate and competent government. International politics is described as being spotted with pieces of government and bound with elements of community. Traditionally, international-political systems are thought of as being more or less anarchic.
Anarchy is taken to mean not just the absence of government but also the presence of disorder and chaos. Although far from peaceful, international politics falls short of unrelieved chaos, and while not formally organized, it is not entirely without institutions and orderly procedures.
Although it is misleading to label modern international politics as anarchic, the absence of a universal international law prohibits well-regulated behavior. But, international regulation is not completely absent from world politics.
With the end of the Cold War, the ground seems ready for an acceleration of this century’s trend in increasing international regulation of more issues once typically seen as part of state domestic jurisdiction. But as international law embraces new actors and a growing range of forms, topics, and technologies, and as it moves further away from strictly “foreign” concerns to traditionally domestic areas, its proponents must increasingly confront new obstacles head-on.
Traditionally, most rules of international law could be found in one of two places: treaties or customary law (uncodified, but equally binding rules based on long-standing behavior). But as new domains from the environment to the Internet come to be seen as appropriate for international regulation, states are sometimes reluctant to embrace any sort of binding rule.
Today all but the most doctrinaire of scholars see a role for so-called soft law-precepts emanating from international bodies that conform in some sense to expectations of required behavior but that are not binding on states (the World Bank’s Guidelines on the Treatment of Foreign Direct Investment, for example). Soft law principles also represent a starting point for new hard law, which attaches a penalty to noncompliance.
Whether in the case of hard or soft law, new participants are making increased demands for representation in international bodies, conferences, and other legal groupings and processes. They include both recognized and unrecognized substate entities (Hong Kong and Tibet, for example); nongovernmental organizations; and corporations. Scholars accept that these other actors have independent views that do not fit neatly into traditional theories of how law is made and enforced.
Most states comply with much, even most, international law. But without a mechanism to bring transgressors into line, international law is “law” in name only. The traditional toolbox to secure compliance with the law of nations consist of negotiations, mediation, countermeasures, or, in rare cases, recourse to supranational judicial bodies such as the International Court of Justice.
For many years, these tools have been supplemented by the work of international institutions, whose reports and resolutions often help “mobilize shame” against violators. But today, states, NGO’s, and private entities have striven for sanctions. And the UN’s ad hoc criminal tribunals for the former Yugoslavia and Rwanda show that it is at least possible to devise institutions to punish individuals for human rights atrocities.
Nonetheless, the success of these enforcement mechanisms depends on the willingness of states to support them. When global institutions do not work, regional bodies may offer more influence over member conduct in economics, human rights, and other areas. In addition, domestic courts increasingly provide an additional venue to enforce international law.
Even with a defined international law and a “world government” to enforce it, cooperation in general, in international politics, is troubled. Research on international regimes moved from attempts to describe the phenomena of interdependence and international regimes to closer analysis of the conditions under which countries cooperate. How does cooperation occur among sovereign states and how do international institutions affect it? Indeed, why should international institutions exist at all in a world dominated by sovereign states? This question seemed unanswerable if institutions were seen as opposed to or above, the state but not if they were viewed as devices to help states accomplish their objectives. The new school of thought argued that, rather than imposing themselves on states, international institutions should respond to the demand by states for cooperative ways to fulfill their own purposes. By reducing uncertainty and the costs of making and enforcing agreements, international institutions help states achieve collective gains.
This new institutionalism was not without its critics, who focused their attacks on two perceived shortcomings. The counterargument focused on the absence of a world government or effective international legal system to which victims of injustice can appeal. Second, theorists of cooperation had recognized that cooperation is not harmonious: it emerges out of discord and takes place through tough bargaining. Nevertheless, they claimed that the potential joint gains from such cooperation explained the dramatic increases in the number and scope of cooperative multilateral institutions. Critics pointed out, however, that bargaining problems themselves could produce obstacles to achieving joint gains.
Cooperation requires recognition of opportunities for the advancement of mutual interest, as well as policy coordination once these opportunities have been identified. Transaction and information costs are high. The complexity of international politics militates against identification and realization of common interest. Avoiding nuclear war during the Cuban missile crisis called for cooperation by the Soviet Union and the United States. The transaction and information costs in the crisis, though substantial, did not preclude cooperation. By contrast, the problem of identifying significant actors, defining interests, and negotiating agreements that embodied mutual interests in the case of 1914 was far more difficult. There was no common procedure to handle the situation or resolve it in an efficient manner.
In international politics, the likelihood of autonomous defection and of recognition and control problems increases. Cooperative behavior rests on calculations of expected utility – merging discount rates, payoff structures, and anticipated behavior of other players.
Nations dwell in perpetual lawlessness, for no central authority with a defined law limits on the pursuit of sovereign interests. This common condition gives rise to diverse outcomes. War and concert, arms races and arms control, trade wars and tariff truces, financial panics and rescues, competitive devaluation and monetary stabilization mark relations among states. At times, the absences of centralized international authority preclude attainment of common goals. Because, as states, they cannot cede ultimate control over their conduct to a world government, they cannot guarantee that they will adhere to their commitments. The possibility of a breach of promise can impede cooperation even when cooperation would leave all well off. Yet, at other times, states do realize common goals though cooperation under lawlessness. Despite the absence of any ultimate international law, governments often bind themselves to mutually advantageous courses of action. And, though no international sovereign stands ready to enforce the terms of agreement, modern states can and do realize common interests through tacit cooperation, formal bilateral and multilateral negotiation, and the creation if international regimes.