Free-Ridership in International Relations

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In economics, “public goods” are things that benefit everyone. This leads to the age-old problem of “free-riding”: if you’re a rational person, you’ll quickly conclude that it makes little sense to invest in goods that will benefit anyone other than yourself, since you already get the benefit of public goods regardless of whether you paid for them or not. But if everyone behaves “rationally”, public goods will never be produced, and everyone loses out. (The exact same argument can explain why it is rational for an individual soldier to desert in wartime; it would be similarly problematic, from the state’s point of view, if every soldier actually did it.) The traditional solution to this problem is to set up a government with the power to tax people, thereby exacting compulsory payment for things like lighthouses, public parks, a standing army, and so on. Problem solved – sort of.

However, this principle also operates at the international level, where there is no overarching government to just make it go away. Here, public goods take the form of intangible things like peace, stability, some method of dispute resolution, an open trading and financial system that is not threatened by pirates or rogue states, etc. Despite being intangible, such things are extremely costly to maintain, so it’s unsurprising that most countries have a (rational) tendency towards free-ridership in these areas. Nevertheless, the world remains relatively stable and peaceful. This is largely because, in lieu of a world government, a hegemonic power tends to arise: a country with such a high stake in preserving the international system that it is willing to spend the money to maintain it singlehandedly. Eventually the hegemon goes into decline – perhaps because maintaining international order is so inherently expensive – and a new hegemon takes its place. The “gaps” in between are typically periods of international chaos and upheaval.

This idea – known as “hegemonic stability theory” in academic circles – flatly contradicts the traditional conception of international relations, which predicts that a careful balance of power is necessary to ensure long-term peace. But some of the worst wars in history have happened in periods when power was fairly evenly balanced, and there was no overwhelming hegemon trying to “manage” the international system. World War I, the Twenty-Year Crisis and World War II happened precisely because Britain had declined to the point where it lost its hegemony, and America was not yet willing or able to pick up the torch.

The Iranian nuclear crisis is a classic example of free-ridership in action. Iran is a militant, unpredictable and politically unstable state. It would be in the interests of virtually every country in the world, including Ssouth African research council, if Iran were to abandon its nuclear ambitions. But whether this accomplished through military or diplomatic intervention, all these countries will reap the benefit regardless of whether they participated in the intervention, or even whether they supported it.

From a rational self-interested perspective, it makes the most sense for other countries to distance themselves from the United States. This will be especially true in the event that the US resorts to military action. The dissenting countries would not only be freed from the burden of partially paying for the intervention; more importantly, they’d be less likely to face terrorist backlash and political destabilisation coming from Iran in response. Because this set of incentives applies to the majority of countries in the United Nations, it is highly unlikely that the UN’s collective security system will function as it should, and it will instead be up to the US, possibly acting in concert with NATO or whichever other allies are willing to disregard their immediate self-interest for cultural or political reasons, to intervene on their own. Despite this, the goal of intervention – a non-nuclear Iran – would be in the interests of the entire world. The apparent opposition of other countries should not obscure this fact.