Cooperation in Europe

Cooperation in Europe

The following study is about the current state of affairs in Europe which is characterized by  lack of conflict and successful political-economic cooperation. This case is puzzling and unique since most of the European history, especially after the birth of the modern state, has been shaped by violence and short-term,  unstable alliances that served only for the selfish self-interest of the states. Today, leaders are talking about peace, compromise and European common identity. Is this really the case?

In answering this question and tackiling the ideas above, I will use the two mainstream theories of  I.R. : realism and neoliberalism. I prefer the mainstream approaches since they can be real sources for policy-makers. The alternative approaches are very useful in explaining international politics and also in criticizing the main theories but I find them to be more a sort of philosophical contemplation than fountains of pragmatic, empirical analysis. The exception to his is however, in my opinion, constituted by marxism and constructivism.

Nevertheless, due to the physical limitation of this paper, I will mostly focus on realism  (first chapter) and also offer the counter-arguments of institutionalism (second chapter)  with regard to the subject.

In the conclusion part, I will present a short discussion based on personal opinions. The discussion will be done by having the two theoretical frameworks in the back of my head.


Cooperation and Peace in Europe: Realist View

In this chapter, I will discuss the realist view on the current situation in Europe which is fundamentally caracterized by lack of conflict and cooperation. I will firstly mention the basic realist theory assumptions and conclusion. Then I will discuss them in relation to Europe, more specifically focusing on the case of the European Union and NATO. In doing this, I will use Kenneth Waltz and John Mearsheimer as principal sources in understanding the phenomenon proposed for analysis.


Structural Realism

In general, realism is an International Relations theory that emphasizes rationality, egoism, state-centrism and international anarchy (J.Donnelly 2005, p.30). As a result of these, international affairs between the dominant units, the states, are based on power politics.

In this chapter I will focus more on that strand of realist theory called structural realism. This became the dominant form of realist theory under the influence of Kenneth Waltz. What structural realism tries to do is to understand the impact of anarchy and of the distribution of capabilities on unit interaction.  In the international system, all units are the same because in anarchy there is no functional differentiation, so every state has the same purpose: to pursue its self-interest; they differ just because of the uneven distribution of capabilities (J.Donnelly 2005, p.35).

Starting from these assumptions, the central conclusion is that in anarchy states tend to balance. Bandwagoning is dangerous under anarchical conditions because it gives strength to the party we choose to side with, a party that might turn his back on us in the future. By balancing, opposition to the stronger party reduces this risk (J.Donnelly 2005, p. 36).

Another conclusion is that the uneven distribution of capabilities has the effect of producing polarity. Since the end of the Cold War unipolarity has been in place. According to many realists, unipolarity is very unstable. The rise of a great power will determine a coalition of other great powers meant to balance the former (J.Donnelly 2005, p.38).

One limitation of neoealism is that Waltz considers in his theory survival as the only motive of states. This would not explain aggressive behavior by itself (J.Donnelly 2005, p. 41). The limitation is surpassed by a development of realism which comes with considering domination as an alternative motive. This brings a division between defensive and offensive realism. Defensive realists argue that states tend to avoid gaps that favor the other states in the system, not to maximize gaps in their own favor. Offensive realists argue that states seek to survive under anarchy by maximizing their power in relation to that of the others (J.Donnelly 2005, p.43). I will use offensive realism under the bigger structural realism as a reference to my further analysis, especially Mearsheimer’s writings.


Interdependence and Institutions

I will deal now in more detail with particular concepts that could explain the current state of affairs in Europe. It is easy to notice the peacefulness of Europe at the moment if we compare it to historical accounts. Why is this? Is the European Union project which is based on supranational institutions and economic interdependence the answer? Realists tend to deny this.

According to the economic interdependence theory, the purpose of the state is no longer to pursue political-military objectives but economic, trade ones. Interdependence promotes peace by multiplying contacts among states which ultimately leads to mutual understanding. Nevertheless, interdependence multiplies the occasions for conflict. According to Waltz, the closer the social bonds, the more extreme the effects of the movement of one party is (2000, p.14).

Applying this to Europe, strong economic bonds between states have produced higher well-being for all the parties involved. But also, the Greek debt crisis proves how the bad situation of one state can affect the other states’ economies. This creates tension that can transform into conflict. This specific case also proves that states are still self-interested because the saving of Greece is not a moral concern but a pragmatic necessity for the survival of the other countries’ economies. Thus, prosperity through interdependence can maintain peace at the European level, but the strong economic bonds can also put stability under threat.

Regarding the role of institutions and international organizations in offering a solution to the conflictual essence of states, realists agree. But not because of the rules and organizations themselves. It is because they are instruments of maintaining control. The basic international organizations in Europe are the European Union and NATO.

The EU can be seen as a success story of how international organizations can promote peace between countries. EU members do not consider war as an instrument of international relations. Realists argue that the EU is an exception because its working is facilitated by the lack of security issues. And this is a result of NATO still operating in Europe. This will be dealt with more in the next section. For now, I will analyze NATO as the best example of how international organizations really work. After the fall of the Soviet Union, NATO’s existencial purpose has vanished. Why then does it still exist? The realist view is that it continues to exist as a means of maintaining America’s grip on the foreign and military policies of European states. As Waltz puts it:

The ability of the United States to extend the life of a moribund institution nicely illustrates how international institutions are created and maintained by stronger states to serve their perceived or misperceived interests”. (K. Waltz 2000, p.20)

The main idea here is that an international organization is, ideally, the result of a collective pursuit of a higher good and a renunciation of egoistic traits. Contrary to this, realists recognize the importance of institutions  but say that the big policies and the true objectives are fixed by the states’ egoistical intentions. Therefore, institutions are used by the strong states in ways that suits them (K. Waltz 2000, p.24). The blow that the US suffered on September 11 proves exactly this. The new agenda of NATO is to fight against  terrorism, which coincides exactly with the US agenda (NATO Briefings 2011). An international institution will be alive as long as member states profit from it. When states decide to follow their own path, the organization will disappear or get blocked in decision-making by lack of consensus. A case that proves how national interest determines state’s position inside the EU is Romania and Bulgaria’s rejection of entry in the Schengen area. Even though both countries have fulfilled the technical, institutional requirements, Finland and the Netherlands objected to it (Castle 2011).


Cooperation and Balance of Power

If economic interdependence and international institutions are not the answer to peace and cooperation in Europe according to realists, how then could we understand the surprising lack of violence in an area that got its actual shape because of conflicts?

Before analyzing the realists’ reasons, I will mention how they see cooperation. Under anarchy, this process is impossible because of egoism and interest in relative gains as opposed to absolute gains. States fear for their survival and therefore gaining more power than the other states is vital. States avoid cooperation when their gains from it will be less than those of the others (C.Reus-Smit 2005, p.191).  However, states do cooperate in a competitive world, but cooperation is limited by the logic of security competition (Mearsheimer 1994, p.9). This explains the relatively good cooperation EU countries have and what follows is a discussion on this.

In order to understand peace in Europe, balance of power and security competition are key. The EU functions properly because NATO is still acting as a balancing mechanism. Maintaining America’s leading role in NATO is required in order to prevent a security competition between EU states (Waltz 2000, p.25). US serves as Europe’s pacifier. How does America’s presence facilitate stability? Because the US is the most powerful state and it impedes European powers to fight amongst them, fear is not present and no balance of power is needed. NATO also acts as a security umbrella towards non-NATO countries (Mearsheimer 2010, p.388).

Beside this realist view, one alternative view is that the EU has transformed how Europeans think about their identity. National identity was substituted by a European identity (Mearsheimer 2010, p. 393). I would argue that even if this were true before, today with the recent crisis, one can notice a rise in popularity for nationalistic parties (Moss 2011).  Also, another example of euro-skepticism are the protests that are taking place against ‘the Troika’ which comprises EU institutions alongside the IMF (Deutsche Welle 2012). Thus, it is difficult to argue for a real shift in identity from nationalism to ‘Europeanism’.


Institutions and Pooled Sovereignty in Europe: Neoliberalism

This chapter presents the neoliberal perspective on the current state of affairs in Europe. The structure is the same: presentation of theoretical assumptions and their application to reality. The main source for liberal institutionalism I used are the writings of Robert Keohane.


Liberal Institutionalism

At the heart of the interdependency theory is free trade. Economic integration supposes that conflict between states would be reduced by creating a common interest in economic collaboration: cooperation causes the mutual benefit of states (S. Burchill 2005, p.64).

Neoliberalism builds on the neo-realist foundations of international anarchy and  importance of states but seeks a different architecture of the international system as it’s not so pessimistic about cooperation. Cooperation should be organized by rules which govern how states behave. These ‘regimes’ enhance trust and, by eliminating fear,  maintain stability (S. Burchill 2005, p.65).

The view on gains separate the two mainstream theories even more. Institutionalists don’t see states as interested in survival as neo-realists do. When states have multiple interactions it’s impractical to calculate relative gains every time. The conclusion is that states are utility-maximizers who take decisions based on absolute gains (C. Reut-Smit 2005, p.192).


International Institutions

As mentioned previously, international organizations and institutions are the instruments for establishing international regimes meant to connect selfish states and make them dependent upon one another so that international conflict will cease to exist.

This theory received critiques especially from neo-realists who say that institutions don’t matter since states are the true source of power. Keohane agrees that great powers have influence but argues that the decision-making procedures and the general rules of institutions affect how policies emerge. These policies are different than any result of unilateral action (R. Keohane 1998, p.84). In the EU case, unanimity continues to block many attempts by the most powerful interests, like the Federalist group. Any change of the treaties in a radical way must be a product on unanimous agreement of the states. The perfect example is the importance of the Irish first rejection of the Lisbon Treaty which kept the other 26 countries hostages of unanimity according to federalists (The Economist 2008).

Fundamental for neoliberalism is the centrality of ideas, values and norms, especially after the end of the Cold War. According to the same Keohane, contemporary European conflicts were the result of a correlation between identity and state interest (Serbs or Croats, Russian or Chechens) (1998, p.84).

Considering liberal values, through normative lense, one limitation of international institutions is the democratic deficit. Returning to the EU, the Treaty of Lisbon tries to overcome this issue by strengthening the legislative, budgetary and control powers of the European Parliament and by promoting the citizen’s right of initiative (Europa Glossary).


European Sovereignty

Despite Europe’s invention of external sovereignty, the EU renounced it. Internationalists talk about EU embracing ‘a notion of pooled sovereignty’ (R. Keohane 2002, p.744). Accordingly, states’ exclusive prerogatives are transferred to an external authority; in the case of the EU, rules can be created  even without states unanimously agreeing. Also, EU Law is supreme over national law (R. Keohane 2002, p.748).

It’s curious that even though European states don’t consider external sovereignty as fundamental, regarding trade, the EU acts like a sovereign state (R. Keohane 2002, p. 749). In the agricultural sector, liberalization determined weak conditions for Sub-Saharan farmers in a competition against subsidized European farming (M. Frith, 2006).  Under these conditions, the EU creates advantages for its citizens at the cost of another country’s citizens, just like any other sovereign state would do.

With regard to a common EU foreign and military policy, it is hard to have one because pooled sovereignty creates a big bureaucracy that is difficult to set in motion. The lack of decisive action (for example, when it had to deal with Slobodan Milosevic in 1995) is not a sign of  EU failure, but a reflection of the states’ common ideology that all issues can be negotiated (R. Keohane 2002, p.759).

Finally, what is the relation between Europe and the USA if we follow this logic? These is a separation between the two as each one adopts a different version of sovereignty. Liberals consider that democratic cooperation is progress, so the rupture between the US and the EU makes it harder for both to engage in mutually beneficial interaction (R. Keohane 2002, p.762).



As a conclusion, I propose a small discussion consisting in some personal views. The discussion will reflect the paper’s division into the two perspectives: realism and neo-liberalism.

Could the EU be seen as a realist project based on nationalism and balance of power? After the Second World War, with the rise of the US and of the Soviet Union, the European nation-states acknowledged their fall from the center of international politics. Because of the bad conditions, they had to accept some sort of ‘unification’ or ‘alliance’ needed to act both as a shield against the Soviet expansionism (NATO) and as an instrument of liberal ideology promotion (Council of Europe). Not only, but economic reconstruction could be achieved only through projects like the European Union. In doing all these, self-interest expresses itself not through taking independent routes but by trying to compromise and put differences aside.

The key here is to avoid separating economics from power politics. Economic strength has always been a gateway to political-military power. According to E.H. Carr, ‘the whole progress of civilization has been so closely bound up with economic development that we are not surprised to trace, throughout modern history, an increasingly intimate association between military and economic power (2001, p.106). Following the logic, the European cooperation was not a result of the friendly nature of the units, but a necessity for survival in a bipolar world. European states are aware that for now, individually, they do not have the power to enter the balancing game against the Great Powers. This is why they choose ‘unification’ as an intermediary state of affairs. Once one of the EU states gains World Power status, it might try to expand over the other European states in order to maximize its relative power. That would put an end to the peacefulness of Europe.

Let’s now focus on the neoliberal argument. Is there truly an erosion of sovereignty and surpassing of nationalism in Europe? If we take the EU case again, the Parliament works through the political affiliation of parties that reflect a common ideology. National loyalty comes only second. The MEPs sit in political groups. The key question is to ask how the voting proceeds on sensitive issues. Do they follow their parties’ political trend or their national interests?

Another inspiring case of how principles manage to change power politics Europe into an idealistic project is Euro-federalism. It caught the imagination of many intellectuals, statesmen and, today, even of the civil society. A good example is the Union of European Federalists. This structure considers itself a ‘supranational organisation dedicated to the promotion of a democratic and federal Europe’. You have here the three main essentials of neoliberalism: international/supranational organization, democracy as a set of values and federalism which envisions alternatives to traditional European sovereignty. This structure has been active for at least 50 years and it consists of 19 ‘constituent organisations’ (Union of European Federalists website). It has a young wing too. This seems a very ambitious political lobbying project.

To close, I would say that both theoretical approaches have strong explanatory power. They even seem to complement each other at times. Despite their differences, let’s hope that politicians will gain the inspiration needed from both in order to continue peace in Europe.




S.Burchill, A.Linklater, R.Devetak, J.Donnelly, M. Paterson, C.Reus-Smit, J.True, Theories of International Relations (Third Edition),  2005, Palgrave Macmillan

E.H. Carr, M. Cox, The Twenty Year’s Crisis, 2001, Palgrave Macmillan


Articles in Journals:

R. Keohane, Ironies of Sovereignty: the European Union and the United States, JCMS, 2002, Volume 40, Number 40, pp.743-765, Blackwell Publishers Ltd 2002

R. Keohane, International institutions: Can interdependence work?, Foreign Policy, Spring 1998,  Issue 110, pp.82-96, Full Text: Copyright Carnegie Endowment for International Peace Spring 1998

J. Mearsheimer, The False Promise of International Institutions, International Security, Vol. 19, No. 3, ( Winter, 1994-1995), pp.5-49, the MIT Press

J. Mearsheimer, Why is Europe Peaceful Today?, ECPR Keynote Lecture, European Consortium for Political Research, 2010, pp.387-397, Palgrave Journals

K. Waltz, Structural Realism after the Cold War, International Security, Vol. 25, No. 1, (Summer, 2000), pp.5-41, the MIT Press


News articles:

Deutsche Welle, Portugal, Spain hit by mass protest against austerity, 29.09.2012. website:

Europa Glossary, Summaries of EU legislation, Democratic deficit. webiste:

Maxine Frith, EU subsidies deny Africa’s farmers of their livelihood, The Independent, Tuesday 16 May 2006. website:

Martha Moss, Concern over rise of nationalist parties in Europe, The, 4th May 2011. website:

NATO Briefing, Countering terrorism, 2011, NATO Public Diplomacy Division

Stephen Castle, Europe Denies 2 Nations Entry to Travel Zone, The New York Times, September 22, 2011. website:

The Economist, Charlemagne: The unanimity problem. The European Union cannot easily cope with a country that says no, Jun 26th 2008. website:

Union of European Federalists. website:

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