The Problem of Absolute and Relative Gains in International Relations Theory

  • Robert Powell


The problem of absolute and relative gains divides two of the most influential approaches to international-relations theory. Neoliberal institutionalism assumes that states focus primarily on their individual absolute gains and are indifferent to the gains of others. Whether cooperation results in a relative gain or loss is not very important to a state in neoliberal institutionalism as long as it brings an absolute gain. In terms of preferences, this focus on absolute gains is usually taken to mean that a state’s utility is solely a function of its absolute gain. In contrast, neorealism or structural realism assumes that states are largely concerned with relative rather than absolute gains. In the anarchy of international politics, “relative gain is more important than absolute gain” (Waltz, 1959: 198). A state’s utility in structural realism is at least partly a function of some relative measure like power. 1 These differing assumptions about states’ preferences lead to different expectations about the prospects for international conflict and cooperation. The more states care about relative gains, the more a gain for one state will tend to be seen as a loss by another, and the more difficult it seems that cooperation will be.2


Structural Realism International System Repeated Game Relative Loss Relative Gain 
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© Springer Science+Business Media New York 1994

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  • Robert Powell

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