May 04, 2005

WP Essay– Theories of International Relations Grade 60/100 2.1

In this essay, I shall attempt to explain which theory of international relations is the best one for a student of this subject to use and why that is the case. I will go through each of the theories in turn before trying to reach a conclusion about which one or two I feel are the most useful to use. The theories that I shall be looking at are liberalism, realism and their neo offshoots, Marxism, as well as having an overview of world systems, critical theory and constructivism.

I shall first start off with liberalism. Liberalism is seen as the theory that arose out of the carnage of WW1, where political scholars and the general public alike thought ‘never again’ would they have to endure such wanton destruction and loss of life. It is as such seen as one partly based on utopianism or is idealistic because it is a normative theory that its critics argue sees the world as its proponents ‘hope it would be’ rather than how it actually is. For liberalists the idea of human nature is important and they see mankind as basically good and capable of coexisting with others in peace and harmony, yet I would argue that this is not entirely true as the almost never ending occurrences of violence throughout the world demonstrates, whether that be in the former Yugoslavia, the outbreaks of violence in Africa such as Rwanda and parts of Asia would show.

One thought of liberals that I would broadly agree with is that of the democratic peace hypothesis. Put in general terms, this idea is one that suggests that states that are liberal democratic in nature, on the whole peace loving and will not go to war with each other1. This is because in a liberal global system, there are many constraints on how governments act. In democracies, leaders face re election and other methods of checks and balances that hold them to account. Facing such obstacles it is unlikely that a democratic state would go to war as a decision to do so would face criticism and is often unpopular. Also one of the fundamental tenets of liberalism is that economics has an important part to play in global affairs and economies are likely to suffer if a state goes to war due to the destruction that war entails. Therefore, liberals argue it’s in nobody’s interest to go to war. There are certain failings to this assertion. I do feel that undermine the liberal outlook on international relations. For example, although democracies are unlikely to go to war with each other it does not mean that no democracy will ever go to war as the instances of Iraq and Kosovo will show although in the case of the latter, it was justified on humanitarian grounds to prevent the ethnic cleansing that Bosnian Serbs were committing.

However, as I have already said, the liberal emphasis on economics is one that I do feel is particularly pertinent today as the number of economic groupings will show such as the EU, ASEAN and NAFTA. I feel that with these supranational economic groupings as well as institutions such as the World Bank, the IMF and the WTO it is almost impossible to separate economics from international relations theory. This would also support the hypothesis that there are actors other than states that have a bearing on how international relations are conducted. In this case the non-state actors are international organisations. For example, the aid received by the European countries in 1947 through the Marshall Plan could be interpreted by a liberalist as a benevolent act on the behalf of the US to help the shattered European economies to recover and to have a worthwhile group of friendly countries with which to trade as well as hoping that an economically sound Europe would help propagate liberal democratic states that could hold off the perceived threat of communism.

Another theory that I feel is useful is the realist one. In brief, this is the theory that suggest that states are the only actors on the global scene and that all states act in what can only be described as the ‘national interest’. To simplify, each states uses its own sovereignty to get what it wants by increasing its own power. In contrast with the multilateralism involved in liberalism, the realist school of thought tends to suggest that states will act unilaterally if that is what is required and to support this assertion I refer to the example of the USA not ratifying the Kyoto Protocol, arguing that it would harm the US economy and put it at a relative disadvantage to other countries that must face less stringent restrictions such as India and China.

Another basis for the realist theory is the idea of a balance of power and the anarchic nature of the global system as there is no effective global government and the world system is anomic (without rules)2. This ties in well with the idea of global relations being one of self help3 and each state striving to promote its own interests at the expense of others. In short, realists see the global system as one of self help. The idea of the balance of power is put in place to explain the situation where states will ally themselves to prevent the hegemony of one state over all others. The example of Britain in the 19th and early 20th centuries is an example of a balance of power system in place.

However, that is not to say that I feel the realist theory is flawless. For example, the UN can exert sanctions and military force on those who transgress ‘international law’, as in the case of Iraq in the 1990’s as well Libya over the Lockerbie bombings, although the US and UK lifted these after Gadaffi agreed to accept responsibility for the Lockerbie disaster and renounce terrorism. Also, the balance of power theory could only work if no one state or alliance is so predominantly powerful that they alone could claim to have greater power than their enemies combined. However, in the contemporary global system, I see the USA as so powerful in both military and economic terms ( in the IMF and World Bank its 18% of votes gives it a virtual veto on all decisions), it can ‘go it alone’ and there is little other states could do about it. In such a unipolar world, a balance of power couldn’t exist as there is no countering power to the USA since the end of the Cold War.

I shall now attempt to quickly cover neo liberalism and neo realism, which tend to merge the ideas of liberalism and realism together. As Keohane4 (1988), one of the main neo-liberals points out international organisations, “constrain activity and shape expectations.” Here it seems that neo-liberals feel that international organisations have a role on the global scene and I feel that this is correct as these bodies do have an impact as well as showing that states are actually prepared to co-operate. Neo-liberals are seen to be more interested in economic welfare or environmental concerns in place of just focusing on survival as neo-realists do. However, I do disagree with the neo-liberal thought that says states are only interested in comparative advantage. Here my support shifts to the neo-realist theory of relative advantage. As Waltz points out,“A state worries about the division of possible gains that may favour others more than itself.”5

Waltz says, and I tend to agree with him, that states also have an eye on how other states are doing in relation to that particular state and that states will act rationally in order to pursue their own interests. All states try to ensure that if their gains aren’t maximised then at least they aren’t worse off than they were before in relation to the power that other states possess. The already mentioned example of the USA refusing to sign up to the Kyoto protocol would suggest that this is the case as in enforcing the protocol, the USA would be less well off than countries such as China and India who had to face less severe cuts in their levels of pollution. Waltz, who is seen as the main voice of neo-realism also repeats the realist view that “self help is necessarily the principle means of action in an anarchic order.”6

The next theory of international relations that I shall try to cover is Marxism. I must admit that there are parts of it that I am not too keen on. The theory suggests that individual actors on the world scene have no impact on how events. If that is the case, then how do historical events happen? I feel that history has required individuals to leave their indelible mark on international relations for events to have occurred. To take an extreme example to explain my point, it is widely felt that although certain events (such as the strength of feeling against what was seen as the unfair conditions laid out in the Versailles Treaty), made the rise of an individual like Hitler in the 1930’s possible, it was his own charismatic way of expressing the frustrations that many Germans felt that could explain his popularity in the early 1930’s. It was not because of the exploitation of the proletariat that led to WW2, I would suggest that it was in part to do with countries like Britain responding to acts of naked aggression on the part of the Germans to increase their power and pursue their own interests.

A central component of Marxism is the idea that each class in history will be replaced by another one in some permanent kind of ‘class struggle’. I take this to mean that Marxists believe that the current capitalist system will be replaced by a variant of socialism or communism. I disagree with this because I feel that instead of being replaced, the ideals of capitalism as supported by liberals are becoming more predominant, not less so on the global scene as well as the end of communism in the USSR. Also, I cite the fact that WTO membership has now reached 1487 and that there are some 30 or so countries negotiating to join it. The reason that I feel that this is relevant is that the fact that WTO and other international organisations are seen as supporting the liberal, capitalist centred view of the world that Marxists say should be eroding away. Instead of eroding away, their membership and global reach is increasing.

This leaves us with the remaining theories. World systems theory is one that deals with the economic inequalities and exploitation between the core and periphery in the capitalist system. This theory purports that the economic exploitation of the weaker economies in the periphery allow powerful capitalist states to prosper through things such as cheap labour and raw materials as well as lower standards that keep costs down for multinational companies. Critical theory points out that it is impossible to generate an objective, impartial theory for international relations as we are all part of the ‘system’ and so we can’t form an unbiased view of the world as such as we are in it. As Cox famously put it “theory is always for someone, and for some purpose.”8 Whilst I accept that this could be true to a certain extent, I am going to reject this theory, as according to Cox, I can’t use a theory to explain the global system as I am part of the system that I wish to study. For constructivists like Onuf, there is no innate law of nature to explain the international system9. To paraphrase, it is what we make of it and if we believe in sovereignty or any other culture or norm that regulates how states act in relation to each other, then in so believing, this idea will exist and we will act accordingly. I reject this, as I feel that human nature is such that we will react to whatever threats we see to our survival, instead of creating norms or values that tell us how we should respond to different circumstances.

In conclusion, I feel that the most useful theory would be a mix of realism and liberalism, although that is not to say that they are flawless (no theory predicted the end of the cold war for example). Liberalism, as far as I am concerned sums up the natural instinct to co-operate as well as placing an emphasis on economics which would explain the increasing influence of non governmental actors on the global scene. Realism’s strength lies in its focus on how the world actually is and that in the absence of an effective global authority, it is a case of ‘every state for itself’ where each state will use any means, peaceful or militaristic, to get what it wants at the expense of others and ensure its survival. I feel that on the whole, these two theories combined best explain the happenings of both the past and contemporary international relations between states and increasingly, non state actors.

Word count: 2195. Upper limit 2200.

Bibliography and footnotes

1. ( Accessed 22/11/04)
2.Little,R “International Regimes” (2001) in Baylis,J and Smith,S (eds) The Globalisation of World Politics (New York: Oxford University Press), 314
3.Waltz, K (1979) Theories of International Relations, (USA: McGraw Hill), 15
4.(Keohane, R. “International Institutions: Two Approaches”, in International Studies Quarterly Vol. 32, 1988, cited in address in footnote 1).
5.Waltz, K (1979) Theories of International Relations, (USA: McGraw Hill),106
6.Waltz, K (1979) Theories of International Relations, (USA: McGraw Hill),111
7. ( Accessed 19/11/04)
8.Cox, R (1996) “Social forces, states, and world orders in international relations theory” in Cox, R and Siclair, T Approaches to World Order (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press), p87
9.Onuf, N (1989), World of our Making: Rules and rule in social theory in International Relations ( Columbia SC: University of South Carolina Press)

- One comment Not publicly viewable

  1. R

    Hello mate,

    Interesting essay, erm I don't suppose you happen to type up notes you make. I'm taking a course in IR as part of my Erasmus study and reading massive German texts (some of which were originally written in English) doesn't really bring me any joy!

    Otherwise, what tips could you perhaps direct my way for looking for web resources that critique neorealism.

    Many thanks, and good luck with your exams,


    04 May 2005, 23:49

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