Cooperation and Conflict in West Asia: The Evolution of Theoretical Approaches

Document Type : Research Paper


1 Professor of International Relations, Faculty of Law & Political Science, University of Tehran, Iran

2 PhD in International Relations, Faculty of Law & Political Science, University of Tehran, Iran


The causes and consequences of cooperation and conflict in West Asia have been extensively discussed by international relations sholars using different approaches. The main objective of the authors is to find answers to the following research questions: 1. How have cooperation and conflict in West Asia been analyzed and explained in different theoretical perspectives in international relations? 2. Which of these approches provide a better explanation of the region’s conflict and cooperation in the last decade? Three dominant approaches of realism, liberalism, and a form of idealism (i.e., constructivism) are comparatively examined to reveal the strengths and weaknesses of their explanations of regional developments over time. It was demonstrated that realism explains conflict and cooperation in the region on the basis of international order, military considerations, and the politics of power, ideology and general analysis of normative power. Liberalism’s explanation is based mostly on  democracy, type of political system and cognitive cohesion. The explanation of the sholars using the approach of constructivism  is based on identity factors, ethnicity, sectarianism and security discourses of states. Realists tend to believe that subjective factors are important in the analyses of foreign policy and international relations issues. Ontological dimension of realism is not devoid of subjective elements, but realists have overlooked the process and the mechanism through which all subjective-objective elements influence the decisions and behaviors of governments.
From the perspective of liberalism, many political factors (e.g., regional hegemony, balance of power, sectarianism, nationalism, type of regime and political ideology) are important in shaping a state’s foreign policy bahaviors, which evidently need to be understood in their own historical context. On the other hand, it is not clear how these factors make sense to key decisionmakers  within  governments  and lead them to choose the path of cooperation or conflict. Perceptions and misperceptions influence how leaders decide to develop constructive or conflictive relations with other countries with which they are involved in a dispute. How the key decision-makers perceive a threat to their national security is particularly important becasue conflicts can develop and escalate between regional rivals in conflict situations. Indeed, there is a need to incorporate the context as a factor along with the perceptual and conceptual factors in the analysis of complex issues such as cooperation and conflict in West Asia. International relations theorists have tried to illustrate cooperation and conflict based on the impact of ideas. Even though they accept that ideas are a bridge between actors and reality, two problems remain in understanding cooperation and conflict in this region. First, there is no precise criterion for identifying ideas and identities that are active in constructing cooperation and conflict. Second, there is some confusion in the meaning of ideas and their fluidity and how they work, and this problem has led to overgeneralization in their analyses. The overgeneralization, excessively vague and general statements have resulted in misunderstanding.
The third category of constructivist studies (i.e., discourse analysis) considers cooperation and conflict between governments as constructing the discourse order of actors. Indeed, events, behaviors, practices and decisions can be understood in the context of discourses. Despite the limitations of discourse analysis, including the lack of consensus and even contradictory explanations of the causes of regional conflicts, there is a more clear basis for judging topics and their results because of the use of a more precise methodology. In general, language in the forms of metaphors, assimilations, attributions can be an explanatory factor. Moreover, discourse analysis as a method and theoretical framework could be inventive in topic selection, delineation and results. This type of research does not have a consistent position on actors, dominant policies, and levels of analysis, since it considers everything that happens in reality. Meaning of reality and interpretation of it is central to discourse analysis. Thus, it is clear that the three approaches reveal certain dimensions of the existing challenges in the region. However, we argue that neither realism nor liberalism can provide a comprehensive explanation of the potential impacts of regional challenges such as instability, climate change, demographic change,  soci-economic risks of regional disparities and so forth. Most international relations scholars have had to fundamentally revise their theoretical perspectives and incorporate some elements of constructivism in their analysis especially for the studies of the post-Cold War period. As a result of the emerging changes in the international and regional security environment and the inadequacy of different theories, the scholars within all three approaches have turned to the incorporation of new factors (e.g., cognitive-perceptual factors, identity, norms, beliefs and ideas) in their analyses, but they have failed to fulfill all methodological requirements of robust explanations.



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