International relations (IR), a branch of political science, is the study of foreign affairs of and relations among states within the international system, including the roles of states, inter-governmental organizations (IGOs), non-governmental organizations (NGOs), and multinational corporations (MNCs). It is both an academic and public policy field, and can be either positive or normative as it both seeks to analyze as well as formulate the foreign policy of particular states.

Apart from political science, IR draws upon such diverse fields as economics, history, law, philosophy, geography, sociology, anthropology, psychology, and cultural studies. It involves a diverse range of issues, from globalization and its impacts on societies and state sovereignty to ecological sustainability, nuclear proliferation, nationalism, economic development, terrorism, organized crime, human security, and human rights.


The history of international relations is often traced back to the Peace of Westphalia of 1648, where the modern state system was developed. Westphalia instituted the notion of sovereignty, which essentially meant that rulers, or sovereigns, would recognize no internal equals within a defined territory, and no external superiors. Classical Greek and Roman authority at times resembled the Westphalian system, but both lacked the notion of sovereignty. Westphalia encouraged the rise of the nation-state and the institutionalization of diplomacy and armies. This particular European system was exported to the Americas, Africa, and Asia.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 the nation-state system and can be considered “post-modern”.


 Epistemology and IR theory

IR theories can be roughly divided into one of two epistemological camps: “positivist” and “post-positivist”. Positivist theories aim to replicate the methods of the natural sciences by analysing the impact of material forces. They typically focus on features of international relations such as state interactions, size of military forces, balance of powers etc. 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.

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/1990 debate between positivists and post-positivists became the dominant debate and has been described as constituting the Third “Great Debate” .

 Positivist Theories

Liberalism/idealism/Liberal Internationalism

Liberalism 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 variously that states mutually gained from cooperation and that war was so destructive to be essentially futile.


Realism was a response to liberalism that chiefly denies that states seek to cooperate. Early realists  argued that, for the purpose of increasing their security, states are self-interested, power-seeking rational actors. Any cooperation between states is explained as purely incidental. Realists saw World War II as the vindication of their theory. It should be noted that classical writers such as Thucydides, Machiavelli, and Hobbes are often cited as the “founding fathers” of realism by contemporary self-described realists. However, while their work may support realist doctrine, it is not likely that they would have classified themselves as realists .


Neorealism is largely the work of Kenneth Waltz (who actually called his theory “structural realism”). While retaining the empirical observations of realism, that international relations are characterized by antagonistic interstate relations, neorealists point to the anarchic structure of the international system as the cause. They reject explanations that take account of states’ domestic characteristics. States are compelled by relative gains and balance against concentration of power. Unlike realism, neo-realism seeks to be scientific and more positivist.What also distinguishes neo-realism from realism is that the former does not accept the latter’s emphasis on the behavioural explanation of international relations.


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 such as Joseph Nye argue that states will cooperate irrespective of relative gains, and are thus concerned with absolute gains. The growing interdependence throughout the Cold War through international institutions means that neo-liberalism is also called liberal institutionalism. 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. Neoliberalism also contains an economic theory that is based on the use of open and free markets with little, if any, government intervention to prevent monopolies and other conglomerates from forming.

Post-positivist/reflectivist theories

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 is perhaps the best known pluralist.

Social Constructivism

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, for example in the manner of neo-realism, but instead is a social theory.

Constructivism in IR can be divided into what 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 , that “anarchy is what states make of it”. By this he means that the anarchical 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 ( “Hobbesian” anarchy) then the system will be characterised 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.

Critics: Post-positivists say the focus on the state at the expense of ethnicity/race/class/gender makes social constructivism yet another positivist theory. The use of implicit rational choice theory by Wendt has also raised criticisms from scholars such as Steven Smith. Positivist scholars of (neo-)liberalism/realism hold that the theory forgoes too many positivist assumptions for it to be considered positivist.

 Critical Theory

Critical international relations theory is the application of ‘critical theory’ to international relations. Proponents focus on the need for human emancipation from States. Hence, it is “critical” of mainstream IR theories that tend to be state-centric.

IR theories include functionalism, neofunctionalism, feminism, and dependency theory.


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, the period of colonialism brought in sources for raw materials and captive markets for exports, while decolonialization brought new opportunities in the form of dependence.

Linked in with Marxist theories is dependency theory which argues that developed countries, in their pursuit of power, penetrate developing states through political advisors, missionaries, experts and MNCs to integrate them into the integrated capitalist system in order to appropriate natural resources and foster dependence by developing countries on developed countries.

 Poststructuralist theories

Poststructuralist theories of IR 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’.

Examples of post-positivist research include:

* Feminisms (“gendering” war)

* Postcolonialism (challenges the euro-centrism of IR)

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