International Relations

1. National Interest

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.


2. Theories of International Relations

International Relations employs three theories that political scientists use to explain and predict how world politics plays out. To define the theories of Realism, Liberalism, and Constructivism we will explore how each theory views anarchy, power, state interests, and the cause of war.

All theories agree that the world is in anarchy and because of this it is helpful to start with a definition of anarchy and what it implies. Anarchy, for theories that deal with international relations, refers to the world as a whole having no government. There are individual states that have varying degrees of power and sovereignty in their own land, but clearly there is no single state that makes laws for the whole world. This presents problems and dangers for entities operating in the anarchic world and a need for a system that will guide the actions of these entities. However, while all three theories discussed in this paper accept that the world is in a state of anarchy, how they believe governments should, and do, deal with this problem differs in each theory.


3. Realism  and Neo-Realism

  • Realism

Realist theory holds that events in the world follow one basic system; a Hobbesian system where everyone must be viewed as a threat and the only way to survive is to gain more power than your rivals. Because there is anarchy in the international world, Realists believe that greater power is the only way for states to secure their sovereignty, and this leads to the belief that states are the main players in international politics because the system discourages individuality in favor of these types of power struggles. Central to Realists, is the belief that power must be defined in military terms, and stronger military power will lead states to what Relists believe are in their ultimate interests, either a hegemon for Offensive Realists or to a balance of two powerful states for Defensive Realists. This, for Realists, is the ultimate goal because of the belief that states view all politics with an eye to gaining more power than their competition in order to secure their safety. They argue that the system works to constantly balance power: states gain power through war and military intimidation in order to counter a threat, which causes them to be a threat in turn, so that other states have to balance against them as they struggle to become a hegemon. Ideally, for the safety of a Defensive Realist state, the balance of power would polarize on two equal sides, providing a world that has far fewer players to engage in conflict and an almost stalemate like situation that offers little opportunity to engage powerful states in war with weaker states. Offensive Realists argue that a Hegemon works to remove opportunities for states to engage in war by providing one powerful state that can block the ambitions of weaker states but itself feels no need to gain more power through war.

Because realists believe that power is gained through war or the threat of military action they also believe that there is no such thing as lasting alliances or peace, due to this power grabbing system. They see no reason to believe that states can ever trust each other. Realists believe that the system is against states; that because of anarchy, states are forced to constantly take into account that others might have more power than them or are planning to gain more power and are so forced to do the same against all possible allies in order to secure their own safety.

Neorealism shuns classical realism’s use of often essentialist concepts such as “human nature” to explain international politics. Instead, neorealist thinkers developed a theory that privileges structural constraints over agents’ strategies and motivations.


Neorealism holds that the international structure is defined by its ordering principle, which is anarchy, and by the distribution of capabilities, measured by the number of great powers within the international system. The anarchic ordering principle of the international structure is decentralized, having no formal central authority, and is composed of formally equal sovereign states. These states act according to the logic of self-help–states seek their own interest and will not subordinate their interest to another’s.

States are assumed at a minimum to want to ensure their own survival as this is a prerequisite to pursue other goals. This driving force of survival is the primary factor influencing their behavior and in turn ensures states develop offensive military capabilities, for foreign interventionism and as a means to increase their relative power. Because states can never be certain of other states’ future intentions, there is a lack of trust between states which requires them to be on guard against relative losses of power which could enable other states to threaten their survival. This lack of trust, based on uncertainty, is called the security dilemma.

States are deemed similar in terms of needs but not in capabilities for achieving them. The positional placement of states in terms of abilities determines the distribution of capabilities. The structural distribution of capabilities then limits cooperation among states through fears of relative gains made by other states, and the possibility of dependence on other states. The desire and relative abilities of each state to maximize relative power constrain each other, resulting in a ‘balance of power’, which shapes international relations. It also gives rise to the ‘security dilemma’ that all nations face. There are two ways in which states balance power: internal balancing and external balancing. Internal balancing occurs as states grow their own capabilities by increasing economic growth and/or increasing military spending. External balancing occurs as states enter into alliances to check the power of more powerful states or alliances.


Liberalism and Neo-liberalism

Liberal theory too, believes in the view that states are seeking military power to combat anarchy. However, it views the players involved in different terms than Realists and offers a different solution to the problem of war. For Liberal theory, there is hope for world peace if states seek common ground, forming alliances and institutions for policing the world powers. This would all lead to the ultimate goal of Liberal thought, which is a totally interdependent world.

Liberals, unlike Realists, take into account the individual attributes that states possess and allow for the idea of lasting alliances based on common beliefs and ideas and attribute more power to common institutions then to states. Instead of focusing on the simple survival of states as they try to become a hegemon, Liberals believe that common ideas can lead states into interdependence and so remove allies as threats to sovereignty. They emphasize that the real power for states comes of mutually held ideas like religion, language, economies, and political systems that will lead states to form alliances and become interdependent. Such alliances will lead to strong institutions that work to prevent war between states, keeping competition to other political realms and removing the need for a state to secure its sovereignty through hegemony or balancing as per the Realist system. Institutions will, according to Liberal theory, act as a policing power and collectively bring states to punish, with war or economic sanctions, those states that don’t cooperate with the collective system.


Global events and trends of the last quarter of the 20th century, such as the 1973 oil crisis, spurred a new liberal backlash to realism that would lead to the emergence of neoliberalism, also known as neoliberal institutionalism.
Neoliberals see the world as being dominated by complex interdependence: a paradigm in which states are not seen as the only important actors, national security is not the exclusive objective of states (economic issues are at least of equal importance), and military force is often not an effective nor desirable solution to interstate conflict. This concept was first introduced by political scientists Robert O. Keohane and Joseph S. Nye in their 1977 book Power and Interdependence.

Neoliberalism acknowledges that the international system is anarchic, but adds that states are heavily influenced by international regimes when making decisions. International regimes can be defined as “implicit or explicit principles, norms, rules and decision-making procedures around which actors’ expectations converge in a given area of international relations” (Krasner).

According to neoliberal theory, reciprocity is an effective way to promote long-run cooperation in an international system characterized by anarchy and self-help. This “tit-for-tat” strategy is quite simple in theory: if you do me good, I will do you good; if you do me bad, I will do you bad.

Some core concepts that serve as the foundation of both classical liberalism and neoliberalism are:

  • The world can be improved for all through cooperation, democratization, institutions, and interdependence.
  • States are not the only important actors. IGOs, NGOs, and multinational corporations significantly influence world politics, too.
  • Free trade reduces armed conflict and benefits all stakeholders economically



The final theory we will discuss is Constructivism. Constructivist theory has, unlike Realism and Liberalism, people at the heart of its definition of power and takes into account that people make up the states and institutions that work within the anarchy of the world. Constructivists view individual people and the ideas that they believe in are what gives these things meaning. They argue that power does not reside in the state or institutions, but rather in ideas that people use and collectively come to believe in. For Constructivists, anarchy, economies, and alliances are what people decide to make of them, that is, they can change if people choose to view them differently. Working with this theory would lead Constructivists to view the reasons for a state going war as being only as clear cut as we would make it. Since the reasons for a state to act are based on what people believe, if people believe in a balance of power system then that is what they will act on, and the same can be said for the belief that institutions will prevent war. For Constructivists it is even possible that some as yet unknown way of looking at the situation could emerge as people adjust their ideas about war and socially acceptable reactions to different situations.



Each theory provides its own reasoning for why states and people act the way they do when confronted with questions such as world anarchy, power, state interests, and the cause of war. As such, in any given situation there will always be multiple explanations for actions taken or not taken. In the end it may just be that a mix of these theories best describes the international world of politics, as each theory compensates for the weaknesses in the others.

A theory of international relations is a set of ideas that explains how the international system works. Unlike an ideology, a theory of international relations is (at least in principle) backed up with concrete evidence. The two major theories of international relations are realism and liberalism.

Source: Waltz, Kenneth (2001): “Structural Realism after the Cold War”



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