History of International Relations
As a field of study, international relations (IR) is a young discipline. Its genesis can be traced back to the period immediately following World War I. In the aftermath of the war, philanthropists, scholars, and diplomats in Europe and the United States sought an understanding of the causes of war and the means by which to promote international peace and security. At its core, the initial study of IR was both normative and empirical. Normative IR theory seeks to provide a set of values that policymakers, diplomats, and other actors should follow in order to better the human condition. Empirical IR theory seeks to explain the underlying causes of political events. Originally, IR had the normative desire to achieve pacific relations between states and an empirical concern with investigating the underlying causes of war and conflict. See Research Paper on History of International Relations.
Realism and Neorealism
Realism has long been one of the main theoretical approaches to the study of international relations. It is an intellectual tradition built on distinct concepts and arguments about what governs politics among states. As such, its main precepts assert that the international system is characterized by anarchy, states are its principal actors, which are sovereign and rational acting on national interests, the main ones of which are security and survival. To ensure the latter, states are constantly in the pursuit of power, which ultimately leads to the security dilemma. Leading proponents of the classical realist perspective include Hans Morgenthau, E. H. Carr, Reinhold Niebuhr, John H. Herz, Arnold Wolfers, Charles Beard, and Walter Lippman. Over the last 20 to 30 years, a new form of realism, known as neorealism or structural realism, emerged in response to internal and external debates that challenged key realist assumptions. In particular, neorealism sought to redefine classical realism into a more positivist social science. See Research Paper on Realism and Neorealism in Political Science.
Idealism and Liberalism
Most textbooks on international relations (IR) characterize liberalism as one of the main theoretical schools of the IR field—typically alongside realism and perhaps some other less mainstream approaches like international society, Marxism, constructivism, or feminism. As such, liberalism is commonly considered to be the main competing theoretical approach to the dominant IR theory of realism. The frequent comparisons made between realism and liberalism in the IR literature typically entail realism advancing a pessimistic view of human nature, versus the more optimistic view espoused by liberalism. Realists therefore see conflict as the norm in international affairs, while liberals are more hopeful about the prospects for peace and international cooperation. Realists seek to explain international politics by examining state-to-state relations within an anarchical system of mutual distrust and suspicion, while liberals consider other international actors, as well as actors and institutions within the state, as the underlying causes of a more interdependent and law-governed world. See Research Paper on Idealism and Liberalism in Political Science.
Dependency and World-Systems
The economic and political instability faced by former colonies and other developing countries in the post–World War II era sparked a great amount of concern and much debate within policy circles and scholarly research. Within political science, the resultant research became known as political development and encompassed the fields of comparative politics, international relations, and international political economy. One of the main concerns of this literature is the unequal and inequitable economic and political development that exists between developing and developed countries. In response, two main schools of thought emerged, modernization and dependency (of which world-systems is a part), each taking a very different approach to explaining the origins and effects of this observed lack of development. Before describing dependency theory, however, it is first necessary to put this work in context by describing modernization theory, which emerged first and to which dependency was a direct response. See Research Paper on Dependency and World-Systems.
Foreign Policy Analysis
The scholarly study of foreign policy in the field of international relations (IR) goes back to the mid- 1950s and early 1960s. Although this means that foreign policy analysis (FPA) is still a relatively young area of specialization, the FPA literature is rich and diverse. As it is discussed in the following pages, since its inception FPA has evolved through distinct stages. Specifically, FPA has moved away from searching for an overarching theory of foreign policy to finding theories that work under certain conditions. What is foreign policy, and how is it different from the study of international relations more generally? By foreign policy we mean the actions, strategies, and decisions directed at actors outside the borders of a domestic political system (i.e., a state). That the primary intended target of policy is external to the domestic sphere distinguishes foreign from domestic policy. In other words, as Breuning (2007) puts it, foreign policy is “the totality of a country’s policies toward and interactions with the environment beyond its borders” (p. 5). A state’s foreign policy covers a variety of issues ranging from the rather traditional security and economic areas to environmental and energy issues, foreign aid, migration, and human rights. The actors that initiate foreign policy actions, and those who are the targets of the actions, are often states—but not always. See Research Paper on Foreign Policy Analysis.
Feminist International Relations
A good place to begin is with a brief discussion of definitions of feminism and international relations. Multiple definitions of feminisms exist in academic literature, and space here does not allow for detailed discussions of each. However, to give a general sense of these terms, feminist perspectives can be understood as philosophical theories, political views, and analytical approaches that call for social justice and the equal treatment of women, illuminate the nature of socially constructed and institutionalized definitions of gender, and seek the dismantling of oppressive structures in social, political, and economic life. In short, the key goals of most feminist agendas are to understand, to challenge, and to change women’s subordinate roles to men, whether that be in the community, the state, or the international system as a whole. These goals can be promoted by individuals of any gender, groups of any size or composition, meeting face to face or on the web, or working through states or international entities. See Research Paper on Feminist International Relations.
Leadership and Decision Making
Studies of political leadership, which are mostly applied to the foreign policy and crisis management domains, examine how the behavior of individual political leaders can have an impact on policymaking processes and how this can affect what types of decisions are made. This literature draws on psychology to identify personality characteristics that can have an important effect in the political realm and then uses these characteristics as independent variables to explain how they might influence the political process. These characteristics can be very stable, such as personality traits, or can be more volatile over time and content matter, such as cognitions and motives. Individual leaders are one of three forms of decision units that are used to explain types of outcome in foreign policy decision making. Other types of decision units are a single group and a coalition of autonomous actors. This section mainly focuses on political leaders. After discussing why and when studying political leadership is important, this research paper goes on to discuss three different aspects of a leader’s personality that can influence the political process: motives, cognitions, and traits. Next, it describes how some studies have attempted to combine three components to more accurately explain political behavior and outcomes. Finally, areas of future research are identified. See Research Paper on Leadership and Decision Making.
Balance of Power
Balance of power is a concept within the realm of international relations that stretches back centuries in both theory and practice and is still among the prevalent topics of debate within contemporary political science. These centuries of historical perspective and scholarship, however, have served only to intensify the debate over the merits of balance of power theory. There are many ways in which the term balance of power has been used in theory or in practice, and this variety of approaches to the concept demonstrates that the term is often used so freely as to potentially confuse rather than clarify its meaning. Despite this diversity, however, nearly all of these definitions center on the same general principles and assumptions and boil down to the central assertion that nation-states will ally with one another in order to create an equality of capabilities between opposing alliances that serves to preserve peace at the international level. Some scholars have attempted to codify the formal assumptions, conditions, and criteria for labeling an arrangement as a balance of power system, and perhaps the best known of these is Kaplan (1957). Based on theoretical modeling, he delineated six assumptions that had to be accepted, then outlined his six fundamental rules for a balance of power system. Although these and other attempts to formalize the process are aspiring to help the field of study and policymakers alike, the problem is that balance of power systems in practice neither cohere to all of the assumptions nor follow all of the rules set out by any given treatise on the subject. The global environment and the myriad of other variables are not static but rather are fluid in nature and are therefore difficult to prescribe. See Research Paper on Balance of Power.
Would Adolf Hitler have shied away from invading Prague if Great Britain had possessed thermonuclear weapons? Would the consequences of even a limited war been too terrible for even Hitler to contemplate? Such questions are illustrative of the what-ifs that tormented cold war scholars and policymakers who remembered the apparent failure of deterrence after Munich, and it is only with an appreciation of this historic event—and the cold war that followed—that development of the study of deterrence can be understood. This research paper is not intended as a comprehensive review of these literatures—such an enterprise is not feasible given space constraints—but rather has the more modest goal of highlighting two important and long-standing debates in the scholarly literatures on deterrence. After an introduction to the basic concepts of deterrence, debates on rational deterrence theory and reputation acquisition are discussed as products of the methodological proclivities that the close linkage between theorists and practitioners encouraged. Though these debates will not be resolved within these pages, the authors hope their examinations will illuminate potentially fruitful avenues of inquiry for future deterrence scholars. This analysis also underscores the practical and scholarly dangers of methodological myopia and illuminates the benefits of methodological pluralism to future studies of deterrence. See Research Paper on Deterrence Theory.
Rivalry, Conflict, and Interstate War
The question of why states go to war has long been central to the study of international relations. The various answers put forward by scholars to this question have led to vigorous debates both between and within competing theoretical traditions that purport to explain state behavior. As this question has been studied over time, scholars have not settled on any one explanation for why some states choose to fight (or choose not to fight), why certain states enter into rivalries (or choose to end rivalries), or why factors that lead to conflict in one situationmay not lead to conflict in another. For much of the post–World War II era, the study of conflict was greatly impacted by the ongoing cold war rivalry between the United States of America and the Soviet Union; this rivalry not only had the potential of leading to major war involving both of these countries and their allies but also had substantial impact throughout the world as new states were emerging from colonization and were often forced to choose sides in the larger cold war rivalry. The end of the cold war, however, led to numerous new questions, including how one state that, by most measures, was among the most powerful states ever to have existed could cease to exist almost overnight; whether a new rival to U.S. power would emerge; what shape conflict would take in the post–cold war era; and, perhaps most importantly, what the end of the cold war said about international relations scholarship, almost none of which predicted the end of the cold war. See Research Paper on Rivalry, Conflict, and Interstate War.
The Democratic Peace
War between nations is an ancient phenomenon. As long as there have been governments and groups with shared social and cultural identities, there has been conflict among them. A far more recent phenomenon, however, is the development and diffusion of democratic government. Democracy, as is recognizable today, was introduced through the revolutionary liberal movements of the United States and France in the late 18th century. Until the mid-20th century, the number of democracies in the international system remained markedly stable, increasing substantially only after the dissolution of the Axis powers and the end of World War II in 1945. Concurrent with the spread of democracy, international conflict has become less frequent. A remarkable observation within this trend is that pairs of democratic states rarely, if ever, directly engage one another in violent warfare. This observed relationship between democratic states has come to be termed the democratic peace and is one of the most robust and influential findings in international relations scholarship. See Research Paper on The Democratic Peace.
Global Politics of Resources and Rentierism
Natural resources of countries are expected to contribute to their economic and political development. Natural resources can be regarded as assets for economic development. Then the economic development can constitute a base for political development. In the case of industrialized Western democracies such as the countries of the European Union and the United States, economic and political development have been taking place hand in hand. Accordingly, the expectation for the industrializing countries has been developed along these lines: The ones with greater natural resources are expected to develop faster. Yet, especially in the Middle East, where almost all Arab countries have substantial oil wealth, resistance to democratization has remained strong. Thus, the expectation of natural resource abundance to become an asset for economic and political development has not been fulfilled at all. This anomaly can have both cultural and economic explanations. Although a cultural explanation for this democracy gap refers to historical legacies of Arabs, since they have never been democratic, and in part the role of Islam in Arab society, an economic explanation emphasizes oil wealth as the main barrier to democracy. See Research Paper on Global Politics of Resources and Rentierism.
Complex Interdependence and Globalization
Complex interdependence and globalization have become core concepts in most academics’ minds. Nonetheless, disagreement on working definitions has led to conceptions centering mostly on the ideas of economic, cultural, and technological interdependence and interconnectedness. Most scholars acknowledge that the concept of globalization has the merit of amalgamating social organizations unto one global society. As a matter of fact, highly intricate relations of push and pull forces are producing simultaneous integration, degeneration and divergence, order and chaos at the interregional or transnational level. These are unifying and conflict-ridden forces within globalization, which can generate remarkable opportunities for affluence, peace, and democracy but also threats for divergence, business supremacy, and lack of consideration for world citizens and civilizations. See Research Paper on Complex Interdependence and Globalization.
International Political Economy and Trade
International trade has become one of the most important issues in domestic as well as international politics in recent decades. Although a growing number of historically oriented studies have shown that trade has been a salient issue among empires, states, and cities for centuries, it has become such a critical contemporary issue because countries’ economies are now, more than ever, open to trade flows. They thereby create complex interdependence, defined as mutual dependence, between national economies. Technological progress has resulted in dramatically falling transportation and communication costs, whereas various liberalization policies have freed the exchange of goods and services from various tariff and nontariff barriers. Representing one major area of economic globalization, trade remains a controversial topic, as recent World Trade Organization (WTO) conferences and street demonstrations in Seattle and other cities have shown. The controversy surrounding trade stems from the fact that interest groups and the broader public view their welfare as being directly affected by trade policy. Although export-oriented companies and societal groups that profit from export exert pressure for global and regional liberalization agreements, domestically oriented firms and civil society groups oppose efforts to further liberalize trade and expand the authority of the WTO and regional trade agreements. Research Paper on International Political Economy and Trade.
Nonstate Actors in International Relations
Few could doubt that the number of organizations active in international affairs has grown sharply and that today’s international relations have become more complex. These organizations go by many names—nonstate actors (NSAs), nongovernmental organizations (NGOs), private voluntary organizations (PVOs), grassroots organizations (GSOs), civil society organizations (CSOs)—sometimes used interchangeably or meant by others to signal differences of activity, structure, or purpose. Today’s increasingly networked set of associations and institutions produce profound changes in the global political and economic orders. This research paper reviews the importance of NSAs in today’s international relations. Because NGOs, as an NSA, capture significant political and academic attention, they will be highlighted and discussed separately. Following an introduction that raises historical issues of NSAs and NGOs, the research paper moves through a discussion of theories for the study of NSAs, an overview of the work of some NSAs and NGOs in today’s world, common critiques of the NGO sector in society, and closes with thoughts on future directions for study. See Research Paper on Nonstate Actors in International Relations.
International Organizations and Regimes
The study of international organizations and regimes has become increasingly popular over the past three decades. This recent resurgence of the study of international organizations is very distinct from earlier studies of international organizations in several regards. First, departing from the study of legal principles and formal organizational structures of international organizations in the earlier era, the study of international organizations has become more social scientific, with strong theoretical developments and accompanying empirical examinations of the theoretical advances. Many recent studies attempt to provide general explanations for creations, roles, effects, effectiveness, and other institutionalized features of international organizations and try to demonstrate how these general explanations hold through rigorous empirical testing. Second, along with continuing the earlier practice of investigating a single international organization in a study, recent studies start to tackle universal issues and ask questions about features present in and applicable to a group of international organizations. See Research Paper on International Organizations and Regimes.
International law is the body of legal rules, regulations, standards, and principles that govern international relations between or among states and other international actors. It deals with important concepts such as sovereignty (supreme authority over a territory); agreements and disputes between international actors; the use of force and self-defense; the regulation of the high seas, air, and space; international trade; and human rights. The United Nations (UN) and other international organizations have created a network of instruments addressing most aspects of international relations. International law influences large parts of everyday life—it makes it possible for us to send a letter to someone on the other side of the world, to travel internationally by just using our passports, and to know what time it is anywhere on the planet. International law is also known as public international law, which is distinct from private international law. Private international law deals with cases within the domestic legal systems of states, in which foreign elements are involved. Private international law addresses private matters, such as business disputes and family law, across international borders. See Research Paper on International Law.
International Environmental Politics
Customers in Beijing and San Francisco restaurants enjoying orange roughly contribute to the collapse of ocean fisheries off New Zealand and Australia. Automobile drivers sitting in Chicago and London traffic add to greenhouse gas emissions that threaten ice sheets in Greenland and Antarctica, which, in turn, may submerge low-lying coastal population centers and displace millions of people from New Orleans to Bangladesh. Beef consumed in Madrid and plywood sold in Tokyo encourage deforestation in Amazonian and Indonesian rainforests, driving species extinction and intensifying climate change. The export of computer waste from France and Canada to China and West Africa results in the release of carcinogenic fumes and heavy metals into rivers and groundwater on which impoverished people depend. The national and international regulations of production and commerce that address or fail to address the consequences of all these activities are shaped by governments, citizens, interest groups, and multinational corporations all over the globe. See Research Paper on International Environmental Politics.
Return to the overview of Political Science Research Paper Topics.