Using Maslow's Hierarchy Theory to International Relations

Maslow’s hierarchy of needs is a motivational theory comprising of five models of human need. The Hierarchical Needs model was first presented in a paper titled “A Theory of Human Motivation” by Abraham Maslow, the son of Russian immigrants in the US, and published by Psychological Review in 1943. This model is pretty useful to look at when considering your future career and international relations solutions as a first step. 

In short, Maslow codified the reasons why people behave in certain ways. His answer suggested that humans are motivated by unsatisfied needs. Items lower down in the pyramid represent things we all need to be satisfied and one cannot progress up the pyramid without satisfying what is below. In this model, Maslow draws the distinction between Deficiency needs (represented by the first four steps of the pyramid: physical, security, social and ego needs), and Self-Actualization need.  


According to Maslow, only when the four basic groups of needs are met the individual can and wants to turn their attention to the higher step of the ladder, which represents one’s quest to self-fulfillment and realization, personal growth and achievement of their true potential. Contrary to the basic needs, self-actualization does not emerge from deprivation, but rather from desire. In his later work (1970) Maslow goes as far as offering a detailed list of characteristics and traits found in self-actualized individuals, from spontaneity to creativity, but also strong moral standards and “unique” sense of humor.

Although Maslow’s intention was not necessarily to cater his theory to the workplace, perhaps its biggest contribution, and the reason why it remains so popular today despite its numerous limitations, is its significant input in the field of organizational behavior and management, especially in the area of employee motivation. To be aware of why we behave the way we do, and how higher career achievements may be hindered by physiological or safety deficiency is a useful tool. Therefore, organizations and leaders should bear in mind their employees deficiency needs in order to help them achieve self-actualization, which is the stage where we reach full potential. By providing financial security and promoting a healthy workforce, organizations take care of physical and safety needs; providing opportunities to socialize and collaborating helps to achieve our social wishes; and by being recognized or rewarded for our success we achieve our esteem needs.

Maslow’s biggest shortcomings in formulating his Hierarchy of Needs arise first and foremost from the methodology he applies. He formulates his conclusions and derives the traits of self-actualized individuals by utilizing a qualitative research method that is knowingly prone to bias, essentially looking into the biographies and works of 18 personalities he deemed as self-actualized (the list includes, among others, Thomas Jefferson, Abraham Lincoln, Albert Einstein, William James and Beethoven). It is easy to realize the limitations of this approach when reflecting on the examples Maslow thought to be relevant: it is a list clearly biased towards the white, Western, and male criteria.

The limitations of such a Western-centric approach come to full light when Maslow’s model is applied to the practice of international relations. First, different cultures understand their needs in ways and hierarchies that run counter to Maslow’s own. In a case observed by Nevis (1983), belonging needs in Chinese culture are far more important than safety or physiological needs. Maslow’s model, built upon the quintessentially American understanding that individualism serves as the universal goal for all human beings, can hardly be applied in contexts where the thesis’s anchoring tenet hardly holds.

Second, it is not at all clear whether individuals envisage their needs as a pyramid whose summit can only be reached if all previous steps are thoroughly satisfied. Humans - and states, for that matter - oftentimes pursue needs simultaneously, and not in a linear, orderly fashion.

Does this mean the model should be rejected altogether? Not necessarily. A fruitful way forward would be to recast Maslow’s framework and adjust its five steps to fit the needs and trajectories states are likely to pursue (Hayden, 2009). In this light, the new model’s first step would represent a state’s most crucial need, that of self-determination; internal and external security would serve as steps 2 and 3 respectively; international prestige would come forth (a step states oftentimes meet via participation and management of key events, such as hosting Olympics or taking part in high-level conferences, like the G8); and finally, the fifth and last one would be the need to become - and be recognized as - a “strong state identity”.

CASE STUDY: The Hierarchy of needs applied to the Soviet Union


By applying this modified version of the Maslow’s model to state needs, it possible to trace the motives of a country’s behavior and potentially its future trajectories. The case of the Soviet Union is particularly poignant, as the model can help explain Soviet regression from a strong state identity (5th and last tier of needs) to the collapse of the union in 1991.

By the end of 1949, the Soviet Union was undoubtedly sitting at the fifth tier of the modified hierarchy of needs. It had unchallenged internal and external legitimacy satisfying its first-tier needs. It had sufficiently satisfied its second-tier domestic security needs through the purges and collectivization of the 1930s to eliminate any significant internal security threats. Additionally, its victory over the Nazis secured its third-tier external security needs and ushered in a period of great prestige for the Soviet Union.  

This superpower appears to begin descending the pyramid of needs in the mid-50s, when then Secretary Nikita Khrushchev publicly criticized Stalin’s rule and legacy and began a process called de-Stalinization. The impact of these actions was on Soviet external prestige and its relations with its satellites in Eastern Europe, where de-Stalinization initially removed much of the fear felt in expressing their dissatisfaction with Stalin appointed leaders and collectivization policies. Challenges coming from Poland and Hungary in 1956 and at the same time, the erosion of relations with China over the 50s and 60s, clearly manifest the descent of the Soviet Union from a strong identity state to a state seeking to satisfy its fourth-tier prestige needs. The apex of this decline in both internal and external prestige came in during Brezhnev's year and the application of his Doctrine - virtually a subordination of Eastern Europe sovereignty to Soviet interventionism - and culminated with the invasion of Afghanistan, a decision that will ultimately affect Soviet economy as well.                                                                                                                                   

Economic decline was the first indication of Soviet regression to the third tier of the hierarchy. In the 1930s, when USSR was experiencing its economic boom, grain trades turned into an essential method for financing Western imports. By the 80s, the country became the world’s largest grain importer, particularly dependent on American supplied grain.         

Both Presidents Carter and Reagan exploited these vulnerabilities, by endorsing a food embargo on grain in relations with Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in 1980, and later on by embarking in a huge defense build-up, all while coordinating to deprive the Soviets of crucial income from the sale of oil on the worldwide market. These policies translated into a further regression into tier three - external security needs - for the Soviet Union.                                                                        

States on the second tier of the hierarchy seek to maintain their internal security. As the state holds a monopoly on the legitimate use of force within a specific boundary, it must eliminate any challenges to its monopoly. For the Soviet Union, these factors were pivotal for the regression down to a tier-two state: First, Gorbachev’s policies of Glasnost and Perestroika publicly exposed the privileges of the elite that controlled the Party for over 70 years. This is the same elite, the Nomenklatura, which obviously resisted these attempted reforms and created a deep rift amongst the ruling class. Second, Soviet Republic were seeking more and more autonomy from the Union, with nationalism on the rise and calls for independence coming from the Baltic states and Moldova, Georgia and Armenia. Russia itself, the biggest republic in the union, began to foment ethnic Russian nationalism, who’d find a leader in rising star Boris Yeltsin, whose intent was to undermine the authority of the Soviet Union, and thus, undermine Gorbachev’s authority. With these actions, Yeltsin effectively ended Russian support for maintaining the Soviet Empire, and thus made it inevitable for the rest of the periphery to break free.  

By the summer of 1991, the Soviet Union was reduced to a fist tier need state, with the desperate need to satisfy its internal legitimacy. By the end of the year, twelve constituent republics voted to dissolve the Soviet Union and form a loose confederation of independent states.          

The USSR was no more.                                                                   

To trace back the stages of the Soviet Union’s dissolution by applying Maslow’s theory is of particular interest for us, as it helps to understand the behaviors behind a country’s policies and attempt to predict its path, in this case, from the top of the pyramid to its bottom. It’s also relevant for other actors involved, i.e. the United States, to understand where your opponent lies in the hierarchy of needs, thus playing on its vulnerabilities and prevent them from achieving their needs.  

To be sure, this is not the only way Maslow’s model can be tweaked. Other scholars have sought to adjust the Hierarchy of Needs to overcome its limitations, especially with respect to its rigid structure and cultural biases (Chadwick, 1996). Flawed as it may be, Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs remains an interesting framework through which one can evaluate state behavior, all the more so if one is to approach the study of IR from the Realist and Liberalist understanding that state serve as the field’s primary actors.