Logic of Lateral Pressure

Lateral Pressure theory seeks to explain the relationships between state characteristics and patterns of international behavior. The theory addresses the sources and consequences of transformation and change in international relations and provides a basis for analyzing potential feedback dynamics. 

Causal Logic

The causal logic runs from the internal drivers, the master variables that shape their the profiles of states through the intervening effects of socially aggregated and articulated demands and institutional capabilities, toward modes of external behavior designed to meet demands given the capabilities at hand (Choucri and North 1989). To the extent that states expand their activities outside territorial boundaries—driven by a wide range of capabilities and motivations—they are likely to encounter other states similarly engaged. The intersection among spheres of influence is the first step in complex dynamics leading hostilities, escalation, and eventually, to conflict and violence. These processes are contingent on the actors’ intents, capabilities, and activities. 

Lateral pressure theory views cyberspace as a global domain of human interaction. This domain is:

  1. created by the interconnections of billions of computers within a global network—today the Internet and all of its derivatives; 
  2. built as a layered construct where physical elements enable a logical framework of interconnection; 
  3. empowered by the processing, manipulation, exploitation, augmentation of information, and interaction of people and information; 
  4. enabled by institutional intermediation and organization; and
  5. characterized by decentralization and interplay among actors, constituencies, and interests. 

Until recently, cyberspace was considered largely a matter of low politics—the term used to denote background conditions and routine decisions and processes. By contrast, high politics is about national security, core institutions, and decision systems that are critical to the state, its interests, and its underlying values. Nationalism, political participation, political contention, conflict, violence and war are among the most off-cited aspects of high politics. But low politics do not always remain as such. If the cumulative effects of normal activities shift the established dynamics of interaction, then the seemingly routine becomes increasingly politicized. Cyberspace is now a matter of high politics.


Lateral pressure theory assumes that each statistic is an indicator of—and consequence of—a discrete decision by an individual human being governed by his or her preferences. The larger the size of the community, the greater the demands, wants, and needs. Population growth, for example, is in fact the outcome of a large number of discrete private decisions (due to volition or to coercion) over which policy makers or national governments are not likely to have direct control.

 In this connection, if there is any “determinism” in this logic, it is one driven by individual decision. Indicators of technology, like those of population, are also the observed outcomes of a number of widely dispersed decisions by individual actors such as developers, inventors, scientists, investors, manufacturers, etc. The same holds for resource access and usage. Statistics involve descriptions of and generalizations about aggregates. Empirical analyses of lateral pressure theory have gone through several phases, with each phase providing grounds for added developments in theory and new challenges for quantitative analysis.


Choucri, Nazli, and Robert C. North. 1989. "Lateral Pressure in International Relations: Concept and Theory." In Handbook of War Studies, edited by M. I. Midlarsky, 289–326. Boston, MA: Unwin Hyman.