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Introduction to International Relations

International relations are the study of political relations across the boundaries of international territories, nations, governments and states. It has a dual meaning as it could be used both as a ‘discipline’ and as a ‘condition’. As a condition, it means the official relationship between sovereign states. It is the actual conduct of diplomacy and the state of political affairs among the states. And as a discipline, it is the subject matter of political science and it has a broad scope in itself. The subject matter of International Relations focuses on the study of all relations which include, political, trade, diplomatic and other academic relations among sovereign states. It is the study of relations among various groups, nations, states, governments, peoples, regions, alliances and international organizations etc.

International relations studies include foreign policy, international conflict and negotiation, migration, war, nuclear proliferation, terrorism, international peace, sustainable development, global affairs, international trade, international economy and international development, among other subjects. It is an interdisciplinary approach to the study of world politics derived out of subjects like sociology, economics, political science, game theory, law and even psychology.

International relations could be traced back to the history when the civilised world began to emerge out of the savage. It was first used in Greek and Roman political affairs. Ancient Greek city-states used the element of diplomacy in maintaining relations among themselves.

In modern times, as a result of advancement in technology and scientific inventions, the world has shrunk. Consequently, events in one place in the world have an immediate effect on the rest. The individual cannot survive in isolation. This way the states are also unable to stay in isolation. There is constant interaction among the states and nations.

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But as a subject matter, the study of International Relations began during the First World War and it was expanded after the Second World War. events and political conditions such as the emergence of newly independent countries, Cold War perils, nuclear treaties, the disintegration of USSR, New World Order, domination of international organizations etc often pushed the scope to International relations to a greater extent.

Theories of International Relations

A theory of International Relations is a set of ideas and beliefs that explain how the international political system works. It is not an ideology but a set of principles based on concrete evidence. The International theory is very contemporary. It discusses how the world works. It tends to apply historical evidence in explaining the present.

The scholars of International Relations have classified into various theories. Realism and Idealism are the two main theories that have existed since the beginning. But there are other main theories such as Liberalism, Constructivism approach to International relations and Marxist approach that comes to the theories.

International Relations and Realism

Realism is one of the most important theories of international relational over the Assignment of the history. Realism emphasizes on the study of relations between nations as they have been and as they are. It completely rejects the ideal world and the ideal interpretation of human behaviour.

It is a school of thought that discusses the relations among states in terms of power. According to realism, the states are the main actors in international politics. National interest is the main focus of the state. The state can go to any extent in order to secure their national interest. And one of the main national interest is to gain political power. The states seek to increase their power in relation to other states. The study of states exercising power is known as realpolitik or power politics. It represents the international system as an anarchic political arena whereby self-interested states struggle for power. The security of the nation is the primary focus of the government. It is derived from the belief that individuals are inherently self-seeking people and are in constant pursuit of power in order to prevail over others.

Realist thinkers emerged as a reaction to Utopianism or Idealism. It advocates the belief that they look at the world from a realistic point of view. They tend to understand how the world works according to what is actually is. Idealists emphasize the importance of international law and believe in morality. They see individuals as cooperative who are capable of establishing peaceful relations. The realists emerged after the First World War as a reaction to this idealist approach to international relations.

It is very straightforward in nature and tends to see human as self-interested individuals with no regard to others. As a result, the states also are very selfish. And only seek to expand their national interest. Realism has been described as showing pessimistic outlook of the world.

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Among the ancient scholars of realism were Greek scholar Thucydides, Indian scholar Kautilya and Chinese strategist Sun Tzu. Later in the medieval period, it was the Italian scholar Niccolo Machiavelli and an English political philosopher Thomas Hobbes who were the main proponents of this school of thought. Their ideas could be understood as classical realism. Though Morgenthau is often called the father of classical realism, his theory may be described as neo-classical realism. E.H Carr a British professor on his book ‘The twenty years’ crisis (1919-1939) had been preparing the groundwork for Morgenthau. In this book, E.H Carr divided the scholars of international relations into two blocs - the ‘utopians’ and the ‘realists’. According to him, the utopians are the prodigy of the optimistic age of enlightenment and liberalism who held the view that international problems could be solved by applying rationality and morality. Carr was a realist who supposed that the Second World War broke out as a result of an optimistic view of international behaviour by the scholars and leaders.

Major elements of realism are:

1. Statism: This means that realism is state centric and state is a form of power. The state manages power relations, secure its boundaries and legitimizes the use of power in doing so. Internally the state is an organized power and internationally, it seeks to accumulate more power. The states are the only actors that really count. Other actors such as MNCs, UN and international organizations do possess influence but they are scarce in power. They may rise and fall but the state is permanent in global politics.

2. Survival: Security is the precondition of every state. In order to survive, the state needs security. Survival of the state is an imperative and is essential for the leaders to secure their national interest.

The realists claim the following prospects:

  • The world is a harsh place. Power is the only certain thing in the world. A powerful state will always have the dominant upper hand in all matters and defeat weak competitors.
  • A state’s primary national interest is self-preservation and safeguarding their interest.
  • There is no overarching imaginary power that can enforce global rules. The state is not answerable to any other state or any other political organization but the state itself.
  • Morality cannot be applied while exercising national interest.
  • The international system itself compels states to exercise military power. Leaders of a state may be moral, but moral reason cannot guide foreign policy.
  • There is no scope of International organizations and law on power; they exist only as long as states accept them.

During Cold War period, realism was practiced by most national leaders. There was inherent enmity between US and USSR. It gave a powerful explanation of how the world was during that time. US and USSR sought allies and political strategies in order to secure their interests. Current realism is modelled against this Cold War backdrop and varieties of scholars have emerged such as Kenneth Waltz, John Mearsheimer, Stephen Walt, William Wohlforth, Joseph Grieco and Marco Cesa, each of them illustrating the different theoretical spectrum of realism (neoclassical realism, structural realism, offensive and defensive realism, and the theory of alliances).

Offensive and Defensive Realism.

Propounded by Sean Lynn-Jones and Steven E Miller, it was argued that realism has two basic forms which are known as ‘offensive or aggressive realism’ and ‘defensive’ realism. It is actually the difference between the state policies.

Offensive realism primarily focusses on the importance of security. It is generally believed that the states in their capacity hold power to ensure their security and expand their resources by means of coercive force. If not, then the other states would advance and use coercive means against the state. This result in loss of opportunity for the state and their security may be endangered.

On the other hand, defensive realism believes that infinite security exists in the international system and may adopt a defensive strategy. They do not believe in applying coercive force to pursue their interest. It may exist to protect their territories and regions. The states may acquire military forces as required to secure their territory to act as credible deterrent power.

Both strands believe that international relations is being influenced by human nature and the highest aim of the state is to protect their national interest by pursuing power relations. Both differ in the fact that aggressive realism may apply coercive force in order to advance their interest and adopt aggressive strategies to expand their military might. For example, American policy on Iraq during George Bush's leadership showed evidence on how America followed offensive realism.

While defensive realism is satisfied if their territorial integrity is well protected. They do not feel the need to expand their territorial and military might if not threatened by any outside force. The best example is India’s nuclear policy. It does not need to weaponize nuclear energy. It only believes in ensuring a certain number of nuclear weapons just enough to act as a deterrent force in the international political arena.

Therefore, realism has come a long way. Whether we believe or not, the reality of world politics is what describes how the international system functions. Power is the main concern for realist thinkers.


Liberalism is another major school of thought in international relations. This school of thought is based on the assumption that actors in international relations could achieve peaceful world order. The scholars of this theory also tend to explain international system as being influenced by human nature but their view on human behaviour differs from the views of the realists. According to the liberals, human beings are not specifically violent to one another but have an inherent quality to achieve peace and cooperation.

This theory is often associated with the Kantian overview of world politics. It derives its root from the European Enlightenment thought and is firmly convinced about the circumstantial possibility of achieving lasting international peace through cooperation among states. It believes in applying rules and regulations in the conduct of foreign policy in the international system.

In modern times, the theory of liberal ideas began with John Locke, an English political scholar of the 17th century. He supported the idea that there is great space for human progress if given the right freedom and liberty. He was an ardent advocate of individual rights, private property as well as toleration and believed in constitutional governments. Jeremy Bentham, an English philosopher who founded the Utilitarian school of thought and Immanuel Kant, a German philosopher (both in the 18th century) were the other prominent advocates of liberalism. Liberalism had a profound influence in shaping the world today. It favoured limited government intervention, scientific rationality and believed that individuals should be free from subjugation. They believed in political rights, democracy, equality before the law.

It is seen that liberals pay primary attention to the issue of whether a political regime in a state is regarded as democratic or not and the decisive factors include parliament, market, freedom of the media, separation of powers, elections etc. The theory of liberalism in international relations is based on an important factor that “democracies don't attack one another”. This means that instead of aggression, constraint, violence or hierarchy etc., relations among states are based on peaceful competition which concerns the right priority, the rationalization of relations and actions.

Liberalism symbolizes optimism and positiveness. It has faith in modern attitude which gives thrust to a new positive world, free of authoritarian government and a higher chance for welfarism. The adherent of this theory believes in reason and are fairly convinced that rational thought and principles can be applied in the conduct of international affairs. They see war and conflict as avoidable and human being is not narrow projecting that human reason can triumph over fear and human appetite for power.

Basic Principles of Liberalism

  • Liberal theorists oppose the main thesis of realism. For the liberals: national states are important, but they are not the only, actors in International Relations. It is just a constitutional entity that exists to enforce rule of law and protect rights of the individual.
  • A special global institution may be established to manage the conduct of sovereign national States;
  • The state of anarchy in the international relations can be eliminated or harmonized, pacified and modernized.
  • The State’s behaviour on the international platform does not only digest to securing the national interests but also consort to the common values, recognized by all states.
  • The States in pursuit of securing themselves against potential foreign threats may use a democratic form of conciliation and mediation to avoid further conflict and disagreements.
  • The other concern of liberal thought of international relations is to find out standard and ideological motivations and values to seek rules and regulations for the states to follow.

Utopian Liberalism or Idealism

The Idealistic theory of international relations is also known as Utopian liberalism and is a subset of liberal school of thought. This theory was prominent during the interwar period and played an important role in shaping the political context of that time. This idea was motivated by the passion to avoid and prevent war. After the First World War, there was a constant desire among few leaders and scholars to prevent a further explosion of war.

The American President Woodrow Wilson who was associated with the American President of League of Nations fame propounded the major theory of idealism as a solution to end the war and avoid further conflict. Among the earliest scholars, Alfred Zimmern who headed the first chair in international relations at the University of Wales in 1919 made outstanding efforts in the direction of promoting idealism in international relations. After the end of First World War, the idealist scholars were convinced that it would require human efforts to construct a new world order as peace would not come on its own. Woodrow Wilson considered his primary task to install democracy and peace in Europe and the rest of the world. He believed that liberal democratic values will remove conflict and bring about cooperation among the states. According to Wilson, peace could only be achieved with an establishment of an international institution to monitor the international state of anarchy. This resulted in the establishment of world’s first prominent international organization in the form of League of Nations based on Wilson’s 14 points outlined in his address to the Congress in January 1918.

The main function of the League of Nations was to achieve collective security system. It meant that at the time of the event of war or threat to peace, the member states will collectively cease normal diplomatic ties with the offending state, impose sanctions and dispose military arms and forces if necessary in order to restore status quo.

Wilson’s utopian idealism failed miserably as was seen in the outbreak of second world war. The League of Nations was an experiment of Wilson and it was a disaster. The consequent events led to another great war the world has ever seen in modern times. The failures were attributed to the idea that idealism is seen as just a ‘wishful thinking’. They live in a world of illusion and hopeful thinking that the world would be in peace if liberal ideas are applied in state relations. Eventually, liberalism lost its appeal in international relations as realism asserted itself.

International Relations After Cold War

The Cold War created a bipolar world in the international system and it was during this time that Hans Morgenthau came out in strong support to realism based on realpolitik. But after the disintegration of USSR and F Fukuyama’s the end of History and the last man 1992 claimed that the liberal democracy had no serious ideological challenge. It was seen during this time that international peace will be assured through civil society cooperation. International institutions and intergovernmental organizations also came to play a significant role. The UN especially derived its main source to propagate international peace and security through mutual respect and cooperation of all sovereign states. They also believed that peace is strengthened through economic cooperation and interdependence.

Summing up, the liberal theorists believe that states formed in the lines of democratic values and traditions do not go to war with each other. They have inherent common goals and seek mutually beneficial ties.

Marxist Theory of International Relations

Marxism is the first theory to provide an alternative to capitalist ideology. It presents an alternative view on history, social relations, and religion. It challenges the theory laid down by 'traditional' International Relations such as Realism or Liberalism. Apart from giving us a just 'another point of view' on international relations, Marxism helps us broaden our understanding and unlike Realism which leads into a dead end, according to pre-planned rules'. Marxism provides space for evolution out of the vicious circle and gives us a new outlook to look at the world.

The Marxist theory of international relation can be summed up as follows.

  1. Marx says the world is one whole entity and should be analysed as a totality. It cannot be segregated into separate disciplines. There can be no one explanation of the world.
  2. The materialist conception of history is the next main idea. The society is developed after bringing about social change. Marx stresses on the conflict between the means of production and the relations of production.
  3. Marxism, unlike Realism, sees change as the main possibility achieved through a revolution.

The Marxian approach to international relations can be explained in accordance with its past, present and the future.

Marxism is often used to explain the North-South relation in the contemporary world. It is the economic aspect of politics which divide the world into two halves. The Marxist view explains that there is not only a difference in the creation of wealth but also in the distribution of wealth and opportunities. Accordingly, the creation of a wealth of the North comes in the expense of the wealth of the South. Therefore, there is a great demarcation in terms of economic wealth in the world. Marxist blame the capitalist for exploiting cheap labour and resources. After the Industrial Revolution, the virtual north has accumulated more capital while the South still remain in the pre-Industrial situation.

Main Features of Marxist Theory of International Relations

1. className Struggle between the Rich and Poor States.

According to the Marxist approach, each society in the history is divided into two economic classes—the haves (rich) who own and use the material means of production for their selfish (profit) ends, and the have nots (poor) who are the exploited className of workers which and suffers all exploitation at the hands of the rich.

However, in the contemporary international politics, the division is between the imperial-bourgeois states (capitalist) and the socialist states. They believe that the non-socialist states of the Third World really belong to the socialist className because they too are the victims of exploitation carried out by the capitalist states.

2. End Imperialistic Exploitations

The imperial-bourgeois states are successful in maintaining and extending their control and power over the poor and developing states. The working-className people in these third world countries are not yet in a position to revolt against the capitalists’ rule but there is an inherent need to end these exploitations.

3. Neo colonialism is the new force of exploitation

At present, the capitalist states are able to maintain their power through neo-colonial strategies over the Third World countries. These are the exploiting bourgeois className in contemporary international relations and the other className is the working blue collared people, and not only the industrial workers like in earlier times.

There are four basic elements in the Marxist theory of international relations.

  1. Proletarian internationalism
  2. Anti-imperialism
  3. Self-determination and
  4. Peaceful coexistence.

Constructivist Theory of International Relations

For a long time, the international relations theory was comprised mainly of two dominant approaches: the theory of realism and liberalism. However, in recent time, a new theory emerged in the field of international relation theories: Constructivism. It was recently developed in the late 1980s and early 1990s by the seminal work of Alexander Wendt, Nicholas Onuf, Emanuel Adler, Friedrich Kratochwil, John Gerard Ruggie and Peter Katzenstein.

It is a form of “reflectivist” critique of the scientific approach to the study of social sciences and was initially developed as a mostly interpretive meta theory whose central argument according to Adler, relates not to the theoretical confrontation between “science” and “literary interpretation, but to ’the nature of social science itself’.

It is a theory that propounds that States exist within a world of our own understanding, and are social rather than material. Not just their behaviours but social interactions shape the interests and identities of the states.

In other words, constructivism is a “social theory of international politics” that emphasizes on the social construction of world affairs as opposed to the ideas of neo realists that international politics is shaped by the rational-choice of self-centred actors who pursue their interests by maximize their benefits and minimize their losses.

As the other two theories of international relation ‘realism’ and ‘liberalism’ the constructivists also accept the idea of anarchy, but their theory is different from prior positions by the other two approaches on the anarchical system. Constructivists disagree with the realist proposition that anarchy inherently leads to competition and eventually into war. According to the constructivists, the anarchical system in the political system is whatever the actors want it to be. There is no reason that anarchy brings about war, or peace as the realists assume. The actors interpret the system and their positions can evolve and shift over time.

The theorists make few claims:

  1. The states are the primary element for analysis in international relations.
  2. The key understanding point in the international system is rather subjective and not material.
  3. State identities and interests are an important part influenced by the social system rather than by human nature.

Constructivists create a bridge between neo realist ideas and neo liberalist ideas by explaining the character of international anarchy upon decisions and practices of the states themselves. In the words of Weber, “there is something for everyone in constructivism.”

However, this does not mean that the constructivist theory of international relations is free from criticism. Poststructuralists, target its “state-centrism” and argue that constructivism, suffer the same kind of trouble as of neorealism.