Cooperation in the Contemporary World - resources

Links to resources on our website for students on our Cooperation in the Contemporary World MOOC.

Optional pre-course reading

Three Images of Cooperation Theory

Video: 4:23 minutes / Pause for Thought Activity: 5-10 minutes

Transcript - Three images of cooperation theory

A useful way of explaining how cooperation occurs at the international level, and the barriers to it, is to conceive cooperation at different levels of analysis. There are three key levels or what we call images to consider:

  • Image 1: human nature;
  • Image 2: the domestic structure of states, and the
  • Image 3: nature of the international system.

This framework draws heavily on the approach that Kenneth Waltz adopted in his classic book, Man, the State and War. Waltz set out in 1959 to explain the recurrence of war in terms of the three images. He argued that the third image of international anarchy created the framework within which the other two images operated. Particular wars are caused, according to Waltz, by the operation of the first and second images, but war as a recurring phenomenon of international politics is explained by the nature of the international system. As Waltz put it, wars occur because there is nothing at the global level to prevent them. We are applying this framework to cooperation to explore which images best explain the possibilities and limits of cooperation in the contemporary world.

Pause for Thought

Select one of the following questions and make some notes:

  1. Can you think of a situation where the first, second, or third image was decisive in explaining either the success or failure of cooperation?
  2. Which image do you find most persuasive in explaining cooperation? Is Waltz right to privilege the third image and argue it is a barrier to cooperation?
  3. Can the images be combined usefully to provide better explanations than just relying on one image? Give examples.

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Realist Theory

Video: 3:35 minutes / Pause for Thought Activity: 5-10 minutes

Transcript - Realist theory

We will now look at three mainstream theories of International Relations, starting here with Realism. This theoretical approach depicts international politics as a gloomy realm of recurrence and repetition, in which self-help and power politics determine the destinies of nations. There is little, if any, room for trust, and the structure of international anarchy doom experiments in cooperation. Actors who cooperate risk falling by the wayside of international politics, and prudence dictates that states should always hedge against others acting as aggressors. Alliances of convenience can form, and these might last for as long as states face a collective external threat, but none of these lead to durable forms of cooperation.

Pause for Thought

Select one of the following questions and make some notes:

  1. If you were the hunter in our imaginary stag-hunt, what would you do?
  2. How persuasive do you find the limited account of cooperation given by realism?
  3. Can you apply realism to episodes where international cooperation failed?

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Neo-Liberal Institutionalist Theory

Video: 4:53 minutes / Pause for Thought Activity: 5-10 minutes

Transcript - Neo-Liberal institutionalist theory

Our second theory is neo-liberal institutionalism. The latter theory shares two fundamental assumptions with realism: the international system is anarchic and it is populated by state actors who behave as rational egoists. By the latter, we mean actors which only view others as means to achieving their own selfish ends. Nevertheless, neo-liberals argue that these two assumptions are not incompatible with durable patterns of cooperation.

For cooperation to occur, states have to privilege absolute gains over relative gains, e.g. the cake has to be growing for all, but the relative size of the slices is not considered important. By contrast, realism worries about relative gains; it matters if another party grows stronger relative to you, because realism fears this new strength might be used against you.

The other pre-requisite for cooperation for neo-liberals is that there is a strong assurance that others will not cheat or defect from cooperative arrangements. These assurances are provided by Institutions which are defined as shared habits and practices of cooperation. Institutions serve a key function: they provide increased information exchange, improved levels of transparency, and a forum for communication to promote mutual reassurance.

Pause for Thought

Select one of the following questions and make some notes:

  1. Does this theoretical approach change how you think about the stag-hunt? Has your decision to cooperate or defect in the stag-hunt been altered by this account?
  2. How persuasive do you find the more hopeful account of cooperation given by neo –liberal institutionalism?
  3. Can you apply neo-liberal institutionalism to episodes where international cooperation has succeeded?

© University of Birmingham.

Constructivist Theory

Video: 5:01 minutes / Pause for Thought Activity: 5-10 minutes

Transcript - Constructivist theory

Our third theory is constructivism. What distinguishes this theoretical approach from the other two we have encountered is that it does not see rational egoism as the only basis for cooperation. Rational egoism is a particular form of behaviour in which states operate with a narrow conception of their self-interest, and therefore cooperation continues for as long as those interests align. For constructivists, identities are not fixed in stone as in realist and neo-liberal understandings; they can change, opening up potentially progressivist and self-sustaining patterns of cooperation, through changing practices of interaction and communication.

Constructivists do not think that social structures like war and enemy relationships are easy to change, and they gain their apparent permanence from actors believing they are natural and inevitable. However, constructivism does argue that if actors can come to understand how they are embedded in particular social structures (like patriarchy, racism, and conflict), then the door is opened to acting on this new understanding to change the world.

Pause for Thought

Select one of the following questions and make some notes:

  1. Does this theoretical approach change how you think about the stag-hunt? Has your decision to cooperate or defect in the stag-hunt been altered by this account?
  2. How persuasive do you find the idea that identities shape the possibilities of cooperation?
  3. Can you apply constructivism to episodes where international cooperation has succeeded?

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Conclusion


Video: 1:53 minutes / Pause for Thought Activity: 10-15 minutes

Transcript - Conclusion

We have seen three of the major theoretical approaches to the study of cooperation at the international level. Each theory tells us a very different story about the possibilities and limits of cooperation in the contemporary world.

The theories can be read as particular lenses by which you view patterns of conflict and cooperation; particular lenses seem well suited to helping us focus on particular issues. For example, when we think about the European Union, many of us intuitively would be drawn to neo-liberal and constructivist explanations. Conversely, talking about the limited forms of cooperation between enemies and rivals would perhaps push us more towards realism.

The limits of this ‘pick and mix’ view of the social world is that it draws our attention away from the universal claims of all three theories; each theory purports to explain practices of conflict and cooperation across all issue-areas of the contemporary world. They are not viewed by their proponents as single issue theories that specialise in explaining only one dimension of the global political landscape.

Pause for Thought

Select one of the following questions and make some notes:

  1. Which of the three theories do you feel gives the fullest account of cooperation?
  2. Does your preferred theory account for all episodes of international cooperation? Are there any exceptions or anomalies that might invalidate the grand claims made that each theory can explain everything.
  3. How far are realist, neo-liberal, and constructivist accounts fundamentally incompatible?
  4. Are all these theories flawed by explaining international politics in terms of the third image of international anarchy?

© University of Birmingham.