International Cooperation and a Look at the European Union

Is there sound logic and argument for cooperation in the international system? How do you see cooperation in International Relations (IR) applied? Is cooperation a valid from of analysis in IR? These questions set up a debate that forms the foundation upon which IR operates. To make an argument for cooperation you have to put together the game board IR pieces move around. This can be done by understanding the basic premise between Realism and Liberalism. Only then are you able to look at the ideas within Regime Theory and Complex Interdependence and see how they look when analyzed and applied to the international system. Now the arguments for cooperation are more present and clear. Regimes are supported in both Neorealism and Neoliberalism. As well, regimes and international organizations act as intermediaries between actors by creating conduits for connection. Looking at the European Union (EU) as if it were a case study, we can use it to further bolster the argument for cooperation as a form of analysis and as a useable tool.

Describing the arguments between Realism and Liberalism can become nuanced and overbearing. The purpose of this essay isn’t to debate Realism against Liberalism, but rather to make an argument for cooperation. For those reasons the debate between Realism and Liberalism can be told as a story. The international system is much like a knotted line of Christmas lights that stir up family emotions around the holiday season. One camp of thought, quite realist, is to go about detangling alone because of the fear there might be further entanglement with any assistance. The other thought, we’ll call it liberal, is to have someone help you straighten out the line of lights by holding the opposing end. Either way, the Christmas tree isn’t the same without lights on it. Usually your mother is demanding that you help each other so that the lights are straightened out quicker and the ornaments can go up. However, we have no mother in the international system guiding our direction one way or the other and both sides of this argument agree that anarchy and the state prevails.

In general, cooperation does resemble helping your siblings detangle the Christmas tree lights. In IR, however, cooperation is much more complex and varying. To simplify cooperation in the international system a focus on Regime Theory and Complex Interdependence will adequately describe what cooperation looks like. John Ruggie describes regimes as “a set of mutual expectations, rules and regulations, plans, organizational energies and financial commitments, which have been accepted by a group of states” (Doty, 2004, p. 495). Regime Theory doesn’t discount the self-help nature of anarchy present in Neorealism, in fact, the ways in which regimes act on a state are due to this self-help. Robert Keohane tells us that because regimes “facilitate the smooth operation of decentralized international political systems” they work in favor of a state’s self-interest (Doty, 2004, p. 500). What Keohane takes from Ruggie’s explanation of regimes and anarchy but then expands upon, is the ability of norms and rules within regimes to affect the state much like anarchy does in Neorealism (Doty, 2004, p. 497). A simpler way of describing this is to look at regimes like your choice in consumer products, or product differentiation. You get the greatest value out of picking the best product for your needs. Products are made to fit your specific needs. You will change your decision on what product you think is greater by how well it is perceived to fit your needs. The product and your own perception both influence the decision you will eventually make.

Complex Interdependence, much like its namesake, goes after explaining the myriad of ways in which cooperation is played out internationally. With Realism, the goal of a state is much more defined in terms of maximizing security (Dunne, 2013, p. 79). With interdependence, the goals of various actors and no longer just the state – they are fluid, temporal, and geographic. Identifying the goals of actors is an increasingly hard task to accomplish (Doty, 2004, p. 504). Complex interdependence does not focus on strength and hegemony as an instrument of policy but rather the ability to manipulate international organization and transnational actors. Weaker states have greater abilities because of the reduced emphasis on physical strength and a stage to act on in international organizations (Doty, 2004, p. 504). There is also a greater focus on the distribution of power over the balancing of power between international actors (Doty, 2004, p. 514-515).

Where Realism and Liberalism diverge mostly occurs when analyzing linkages and the importance of international organizations. Realism advocates that linkages will smoothen the outcomes among issues areas and reinforce international hierarchy, while international organization only play a minor role subordinate to the state (Dunne, 2013 p. 107). Complex Interdependence tells the opposite of linkages and international organizations. Because force is no longer as effective, stronger states will have a harder time creating linkages while weaker states will be able to erode hierarchy by not fearing force to such a high degree. International organizations are crucial in that they create the space for weaker states to speak freely, so to say (Doty, 2004, p. 516-517). Complex Interdependence isn’t summed up neatly into a story or simply constructed sentences. Complex Interdependence is best summed up by making the argument for cooperation and looking at a real world examples like the European Union.

In making the argument for cooperation as analysis and application, you must try to use some aspect of cooperation that fits nicely with realism as well as where realism fails as a theory. International regimes, and by that same account Regime Theory, are accepted by both Neorealist and Neoliberals.  Shah Tarzi (2004) illustrates this point in saying “international regimes as a thematic focus is warranted because both schools of thought accept regimes as one form of institutionalism (p. 121). Neorealist might find it necessary to partake in a regime for the sake of balancing power. It’s a rather simple concept of weaker states banding together in the face of a greater power. Furthermore, the ability for a great power to manipulate international organizations fits squarely with a neorealist view of self-interest. Complex Interdependence and Regime Theory focuses more on regimes as a utility maximizer for states versus security systems. This is beneficial because cooperation has the capacity to describe structural changes in peacetime. Through mutually convergent interests, a state might be able to pursue self-interest to a greater degree (Dunne, 2013, p. 116). This idea ties both theories together, but also starts to show how cooperation can explain the development of the European Union in peacetime, which is the focus of this essays third argument for cooperation.

The second argument, however, is of the benefits of cooperation as an application or useable tool in IR. Tarzi (2004) sums this up beautifully in saying “regimes operate in this space between the actor and structure” (p. 122). It’s an easy comparison to see the United Nations as a sort of business analyst working between the company and client, especially when conflict management and mitigation is needed. Looking deeper at why using cooperation is beneficial, Keohane talks about the touchpoints between actors in the international system (Doty, 2004, p. 512). The higher amounts of connection the richer the touchpoints will be. The richer the quality of connection, the more embedded regimes can become. The ability of a regime to sway a state’s behavior is better facilitated with deeper touchpoints (Doty, 2004 p. 512). These touchpoints and connections can be simplified and visualized when you look at the basic tenants of liberalism such as the pervasiveness of capitalism and its subduing of protectionism, or unilateral economic policy (Doty, 2004, p. 513). This richness in connection also works towards mitigating conflict. Pressure from external actors, namely economic ones and the interdependence of actors, make the prospects of warring neighbors less likely (Tarzi, 2004, p. 120).

The European Union, at present, represents what many would consider the epitome of cooperation. The EU does represent the argument for cooperation in action. Through three of the main concerns of realism, relative gains, balance of power, and socialization, the EU has built a body of success in cooperation. The inequalities present between states can often lead to conflict. Europe is a very wide berth when comparing the equality between its members (Collard-Wexler, 2006, p. 403). The relative gains of one state should concern the other. However, the EU has shown that even in the face of this tilt cooperation works and is effective (Collard-Wexler, 2006, p. 403). Simon Collard-Wexler (2006) dives even deeper by saying “EU member states have been remarkably insensitive to relative gains. More puzzling for neorealists, member states have deliberately promoted asymmetric gains through commonly agreed EU policies” (p. 403). He expands this in showing how France, a leading EU nation, is allocated a majority of the Common Agricultural Fund (Collard-Wexler, 2006, p. 403).

By all accounts the German unification in the 1980’s should have ushered in a balance of power that saw France and the UK once again aligned (Collard-Wexler, 2006, p. 405). Obviously, even without following world news we know there is very little to show us there are strains in those relationships. According to Collard-Wexler (2006), German unification, at the time, brought anxiety in “63% of the French population” (p. 405). Adding to the balance of power anomaly, excitement in for the EU has been one of its noticed success stories. Starting off with only 8 members, today the EU benefits from a robust membership in the twenties (Collard-Wexler, 2006, p. 405). Both of those accounts raise support for cooperation and draw question to the effectiveness of realism in describing the EU.

Socialization, or the methods of organization, is also a question that cooperation and the EU might go further at answering. Under Realism the state is the most efficient form of socialization in the international system (Collard-Wexler, 2006, p. 412). Collard-Wexler communicates further (2006), “even the hard politics of arms control, the EU has emerged as a strategic personality, formulating a nonproliferation strategy in Iran and dangling economic carrots in Syria” (p. 413). With the creation of the EU the organization immediately sustained a success at cracking the superiority of state (Collard-Wexler, 2006, p. 412). EU existence draws out questions regarding if there is a system other than anarchy possible in IR. Is it accurate to call it an international organization, or supranational entity? Is the EU a transitional form of structure? A neorealist might argue there is nothing within reach that can transcend anarchy as the structure of IR. That’s unfortunate for their argument because there is a missing transformational logic in realism that precludes it from adequately describing the EU (Collard-Wexler, 2006, p. 410). Collard-Wexler (2006) in explaining this lack of transformational logic says “for neorealists, change in the international system can be structural, defined by shifts in the relative distribution of power” (p. 410). If there was a logic oriented toward transition you can imagine space in Realism for an anomaly like the EU.

It would be beneficial if there was a parental figure guiding our decisions in the volatile conditions of global relations but there is not. States, just as a people, must learn to navigate on their own. What has developed are two somewhat similar yet drastically different theories in Realism and Liberalism. However, the arguments for cooperation, or liberalism, as a valid form of study and application of IR are solid. Regime Theory and Complex Interdependence do show the value and structural impact of international organizations and regimes. Regime Theory benefits from its versatility in both Realism and Liberalism, which can only strengthen the argument for cooperation. The abilities of Regimes to facilitate numerous points of deep connection between states, as well as the rules and norms created from those connections do have an impact on a state’s behavior in a self-help arena.  Looking at the EU as a unit of study we’re able to see how it supports, quite strongly, the tenants of cooperation. The EU examples goes even further in raising important questions about the capacity of Realism to describe the world outside of times of conflict, or if there is anything other than anarchy as a structure.


Collard-Wexler, S. (2006). Integration Under Anarchy: Neorealism and the European Union. European Journal of International Relations, 397-432.

Doty, G. (2004). Understanding international relations: The value of alternative lenses (5th ed.) (D. Kaufman, J. Parker, & P. Howell, Eds.). Boston: McGraw-Hill Custom Pub.

Dunne, T. (2013). International relations theories: Discipline and diversity (3rd ed.) (M. Kurki, S. Smith, Eds.). Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Tarzi, S. (2004). Neorealism, Neoliberalism and the International System.International Studies, 41(1), 115-128.

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