Nazli Choucri works on sources and consequences of transformation and change in international relations.   She is interested in how matters of "low politics" (such as population, resources or technology) are transformed into "high politics" – at times leading to conflict and violence and at others shaping propensities for collaboration and coordination. Her early research concentrated on the causes of conflict and war rooted deep in the internal structure of states and the various "pathways" leading to overt hostilities. Tracing these effects, she then   explored the politicization of environmental factors became politicized and generated demands for international responses to as the impacts of growth and development. Her current research, also driven initially by matters of low politics, examines the ways in which cyberspace, conceived initially in technological terms, is shaping contemporary realities with powerful and unprecedented implications for strategy and policy.  Her work has been, and continues to be, anchored in the theory of lateral pressure in international relations. 

Cyberspace and Cyberpolitics 

Until recently, cyberspace was considered largely a matter of low politics—a term used to denote background conditions and routine decisions and processes. While nationalism, political participation, political contentions, conflict, violence, and war are among the common concerns of high politics; cyberspace and its uses have vaulted into the highest realm of high politics.

Many features of cyberspace are reshaping contemporary international relations theory, policy, and practice. Those related to time, space, permeation, fluidity, participation, attribution, accountability, and ubiquity are the most serious. The global, often nontransparent interconnections afforded by cyberspace have challenged the traditional understanding of leverage and influence, international relations and power politics, national security, borders, and boundaries—as well as a host of other concepts and their corresponding realities.

Developing lateral pressure theory further to encompass cyber venues and  help explore behavior in cyberspace,  Professor Choucri is now exploring  the impacts of cyberspace on interactions among nations,  and the enabling power of cyber access for states and non-state actors alike.  The results, presented in CyberPolitics in International Relations, provide a baseline for subsequent inquiries.

Lateral Pressure Theory 

In collaboration with the late Robert C. North, Stanford University, Choucri developed the theory of lateral pressure, its foundation, quantitative basis and initial validation. Lateral pressure refers to the propensity of states and to expand behavior and exert leverage outside territorial boundaries.  (For non-state actors it refers to the propensity for extension of power and influence in world politics and markets.) To simplify, if  unimpeded by internal or external conditions, lateral pressure leads to the expansion of external influence, consolidation of competing interests, intersecting spheres  of influence, escalating tensions,  perceptions of threats to threats to security, and eventually to the antagonizing requisites that trigger hostilities, conflict and violence.

Conflict and War

The theory traces the roots of conflict and violence to the dynamics of growth and development rooted in the internal conditions of states.  The theory rests on the assumption that the master variables – population, sources, technology – constitute the fundamental building blocks of state power and capabilities with attendant impacts on the natural environment.  Different combinations of the master variables shape different state profiles, each with different propensities for external behavior.  Through a set of intervening variables and processes, pursue different modes of international activities that, under certain conditions, lead to competition, alliances and counter alliances, and eventually to conflict and warfare. 

Environment and Sustainability 

At its origin, the theory of lateral pressure focused largely on behavior of states and other entities.  Careful consideration of the environmental consequences of growth and expansion lead to greater understanding of the impacts of environmental factors on relations among states.  This in turn helped frame investigations of challenges to the sustainability of states and societies.  She is the founding Editor of the MIT Press Series on Global Environmental Accord: Strategies for Sustainability.

Dr. Choucri is the architect and director of the Global System for Sustainable Development (GSSD), a multi-lingual web-based knowledge networking system designed to facilitate the provision and uses of knowledge in transitions to sustainability. The intellectual basis and implementation are in Mapping Sustainability: Knowledge e-Networking and the Value Chain a co-edited book of theory, methods, and applications. 

In contrast to tradition in international relations, lateral pressure theory  takes the position  that all actors and  entities are embedded in three interconnected systems or "environments",  namely the social system and its physical properties, the natural system  and its life supporting properties and, more recently,  the constructed cyber system  and its enabling potentials for  all actors and entities worldwide.