The Mainstream Theoretical Perspectives Of IR

This week we’re focused on the mainstream International Relations theories of Realism, Liberalism, and Constructivism.

After you read the attached file, please pick one theory and complete the steps below:

1. Define the theory in your own words- what are the main ideas?

2. What are the strong points of theory? What are the weak points? In other words, what events can the theory explain, and what can it not explain?

3. Use this theory to explain a current event in international relations.

5. What are the weak points of your chosen theory and why? Be sure to define your terms and to support your answer with references.


See attached folder for readings

350-400 words excluding references, APA format, and a minimum of 3 references.

The Mainstream Theoretical Perspectives of International Relations

Key Terms

In order to understand the differences among the theories, you need to make sure you really understand some of the key terms we introduced last week.  Let me explain them in a bit more detail, just to make sure we are all on the same page.

Anarchy means that there is no higher authority to control international politics.  There is no one authority that gets to boss all of the states around. Some folks think anarchy is a synonym for chaos.  It’s not. There might be chaos when there is no overarching authority, but there might not be.    No boss – that’s all it means.  Yet in the anarchical world of states, there is order – an order that Hedley Bull (1977, 23) called both “precarious and imperfect.” Why does this term matter to us?  It matters because there is no overarching authority in the world.  International states operate in a system of anarchy.  As we look at three major theories this week you will see that they have slightly different understandings of the impact of anarchy.

Sovereignty, as we discussed last week, is not a difficult word to understand; it’s just difficult to spell.  It means that the state has the ultimate authority within the state and independence against foreign control. (Remember that states operate within a system of anarchy.) One of the things we will discuss this semester is whether states have the same sovereign control they used to have.  The concept of sovereignty has been critical to how the international system operates and how nation-states relate to each other. However, there are direct challenges to the concept and practice of sovereignty in the world today. In the face of acts of genocide in intra-state conflicts, the international community has responded with direct intervention (Bosnia and Kosovo), with the creation of War Crime Tribunals (Rwanda and the former-Yugoslavia), and prosecutions before the new International Criminal Court (Liberia). ​

Three Points of View

When you look through each point of view, it acts like a lens which shapes what you see (Pease 2010). As you will discover, realism focuses on the self-interests of states. Liberalism focuses on cooperation in the international system. Constructivism focuses on ideas.  At its core, it is an approach that works upon the assumption that beliefs and ideas are culturally and socially constructed.   In other words, concepts like statehood exist because we all have decided they do (Johnston, 2001).  It may seem overwhelming at this point to have five main actors in the international system, three levels of analysis and three theoretical perspectives to consider for any given event or topic. To make things easier, I recommend internalizing the information by memorizing their definitions. Keep these on the forefront of your mind anytime you are reading the news or trying to analyze a topic or event.



Realism is generally considered to be one of the oldest, if not the oldest, theoretical perspective in international relations.   Realists are the folks that believe major, long-term cooperation is unlikely in world politics. They focus on the anarchical nature of the international system, and believe that states will cooperate only when it is in their own self-interest.  The most important motivation for any state is state survival. The “acquisition, maintenance and exercise” of power by the sovereign nation-state is the central focus of the theory due to the fact that the world system is anarchical. (Pease 2010) Remember anarchy means no overarching authority – no boss. ​ For them, all of the competition and conflict in the world system are evidence of this. Classical realists believe that the state is the main actor in the world system, that power promotes security and maintains state sovereignty and that some international issues are more important to the state than others (Pease 2010). We focus on the state next week, so we’ll talk more about these topics then.​


1. Modern realist theory is built on the ideas of two thinkers in particular: Niccolo Machiavelli and Thomas Hobbes. Although both lived and wrote in a very different international system than the one we live in today, their fundamental assumptions about how actors relate to each other are still held by adherents to realist theory.

2. Machiavelli was a nobleman during the Italian Renaissance, who held numerous diplomatic and military positions in the Republic of Florence. He is best known for his book  The Prince , written around 1513 and published in 1532. This text is often thought of as one of the first works of modern political philosophy, and Machiavelli is sometimes referred to as the father of political science.

3. Although relatively short, The Prince lays out new classifications of types of states (hereditary principalities, mixed principalities, new principalities, and ecclesiastical principalities – the Papal Estates of the Catholic Church), and types of armies (mercenaries or hired soldiers, auxiliaries, native troops, and mixed troops). In the world of Renaissance Italy, city-states were constantly in conflict, whether it be all-out war or other forms of tension. In this context, Machiavelli emphasized the importance of military power, a focus that would influence later realist theorists.

4. He also laid out a number of maxims for successful rulers.

· It is better to be stingy than generous.

· It is better to be cruel than merciful.

· It is better to break promises if keeping them would be against one’s interests.

· Princes must avoid making themselves hated and despised; the goodwill of the people is a better defense than any fortress.

· Princes should undertake great projects to enhance their reputation.

· Princes should choose wise advisors and avoid flatterers.

5. This emphasis on acquiring and projecting military power is central to realist theories of international relations. In Machiavelli’s view, the way to be respected (and thus preserve your own kingdom or country) in the international system is to make timely, clear-cut decisions that demonstrate to both your opponents and your subjects (or citizens) that you are “in control” of the situation and are confident in your military strength.

Thomas Hobbes was an English political philosopher who lived about 50 years after Machiavelli. By this time, Machiavelli’s The Prince had been widely read and utilized by leaders in Europe. Hobbes’ most famous work, Leviathan was published in 1651, at the end of the English Civil Wars.

In Leviathan, Hobbes introduces the idea of the “state of nature.” Essentially, this describes the value-free and anarchic nature of the world, suggesting that disorder and war are more natural to humanity than ordered government and truly peaceful international relations. These assumptions have been taken up by modern realists.

6. The “leviathan” in Hobbes’s work is his model for the ideal form of government: an imposing structure built out of loyal citizens, but headed by a powerful sovereign (inspired by the image of a Biblical sea monster called leviathan). Hobbes also discusses how this can be implemented in the real world as a commonwealth: a multitude of people who together consent to a sovereign authority, established by contract to have absolute power over them all, for the purpose of providing peace and common defense. This definition closely resembles that of sovereign states, seen by realists as the primary international actors.


It’s important to note that there isn’t just one type of realist.  Neorealism as a term refers to “new” realism. In other words, it reflects new and evolving thought on original classical realist notions. Neorealists focus more on the world system rather than on the basic nature of man.  That means that they will focus on things like the number of powers in the world system.  Are there two major powers at a given time (a bipolar system), three or more (a multipolar system) or maybe just one (a unipolar system)? That really matters to neorealist.


The international system may be unipolar, meaning there is a single state that is much more powerful than the others.


It can also be bipolar, meaning that there are two states, usually opposed to each other, that hold more power and attract others to ally with one or the other side. The Cold War period, in which the United States and the Soviet Union were the two poles, is an example of this.


The world can also be multipolar, meaning there are many states that hold relatively equal power. Many scholars argue that the world has become increasingly multipolar since the end of the Cold War and rise of China and other states.

Don’t make up your mind about realism yet.  We still need to examine some other theoretical perspectives.  Most students are initially drawn to realism as an explanation of state behavior because it displays the world of politics that we see on the news every evening – great powers manipulating smaller powers; conflicts escalating into war; small states talking tough to bigger states even though that might unproductive; threatening remarks, coercion – all the elements that create the “darker side” of international politics. In IR, you may often hear the terms “zero sum game” and “prisoner’s dilemma” to describe the political maneuverability of states in foreign policy terms. These terms rest of the idea that there is a rationale to state behavior born of conflict – that one state’s gain is another state’s loss or that even when given the opportunity to cooperate, states choose a path to confrontation or competition.​ However, if you did deeper you might be able to think of all kinds of situations in which states cooperation or in which other actors are important.


Liberalists (or liberal institutionalists, as they are sometimes called) look to individuals, groups, and organizations as important actors. Liberalists believe that the placement of all the attention on the state is exaggerated. Power is not just held by the state but by groups – in positive ways and negative ones, too. Just as the United Nations is an organization that primarily seeks peaceful relations within the international system, another group, Al-Qaeda, seeks disruption within the system as a means to its goals. So liberalists focus upon non-state actors and the rules and institutions that have developed around their interactions.​

Liberals are folks that believe that cooperation is possible in the international system.  Sure, there is anarchy in the world, but if states and other actors work together, they can manage the anarchy.  Actors can actually find ways to have lasting cooperation.  That doesn’t mean that they are naïve. These aren’t folks who just hold hands and sing around the campfire.  What they do is try to form organizations and find ways to incentivize states to cooperate. Liberals also have some major thinkers to draw from.  Three of the major ones are: Hugo Grotius (1583-1645), The Law of Prize and Booty and The Law of War and Peace, John Locke (1632-1704), Second Treatise of Government, Immanuel Kant (1742-1804), Perpetual Peace.

I wanted to give you this lineage so you could begin to associate these names to the concept of liberalism and to reiterate the evolutionary nature of the world system that I mentioned in the week 1 lecture. Each one of these authors contributed to our understanding of what is now known as liberalist thought in a meaningful way. Advances in thought aren’t the only catalysts behind this evolution though. Events, particularly war, also serve as catalysts. Specifically for liberalism, which was actually known as idealism at the time, the interwar period between WWI and WWII was a period of advancement due to the efforts of President Woodrow Wilson and his address to Congress, which is known as his Fourteen Points.   Liberalism grew in popularity until the beginning of WWII. It grew again after the end of the Cold War, but it faltered a bit after 9/11 (Griffiths, O’Callaghan, and Roach 2008). I think this shows that liberalism is here to stay even though war often pushes it to the

painted portrait of Immanuel Kant

Liberalism  is the other major ‘umbrella’ school of thought that has dominated the study of international relations. Liberalism has its roots in the ideas of Enlightenment philosophers such as Immanuel Kant, Adam Smith and John Stuart Mill, but was formalized beginning in the 1970s as a critique of realism. Robert Keohane, Joseph Nye, and Andrew Moravscik are three important contemporary liberal thinkers.



Liberalism can be thought of as having two underlying assumptions, which are elaborated on by several main variants of liberal theory. Liberalism is a rationalist theory, meaning that liberal theorists share realism’s assumption that states are rational actors. They also agree that the international system is anarchic, but differ from realists in what they see as the implications of this for international cooperation.


The first of two core differentiating assumptions of liberal theories, not shared by realists, is:

States represent social groups, whose views constitute state preferences. This means that state preferences cannot be reduced to a simple goal, such as seeking security or even wealth. It is through this assumption that liberalism integrates into the study of international relations a greater attention to non-state actors such as NGOs than realists allow.


Interdependence among states’ preferences influences states’ policies. Rather than treating preferences as fixed, as realists do, liberals attempt to explain variation in preferences and their significance for world politics. In essence, if states have conflicting preferences, there will be conflict; if states have shared preferences, they may cooperate for mutual benefit; if states have preferences that are neither supported by cooperation nor directly conflictual, they may be satisfied to stay in isolation and not engage actively in foreign policy.

Based on these core assumptions, several distinct strands of liberalism have emerged.


Of the three mainstream theoretical perspectives, constructivism is the newcomer. Students sometimes avoid constructivism because they think it sounds really complicated. However, it really isn’t. It’s just the study of how ideas and norms affect international politics. A constructivist would say that the world system is anarchical because that is how we all conceive of it. It doesn’t have to be one of anarchy.  That could change. We could all get together, think about how we wanted the system to be, and our ideas would eventually change the system.​

According to this view, changing ideas and identities can create systemic change and that actors can become powerful when their efforts to influence discourse and norms succeed. Constructivists often talk about norms as well as ideas.  They might look at how international norms are changing and how those norms will affect state behavior. As we noted earlier, realists explain lack of cooperation better than cooperation.   Some scholars have pointed out the opposite when it comes to constructivism. Vaughn Shannon(2000) points out “Constructivists….explain patterns of conformity better than instances of violation, given their sociological focus on structure and obligatory action” (293).

You’ll also often hear constructivists talk about the ‘other.’  Basically, the other is the person who isn’t you. So in the cold war we thought of the Soviet Union as ‘the other.’  We defined ourselves as not Soviets. For many people, ‘the other’ is now terrorists groups like ISIS. We define ourselves as being ‘not ISIS’   that’s one of the ways we create our identity.

One of the best ways to think about these theories, to understand how to apply them, is to think “change.” What explains change in the world system? How do we identify it when it’s happening? How do we embrace it or predict it?  How can we explain why it happened at a particular time?  One of the criticisms of realism was that it was not able to adequately explain the peaceful end of the Cold War.  People thought that liberal institutionalists or even constructivists could explain it better.  When we think about world events we can often think of them as case studies.  We can then ask ‘why’?  Why did Iraq invade Kuwait?  Why did Shrek leave the swamp? Why did the US and Cuba change their relationship?   Liberal institutionalists may be more likely to focus on the role of non-state actors such as organizations, institutions, and networks.  Constructivists may also address  those, but they would really hone in on how norms have changed.


For this section of the lesson, we will focus on what a feminist approach to IR is and how gender relates to the study of international politics.

Feminist approaches to IR theory demand that we investigate the ways in which gender plays a role in our conscious and unconscious ideas about power and the way in which we view, explore, and evaluate power. It’s import to begin with the idea that ‘gender’ and ‘sex’ are two very different concepts. As you can see in the chart below, ‘sex’ is a biological distinction and ‘gender’ refers to socially learned behaviors.


· A biological distinction

· Determined by anatomical characteristics and genetic material


· Refers to the socially learned behaviors that are considered masculine and feminine within a specific culture.

· Gendered distinctions are social constructs that vary across cultures and historical periods.

· Learned rathar than etched in our DNA.

· The core of this approach is a demand that we deconstruct our ideas of gender. What does it mean to be masculine or feminine and what attributes do we associate with each designation? How do these assumptions impact the way we create, implement, and evaluate policy? For example, if we decide that to be an effective leader of a country one must possess attributes that are often associated with masculinity, such as strength, aggressiveness, decisiveness, etc., how does this frame the way we interpret nuclear arms negotiations?

· Gender and our assumptions about gender roles continue to operate even if we remain unaware of their impact. For example, if we are trying to figure out a strategy for economic development of a country, one might look at national income or wealth as a key data point, which is made up of data around products made and sold, salaries, etc. What is not examined is the amount of non-enumerated work women do that contributes to a nation’s wealth. From child care, to informal economic activity, tasks essential to a state’s ability to function are not factored into how we measure a nation’s wealth. The failure to account for how women spend their time and how their activities contribute to society inevitably results in development policies that are very unlikely to be successful.  Likewise, when IR theorists ponder security, personal security is typically absent from the analysis. State sponsored personal security issues such as torture may rise to the level of analysis, but domestic abuse or sexual violence both of which females across the global suffer from disproportionally does not.  Yet if one does not factor in how secure one-half of the population is, how complete is that analysis?

· Feminist theorists share a common perspective that argues that the failure to take gender into account results in an incomplete, and thus severely limited, understanding of IR. Demanding we avoid positioning women and what they do or how they live as marginal or superfluous to the study of “realpolitik” is about seeking out a deeper, richer, and more comprehensive approach to IR.

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