To think theoretically one has to avoid treating the task as that of formulating an appropriate definition of theory1James N Rosenau When one thinks of the reason for theory, we only have to look to our past. As intuitive beings we have always had the urge to define events in our world. People in the past have explained different events and phenomena, by creating stories through assumptions which help people to understand the world they live in. In the case of this essay, we look at the complexities of international relations.
International relations theories are a tool used by us to better understand the political events of our past and present in an attempt to better understand our future. Thus, theorists and various scholars have played a key role for nations and their policy makers when making decisive decisions. In this same way, during the progress of the 20th century three theories have contributed to create the shape of international relations: Realism, liberalism and a more modern form of radicalism, constructivism.
Professor Stephen Waltz, defines the key theories that I will be looking at’ Realism emphasises the enduring propensity for conflict between states; liberalism identifies several ways to mitigate these conflictive tendencies and radical tradition describes how the entire system of state relations might be transformed (in this case constructivism)’2 While a quite concise explanation, it illustrates very well each of the theories that I will examine. International Relations Theory as a Discipline.
International Relations theory entails the development of conceptual frameworks and theories to facilitate the understanding and explanation of events and phenomena in world politics, as well as the analysis and informing of associated policies and practices3. The study of International relations began as a theoretical discipline. Two of the foundational texts in the field, E. H. Carrs, ‘The Twenty Years Crisis1939’ and Han Morgenthau’s ‘Politics Among Nations’ 1948 were works of theory in three central respects.
Each developed a broad framework of analysis which distilled the essence of international politics from disparate events, each sought to provide future analysts with the theoretical tools for understanding general patterns underlying seemingly unique episodes (This in essence is why theory is so important. But I will discuss this further down the line) and each reflected on the forms of political action which were most appropriate in a realm in which the struggle for power was pre-eminent. 4.
What is explicitly recognized as International Relations theory was not developed until after World War I, with the establishment of Chair of International relations at the University of Wales, Aberystwyth5. Essential, it emerged from the destruction of WW1, with the intentions of preventing another human disaster. The utter destruction of WW1 led many to argue the old assumptions of power politics. The purpose of theory in the early years of the discipline was to change the world for the better by removing war.
A close connection existed between theory and practice: theory was not disconnected from the actual world of politics. This was true of the liberal internationalists who believed ‘the world to be profoundly other than it should be’ and who had ‘faith in the power of human reason and human action’ to change it so ‘that the inner potential of all human beings could be more fully realised. It was no less true of the realists who thought that theory had a stake in political practice, most obviously the constraints on realizing the vision which utopians had been to anxious to embrace.
6 Theories in International Relations This essay will examine these theories and their key exponents and give an opinion about why these theories are so important to International Relations. One key note to consider is that no single theory identifies, explains or understands all the key structures and dynamics of international politics. International historians such as Gaddis (1992-3) stressed that none of the major traditions of international theory predicted the fall of the Soviet Union and its immediate consequences for Europe and the rest of the world.
7 In this essay I will be looking at 2 schools of thought Positivist (Realism/neoliberalism) and the post positivist (social constructivism) the latter emerging from the rejection of the former. As one can imagine with multiple theories there is room for debate, which makes analysing situations in international relations sometimes rather complex. Positivist theories aim to imitate the methods of the natural sciences by analysing the impact of material forces.
Positivists mostly focus on characteristics of international relations such as state interactions, balance of power and military strength. Post positivist school of thought rejects the idea that the social world can be studied in an objective and value free way. It rejects the central ideas of neolrealism /liberalism, such as rational choice theory on the grounds that the scientific method cannot be applied to the social world and that science of International relations is impossible. Positivism
Realism has been the dominant theory of the 20th century. This can be resultant in its capacity to change, due to circumstances arising in the 20th century most notably the two worlds was and the cold war. There are quite a number of variations on the definition of realism, they do however share a clear family resemblance ‘a quite distinctive and recognizable flavour’8 Realists emphasise the constraints on politics imposed by human selfishness and the absence of international government i. e.anarchy, which require the primacy in all political life of power and security.
Rationality and state -centrism are frequently identified as core realist premises. The conjunction of anarchy and egoism and the resulting imperatives of power politics provide the core of realism. 9 Key 20th century figures include Hans Morgenthau who thought that human beings are intrinsically interested in dominating each other. He also supported the idea of multi polarity which would maintain world balance. This idea was challenged by the Neorealist’s such as Kenneth Waltz.
Waltz focused his discussion in the effects of the international system rather than the characteristics of human nature. He also believed that defence is better than offence, thus stronger states do not attack each other unless they are sure they can maintain there power leading to smaller states trying to balance or get closer to bigger states instead of creating conflict. E. H Carr and his most famous work ‘The twenty years in crises’ performed the crucial tasks of providing a new vocabulary for international relations.
Liberal internationalism is renamed utopianism or realism. Carr’s central point is that the liberal doctrine of the harmony of interests glosses over the real conflict that is to be found in international relations which is between the haves and the haves not. Those who have them, or want them and therefore promote law and order. The have not’s on the other hand have no respect for the law as these laws are seen as the reason for keeping them in their position. 10 Other notable figures include Machiavelli and his famous work the prince and Thomas Hobbes.
Realism is just one of the several different types of theories in International Relations. Even realism itself has a number of different variations, political realism, classical realism and neo-realism. These different types of realism have one major characteristic in common that been the sovereign state are the principal actors. They all agree on the concept of ‘balance’ of power’ and have little focus on cooperation. What is perhaps the most impressive about realism is its longevity. It has been argued, however, that some realist writers help to perpetuate the very world they analyse.
By describing the world in terms of violence, duplicity, and war, and then providing advice to statesmen as how they should act, such realists are justifying one particular conception of international relations. Realism becomes self fulfilling prophecy. 11 Classical and Political realism are very similar to each other but they are very different to neo-realism. Classical realism believes that it is the nature of man that pushes states and individuals to act in a way that places interests over ideologies. Classical realism is defined as the drive for power and the will to dominate that are held to be fundamental aspects of human nature.
12 Machiavelli contributed to this paradigm in his book ‘The Prince’ in which he provides his ideal way ‘ to govern and maintain power’ that the security of the state is so important that it may justify certain acts by the prince that would be forbidden to other individuals not burdened by the princely responsibilities of assuring that security13. Classical realists believe that each state is anarchic and will protect its self-interest over those around them, they believe that governments and big leaders are all power-seeking and that states primary concern is security and survival.
Political realism was the leading theory from the late 1940’s. Its basic ideology is that states are led by human beings who have a ‘will to power’ hardwired to them at birth. States have an insatiable appetite for power, or what Morgenthau calls a ‘limitless lust for power’ which means that they constantly look for opportunity to take the offensive and dominate other states. Political/Classical realism believes that politics, like society in general, is governed by objective laws that have their roots in human nature.
In order 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, men will challenge them only at the risk of failure. 14 Structural realism or Neorealism is a theory outlined by Kenneth Waltz in his 1979 book ‘Theory of International Politics’. Structural realism attempts to ‘abstract from every attribute of states except their capabilities’15 in order to highlight the impact of anarchy and the distribution of capabilities.
International structure emerges from the interaction of states and then constrains them from taking certain actions while propelling them towards others. Therefore, despite great variations in the attributes and interactions of states, there is a ‘striking sameness in the quality of international life through the millennia’ (1979:66)16 Rationality and state-centrism are frequently identified as core realist’s premises. 17 Realists believe the international system to be anarchic and self help in nature. They also believe in the worst aspects of human nature.