International relations

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In 2012 alone, the Palace of Nations in Geneva, Switzerland, hosted more than 10,000 intergovernmental meetings. The city hosts the highest number of International organizations in the world. United Nations Flags - cropped.jpg
In 2012 alone, the Palace of Nations in Geneva, Switzerland, hosted more than 10,000 intergovernmental meetings. The city hosts the highest number of International organizations in the world.
The field of international relations dates from the time of the Greek historian Thucydides. Thucydides-bust-cutout ROM.jpg
The field of international relations dates from the time of the Greek historian Thucydides.

International relations (IR) or international affairs (IA)—commonly also referred to as international studies (IS), global studies (GS), or global affairs (GA)—is the study of politics, economics and law on a global level. Depending on the academic institution, it is either a field of political science, an interdisciplinary academic field similar to global studies, or an independent academic discipline that examines social science and humanities in an international context.


In all cases, international relations is concerned with the relationships between political entities (polities) such as sovereign states, inter-governmental organizations (IGOs), international non-governmental organizations (INGOs), other 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 analyses and formulates the foreign policy of a given state.

As a political activity, international relations dates from at least the time of Greek historian Thucydides (c.460–395 BC), but emerged as a discrete academic field within political science in the early 20th century. [Note 1] In practice, international relations and affairs forms a separate academic program or field from political science, and the courses taught therein are highly interdisciplinary. [2]

For example, international relations draws from the fields of politics, economics, international law, communication studies, history, demography, geography, sociology, anthropology, criminology and psychology. The scope of international relations encompasses issues such as globalization, diplomatic relations, state sovereignty, international security, ecological sustainability, nuclear proliferation, nationalism, economic development, global finance, terrorism, and human rights.


Studies of international relations start thousands of years ago; Barry Buzan and Richard Little consider the interaction of ancient Sumerian city-states, starting in 3,500 BC, as the first fully-fledged international system. [3]

The official portraits of King Wladyslaw IV dressed according to French, Spanish and Polish fashion reflects the complex politics of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth during the Thirty Years' War French Spanish and Polish fashion.jpg
The official portraits of King Władysław IV dressed according to French, Spanish and Polish fashion reflects the complex politics of the Polish–Lithuanian Commonwealth during the Thirty Years' War

The history of international relations is generally traced back to the Peace of Westphalia of 1648 in Europe, a stepping stone in the development of the modern state system. During the preceding Middle Ages, European 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. [4] 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. These principles underpin the modern international legal and political order.

The period between roughly 1500 to 1789 saw the rise of independent, sovereign states and the institutionalization of diplomacy and the military. The French Revolution contributed the idea that the citizenry of a state, defined as the nation, that were sovereign, rather than a monarch or noble class. A state wherein 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. 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. [5] 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.



IR theories can be categorised on the basis of normativity. In line with the is–ought problem, non-normative empirical theories seek to explain why certain events or trends exist in world politics (what the world is), whereas normative theories are concerned with the events or trends that should exist (what the world ought to be) and how to make ethical judgements accordingly. [6] Smith, Baylis & Owens (2008) make the case that the normative position 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. [7]


IR theories are also roughly divided into one of two epistemological camps: "positivist" and "post-positivist". Positivist theories aim to replicate the methods of the natural sciences by analyzing the impact of material forces. They typically focus on features of international relations such as state interactions, size of military forces, and balance of powers. 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.[ citation needed ]

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).

Schools of thought


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. [8] 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 recognize that great powers can coexist even if they have antithetical values and beliefs. [9]

History of the Peloponnesian War , written by Thucydides, is considered a foundational text of the realist school of political philosophy. [10] There is debate over whether Thucydides himself was a realist; Ned Lebow has argued that seeing Thucydides as a realist is a misinterpretation of a more complex political message within his work. [11] Amongst others, philosophers like Machiavelli, Hobbes and Rousseau are considered to have contributed to the Realist philosophy. [12] 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. Morgenthau's belief in this regard is part of the reason he has been classified as a "classical realist" rather than a realist.

Major theorists include E. H. Carr, Robert Gilpin, Charles P. Kindleberger, Stephen D. Krasner, Hans Morgenthau, Samuel P. Huntington, Kenneth Waltz, Stephen Walt, and John Mearsheimer.


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. [13]

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. [14]

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, Michael W. Doyle, Francis Fukuyama, and Helen Milner. [15]


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. Neoliberal institutionalism, an approach founded by Robert Keohane and Joseph Nye, emphasize the important role of international institutions in maintaining an open global trading regime.

Prominent neoliberal institutionalists are John Ikenberry, Robert Keohane, and Joseph Nye.

Regime theory

Regime theory is derived from the liberal tradition that argues that international institutions or regimes affect the behaviour 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". [16]

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).

Post-positivist/reflectivist theories


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 anarchic 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 characterized 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.

Prominent social constructivist IR scholars are Rawi Abdelal, Michael Barnett, Mark Blyth, Martha Finnemore, Ted Hopf, Kathryn Sikkink and Alexander Wendt.


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. 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.[ citation needed ]


Feminist IR considers the ways that international politics affects and is affected by both men and women and also at how the core concepts that are employed within the discipline of IR (e.g. war, security, etc.) are themselves gendered. Feminist IR has not only concerned itself with the traditional focus of IR on states, wars, diplomacy and security, but feminist IR scholars have also emphasized the importance of looking at how gender shapes the current global political economy. In this sense, there is no clear cut division between feminists working in IR and those working in the area of International Political Economy (IPE). From its inception, feminist IR has also theorized extensively about men and, in particular, masculinities. Many IR feminists argue that the discipline is inherently masculine in nature. For example, in her article "Sex and Death in the Rational World of Defense Intellectuals" Signs (1988), Carol Cohn claimed that a highly masculinized culture within the defence establishment contributed to the divorcing of war from human emotion.

Feminist IR emerged largely from the late 1980s onwards. The end of the Cold War and the re-evaluation of traditional IR theory during the 1990s opened up a space for gendering International Relations. Because feminist IR is linked broadly to the critical project in IR, by and large most feminist scholarship have sought to problematize the politics of knowledge construction within the discipline – often by adopting methodologies of deconstructivism associated with postmodernism/poststructuralism. However, the growing influence of feminist and women-centric approaches within the international policy communities (for example at the World Bank and the United Nations) is more reflective of the liberal feminist emphasis on equality of opportunity for women.

Prominent scholars include Carol Cohn, Cynthia Enloe, Sara Ruddick, and J. Ann Tickner.

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.

Post-structuralist theories

Post-structuralism theories of international relations 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.) Rosenberg's article "Why is there no International Historical Sociology" [17] was a key text in the evolution of this strand of international relations theory. Post-structuralism has garnered both significant praise and criticism, with its critics arguing that post-structuralist research often fails to address the real-world problems that international relations studies is supposed to contribute to solving.

Leadership theories

Interest group perspective

Interest group theory posits that the driving force behind state behaviour 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

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. [18]

Inherent bad faith model

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. [19] It is the most widely studied model of one's opponent. [20] 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. [21]

Levels of analysis

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, characterized by anarchy. Focusing on the systemic level of international relations is often, but not always, the preferred method for neo-realists and other structuralist IR analysts.


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". [22] Such a foundation of sovereignty 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.

National interest

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 Germany's 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. [23]

Non-state actors

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 behaviour 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 behaviours. Al-Qaeda, as an example of a non-state actor, has significantly influenced the way states (and non-state actors) conduct international affairs. [24]

Power blocs

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. [25]


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.

Empires of the world in 1910 World empires and colonies around World War I.png
Empires of the world in 1910

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—it became the world's second-largest economy in 2010—respectable international position, and the power the Chinese Government exerts over its 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 [26] ) 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" [27] was followed in 1999 by William Wohlforth's article titled "The Stability of a Unipolar World" [28]

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.


NATO International Security Assistance Force in Afghanistan ISAF soldier looking for enemy positions in Kunar Province of Afghanistan.jpg
NATO International Security Assistance Force in Afghanistan

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

  • Diplomacy is the practice of communication and negotiation between representatives of states. To some extent, all other tools of international relations can be considered the failure of diplomacy. Keeping in mind, the use of other tools are part of the communication and negotiation inherent within diplomacy. Sanctions, force, and adjusting trade regulations, while not typically considered part of diplomacy, are actually valuable tools in the interest of leverage and placement in negotiations.
  • Sanctions are usually a first resort after the failure of diplomacy, and are one of the main tools used to enforce treaties. They can take the form of diplomatic or economic sanctions and involve the cutting of ties and imposition of barriers to communication or trade.
  • War, the use of force, is often thought of as the ultimate tool of international relations. A popular definition is that given by Carl von Clausewitz, with war being "the continuation of politics by other means". There is a growing study into "new wars" involving actors other than states. The study of war in international relations is covered by the disciplines of "war studies" and "strategic studies".
  • The mobilization of international shame can also be thought of as a tool of international relations. This is attempting to alter states' actions through 'naming and shaming' at the international level. This is mostly done by the large human rights NGOs such as Amnesty International (for instance when it called Guantanamo Bay a "Gulag"), [29] or Human Rights Watch. A prominent use of was the UN Commission on Human Rights 1235 procedure, which publicly exposes state's human rights violations. The current UN Human Rights Council has yet to use this mechanism
  • The allotment of economic and/or diplomatic benefits such as the European Union's enlargement policy; candidate countries are only allowed to join if they meet the Copenhagen criteria.
  • The mutual exchange of ideas, information, art, music and language among nations through cultural diplomacy has also been recognized by governments as an important tool in the development of international relations. [30] [31] [32] [33]

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.

Regime type

It is often considered that a state's form of government can dictate the way that a state interacts with others in the international relation.

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 externalize 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.

Revisionism/status quo

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, and different theoretical perspectives treat it in somewhat different fashion. One dramatic example is the Thirty Years' War (1618–48) that ravaged much of Europe, which was at least partly motivated by theological differences within Christianity. Religion is a major 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. The September 11 attacks in the United States, the role of Islam in terrorism, and religious strife in the Middle East have made the role of religion in international relations a major topic. China's reemergence as a major international power is believed by some scholars to be shaped by Confucianism. [34]

Individual or sub-unit level concepts

The level beneath that of the unit (state) 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. [35]

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), [41] held by Alfred Eckhard Zimmern [42] and 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. [43]

CIGI Campus, home to the Balsillie School of International Affairs Centre for International Governance Innovation 2.jpg
CIGI Campus, home to the Balsillie School of International Affairs

The first university entirely dedicated to the study of IR was 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. The Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy, a collaboration between Tufts University and Harvard, opened its doors in 1933 as the first graduate-only school of international affairs in the United States. [44] 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.

Maison de la Paix, home to the Graduate Institute Geneva Maison de la paix petals 1 and 2.jpg
Maison de la Paix, home to the Graduate Institute Geneva

Other notable Institutions:

Institutions in international relations

The United Nations Secretariat Building at the United Nations headquarters in New York City 67o Periodo de Sesiones de la Asamblea General de Naciones Unidas (8020913157).jpg
The United Nations Secretariat Building at the United Nations headquarters in New York City

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).

Generalist inter-state organizations

United Nations

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:

Economic institutions

The World Bank headquarters in Washington, D.C. World Bank building at Washington.jpg
The World Bank headquarters in Washington, D.C.
NATO E-3A flying with USAF F-16s in a NATO exercise Nato awacs.jpg
NATO E-3A flying with USAF F-16s in a NATO exercise

Human rights

Regional security arrangements

See also


Related Research Articles

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. 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. Sometimes, institutionalism proposed and developed by Keohane and Nye is discussed as a paradigm differed from liberalism.

Neo-Gramscianism applies a critical theory approach to the study of international relations (IR) and the global political economy (GPE) that explores the interface of ideas, institutions and material capabilities as they shape the specific contours of the state formation. The theory is heavily influenced by the writings of Antonio Gramsci.

World order is an international-relations term describing the distribution of power among world powers.

Regime theory is a theory within international relations 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, as regimes are, by definition, instances of international cooperation.

International security set of measures taken by states and international organizations to ensure mutual survival and safety

International security, also called global security, is a term which refers to the measures taken by states and international organizations, such as the United Nations, European Union, and others, to ensure mutual survival and safety. These measures include military action and diplomatic agreements such as treaties and conventions. International and national security are invariably linked. International security is national security or state security in the global arena.

Interventionism is a policy of non-defensive (proactive) activity undertaken by a nation-state, or other geo-political jurisdiction of a lesser or greater nature, to manipulate an economy and/or society. The most common applications of the term are for economic interventionism, and foreign interventionism.

Realism (international relations) international relations theory

Realism is one of the dominant schools of thought in international relations theory, theoretically formalising the Realpolitik statesmanship of early modern Europe. Although a highly diverse body of thought, it is unified by the belief that world politics is always and necessarily a field of conflict among actors pursuing power. The theories of realism are contrasted by the cooperative ideals of liberalism.

In the study of international relations, neoliberalism refers to a school of thought which believes that states are, or at least should be, concerned first and foremost with absolute gains rather than relative gains to other states. Neoliberalism is a revised version of liberalism.

Reflectivism is a broad umbrella label, used primarily in International Relations theory, for a range of theoretical approaches which oppose rational-choice accounts of social phenomena and, perhaps, positivism more generally. The label was popularised by Robert Keohane in his presidential address to the International Studies Association in 1988. The address was entitled "International Institutions: Two Approaches", and contrasted two broad approaches to the study of international institutions. One was "rationalism", the other what Keohane referred to as "reflectivism". Rationalists — including realists, neo-realists, liberals, neo-liberals, and scholars using game-theoretic or expected-utility models — are theorists who adopt the broad theoretical and ontological commitments of rational-choice theory.

Functionalism is a theory of international relations that arose during the inter-War period principally from the strong concern about the obsolescence of the State as a form of social organization. Rather than the self-interest of nation-states that realists see as a motivating factor, functionalists focus on common interests and needs shared by states in a process of global integration triggered by the erosion of state sovereignty and the increasing weight of knowledge and hence of scientists and experts in the process of policy-making. Its roots can be traced back to the liberal/idealist tradition that started with Kant and goes as far as Woodrow Wilson's "Fourteen Points" speech.

Marxist and neo-Marxist international relations theories are paradigms which reject the realist/liberal view of state conflict or cooperation, instead focusing on the economic and material aspects. It purports to reveal how the economy trumps other concerns, which allows for the elevation of class as the focus of the study.

In international relations, institutionalism comprises a group of differing theories on international relations (IR). Functionalist and neofunctionalist approaches, regime theory, and state cartel theory have in common their focus on the role of formal and informal rules, norms, practices, and conventions for international politics.

Westphalian sovereignty, or state sovereignty, is a principle in international law that each state has exclusive sovereignty over its territory. The principle underlies the modern international system of sovereign states and is enshrined in the United Nations Charter, which states that "nothing should authorise intervention in matters essentially within the domestic jurisdiction of any state." According to the idea, every state, no matter how large or small, has an equal right to sovereignty. Political scientists have traced the concept to the Peace of Westphalia (1648), which ended the Thirty Years' War. The principle of non-interference was further developed in the 18th century. The Westphalian system reached its peak in the 19th and 20th centuries, but it has faced recent challenges from advocates of humanitarian intervention.

In international relations, constructivism is the claim that significant aspects of international relations are historically and socially constructed, rather than inevitable consequences of human nature or other essential characteristics of world politics.

In international relations theory, anarchy is the idea that the world lacks any supreme authority or sovereign. In an anarchic state, there is no hierarchically superior, coercive power that can resolve disputes, enforce law, or order the system of international politics. In international relations, anarchy is widely accepted as the starting point for international relations theory.

The English School of international relations theory maintains that there is a 'society of states' at the international level, despite the condition of anarchy. The English school stands for the conviction that ideas, rather than simply material capabilities, shape the conduct of international politics, and therefore deserve analysis and critique. In this sense it is similar to constructivism, though the English School has its roots more in world history, international law and political theory, and is more open to normative approaches than is generally the case with constructivism.

Jennifer Sterling-Folker American political scientist

Jennifer Sterling-Folker is the Alan R. Bennett Honors Professor of Political Science at the University of Connecticut. She is a specialist in International Relations theory.

Sovereign state Political entity with a centralized independent government

A sovereign state, in international law, is a political entity that is represented by one centralized government that has sovereignty over a geographic area. International law defines sovereign states as having a permanent population, defined territory, one government, and the capacity to enter into relations with other sovereign states. It is also normally understood that a sovereign state is neither dependent on nor subjected to any other power or state.

In international relations theory, post-positivism refers to theories of international relations which epistemologically reject positivism, the idea that the empiricist observation of the natural sciences can be applied to the social sciences.

International legal theory comprises a variety of theoretical and methodological approaches used to explain and analyse the content, formation and effectiveness of public international law and institutions and to suggest improvements. Some approaches center on the question of compliance: why states follow international norms in the absence of a coercive power that ensures compliance. Other approaches focus on the problem of the formation of international rules: why states voluntarily adopt international legal norms, that limit their freedom of action, in the absence of a world legislature. Other perspectives are policy oriented; they elaborate theoretical frameworks and instruments to criticize the existing rules and make suggestions on how to improve them. Some of these approaches are based on domestic legal theory, others are interdisciplinary, while others have been developed expressly to analyse international law.


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  • Alexander, F. (1998). Encyclopedia of World History. New York: Oxford University Press.

History of international relations