Rational Theory of International Politics: The Logic of Competition and Cooperation

Rational Theory of International Politics: The Logic of Competition and Cooperation

Rational Theory of International Politics: The Logic of Competition and Cooperation

Rational Theory of International Politics: The Logic of Competition and Cooperation


Within the realist school of international relations, a prevailing view holds that the anarchic structure of the international system invariably forces the great powers to seek security at one another's expense, dooming even peaceful nations to an unrelenting struggle for power and dominance. Rational Theory of International Politics offers a more nuanced alternative to this view, one that provides answers to the most fundamental and pressing questions of international relations.

Why do states sometimes compete and wage war while at other times they cooperate and pursue peace? Does competition reflect pressures generated by the anarchic international system or rather states' own expansionist goals? Are the United States and China on a collision course to war, or is continued coexistence possible? Is peace in the Middle East even feasible? Charles Glaser puts forward a major new theory of international politics that identifies three kinds of variables that influence a state's strategy: the state's motives, specifically whether it is motivated by security concerns or "greed"; material variables, which determine its military capabilities; and information variables, most importantly what the state knows about its adversary's motives.

Rational Theory of International Politics demonstrates that variation in motives can be key to the choice of strategy; that the international environment sometimes favors cooperation over competition; and that information variables can be as important as material variables in determining the strategy a state should choose.


The questions that led to this book first puzzled me when I was working on nuclear strategy and policy in the 1980s. I could not find a satisfactory answer to the basic question, “Is the nuclear arms race dangerous?” Most of the arguments that saw grave dangers in the Cold War nuclear competition were internally inconsistent. the arguments on the opposite side of the debate, which held that the nuclear arms race was necessary to preserve U.S. security, were even less satisfactory. Especially in need of development was analysis of the relationship between the military competition and the politics of U.S.–Soviet relations.

Thinking about arms races led me to structural theories of international politics, as a means for understanding when states should compete and when they should cooperate. To evaluate whether arms races are dangerous, we need to be able to assess the alternatives that were available to states. Arms races might increase the probability of war, but not racing might have made war even more likely. the rational theory that I develop in this book enables us to separate the impact of the international environment from the impact of the strategies that states choose; we can use it to assess whether arms races themselves were dangerous, or instead whether the international situation facing states was the true source. More broadly, my theory helps us understand the impact of the international environment on states' strategies and argues that international anarchy does not generate a general tendency toward competitive international strategies; under a wide range of material and information conditions, cooperation is a state's best option for achieving security.

My work on these questions played out in a series of articles over many years in International Security and World Politics. the articles were written to stand on their own and without the next article in mind. and I did not set out from the start with the idea of writing a book on grand international relations theory. When I did decide to write a book that pulled together and integrated these articles, I imagined that this would be a rather quick project. in the end, this book took a number of additional years to write and includes many arguments and chapters that I had not envisioned at the outset.

My greatest intellectual debt may well be to the University of Chicago, where I benefited from the scholarly energy and intensity for which the university is famous. At Chicago, the Program on International Security . . .

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