Anarchy is what states make of it: the
social construction of power politics
The debate between realists and liberals has reemerged as an axis of contention
in international relations theory.' Revolving in the past around competing
theories of human nature, the debate is more concerned today with the extent
to which state action is influenced by "structure" (anarchy and the distribution
of power) versus "process" (interaction and learning) and institutions. Does
the absence of centralized political authority force states to play competitive
power politics? Can international regimes overcome this logic, and under what
conditions? What in anarchy is given and immutable, and what is amenable to
The debate between "neorealists" and "neoliberals" has been based on a
shared commitment to "rationali~m."~
Like all social theories, rational choice
directs us to ask some questions and not others, treating the identities and
interests of agents as exogenously given and focusing on how the behavior of
This article was negotiated with many individuals. If my records are complete (and apologies if
they are not), thanks are due particularly to John Aldrich, Mike Barnett, Lea Brilmayer, David
Campbell, Jim Caporaso, Simon Dalby, David Dessler, Bud Duvall, Jean Elshtain, Karyn Ertel,
Lloyd Etheridge, Ernst Haas, Martin Hollis, Naeem Inayatullah, Stewart Johnson, Frank Klink,
Steve Krasner, Friedrich Kratochwil, David Lumsdaine, M. J. Peterson, Spike Peterson, Thomas
Risse-Kappen, John Ruggie, Bruce Russett, Jim Scott, Rogers Smith, David Sylvan, Jan Thomson,
Mark Warren, and Jutta Weldes. The article also benefited from presentations and seminars at the
American University, the University of Chicago, the University of Massachusetts at Amherst,
Syracuse University, the University of Washington at Seattle, the University of California at LQS
Angeles, and Yale University.
1. See, for example, Joseph Grieco, "Anarchy and the Limits of Cooperation: A Realist Critique
of the Newest Liberal Institutionalism,"
42 (Summer 1988), pp. 485-507;
Joseph Nye, "Neorealism and Neoliberalism,"
40 (January 1988), pp. 235-51; Robert
Keohane, "Neoliberal Institutionalism: A Perspective on World Politics," in his collection of essays
International Institutions and State Power
(Boulder, Colo.: Westview Press, 1989), pp. 1-20;
John Mearsheimer, "Back to the Future: Instability in Europe After the Cold War,"
13 (Summer 1990), pp. 5-56, along with subsequent published correspondence regarding
Mearsheimer's article; and Emerson Niou and Peter Ordeshook, "Realism Versus Neoliberalism:
American Journal ofPolitical Science
35 (May 1991), pp. 481-511.
2. See Robert Keohane, "International Institutions: Two Approaches,"
32 (December 1988), pp. 379-96.