Policymakers and academics alike frequently invoke power vacuums as important phenomena in international politics, referring to them in a diverse array of contexts ranging from civil war to the decline and retrenchment of great powers. However, students of international relations (IR) have largely neglected to seriously engage ‘power vacuum’ as a social scientific concept. This renders it virtually impossible to undergird current policy debates on power vacuums with social scientific analysis, and more generally raises doubts about the concept's analytic utility. In this piece, I argue that ‘power vacuum’ is not merely a popular buzzword but a concept with considerable theoretical promise. I develop a conceptualization of power vacuums as spaces that experience authority collapse. Since, in the context of international politics, organizations can claim authority on several political levels, I posit the existence of several types of power vacuums of which two appear particularly relevant to the study of IR: national and international vacuums. My conceptualization is able to reflect the diverse ways in which the term is currently utilized, paves the way for novel research on a subject of great concern to policymakers, and uncovers the potential for closer collaboration across traditionally rigid thematic boundaries within IR.
There seems to exist a general consensus on how to conceptualize cooperation in the field of international relations (IR). We argue that this impression is deceptive. In practice, scholars working on the causes of international cooperation have come to implicitly employ various understandings of what cooperation is. Yet, an explicit debate about the discipline's conceptual foundations never materialized, and whatever discussion occurred did so only latently and without much dialog across theoretical traditions. In this paper, we develop an updated conceptual framework by exploring the nature of these differing understandings and situating them within broader theoretical conversations about the role of cooperation in IR. Drawing on an array of studies in IR and philosophy, our framework distinguishes between three distinct types of cooperative state interactions – cooperation through tacit policy coordination (‘minimal’ cooperation), cooperation through explicit policy coordination (‘thin’ cooperation), and cooperation based on joint action (‘thick’ cooperation). The framework contributes to better theorization about cooperation in two main ways: it allows scholars across theoretical traditions to identify important sources of disagreement and previously unnoticed theoretical common ground; and the conceptual disaggregation it provides grants scholars crucial theoretical leverage by enabling type-specific causal theorization.