Lateral Pressure Theory—"Real" World

Drawing on insights and evidence from the social sciences (as well as natural sciences and, more recently, engineering), lateral pressure theory can be understood in terms of its basic assumptions, its components, and their interconnections. 

The key features, highlighted below, signal some of the most important departures from conventional theory in international relations.  

The theory assumes all human activity is embedded in three distinct but closely coupled systems, that is, the social domain of human interactions, the natural environment of life supporting properties, and now the constructed environment, namely, cyberspace—an assumption that holds within and across all levels of analysis, as defined below. While the logic of lateral pressure theory argues for their joint or co-dependence (even co-evolution), only social systems are characterized by fully articulated decision systems, as we understand them. Clearly, humans make decisions that have impacts on life supporting properties, directly or indirectly, and the feedback effects are subject to the decision mechanisms of nature. The cyber arena, created by human intelligence, assumes properties of its own that are seldom entirely subject to social decision or control. Early on, lateral pressure dynamics were considered largely in terms of social interactions in an international context. It gradually became apparent that the propensity to expand is manifested in environmental traces of all human activity and, more recently, in the cyber arena.

The notion of "Images", or levels of analysis, so fundamental in international relations theory is an important element of lateral pressure theory, subject to major three departures from tradition. First is the introduction of a fourth level of analysis, namely the overarching global system encompassing the individual, the state, and the international levels. Second is the situation of the levels within three distinct but interconnected systems of interaction. And the third relates to the aggregation issue. The conventional practice is to point to the levels of analysis—beginning with the individual and moving up the level of aggregation—a practice we shall follow in the remainder of this section in order to illustrate the logic of lateral pressure theory. However, feedback dynamics may generate “reversal effects”—that is, from the global system—to the international, state, or individual level. While not fully articulated, the theory highlights the potential and possibility of generativity, a feature that remains to be explored in international relations theory.

At the base of the social order are the core activities undertaken by individuals in their efforts to meet their needs and demands. Aggregated at the level of the state, the international system, and the global context, the most fundamental individual needs and wants are driven by the quest for security and survival. This is consistent with tradition in international relations theory. But the view of the individual differs from that posited by convention for the "First Image" in International Relations theory.

To begin with, lateral pressure theory sees the individual as an information processing and an energy using entity. Second, the theory is anchored in the assumption that homo individualis—in contrast to homo economicus and to homo politicus—is situated in an overarching social, natural, and now cyber environment. Also, it is at odds with the conventional view of economic man, the isolated individual entering an impersonal market at a particular point in time. Both the market and the polity are well understood with respect to properties and modes of behaviors, they retain an exclusively social view of man. Embedded in the interactive social, natural, and cyber domains, homo individualis is at once an economic, social, or political man, even a homo cybericus—depending on role and context at any point in time.

The concepts of demand and capability provide the transition from the individual to the broader social entity, notably, the state.

A demand is a determination that derives from a perceived (or felt) need, want, or desire for the purpose of narrowing or closing the gap between a perception of fact (what is) and a preference or value (what ought to be). Basic demands are usually for resource access, better living conditions, physical safety, and security, all of which are generally considered under the rubric of utility by economists. To meet demands—and to close the gap between the is and the ought or preferred condition—individuals and societies must possess the required capabilities. 

Capabilities consist of the set of attributes that enable performance and allow individuals, groups, political systems, and entire societies to manage their demands. Given that states vary extensively in their capabilities, their environmental effects will also vary, as will the attendant pressures on the integrity of social systems or the viability of the natural environment.

The theory assumes that the critical drivers of social activity—in all contexts and at all levels of development—can be traced to the interaction among three master variables: population, resources, and technology. Measurement of the master variables is usually a first step in quantitative analysis and grounds the theory in an empirical context. Population refers to the size, distribution, and composition of people, and to changes thereof. Each of these variables can be differentiated along a number of sub-factors or variables—depending on the issues at hand or the interest of the analyst. The same can be said about resources and technology. Technology refers to all applications of knowledge and skills in mechanical (equipment, machinery, etc.) as well as organizational (institutional) terms. This concept of technology encompasses both soft and hard dimensions, and often the former is as important as the latter. Resources are conventionally defined as that which has value, including all elements critical to human existence (such as water, air, etc.) provides a perspective on the concept of resources intimately connected to requisites for basic survival. The specific metric or metrics used in any investigation is usually driven by the research design and its purpose.

In lateral pressure theory, the master variables constitute the basis for identifying the state profile and for calculating a state’s profile type. At each point in time, a state is characterized by one set of “master variables” that define the empirical parameters of the polity and provide the basis for policy agenda as well (Choucri and North 1987, 205–208). Normalization of the selected indicator ensures that the master variables are (1) of same order of magnitude, and (2) independent of their units of measure. This step ensures that lateral pressure profiles of different states are comparable and meaningful. The normalization technique used is the fractional share of a state i in the global aggregate value (“world” total) of the indicator in year t.

Thus, we define the master variables as follows:


Pi,j, Ri,j, and Ti,j are  population-, resource- and technology- master variables for country i at time j respectively, and 

 pi,j, ri,j, and ti,j are the measures of population, resources, and technology respectively for country i in year j.


Choucri, N., & North, R. C. (1987). Roots of war: The master variables. In R. Väyrynen, D. Senghaas, & C. Schmidt (Eds.), The Quest for peace: Transcending collective violence and war among societies, cultures, and states (pp. 204–216). International Social Science Council.

Lateral pressure theory further argues that all states can be characterized by different combinations of population, resources, and technology (the master variables) and that different combinations yield different state profiles and different impacts on the natural environment. The theory assumes that interactions among these variables within states affect power distributions and relations among states. In other words, different state profiles manifest different propensities for external behaviors (Choucri and North 1989; North 1990; Wickboltd and Choucri 2006). The state profile is also a good predictor of power-indicators on the one hand and, as we have shown, patterns of environmental impacts on the other (Choucri and North 1993a).

The formal specification of state profiles in the Table below presents the definitional inequality. For convenience, state profiles are displayed in terms of a technology-driven perspective, indicated by the T-variable along the diagonals. But this is not a necessary feature of the theory or of the concept of profiles.

State profiles defined.
Profile Formal Specification
I Resources > Population > Technology
II Population > Resources > Technology
III Population > Technology > Resources
IV Resources > Technology > Population
V Technology > Resources > Population
VI Technology > Population > Resources
Source: Based on Choucri (2012, 32).

The theoretical point is this: There is a direct connection between internal attributes and external behavior, thereby leading to a wide range of international consequences. The reorganization of each profile location in this table yields, by definition, a population-driven display, or alternatively, a resource-driven display (each with the P- or the R- variables along the diagonals). See Choucri and North (1993b) and Lofdahl (2002) for the original specification and Wickboldt and Choucri (2006) for extension of the logic to differentiate empirically among countries within each profile group.


Most of the empirical work on lateral pressure theory address the propensity for expansion of behavior outside territorial boundaries with reference to actual behavior (rather than propensity). While this is entirely consistent with the theory, it bypasses the thorny problem of metricizing the propensity variable and then examines its connections to actual behavior. More recently we developed the Lateral Pressure Index in order to quantify propensity for expansion and to the extent possible, to highlight the relative salience of individual drivers.  After some experimentation, we framed the Lateral Pressure Index as a function of the geographic mean of its master variables:


Pi,j, Ri,j, and Ti,j as population-, resource- and technology- master variables for country i at time j respectively as follows:


pi,j, ri,j, and ti,j are the measures of population, resources, and technology respectively for country i in year j.

An alternative choice for constructing the Lateral Pressure Index could have been to use linear aggregation.

However, any composite indicators based on the additive aggregation show an undesirable feature of implied full compensability. The composite Lateral Pressure Index based on linear aggregation would not be able to differentiate two nations with totally different state profiles. Use of geometric aggregation helps in avoiding this undesirable feature.

In the management of loads and capabilities, and/or in the protection of its national interests, the state may find it necessary (or may have the capacity) to extend its behavior outside territorial boundaries. To the extent that states extend their behavior outside territorial boundaries, they are likely to encounter other states similarly engaged. The theory of lateral pressure signals the intersection of spheres of influence as a significant point at which interactions are likely to evolve into competition, which in turn shapes hostilities that, once set in place, can rapidly evolve into spiraling conflicts, leading to military competition and eventually to violence and warfare—usually triggered by an overt act that is perceived as a provocation.

Clearly not all expansion leads to intersections of interests, nor do all intersections of interests harness a conflict spiral. This stylistic sketch is remarkably consistent with the historical record of the industrial West and the narratives developed over time to explain the outbreak of World War I and World War II. The quantitative investigations of lateral pressure theory, highlighted later in this chapter, signal the challenges as well as the opportunities and contentions inherent in and surrounding quantitative empirical analyses.

In this context, governance refers to legitimate structures and processes through which societies are managed. Government refers to the specific mechanisms for management. Simple as this might seem, we shall note further along how important they are for interactions in the cyber domain. Government is the lead decision, policy, and enforcement entity. Initially framed in the context of the sovereign state, these definitions are generic in form, applicable to all countries at all levels of development, in all periods of time. Some similar mechanisms operate in other contexts and entities, such as corporations and non-profit entities.

Here we return to the notion of capabilities introduced above. Especially relevant are the contributions of Almond and Powell (1966) who defined government activities as extractive, distributive, responsive, regulative, and symbolic in nature. It is not difficult to see the connection between this view of capabilities and most of the variables in the state’s national budget. Less obvious is the reconciliation of these capabilities with one of the most fundamental functions of government, not explicitly addressed by Almond and Powell, namely, the provision of national security.

Efforts to meet demand—or to expand capacity for purposes of meeting demands—often creates unintended consequences that may undermine the government‘s own position. Thus, the management of demands and capabilities is the intervening process relating state profiles and their characteristic features to propensities for external behavior. The generic governance challenge is how best to manage two counter prevailing processes, (a) pressures emanating from societal demand creating loads on the system, and (b) capacities of government to manage the loads and respond to pressures while avoiding any conflict and large-scale disruptions.


Almond, G. A., & Powell, G. B. (1966). Comparative Politics: A Developmental Approach. Little, Brown.

Lateral pressure theory argues that the relationship between corporate entities and the sovereign state is framed by the characteristic features of the state’s profile, on the one hand, and the dynamics of corporate expansion of investment activity, on the other. For example, in early phases of development a country generates neither outward nor inward and organizational capability. Over time, as a country increases its capabilities and its private organizations, it generates a range of cross-border activities and may even become a net outward investor.

Eventually, the capabilities of corporate entities rather than the power and the profile of the home country become more significant. In this process, the firm’s strategies are increasingly decoupled from the home state and its profile. Corporate policy is now framed largely within the firm’s “organizational field” (Fligstein 1990, 5–11), a concept that carries much of the expansionist core of lateral pressure.

The horizontal reach of the traditional commercial private sector is well known, as are the various transformations in response to changing market and other conditions. These features are embedded in emergent vertical linkages—connecting global and local—for information, communication, and knowledge building to and from the grass roots. By definition, these actors assume a physical presence in different jurisdictions—the nature of which depends on the nature of products, processes, and services. Unless closely held, these entities are controlled by stockholders—at least in principle. Again, all of this falls largely into the domain of tradition. The same cannot be said of the private sector for the cyber arena—largely due to the salience of the not-for-profit segment and the consolidation of stakeholders.


Fligstein, Neil. 1990. The Transformation of Corporate Control. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

By definition, international relations consists of interactions among sovereign entities, intergovernmental organizations, non-state entities for-profit and not-for-profit, non-governmental organizations, and many others. As a result the sovereign state is embedded in a wide range of networks, formal and informal. Given that competition for power and influence is a generic feature of politics among nations, lateral pressure theory points to intersections among spheres of influences as a mechanism for setting hostility, potentially setting into place the dynamics of military competition, leading to the well-known phenomenon of the arms race.

Here the theory draws on four important concepts in international relations theory. These are the (a) conflict spiral (such as Holsti 1967), (b) arms race dynamics (pioneered by Richardson 1960), (c) security dilemma (notably Herz 1950; Jervis, 1997), and (d) the peace paradox (Choucri and North 1975)—namely, when initiatives by one of the adversaries to reduce hostilities and de-escalate violence are considered by the other as a sign of weakness and thus an opportunity for taking the offensive and making a move to gain advantage. In this connection, while everyone acknowledges the importance of deterrence and deterrence theory, there is less agreement about the underlying conditions that enable deterrence or the relevance of deterrence in the 21st century cyber arena—which we shall turn to later on.

Less fully developed in lateral pressure theory are the dynamics of international cooperation, which we shall refer to later in the context of global accord on the environment (Choucri, 1993). The theory draws upon concepts of multilateralism, as a form of coordinated behavior among states designed to reduce disorder and anarchy in the international system. Stated differently, as coordinated action among sovereign states, multilateralism emerged as a means of protecting the interests and activities of states in the international system in their pursuit of core goals, namely, wealth and power (Gilpin 1987).

Much of the foregoing is applicable at the regional level, however defined, and is relevant to any delineation or aggregation of entities.


Recall that lateral pressure theory extends the traditional levels by positing the global system as an overarching concept that encompasses its constitutive features—the individual, the state, and the international system—embedded in social system and the natural environment and, more recently, in the cyber domain. The theory also views globalization in overarching terms—as fundamental transformations in economic and social structures and processes worldwide, shaped by the large-scale movements of people, resources, and technologies across boundaries, as well as all attendant by-products.

Such cross-border mobility influences the nature of national societies and economies and, under certain circumstances, may even alter them in fundamental ways. Inevitably, they also shape and reshape international exchanges and interactions. To the extent that these processes are sufficiently pervasive and call for changes in dominant policy thrusts, it is reasonable to argue that the essence of globalization lies in the forging of common and overlapping policy spaces.

The globalization process generally leads to new arenas of interaction. Earlier globalizations, which had created new spaces of interaction due to control or conquest (colonies, the Polar Regions, and outer space, for example), provided opportunities for the few and the powerful. Over time, the globalization processes became more complex and assumed new properties of unprecedented scale and scope. Later in this essay, we shall turn to the cyber domain and illustrate the ways in which lateral pressure theory addresses and helps analyze actors and activities in, and of, cyberspace.

Among the many challenges associated with understanding the global system and the globalization process, at least four are especially compelling (Choucri 1993, 1–40). First, the basic biogeochemical characteristics of the global environment are broadly recognized, but uncertainties about feedback effects on both the geophysical and social processes remain daunting. Second, the social, environmental, and cyber-based processes operate at unequal and sometimes overlapping time frames, thus complicating notion of temporality and the role of time. Third are the intergenerational impacts of environmental change, whereby future generations incur the environment burden created by the actions of past and present generations, with the challenges associated with long lead times. Fourth are uncertainties due to irreversibility. Patterns of environmental alterations cannot readily be “undone.” Underlying sources are not easily controlled or “eliminated” on short order—if at all. Needless to say, the construction of cyberspace creates new pervasive challenges.