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Anarchy and Rationalism in International Relations

Anarchy is an important concept in International Relations (IR). How have IR scholars interpreted the significance and meaning of anarchy? Compare how neorealist (Waltz), neoliberal institutionalist (Keohane), and constructivist (Wendt) perspectives have addressed the question of anarchy.

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When discussing anarchy or the absence of government and its importance, I would like to highlight some fundamentals of the issue. So, first of all, I would like to point out that “As an analytic concept, the term does not imply a lack of political order or the presence of chaos, and thus differs from informal and colloquial use” (Lake, n.d., p. 1). On the other hand, one is to keep in mind that anarchism can not be considered as the synonym of the previous term.

Generally, anarchy is recognized to be an important concept about International Relations. Thus, the absence of government is mostly associated with the contemporary international system. Taking into account the views of various scholars, it seems that sovereign and formally equal states can use only their resources and rely only on their efforts. However, the opinion that anarchy is mostly associated with the international system seems to be quite ambiguous.

For instance, some scholars suppose that the absence of government produces no struggle between various states. Others consider anarchy as a passive condition. However, the opinion of the so-called structural realists seems to be interesting and important. Thus, they recognize anarchy as an extremely important element of international structure.

Famous American political scientist Kenneth Waltz associated anarchy with the so-called self-help system. The scientist was sure that,

With many sovereign states, with no system of law enforceable among them,

with each state judging its grievances and ambitions according to the dictates

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of its reason or desire – conflict, sometimes leading to war, is bound to

occur. To achieve a favorable outcome from such a conflict, a state has to

rely on its own devices, the relative efficiency of which must be it’s constant

concern (Waltz, 1959, p. 159).

Waltz’s followers are divided into defensive realists and offensive realists. According to the opinion of defensive realists, the states must seek security. Offensive realists-are sure that the states must struggle for domination, as anarchy seems to be a challenging condition.

Famous neoliberal institutionalist Robert Keohane was sure that institutionalism could facilitate cooperation under anarchy. In other words, when constructing such institutions, numerous positive consequences could take place (transaction costs reducing, information providing, etc.) For instance, according to institutionalist theory, security and political economy issues can be combined. Keohane & Axelrod (1986) wrote that “military-security issues display more of the characteristics associated with anarchy than do political-economic ones” (p. 227).

Taking into account the quotation, one is to understand that no separate analytical frameworks are needed; “Indeed, one of the major purposes of the present collection is to show that a single framework can throw light on both” (Keohane & Axelrod, 1986, p. 227). The opinion of one of the most prominent neoliberal institutionalists allows us to conclude that Keohane’s followers regarded anarchy “as a condition that could be mitigated if not fully resolved by voluntarily negotiated institutions between states” (Lake, n.d., p. 1). Simply speaking, there were certain contradictions concerning the views of neorealists and institutionalists.

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Thus, Keohane’s followers thought that the aims of the state couldn’t be determined by anarchy; while Waltz’s followers had the opposite opinion. According to the basics of neoliberal institutionalism, building institutions was the right step to avoid anarchy’s implications. One can say that the states could subordinate themselves to some authorities; however, institutionalists do not accept this way, – building institutions under anarchy can help overcome various dilemmas.

One more opinion, which is to be discussed, is constructivists’ attitude towards anarchy. So, famous constructivist Alexander Wendt highlighted three schools of thought in International Relations. These schools were formed by neorealists, neoliberals, and constructivists. Neorealists consider anarchy as one of the most important determinants of the state functioning. Neoliberals, in their turn, supported the idea of interaction and learning. Finally, “constructivists share a cognitive, intersubjective conception of the process in which identities are interests are endogenous to interaction, rather than a rationalist-behavioral on in which they are exogenous” (Wendt, 1992, p. 1). Taking into account the previous statement, one can conclude that neorealists and neoliberals are mostly associated with rationalists.

According to Wendt’s followers, it becomes obvious that the concept of self-help has no relation to the absence of government. On the other hand, there is a need to clarify that structure of identity couldn’t follow logically from the absence of government. Thus, Wendt (1992) argues that “There is no logic of anarchy apart from the practices that create and instantiate one structure of identities and interests rather than another; structure has no existence or causal powers apart from the process” (p. 1).

Generally, Wendt states that identities and institutions are mutually constitutive elements the world is based on. According to this assumption, self-help is considered to be an institution. The constructivist was sure that the processes determined systemic evolution.

Many international relations theories are based on rational choice approaches to the study of politics. What are the advantages of the rational choice approach, if any? What are the critiques of rationalism? Support your argument by referring to appropriate literature.

When speaking about the rational choice approach most of the international relation theories are based on, it is necessary to point out that the rational choice is based on the assumption that individual behavior is determined by aim fulfillment. However, this approach is criticized by some political scientists, as according to them, the rational choice approach doesn’t satisfy various requirements of organized politics.

On the other hand, understanding human behavior is one of the crucial aspects political scientists are to draw their attention to. As far as the rational choice approach is concerned with social phenomena, it is obvious that interpersonal relations determine the character of the approach. “In the rational choice approach, individuals are seen as motivated by the wants or goals that express their preferences as well as other incentives like reward or promise of reward” (Orji,2009, p. 9).

In other words, persons are to achieve their goals under certain conditions. Homo economicus and homo politicus seem to be equal variables of the approach. The supporters of the approach want to find a rational behavior rule for various political ideologies. Generally, these theorists state that self-interest is an issue the rational choice approach is based on.

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They say that the principal advantage of the rational choice approach is considered to be its ability to predict certain actions. It does not matter what level one means: the individual or the collective. This advantage arises from numerous general assumptions concerning a person’s behavior.

The theory of the rational choice approach appeared in the early sixties. It combined not only the cultural approaches but also structural-functional ones. Later the approach was associated with a positive political economy.

Other advantages of the approach include the ability to generalize about various events. The approach also permits explanations. The rational choice theory highlights the importance of institutionalism. For instance, it should be pointed out that rational choice institutionalism states that individuals’ strategic calculations are recognized to be the basic issues of social science as opposed to sociological, organizational, and historical institutionalism.

The core elements of the rational choice theory are also to be mentioned. Thus, taking into account that the individual is the core element of the theory, methodological individualism tends to analyze human behaviors. “Rational choice theory further requires a certain consistency of choice as part of the definition of rational action. In other words, as a theoretical requirement, it must be

possible to rank order the available options of an agent” (Green & Shapiro, 1994, p. 14). Utility maximation is an important variable, which allows a person to achieve the best objective. Generally, this variable allows us to analyze heterogenous benefits and costs; although a person’s desire (or self-interest) must not be selfish.

“One of the most significant weaknesses of rational choice theory when applied to empirical data and testing relates to the problem of aggregating from micro-Level observations to macro-level social output” (Rakner, 1996, p. 5). So, as far as the issue of aggregation is not studied properly, empirical tests can not be reliable.

Within the rational choice theory, some new perspectives can be found. The theory of collective action is one of the most widespread approaches, which appeared from rational choice theory. The second approach is transaction-cost economics. These directions are interdependent and based on rational utility-maximizing. The main difference between these approaches is related to the aspect of institutional change.

When speaking about the critiques of rationalism, it is necessary to highlight the fundamentals of a belief. Generally, the theory of rationalism is based on reason and knowledge. In other words, rationalism rejects emotional or religious approaches. All knowledge derived from emotional responses is recognized to be illusory. However, some critics suppose that the issue of morality can not be illusory. In other words, it exists. For instance, Regan’s book The Case for Animal Rights allows us to discuss human morality. Plumwood (1991) states that,

This is the most impressive, thorough, and solidly argued book in the area of

animal ethics, with excellent chapters on topics such as animal intentionality.

But the key concept upon which this account of moral concern for animals is

based is that of rights, which requires strong individual separation of rights-

holders and is set in a framework of the human community and legality.

However, one is to keep in mind that the concept of rights seems to be quite problematic, as there are certain contradictions concerning persons’ views. Thus, some people are ready to perform necessary obligations, others are not.

As far as various ethical issues exist, it is obvious that people consider them when taking various decisions or making choices. For this reason, one can state that knowledge can be derived from emotional senses. Generally, “it makes the connection between the critique of anthropocentrism and various other critiques that also engage critically with rationalism, such as feminism and critical theory, much more important-indeed essential – the understanding of each” (Plumwood, 1991, p. 303). So, that is the answer.


Axelrod R. & Keohane, R. (1986). “Achieving Cooperation Under Anarchy: Strategies and Institutions,” in Kenneth A. Oye, ed.,”Cooperation Under Anarchy”. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

Green, D. & Shapiro, I. (1994). The Pathologies of Rational Choice Theory. A Critique of Applications in Political Science. New Haven: Yale University Press.

Lake, D. (n.d.). Anarchy. Web.

Orji, N. (2009). The Study of Politics: Logic, Approaches and Methods. Web.

Plumwood, V. (1991). Nature, Self, and Gender: Feminism, Environmental Philosophy, and the Critique of Rationalism. Web.

Rakner, L. (1996). Rational Choice and the Problem of Institutions. Web.

Waltz, K. (1959). Man, the State and War: A Theoretical Analysis. New York: Columbia University Press.

Wendt, A. (1992). Anarchy Is What States Make of It: The Social Construction of Power Politics. Web.

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