International relations (IR) or international affairs, depending on academic institution, is either a field of political science, an interdisciplinary academic field similar to global studies, or an entirely independent academic discipline in which students take a variety of internationally focused courses in social science and humanities disciplines. In both cases, the field studies relationships between political entities (polities) such as states, sovereign states, empires, inter-governmental organizations (IGOs), international non-governmental organizations (INs), non-governmental organizations (NGOs), and multinational corporations (MNCs), and the wider world-systems produced by this interaction. International relations is an academic and a public policy field, and so can be positive and normative, because it analyzes and formulates the foreign policy of a given State.
- Study of international relations
- Normative theory
- Epistemology and IR theory
- Regime theory
- International society theory the English school
- Social constructivism
- Interest group perspective
- Strategic perspective
- Inherent bad faith model in international relations and political psychology
- Post structuralist theories
- Systemic level concepts
- National interest
- Non state actors
- Power blocs
- Systemic tools of international relations
- Unit level concepts in international relations
- Regime type
- Revisionismstatus quo
- Individual or sub unit level concepts
- Institutions in international relations
- United Nations
- Organisation of Islamic Cooperation
As political activity, international relations dates from the time of the Greek historian Thucydides (c. 460–395 BC), and, in the early 20th century, became a discrete academic field (No. 5901 in the 4-digit UNESCO Nomenclature) within political science. In practice International Relations and International Affairs forms a separate academic program or field from Political Science, and the courses taught therein are highly interdisciplinary.
For example, international relations draws from the fields of: technology and engineering, economics, communication studies, history, international law, demography, philosophy, geography, social work, sociology, anthropology, criminology, psychology, gender studies, cultural studies, culturology, and diplomacy. The scope of international relations comprehends globalization, diplomatic relations, state sovereignty, international security, ecological sustainability, nuclear proliferation, nationalism, economic development, global finance, as well as terrorism and organized crime, human security, foreign interventionism, and human rights, as well, as, more recently, comparative religion.
The history of international relations can be traced back to thousands of years ago; Barry Buzan and Richard Little, for example, consider the interaction of ancient Sumerian city-states, starting in 3,500 BC, as the first fully-fledged international system.
The history of international relations based on sovereign states is often traced back to the Peace of Westphalia of 1648, a stepping stone in the development of the modern state system. Prior to this the European medieval organization of political authority was based on a vaguely hierarchical religious order. Contrary to popular belief, Westphalia still embodied layered systems of sovereignty, especially within the Holy Roman Empire. More than the Peace of Westphalia, the Treaty of Utrecht of 1713 is thought to reflect an emerging norm that sovereigns had no internal equals within a defined territory and no external superiors as the ultimate authority within the territory's sovereign borders.
The centuries of roughly 1500 to 1789 saw the rise of the independent, sovereign states, the institutionalization of diplomacy and armies. The French Revolution added to this the new idea that not princes or an oligarchy, but the citizenry of a state, defined as the nation, should be defined as sovereign. Such a state in which the nation is sovereign would thence be termed a nation-state (as opposed to a monarchy or a religious state). The term republic increasingly became its synonym. An alternative model of the nation-state was developed in reaction to the French republican concept by the Germans and others, who instead of giving the citizenry sovereignty, kept the princes and nobility, but defined nation-statehood in ethnic-linguistic terms, establishing the rarely if ever fulfilled ideal that all people speaking one language should belong to one state only. The same claim to sovereignty was made for both forms of nation-state. (It is worth noting that in Europe today, few states conform to either definition of nation-state: many continue to have royal sovereigns, and hardly any are ethnically homogeneous.)
The particular European system supposing the sovereign equality of states 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 insistence on full sovereignty, 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 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 Sun Tzu's The Art of War (6th century BC), Thucydides' History of the Peloponnesian War (5th century BC), Chanakya's Arthashastra (4th century BC), 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 from 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 20th century, in addition to contemporary theories of liberal internationalism, Marxism has been a foundation of international relations.
Study of international relations
International relations as a distinct field of study began in Britain. IR emerged as a formal academic discipline in 1919 with the founding of the first IR professorship: the Woodrow Wilson Chair at Aberystwyth, University of Wales (now Aberystwyth University), endowed by David Davies. Georgetown University's Edmund A. Walsh School of Foreign Service is the oldest international relations faculty in the United States, founded in 1919. 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: this was the first institute to offer a wide range of degrees in the field. This was rapidly followed by establishment of IR at universities in the US and in Geneva, Switzerland. The creation of the posts of Montague Burton Professor of International Relations at LSE and at Oxford gave further impetus to the academic study of international relations. Furthermore, the International History department at LSE developed a focus on the history of IR in the early modern, colonial and Cold War periods.
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. The Committee on International Relations at the University of Chicago was the first to offer a graduate degree, in 1928. In 1965, Glendon College and the Norman Paterson School of International Affairs were the first institutions in Canada to offer an undergraduate and a graduate program in international studies and affairs, respectively. In 2012, Ramon Llull University initiated the first International Relations degree in Barcelona, fully in English.
In the academic discipline of international relations, Smith, Baylis & Owens (2008) make the case that the normative position or normative theory is to make the world a better place, and that this theoretical worldview aims to do so by being aware of implicit assumptions and explicit assumptions that constitute a non-normative position and align or position the normative towards the loci of other key socio-political theories such as political liberalism, Marxism, political constructivism, political realism, political idealism and political globalization.
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 and the 1990s, debate between positivists and post-positivists became the dominant debate and has been described as constituting the Third "Great Debate" (Lapid 1989).
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. Cooperation between states is a way to maximize each individual state's security (as opposed to more idealistic reasons). Similarly, any act of war must be based on self-interest, rather than on idealism. Many realists saw World War II as the vindication of their theory.
Realists argue that the need for survival requires state leaders to distance themselves from traditional morality. Realism taught American leaders to focus on interests rather than on ideology, to seek peace through strength, and to recognise that great powers can coexist even if they have antithetical values and beliefs.
Thucydides, the author of Peloponnesian War is considered to be the founding father of the realist school of political philosophy. Amongst others, philosophers like Machiavelli, Hobbes and Rousseau are considered to have contributed to the Realist philosophy. However, while their work may support realist doctrine, it is not likely that they would have classified themselves as realists in this sense. Political realism believes that politics, like society, is governed by objective laws with roots in human nature. To improve society, it is first necessary to understand the laws by which society lives. The operation of these laws being impervious to our preferences, persons will challenge them only at the risk of failure. Realism, believing as it does in the objectivity of the laws of politics, must also believe in the possibility of developing a rational theory that reflects, however imperfectly and one-sidedly, these objective laws. It believes also, then, in the possibility of distinguishing in politics between truth and opinion—between what is true objectively and rationally, supported by evidence and illuminated by reason, and what is only a subjective judgment, divorced from the facts as they are and informed by prejudice and wishful thinking.
Placing realism under positivism is far from unproblematic however. E. H. Carr's "What is History" was a deliberate critique of positivism, and Hans Morgenthau's aim in "Scientific Man vs Power Politics" was to demolish any conception that international politics/power politics can be studied scientifically.
According to liberalism, individuals are basically good and capable of meaningful cooperation to promote positive change. Liberalism views states, nongovernmental organizations, and intergovernmental organizations as key actors in the international system. States have many interests and are not necessarily unitary and autonomous, although they are sovereign. Liberal theory stresses interdependence among states, multinational corporations, and international institutions. Theorists such as Hedley Bull have postulated an international society in which various actors communicate and recognize common rules, institutions, and interests. Liberals also view the international system as anarchic since there is no single overarching international authority and each individual state is left to act in its own self-interest. Liberalism is historically rooted in the liberal philosophical traditions associated with Adam Smith and Immanuel Kant that posit that human nature is basically good and that individual self-interest can be harnessed by society to promote aggregate social welfare. Individuals form groups and later, states; states are generally cooperative and tend to follow international norms.
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 that states mutually gained from cooperation and that war was so destructive as 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.
Major theorists include Montesquieu, Immanuel Kant, Robert Keohane, and John Mueller.
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 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 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, who defines regimes as "principles, norms, rules, and decision-making procedures around which actor expectations converge in a given issue-area".
Not all approaches to regime theory, however, are liberal or neoliberal; some realist scholars like Joseph Grieco have developed hybrid theories which take a realist based approach to this fundamentally liberal theory. (Realists do not say cooperation never happens, just that it is not the norm; it is a difference of degree).
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 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 Ted 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 —and later in his 1999 book Social Theory of International Politics—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.
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, colonialism brought in sources for raw materials and captive markets for exports, while decolonialization brought new opportunities in the form of dependence.
A prominent derivative of Marxian thought is critical international relations theory which is the application of "critical theory" to international relations. Early critical theorists were associated with the Frankfurt School which followed Marx's concern with the conditions that allow for social change and the establishment of rational institutions. Their emphasis on the "critical" component of theory was derived significantly from their attempt to overcome the limits of positivism. Modern-day proponents such as Andrew Linklater, Robert W. Cox and Ken Booth focus on the need for human emancipation from the nation-state. Hence, it is "critical" of mainstream IR theories that tend to be both positivist and state-centric.
Further linked in with Marxist theories is dependency theory and the core–periphery model, which argue that developed countries, in their pursuit of power, appropriate developing states through international banking, security and trade agreements and unions on a formal level, and do so through the interaction of political and financial advisors, missionaries, relief aid workers, and MNCs on the informal level, in order to integrate them into the capitalist system, strategically appropriating undervalued natural resources and labor hours and fostering economic and political dependence.
Marxist theories receive little attention in the United States, where no significant socialist party has flourished. It is more common in parts of Europe and is one of the more important theoretic contributions of Latin American academia to the study of global networks.
Interest group perspective
Interest group theory posits that the driving force behind state behavior is sub-state interest groups. Examples of 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 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.
Inherent bad faith model in international relations and political psychology
The "inherent bad faith model" of information processing is a theory in political psychology that was first put forth by Ole Holsti to explain the relationship between John Foster Dulles’ beliefs and his model of information processing. It is the most widely studied model of one's opponent. A state is presumed to be implacably hostile, and contra-indicators of this are ignored. They are dismissed as propaganda ploys or signs of weakness. Examples are John Foster Dulles' position regarding the Soviet Union, or Israel's initial position on the Palestinian Liberation Organization.
Post-structuralist 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". (See also feminism in international relations.)
Systemic level concepts
International relations are 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.
Preceding the concepts of interdependence and dependence, international relations relies on the idea of sovereignty. Described in Jean Bodin's "Six Books of the Commonwealth in 1576, the three pivotal points derived from the book describe sovereignty as being a state, that the sovereign power(s) have absolute power over their territories, and that such a power is only limited by the sovereign's "own obligations towards other sovereigns and individuals". Such a foundation of sovereignty permits, is indicated by a sovereign's obligation to other sovereigns, interdependence and dependence to take place. While throughout world history there have been instances of groups lacking or losing sovereignty, such as African nations prior to Decolonization or the occupation of Iraq during the Iraq War, there is still a need for sovereignty in terms of assessing international relations.
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.
Perhaps the most significant concept behind that of power and sovereignty, national interest is a state’s action in relation to other states where it seeks to gain advantage or benefits to itself. National interest, whether aspirational or operational, is divided by core/vital and peripheral/non-vital interests. Core or vital interests constitute the things which a country is willing to defend or expand with conflict such as territory, ideology (religious, political, economic), or its citizens. Peripheral or non-vital are interests which a state is willing to compromise. For example, in the German annexation of the Sudetenland in 1938 (a part of Czechoslovakia) under the Munich Agreement, Czechoslovakia was willing to relinquish territory which was considered ethnically German in order to preserve its own integrity and sovereignty.
In the 21st century, the status-quo of the international system is no longer monopolized by states alone. Rather, it is the presence of non-state actors, who autonomously act to implement unpredictable behavior to the international system. Whether it is transnational corporations, liberation movements, non-governmental agencies, or international organizations, these entities have the potential to significantly influence the outcome of any international transaction. Additionally, this also includes the individual person as while the individual is what constitutes the states collective entity, the individual does have the potential to also create unpredicted behaviors. Al-Qaeda, as an example of a non-state actor, has significantly influenced the way states (and non-state actors) conduct international affairs.
The existence of power blocs in international relations is a significant factor related to polarity. During the Cold War, the alignment of several nations to one side or another based on ideological differences or national interests has become an endemic feature of international relations. Unlike prior, shorter-term blocs, the Western and Soviet blocs sought to spread their national ideological differences to other nations. Leaders like U.S. President Harry S. Truman under the Truman Doctrine believed it was necessary to spread democracy whereas the Warsaw Pact under Soviet policy sought to spread communism. After the Cold War, and the dissolution of the ideologically homogeneous Eastern bloc still gave rise to others such as the South-South Cooperation movement.
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 by theorists. However, the term bipolar was notably used by Stalin who said he saw the international system as a bipolar one with two opposing powerbases and ideologies. Consequently, the international system prior to 1945 can be described as multipolar, with power being shared among Great powers.
The collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991 had led to unipolarity, with the United States as a sole superpower, although many refuse to acknowledge the fact. China's continued rapid economic growth (in 2010 it became the world's second-largest economy), 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), resulted in debate over whether China is now a superpower or a possible candidate in the future. However, China's strategic force unable of projecting power beyond its region and its nuclear arsenal of 250 warheads (compared to 7700 of the United States) mean that the unipolarity will persist in the policy-relevant 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.
Robert Gilpin's Hegemonic stability theory 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.
The case of Gilpin proved to be correct and Waltz's article titled "The Stability of a Bipolar World" was followed in 1999 by William Wohlforth's article titled "The Stability of a Unipolar World"
Waltz's thesis 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
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.
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.
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.
Religion can have an effect on the way a state acts within the international system. Different theoretical perspectives treat it in somewhat different fashion. One dramatic example is the Thirty Years War (1618–48) that ravaged much of Europe. Religion is visible as an organizing 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. Events since 9-11, the role of Islam in terrorism, and the strife in the Middle East have made it a major topic.
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.
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).
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.
Organisation of Islamic Cooperation
The Organisation of Islamic Cooperation (OIC) is an international organization consisting of 57 member states. The organisation attempts to be the collective voice of the Muslim world (Ummah) and attempts to safeguard the interests and ensure the progress and well-being of Muslims.
Other generalist inter-state organizations include: