Debate: Relative and Absolute gains

How much scope is there for international cooperation between and amongst states? This has long been an issue of debate between realists and liberals, the former believing that the struggle for power leaves little or no scope for cooperation between states, while the latter hold that cooperation can triumph over conflict because of an underlying harmony of interests amongst states. Since the 1980s, this issue has particularly divided neorealist and neoliberals, but the terms of the debate have changed.

Neorealists have insisted that states are preoccupied with making ‘relative’ gains (improvements in a state’s position relative to other states). In this view, anarchy makes states fear for their survival, and because power is the ultimate guarantor of survival, they constantly monitor their position in the international power hierarchy. Countries will only be prepared to cooperate if they believe that cooperation will bring about relative gains, and they will forego cooperation if they fear that their gains will be less than those of other countries. Country A would thus refuse to enter into a trade agreement with country B even though it is likely to bring profit, if it calculates that country B’s profits will be greater. Power, in this sense, is zero-sum game – one state’s gain is another state’s loss.

Neoliberals, on the other hand, argue that the neorealist position is simplistic. While not rejecting the concerns about relative gains (because they accept assumptions about state egoism), they hold that states may be more concerned about making ‘absolute’ gains (improvements in a state’s position in absolute terms). This may occur, for instance, because states are confident about their survival and so can be more relaxed about their power relative to other states; because they judge that other states’ intentions are peaceful regardless of their relative capabilities; or because, in reality, states have multiple relationships with multiple states, making calculations about relative gains simply impractical. If states are prepared to cooperate so long as this promises to deliver absolute gains, the scope for cooperation at an international level is considerable.