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International relations (IR) or International studies (IS)[1] represents the study of foreign affairs and global issues among states within the international system, including the roles of states, inter-governmental organizations (IGOs), non-governmental organizations (NGOs), international nongovernmental organizations (INGOs), and multinational corporations (MNCs). It is both an academic and public policy field, and can be either positive or normative as it both seeks to analyze as well as formulate the foreign policy of particular states. It is often considered a branch of political science (especially after 1988 UNESCO nomenclature), but an important sector of academia prefer to treat it as an interdisciplinary field of study.

Apart from political science, IR draws upon such diverse fields as economics, history, international law, philosophy, geography, social work, sociology, anthropology, psychology, and cultural studies. It involves a diverse range of issues including but not limited to: globalization, state sovereignty, ecological sustainability, nuclear proliferation, nationalism, economic development, global finance, terrorism, organized crime, human security, foreign interventionism and human rights.



The history of international relations is often traced back to the Peace of Westphalia of 1648, where the modern state system was developed. Prior to this, the European medieval organization of political authority was based on a vaguely hierarchical religious order. Westphalia instituted the legal concept of sovereignty, which essentially meant that rulers, or the legitimate sovereigns, had no internal equals within a defined territory and no external superiors as the ultimate authority within the territory's sovereign borders. A simple way to view this is that sovereignty says, "I'm not allowed to tell you what to do and you are not allowed to tell me what to do." Classical Greek and Roman authority at times resembled the Westphalian system, but both lacked the notion of sovereignty.

Westphalia encouraged the rise of the independent nation-state, the institutionalization of diplomacy and armies. This particular European system was exported to the Americas, Africa, and Asia via colonialism and the "standards of civilization". The contemporary international system was finally established through decolonization during the Cold War. However, this is somewhat over-simplified. While the nation-state system is considered "modern", many states have not incorporated the system and are termed "pre-modern".

Further, a handful of states have moved beyond the nation-state system and can be considered "post-modern". The ability of contemporary IR discourse to explain the relations of these different types of states is disputed. "Levels of analysis" is a way of looking at the international system, which includes the individual level, the domestic nation-state as a unit, the international level of transnational and intergovernmental affairs, and the global level.

What is explicitly recognized as International Relations theory was not developed until after World War I, and is dealt with in more detail below. IR theory, however, has a long tradition of drawing on the work of other social sciences. The use of capitalizations of the "I" and "R" in International Relations aims to distinguish the academic discipline of International Relations from the phenomena of international relations. Many cite Thucydides' History of the Peloponnesian War as the inspiration for realist theory, with Hobbes' Leviathan and Machiavelli's The Prince providing further elaboration.

Similarly, liberalism draws upon the work of Kant and Rousseau, with the work of the former often being cited as the first elaboration of democratic peace theory. Though contemporary human rights is considerably different than the type of rights envisioned under natural law, Francisco de Vitoria, Hugo Grotius and John Locke offered the first accounts of universal entitlement to certain rights on the basis of common humanity. In the twentieth century, in addition to contemporary theories of liberal internationalism, Marxism has been a foundation of international relations.


Study of IR

Initially, international relations as a distinct field of study was almost entirely British-centered. In 1919, the Chair in International Politics established at the University of Wales, Aberystwyth (renamed Aberystwyth University in 2008), from an endowment given by David Davies, became the first academic position dedicated to IR. In the early 1920s, the London School of Economics' department of International Relations was founded at the behest of Nobel Peace Prize winner Philip Noel-Baker.

The first university entirely dedicated to the study of IR was the Graduate Institute of International Studies (now the Graduate Institute of International and Development Studies), which was founded in 1927 to form diplomats associated to the League of Nations, established in Geneva some years before. The Graduate Institute of International Studies offered one of the first Ph.D. degrees in international relations. Georgetown University's Edmund A. Walsh School of Foreign Service is the oldest international relations faculty in the United States, founded in 1919. The Committee on International Relations at the University of Chicago was the first to offer a graduate degree, in 1928.


Epistemology and IR theory

IR theories can be roughly divided into one of two epistemological camps: "positivist" and "post-positivist". Positivist theories aim to replicate the methods of the natural sciences by analysing the impact of material forces. They typically focus on features of international relations such as state interactions, size of military forces, balance of powers etc. Post-positivist epistemology rejects the idea that the social world can be studied in an objective and value-free way. It rejects the central ideas of neo-realism/liberalism, such as rational choice theory, on the grounds that the scientific method cannot be applied to the social world and that a 'science' of IR is impossible.

A key difference between the two positions is that while positivist theories, such as neo-realism, offer causal explanations (such as why and how power is exercised), post-positivist theories focus instead on constitutive questions, for instance what is meant by 'power'; what makes it up, how it is experienced and how it is reproduced. Often, post-positivist theories explicitly promote a normative approach to IR, by considering ethics. This is something which has often been ignored under 'traditional' IR as positivist theories make a distinction between 'facts' and normative judgments, or 'values'.

During the late 1980s/1990 debate between positivists and post-positivists became the dominant debate and has been described as constituting the Third "Great Debate" (Lapid 1989).

Positivist Theories


Realism focuses on state security and power above all else. Early realists such as E.H. Carr and Hans Morgenthau argued that states are self-interested, power-seeking rational actors, who seek to maximize their security and chances of survival. Any cooperation between states is explained as functional in order to maximize each individual state's security (as opposed to more idealistic reasons). Similarly, any act of war must be based around self interest, rather than on idealism. Many realists saw World War II as the vindication of their theory.

It should be noted that classical writers such as Thucydides, Machiavelli, and Hobbes are often cited as "founding fathers" of realism by contemporary self-described realists.[citation needed] However, while their work may support realist doctrine, it is not likely that they would have classified themselves as realists (in this sense of the term). Realists are often split up into two groups: Classical or Human Nature Realists (as described here) and Structural or Neorealists (below).

Liberalism/idealism/Liberal Internationalism

Liberal international relations theory arose after World War I in response to the inability of states to control and limit war in their international relations. Early adherents include Woodrow Wilson and Norman Angell, who argued vigorously that states mutually gained from cooperation and that war was so destructive to be essentially futile.

Liberalism was not recognized as a coherent theory as such until it was collectively and derisively termed idealism by E. H. Carr. A new version of "idealism" that focused on human rights as the basis of the legitimacy of international law was advanced by Hans Köchler.


Neoliberalism seeks to update liberalism by accepting the neorealist presumption that states are the key actors in international relations, but still maintains that non-state actors (NSAs) and intergovernmental organizations (IGOs) matter. Proponents such as Maria Chattha argue that states will cooperate irrespective of relative gains, and are thus concerned with absolute gains. This also means that nations are, in essence, free to make their own choices as to how they will go about conducting policy without any international organizations blocking a nation's right to sovereignty.

Neoliberalism also contains an economic theory that is based on the use of open and free markets with little, if any, government intervention to prevent monopolies and other conglomerates from forming. The growing interdependence throughout and after the Cold War through international institutions led to neo-liberalism being defined as institutionalism, this new part of the theory being fronted by Robert Keohane and also Joseph Nye.

Regime Theory

Regime theory is derived from the liberal tradition that argues that international institutions or regimes affect the behavior of states (or other international actors). It assumes that cooperation is possible in the anarchic system of states, indeed, regimes are by definition, instances of international cooperation.

While realism predicts that conflict should be the norm in international relations, regime theorists say that there is cooperation despite anarchy. Often they cite cooperation in trade, human rights and collective security among other issues. These instances of cooperation are regimes. The most commonly cited definition of regimes comes from Stephen Krasner. Krasner defines regimes as "institutions possessing norms, decision rules, and procedures which facilitate a convergence of expectations."

Not all approaches to regime theory, however are liberal or neoliberal; some realist scholars like Joseph Greico have developed hybrid theories which take a realist based approach to this fundamentally liberal theory. (Realists don't say cooperation never happens, just that it's not the norm; it's a difference of degree).

Post-positivist/reflectivist theories

International society theory (the English school)

International society theory, also called the English School, focuses on the shared norms and values of states and how they regulate international relations. Examples of such norms include diplomacy, order, and international law. Unlike neo-realism, it is not necessarily positivist. Theorists have focused particularly on humanitarian intervention, and are subdivided between solidarists, who tend to advocate it more, and pluralists, who place greater value in order and sovereignty. Nicholas Wheeler is a prominent solidarist, while Hedley Bull and Robert H. Jackson are perhaps the best known pluralists.

Social Constructivism

Social Constructivism encompasses a broad range of theories that aim to address questions of ontology, such as the Structure and agency debate, as well as questions of epistemology, such as the "material/ideational" debate that concerns the relative role of material forces versus ideas. Constructivism is not a theory of IR in the manner of neo-realism, but is instead a social theory which is used to better explain the actions taken by states and other major actors as well as the identities that guide these states and actors.

Constructivism in IR can be divided into what Hopf (1998) calls 'conventional' and 'critical' constructivism. Common to all varieties of constructivism is an interest in the role that ideational forces play. The most famous constructivist scholar, Alexander Wendt noted in a 1992 article in International Organization (later followed up by a book, Social Theory of International Politics (1999)), that "anarchy is what states make of it". By this he means that the anarchical structure that neo-realists claim governs state interaction is in fact a phenomenon that is socially constructed and reproduced by states.

For example, if the system is dominated by states that see anarchy as a life or death situation (what Wendt terms a "Hobbesian" anarchy) then the system will be characterised by warfare. If on the other hand anarchy is seen as restricted (a "Lockean" anarchy) then a more peaceful system will exist. Anarchy in this view is constituted by state interaction, rather than accepted as a natural and immutable feature of international life as viewed by neo-realist IR scholars.

Critical Theory

Critical international relations theory is the application of 'critical theory' to international relations. Proponents such as Andrew Linklater, Robert W. Cox and Ken Booth focus on the need for human emancipation from States. Hence, it is "critical" of mainstream IR theories that tend to be state-centric.


Marxist and Neo-Marxist theories of IR reject the realist/liberal view of state conflict or cooperation; instead focusing on the economic and material aspects. It makes the assumption that the economy trumps other concerns; allowing for the elevation of class as the focus of study. Marxists view the international system as an integrated capitalist system in pursuit of capital accumulation. Thus, the period of colonialism brought in sources for raw materials and captive markets for exports, while decolonialization brought new opportunities in the form of dependence.

Linked in with Marxist theories is dependency theory which argues that developed countries, in their pursuit of power, penetrate developing states through political advisors, missionaries, experts and MNCs to integrate them into the integrated capitalist system in order to appropriate natural resources and foster dependence by developing countries on developed countries.

Marxist theories receive scant attention in the United States where no significant socialist party ever existed. It is more common in parts of Europe and is one of the most important theoretic contributions of Latin American academia, for example through Liberation theology.

Leadership Theories

Interest Group Perspective

Interest Group theory posits that the driving force behind state behavior is sub-state interest groups. Examples interest groups include political lobbyists, the military, and the corporate sector. Group theory argues that although these interest groups are constitutive of the state, they are also causal forces in the exercise of state power.

Strategic Perspective

Strategic Perspective is a theoretical approach that views individuals as choosing their actions by taking into account the anticipated actions and responses of others with the intention of maximizing their own welfare.

Poststructuralist theories

Poststructuralist theories of IR developed in the 1980s from postmodernist studies in political science. Post-structuralism explores the deconstruction of concepts traditionally not problematic in IR, such as 'power' and 'agency' and examines how the construction of these concepts shapes international relations. The examination of 'narratives' plays an important part in poststructuralist analysis, for example feminist poststructuralist work has examined the role that 'women' play in global society and how they are constructed in war as 'innocent' and 'civilians'.

Examples of post-positivist research include:

Concepts in international relations


In decision making in international relations, the concept of International Conjuncture, together with freedom of action and equality are important elements. Decision makers must take into account the set of international conditions in taking initiatives that would create different types of responses.

Systemic level concepts

International relations is often viewed in terms of levels of analysis, the systemic level concepts are those broad concepts that define and shape an international milieu, characterised by Anarchy.


Darkest blue countries most often considered to be superpowers, dark blue countries most often considered to be great powers, pale blue countries most often considered to be middle powers, and palest blue countries also sometimes considered to be middle powers.[2]

The concept of power in international relations can be described as the degree of resources, capabilities, and influence in international affairs. It is often divided up into the concepts of hard power and soft power, hard power relating primarily to coercive power, such as the use of force, and soft power commonly covering economics, diplomacy and cultural influence. However, there is no clear dividing line between the two forms of power.


Polarity in International Relations refers to the arrangement of power within the international system. The concept arose from bipolarity during the Cold War, with the international system dominated by the conflict between two superpowers, and has been applied retrospectively. Consequently, the international system prior to 1945 can be described as multi-polar, with power being shared among Great powers.

Empires of the world in 1910.

The collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991 had led to what some would call unipolarity, with the United States as a sole superpower. However, due to China's surge of economic success after joining the World Trade Organization in 2001, combined with the respectable international position they hold within political spheres and the power that the Chinese Government exerts over their people (consisting of the largest population in the world), there is debate over whether China is now a superpower or a possible candidate in the future.

Several theories of international relations draw upon the idea of polarity.
The balance of power was a concept prevalent in Europe prior to the First World War, the thought being that by balancing power blocs it would create stability and prevent war. Theories of the balance of power gained prominence again during the Cold War, being a central mechanism of Kenneth Waltz's Neorealism. Here, the concepts of balancing (rising in power to counter another) and bandwagonning (siding with another) are developed.

Hegemonic stability theory (developed by Robert Gilpin) also draws upon the idea of Polarity, specifically the state of unipolarity. Hegemony is the preponderance of power at one pole in the international system, and the theory argues this is a stable configuration because of mutual gains by both the dominant power and others in the international system. This is contrary to many Neorealist arguments, particularly made by Kenneth Waltz, stating that the end of the Cold War and the state of unipolarity is an unstable configuration that will inevitably change.

This can be expressed in Power transition theory, which states that it is likely that a great power would challenge a hegemon after a certain period, resulting in a major war. It suggests that while hegemony can control the occurrence of wars, it also results in the creation of one. Its main proponent, A.F.K. Organski, argued this based on the occurrence of previous wars during British, Portuguese and Dutch hegemony.


Many advocate that the current international system is characterized by growing interdependence; the mutual responsibility and dependency on others. Advocates of this point to growing globalization, particularly with international economic interaction. The role of international institutions, and widespread acceptance of a number of operating principles in the international system, reinforces ideas that relations are characterized by interdependence.


Dependency theory is a theory most commonly associated with Marxism, stating that a set of Core states exploit a set of weaker Periphery states for their prosperity. Various versions of the theory suggest that this is either an inevitability (standard dependency theory), or use the theory to highlight the necessity for change (Neo-Marxist).

Systemic tools of international relations

  • Diplomacy is the practice of communication and negotiation between representatives of states. To some extent, all other tools of international relations can be considered the failure of diplomacy. Keeping in mind, the use of other tools are part of the communication and negotiation inherent within diplomacy. Sanctions, force, and adjusting trade regulations, while not typically considered part of diplomacy, are actually valuable tools in the interest of leverage and placement in negotiations.
  • Sanctions are usually a first resort after the failure of diplomacy, and are one of the main tools used to enforce treaties. They can take the form of diplomatic or economic sanctions and involve the cutting of ties and imposition of barriers to communication or trade.
  • War, the use of force, is often thought of as the ultimate tool of international relations. A widely accepted definition is that given by Clausewitz, with war being "the continuation of politics by other means". There is a growing study into 'new wars' involving actors other than states. The study of war in International Relations is covered by the disciplines of 'War Studies' and 'Strategic studies'.
  • The mobilization of international shame can also be thought of as a tool of International Relations. This is attempting to alter states' actions through 'naming and shaming' at the international level. This is mostly done by the large human rights NGOs such as Amnesty International (for instance when it called Guantanamo Bay a "Gulag")[3], or Human Rights Watch. A prominent use of was the UN Commission on Human Rights 1235 procedure, which publicly exposes state's human rights violations. The current Human Rights Council has yet to use this Mechanism
  • The allotment of economic and/or diplomatic benefits. An example of this is the European Union's enlargement policy. Candidate countries are allowed entry into the EU only after the fulfillment of the Copenhagen criteria.

Unit-level concepts in international relations

As a level of analysis the unit level is often referred to as the state level, as it locates its explanation at the level of the state, rather than the international system.

Regime type

It is often considered that a state's form of government can dictate the way that a state interacts with others in the international system.

Democratic Peace Theory is a theory that suggests that the nature of democracy means that democratic countries will not go to war with each other. The justifications for this are that democracies externalise their norms and only go to war for just causes, and that democracy encourages mutual trust and respect.

Communism justifies a world revolution, which similarly would lead to peaceful coexistence, based on a proletarian global society.

Revisionism/Status quo

States can be classified by whether they accept the international status quo, or are revisionist, i.e. want change. Revisionist states seek to fundamentally change the rules and practices of international relations, feeling disadvantaged by the status quo. They see the international system as a largely western creation which serves to reinforce current realities. Japan is an example of a state that has gone from being a revisionist state to one that is satisfied with the status quo, because the status quo is now beneficial to it.


It is often considered that religion can have an effect on the way a state acts within the international system. Religion is visible as an organising principle particularly for Islamic states, whereas secularism sits at the other end of the spectrum, with the separation of state and religion being responsible for the Liberal international relations theory.

Individual or sub-unit level concepts

The level beneath the unit (state) level can be useful both for explaining factors in International Relations that other theories fail to explain, and for moving away from a state-centric view of international relations.

  • Psychological factors in International Relations - Evaluating psychological factors in international relations comes from the understanding that a state is not a 'black box' as proposed by Realism, and that there may be other influences on foreign policy decisions. Examining the role of personalities in the decision making process can have some explanatory power, as can the role of misperception between various actors. A prominent application of sub-unit level psychological factors in international relations is the concept of Groupthink, another is the propensity of policymakers to think in terms of analogies.
  • Bureaucratic politics - Looks at the role of the bureaucracy in decision making, and sees decisions as a result of bureaucratic in-fighting, and as having been shaped by various constraints.
  • Religious, Ethnic, and secessionist groups - Viewing these aspects of the sub-unit level has explanatory power with regards to ethnic conflicts, religious wars, transnational diaspora (diaspora politics) and other actors which do not consider themselves to fit with the defined state boundaries. This is particularly useful in the context of the pre-modern world of weak states.
  • Science, Technology and International Relations- How science and technology impact the global health, business, environment, technology, and development.
  • International political economy, and economic factors in international relations.[4]

Institutions in international relations

International institutions form a vital part of contemporary International Relations. Much interaction at the system level is governed by them, and they outlaw some traditional institutions and practices of International Relations, such as the use of war (except in self-defence).

As humanity enters the Planetary phase of civilization, some scientists and political theorists see a global hierarchy of institutions replacing the existing system of sovereign nation-states as the primary political community. They argue that nations are an imagined community that cannot resolve such modern challenges as the “Dogville” effect (strangers in a homogeneous community), the legal and political status of stateless people and refugees, and the need to address worldwide concerns like climate change and pandemics.

Futurist Paul Raskin has hypothesized that a new, more legitimate form of global politics could be based on “constrained pluralism.” This principle guides the formation of institutions based on three characteristics: irreducibility, where some issues must be adjudicated at the global level; subsidiarity, which limits the scope of global authority to truly global issues while smaller-scope issues are regulated at lower levels; and heterogeneity, which allows for diverse forms of local and regional institutions as long as they meet global obligations.

United Nations

The United Nations (UN) is an international organization that describes itself as a "global association of governments facilitating co-operation in international law, international security, economic development, and social equity"; It is the most prominent international institution. Many of the legal institutions follow the same organizational structure as the UN.

Economic institutions

The World Bank headquarters in Washington, D.C.

International legal bodies

Human rights


Regional security arrangements

NATO E-3A flying with USAF F-16s in a NATO exercise.

See also


  1. ^
  2. ^ Adam Chapnick, The Middle Power.
  3. ^>
  4. ^ Eg, Donald Markwell, John Maynard Keynes and International Relations: Economic Paths to War and Peace, Oxford University Press, 2006. Donald Markwell, Keynes and International Economic and Political Relations, Trinity Paper 33, Trinity College, University of Melbourne. [1]

Further reading

Simple English

International relations is a branch of political science. It represents the study of foreign affairs and global issues among states within the international system, including the roles of states, international organizations (IGOs), non-governmental organizations (NGOs), and multinational corporations (MNCs).


=United Nations


The United Nations (UN) is an international organization that describes itself as a "global association of governments facilitating co-operation in international law, international security, economic development, and social equity"; It is the most prominent international institution. Many of the legal institutions follow the same organisational structure as the UN.

Economic institutions

International legal bodies

Human rights


Regional security arrangements

Other pages


Other websites

A list of IR schools, journals, organisations, institutes and think tanks can be found under the appropriate lists above, under "See also".


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