International relations theory: Wikis


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International relations theories have competing explanations for conflicts such as the 2003 Iraq War.[1][2]

International relations theory attempts to provide a conceptual framework upon which international relations can be analyzed.[3] Ole Holsti describes international relations theories act as a pair of coloured sunglasses, allowing the wearer to see only the salient events relevant to the theory. An adherent of realism may completely disregard an event that a constructivist might pounce upon as crucial, and vice versa. The three most popular theories are realism, liberalism and constructivism.[4]

International relations theories can be divided into "positivist/rationalist" theories which focus on a principally state-level analysis, and "post-positivist/reflectivist" ones which incorporate expanded meanings of security, ranging from class, to gender, to postcolonial security. Many often conflicting ways of thinking exist in IR theory, including constructivism, institutionalism, Marxism, neo-Gramscianism, and others. However, two positivist schools of thought are most prevalent: realism and liberalism; though increasingly, constructivism is becoming mainstream[5] and postpositivist theories are increasingly popular, particularly outside the United States.



The study of International relations as theory can be traced to E.H. Carr's "The Twenty Years Crisis" which was published in 1939 and to Hans Morgenthau's "Politics Among Nations" published in 1948.[6] International relations as a discipline is believed to have emerged after the First World War with the establishment of a Chair of International Relations at the University of Wales, Aberystwyth.[7] Early international relations scholarship in the Interwar years focused on the need for the balance of power system to be replaced with a system of collective security. These thinkers were later described as "Idealists".[8] The leading critique of this school of thinking was the "realist" analysis offered by Carr.


Thucydides author of The Peloponnesian War is considered one of the earliest "realist" thinkers.[9]

Realism or political realism[10] has been the dominant theory of international relations since the conception of the discipline.[11] The theory claims to rely upon an ancient tradition of thought which includes writers such as Thucydides, Machiavelli, and Rousseau. Early realism can be characterized as a reaction against interwar idealist thinking. The outbreak of World War II was seen by realists as evidence of the deficiencies of idealist thinking.There are various stands of modern day realist thinking however the main tenets of the theory have been identified as statism, self help and survival.[11]

  • Statism: Realists believe that nation states are the main actors in international politics.[12] As such it is a state-centric theory of international relations. This contrasts with liberal international relations theories which accommodate roles for non-state actors and international institutions. This difference is sometimes expressed by describing a realist world view as one which sees nation states as billiard balls, liberals would consider relationships between states to be more of a cobweb.
  • Survival: Realists believe that the international system is governed by anarchy, meaning that there is no central authority.[10] Therefore, international politics is a struggle for power between self-interested states.[13]
  • Self-help: Realists believe that no other nation states can be relied upon to help guarantee the state's survival.

Realism makes several key assumptions. It assumes that nation-states are unitary, geographically-based actors in an anarchic international system with no authority above capable of regulating interactions between states as no true authoritative world government exists. Secondly, it assumes that sovereign states, rather than IGOs, NGOs or MNCs, are the primary actors in international affairs. Thus, states, as the highest order, are in competition with one another. As such, a state acts as a rational autonomous actor in pursuit of its own self-interest with a primary goal to maintain and ensure its own security—and thus its sovereignty and survival. Realism holds that in pursuit of their interests, states will attempt to amass resources, and that relations between states are determined by their relative levels of power. That level of power is in turn determined by the state's military and economic capabilities.

Some realists (offensive realists) believe that states are inherently aggressive, that territorial expansion is constrained only by opposing powers, while others (defensive realists) believe that states are obsessed with the security and continuation of the state's existence. The defensive view can lead to a security dilemma where increasing one's own security can bring along greater instability as the opponent(s) builds up its own arms, making security a zero-sum game where only relative gains can be made.



Neorealism or structural realism[14] is a development of realism advanced by Kenneth Waltz in Theory of International Politics. It is however only one strand of neorealism, Joseph Grieco has combined neo-realist thinking with more traditional realists. This strand of theory is sometimes called "modern realism".[15] Waltz's neorealism contends that the effect of structure must be taken into account in explaining state behavior. Structure is defined twofold as a) the ordering principle of the international system which is anarchy and b) the distribution of capabilities across units. Waltz also challenges traditional realism's emphasis on traditional military power instead characterizing power in terms of the combined capabilities of the state.[16]


Kant's writings on perpetual peace were an early contribution to Democratic peace theory.[17]

The precursor to liberal international relations theory was "idealism". Idealism (or utopianism) was a term applied in a critical manner by those who saw themselves as 'realists', for instance E. H. Carr.[18] Idealism in international relations usually refers to the school of thought personified in American diplomatic history by Woodrow Wilson, such that it is sometimes referred to as "Wilsonianism." Idealism holds that a state should make its internal political philosophy the goal of its foreign policy. For example, an idealist might believe that ending poverty at home should be coupled with tackling poverty abroad. Wilson's idealism was a precursor to liberal international relations theory, which would arise amongst the "institution-builders" after World War II.

Liberalism holds that state preferences, rather than state capabilities, are the primary determinant of state behavior. Unlike realism where the state is seen as a unitary actor, liberalism allows for plurality in state actions. Thus, preferences will vary from state to state, depending on factors such as culture, economic system or government type. Liberalism also holds that interaction between states is not limited to the political/security ("high politics"), but also economic/cultural ("low politics") whether through commercial firms, organizations or individuals. Thus, instead of an anarchic international system, there are plenty of opportunities for cooperation and broader notions of power, such as cultural capital (for example, the influence of films leading to the popularity of the country's culture and creating a market for its exports worldwide). Another assumption is that absolute gains can be made through co-operation and interdependence - thus peace can be achieved.

The democratic peace theory argues that liberal democracies have never (or almost never) made war on one another and have fewer conflicts among themselves. This is seen as contradicting especially the realist theories and this empirical claim is now one of the great disputes in political science. Numerous explanations have been proposed for the democratic peace. It has also been argued, as in the book Never at War, that democracies conduct diplomacy in general very differently from nondemocracies. (Neo)realists disagree with Liberals over the theory, often citing structural reasons for the peace, as opposed to the state's government. Sebastian Rosato, a critic of democratic peace theory points to America's behavior towards left-leaning democracies in Latin America during the Cold War to challenge democratic peace.[19] One argument is that economic interdependence makes war between trading partners less likely.[20] In contrast realists claim that economic interdependence increases rather than decreases the likelihood of conflict.[21]


Neoliberalism, liberal institutionalism or neo-liberal institutionalism is an advancement of liberal thinking. It agues that international institutions can allow nations to successfully cooperate in the international system.


The standing of constructivism as an international relations theory increased after the fall of the Berlin wall (pictured) and Communism in Eastern Europe.[22]

Constructivism, social constructivism[23] or idealism[24] has been described as a challenge to the dominance of neo-liberal and neo-realist international relations theories.[25] Michael Barnett describes constructivist international relations theories as being concerned with how ideas define international structure, how this structure defines the interests and identities of states and how states and non-state actors reproduce this structure.[26] The key tenet of constructivism is the belief that "International politics is shaped by persuasive ideas, collective values, culture, and social identities".[27]Constructivism argues that international reality is socially constructed by cognitive structures which give meaning to the material world.[28] The theory emerged out of debates concerning the scientific method of international relations theories and theories role in the production of international power.[29] Emanuel Adler states that constructivism occupies a middle ground between rationalist and interpretative theories of international relations.[30] The failure of either realism or liberalism to predict the end of the Cold War boosted the credibility of constructivist theory. Constructivist theory criticses the static assumptions of traditional international relations theory and emphasize that international relations is a social construction. Constructivism is a theory critical of the ontological[31] basis of rationalist theories of international relations. Whereas realism deals mainly with security and material power, and liberalism looks primarily at economic interdependence and domestic-level factors, constructivism most concerns itself with the role of ideas in shaping the international system (Indeed it is possible there is some overlap between constructivism and realism or liberalism, but they remain separate schools of thought). By "ideas" constructivists refer to the goals, threats, fears, identities, and other elements of perceived reality that influence states and non-state actors within the international system. Constructivists believe that these ideational factors can often have far-reaching effects, and that they can trump materialistic power concerns. For example, constructivists note that an increase in the size of the US military is likely to be viewed with much greater concern in Cuba, a traditional antagonist of the US, than in Canada, a close US ally. Therefore, there must be perceptions at work in shaping international outcomes. As such, constructivists do not see anarchy as the invariable foundation of the international system,[32] but rather argue, in the words of Alexander Wendt, that "anarchy is what states make of it".[33] Constructivists also believe that social norms shape and change foreign policy over time rather than security which realists cite.


Antonio Gramsci's writings on the hegemony of capitalism have inspired Marxist international relations scholarship

Marxist and Neo-Marxist international relations theories are structuralist paradigms which reject the realist/liberal view of state conflict or cooperation; instead focusing on the economic and material aspects. Marxist approaches argue the position of historical materialism and make the assumption that the economic concerns transcend others; 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. A sub-discipline of Marxist IR is Critical Security Studies. Gramscian approaches rely on the ideas of Italian Antonio Gramsci whose writings concerned the hegemony that capitalism holds as an ideology. Marxist approaches have also inspired Critical Theorists such as Robert Cox who argues that "Theory is always for someone and for some purpose".[34]

One notable Marxist approach to international relations theory is Immanuel Wallerstein's World-system theory which can be traced back to the ideas expressed by Lenin in Imperialism: The Highest Stage of capitalism. World-system theory argues that globalized capitalism has created a core of modern industrialized countries which exploit a periphery of exploited "Third World" countries. These ideas were developed by the Latin American Dependency School. "Neo-Marxist" or "New Marxist" approaches have return to the writings of Karl Marx for their inspiration. Key "New Marxists" include Justin Rosenberg and Benno Teschke. Marxist approaches have enjoyed a renaissance since the collapse of communism in Eastern Europe.

Criticisms of Marxists approaches to international relations theory include the narrow focus on material and economic aspects of life.


Feminist approaches to international relations became popular in the early 1990s. Such approaches emphasises that women's experiences continue to be excluded from the study of international relations.[35] International Relations Feminists who argue that gender relations are integral to international relations focus on the role of diplomatic wives and marital relationship that facilitate sex trafficking. Early feminist IR approaches were part of the "Third Great Debate" between positivists and post-positivists. They argued against what they saw as the positivism and state-centrism of mainstream international relations. Chistian Reus-Smit argues that these approaches did not describe what a feminist perspective on world politics would look like.

The feminist international relations scholar Jacqui True differentiates between empirical feminism, analytical feminism and normative feminism. Empirical feminism sees women and gender relations as empirical aspects of international relations. It is argued that mainstream international relations emphasis on anarchy and statecraft mean that areas of study that make the reproduction of the state system possible are marginalized.[36] Analytical feminism claims that the theoretical framework of international relations has a gender bias. Here gender refers not to the "biological" differences between men and women but the social constructs of masculine and feminine identity.[37] It is claimed that in mainstream international relations masculinity is associated with objectivity. Analytical feminists would see neo-realisms dislike of domestic explanations for explaining interstate behaviour as an example of this bias. Normative feminist sees theorizing as as part of an agenda for change.

Critics of feminist international relations theory include its portrayal of third world women.[38]

Alternative approaches


Regime theory

Regime theory holds that the international system is not—in practice—anarchic, but that it has an implicit or explicit structure which determines how states will act within the system.

Regimes are institutions or rules that determine the decision-making process. In the international arena, institution has been used interchangeably with regime, which has been defined by Krasner as a set of explicit or implicit "principles, norms, rules, and decision-making procedures around which actors expectations converge in a given issue-area."

Regime theorists hold a wide array of beliefs stemming from the central proposition that regimes as international institutions "matter" in answering the question, what explains a particular outcome? There are four reasons for this:

They structure choices, they provide incentives, they distribute power and they define identities and roles.

State cartel theory

State cartel theory imported its terminology from the classical cartel theory of economic enterprises and thus is much more concrete than regime theory. On the field of international relations nation states are searching advantages by cooperation or by fighting out conflicts. But from a certain degree both of the compaction of international (economic) relations and of the development of military technology war discards more and more as a method of conflict. Now the states have to get along with each other, and hence they cartelize more and more issues of their politics in international institutions. Like in enterprise cartels the members’ assembly is always the main institution of the combinations: the respective council of ministers or delegates, e.g. the Council of the European Union. All further institutions are the result of the will and the needs of the members and have serving functions (secretary, operative commissions, arbitration board), e.g. European Commission and European Court.

English School

The 'English School' of international relations theory, also known as International Society, Liberal Realism, Rationalism or the British institutionalists, maintains that there is a 'society of states' at the international level, despite the condition of 'anarchy' (literally the lack of a ruler or world state). Despite being called the English School many of the academics from this school were neither English or from the United Kingdom. A great deal of the work of the English School concerns the examination of traditions of past international theory, casting it, as Martin Wight did in his 1950s-era lectures at the London School of Economics, into three divisions: 1. Realist or Hobbesian (after Thomas Hobbes), 2. Rationalist (or Grotian, after Hugo Grotius), 3. Revolutionist (or Kantian, after Immanuel Kant).In broad terms, the English School itself has supported the rationalist or Grotian tradition, seeking a middle way (or via media) between the 'power politics' of realism and the 'utopianism' of revolutionism. The English School reject behavioralist approaches to international relations theory.


Functionalism is a theory of international relations that arose principally from the experience of European integration. Rather than the self-interest that realists see as a motivating factor, functionalists focus on common interests shared by states. Integration develops its own internal dynamic: as states integrate in limited functional or technical areas, they increasingly find that momentum for further rounds of integration in related areas. This "invisible hand" of integration phenomenon is termed "spill-over." Although integration can be resisted, it becomes harder to stop integration's reach as it progresses. This usage, and the usage in functionalism in international relations, is the less commonly used meaning of the term functionalism.

More commonly, however, functionalism is a term used to describe an argument which explains phenomena as functions of a system rather than an actor or actors. Immanuel Wallerstein employed a functionalist theory when he argued that the Westphalian international political system arose to secure and protect the developing international capitalist system. His theory is called "functionalist" because it says that an event was a function of the preferences of a system and not the preferences of an agent. Functionalism is different from structural or realist arguments in that while both look to broader, structural causes, realists (and structuralists more broadly) say that the structure gives incentives to agents, while functionalists attribute causal power to the system itself, bypassing agents entirely.

See also


  1. ^ Lawrence, Freedman, "The Age of Liberal Wars', Review of International Studies,31 (December 2005) 93-107
  2. ^ Buzan, Barry,'Will the global War on Terrorism be the new Cold War?', International Affairs, 82 (November 2006) 1101-18
  3. ^
  4. ^ Snyder, Jack, 'One World, Rival Theories, Foreign Policy, 145 (November/December 2004), p52
  5. ^ Reus-Smit, Christian. "Constructivism." Theories of International Relations, ed. Scott Burchill ... [et al.], page 209, 216. Palgrave, 2005.
  6. ^ Burchill, Scott and Linklater, Andrew "Introduction" Theories of International Relations, ed. Scott Burchill ... [et al.], page 1. Palgrave, 2005.
  7. ^ Burchill, Scott and Linklater, Andrew "Introduction" Theories of International Relations, ed. Scott Burchill ... [et al.], page 6. Palgrave, 2005.
  8. ^ Burchill, Scott and Linklater, Andrew "Introduction" Theories of International Relations, ed. Scott Burchill ... [et al.], page 7. Palgrave, 2005.
  9. ^ See Forde,Steven,(1995), 'International Realism and the Science of Politics:Thucydides, Machiavelli and Neorealism,' International Studies Quarterly 39(2):141-160
  10. ^ a b
  11. ^ a b Dunne, Tim and Schmidt, Britain, The Globalisation of World Politics, Baylis, Smith and Owens, OUP, 4th ed, p
  12. ^ Snyder, Jack, 'One World, Rival Theories, Foreign Policy, 145 (November/December 2004), p59
  13. ^ Snyder, Jack, 'One World, Rival Theories, Foreign Policy, 145 (November/December 2004), p55
  14. ^
  15. ^ Lamy,Steven, Contemporary Approches:Neo-realism and neo-liberalism in "The Globalisation of World Politics, Baylis, Smith and Owens, OUP, 4th ed,p127
  16. ^ Lamy, Steven, “Contemporary mainstream approaches: neo-realism and neo-liberalism”, The Globalisation of World Politics, Smith, Baylis and Owens, OUP, 4ed, pp127-128
  17. ^ E Gartzk, Kant we all just get along? Opportunity, willingness, and the origins of the democratic peace, American Journal of Political Science, 1998
  18. ^ Brian C. Schmidt, The political discourse of anarchy: a disciplinary history of international relations, 1998, p219
  19. ^ Rosato, Sebastian, The Flawed Logic of Democratic Peace Theory, American Political Science Review, Volume 97, Issue 04, November 2003, pp 585-602
  20. ^ Copeland, Dale, Economic Interdependence and War: A Theory of Trade Expectations, International Security, Vol. 20, No. 4 (Spring, 1996), pp. 5-41
  21. ^ Ibid at p5
  22. ^ Stephen M. Walt, Foreign Policy, No. 110, Special Edition: Frontiers of Knowledge. (Spring, 1998), p41: "The end of the Cold War played an important role in legitimising contructivist theories because realism and liberalism failed to anticipate this event and had trouble explaining it.
  23. ^
  24. ^,%20Rival%20Theories%20-%20Snyder.pdf
  25. ^ Hopf, Ted, The Promise of Constructivism in International Relations Theory, International Security, Vol. 23, No. 1 (Summer, 1998), p. 171
  26. ^ Michael Barnett, "Social Constructivism" in The Globalisation of World Politics, Baylis, Smith and Owens, 4th ed, OUP, p 162
  27. ^,%20Rival%20Theories%20-%20Snyder.pdf
  28. ^ Alder, Emmanuel, Seizing the midddle ground, European Journal of International Relations, Vol .3,1997,p319
  29. ^ K.M. Ferike, International Relations Theories:Discipline and Diversity, Dunne, Kurki and Smith, OUP,p167
  30. ^ Alder, Emmanuel, Seizing the middle ground, European Journal of International Relations, Vol .3,1997,p319
  31. ^ In international relations ontology refers to the basic unit of analysis that an international relations theory uses. For example for neorealists humans are the basic unit of analysis
  32. ^
  33. ^ Wendt, Alexander, "Anarchy is what states make of it: the social construction of power politics" in International Organization, vol. 46, no. 2, 1992
  34. ^ Cox, Robert, Social Forces, States and World Orders: Beyond International Relations Theory Cox Millennium - Journal of International Studies.1981; 10: 126-155
  35. ^ Zalewski, Marysia, Do We Understand Each Other Yet? Troubling Feminist Encounters With(in) British Journal of Politics & International Relations, Volume 9, Issue 2 p 304
  36. ^ Grant, R. and Newland, K. (eds) (1991) Gender and International Relations, (London).
  37. ^ True, Jacqui, "Feminism" in Theories of International Relations, Scott Burchill et all, 3rd ed, Palgrave, p221
  38. ^ Mohanty, C, (1991) "Under Western Eyes:Feminist Scholarship and Colonial Discourses" in C. Mohanty, T.A. Russo and L.Torres (ed), Third World Women and the Politics of Feminism, Bloomington

Further reading

  • Cynthia Weber, International Relations Theory. A Critical Introduction, 2nd edition, Taylor & Francis 2004, ISBN 0415342082
  • Scott Burchill and others, eds. Theories of International Relations, 3rd edition, Palgrave 2005, ISBN 1403948666
  • Guy Ankerl, Coexisting Contemporary Civilizations: Arabo-Muslim, Bharati, Chinese, and Western. Inupress, Geneva, 2000, ISBN 2881550045.
  • Robert and Georg Sorensen (2006) Introduction to International Relations: theories and approaches. Oxford, OUP, 3rd ed
  • Baylis, Smith and Owens, The Globalisation of World Politics, OUP, 4th ed

External links


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