IR201 theories of I.R

• Theorists seek to answer the big question in international relations and foreign policy: why do
states behave the way they do in the international system?
• Why do states behave the way they do is the question that theories of international relations and
theories of foreign policy are trying to answer.
• Each author/theorist is developing a theory to explain the behavior of all states, not just one
• Theories are statements about cause and effect. When I heat up a liquid, it will boil. That’s cause
and effect.
• Most theories of international relations are based on the idea that states always act in accordance
with their national interest, or the interests of that particular state.
• State interests often include self-preservation, military security, economic prosperity, and influence
over other states.
• Sometimes two or more states have the same national interest. For example, two states might both
want to foster peace and economic trade.
• And states with diametrically opposing national interests might try to resolve their differences
through negotiation or even war.
• One of the key questions in international relations and foreign policy is the question of how you
examine state behavior.
• This is the level of analysis problem. Scholars see several levels of analysis through which state
behavior can be examined.
• System level
• State level
• Organizational level
• Individual level
• System level analysis examines state behavior by looking at the international system. In this level
of analysis, the international system is the cause and state behavior is the effect.
• Characteristics of the international system cause states to behave the way they do.
• Change in the international system will cause change in state behavior. The key variable in the
international system is the power of a state within the system.
• Some states are powerful; others are weak. So for example, the cold war had two powerful
states. Therefore the central cause of all state behavior in the cold war was the fact that the US
and USSR were the two powerful states in a bipolar system.
• Today, there is unipolar system – one superpower -- and that defines the behavior of all other
states in the system.
• So this level of analysis might explain the US intervention in Iraq as a matter of the US, the one
and only powerful state, flexing its muscles to police the world against states that threaten it.
• The US wants to preserve its dominance and therefore crushes all challengers.
• State level analysis examines the foreign policy behavior of states in terms of state
• For example, some scholars say that all democracies behave a certain way; they don’t fight with
other democracies. Some scholars might look at the different behaviors of weak or strong states.
• Some scholars might say that the foreign policy behavior of every state is a cultural characteristic,
defined by the historical legacy of the state, the religious or social traditions, or the economic and
geographic nature of the state itself.
• State level of analysis might explain the US intervention in Iraq as a function of the missionary
quality of US foreign policy.
• The US has always had an idealist streak in its foreign policy (some disagree with this) and sees
“bad guys” out there in the international system.
• The US is compelled by the nature of its political system and its belief that some day all states will
be like the US.
• It has a drive to remake the world in its own image.
• The job of US foreign policy is not done until all states are democratic and all nations have free
market economies.
• Organizational level analysis examines the way in which organizations within a state function to
influence foreign policy behavior.
• Organizations bargain with each other to create a foreign policy that is a compromise between
competing organizations.
• This level of analysis for example, might look at the Iraq war and try to explain it by examining
the interests of the US military, the department of defense, the state department, and central
intelligence agency.
• How did these organizations create US foreign policy would be the key question at this level
of analysis?.
• Individual level analysis focuses on people.
• People make decisions within nation states and therefore people make foreign
policy. Scholars might look at the roles of different leaders.
• This level of analysis might explain world war II by examining the role of Hitler. It
might look at the end of the cold war by studying Gorbachev.
• It might suggest that the economic reforms in china are a result of the transition
from Mao Zedong’s leadership to Deng Xiaoping’s rule.
• This level of analysis also includes cognitive theories --- theories that explain foreign policy by
looking at the way leaders perceive the world.
• This is a focus on perception, misperception, and communication.
• Individual level analysis might ask questions such as these: are there aspects of George W. Bush’s
character and belief systems that have defined the US response to the 9/11 attacks?
• Would John Kerry have behaved any differently in a similar situation? How do Bush and his senior
decision makers perceive the world and their role in it?
• Classical realism Is a state level theory that argues that all states seek power.
• That is the first and last principle of state behavior. States seek to increase their power; they seek
to decrease the power of their enemies; and everything they do is in the name of amassing
• States see other powerful states as rivals because power, when it is not in your hands, is
threatening. People are greedy, insecure, and aggressive, so the states they govern will have
those same characteristics.
• This doesn’t mean war, however. There can be peace, but a durable peace is based upon a stable
balance of power – the big players in the international systems are roughly equal in power
resources, so therefore no one thinks they can win a war. If you don’t think you can win a war, you
generally don’t start one. The US and USSR were rivals in the cold war because they were the two
most powerful states after WW II. They were both wary of each other’s power and became
enemies. But they did not go to war because they were roughly equal in power.
• According to realism, states work only to increase their own power relative to that of other states.
Realism also claims the following:
• The world is a harsh and dangerous place. The only certainty in the world is power. A powerful
state will always be able to outdo—and outlast—weaker competitors. The most important and
reliable form of power is military power.
• A state’s primary interest is self-preservation. Therefore, the state must seek power and must
always protect itself
• There is no overarching power that can enforce global rules or punish bad behavior.
• Moral behavior is very risky because it can undermine a state’s ability to protect itself.
• The international system itself drives states to use military force and to war. Leaders may be
moral, but they must not let moral concerns guide foreign policy.
• International organizations and law have no power or force; they exist only as long as states
accept them.
• Politicians have practiced realism as long as states have existed.
• Most scholars and politicians during the cold war viewed international relations through a realist
• Neither the United states nor the Soviet union trusted the other, and each sought allies to protect
itself and increase its political and military influence abroad.
• Realism has also featured prominently in the administration of George W. Bush.
• One of the best-known realist thinkers is the notorious Niccolo Machiavelli.
• In his book the prince (1513), he advised rulers to use deceit and violence as tools against other
• Moral goals are so dangerous, he wrote, that to act morally will bring about disaster when it
comes to the survival of states. He also gave advice about how to deal with conflicts among
neighboring states and how to defend one’s homeland.
• Machiavelli’s name has become synonymous with nasty and brutal politics.
• Morgenthau and classical realism
• after world war II, Hans J Morgenthau produced the standard work of classical realism (politics
among nations: the struggle for power and peace, 1948)
• Morgenthau’s work dominated IR theory for a whole generation
• Morgenthau used ideas from older political thinkers – Thucydides and Machiavelli – to support his
own ideas
• Morgenthau’s realism
• Morgenthau’s realism had three main principles:
• states are the most important actors in IR; other actors are less important
• survival: in a dangerous world (dangerous because of human nature), states have to concentrate on
• self-help: no other state or institution can be counted on to ensure survival
• Classical realism and the past
• classical realists used ideas from older thinkers to support their concepts
• in ancient Greece, Thucydides' account of the Melian dialogue stressed the importance of power
and the dangers of being weak: “the strong do what they have the power to do and the weak
accept what they have to accept”
• Classical realism and the past
• classical realists also recalled the ideas of Niccolo Machiavelli, author of the prince (written around
• Machiavelli stressed two necessary ideas for a wise ruler:
• policies are more important than principles • the end justifies the means
• Are states the most important actors?
• Are globalisation and interdependence changing this?
• Do states act only out of self-interest?
• Does realism preclude co-operation between states (and other actors)?
• Are all forms of international action about maximising power?
• Is this a conservative theory that doesn’t allow for changes that make the world a better place?
• Is it unethical?
• Liberalism is a state level theory which argues that there is a lot of cooperation in the world, not
just rivalry. States don’t just compete or worry about power.
• States try to build a more just world order. They often do so because they have learned that in
many instances cooperation is a better strategy that conflict.
• States try to create enforceable international law.
• States are progressive forces for social justice. Liberalism might look at the cold war and examine
the different values of the US and USSR and point out the repressive and murderous nature of the
Soviet state as the key to the US and USSR animosity.
• It also might look at the decades-worth of US-USSR cooperation in the midst of the cold war (arms
control, the lack of direct conflict).
• Liberalism claims the following:
• The world is a harsh and dangerous place, but the consequences of using military
power often outweigh the benefits. International cooperation is therefore in the
interest of every state.
• Military power is not the only form of power. Economic and social power matter a
great deal too. Exercising economic power has proven more effective than
exercising military power.
• Different states often have different primary interests.
• International rules and organizations can help foster cooperation, trust, and
• Idealism is a specific school of liberalism that stresses the need for states to
pursue moral goals and to act ethically in the international arena.
• Idealists believe that behavior considered immoral on an interpersonal level is
also immoral in foreign policy.
• Therefore, idealists argue that dishonesty, trickery, and violence should be
• EXAMPLE: As he negotiated the treaty to end world war I in 1918, Woodrow Wilson worked to
promote democracy and national self-determination.
• Wilson’s idealism led him to push hard for the creation of the League of Nations, an international
organization that would fight aggression and protect the weak from the strong, in 1919.
• Scholars use the term Wilsonian to describe a person or group who advocates promoting democracy
overseas in the name of idealism.
• Problems with the liberalism vision
• although liberalism was the first body of IR theory, many were unconvinced from the start
• events in Europe and elsewhere undermined this theory
• several undemocratic regimes enjoyed obvious popularity, and many of these regimes glorified
• the League of Nations was powerless to prevent aggression without going to war to protect
• it seemed to many people that Liberalism had been mistaken about states and about human
• Marxist theories in international relations build on the work of Karl Marx, with contributions from
Friedrich Engels
• Marx’s main interest was in the conflict between social classes: the proletariat or working class and the
bourgeoisie or ruling class
• The application of Marx’s ideas to international relations came long after Marx’s death in 1883
• In all the many strands of Marxism, the focus is on class rather than states, and economic issues are of
central importance
• There is no such thing as national interest in Marxism but only class interest exist even among nation
• Constructivist theory emphasizes the meanings that are assigned to material objects, rather than
the mere existence of the objects themselves.
• For example, a nuclear weapon in the United Kingdom and a nuclear weapon in North Korea may
be materially identical (though, so far, they are not) but they possess radically different meanings
for the United States.
• The belief that reality is socially constructed leads constructivists to place a greater role on norm
development, identity, and ideational power than the other major theoretical paradigms.
• Indeed, norms, identity, and ideas are key factors in constructivist theory.
• Constructivists are called constructivists because they focus on how reality is ‘socially constructed’
• One of the main assumptions of a constructivist approach is that identities, norms, and culture play
important roles in world politics.
• Identities and interests of states are not simply structurally determined, but are rather produced by
interactions, institutions, norms, cultures.
• It is process, not structure, which determines the manner in which states interact.
• For example: “Anarchy is what states make of it ”(Wendt)