Core Principles of International Relations Theory

by Joshua S. Goldstein 2007

From pp.4-9 of Goldstein and Pevehouse, International Relations, 8th edition, 2008 (available July 2007), ISBN 978-0-205-57317-2.

The field of IR reflects the world's complexity, and IR scholars use many theories, concepts, and buzzwords in trying to describe and explain it. Underneath this complexity, however, lie a few basic principles that shape the field.

IR revolves around one key problem: How can a group-such as two or more nations-serve its collective interests when doing so requires its members to forgo their individual interests? For example, every country has an interest in stopping global warming, a goal that can be achieved only by many countries acting together. Yet each country also has an individual interest in burning fossil fuels to keep its economy going. Similarly, all members of a military alliance benefit from the strength of the alliance, but each member separately has an interest in minimizing its own contributions in troops and money. Individual nations can advance their own short-term interests by seizing territory militarily, cheating on trade agreements, and refusing to contribute to international efforts such as peacekeeping or vaccination campaigns. But if all nations acted this way, they would find themselves worse off, in a chaotic and vicious environment where mutual gains from security and trade would disappear.

This problem of shared interests versus conflicting interests among members of a group goes by various names in various contexts-the problem of "collective action," "free riding," "burden sharing," the "tragedy of the commons," a "mixed interest game," or the "prisoner's dilemma," to name a few that we will encounter in the coming chapters. We will refer to the general case as the collective goods problem, that is, the problem of how to provide something that benefits all members of a group regardless of what each member contributes to it.

In general, collective goods are easier to provide in small groups than in large ones. In a small group, the defection (free riding) of one member is harder to conceal, has a greater impact on the overall collective good, and is easier to punish. The advantage of small groups helps explain the importance of the great-power system in international security affairs and of the G7 (Group of Seven) industrialized countries in economic matters.

The collective goods problem occurs in all groups and societies, but is particularly acute in international affairs because each nation is sovereign, with no central authority such as a world government to enforce on individual nations the necessary measures to provide for the common good. By contrast, in domestic politics within countries, a government can force individuals to contribute in ways that do not serve their individual self-interest, such as by paying taxes or paying to install antipollution equipment on vehicles and factories. If individuals do not comply, the government can arrest and punish them or seize their assets. Although this solution is far from perfect-cheaters and criminals sometimes are not caught, and governments sometimes abuse their power-it mostly works well enough to keep societies going.

Three basic principles-which we call dominance, reciprocity, and identity-offer possible solutions to this core problem of getting individuals to cooperate for the common good without a central authority to make them do so (see Table 1.1). These three principles are fundamental across the social sciences and recur in such disciplines as the study of animal societies, child development, social psychology, anthropology, and economics, as well as political science. To explain each principle, we will apply the three principles to a small-scale human example and an IR example.

Core Principles for Solving Collective Goods Problems

Principle 		Advantages 		Drawbacks

Dominance		Order, Stability,	Oppression,
			Predictability		Resentment

Reciprocity		Incentives for		Downward Spirals;
			Mutual Cooperation	Complex Accounting

Identity		Sacrifice for Group,	Demonizing an
			Redefine Interests	Out-Group


The principle of dominance solves the collective goods problem by establishing a power hierarchy in which those at the top control those below-a bit like a government but without an actual government. Instead of fighting constantly over who gets scarce resources, the members of a group can just fight occasionally over position in the "status hierarchy." Then social conflicts such as over who gets resources are resolved automatically in favor of the higher-ranking actor. Fights over dominance position have scripted rules that minimize, to some extent, the harm inflicted on the group members. Symbolic acts of submission and dominance reinforce an ever-present status hierarchy. Staying on top of a status hierarchy does not depend on strength alone, though it helps. Rather, the top actor may be the one most adept at forming and maintaining alliances among the group's more capable members. Dominance is complex, and not just a matter of brute force.

In international relations, the principle of dominance underlies the great-power system, in which a handful of countries dictate the rules for all the others. Sometimes a so-called hegemon or superpower stands atop the great powers as the dominant nation. The UN Security Council, in which the world's five strongest military powers hold a veto, reflects the dominance principle.

The advantage of the dominance solution to the collective goods problem is that, like a government, it forces members of a group to contribute to the common good. It minimizes open conflict within the group. However, the disadvantage is that this stability comes at a cost of constant oppression of, and resentment by, the lower-ranking members in the status hierarchy. Also, conflicts over position in the hierarchy can occasionally harm the group's stability and well-being, such as when challenges to the top position lead to serious fights. In the case of international relations, the great-power system and the hegemony of a superpower can provide relative peace and stability for decades on end but then can break down into terribly costly wars among the great powers.


The principle of reciprocity solves the collective goods problem by rewarding behavior that contributes to the group and punishing behavior that pursues self-interest at the expense of the group. In human societies, the behavior of one individual toward another very often mirrors the kind of behavior that individual has received recently from the other. Reciprocity is very easy to understand and can be "enforced" without any central authority, making it a robust way to get individuals to cooperate for the common good.

But reciprocity operates in both the positive realm ("You scratch my back and I'll scratch yours") and the negative ("An eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth"). The disadvantage of reciprocity as a solution to the collective goods problem is that it can lead to a downward spiral as each side punishes what it believes to be negative acts by the other. Psychologically, most people overestimate their own good intentions and underestimate the value of the actions of their opponents or rivals. To avoid tit-for-tat escalations of conflict, one or both parties must act generously to get the relationship moving in a good direction.

In international relations, reciprocity forms the basis of most of the norms (habits; expectations) and institutions in the international system. Many central arrangements in IR, such as the World Trade Organization agreements, explicitly recognize reciprocity as the linchpin of cooperation. For instance, if one country opens its markets to another's goods, the other opens its markets in return. On the negative side, if one country expels a certain number of diplomats from another country for spying, the other country always responds within days by expelling the same number of diplomats from the first country. Reciprocity fuels arms races as each side responds to the other's buildup of weapons. But it also allows arms control agreements and other step-by-step conflict-resolution measures, as two sides match each other's actions in backing away from the brink.


A third potential solution to the collective goods problem lies in the identities of participants as members of a community. Although the dominance and reciprocity principles act on the idea of achieving individual self-interest (by taking what you can, or by mutually beneficial arrangements), the identity principle does not rely on self-interest. On the contrary, members of an identity community care about the interests of others in the community enough to sacrifice their own interests to benefit others. The roots of this principle lie in the family, the extended family, and the kinship group. But this potential does not appear limited to the close family but rather can be generalized to any identity community that one feels a part of. Members of a family care about each other, but so do members of an ethnic group, a gender group, a nation, or the world's scientists. In each case, individual members will accept solutions to collective goods problems that do not give them the best deal as individuals, because the benefits are "all in the family," so to speak. A biologist retiring at a rich American university may give away lab equipment to a biologist in a poor country because they share an identity as scientists. A European Jew may give money to Israel because of a shared Jewish identity, or a computer scientist from India may return home to work for lower pay after receiving training in Canada, in order to help the community he or she cares about. Millions of Americans contributed to relief for Asian tsunami victims because of a shared identity as members of the community of human beings.

In IR, identity communities play important roles in overcoming difficult collective goods problems, including the issue of who contributes to development assistance, world health, or UN peacekeeping missions. The relatively large foreign aid contributions of Scandinavian countries, or the high Canadian participation in peacekeeping, cannot be explained well by self-interest, but arise from these countries' self-defined identities as members of the international community. Even in the interactions of military forces or diplomats (where dominance and reciprocity, respectively, rule the day), the shared identities of military professionals and of diplomats-each with shared traditions and expectations-can take the edge off conflicts. And military alliances also mix identity politics with raw self-interest, as shown by the unusual strength of the U.S.-British alliance, which shared interests alone cannot explain as well as shared identity does.

Nonstate actors, such as nongovernmental organizations or terrorist networks, also rely on identity politics to a great extent. The increasing roles of these actors-feminist organizations, churches, jihadists, and multinational corporations, for example-have brought the identity principle to greater prominence in IR theory in recent years.

An Everyday Example

To sum up the three core principles, imagine that you have two good friends, a man and a woman, who are in a romantic relationship. They love each other and enjoy the other's company, but they come to you for help because they have a problem. When they go out together, the man likes to go to the opera, whereas the woman enjoys going to boxing matches. Because of your training in international relations, you quickly recognize this as a collective goods problem, in which the shared interest is spending time together and the conflicting individual interests are watching opera and watching boxing. (Of course, you know that the behavior of states is more complicated than individuals, but put that aside for a moment.) You might approach this problem in any of three ways.

First, you could say, "Traditionally, relationships work best when the man wears the pants. For thousands of years the man has made the decision and the woman has followed it. I suggest you do the same, and buy season tickets to the opera." This would be a dominance solution. It could be a very stable solution, if the woman cares more about spending time with her true love than she cares about opera or boxing. It would be a simple solution that would settle all future conflicts. It would give one party everything he wants, and the other party some of what she wants (love, company, a stable relationship). This might be better for both of them than spending all their evenings arguing about where to go out. On the other hand, this solution might leave the woman permanently resentful at the manifestly unequal nature of the outcome. She might feel her love for her partner diminish, over time, by a longing for respect and a nostalgia for boxing. She might even meet another man who likes her and likes boxing.

Second, you could say, "Look, instead of fighting all the time, why don't you establish a pattern and trade off going to boxing one time and opera the next." This would be a reciprocity solution. You could set up agreements, accounting systems, and shared expectations to govern the implementation of this seemingly simple solution. For example, they could go to boxing on Friday nights and opera on Saturday nights. But what if opera season is shorter than boxing season? Then perhaps they would go to opera more often during its season and boxing more often when opera is out of season. What if one of them is out of town on Friday night? Does that night count anyway or does it earn a credit for later? Or does the one who is in town go out alone? What if the man hates boxing but the woman only mildly dislikes opera? Do you set up a schedule of two operas for each boxing match to keep each side equally happy or unhappy? Clearly, reciprocity solutions can become very complicated (just look at the world trade rules, for example), and they require constant monitoring to see if obligations are being met and cheating is being avoided. Your friends might find it an irritant in their relationship to keep close track of who owes whom a night at the opera or the boxing match.

Third, you could say, "Who cares about opera or boxing? The point is that you love each other and want to be together. Get past the superficial issues and strengthen the core feelings that brought you together. Then it won't matter where you go or what you're watching." This would be an identity solution. This approach could powerfully resolve your friends' conflict and leave them both much happier. Over time, one partner might actually begin to prefer the other's favorite activity after more exposure-leading to a change in identity. On the other hand, after a while self-interest could creep back in, because that loving feeling might seem even happier with a boxing match (or opera) to watch. Indeed, one partner can subtly exploit the other's commitment to get past the superficial conflicts. "What's it matter as long as we're together," she says, "and oh, look, there's a good boxing match tonight!" Sometimes the identity principle operates more powerfully in the short term than the long term: the soldier who volunteers to defend the homeland might begin to feel taken advantage of after months or years on the front line, and the American college student who gives money once to tsunami victims may not keep giving year after year to malaria victims.

An IR Example

Now consider the problem of nuclear proliferation. All countries share an interest in the collective good of peace and stability, which is hard to achieve in a world where more and more countries make more and more nuclear weapons. Within a society, if individuals acquire dangerous weapons, the government can take them away to keep everyone safe. But in the society of nations, no such central authority exists. In 2006, North Korea tested its first nuclear bomb and Iran continued uranium enrichment that could lead to a nuclear bomb-defying UN resolutions in both cases.

One approach to nuclear proliferation legitimizes their ownership by just the few most powerful countries. The "big five" with the largest nuclear arsenals hold veto power on the UN Security Council. Through agreements like the Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) and the Proliferation Security Initiative, the existing nuclear powers actively try to keep their exclusive hold on these weapons and prevent smaller nations from getting them. This is a dominance approach. In 2003, when the United States thought Iraq's Saddam Hussein might have an active nuclear weapons program, as he had a decade earlier, it invaded Iraq and overthrew its government. Similarly, in 1982 when Iraq had begun working toward a nuclear bomb, Israel sent jets to bomb Iraq's nuclear facility, setting back the program by years. One drawback to these dominance solutions is the resentment they create among the smaller countries. They point to an unenforced provision of the NPT stating that existing nuclear powers should get rid of their own bombs as other countries refrain from making new ones. And they ask what gives Israel the right to bomb another country, or the United States the right to invade one. They speak of a "double standard" for the powerful and the weak.

Reciprocity offers a different avenue for preventing proliferation. It is the basis of the provision in the NPT about the existing nuclear powers' obligation to disarm in exchange for smaller countries' agreement to stay nonnuclear. Reciprocity also underlies arms control agreements, used extensively in the Cold War to manage the buildup of nuclear bombs by the superpowers, and used currently to manage the mutual reduction of their arsenals. Deterrence also relies on reciprocity. The United States warned North Korea in 2006 against selling its bombs (an action that would be in North Korea's short-term self-interest), threatening to retaliate against North Korea if any other actor used such a bomb against the United States. And when Libya gave up its nuclear weapons program in 2003, the international community gave it various rewards, including the ending of economic sanctions, in exchange.

The identity principle has proven equally effective against nuclear proliferation, if less newsworthy. Many nations that have the technical ability to make nuclear weapons have chosen not to do so. They have constructed their national identities in ways that shape their self-interests so as to make nuclear bombs undesirable. Some, like Sweden, do not intend to fight wars. Others, like Germany, belong to alliances in which they come under another nation's nuclear "umbrella" and do not need their own bomb. South Africa actually developed nuclear weapons in secret but then dismantled the program before apartheid ended, keeping the bomb out of the hands of the new majority-rule government. Nobody forced South Africa to do this (as in dominance), nor did it respond to rewards and punishments (reciprocity). Rather, South Africa's identity shifted. Similarly, Japan's experience of the catastrophic results of militarism, culminating in the destruction of two of its cities by nuclear bombs in 1945, continues generations later to shape Japan's identity as a country that does not want nuclear weapons, even though it has the know-how and even the stockpile of plutonium to make them.

Collective goods problems fascinate social scientists, and especially scholars of IR, precisely because they have no easy solutions. In later chapters, we will see how these three core principles shape the responses of the international community to various collective goods problems across the whole range of IR issues.