Applying rationalist institutionalism to the Iraq Case

Term Paper, 2004

21 Pages, Grade: 2,3




Iraq Case
Relevant Actors
Object of Contention
Conflict Development and Conflict Management
between the USA and Iraq
Dependent Variable

Rationalist Institutionalism
Structures and Actors in Rationalist Institutionalism
Defining Institutions
Dependent and Independent Variable
in Rationalist Institutionalism
Main Hypotheses and Causal Mechanisms

Applying Rationalist Institutionalism to the Iraq Case


I. Introduction

„The basic problem facing anyone trying to understand contempory world politics is that there is so much material to look at that it is difficult to know which things matter and which do not. Where on earth would you start if you wanted to explain the most important political processes? Whenever individuals are faced with such a problem they have to resort to theories, whether they are aware of them or not.

A theory is not simply some grand formal model with hypotheses and assumptions; rather a theory is some kind of simplifying device that allows us to decide which facts matter and which do not.“ (Baylis, Smith 1997: 3)

The aim of this paper is to explain the outbreak of the Iraq War in 2003 with the help of a theory called Rationalist Institutionalism, which is one school of thought in International Relations.

Firstly, the paper will explain the Iraq Case more closer: what is the object of contention, which is the dependent variable, who are the relevant actors and finally how the course of conflict and the conflict management looked like before the war in 2003 broke out and during the war.

Secondly, the paper will introduce Rationalist Institutionalism as one school of thought of International Relations. The paper will look at relevant structures and actors in Rationalist Institutionalism and furthermore present main hypotheses and causal mechanisms followed by the relevant variables within this theory.

Thirdly, and the most interesting part, this paper will apply Rationalist Institutionalism to the Iraq Case.

Finally the paper will discuss weaknesses and strengths of the theory as well as the question of what additional offers the theory can present in order to explain the war between the USA and Iraq in 2003.

II. Iraq Case

Relevant Actors

In order to explain the Iraq Case it is helpful to find out who the conflict parties are.

On the one hand it is the USA together with their coalition partners, e.g. Great Britain, Spain, Poland etc. On the other hand it is Iraq with Saddam Hussein and his regime as representers of Iraq.

The paper will focus on two conflict parties though: USA (under which all the other coalition partners are subsumed) and Iraq.

Another relevant actor for the Iraq Case is the UNO with its influence on international politics. How strong was the influence of the UNO in 2003? Could the organization have prevented the war? These questions will be looked at later.

Object of Contention

Choosing an object of contention is a very biased venture because of the possibility to choose any specific object of contention that you would like to focus on.

The object of contention within the Iraq Case that this paper focuses on is primarily security and the most important contested value is Iraq’s production and possession of weapons of mass destruction (WMDs). This is the main focus of this paper and additionally the straightforward reason of the USA for going to war against Iraq.

Conflict Development and Conflict Management between the USA and Iraq

The conflict between the USA and Iraq was not something that occurred suddenly or randomly. The conflict between these two states is an ongoing conflict with different modes of conflict management. In order to understand why the Iraq War could become possible it is necessary to look at the relationship between the USA and Iraq more closely. The different conflict management types include: regulated versus unregulated (in the means of UN regulations respectively resolutions), cooperative vs. uncooperative and violent vs. peaceful conflict management.

Graphic 1:

illustration not visible in this excerpt

Dependent Variable

What makes the case an instance of war? In order to answer this question there is a need of operationalizing „war“. We can apply the following characteristics:

- war is the organized use of force between two or more conflict parties,
- a constancy of the battle or fighting actions exists (Nohlen/ Schultze 2002: 458),
- there is a general acceptance of high (civilian) casualties by the involved conflict parties. (In a war not only the armed forces of the conflict parties fight against each other. The civilian people are always dragged into military actions. Sometimes civilians are even used as shields, or attempted extortions are made with the help of civilian hostages. Each of the conflict parties accepts that the own people can get murdered during a war.)

All three criteria match the reality of the Iraq War, as the past has showed us. Therefore our case can be called an instance of „war“. And therefore our dependent variable is „war“.

III. Rationalist Institutionalism

Structures and Actors in Rationalist Institutionalism

According to Rationalist Institutionalism anarchic structure, decentralization, complex interdependence and institutionalization are the causally relevant structures of international politics, whereas domestic politics is rather negligible. The leading principles of Rationalist Institutionalism are material structures (resources) (Menzel 1999: 17).

States are the most important actors in world affairs (Keohane and Nye 1972: xxiv). They act utility-maximizing and the only means of self-help in order to overcome the security dilemma is not only power politics anymore, but the possibility of cooperation between states under certain circumstances and with the help of institutions.

Rationalist Institutionalism, as the name already points out, is a rational theory, based on rational choice theory and taking the identities and interests of actors as given. Processes such as those of institutions affect the behavior but not the identities and interests of actors. (Baylis, Smith 1997: 184)

Patterns of cooperation and discord can only be understood in the context of institutions which help to define the meaning and importance of state action. Institutions are established by states and state action depends to a degree on prevailing institutional agreements. International agreements are not easy to make or keep. Therefore the ability of states to communicate and cooperate depends on human-constructed institutions. (Keohane 1989: 2)

A rational institutionalist perspective is only relevant to an international system if:

1. actors have mutual interests and
2. variations in the degree of institutionalization exert substantial effects on state behavior (Keohane 1989: 3).


Excerpt out of 21 pages


Applying rationalist institutionalism to the Iraq Case
University of Tubingen  (Institute of Political Science)
Seminar: Introduction to International Relations
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Applying, Iraq, Case, Seminar, Introduction, International, Relations
Quote paper
Claudia Baczewski (Author), 2004, Applying rationalist institutionalism to the Iraq Case, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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