Based on the theories of international relations that have been advanced by various authors, it is apparent that the behaviour of states in the international system is not governed primarily by their fear of other states and the desire to acquire the power to overcome that fear. Whereas the aforementioned factor is a major player in the behaviour of states with noteworthy economic and political powers like the US and Russia, there are several other factors that directly contribute to and define the behaviour of other relatively weaker states in the international system (Handel 2016). These factors are encapsulated in the theories of international relations; therefore, an extensive and detailed discussion of these theories will aid in addressing the question at hand.
Vital to understanding these theories and the factors therein is the question of “how exactly do we evaluate the behaviour of states in the international system?” Approached without a methodology, analysis of state behaviour can be very tedious and confusing; thereupon, scholars approve that the study of state behaviour can be broken down into smaller analysis levels (Jackson and Sorensen 2016). The levels of analysis include system level: evaluation of the behaviour of states by considering the intercontinental system whereby the behaviour of states is as a consequence of the features exhibited by the international system as well as the trends set by the system; state level: evaluation of states’ behaviour by looking into the distinguishing features of the state like historical legacies, geographic and economic nature, or social and/or religious norms; organizational level: examination of the behaviour of states with reference to how organizations within the states influence policies that define the behaviour of the given states; and individual level: examination of the behaviour of states by considering the influence of the newsmakers in the states e.g. different leaders, activists, reformers, and even founding fathers (Jackson and Sorensen 2016). With the aforementioned breakdown of the behaviour of states analysis, it is apparent that there are several factors that dictate the behaviour of states.
The first obvious factor that governs the behaviour of states is the quest for power. To amass power for themselves is the first and last principle of the behaviour of states (Baylis, Smith, and Owens 2017). According to the classical realism theory, the quest for power is the driving force behind all the actions that a state takes. Classical realism—a state level theory—argues that all the states in the international system seek power and in so doing, the behaviour of the states is geared towards amassing power for themselves while reducing the power of rival states: states with approximately equal military and economic power (Clark and Neumann 2016). A potential counterclaim to this theory, however, is the fact that the behaviour that apparently depicts power struggle and fierce animosity is normally exhibited by a few powerful states within the international system. A good example is the behaviour of the US and USSR immediately after World War II that led to the cold war. Because the two states were equally powerful, a rivalry developed between them. Each state became wary of the other state’s power. This state of affairs governed the behaviour of the two states towards each other fuelling a significant rivalry in the process. However, because the US and USSR were approximately equal in power, they could not go to war thereby resulting in the cold war (Clark and Neumann 2016). In essence, therefore, states scheming against and fearing each other in the name of seeking power is, to a significant extent, limited to just a few powerful states in the international system. The behaviour of a majority of states—weaker states—in the system is not primarily governed by this factor (Handel 2016).
Moreover, the nature of the international system also plays a major role in defining the behaviour of states. According to the neo-realism theory, the fear and power struggle that is often implied by the behaviour of states is not as a result of their greed and power hunger but is in an attempt to secure themselves from the unforgiving world. The theory argues that states behave in that manner because of the nature of the international system. Since the International system is some sort of anarchy with no world government and immutable laws (Waltz 1979), the states do what they can do to gain some influence on the world stage and do what is necessary to secure their borders and, by extension, their citizens. Based on this theory, the behaviour of states in the global system is mainly governed by their efforts towards a peaceful, politically stable, and secure state rather than fear of other states and the desire to amass enough power to overcome that fear (Baylis, Smith, and Owens 2017).
In addition to the two factors, the behaviour of states in the international system is governed by past experiences and the unending push for social justice. With the first and second world war resulting in the loss of millions of lives and property of unimaginable value, states have learnt to prefer cooperation to conflict. States try to establish internationally enforceable laws that will ensure social justice for all humanity. This factor is captured in the theory of liberalism whereby the argument is just it is not just rivalry and power struggles that exist in the world. There is reasonable cooperation between states (Clark and Neumann 2016). Accordingly, states do not just compete or worry about the power of other states out of selfishness. They do so in order to create a world order that is more just than the orders of the ages past. Looking at the cold war, for instance, with the liberalism theory in mind, we can argue that the cause of the animosity between the US and USSR was the oppressive and bloody nature of the Soviet state and not the fear of each other and the desire to acquire power to overcome that fear (Knutsen 2016).
The influence of institutions and organizations in the international system is yet another key player in outlining the behaviour of states. The neo-liberalism theory of international relations captures this factor. Institutions like the UN, Commonwealth, and WTO have continued to define the behaviour of member states by formulating and enforcing laws that promote the values of equity and justice across borders (Jorgensen 2017). This is a major factor that governs the behaviour of a majority of states with little or no global influence. These states will primarily behave according to the foreign behavioural policies established by these institutions and not out of fear of other states and the desire to overcome that fear by amassing power for themselves (Diehl and Frederking 2015).
Finally, the behaviour of states in the global system is also closely tied to the characteristics of the states. Every state in the global system is unique. Each state has distinctive political, religious, cultural, social, and economic features that impact its behaviour and foreign policy (Knutsen 2016). The constructivism theory evaluates the behaviour of states in the context of the unique features of every state. States will often act based on their defining characteristics. From this perspective, we can argue that the cold war was a result of the clash of the distinctive foreign policy characteristics of the US and the USSR. Additionally, the interventional behaviour of the US can be attributed to this factor. It is not that the US behaves the way it does because of the fear other states and a desire of acquiring power to overcome that fear but it is because of the nature of the political system of the state and its democratic ideals.
Although the fear of other states and the desire to acquire power to overcome that fear is one of the factors that may influence the behaviour of states in the international system, we cannot single it out as the main factor governing the behaviour of states in the global system. The behaviour of states at any one given time is influenced by several other major factors like the nature of the global system, past experiences and the push for social justice, the influence of global institutions and organizations like the UN, WTO, Commonwealth etc., and the distinctive characteristics that define each and every state.
Baylis, J., Smith, S. and Owens, P. eds., 2017. The globalization of world politics: an introduction to international relations. Oxford University Press, p.29-30, 63-67, 83-88,101-109.
Bill Newmann, 2014. ‘A brief introduction to theories on international relationships and foreign policy’ (online). POLI 468. Retrieved 25 May, 2018 from: http://www.people.vcu.edu/~wnewmann/468theory.htm
Clark, I. and Neumann, I.B. eds., 2016. Classical theories of international relations. Springer,
Diehl, P.F. and Frederking, B. eds., 2015. The politics of global governance: international organizations in an interdependent world. Lynne Rienner Publishers.
Handel, M.I., 2016. Weak states in the international system. Routledge.
Jackson, R. and Sørensen, G., 2016. Introduction to international relations: theories and approaches. Oxford university press, p. 61-67, 96-101, 205-208.
Jørgensen, K.E., 2017. International relations theory: A new introduction. Macmillan International Higher Education.
Knutsen, T.L., 2016. A history of international relations theory. Oxford University Press.