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Theories of International Relations

Theories of international relations
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Theories of International Relations

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.

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.

The two major theories of international relations are realism and liberalism.


Positivist theories aim to replicate the methods of the natural sciences by analysing the impact of material forces. They typically focus on features of international relations such as state interactions, size of military forces, balance of powers etc.

Post-positivist epistemology rejects the idea that the social world can be studied in an objective and value-free way. It rejects the central ideas of neo-realism/liberalism, such as rational choice theory, on the grounds that the scientific method cannot be applied to the social world and that a ‘science’ of IR is impossible.

A key difference between the two positions is that while positivist theories, such as neo-realism, offer causal explanations (such as why and how power is exercised), post-positivist theories focus instead on constitutive questions, for instance what is meant by ‘power’; what makes it up, how it is experienced and how it is reproduced. Often, post-positivist theories explicitly promote a normative approach to IR, by considering ethics. This is something which has often been ignored under ‘traditional’ IR as positivist theories make a distinction between ‘facts’ and normative judgments, or ‘values’.



According to realism, states work only to increase their own power relative to that of other states. Realism also claims the following:

  • The base of international relations is the “realist” theory. It says that the world is one of anarchy, and all states do what is in their best interest.
  • 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.
  • 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 states. Moral goals are so dangerous, he wrote, that to act morally will bring about disaster. 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.
  • Kenneth Waltz wrote neo-realist theories during the late 19th century and early 20th century


Liberalism emphasizes that the broad ties among states have both made it difficult to define national interest and decreased the usefulness of military power. Liberalism developed in the 1970s as some scholars began arguing that realism was outdated. Increasing globalization, the rapid rise in communications technology, and the increase in international trade meant that states could no longer rely on simple power politics to decide matters. Liberal approaches to international relations are also called theories of complex interdependence.

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 prosperity.


  • 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 shunned.
  • In the United States, idealism has usually been associated with the Democratic Party since World War I.
  • 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.


Neoliberalism seeks to update liberalism by accepting the neorealist presumption that states are the key actors in international relations, but still maintains that non-state actors (NSAs) and intergovernmental organizations (IGOs) matter. Proponents such as Maria Chattha argue that states will cooperate irrespective of relative gains, and are thus concerned with absolute gains. This also means that nations are, in essence, free to make their own choices as to how they will go about conducting policy without any international organizations blocking a nation’s right to sovereignty.

Neoliberalism also contains an economic theory that is based on the use of open and free markets with little, if any, government intervention to prevent monopolies and other conglomerates from forming. The growing interdependence throughout and after the Cold War through international institutions led to neo-liberalism being defined as institutionalism, this new part of the theory being fronted by Robert Keohane and also Joseph Nye.

Check Also: National Interest of Pakistan | Definition of National Interest


Regime theory is derived from the liberal tradition that argues that international institutions or regimes affect the behavior of states (or other international actors). It assumes that cooperation is possible in the anarchic system of states, indeed, regimes are by definition, instances of international cooperation.

While realism predicts that conflict should be the norm in international relations, regime theorists say that there is cooperation despite anarchy. Often they cite cooperation in trade, human rights and collective security among other issues. These instances of cooperation are regimes. The most commonly cited definition of regimes comes from Stephen Krasner. Krasner defines regimes as “institutions possessing norms, decision rules, and procedures which facilitate a convergence of expectations.”

Not all approaches to regime theory, however are liberal or neoliberal; some realist scholars like Joseph Greico have developed hybrid theories which take a realist based approach to this fundamentally liberal theory. (Realists do not say cooperation never happens, just that it is not the norm; it is a difference of degree).



International society theory, also called the English School, focuses on the shared norms and values of states and how they regulate international relations. Examples of such norms include diplomacy, order, and international law. Unlike neo-realism, it is not necessarily positivist. Theorists have focused particularly on humanitarian intervention, and are subdivided between solidarists, who tend to advocate it more, and pluralists, who place greater value in order and sovereignty. Nicholas Wheeler is a prominent solidarist, while Hedley Bull and Robert H. Jackson are perhaps the best known pluralists.

SOCIAL CONSTRUCTIVISM | Theories of international relations

Social constructivism encompasses a broad range of theories that aim to address questions of ontology, such as the structure-and-agency debate, as well as questions of epistemology, such as the “material/ideational” debate that concerns the relative role of material forces versus ideas. Constructivism is not a theory of IR in the manner of neo-realism, but is instead a social theory which is used to better explain the actions taken by states and other major actors as well as the identities that guide these states and actors.

Constructivism in IR can be divided into what Hopf (1998) calls ‘conventional’ and ‘critical’ constructivism. Common to all varieties of constructivism is an interest in the role that ideational forces play. The most famous constructivist scholar, Alexander Wendt noted in a 1992 article in International Organization (later followed up by a book, Social Theory of International Politics (1999)), that “anarchy is what states make of it”. By this he means that the anarchical structure that neo-realists claim governs state interaction is in fact a phenomenon that is socially constructed and reproduced by states. | Theories of international relations
For example, if the system is dominated by states that see anarchy as a life or death situation (what Wendt terms a “Hobbesian” anarchy) then the system will be characterized by warfare. If on the other hand anarchy is seen as restricted (a “Lockean” anarchy) then a more peaceful system will exist. Anarchy in this view is constituted by state interaction, rather than accepted as a natural and immutable feature of international life as viewed by neo-realist IR scholars.. | Theories of international relations

MARXISM | Theories of international relations

Marxist and Neo-Marxist theories of IR reject the realist/liberal view of state conflict or cooperation; instead focusing on the economic and material aspects. It makes the assumption that the economy trumps other concerns; allowing for the elevation of class as the focus of study. Marxists view the international system as an integrated capitalist system in pursuit of capital accumulation. Thus, the period of colonialism brought in sources for raw materials and captive markets for exports, while decolonialization brought new opportunities in the form of dependence. | Theories of international relations

Linked in with Marxist theories is dependency theory and the Core-Periphery Model, which argue that developed countries, in their pursuit of power, appropriate developing states through international banking, security and trade agreements and unions on a formal level, and do so through the interaction of political & financial advisors, missionaries, relief aid workers, and multinational corporations on the informal level, in order to integrate them into the capitalist system, strategically appropriating under-valued natural resources and labor hours and fostering economic & political dependence. | Theories of international relations

Marxist theories receive little attention in the United States where no significant Socialist party has flourished. It is more common in parts of Europe and is one of the more important theoretic contributions of Latin American academia to the study of global networks. | Theories of international relations

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