Realism, Neoliberalism and Cooperation: Understanding the Debate

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Robert Jervis in his paper “Realism, Neoliberalism and Cooperation: Understanding the Debate” provides discussion of cooperation and conflict stressing that it is rather enduring task to distinguish among neoliberal institutionalists and realists. Jervis argues that nowadays many scholars believe that realists define international policy as great conflict in which the smallest role is performed by institutions. Actually, the author asserts that “the realist-neoliberal disagreement over conflict is not about its extent but about whether it is unnecessary, given states’ goals”. Therefore, realism can’t be treated as monolithic because it should be distinguished from defensive and offensive variants. Then the author provides detailed overview of disagreement existing between various schools of thought, and he says that schools have to produce greater cooperation and to find compromise when speaking about institutions and their part in international policy.

Further, Jervis discusses realism claiming that, according to his viewpoint, institutions should be provided with more utility and they should be rather autonomous meaning they shouldn’t be treated as simply tool of statecraft. Therefore, the article helps in clarifying the importance of cooperation between institutions. Moreover, Jervis that cooperation “can be increased by establishing institutions where they do not exist, which I think is why most people and the realist-neoliberal debate over cooperation of more than academic interest”. Despite apparent criticism, the author seems not to exaggerate the gap existing between neoliberalism and realism. He notes that both schools of thought assume that lack of sovereignty and autonomy fails to enforce binding agreements and to create new opportunities for countries and governments to promote their interests unilaterally. Both schools agree that it is rather difficult for states to cooperate with each other.

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The strong point of the article is that the author tends to clear away the differences between neoliberal and realist schools of though in order to provide better understanding of their philosophy and thinking. Jervis says that, despite realists have to explain the conditions leading to cooperation, “its existence is not necessarily discrepant with the approach any more than the existence of conflict disconfirms neoliberalism”. Nevertheless, neoliberals think that conflicts are unnecessary and must be avoided in contrast to realists.

Axelrod, Robert & Keohane, Robert. (1993). Achieving Cooperation under Anarchy: Strategies and Institutions, in David. Baldwin (ed), Neorealism and Neoliberalism: The Contemporary Debate, New York: Columbia University Press.

Axelrod and Keohane in “Achieving Cooperation under Anarchy: Strategies and Institutions” discuss harmony, cooperation and anarchy. Firstly, the authors define harmony as identity of interests and desire among key players; cooperation as the need to adjust behavioral preferences of others; anarchy as need to provide autonomous government. Actually, the authors pay special attention to examining the games of two moieties: they discuss the structure of the game and then proceed to examining its context. Both authors agree that the game plays crucial role in international questions and disputes and, therefore, the main game theoreticians fail to comprehend the importance of game context. Game plays important role in political, economic, military and security issues.

Axelrode and Keohane discuss three main components of the game: payoff structure, shadow of the future and number of players. They argue that payoff structure is the core of the game because the more similarities between players the more chances to resolve the matter successfully and to ensure cooperation between states. Then, it is suggested that iteration introduces the shadow of the future. If long time horizons are observed, then the cooperation seems to be successful. Thirdly, number of players helps to identify the defectors, though it is rather difficult when the number of players is very large. Further, Axelrod and Keohane provide discussion of multilevel games stressing that they are of importance when dealing with contextual questions.

The authors distinguish substantive multilevel games and geographic ones. Substantive games are cases of linkage and geographic games are defined as such when foreign policies are strongly affected by domestic policies. A common method of attempting to reap the above benefits while sidestepping the associated pitfalls is through the establishment of formal or informal international régimes. Such régimes serve to institutionalize reciprocity, even when they lack powers of enforcement, and can also help establish new norms. Setting up régimes, however, is difficult, especially when there is no hegemon to unilaterally impose hierarchies.

Alexander Wendt in his paper “Anarchy is What States Make of It” provides comparison between liberal and realist attitudes towards power, politics and anarchy. Wendt recasts the realist/liberal debate as an argument over the determinants of state action in the international system: i.e., whether state action is influenced by “structure” (anarchy and relative power) or “process” (interaction and learning). He puts forth a “constructivist” argument rejecting the realist belief that the structure of the international system – anarchy and “self-help” – forces states to “play competitive power politics.” Rather, Wendt argues that self-help and power politics do not follow “either logically or causally” from anarchy; if they exist, it is due to process, not structure. Thus, Wendt argues that state identities and interests are shaped and transformed within the international system, rather than (as the realists believe) existing as exogenous variables.

For Wendt, identities are “inherently relational.” Therefore, a state may have multiple identities (sovereign, imperial power, etc.) based on its institutional roles and relationships to other states. These identities are the basis for interests. Thus, Wendt completely rejects the realist idea that states have a universal identity as power maximizers: “actors do not have a ‘portfolio’ of interests that they carry around independent of social context. The process of international interaction determines interests, not the structure of the international system.

Classical realists attributed power politics to the evils of human nature, whereas neorealism emphasizes anarchy as the root of international conflict. Wendt rejects the neorealist view, since it merely assumes as exogenous certain state interests. In contrast, he advances a cosntructivist approach – people (or states) act toward objects, including other actors, on the basis of the meanings that the objects have for them. Thus, states act differently toward enemies than they do toward friends because enemies are threatening and friends are not. While the distribution of power may affect states’ calculations, how it does so depends on “intersubjective understandings” that shape states’ conceptions of self and other.


Axelrod, Robert & Keohane, Robert. (1993). Achieving Cooperation under Anarchy: Strategies and Institutions, in David. Baldwin (ed), Neorealism and Neoliberalism: The Contemporary Debate, New York: Columbia University Press.

Jervis, Robert. (1999). Realism, Neoliberalism and Cooperation: Understanding the Debate. International Security, 42, 1, 42-63.

Wendt, Alexander. (1992).Anarchy is What States Make of It. International Organization, 46, 2, 391-425.

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Realism, Neoliberalism and Cooperation: Understanding the Debate. (2016, Jul 28). Retrieved from

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