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International relations theory is the study of international relations (IR) from a theoretical perspective. It attempts to provide a conceptual framework upon which international relations can be analyzed.[1] Ole Holsti describes international relations theories as acting like pairs of coloured sunglasses that allow the wearer to see only salient events relevant to the theory; e.g., an adherent of realism may completely disregard an event that a constructivist might pounce upon as crucial, and vice versa. The three most prominent theories are realism, liberalism and constructivism.[2] Sometimes, institutionalism proposed and developed by Keohane and Nye is discussed as a paradigm differed from liberalism.

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.

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.[3] International relations, as a discipline, is believed to have emerged after the First World War with the establishment of a Chair of International Relations, the Woodrow Wilson Chair held by Alfred Eckhard Zimmern[4] at the University of Wales, Aberystwyth.[5]

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".[6] The leading critique of this school of thinking was the "realist" analysis offered by Carr.

However, a more recent study, by David Long and Brian Schmidt in 2005, offers a revisionist account of the origins of the field of international relations. They claim that the history of the field can be traced back to late 19th Century imperialism and internationalism. The fact that the history of the field is presented by "great debates", such as the realist-idealist debate, does not correspond with the historic evidence found in earlier works: "We should once and for all dispense with the outdated anachronistic artifice of the debate between the idealists and realists as the dominant framework for and understanding the history of the field". Their revisionist account claims that, up until 1918, international relations already existed in the form of colonial administration, race science, and race development.[7]

A clear distinction is made between explanatory and constitutive approaches when classifying international relations theories.

Realism

Thucydides author of History of the Peloponnesian War is considered one of the earliest "realist" thinkers.[8]

Realism or political realism[9] has been the dominant theory of international relations since the conception of the discipline.[10] The theory claims to rely upon an ancient tradition of thought which includes writers such as Thucydides, Machiavelli, and Hobbes. 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 strands of modern-day realist thinking. However, the main tenets of the theory have been identified as statism, survival, and self-help.[10]

  • Statism: Realists believe that nation states are the main actors in international politics.[11] 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.[9] Therefore, international politics is a struggle for power between self-interested states.[12]
  • Self-help: Realists believe that no other 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 intergovernmental organizations, non-governmental organizations, or multinational corporations, 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, economic, and political capabilities.

Some realists, known as human nature realists or classical realists,[13] believe that states are inherently aggressive, that territorial expansion is constrained only by opposing powers, while others, known as offensive/defensive realists,[13] 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

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. It shapes all foreign policy choices of states in the international arena. For instance, any disagreement between states derives from lack of a common power (central authority) to enforce rules and maintain them constantly. Thus there is constant anarchy in international system that makes it necessary for states the obtainment of strong weapons in order to guarantee their survival. Additionally, in an anarchic system, states with greater power have tendency to increase its influence further.[16] According to neo-realists, structure is considered extremely important element in IR and 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.[17]

Liberalism

Kant's writings on perpetual peace were an early contribution to democratic peace theory.[18]

The precursor to liberal international relations theory was "idealism". Idealism (or utopianism) was viewed critically by those who saw themselves as "realists", for instance E. H. Carr.[19] In international relations, idealism (also called "Wilsonianism" because of its association with Woodrow Wilson) is a school of thought that 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 I.

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 non-democracies. (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.[20] One argument is that economic interdependence makes war between trading partners less likely.[21] In contrast realists claim that economic interdependence increases rather than decreases the likelihood of conflict.

Neoliberalism

Neoliberalism, liberal institutionalism or neo-liberal institutionalism[22] is an advancement of liberal thinking. It argues that international institutions can allow nations to successfully cooperate in the international system.

Complex interdependence

Robert O. Keohane and Joseph S. Nye, in response to neorealism, develop an opposing theory they dub "complex interdependence." Robert Keohane and Joseph Nye explain, "... complex interdependence sometimes comes closer to reality than does realism." In explaining this, Keohane and Nye cover the three assumptions in realist thought: First, states are coherent units and are the dominant actors in international relations; second, force is a usable and effective instrument of policy; and finally, the assumption that there is a hierarchy in international politics.

The heart of Keohane and Nye's argument is that in international politics there are, in fact, multiple channels that connect societies exceeding the conventional Westphalian system of states. This manifests itself in many forms ranging from informal governmental ties to multinational corporations and organizations. Here they define their terminology; interstate relations are those channels assumed by realists; transgovernmental relations occur when one relaxes the realist assumption that states act coherently as units; transnational applies when one removes the assumption that states are the only units. It is through these channels that political exchange occurs, not through the limited interstate channel as championed by realists.

Secondly, Keohane and Nye argue that there is not, in fact, a hierarchy among issues, meaning that not only is the martial arm of foreign policy not the supreme tool by which to carry out a state's agenda, but that there are a multitude of different agendas that come to the forefront. The line between domestic and foreign policy becomes blurred in this case, as realistically there is no clear agenda in interstate relations.

Finally, the use of military force is not exercised when complex interdependence prevails. The idea is developed that between countries in which a complex interdependence exists, the role of the military in resolving disputes is negated. However, Keohane and Nye go on to state that the role of the military is in fact important in that "alliance's political and military relations with a rival bloc."

Post-liberalism

One version of post-liberal theory argues that within the modern, globalized world, states in fact are driven to cooperate in order to ensure security and sovereign interests. The departure from classical liberal theory is most notably felt in the re-interpretation of the concepts of sovereignty and autonomy. Autonomy becomes a problematic concept in shifting

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.

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.[3] International relations, as a discipline, is believed to have emerged after the First World War with the establishment of a Chair of International Relations, the Woodrow Wilson Chair held by Alfred Eckhard Zimmern[4] at the University of Wales, Aberystwyth.[5]

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".[6] The leading critique of this school of thinking was the "realist" analysis offered by Carr.

However, a more recent study, by David Long and Brian Schmidt in 2005, offers a revisionist account of the origins of the field of international relations. They claim that the history of the field can be traced back to late 19th Century imperialism and internationalism. The fact that the history of the field is presented by "great debates", such as the realist-idealist debate, does not correspond with the historic evidence found in earlier works: "We should once and for all dispense with the outdated anachronistic artifice of the debate between the idealists and realists as the dominant framework for and understanding the history of the field". Their revisionist account claims that, up until 1918, international relations already existed in the form of colonial administration, race science, and race development.[7]

A clear distinction is made between explanatory and constitutive approaches when classifying international relations theories.

Realism or political realism[9] has been the dominant theory of international relations since the conception of the discipline.[10] The theory claims to rely upon an ancient tradition of thought which includes writers such as Thucydides, Machiavelli, and Hobbes. 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 strands of modern-day realist thinking. However, the main tenets of the theory have been identified as statism, survival, and self-help.[10]

  • Statism: Realists believe that nation states are the main actors in international politics.[11] 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.[9] Therefore, international politics is a struggle for power between self-interested states.[12]
  • Self-help: Realists believe that no other 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 intergovernmental organizations, non-governmental organizations, or multinational corporations, 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, economic, and political capabilities.

Some realists, known as human nature realists or classical realists,[13] believe that states are inherently aggressive, that territorial expansion is constrained only by opposing powers, while others, known as offensive/defensive realists,[13] 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

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. It shapes all foreign policy choices of states in the international arena. For instance, any disagreement between states derives from lack of a common power (central authority) to enforce rules and maintain them constantly. Thus there is constant anarchy in international system that makes it necessary for states the obtainment of strong weapons in order to guarantee their survival. Additionally, in an anarchic system, states with greater power have tendency to increase its influence further.[16] According to neo-realists, structure is considered extremely important element in IR and 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 capa

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 intergovernmental organizations, non-governmental organizations, or multinational corporations, 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, economic, and political capabilities.

Some realists, known as human nature realists or classical realists,[13] believe that states are inherently aggressive, that territorial expansion is constrained only by opposing powers, while others, known as offensive/defensive realists,[13] 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