Fundamentals of International Relations Unit 2


Theories of International Relations

The study of international relations takes a wide range of theoretical approaches. In other words, a multidisciplinary approach is adopted in the study of international relations. Although many theories of international relations are internally and externally contested, several major schools of thought are discernable, mainly differentiated by their emphasis on military power, material interests, or ideological beliefs. These schools of thought include; realism, institutionalism, liberalism, constructivism and the English School, amongst others.


The theory of realism sees the international system as anarchic in nature i.e., it lacks a central authority, and because states are sovereign and autonomous of each other, no inherent structure or society can emerge or even exist to order relations between them. This can only be possible if they are forced or consent to it. Realism views power in a variety of ways including military, economics, and diplomacy but places emphasis on the distribution of coercive material capacity as the determinant of international politics.

According to Mearsheimer, realists hold four assumptions which include survival, rationality, military capacity and economic strength. For realists, survival is the principal goal of every State. The greatest threat a state would likely face is foreign invasion and occupation. Although different factors come into consideration to ensure cooperation among nation-states, the anarchical nature of the international system requires that states constantly ensure that they have sufficient power to defend themselves and advance their material interests necessary for survival. With respect to rationality, realists regard states to be rational actors, and as such when given the goal of survival, they will act in the interest of their continued existence. On military grounds, realists believe that states possess some military capacity and others are oblivious of their intentions. In other words, there is a high level of uncertainty in the international system. Realism also believes that states with the most economic clout and military might make the decisions.


Institutionalists share many of the realists’ assumptions about the international system however, Institutionalism relies on microeconomic theory and game theory to reach a radically different conclusion that co-operation between nations is possible. What is obtainable is that co-operation may be a rational, self-interested strategy for countries to pursue under certain conditions. Institutionalists argue that institutions can overcome the uncertainty that undermines co-operation. For instance, countries agreeing on ad hoc tariffs may indeed benefit from tricking their neighbors in any one round of negotiations but countries that know they must interact with the same partners repeatedly through an institution will instead have incentives to comply with agreements in the short term so that they might continue to extract the benefits of co-operation in the long term.


Constructivism is a set of assumptions about the world and human motivation and agency. Its counterpart is Rationalism. Constructivism emphasizes the role of non-State actors more than other approaches. For example, scholars have noted the role of transnational actors like NGOs or transnational corporations in altering State beliefs about issues like the use of land mines in war or international trade. Barnett and Finnemore point out that Constructivists note the role of international institutions as actors in their own right. These institutions at any point may seek to pursue their own interest even against the wishes of the states that created them.


Liberalism believes that the national characteristics of individual states matter for their international relations. This view contrasts sharply with both the realist and institutionalist school of thought, where all states are seen as self-interested actors pursuing wealth or survival. According to Doyle, one of the most prominent developments within liberal theory has been the phenomenon known as the democratic peace. The democratic peace describes the absence of war between liberal states, defined as mature liberal democracies. Theorists of international relations have yet to create a compelling theory of why democratic States do not fight each other. These theories are most useful as sources of insight in designing international institutions, such as courts, that are intended to have an impact on domestic politics or to link up to domestic institutions.

The English School

The English School places emphasis on the centrality of international society and social meanings to the study of world politics. The English school shares the same goal as historians in that scholars in this category adopt a detailed observation of the trends in the international system and their behaviors. English School writers hold historical understandings to be critical to the study of world politics. It is not enough simply to know the balance of power in the international system, as the realists would have it. We must also know what preceded that system, how the states involved came to be where they are today, and what might threaten or motivate them in the future.

These dominant international relations theories, like others, have been challenged from a range of perspectives. Although they have their shortcomings, none can be termed right or wrong rather, all of them combined serve as an attempt at examining and analyzing international politics, and contributes to an understanding of international relations.

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