Challenges to International Cooperation: Theoretical Perspectives of International Relations

The main challenge to international cooperation is that “identities are the basis of interests” and that actors have disparate identities and interests (Wendt, 398). Their differing identities and interests inform their actions, which can result in conflict. I contend that constructivism is the paradigm that best explains this challenge and the accompanying obstacles, but that it also best explains how this and other related impediments can be overcome.

Constructivist theory suggests, “people act toward objects, including other actors, on the basis of the meanings that the objects have for them.” (Wendt, 396-397). It is the meaning that one attributes to another actor’s actions that informs how one acts, and because meaning and identities are relational, this will then inform how that actor interprets one’s actions and responds. One interprets the world through frames that have been shaped by experience, history, culture, and interactions. Frames themselves shape the meanings and identities one ascribes to other actors. One understands one’s own role and influences through frames and determines what actions are appropriate through frames (“Hobbes and the Congo,” 251). When actors’ identities and frames contradict or misunderstand one another, international cooperation is strained because actors will behave in a manner that is consistent with those conflicting frames.

Constructivism provides the best explanation for the difficulties international cooperation faces when trying to initiate cooperative efforts. It adeptly explains the evolving challenges to international cooperation, while also accounting for change. Wendt argues that the process of interactions influences the structure of identity one holds, meaning that one’s interests can change as a result of interactions. Changing interests and identities produce changes in behaviour, which can affect international affairs (Walt, 44). The chain reaction caused by shifting identities poses challenges to international affairs too as it means the issues and problems hindering cooperation are constantly evolving. In this regard, constructivism provides a strong, nuanced explanation of the challenges where other theories fail to do so.

Realist theory purports that actors/states are self-interested and exist in a state of anarchy, in which there is no central governance or unified power over all states. States’ behaviour is defined by their self-interest and their existence in an anarchic system, and realism argues that this is the main obstacle to international cooperation. But this does not take into consideration that “anarchy is what states make of it,” meaning that states interpret the system in which they function through their frames and identities which inform their interests and influence their behaviour (Wendt, 395). Realism’s explanation of changes in state behaviour is simplified in that it can explain changes in behaviour but only does so in the context of reacting to security concerns. Realists argue that self-interested states are primarily concerned with their security; however, they fail to consider that “threats [are] socially constructed” (396). Realist theories also do not account for the influence of non-state actors and so do not address movements that “have transnational structures and principled motivations that challenge the traditional supremacy of self-interested states” (Snyder, 61). Yet movements of this kind clearly impact the international system whether they are movements supporting violent extremism or human rights. These are movements whose influence is derived from share the understanding, beliefs, and identities of the actors involved, and realist theory does not produce a satisfactory explanation for them.

Liberalism does not sufficiently explain the challenges to international cooperation either. Liberals believe that liberal democracies will not fight each other, and that actors will pursue actions that either maximize their gain or minimize their loss (Jervis, 5). In order to maximize gain, states will tend to become more interdependent, increasing the cost of conflict and so reducing the likelihood of it (6). It explains obstacles to international cooperation in terms of clashes between liberal democratic states and non-liberal democratic states, especially as democratic states tend to feel the need to bring democracy to non-liberal democratic states (Snyder, 58)...

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*this paper was written for Conceptual Foundations of International Relations course at Columbia University's School of International and Public Affairs (Fall' 15)


© 2016 Daniele Selby