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International relations

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International relations (IR) is the study of politics between states.[1] Until recently, this mostly meant the study of war and diplomacy (so-called "high politics") but has since the end of the Cold War been expanded to include trade, ethnic relations, human rights, the environment, and any other topic that might cross state boundaries.

There are many different theoretical approaches to the study of international relations. These schools differ on assumptions such as the underlying actor model (rational choice vs. norm-driven behavior), the relative importance of systemic and individual factors (the agent-structure-debate), and even epistemological issues such as the divide between positivists and post-positivists. The only axiom that nearly all schools agree on is that the international system is anarchic. The following are the major schools within the United States, though many others exist.

Theories of international relations[edit]


Realism used to dominate the theoretical landscape in IR during the Cold War, but has gradually fallen out of favour ever since. It proposes a model of state interaction in an anarchic system, where each nation has to ultimately rely on its own material capabilities (primarily economic and military resources, population and technology) to ensure its survival. Security is assumed to be the core national interest of any state, to which all other considerations must take a back seat. Since, under anarchy, no state can be sure of the intentions of others, each has a powerful motivation to increase its own capabilities, resulting in security dilemmas and arms races between rational power-maximizers even if they do not harbor aggressive designs. Nevertheless, states may try to solicit external help by forming alliances against more powerful adversaries, thereby establishing a balance of power. The stability of the resulting international system depends on the distribution of power within it, with some configurations more prone to conflict than others - notably, a multipolar system, like Europe before World War I, is assumed to be inherently less stable than a bipolar one due to more opportunities for miscalculation and balancing failures. Realists typically suggest that the only way to prevent war is to make it too deadly to the other side, relying on deterrence as a central element of statecraft. This is why some realists, notably Kenneth Waltz, advocate nuclear proliferation, noting that no two nuclear-armed countries have ever gone to war[2].

Realism was founded by Hans Morgenthau in the aftermath of World War II, noting that the traditional liberal views that had dominated prior to World War II had set up many of the conditions that led to it. Currently, the two main types of neorealism are those of defensive neorealism, as popularized by Kenneth Waltz[3] and Robert Jervis, and offensive neorealism, as popularized by John Mearsheimer[4]. Defensive neorealism believes that most states will not attack each other, except by awful miscalculation, whereas offensive neorealism believes that states are expansionistic by nature. The doctrine of Realpolitik is a form of political realism.


Liberalism challenges one of the central concepts of realist thought in IR: the idea of states as unitary actors whose preferences are derived from the nature of the international system. Instead, it develops a more complex model of the formulation of "national interests", taking the preferences of important domestic actors into account and including economic well-being and development as another core interest on par with security[5]. Contrary to the realist model of states as rational power-maximizers seeking relative gains over their competitors, it holds that states seek to engage in mutually beneficial relationships (mostly international trade) that deliver absolute gains for each participant, leaving them better off and creating a powerful incentive to avoid armed conflict that would disrupt these relationships[6].

Another important contribution that can be subsumed under the liberal paradigm in IR is the work of institutionalists, who hold that the anarchic nature of the international system can at least in part be overcome through institutions creating binding agreements and enforcement mechanisms, thereby removing uncertainty, solving security dilemmas and, again, leaving all participants better off as long as the costs of upholding such agreements do not exceed their benefits. Originally, it was assumed that such institutions could only be created when a hegemon sees fit to impose such an order in its own interest and assumes all or most of the associated costs, but the fact that core institutions such as the UN and GATT/WTO have survived the relative decline of American power in the second half of the 20th century, while Europe has been tightly integrated in the absence of a predominant power, paints a much more optimistic picture of long-term institutional stability even under multipolar conditions[7].

Historically, liberalism in IR is closely associated with the philosophy of international idealists, best exemplified by Woodrow Wilson. While idealism was largely discredited following the failure of the League of Nations, the disastrous World War II and the resurgence of cold-blooded power politics, it has enjoyed a comeback in recent decades, especially after the end of the Cold War and increasing democratization. Notably, Democratic Peace Theory (the idea that democracies do not wage war against each other), an offshoot of liberalism, has provided an important rationale for democracy promotion on the hands of Western states.


Marxists believe that the major divisions of the world are between the international classes, perhaps even more prevailing than the divisions between nation-states. There is an international capitalist class, whose national sectors by and large have undue (but under capitalism, inevitable) control of their states. Therefore, relations between states will be determined in large part based on whether the interests of the capitalists of two states are more aligned or more at odds. Furthermore, a good political scientist should look at which parts of a nation-state's capitalist class have the most power at the time in question (e.g: Is it the financial sector's political party in power? Is it the oil industry's political party? Is the political party of a labor-intensive industry or of a capital-intensive industry that's in power? What is the strength of organized labor?).

Since the end of the Cold War, Marxism has largely been rejected in IR in the United States. Apparently, the logic is that with Marxism, so long as there is not the Soviet Union or Maoist China around to pretend to espouse it, it can be discarded as a theory of history (in IR, if nowhere else). Another possibility is that when their nation-state is the unchallenged global hegemon, political scientists contract the delusion that Marxism can't explain power.

Dependency Theory[edit]

A branch of Marxist IR theory called dependency theory holds that the rich-country sections of the global capitalist class use their states to enforce dictatorship, labor exploitation, wealth extraction, and lack of environmental standards in poor countries to advance their profits. These rich-country capitalists then make a lot of money.

Dependency theory was once popular in political science in the United States, but over the course of the 1970s and early 1980s, became much less so, to the point that you might get laughed at if you even utter the term in the US now (the lesson being to call it something else, like World-Systems Theory). The irony is that this is the period when the Bretton Woods system was dismantled, the IMF and World Bank were changed from credit institutions for economic development to credit institutions for wealth extraction, neoliberalism was introduced to the world, and Operation Condor was conducted.


Constructivism in IR is the idea that the international system does not constitute an objective reality that is perceived in an identical way by all actors and imposes similar individual preferences on them, but is rather socially constructed and shaped by the agents themselves. Most notably, Alexander Wendt described anarchy not as an unchangeable, dominant aspect of the international system, but rather as "what states make of it"[8], describing the possibility of peacefully competitive or even amicable relations between states, depending on their normative convictions, self-images and perceptions of other actors. Central to constructivist thought are international norms and their creation and diffusion, challenging the rational actor model and replacing the "logic of consequences" with a "logic of appropriateness" governing actor behavior. From this perspective, power is less important than how states can use that power. Moreover, constructivists believe that no norm in the international system is fundamental, even the anarchic one. Therefore, if states wished to get rid of anarchy, they could do so, even though this might not always be in their interest, as sovereignty is a powerful norm in itself. A point which constructivists share with the liberal school is a much broader scope of relevant actors than just states themselves, especially when analyzing processes centered around norm creation, which is subject to significant influences by non-state actors (so-called "norm entrepreneurs"); to support this point, constructivists love pointing out the arising of a norm against the use of landmines, which was the result of a concerted effort by a private group, the International Campaign to Ban Landmines, but enshrined in treaty by the Ottawa Treaty of 1997.


Diplomacy is the art of letting the other person get your way. Or, alternatively, it's saying "Nice doggy" while looking for a bigger gun rock. Diplomacy is the act of representing a state and negotiating on its behalf. In the United States, diplomacy is conducted mostly by the State Department. Most other states have a more logically named "Ministry of Foreign Affairs."


Diplomats in the United States have often been referred to as "striped-pants cookie pushers,"[9] due to the perception that their work is just to attend cocktail parties, hobnob with each other, and generally mooch off tax-payers while not doing anything of use.

Diplomats are also often tarred as either reflexive pacifists or ineffectual bureaucrats, more interested in the minutiae of Robert's Rules of Order than getting things done.


Modern-day diplomats are often called upon to represent their governments' interests in a wide range of fields. For example, U.S. diplomats negotiate agreements, promote U.S. companies and products, engage in development work, report to Washington on trends and events in their host countries, and more. Moreover, most diplomats today live and work in developing countries, rather than Paris or Geneva.

U.S. diplomats also produce some of the most important reports for both human rights organizations and people looking to invest abroad.


See the main article on this topic: War

What is it good for? A variety of problems, the foremost among them being "I have too many swords and not enough land".

External links[edit]

  • A good site for a brief overview of many ideas in International Relations can be found at here.


  1. Normally, it also includes any kind of politics that transcend state boundaries, though the neologism "transnational politics" is starting to find some currency.
  2. Sagan, Scott D., and Waltz, Kenneth N. (2003): The Spread of Nuclear Weapons: a Debate Renewed, New York: W.W. Norton and Company, 2003.
  3. Waltz, Kenneth N. (1979): Theory of International Politics, New York: McGraw Hill, 1979.
  4. Mearsheimer, John J. (2003): The Tragedy of Great Power Politics, New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 2003.
  5. Moravcsik, Andrew (1997): Taking preferences seriously: a liberal theory of international politics. International Organization 51:513-553.
  6. Keohane, Robert O. and Nye, Joseph (1977): Power and Interdependence. New York: Little, Brown and Company, 1977.
  7. Keohane, Robert O. (1984): After Hegemony: Cooperation and Discord in the World Political Economy. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1984.
  8. Wendt, Alexander (1999): Social Theory of International Politics. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1999.
  9. Seriously, it's a real phrase