international relations

International Relations

international relationsInternational relations is the study of an international system composed of states. The study deals with the nature of changing relations between states and non-state actors, studies the functioning of the international system and analyses the forces, factors and interests of the different players. This text will explore the history, the different theories and the institutions related to the field of international relations.


The origins of international relations can be traced back to 1648, to the Peace of Westphalia. This was considered a stepping stone in the development of the modern states. Prior to this period of time, the structure of political authority was based on a vague hierarchical religious order. The centuries between 1500 to 1800 witnessed the rise of the institutionalization of diplomacy, the rise of independent and sovereign states, and armies.  The French Revolution in 1789 added to the new idea of sovereign states. During this time it became clear that it is not princes or an oligarchy that define sovereignty, but the citizens of the state defined this concept. This gave rise to the term nation-state, a term commonly used amongst international relations scholars.


This European system of supposing the sovereign equality of states was quickly spread to Africa and Asia through colonialism. The contemporary international system was finally established through decolonization during the Cold War. Nevertheless, this does not imply that all states incorporated in the international system are considered to be modern, as nation-states are interpreted. Developing states that have been colonized by European states are often labelled as “pre-modern”. Other states, on the other hand, are considered to be “post-modern” since they have moved far beyond full sovereignty. The current study of nation-states is often explained by means of different types of states. One of the ways of looking at the international system is through different levels, namely the individual level, the domestic level, the transnational level and the global level.

Epistemology theory

Theories of international relations can be divided in two main epistemological camps, namely positivist and post-positivist. Positivist theories mostly analyze the impact of material forces and thereby attempt to replicate the natural sciences. These theories focus on international relations features related to the balance of powers, size of military forces, state interactions, etc. Post-positivist theories, on the other hand, reject the idea that the interactions in the world can be studied in an objective manner. These theories hold that the use of scientific methods cannot be applied to the social world and that studying the field of international relations by means of science is therefore impossible.


A main difference between the positivist and post-positivist theories is that positivist theories mostly focus on causal explanations while post-positivist theories focus on constitutive questions. Also, post-positivist theories tend to consider ethics and thereby promote a normative approach to the field of international relations. Ethics is a concept that has often been ignored under international relations, but currently tends to be included more in the IR debate.

Realism theory

Realism is one of the main positivist theories. Realism considers state security and power as being most important for a state. Realist scholars argue that states are power-seeking  and self-interested rational actors who seek to maximize their chances of survival and their security. According to them, cooperation between states does not serve any other purpose besides maximizing each individual state’s own security. Also, it is considered that any act of war must be based on self-interest, rather than on idealism. Weapons and arms are therefore considered to be a tool for protecting the state and maximizing its power. Realists often use World War II as a justification of their theory.

Political realism considers politics to be governed by objective laws which find their roots in human nature, similar to society. According to this theory, in order to improve society it is necessary to understand the laws by which society is governed. Also, it is believed that a clear distinction should be made in politics between truth and opinion. Truth is considered to be true objectively and supported by evidence and reason, while opinion is a subjective judgment based of wishful thinking and prejudice.

Liberalism theory

Liberalism considers individuals to be capable of bringing about positive change by means of cooperation and dialogue. Liberalists view international organizations, non-governmental organizations and states as the key actors in the system of international relations and global welfare. Contrary to realists, liberalists regard states as having many different interest and are not necessarily autonomous and unitary. Moreover, liberalism considers interdependence among states, international institutions and multinational corporations as highly valuable in relation to the sovereignty of the state. Liberalists view the international system as one large anarchy since there is no single international overarching institution and each individual state is free to act in its own self-interest.

It is believed that liberalism is rooted in the liberal traditions of philosophers Immanuel Kant and Adam Smith who believed that human nature is basically good and that each individual’s self-interest can be influenced by society to promote positive change and social welfare. Also, they believe that individuals form groups and then form states and thereby lead to the fact that states are cooperative and tend to follow international norms and regulations. Liberalism mainly arose after the end of World War I in response to the inability of states to control and limit their use of military force in their international relations.


Prior to the concept of dependency and interdependency, international relations relied on the idea of sovereignty. Sovereignty is described as a state having absolute power over its territories and that the state is only limited by the sovereign’s own obligations towards other sovereigns and individuals. Throughout world history there have been instances of groups lacking or losing sovereignty. For example, colonization of African and Asian states is an example of states losing sovereignty since they are controlled by another sovereign power. Another example is the invasion of the United States in Iraq during the Iraq War in 2003. During this time the state of Iraq lost its sovereignty to one of the main superpowers in the world. Sovereignty continues to play an important role in international relations and its significance can be found in many international treaties.


The concept of power mostly describes the influence and resources of a state in international relations. Power in the field of IR is often divided in two types of power, namely hard and soft power. While hard power is considered to be coercive, soft power is regarded as attractive. Hard power refers to coercive techniques such as the use of armed forces, economic sanctions, and other forms of intimidation. It is often associated with strong nations such as the United States, Russia and China who use coercive measures to influence domestic or international affairs. Realists are often advocates of using coercive force to balance the international system. Liberalists, on the other hand, are advocates of using soft power. Soft power includes diplomacy, cultural awareness to achieve political ends and dissemination of information. One of the main leading proponents of soft power is Joseph Nye. He believes that positive change can be reached through an appeal to the commonly accepted human values and not through the use of coercive measures.

National interest

Similarly to the concepts of power and sovereignty, national interest is a commonly used term in the field of international relations. National interest is a state’s action in relation to other states where it seeks to gain benefits for its own interest. Within the field of IR, national interest is divided in vital and non-vital interests. Vital interests constitute interests a country is willing to defend or expand by means of using coercive measures. This includes protecting its citizens, ideology and/or territory. Non-vital interest are interests a country is willing to compromise over. For example, this could include relinquishing territory to preserve its own sovereignty and integrity, or maintaining good relationships with other states.

Institutions in International Relations

In the 21st century, the international system is no longer dominated by states. Over the years, the presence of non-state actors has increased tremendously and has enlarged the international system. Non-state actors influence the international system by  implementing unpredictable behavior and represent different interests of groups worldwide. Whether it is non-governmental organizations, international organizations, multinational corporations or any other entity with a big influence on the international system, they have the potential to significantly influence the outcome of international deliberations. This also includes the individual person. The individual person is what constitutes the states’ collective entity and also has the potential to create unpredictable behavior.

International institutions play an important role in contemporary international relations. The majority of the interactions are governed by them and they outlaw different traditional practices of international relations. For example, the use of war is prohibited by numerous international treaties and is only allowed for self-defense purposes. The United Nations (UN), for example, is one of the leading international organizations with a big influence on the international system. The organization describes itself as a “global association of governments facilitating co-operation in international law, international security, economic development and social equity”. The United Nations is considered a leading organization and many legal institutions therefore follow the same organizational structure as the UN.




Article written by: SarahAjaoud
Times read: 2341x
Added: 01-03-2016 16:59
Last modified: 01-03-2016 22:13

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