Relational authority and legitimacy in international relations

TitleRelational authority and legitimacy in international relations
Publication TypeJournal Article
Year of Publication2009
AuthorsLake, D
JournalAmerican Behavioral Scientist

This article develops a theory of relational authority in the most unpromising setting of international relations. Relational authority locates legitimacy in a social contract between a ruler, who provides a social order of value to the ruled, and the ruled, who comply with the ruler’s commands necessary to the production of that order. International politics are nearly universally assumed to be an anarchy devoid of authority. Through the lens of relational authority, however, one sees that relations between states are better described as a rich variety of hierarchies in which dominant states legitimately rule over greater or lesser domains of policy in subordinate states. After contrasting alternative approaches to authority, the article identifies international hierarchies and summarizes a suite of measures that capture variations between the United States and other states. The article then deduces a set of international behaviors that follows from relational authority and demonstrates that (a) the United States is more likely to join international disputes in which its subordinates are involved and (b) subordinates acknowledge the authority of the dominant state by engaging in actions of symbolic obeisance, of which the most costly and salient form is following the United States into war.