Anarchy and the Limits of Cooperation: A Realist Critique of the Newest Liberal
Institutionalism by Joseph M. Grieco NOTES
The newest liberal institutionalism asserts that, although it accepts a major realist proposition that
international anarchy impedes cooperation among states, it can nevertheless affirm the central tenets of the
liberal institutionalist tradition that states can achieve cooperation and that international institutions can help
them work together. However, this essay's principal argument is that neoliberal institutionalism
misconstrues the realist analysis of international anarchy and therefore it misunderstands realism's analysis
of the inhibiting effects of anarchy on the willingness of states to cooperate. This essay highlights the
profound divergences between realism and the newest liberal institutionalism. It also argues that the former
is likely to be proven analytically superior to the latter.
In this essay, the author Joseph M. Grieco, tries to critic the institutionalist theory through the realist prism.
First, he describes the main statements of those two doctrines, emphasizing the differences between them.
This compared approach is very interesting, as we can easily understand the points of conflict between
those two international relations theories. Grieco clearly stands for the realist theory, and demonstrates that
the neoliberal claim to incorporate the realist core can be proved wrong. He focuses on the expectations of
the states from the cooperation among them, showing that the predictable outcome of cooperative living
amongst states depends from the aim of the above mentioned states; the maximization of either absolute or
However, if we look at empiric data, the specialized international organizations that are so disparaged by
the realists, as unable to enforce states to respect their commitments, seems erroneous. The WTO, the UN,
or the IMF, can sometimes be way more powerful than states (especially for the first and last one). In the
case of the IMF, as an example, the last European sovereign debt crisis, and especially the Greek case,
showed its power, as it could enforce Greece to pay its debts to its creditors.
Is anybody still a realist?
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 securitya desire that makes them sensitive to relative rather than absolute
gains. States cooperate lessor, more precisely, they cooperate under different circumstancesthan 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 conflicta 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 relativegains 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, howeve