Cycles of reciprocity: Cooperation and protracted conflict in international affairs

Date of Completion

January 2008


Political Science, International Law and Relations




Conditional reciprocity has received much attention in recent years as a method for promoting cooperation in a wide array of socio-political settings including international politics. But reciprocity is not always an interaction process that generates positive outcomes; sometimes following conditional reciprocity can create a negative spiral of action-reaction endemic to many international protracted conflicts. This research project addresses the question of under what conditions does reciprocity fail to produce cooperation and reciprocal dynamics lead to negative, instead of positive, cycles? Answering these questions is important for both scholars and practitioners of international negotiations and politics. Conceptually, this study uses the idea of critical junctures, thus far used mainly in the comparative politics field, in order to explain the development of reciprocal cycles. Methodologically, this is a systematic qualitative project and focuses on four case studies including border and maritime disputes between China and Vietnam, Thailand and Myanmar, Peru and Ecuador, and Mexico and Guatemala. This study argues that positive Tit-For-Tat (TFT) reciprocity and negative reciprocity can be seen as two ends of a continuum, one cooperative and the other conflictual. The argument here focuses on the interactions at the base of the reciprocal cycles and points to four factors in order to address and answer the above questions. One finding emphasizes power relations at the time of the first interaction, showing that power asymmetry is not conducive to the development of a positive cycle and instead encourages negative cycles. The second factor is issue saliency. The analysis shows that a positive TFT cycle can only develop when there is symmetry in issue saliency. The study further shows how important are the images of self and other held by decision makers. A positive TFT cycle will not develop when actors hold negative images of self and other. Finally, the analysis uses prospect theory to show how a positive TFT cycle will develop when both actors operate in the domain of gains or when the target state operates from the domain of gains. ^