Realism, neoliberalism, and cooperation: understanding the debate

TitleRealism, neoliberalism, and cooperation: understanding the debate
Publication TypeJournal Article
AuthorsJervis, R


Main points:

1. The realist-neoliberal disagreement over conflict is not about its extent but about whether it is unnecessary, given states’ goals. In this context we cannot treat realism as monolithic, but must distinguish between the offensive and defensive variants.

  • Realists acknowledge that cooperation happens and is possible, and that the world is not zero-sum.
  • Realists see more conflict because of the topics they study (war) and neoliberals see cooperation (IPE)
  • Realists see life as on the pareto-frontier and thus concentrate on distribution of benefits, but neoliberals see room for more mutually-beneficial outcomes (20 dollar bill example)
  • Offensive realists: Mearsheimer - state preferences fundamentally conflict
  • Defensive realists: tragedy of unnecessary conflict
  • Defensive realists differ from neoliberals in three ways: (1) in only a subset of situations is conflict unnecessary (2) its hard for states tot ell which situation they are in, (3) less faith in the ability of actors to reach common interests; mistrust and cheating may be too severe to be overcome.

2 The disagreement in terms of what each school of thought believes would have to change to produce greater cooperation. This raises the question of institutions.

3. Realists claim not that institutions lack utility, but that they are not autonomous in the sense of being more than a tool of statecraft. Even if it is true that cooperation and the presence of institutions are correlated, it does not follow 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.

  • For realists, institutions are epiphenomenal, just a form of statecraft.

4. Kinds of institutions:

  1. Institutions as Standard Tools: Binding and Self-binding: the well known instruments of statecraft such as alliances and trade agreements, totally dependent on state interests
  2. Institutions as Innovative tools: ones that are potential tools but remain outside the realm of normal statecraft because leaders have not thought of them or do not appreciate their effectiveness
  3. Institutions as Causes of Changes in preferences over outcomes: Can be unintended: The classic example is Ernst Haas’s analysis of the spillover processes of regional integration in which decisionmakers seek limited cooperation but the policies they adopt for this purpose trigger changes in laws, incentives, interest group strategies, and eventually loyalties that lead to much greater integration.The institutions had “a life of their own” in not only binding the states more than the founders foresaw, but in changing beliefs about what is possible and desirable: they shaped, as much as they reoected, interests. NATo is one example. 

Conclusion Questions:

1. If institutions bring such mutual benefit, why have states not exmployed them more often?

2. Are institutions effects or causes?