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From realism to ‘ultrasociality’: International relations scholar rewrites the history of international cooperation

A Northeastern scholar argues that over the course of human history, examples of cooperation outstrip examples of disunity and tribalism, and that the achievements of the international community are often overlooked. 

Mai'a Cross' book on a blue background.
Photo by Matthew Modoono/Northeastern University

Are nation states truly self-interested political communities vying for dominance in an anarchic world, or are they able to set aside the drive to compete for the greater good?

Or perhaps better put: in an era of international strife, rising authoritarianism and looming climate catastrophe, how is international cooperation still possible?

These questions — and others — form the foundation of a new book by Mai’a Cross, dean’s professor of political science, international affairs and diplomacy, and director of the Center for International Affairs and World Cultures at Northeastern University.

The book, “International Cooperation Against All Odds: The Ultrasocial World,” challenges many of the old verities of so-called realism — the dominant theory in international relations scholarship that posits that nations are driven solely by power and status competitions, the result of which is more war, isolationism and stasis on many shared global threats. 

Headshot of Mai'a Cross.
Mai’a K. Davis Cross, director of the Center for International Affairs and World Cultures and dean’s professor of political science. Photo by Matthew Modoono/Northeastern University

Drawing from a range of disciplines in both the hard and soft sciences, Cross builds a novel framework for understanding how breakthroughs in international cooperation persist despite what she describes as a “cultivated myopic vision of global conflict.” She claims that politicians, world leaders and the media paint a disproportionately gloomy picture of world affairs — one that misses the forest of international progress for the trees of individual “crises of the moment.” 

Cross argues that over the course of human history, examples of cooperation outstrip examples of disunity and tribalism, and that the achievements of the international community — from the nuclear weapons taboo to shared climate goals — are overlooked in the academic discourse. 

“What motivated me to write it is that the field of international relations tends to assume that the world is only about power, competition, conflict and war — and that we all act according to self-interest and relative gain,” Cross says. 

Building on scientific insights from the likes of Jeremy Rifkin and Nicholas Christakis, Cross deploys research in anthropology, neuroscience and sociology to provide a fresh retort to the prevailing Machiavellian view of international life: that war and conflict are inevitable. What emerges is a more charitable, if hopeful, reading of global society — one that posits that human beings are “ultrasocial” creatures with a predisposition toward cooperation. 

“Putting together these two radically opposed views on human nature, I decided to start understanding international cooperation from the perspective of ultrasociality, and to scale up these findings from these other hard scientific fields to see if there was value in them for international relations,” Cross says. 

The book offers four case studies of international progress that illustrate ultrasociality at work: the creation of the European Union; the nuclear weapons taboo; the transnational climate change regime; and international cooperation in space exploration and diplomacy. 

“In all four cases, I used this lens that asks, what if we examine [these cases] not from the perspective of power competition among states, but from the perspective of ultra sociality, since this actually seems to be our predisposition as a species,” Cross says. “And I was able to see … just how much a kind of drive towards empathic and ultrasocial ideas was behind many of the breakthroughs in international relations and international cooperations in these areas.”

Cross, who, when it comes to world affairs, actually doesn’t think of herself as an optimist, is careful not to suggest that humanity will overcome all collective challenges that exist (she notes it’s probably too late to reverse climate change, for example). But, when viewed in light of the complexity of the international system, human behavior is not purely deterministic, she says, adding that “human agency” eventually kicks in.

“It’s not that we are biologically destined to cooperate,” she says. “It’s actually that we have a predisposition to cooperate.”

She says that it’s precisely this tendency to unite that explains why ideas like the nuclear weapons taboo and net zero policies more readily “capture the imagination” of broad swaths of global society than those that tap into conflict and competition. On balance, Cross argues that human beings have far greater propensity for collaboration than violence, a finding supported by developments in brain science over the last several decades.

“If we recognize this capacity and we actually acknowledge this predisposition, we can probably solve many more problems than we think we can, and we actually need to have this kind of sense of hope about our capacity as human beings in order to solve major problems,” Cross says. 

“International Cooperation Against All Odds: The Ultrasocial World” is Cross’s sixth book. A prolific international relations scholar, she heralded the creation of the European Defense Union in a previous work titled “Security Integration in Europe,” and detailed the threat posed by Russia in another book that was published a year before Russia invaded Ukraine.