Muhammad Erza Pradana
Staff, Research Division FPCI Chapter UPN Veteran Jakarta
Environmental problems have consistently made headlines over the past decades or so. Today, many world leaders have recognized the importance of the environment. They have organized high-level meetings such as COP26 and also signed international treaties such as the Paris Climate Crisis. Furthermore, it also seems that societies across the world are becoming even more aware of the need to tackle environmental problems, as they have also been consistently speaking about the dangers of ignoring environmental problems and demanding their leaders act accordingly.
Indeed, 21st-century environmental problems such as pollution and climate change are not to be ignored. Left unaddressed, they are very likely to cause the earth and the living beings inside it a ton of problems and might even risk their very existence. Given all of these, we would expect that nations across the earth would come together, despite their diverging political, economic, and ideological interests, to resolve this existential threat to possibly our very existence on the planet. Indeed, that is what most people expect from world leaders.
However, although there is a seemingly world-wide understanding of the importance of tackling environmental problems, international efforts to deal with such problems remain inadequate. “Although virtually all nations are united in their desire to tackle the man-made causes of global warming, they have yet to reverse the long-term trend of rising greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions.” Robert Falkner and Barry Buzan (2022) said.
That condition is, of course, very unfortunate. I, like I’m sure many of you reading this, would certainly like to see an increase in international cooperation to tackle environmental problems. In this piece, however, I don’t intend to provide yet another demand, protest, or advocacy toward strengthening international environmental cooperation. Rather, my goal is to provide you with an explanation of why, despite the worldwide recognition of the importance of the environment, states have yet to fully cooperate and act in a coordinated manner to deal with such problems. Therefore, this piece is explanatory rather than normative in nature.
In doing so, I would argue that realism remains the best analytical framework we can use to analyze the lack of strong cooperation among states on environmental problems. That is, my argument here is that it is not that states’ employ realist theories, but rather, they act according to the dictates of realism. This piece, therefore, also shows that despite calls from within the IR community that realism is not the right tool for analyzing 21st-century international relations, the theory still possesses considerable explanatory power.
Power is the Key
To provide you with an introduction, realism has been and still is the most dominant theoretical tradition or research program in IR scholarship. Although there are many strands of realist theories, there are also some widely acknowledged tenets or assumptions shared by all realists. The chief among those is the assumption that power is the most important thing in international politics. That is, realists argue that states of all stripes and kinds always strive for power as either a means toward an end (mainly security and survival) or as an end in itself.
Understanding the role of power in inter-state relations is the key to unraveling why cooperation on issues like the environment has been inadequate to meet the goals set. Realists argue that in an international system where there is no global government, states have enormous incentives to pursue power, for the basic reason that there is no one to guarantee order, security, and survival except themselves.
Now, you might ask, has power have anything to do with environmental cooperation? The answer is that engaging in such cooperation entails huge uncertainty for states in terms of the distribution of gains (power, that is). In the realist world, states are mainly concerned about their gains relative to other states. Simply put, states would want to get a larger share of the cake compared to their counterparts. And on this matter, the cake is the economic gains that result from interstate environmental cooperation.
This is just basic realist logic. A state would not be willing to fully commit to cooperation and environmental goals if doing so would make them less economically powerful. Ask yourself: Would you really want to get into a relationship that produces an outcome that would leave you worse off? I think the answer would be no. States understand this logic. Furthermore, not only were they concerned about relative gains and power positions, but they also faced the ever present possibility of other states cheating (Mearsheimer, 1994).
In short, international relations, even when it comes to globally recognized environmental issues, have always been political. Political in the sense that states always strive to gain as much power as they possibly can. While good intentions may indeed exist, there is no question that power consideration is ultimately the main driver behind state external behavior.
High Politics (Still) Matters
Despite growing interest in previously marginalized issues such as the environment and sustainable development and the continuous call by many in the IR world to prioritize our academic work on such issues, there is no question that even in this post-Cold War 21st century world, so-called high politics is of paramount importance in the eyes of states, particularly the great powers.
Most importantly, it seems that war has remained a feature of our international system, as it has been for many centuries. There are numerous cases to prove my point here, such as the ongoing Russian invasion of Ukraine, the ongoing Hamas-Israel war, and the possibility of a coming war between the United States and China in East Asia.
Why is this, you might ask? Well, my answer to such a question is relatively straightforward. It is because the international system we live in today has remained anarchic in nature. There is no world government that can protect states and enforce international agreements. Thus, realists have argued that as long as the system remains anarchic, there is little choice for states but to act in accordance with the balance of power politics (Mearsheimer, 2001).
Indeed, all of these should shed light in the eyes of many IR students and scholars on the fact that high politics still matters. While there is certainly no problem with expanding IR scholarship to include issues such as the environment, IR scholars and students should recognize that they cannot simply sideline traditional power politics. Furthermore, IR was born out of the question of war and peace. Singling out non-traditional issues would not help us understand how the world really works.
Mearsheimer, J. J. (2001). The Tragedy of Great Power Politics. New York: WW Norton & Company. Mearsheimer, J. J. (1994).
The False Promise of International Institutions. International Security, 19(3), 5–49. Falkner, R., & Buzan, B. (Eds.). (2022).
Great Powers, Climate Change, and Global Environmental Responsibilities. Oxford: Oxford University Press.