International Relations Research Paper

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International relations (IR) is the study of relationships among the actors of international politics. Such actors include nation-states, international organizations, nongovernmental organizations, and multinational corporations. The field is also sometimes called international politics, international studies, or international affairs. In the United States, IR is a branch of political science, while it is considered its own interdisciplinary field in the European and British academy. What makes IR unique from other forms of political analysis is that international politics is characterized by anarchy—or the absence of any authority superior to the nation-state. Sovereign states are thus the primary, though not the sole, important actors in the international system, because historically states are the organizations with the legitimate authority to use force within their geographically recognized areas.

Approaches to IR Theory

IR theorists do not all share the same epistemology (ways of knowing) or methodology (analyzing what they know) for approaching the puzzles of world politics. There are generally three epistemological perspectives in the field of IR. A plurality of IR scholars are positivists, and assert that the only way to know something about the world is to approach it scientifically, by producing models that approximate the reality of international politics. These models are tested with facts in order to predict the future behavior of international actors. Interpretivists disagree with this approach, in that they do not aim to predict the behavior of international actors, but to interpret and understand the motives behind that behavior. Interpretivists see a world of intersubjective understandings and ideas to be interpreted rather than used for prediction. Post-positivists think that both interpretation and causal analysis is inappropriate, and that the theories and models developed by IR theorists could instead be used to control global populations. Postpositivists seek to emancipate oppressed groups by deconstructing the relationships and concepts taken for granted in world politics to reveal how they are not “natural” but forms of power and discipline.

Epistemology influences the methodology various scholars use. For instance, most (but not all) positivists use quantitative, statistical techniques to test their models, whereas interpretivists and post-positivists use qualitative techniques (such as discourse analysis or process tracing) to illustrate their arguments.

There are several theoretical approaches in IR, as well as substantive subfields of study, as noted below.


Realist IR theorists argue that the condition of anarchy in international politics results in one motivation for state action—survival. Because power helps states ensure their own survival, state interests are defined in terms of power. This means that cooperation among states will be rare, and plans to overcome such tension will ultimately fail. Classical realists like Hans Morgenthau (1946), John Herz, Raymond Aron, and E. H. Carr conceptualized power in a variety of ways—both materially (the military, the economy, geography) and strategically (diplomacy, prestige). While much of the defining literature of classical realism was produced in the immediate decades after World War II (1939–1945), later scholars such as Anthony Lang, Richard Ned Lebow, and Michael C. Williams (2004) resurrected the critical nature of classical realist work.


Liberalism assumes that while states operate within anarchy and are primarily self-interested, this selfinterest leads to cooperation rather than conflict. Institutional liberalism posits that international organiza-

tions and regimes facilitate cooperation by reducing uncertainty among states and increasing transparency. Economic or commercial liberalism asserts that open trading systems make cooperation more likely because the benefits of trade outweigh the costs of going to war. Political liberalism assesses the likelihood of cooperation or conflict based upon the nature of a country’s political system. Political liberalism has developed into a separate research program known as democratic peace theory, which posits that democratic countries are less likely to go to war with one another because of the structural and cultural nature of democratic decision-making. Liberalism is often termed idealism, but this label is inaccurate in that all IR perspectives focus upon certain ideals over others. Yet liberalism is an admittedly more optimistic view of international politics than most other perspectives.

English School (Grotian or International Society)

The English school has been a viable approach to the study of IR theory since the late 1950s and early 1960s. Representatives of this school include Herbert Butterfield, Hedley Bull, Adam Watson, R. J. Vincent, Martin Wight, and more recently Barry Buzan, Timothy Dunne, Robert Jackson, Nicholas Wheeler, and Barak Mendelsohn. The name English school refers to the location where many of the founders of the school first congregated—the London School of Economics. These scholars acknowledge the role that material forces play in international politics, but also how rules, principles, and ideas augment these material forces. Thus, while states cannot escape anarchy in their calculations with other states, certain “rules” of membership govern state relations. Therefore, international politics resembles an anarchical society where sovereignty as a principle is usually respected because states value order to ensure their survival (see Bull 2002).


Constructivism is a sociological approach to social relations, rather than a specific theory of international politics. IR constructivists see the relations and patterns of nation-states and nonstate actors as socially constructed, or made up of intersubjectively shared ideas. Constructivists explore the manner in which identities, discourse, and rules shape and are shaped by states. They claim that states seek to do more than survive in a condition of anarchy; states also seek to socialize with other nation-states. Because ideas are intersubjectively shared among states, ideas can change and thus so can the interests of nation-states. This does not mean, however, that constructivists deny the importance of conflict. IR constructivists include such mainstream scholars as Alexander Wendt, Martha Finnemore, and Michael Barnett, as well as critical theorists such as Nicholas Onuf (1989) and Friedrich Kratochwil (1989).

Neorealism and Neoliberalism

Neorealism (sometimes termed structural realism) and neoliberalism both represent attempts to develop classical realism and liberalism into scientific theories of international politics to make them more amenable to causal analysis. The defining publications—for neorealism, Theory of International Politics (1979) by Kenneth Waltz; for neoliberalism, Power and

Interdependence (1977) by Robert Keohane and Joseph Nye—both attempted to develop systemic analyses of international politics. Both neorealists and neoliberals argue that states are units that act rationally to survive in a realm of anarchy, and such a universal motive produces regular behavior that can be predicted through hypothesis testing and theoretical development similar to that found in the physical sciences. The principal disagreement between the two approaches is whether states are concerned with relative gains (i.e., how a state performs relative to other states) or absolute gains.

Foreign Policy Analysis

Foreign policy analysis seeks to understand the ways in which foreign policies are enacted by individuals or small groups of decision makers. International politics, from this perspective, is grounded in decisions made by leaders and elites. This subfield of IR borrows heavily from other disciplines in social science— most notably psychology. Much of this work views elites as having, for various reasons, imperfect rational capabilities, and thus attempts to make intelligible how individuals interpret incoming information and produce decisions that result in varied and sometimes disastrous outcomes. Although much foreign policy analysis focuses on individuals, it also accommodates the influence of domestic political entities (such as parties and coalitions) and bureaucracies on the foreign policy decisions made by elites. Scholars who have shaped this approach include Richard Snyder, James Rosenau, Harold and Margaret Sprout, Margaret Hermann, Charles Hermann, Richard Herrmann, Stephen Walker, and Martha Cottam.

Critical Theory

Critical theorists seek to challenge the core concepts and “commonsense” or prevailing wisdoms of mainstream IR approaches. Such theorists posit that mainstream approaches are “problem-solving theories” that through predictive analysis seek to form solutions to the most prevalent puzzles of international politics. Critical theory, on the other hand, is meant to develop an understanding of how theories and assumptions in IR are formed in the first place—and to reveal how some of these assumptions (like the “permanence” of nation-states) might instead be responsible for much of the suffering that occurs in international politics. Several forms of critical theory are discussed below.


 Poststructuralism draws on the social theory of philosophers like Jacques Derrida and Michel Foucault to reveal how forces and power operate in subtle ways. Poststructuralists problematize even the idea that history is connected in any meaningful way. Notable IR post-structuralists include Richard Ashley, David Campbell, and James Der Derian.

Neo-Marxist and Gramscian Theory

World-systems theory and dependency theory are forms of what is known as neo-Marxist IR. Such perspectives focus less upon states and more upon the forces of capital and production in the international economic system. Gramscian perspectives (derived from the work of early twentieth-century Italian Marxist Antonio Gramsci), defined by Robert Cox (1981) and Stephen Gill, have focused upon the ways in which social relationships work in conjunction with market forces to produce certain processes and patterns evident in the international economy. It is not enough, Gramscian scholars posit, for the forces of capital to create the inequality that exists in international politics. It is also necessary for individuals and groups to believe in the market itself—and thus such internalization (ideas plus materials) makes change much more difficult and inequality more permanent.


Feminist IR is a subset of feminist social theory. As a form of critical theory, it challenges the mainstream assumptions of IR. For instance, feminist IR scholars such as J. Ann Tickner (1992), Spike Peterson, Elizabeth Hutchings, Christine Sylvester, and Cynthia Enloe have explored the masculine assumptions (war, aggressive behavior, etc.) that underpin how the nation-state is conceptualized in IR theory.

Subfields of International Relations

All these perspectives, to varying degrees, encompass important subfields in IR. Security studies, also known as international security, focuses on threats to states and the state system that stem from the environment, health (such as pandemics like HIV-AIDS), nuclear weapons, and transnational terrorist organizations. Certain scholars in this subfield use formal modeling and game theory to understand the strategic patterns of state behavior. Civil society studies focuses upon the manner in which nongovernmental organizations influence the state system. Another normative turn in IR theory has produced vibrant work on international ethics. Much of this work focuses upon phenomena such as humanitarian intervention, human rights doctrines, just war theory, genocide and ethnic conflict, and economic deprivation. The field of international political economy examines the relationships between nation-states and the international market, as well as how multinational corporations use the global economy to further their material goals. And international law remains an important subfield of interest for IR scholars. For instance, many constructivists and English school theorists have used the development of international laws to demonstrate their arguments regarding the presence of identity communities or an international society.


  1. Bull, Hedley. [1977] 2002. The Anarchical Society: A Study of Order in World Politics. 3rd ed. New York: Columbia University Press.
  2. Cox, Robert. 1981. Social Forces, States, and World Orders: Beyond International Relations Theory. Millennium: Journal of International Studies 10 (2): 126–155.
  3. Keohane, Robert O., and Joseph S. Nye Jr. [1977] 2000. Power and Interdependence. 3rd ed. New York: Longman.
  4. Kratochwil, Friedrich V. 1989. Rules, Norms, and Decisions on the Conditions of Practical and Legal Reasoning in International Relations and Domestic Affairs. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press.
  5. Morgenthau, Hans. [1946] 1978. Politics Among Nations: The Struggle for Power and Peace. 6th ed. New York: Knopf.
  6. Onuf, Nicholas 1989. World of Our Making: Rules and Rule in Social Theory and International Relations. Columbia: University of South Carolina Press.
  7. Tickner, J. Ann 1992. Gender in International Relations: Feminist Perspectives on Achieving Global Security. New York: Columbia University Press.
  8. Waltz, Kenneth N. 1979. Theory of International Politics. Reading, MA: Addison-Wesley.
  9. Williams, Michael C. 2004. The Realist Tradition and the Limits of International Relations. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press.

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