Anarchy and the limits of cooperation: a realist critique of the newest liberal institutionalism

TitleAnarchy and the limits of cooperation: a realist critique of the newest liberal institutionalism
Publication TypeJournal Article
AuthorsGrieco, JM
Contribution: 

From Legro and Moravcsik Legro JW, Moravcsik A. Is anybody still a realist?. International Security. 1999;24:5–55.

Joseph Grieco's proposal to define realism in terms of states' concerns about relative gains provides another example, this one from political economy, of how the line between power and preferences can become blurred when realism is not rigorously defined. Grieco posits that states are "defensive positionalists" in search of security-a desire that makes them sensitive to relative rather than absolute gains. States cooperate less-or, more precisely, they cooperate under different circumstances-than the mere presence of mutual benefits might lead us to expect, because they must "pay close attention to how cooperation might affect relative capabilities in the future." Despite much criticism of this formulation and disagreement about whether the gains in question are actually "relative," Grieco clearly captures an essential quality of realism, namely its assumption of underlying conflict-a quality we highlight in our statement of core assumptions.

Grieco is aware that states do not always forgo "absolute" economic benefits for "relative" geopolitical gains, so that any theory must state the antecedent conditions under which relative-gains seeking occurs. Given that not all states in all situations are equally sensitive to gaps in payoffs, he argues, we should employ a factor (termed k) that measures sensitivity to gaps between payoffs (relative gains), alongside absolute gains. We can thus restate Grieco's causal claim as follows: When k is high, states are more motivated to seek relative gains (or limit losses). This simply displaces the causal question, however, for we are now impelled to ask: What determines the value of k? What motivates states to worry about relative gains? Is this motivation distinctively realist?

In answering these questions, Grieco is driven to tinker with the assumption of fixed preferences, thus revealing that his relative gains-seeking definition of realism lacks theoretical coherence and distinctiveness. How does Grieco seek to establish the "realist" nature of his argument? He does so by assuming that the issue area in question explains variation in k. Specifically, k is always high in security affairs, an assumption endorsed by Mearsheimer and others. Yet this assumed correlation between security policy and relative-gains seeking (even if it were clearly realist) is unsustainable. On the one hand, there are numerous security issues-say, interactions among democracies, the construction of security regimes, or power politics without increasing returns-about which it is difficult to conclude that there is any incentive to pursue a relative gains-seeking strategy. Even more striking, economic conflict alone can give rise to realist and mercantilist dynamics, without the involvement of any security interest-as scholars such as Stephen Krasner, Michael Mastanduno, James Fearon, and David Lake have demonstrated. As many critics have noted, neither Grieco's analysis of post-Tokyo round trade policy nor his other work reveals convincing evidence that "relative gains" in those areas could be exploited to threaten national security.

Cut loose from the claim that all security conflicts necessarily generate intense underlying conflict (a high value of k), however, the "relative-gains seeking" account of realism no longer imposes any a priori theoretical constraint on variation in state preferences (variation in k). The argument becomes instead: When state interests clash, for whatever reason, conflict is more likely. Yet because other theories-realist, liberal, epistemic, and institutionalist-also predict that conflict may result from opposed interests and offer explanations of that variation in interests, there is nothing distinctly realist about relative- gains seeking per se. In seeking to specify the determinants of variation in k, Grieco himself invokes variation in the nature of individual states-including "previous experiences," "reputation for exploitation," and whether they are "long-term ally . .. or adversary"-as well as more traditionally realist factors connected with relative power. Indeed, nonrealist studies of trade policy findthat particularly strong pressure from economic interest groups-the classic liberal explanation for protection-is concentrated in precisely those areas (government procurement and industrial standardization) in which Grieco's study of the Tokyo round finds unexplained relative-gains seeking.

The central problem for Grieco is quite simply that relative-gains concerns, conflict, inefficient bargaining, and suboptimal cooperation are predicted by all major rationalist (and some nonrationalist) theories of international relations. The key differences among paradigms lie not in whether they predict interstate conflict-all do-but in when, why, and under what circumstancesthey predict conflict. Bargaininig failures, such as those Grieco observes in the General Agreement on Tariffsand Trade, may result from inefficient bargaining under uncertainty, as institution- alists and negotiation analysts maintain; from particularly conflictual societal preferences, as liberals argue; or from a lack of shared language or cultural capital, as some epistemic theorists assert-as well as concerns about future power, as realists contend. Without a more precise specification of realism, Grieco cannot distinguish these empirically or theoretically.