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date: 25 February 2024

Friendship in International Politicsfree

Friendship in International Politicsfree

  • Kristin HaugevikKristin HaugevikNorwegian Institute of International Affairs


In the international political discourse of the early 21st century, claims of friendship and “special ties” between states and their leaders are commonplace. Frequently reported by international media, such claims are often used as entry points for scholars and pundits seeking to evaluate the contents, relative strength, and present-day conditions of a given state-to-state relationship. Advancing the claim that friendships not only exist but also matter in and to the international political domain, international relations scholars began in the mid-2000s to trace and explore friendship—as a concept and practice—across time, societies, cultural contexts, and scientific disciplines. As part of the research agenda on friendship in international politics, scholars have explored why, how, and under what conditions friendships between states emerge, evolve, subsist, and dissolve; how amicable structures are typically organized; how they manifest themselves on a day-to-day basis; and what short- and long-term implications they may have for international political processes, dynamics, outcomes, and orders.


  • Diplomacy
  • Foreign Policy
  • Identity
  • International Relations Theory
  • Political Sociology
  • Security Studies


In the international political discourse of the early 21st century, claims of friendship and “special” ties between states and their leaders flourish. While some state representatives use the term liberally, others reserve it for a selected few. The relationship between the United States and Britain is by far the most profiled instance , but there are also a variety of other examples of dyads and constellations which political leaders, diplomats, scholars and pundits have described in friendships terms. In February 2022, Russia’s invasion of Ukraine pushed to the fore the question of how notions of friendship may affect actions, governance structures, and the international order writ large. As the war progressed, old friendship commitments were scorned and new ones prompted. scholars took a keen interest in how China’s pledge to a “no-limits” friendship with Russia shortly before the invasion would impact the development of the war (see e.g., Smith & Fallon, 2022).

Can states really be “friends”—beyond their individual political leaders? What about other collectives and units operating in the international political arena, such as communities, cities, regions, parliaments, political parties, businesses, nongovernmental organizations (NGOs), and multilateral organizations? Since the late 1990s, a growing bulk of international relations (IR) scholarship has made the case that, yes, not only can and do friendship exist above the individual level, but it is in fact also widespread in the international political domain. First, scholars have argued that the analytical category “friendship” can add important value to IR, shedding light on the contents and drivers of events, processes, structures, and actors (Berenskötter, 2007; Oelsner & Koschut, 2014; Smith, 2019; Van Hoef & Oelsner, 2018; Wendt, 1999). Second, studies have found that established and recurring representations of friendship in national and international political discourse affect not only the formulation and practice of individual foreign policies but also broader international political processes, institutions, interactions, and orders (Haugevik, 2018; Mattern, 2005; Roshchin, 2006).

What Is Friendship in the International Political Domain?

As a practical category, “friendship” has been widespread in international political and diplomatic discourses since at least the early 1900s (Campbell, 2007; Roshchin, 2006; Schmitt, 2008; Wendt, 1999). Historically, it was common for states to sign friendship treaties (Devere, 2014; Lesaffer, 2002), and many sovereigns and political leaders routinely referred to one another or to their respective states as “friends” in correspondence and when appearing together on the front stage of the international political scene (Roshchin, 2006). But despite these documented uses in both official and more informal everyday political jargon, it was not until the late 1990s that a dedicated research program for studying friendship in the international domain emerged.

A likely reason why international relations (IR) scholars previously evaded friendship as an analytical category has to do with the issue of state personhood and levels of analysis. The analytical category “friendship” was a topic of profound interest already to key ancient philosophers like Confucius, Plato, Aristotle, and Cicero, who all wrote extensively about the phenomenon. However, these philosophers were all predominantly concerned with amicable relations at the individual and interpersonal level, not in discussions of the potential for friendships between city states or other key political entities. In other subdisciplines in the social sciences and humanities, scholars have foregrounded friendship as a key concept, institution, and practice in social life, but they have for the most part placed interpersonal relations at the center of their analyses. For example, psychologists have studied individual friendship in the context of material, cognitive, and socio-emotional needs and recorded how such ties emerge, manifest themselves, and dissolve (e.g., Fehr, 1996). Sociologists have taken stock with the broader social patterns of friendship and the conditions under which individuals come to develop and activate different types of “sociable relationships” (e.g., Allen, 1979, 1998). Social anthropologists have explored the everyday practices of friendship across cultures and societies (e.g., Bell & Coleman, 1999; Desai & Killick, 2010). Historians have detailed how friendships evolved and manifested themselves in earlier periods, contexts, and sites (e.g., McGuire, 2010). And literary scholars have explored the manifestation of friendship ideals and practices in specific historical periods and genres, as well as in the work of specific authors (e.g., Shannon, 2002). However, for IR scholars, a chief concern and barrier has been whether it is possible—and useful—to import concepts and insights developed for the study of individual social dynamics to the study of dynamics between political entities in the international political domain.

In his influential book Social Theory of International Politics (1999), IR scholar Alexander Wendt made the case that states “are people too.” They could—and should—therefore be treated analytically as “the kinds of entities to which we can attribute identities and interests” (Wendt, 1999, pp. 215, 224; see also Wendt, 2004). From this starting position, it would follow that theories, models, and frameworks developed for the study of individual relational dynamics—including friendship—would be transferable and relevant to studies of relational dynamics between states and other collectives and entities operating in the global arena. Some IR colleagues firmly disagreed with this position, arguing that one would “gain nothing by attributing to the state those properties possessed by individuals” (Wight, 2004, p. 270). However, many others agreed with Wendt that importing insights from the interpersonal to the international level could be theoretically rewarding and that “micro-foundational assumptions” could help explain “certain macro-level patterns” (Mitzen, 2006, p. 352). Seen from this perspective, IR scholars might generally—and irrespective of which societal actors were involved—pay more attention to “processes of ‘personation’ in world politics” (Jackson, 2004, p. 281). Further, shifting the analytical attention from actors to relational processes between them (Jackson & Nexon, 1999) would allow for studying how amicable configurations and representations shape and even constitute involved parties rather than merely being instruments and arenas for them.

Friendship in Early International Relations Scholarship

While the Greek philosopher Aristotle in 350 bce had already observed that “friendship seems too to hold states together” (Aristotle, 2004, Book VIII), references to international friendship remained largely absent from international relations (IR) scholarship when the discipline began to emerge in the early 20th century. An early and notable exception is the German political theorist Carl Schmitt in his book The Concept of the Political (1932), in which he drew attention to how “nations continue to group themselves according to the friend and enemy antithesis” (Schmitt, 2008, p. 28). To Schmitt, it followed from this observation that both “friendship” and “enmity”should be subject to more systematic scholarly attention. However, he was careful to stress that in the context of international politics, both concepts ought to be approached as material manifestations rather than as social ideas or constructs:

The friend and enemy concepts are to be understood in their concrete and existential sense, not as metaphors or symbols, not mixed and weakened by economic, moral, and other conceptions, least of all in a private-individualistic sense as a psychological expression of private emotions and tendencies.

(Schmitt, 2008, p. 27)

A second early contribution which has had profound impact on IR work on community and friendship was political scientist Karl Deutsch and his colleagues’ study Political Community and the North Atlantic Area (1957). Published at a time when influential international institutions such as the United Nations, North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), and the European Economic Community were emerging and taking shape, Deutsch and his colleagues set out to explore and specify the process through which states come to develop a sense of community and shared identity. While not mentioning “friendship” other than as a practical category in passing, they defined communities between states in terms of

mutual sympathy and loyalties; of “we-feeling,” trust, and mutual consideration; of partial identification in terms of self-images and interests; of mutually successful predictions of behaviour, and of cooperative action in accordance with it.

Pioneering in its reference to social fabric and emotions in the context of states, the study later became the key source of inspiration for constructivist work on integration and security communities in the early years after the Cold War (see especially Adler & Barnett, 1998).

A final early contribution worth noting in the present context is Arnold Wolfers’ book Discord and Collaboration (1962). Here, Wolfers reflected on how structures of amity and enmity manifested themselves in and impacted world politics in his own time. Like Schmitt three decades earlier, Wolfers stressed that these concepts—amity and enmity—must be applied with caution in studies of international politics and relations, as they involved different logics, motivations, and dynamics at the international level than at the interpersonal one. In Wolfers’ view, while amity and enmity at the individual level conveyed “a sense of emotional involvement,” at the interstate level such constellations did not “depend on emotional conditions and may in fact contradict them” (Wolfers, 1962, p. 25). However, he noted that in both peacetime and during war, trust—or the lack of such—remained the decisive question as to whether states could be friends or not (Wolfers, 1962, p. 29).

Theorizing Friendship in IR

When international relations (IR) emerged as an academic discipline in the first half of the 20th century, classical realism was the prevailing theory orientation, with scholars like E. H. Carr and Hans Morgenthau among the most prominent figures. With foregrounding states, power struggles, and self-interests in environments marked by uncertainty, there was little room in realist theory frameworks for considering the possibility of longstanding, trust-based friendships between states (Carr, 1939; Morgenthau, 1946). By a similar token, in neo-realist scholarship premised on states being security- or profit-seeking actors trying to survive within an anarchic self-help system (Mearsheimer, 1995; Waltz, 1979), relations between states marked by enduring cooperation and trust were close to unthinkable. Placing security needs and strategic usefulness at the core, “alliance” became the prevailing concept for the analysis of long-term cooperation between states within neo-realist frameworks (Snyder, 2007; Walt, 1987). Factors like geographical proximity and material attributes were expected to matter most to states’ choice of allies, whereas compatible ideologies or cultural affinity were expected have a limited impact (Walt, 1987). Further, alliances would be expected to dissolve once they had outlived their strategic purpose (Mearsheimer, 1995).

Liberal institutionalist scholarship, flourishing in the 1970s, offered a more optimistic take on the possibilities for long-term collaboration between states and other actors in the international domain. Robert Keohane and Joseph Nye developed the notion of “complex interdependence” between actors at the international level, also offering insights on the rise of stable institutions (Keohane & Nye, 1973). Still, also in this branch of IR scholarship, interdependencies between states were expected to be motivated mainly by rational and material concerns. Illustratively, approaching interstate cooperation as a matter of relational contracting, David Lake (1996) identified four different ideal-typical forms of dyadic security relations between states, “along a continuum from anarchic alliances to hierarchic empires” (p. 6). These four—alliances, protectorates, informal empires, and formal empires—would all be the result of states’ carefully weighing expected opportunity costs and governance costs attached to choosing each of the possible forms (Lake, 1996).

When the analytical category friendship eventually found its way onto the IR research agenda in the late 1990s, it was in the wake of the broader constructivist “turn” in IR, which had foregrounded the importance of social variables such as identity, norms, values, and language in international politics (Connolly, 1991; Onuf, 1998; Wendt, 1999; see also Checkel, 1998). At the heart of the debates prompting, accompanying, and stemming from contributions under this new research program stood questions of how relational dynamics between the “Self” and significant “Others” in the international political domainevolve and play out in everyday international politics. A key assumption and observation were that states’ identity—how states saw themselves and aspired to be seen in the international political arena—shaped their foreign policy interests, policies, and relationships with other states and actors. A chief insight was that identity required “difference in order to be” (Connolly, 1991, p. 64), prompting constructivist and poststructuralist scholars to study how persistent representations of others as radically different (Neumann, 1999), even antagonistic (Hansen, 2006) in everyday discourse, could enable foreign policy responses which would otherwise not have been possible or acceptable. Alongside these research efforts, IR scholars began to take interest also in amicable others—including the possibility of social integration, community building, and collective identity formation also occurring at the state level. A key contribution to this new research program was Emanuel Adler and Michael Barnett’s (1998) edited volume Security Communities, in turn inspired by the work of Karl Deutsch and his colleagues on political communities some 40 years earlier. The chapter contributors to Adler and Barnett’s volume offered multiple examples of how relational ties initially motivated by shared strategic interests over time could develop into mature communities with parties sharing the same values, identifying with and trusting one another (Adler & Barnett, 1998).

In Social Theory of International Politics (1999), also published around the same time, Alexander Wendt substantiated the claim that anarchy should not be studied as a pregiven state of affairs but rather as the product of what states themselves made of it (see also Wendt, 1992). Wendt argued that an anarchical structure could involve a culture of enmity, rivalry, or friendship, depending on how the states operating within this structure chose to relate to and interact with one another (Wendt, 1999, p. 247). In structures where inimical relations prevailed, the culture would become a “Hobbesian” one, characterized by uncertainty and general mistrust (Wendt, 1999, p. 263). In settings where rivalry preceded, the culture would rather be a “Lockean” one, involving less uncertainty as the parties would mutually recognize one another’s sovereign rights (Wendt, 1999, p. 280). Wendt’s third culture was a “Kantian” culture of friendship, inside which relations between states would be characterized by “non-violence” and “team play.” Ultimately, he observed, a situation may arise where “the cognitive boundaries of the Self are extended to include the Other” (Wendt, 1999, p. 305). To Wendt, the nature of interstate relations was thus not a preset result of an all-encompassing anarchical condition but rather a variable which could have constitutive or constraining effects on the international political order and culture. For all these reasons, he concluded, it was “time to begin thinking systematically about the nature and consequences of friendship in international politics” (Wendt, 1999, pp. 298–299).

A Research Program for Studying Friendship in IR

Advancing the claim that friendships not only exist but also matter in and to the international political domain, international relations (IR) scholars began in the mid-2000s to trace and explore friendship—as a concept and practice—across time, societies, cultural contexts, and scientific disciplines. Seeking to conceptualize friendship in the context of IR, many of the initial contributions made reference to the Greek philosopher Aristotle’s three ideal-typical forms of friendship, which included friendship motivated by utility, friendship motivated by pleasure, and friendship motivated by goodness (see e.g., Berenskötter, 2007; Danchev, 1997; Digeser, 2009; Roshchin, 2006). In The Nicomachean Ethics, Aristotle observed that while all these forms of friendship would be present in a society simultaneously, only the latter form—friendship motivated by goodness—would qualify as “true” or “genuine” friendship. Aristotle suggested that in its perfect form, friendship could come to blur the boundaries between the self and other, so that the friend effectively became “another self,” and loving the friend therefore also became a matter of loving oneself (Aristotle 2004, book XIII, 4). Additional insights from other philosophers on interpersonal friendship, from Confucius and Plato to Immanuel Kant and Jacques Derrida, have featured prominently in IR scholarship on international friendship, along with references to the work of early 20th century political scientists like Carl Schmitt (2008), Karl Deutsch et al. (1957) and Arnold Wolfers (1962).

One of the first IR contributions explicitly placing friendship center stage, was Evgeny Roshchin’s (2006) article tracing changes in the use of friendship rhetoric in the international sphere in the 16th and 17th century. In the article, Roshchin observed how friendship was an established concept in everyday international political discourse in early modernity, frequently used to describe the nature of the international political order. In the 17th century, the friendship ideal shifted from “vertical” to “horizontal” friendship, emphasizing formal equality. However, friendship was still used with reference to sovereign kings rather than states or other collectives and entities (Roshchin, 2006; see also Roshchin, 2017). A second influential contribution to the friendship literature in IR was Felix Berenskötter’s (2007) article, making the case for studying friendship in the international domain. Berenskötter himself positioned the article as “a first cut (. . .) to provide some conceptual hooks, thus no more, but no less, than an invitation for thinking about friendship in international politics” (Berenskötter, 2007, p. 675). Drawing on Aristotle, he observed that there are three ideal-typical forms of friendship, motivated by utility, pleasure, or goodness, and that these forms are found also at the state level and in the international domain. Like Wendt, Berenskötter also noted the importance of theorizing cooperative state relations beyond strategic or material utility such that

friendship explains loyalty and trust not based on external threats or strong formal institutions but on overlapping biographies, [and] it opens up the view on cooperation based on a unique logic of reciprocity and claims to equality in what from a realist lens looks like bandwagoning; in short, it helps to make sense of phenomena of state behaviour which appear “irrational” from more traditional perspectives.

Roshchin and Berenskötter’s contributions exemplify the growing number of articles, books, seminars, and conference panels materializing in the mid-2000s and onward, addressing the importance and implications of friendship in and to international politics and relations. One important branch of this research agenda took stock with relationships between political leaders. For example, studies have explored how interpersonal trust between leaders are key to security community emergence among their states (Wheeler, 2018) but also how political leaders may use friendship narratives strategically in the pursuit of other state goals (van Hoef & O’Connor, 2019). However, the majority of scholarly contributions and conversations on friendship in the international sphere have focused on theorizing and conceptualizing amicable relations between states.

Key contributions to the scholarly literature on state friendships have sought to define and unpack friendship as an analytical category and notion in the international domain and distinguish it from related analytical concepts such as “alliance,” “coalition,” “partnership,” and “community” (Berenskötter, 2007; Digeser, 2009). Further, scholars have explored why, how, and under what conditions friendship between states emerges, evolves, subsists, and comes to be dissolved in international settings (Kupchan, 2010; Roshchin, 2006); how such amicable structures tend to be organized; how they manifest themselves on a day-to-day basis; and what short- and long-term implications they may have for international political processes, dynamics, outcomes, and orders (Berenskötter, 2007; Haugevik, 2018; Mattern, 2005; Oelsner & Koschut, 2014; Van Hoef & Oelsner, 2018). Empirically, studies have detailed the structure, drivers, dynamics, and contents of selected friendship dyads and groups, at different levels of analysis, historically and in the present time. The U.S.–British relationship is a recurring case in such analysis, but also the U.S.–Israeli, the Israeli–German, the French–German, and the Sino–Russian relationships have been subject to notable scrutiny (Berenskötter, 2008; Berenskötter & Mitrani, 2022; Haugevik, 2018; Kupchan, 2010; Mattern, 2005; Smith & Fallon, 2022).

In terms of general motivations and drivers of friendship, studies have typically highlighted mutual identification, a shared history, similar societal cultures and values, and the presence of social and emotional ties as factors not only enabling and prompting friendship but indeed also reproductive of such structures. In terms of qualities, many have noted that also at the international level and between states, representations of friendship would be intimately linked to notions such as reciprocity, formal equality, comprehensiveness, and interaction frequency. In one influential contribution, Charles Kupchan (2010) identified how inimical relations between states may change into friendship through four integration phases. In the first phase, relations are characterized by “unilateral accommodation.” In the second phase, there is “reciprocal constraint,” followed by deepened societal integration between the parties in the third phase. Finally, in the fourth phase, a “generation of new narratives and identities” has emerged (Kupchan, 2010, p. 6).

Initially integrated with and linked to the broader constructivist turn in IR, many studies of friendship also integrated with subsequent scholarly trends, including the growing research programs on practices (Neumann, 2002; Pouliot, 2008, 2010), trust (Holmes, 2018; Wheeler, 2018), and emotions in international relations (Eznack & Koschut, 2014; Hutchison, 2013). First, foregrounding practice allowed scholars interested in friendship to unpack the social processes through which friendships are constituted, practiced, and upheld on a day-to-day basis—through recurring representations and narratives, interaction rituals, and quotidian practices (Adams et al., 2023; Berenskötter & Mitrani, 2022; Haugevik, 2018; Koschut & Oelsner, 2014; Mattern, 2005). Second, zooming in on the dynamics of trust, friendship scholars could study how friendship structures come to be robust and resilient, also surviving through times of uncertainty and crises. Studies of relational trust have, for example, emphasized the importance of face-to-face diplomacy (Holmes, 2018) and interaction practices designed to build and uphold trust (Booth & Wheeler, 2007; Versloot, 2022). Third, a greater emphasis on the role of emotions also at the state level has allowed for an attention to how states establish and uphold ties on the basis of positive, reciprocal feelings and affection (Eznack & Koschut, 2014). The representations, rituals, and routines involved in friendship maintenance can also can be important for bracketing negative feelings and soothing anxiety, thereby upholding states’ sense of ontological security (Mitzen, 2006; see also Steele, 2008). They also serve as a safety net as a friendship is faced with a relational crisis (Eznack, 2011; Mattern, 2005).

Widening the Scope: Beyond the State and Beyond the West

The constructivist turn and the entry of concepts like identity, language, practice, and emotions into the international relations (IR) discourse paved the way for studying friendship in the international domain from the late 1990s and onward. Since the mid-2000s, a wealth of scholarship has emerged, addressing friendship as an analytical and practical category in the international domain, at different societal levels and in various context and periods.

What then of future research avenues? First, a number of studies have traced the historical emergence and current practice of individual bilateral relationships. Future studies could look into how friendship dynamics between states play out in and across different interaction arenas—including at international summits or within organizations like the United Nations, North Atlantic Treaty Organization, Association of Southeast Asian Nations, the African Union, and the European Union (see e.g., Haugevik, 2022). Second, scholarship on friendship in IR have been largely centered on states and (to a lesser degree) their political leaders. Future studies could look further into friendship dynamics between other political entities operating in the international domain, including as part of the research agenda on paradiplomacy (see Aldecoa & Keating, 2000). Third, case studies of friendship in English-language academic outlets have focused predominantly on contemporary constellations in the Western world, with some state dyads—such as the U.S.–British and U.S.–Israeli relationships—particularly dominant. A greater diversity in case selection, adding cases outside of the European and transatlantic context, could add depth and insights to the broader research agenda (Nordin & Smith, 2018). In prolongation, allowing for a broader understanding of the concept of friendship and integrating thinkers and experiences beyond the Euro-Atlantic would add to the task of conceptualizing friendship across time and space (see Nordin, 2020; Risseeuw & van Raalte, 2017). It could also offer unique possibilities for importing conceptual and contextual insights about friendship dynamics “back” to other disciplines in the social sciences and humanities—from which the research agenda on friendship IR once drew inspiration.

Further Reading


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