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Summary : The anarchic structure of world politics

Ecrit par 015035 le 24 avril 2015


Theory of international politics, McGraw-Hill, pp79-106, (1979),

This book is a major framework of international relations theories. It helps its reader to understand how the international system is working in any configuration. It is valuable in all kind of polarity, multipolar, bipolar or unipolar world. As the world is returning back to the multipolar structure, the following summary will help to remind us the key feature of the anarchic structure : 


What are the concepts which characterize international politics in the theoretical field of political science ? These concepts should explain how system units interact and which outcome is produced. This systemic view of international politics leads us to focus on the description of its structure. This notion is defined by the position of the units in relation to one another. This arrangement of units defines the structure of the system. It is system level property not of the units. So the question becomes what is the principle by which the structure is best described ? The ordering principle is based on the formal equality of all units. No one is allowed to command to another unit the decision it should make regarding its own interest.

As a consequence, the international system is decentralized. It is the result of the coaction of self-interest units. The principle of self-help ruled the interaction between these units. Finally, it is an anarchic structure which conditioned actors’ decisions. The units’ strategy favored by the self-help ruled will succed and take precedence upon its competitors which support a moral approach of the decisions. As a consequence, the equilibrium between units is determined by the distribution of units’ capabilities.

The units which dominate, the great powers, bind all other units to follow the self help rule. The less great powers are conditionned by what is possible and what is not within the system.


The Munester treaty and the formal equality of each international system units, 

Like all States are functionally identical, the distribution of capabilities is the origin of the differentiation between units. It is the variable which set the properties of the structure and its consequences. A unipolar structure determines some behaviors and outcomes different from a multipolar one. In the last, great powers are able to challenge each other which is not the case in the former. Indeed, the anarchic structure means that at any time some States may use force. In the absence of a world government, the occurrence of violence is a permanent possibility, even for “good reasons” of a “just war” to promote “human rights”. Each interdependence is a contact and an opportunity for the irruption of violence.

Even if specialization within the framework of interdependence is a trend which increases the level of global wealth ; the fear to lose its identity leads States to focus on comparative gains, before to acknowledge the positive economic results of interdependence. In fact, some benefits will be used to improve the level of resources for security. This will interfere with the perception of threat associated with the defense-offense equilibrium. The uncertainty of each about the other’s future intentions and resources, especially new technological breakthrough, works against a full cooperation and an intense specialization of each units.

The more a State specializes, the more it depends on others and it becomes highly vulnerable. It loses its means of action to take care of itself. In a self-help system, security issues take precedence upon economic gains. The consequence is a rational framework for decision making which focused on national interest for surviving. In a situation of shortage of a commodity, all would be better if they decrease their buying and equitably shared the burden of restriction. But each has a strong incentive to quickly buy extra supplies to secure its vital functions. If one actor restrains himself by behaving differently, he would be vulnerable without altering the outcome. As long as the structure stand it is not possible to change it from a particular political will. The only remedies for strong structural effects are structural changes.

Finally, the possibility of conflict with high cost is conditioning State to promote international organization with low cost and it improves the collective action taking. However the great power is the main actor within an anarchic structure of world politics.

To go further : 

Introduction to structural realism by Pr. J. Mearsheimer

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