Evolution of international relations theory

Seminar Paper, 2017
8 Pages, Grade: 1


International relations is an area of study dealing with the interrelationships among nation-states in an age in which nation-states are the principal holder of political power. The study concerns itself with the outcomes of war and peace; consequently, it has practical importance. However, the change in practice has generated considerable confusion as to who are involved as the principal actors; since there are different kinds of state and non-states actors. These actors lead to a wide range of stakes, diverse goals, complex modes of interaction, and diverse institutions within which the actors take actions[1]. The old convention which was the main contributor to the articulation of the definition of international relations was the distinction between civil society and the state. This distinction found currency in the eighteenth century when it delineated two distinct spheres of human interaction and practice; the emergent of a society of human beings characterized by contract and market relations, and a state whose principal function was to maintain internal peace and external defense. In the present age, however, the state and civil society are intertwined that the international relation concept has become purely analytical[2].

According to Butterfield and Wight, international relation theory is a tradition of speculation about the community of states or the international community. The scholars observed that; the speculation in regard to international relation theory was traditionally comprehended under international law. However, the scholars are of the opinion that the international theory, as discussed by the earlier classical thinkers, is marked by paucity and lacks moral and intellectual characteristics[3]. They opine that the principle that individuals need the protection of the nation-state, and represents him in the international community, is a juristic belief in a sovereign state as the embodiment of and consummation of political experience that has characterized the western world since renaissance. Hence, the masterpiece of international relations is the system characterized by the balance of power[4].

Cox traces the evolution of the realist international relations theory from the political theory advanced by Machiavelli and espoused by the diplomacy of the renaissance Italian city-states. The realist theory is contrasted with the normative theory as propagated by Christian church that dominated the medieval society. The underpinning factors of the realist theory of international relations as perceived by Cox was the conduct of nation-states as a reaction to given historical circumstances, the raison d’état[5]. In this conception of international relations, it is viewed as a protracted competition between the several theories obtaining in the realm of international studies namely, realism, liberal, and radical traditions. The realism approach concerns itself with the enduring propensity for competition and conflicts between states, while liberalism looked at the various ways that could be applied to mitigate the conflictive tendencies[6]. The radical traditions school of thought concerns itself with how the entire state system relations could be transformed. It is notable that the boundaries between these schools of thoughts are blurred, and some of the works done by some theorist do not fit any of these theories, however, debates among and within the various schools of thoughts define the international relation discipline[7]. It is also notable that the proponents of the various schools of thoughts do not always agree with those who present a differing opinion. The literature under review is full of disdainful attitude towards the different opinions as the propagated by particular scholars.

According to Walt, the realism approach has been the dominant theory in the twentieth century and especially during the cold war. The realist perspective depicts international relations as a struggle for power between self-interested nation-states. The theory adopts a pessimistic attitude in regard to the prospect of eliminating conflict[8]. The acceptance of the realism approach gained currency in the cold war period because it provides simple explanations for war, imperialism, alliances, impediments in cooperation, and related international phenomenon. The theory was seen to be consistent with the cold war scenario, where the competition was between the two leading world superpowers at the time. According to Walt, realism is not a single theory. Following the arguments advanced by Morgenthau and Niebuhr, he sees states behaving like human beings in that they display an innate desire for domination that could lead to war.

The international relations study can best be understood as a competition between the realist, liberal, and radical traditions. The realists’ theory emphasizes the propensity for conflict between states; liberalism sees several ways to mitigate the conflictive tendencies, while the radical tradition identifies how the entire system of state relations can be transformed. The boundaries between these schools of thought are hazy. However, the debates within the theories have defined the discipline[9]. Kenneth Waltz focused on the effects of international systems. To Waltz, the international relation system was made up of several superpowers, each pursuing its survival. Each state had to survive on its own since there is no organized central authority that could provide protection to the states from each other. Waltz contended that this condition would lead the weaker states to balance against, rather than follow the powerful rivals. Consequently, he saw bipolarity as more stable than multi-polarity. Other scholars were of the opinion that the war was most likely when states could defeat each other easily. Consequently, security was maintained when defense was easier than offense, and the incentive for expansionism declined while cooperation blossomed. Thus, for the realist, states merely sought to survive, and the super powers could offer security guarantee by forming balancing alliances. Such nations would adopt defensive military posture such as the proliferation of nuclear capability[10]. To the realist, such as Morgenthau, the United States of America was secure during the cold war. However, they feared that the country could jeopardize its superior position by pursuing aggressive foreign policy. By the time the cold war ended, realism had taken an optimistic tone as opposed to the earlier pessimism adopted by Morgenthau and other realist theorists[11].

Those who favored federalism argued that economic interdependence between states would act as deterrence from using force against each other since war would threaten the states prosperity. Another strand of federalists’ theory argued that democracy was the way to world peace since democratic states tend to be more inclined to peace than authoritarian states. Hence, according to liberalism, the states were the central actors in international relations and world affairs[12]. The central theme in liberalism was the role of cooperation as the balancing force in states power.

The radical approaches theory was advanced by Marxist, who saw capitalism as the main cause of international conflict. According to this theory, capitalist states fought each other in the incessant struggle for profits while battling the socialist states since they presented the destruction of capitalism. The solution to the conflicts was to overthrow capitalistic nations and install a revolutionary government which would be committed to autonomous development. However, these theories were discredited because the military and economic cooperation among the industrial powers proved that capitalism does not always lead to conflict[13]. On the other hand, the schism in the communist world showed that socialism is not the panacea conflict. As Marxism failed, its mantle was taken up by theorists who championed deconstructionism. The deconstructionists were skeptical of the effort to construct theories such as liberalism and realism. These theorists, however, concentrated on criticizing the mainstream paradigms without offering any positive alternatives.

The cessation of the Cold War saw the diversification of discussions on international relations as new issues such as the environment, ethnic conflicts, and the future of states took center stage in the international relations discourse. It is ironical that although many societies have embraced similar aspirations such as democracy, human rights, and free markets, the international relations scholars are still divided[14]. Some scholars believe that although the state remains as the central actor in international relations, the agenda has shifted from military competition to domestic welfare, environmental protection, and economic competitiveness due to the spread of democracy and changes in international norms.[15]

With the collapse of communism, there arose another theory of democratic peace as the number of democracies increased. The democratic peace theory is a refinement of the argument that democracies create more peaceful states than authoritarian ones. Its argument is anchored on the belief that although democratic states fight wars, they rarely fight each other. Some scholars are of the opinion that the reason could be because democracies embrace similar norms of compromise that prohibit the uses of force against other states espousing similar principle[16].

Whereas liberalism and realism theories focus on material factors, the constructionist theories emphasize the impact of ideas. The constructionists regard the interest of states as malleable products of historical processes. Although the constructionists do not see the power as irrelevant in international relations, they, however, lay more emphasis on how ideas are created and how they shape how nations understand and react to their situations[17]. However, the constructionist theories are diverse and hardly offer any unified standpoint.

While the international relations debates reflect the diversity of current scholarship, there are several signs of convergence. Most of the realist’s theorists recognize that militarism, nationalism, ethnicity and other domestic factors are important; while liberals recognize that the power is a central factor in international relations[18]. The constructivists, on the other hand, acknowledge that ideas have a greater impact when supported by powerful states and buttressed by enduring material forces. It can be noted that the boundaries of the paradigm are permeable, and there exist ample opportunity for intellectual arbitrage[19]. Out of these paradigms, realism remains the most convincing general framework in discussing and understanding international relations. Nation-states continue to be pre-occupied with the balance of power and are concerned with the possibility of conflicts[20]. Consequently, that is why many European and Asian countries are eager to orient themselves with the United States of America military presence in their territories. The United States of America, has, however, demonstrated a proclivity for being the only super power and is determined to remain the only dominant power[21]. The country has exploited its superiority to impose its desires even at the risk of antagonizing its traditional allies. The United States of America has forced several one-sided arms control treaties with Russia, expanded the NATO war machines into Russia’s backyard, and lately have been concerned with the china military and economic growth[22]. It is instructive that, as the country dominance of international relations, it has disdainfully treated the United Nations and other related agencies whenever their policies and actions did not conform to the United States of America interests. It is obvious that the end of the cold war did not stop the power politics games. Consequently, realism remains the only useful instrument in the intellectual discourse[23].

Suffice to say, each of the competing international relations theories and perspectives captures the significant aspects of international relations and world politics. Both scholars and policymakers should be cognizant of realists’ emphasis on the pervading role of power while appreciating the liberal’s awareness of domestic forces and occasionally think of the constructionist’s position on ideas and change.


Butterfield, Herbert and Wight, Martin. Diplomatic investigations: Essays in the theory of international Politics, Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1966.

Hoffman, Stanley. Janus and Minerva: Essays in the Theory and Practice on International Politics, London: west view Press, 1987.

Hollis, Martin and Smith, Steve. Explaining and Understanding International Relations, Oxford University Press, 1992.

Keohane, Robert. Neo-realism and its critics, New York: Columbia University Press, 1986.

Smith, Steve. International relations theory today, University Park: Pennsylvania state university Press, 1995.

Walt, Stephen. International Relations: One World, Many Theories, Foreign Policy, No. 110, Special Edition: Frontiers of Knowledge. p. 29-46. 1998.


[1]. Steve Smith. International relations theory today, (University Park: Pennsylvania state university Press, 1995), 12.

[2]. Smith, 19.

[3]. Herbert Butterfield and Martin Wight. Diplomatic investigations: Essays in the theory of international Politics, (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1966), 18.

[4]. Butterfield and Wight, 20.

[5]. Robert Keohane. Neo-realism and its critics, (New York: Columbia University Press, 1986), 211.

[6]. Keohane, 213.

[7]. Smith, 20.

[8]. Steve Smith. International relations theory today, (University Park: Pennsylvania state university Press, 1995), 12.

[9]. Smith, 13.

[10]. Stanley Hoffman. Janus and Minerva: Essays in the Theory and Practice on International Politics, (London: west view Press, 1987), 10.

[11]. Walt, Stephen . International Relations: One World, Many Theories, Foreign Policy, No. 110, Special Edition: (Frontiers of Knowledge.1998), 31.

[12]. Walt, 32.

[13]. Walt, 33.

[14]. Hoffman, 15.

[15]. Walt, 36.

[16]. Hoffman, 16.

[17]. Martin Hollis and Steve Smith. Explaining and Understanding International Relations, Oxford University Press, 1992, 60.

[18]. Smith, 15.

[19]. Hollis and Smith, 61.

[20]. Walt, 42.

[21]. Walt, 43.

[22]. Walt, 44.

[23]. Walt, 45.

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Evolution of international relations theory
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Caroline Mutuku (Author), 2017, Evolution of international relations theory, Munich, GRIN Verlag, https://www.grin.com/document/428509


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