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  1. Introduction
  2. Historical and Theoretical Developments in International Relations
    1. Liberal Beginnings
    2. Realist Critics
    3. Marxist Alternatives
    4. Economic Interdependence and Global Security Challenges
    5. Alternative Challenges to Mainstream International Relations Theory
      1. Feminist International Relations
      2. Constructivist International Relations
      3. Environmental International Relations
  3. Future Directions in International Relations
    1. New Security Threats
    2. Development Strategies and Humanitarian Crises
    3. Ecological Challenges
  4. Conclusion
  5. Bibliography

International Relations Research Papers:


As a field of study, international relations (IR) is a young discipline. Its genesis can be traced back to the period immediately following World War I. In the aftermath of the war, philanthropists, scholars, and diplomats in Europe and the United States sought an understanding of the causes of war and the means by which to promote international peace and security. At its core, the initial study of IR was both normative and empirical. Normative IR theory seeks to provide a set of values that policymakers, diplomats, and other actors should follow in order to better the human condition. Empirical IR theory seeks to explain the underlying causes of political events. Originally, IR had the normative desire to achieve pacific relations between states and an empirical concern with investigating the underlying causes of war and conflict.

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With this narrow focus on interstate conflict, the original scholars in the field drew their theoretical insight from philosophy, history, law, and economics. Early scholars began a practice in IR of drawing on the philosophical works of Thucydides, Niccolo Machiavelli, Hugo Grotius, Thomas Hobbes, Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Immanuel Kant, and others in search of a proper understanding of the causes of war and the potential for peace. The study of past historical events was used to develop general principles that might be employed to resolve current and future conflicts. The growing importance of international law as a tool for states would be used by IR scholars to frame theoretical approaches promoting peace and security. In the decades following World War I, departments of IR emerged in Great Britain, Switzerland, and the United States to train diplomats and policymakers and further the theoretical study of the discipline.

Although the discipline began by focusing on the causes of war and the potential for peace, the complexities of world politics and the emergence of globalizing forces throughout the 20th century expanded the scope of IR to include the study of human rights, migration, environmental cooperation, economic development, ethnic conflict, nationalism, terrorism, and international crime. Today, IR scholars have developed sophisticated theories and models in order to study an ever-expanding set of issues and concerns. Constituting one of the main subfields in political science, IR continues to demonstrate how political power defines this growing set of issues and concerns.

In the discussion that follows, the historical emergence and intellectual scope of the discipline are explored by examining the development of international relations theory throughout the 20th century as well as the broadening list of empirical issues analyzed by IR scholars. Following this review, the future direction of IR is discussed. At the end of this research paper, a list of further readings is provided that introduces the reader to the themes introduced and the concepts explored.

Historical and Theoretical Developments in International Relations

Liberal Beginnings

In 1919, a wealthy Welsh industrialist by the name of David Davies provided funds to the University of Wales at Aberystwyth for the purpose of studying international relations. After witnessing the carnage of World War I, Mr. Davies was intrigued by the ideals represented in the League of Nations and dedicated funds to endow the Woodrow Wilson Chair of International Politics with a belief that humankind could overcome war. Sir Alfred Zimmern, a British historian, became the first scholar of international politics when he accepted the post of Wilson Chair. His work is characteristic of early scholarship in IR and focuses on issues of economic interdependence and cooperation through international treaty law. Believing that scholars could make a difference in the world around them, Zimmern and other liberals of his time sought practical institutional solutions for the problems of conflict in the world. This focus on institutional solutions would come to dominate early discussions in the discipline and exemplifies liberal IR theory. He had an interest in and affinity for the League of Nations as a mechanism to prevent conflict and promote prosperity and peace among states. Many of the liberal IR scholars of the time, including Alfred Zimmern and Norman Angell, were active in League affairs and accepted the political position of contemporary leaders like Woodrow Wilson, who argued that self-determination for peoples and state membership in organizations like the League could create the foundation for international cooperation and the transcendence of war as a policy of the state. The pinnacle of liberal IR thinking that understands law as the basis for peace is the Kellogg–Briand Pact, an international treaty formally titled the Pact of Paris that outlaws war as a policy tool for states in the conduct of their foreign affairs. This treaty was signed by more than 60 states and exists today as a reminder of institutional attempts to transcend conflict through international law. By outlawing war among the signatories, the treaty established a legal basis for trying state actors who violated the provisions of the treaty. Further, the treaty provided a solid foundation for a set of international norms limiting the use of violence in international conflict and constraining the actions of states.

For early liberal international relations scholars, the international community had the potential to use international organizations, international treaty law, and state diplomacy to solve problems. When constructed correctly, agreements negotiated by diplomats, written into law, and managed by proper organizations could resolve long-term international conflicts. Political challenges posed by World War II and the cold war would require certain refinements to liberalism in the 1970s, but the core belief in the possibility for change and the potential to overcome conflict still remains among liberal theorists.

Realist Critics

Throughout the interwar period, as the period from 1919 to 1939 would come to be called, scholars concerned with a focus on institutional mechanisms to overcome interstate violence challenged liberal international relations theorists by emphasizing how enduring laws of power and the inevitable consequences of an international environment defined by a lack of a global government (anarchy) undermined institutional attempts to achieve peace. Exemplified in the classic E.H. Carr (1940) book The Twenty Years’Crisis: 1919–1939, realist IR theory focused on state concerns with security and the ever-present quest for power. There had been great concern among realists that liberal scholars and diplomats had a naive interpretation of international affairs and an idealistic faith in legal and institutional solutions as a means to solving potential conflicts. Accordingly, liberals had underestimated the potential for states to dismiss their legal (treaty) commitments and withdraw membership from international organizations when their national interest ran contrary to that law or organization.

Realists argued that scholars needed to develop a more sophisticated understanding of the causes of war. The normative desire to prevent war, although noble, undermined a clear understanding of its causes. As IR scholars, realists insisted that scholars seek a better understanding of what caused international violence in the first place. Writers such as E. H. Carr (1940), Hans Morgenthau (1948), John Herz (1950), and others labeled liberal IR scholarship “utopian” because of the liberal reliance on institutional solutions. These realists offered a vision of international politics where the potential for war required scholars and diplomats to mitigate its effects rather than seek its transcendence. According to realists, there was a set of conditions that prevented humankind from transcending war as policy. Human nature, often defined as a quest for power, and the anarchical environment limited the effectiveness of institutional solutions to prevent war. Reviewing the Kellogg–Briand Pact that liberals extolled as a sign of moral and political development in international affairs, realists noted that by the beginning of World War II, many of the pact’s signatories were occupied by, or at war with, other signatories.

Policymakers, realists argued, should recognize and internalize the important lessons of the Thirty Years’ War (1618–1648). The peace treaty that ended this European war established sovereignty as a defining principle of each state and required each state to defend against external aggression rather than rely on other states for their defense. Sovereignty, or the principle that states have control and autonomy over their physical territory and the citizens or subjects in that territory, would come to dominate realist scholarship.

Marxist Alternatives

During this early period of theory development, a third approach to understanding the causes of war and the mechanisms for peace was emerging as a critique of both liberal and realist international relations theory. Emerging from the works of Karl Marx, Friedrich Engels, and others in the last half of the 19th century, Marxian scholars introduced a radical retelling of international relations. These scholars explored how particular class interests captured the power of the state and harnessed its foreign policies in order to promote their interests. This approach challenged both liberal and realist conceptions of the state as a neutral agent with regard to the citizens or subjects within. When understood to be in the interest of the propertied (or bourgeois) class, the state was engaged in a policy of expansion and imperialism. War, as state policy, could be understood as the means by which states would expand access to commodities and markets abroad. Moreover, opportunities for increased profits during war made it a profitable enterprise for the capitalist classes. Since the burden of battle was borne by the lower classes, Marxist IR scholars emphasized how war was the result of a particular economic system.

This radical approach to IR challenges liberalism and realism in two ways. First, as a moral critique, Marxism explores how capitalism, as an economic theory, undermines the human capacity for empathy. As a basis for the economic ordering of society, capitalism results in the exploitation of certain human beings and the alienation of all human beings. Once alienated, human beings become objects to be used just as the state might use any other weapon of war. Georg Lukacs (1971), a German philosopher writing in the early part of the 20th century, explores these moral criticisms of capitalism in History and Class Consciousness. His examination of human alienation has been used by subsequent Marxist IR scholars to explain how modern warfare dehumanizes people. Marxism also critiques the empirical rationale for war. Because capitalism requires that markets grow, war becomes a necessity. Capitalists must employ the state in war making in order to increase profits. V. I. Lenin (1916/1964), in his analysis of the causes of World War I, explores this issue in Imperialism, The Highest Stage of Capitalism.

Economic Interdependence and Global Security Challenges

After World War II, the historical trajectory of international relations was altered by two significant factors in world politics. First, the emergence of a new international economic order, increasing global trade and financial flows among states, prompted scholars to adjust the mainstream theories of liberalism and realism. In 1944, policymakers of the Allied states met at Bretton Woods, New Hampshire, in the United States to negotiate institutional structures to manage the postwar global economy. At the conclusion of this international conference, the states in attendance agreed to create the World Bank (known originally as the International Bank for Reconstruction and Development), the International Monetary Fund (IMF), and the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (which became the World Trade Organization in 1995). These institutions, and the norms of free trade, financial transparency, monetary stability, and economic integration that uphold these institutions, offered IR scholars additional variables to study in order to understand the causes of war and the potential for peace.

In a historical context, the development of these economic institutions demonstrated the importance of the liberal economic idea that global peace would be enhanced if states cooperated through trade and monetary policies. Often called neoliberals, scholars have explored how states in international relations create long-term cooperative arrangements that endure throughout the decades. Scholars such as Robert Keohane (1984) continue to study the implications of an increasingly global economic order. Their focus is on the complex web of governance rules. International governance occurs in conditions of anarchy, where government does not exist. However, even without formal government, neoliberals demonstrate how governance rules proliferate among the states in international relations and order their behavior. It is often the case that these governance rules proliferate because international regimes have been created to enhance the cooperation among states. The term international regimes refers to sets of principles, norms, rules, and decision-making procedures around which actors converge on a given issue area (Krasner, 1983). These regimes exist without the need of a formal government structure. Regimes function to provide a level of ordered and predictable governance among states in international society. An example of how regime cooperation has limited the spread of nuclear weapons follows.

In addition to scholarship on international governance and the importance of regimes, neoliberal scholars have employed the shared values that democratic states have in maintaining liberal economic conditions to study a separate peace that appears to develop among democratic states. Scholars such as Michael Doyle (1986) have explored this democratic peace hypothesis, arguing that sovereign states with market economies, limited government, civil rights, and representative government do not go to war with each other. This represents a direct theoretical challenge to realism. If neoliberals are correct and the type of government matters in terms of the potential for interstate peace, then the proliferation of democratic states should reduce the likelihood of war in the future. A world made up of democratic states could allow for the transcendence of interstate war as a policy possibility.

A second challenge to traditional international relations theory emerged after World War II with the advent of nuclear weapons and the global security threat posed by U.S. and Soviet hostilities during the cold war. Previous security threats involved state aggression and the proper international response to that aggression. The threat posed by great-power nuclear weapons required scholars to imagine global nuclear annihilation. A deterrence strategy known as MAD, or mutually assured destruction, emerged among strategic studies scholars and influenced the national security strategies of both the United States and the Soviet Union. In the 1960s, IR theorists debated the relative stability of an international system in which nuclear weapons existed as a global threat. Many realists (Art &Waltz, 1971; McNamara, 1968; Newhouse, 1973; Schelling & Halperin, 1961) outlined the merits of a MAD environment where states would learn that use of nuclear weapons would result in their own demise. This, they argued, would create a level of stability in international affairs and minimize the likelihood of system-wide wars. Scholars in other traditions (Bennett, 1962; Clancy, 1961; Dyson, 1979) contended that the potential for accidents or the irrational actions of one individual who did not learn the lessons of MAD could place billions of lives in peril.

Although the theoretical and moral debates remain ongoing in IR theory, the presence of nuclear weapons in world politics has led to broad agreement among diplomats and policymakers that access to nuclear technology should be regulated at the international level. The international community has developed an intricate set of principles, rules, norms, and decision-making procedures to limit access to nuclear technology and minimize its proliferation beyond a small group of declared nuclear states. These components constitute the nuclear nonproliferation regime. Actors in this regime include declared nuclear powers, the United Nations Security Council, and the International Atomic Energy Agency. The regime is centered on a multilateral treaty, the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty. Each of these components includes a set of principles, norms, rules, and decision-making procedures that guide the behavior of states on the issue of nuclear nonproliferation.

Regimes exist in all areas of international affairs, including human rights, security, the environment, trade, finance, and cultural preservation. The study of international regimes has become a central research area in IR. Regime analysis has emerged as a useful approach to understanding conflict and cooperation. Throughout the 1980s and 1990s, scholars in IR (Keohane, 1984; Krasner, 1983; Young, 1989, 1994) produced numerous works that furthered our understanding of and appreciation for international regimes. This literature helps explain how governance without government is possible and why international politics is most often ordered and predictable. Sophisticated theoretical studies of regimes provide a more comprehensive picture of international affairs than the earlier theoretical work conducted during the interwar period. Because regimes include multiple actors (such as states, international governmental organizations, nongovernmental organizations, and transnational corporations), their study provides theorists with a more detailed model of international affairs. In addition, because regimes involve institutional rules (like international law) and socially appropriate practices (like international norms), their study provides an opportunity for a more comprehensive approach to the study of continuity and change in world politics.

Alternative Challenges to Mainstream International Relations Theory

Although the inclusion of factors such as globalizing economic structures and the presence of nuclear weapons offers international relations scholars a new set of factors to include in their studies of international affairs, the treatment of these and other issues by mainstream scholars in the field has been viewed as inadequate by scholars critical of a focus on states instead of individuals and national security instead of human security. Alternative voices emerged throughout the 1980s that sought to critique both the mainstream IR scholarship of realists and liberals and the foreign policies that they studied. Although these alternative voices do not represent a single theory or approach to the study of world politics, they share a common concern that the discipline of IR and the practice of international politics have relied on concepts such as state sovereignty and the state system at the expense of other concepts. This state-centric emphasis marginalizes a set of concerns that need to be explored further if theorists wish to provide compelling and comprehensive answers to current and future problems.

The state, what constitutes it, what the implications are of particular foreign and security policies pursued by it, and where its national interests come from have been left underanalyzed and unquestioned. These questions represent a different type of question than those posed by realist and liberal scholars. Mainstream questions focus on the international environment and leave the internal assumptions of the theories themselves unexamined. Questions that critique the assumptions within theories are termed critical questions and require theorists to reexamine and reconstruct the theoretical foundations of international affairs. Often, this means that IR theory needs to be reformulated in order to remain coherent.

This alternative manner of theorizing has had a profound influence on the IR discipline. Feminist, constructivist, and environmental scholars represent important challenges to the traditional study of IR. Each of the approaches is examined below. Note that although each approach is different in its focus and the critical question that it poses, all of the approaches are similar in that they challenge liberal and realist IR theory.

Feminist International Relations

By asking an alternative set of questions, feminist scholars (Carpenter, 2006; Enloe, 1989; Tickner, 1992, 2001) have been able to provide insight into gender issues that remain hidden by standard approaches in the discipline. The general focus of the discipline on war and economic affairs marginalized gender inequality. Feminist scholars in the 1970s argued that traditional gender roles in society undermined inclusion of women in international affairs. Divisions of labor in both advanced industrial and traditional societies mandated that women remain in the private sphere while men participate in the public sphere. Because war and diplomacy were public acts, women—and the issues of most concern to them—would be discounted. Similarly, because the home was part of the private sphere, feminist concerns of family, education, health care, and children would be marginalized, and issues of state GDP and increased trade would be emphasized. In both cases, feminist IR scholars articulated a new set of questions to challenge mainstream IR scholarship.

Consider the following example. Both realist and liberal international relations scholars accept the state as a necessary actor in international affairs and argue that its presence enhances the security of individuals by protecting them (collectively) against potential harm that exists in the international (or external) environment. Realists argue this by employing a concept like the national interest, and liberals emphasize this by employing a concept like collective security through international law. In either case, both theoretical approaches accept that the state is a central variable in the maintenance of international peace and security. Feminist IR scholarship challenges this assumption and questions whether the state might reinforce social structures that oppress and exploit particular groups. Domestically, IR theories that promote the idea that states protect the national interest and maintain national defenses are participating in a public debate about where to spend limited tax revenues collected by the state. Given a limited amount of state funds that can be spent on all public goods, this has the effect of steering money away from social programs that might be used to educate children, provide welfare and child care assistance, and promote health care for vulnerable groups. If public funds cannot be provided to supply these goods, the burden of supplying these goods often falls on women. Internationally, IR theories that emphasize issues such as balance of power and alliance structures or foreign direct investment and increased global trade are reinforcing a set of social structures that exploit women. In an important early critique of IR, Cynthia Enloe (1989) argues that mainstream IR theory neglected to study the social implications of cold war bases around the world. In Bananas, Beaches, and Bases, Enloe directs the attention of the reader away from a standard view of international politics as a struggle for power and security and toward an analysis of the implications of foreign military bases in third world countries. Recognizing that these bases reinforce stereotypical views of masculinity and perpetuate the exploitation of women who work in and around military bases, Enloe challenges traditional assumptions of international politics.

Constructivist International Relations

A second alternative challenge to traditional international relations scholarship has emerged among scholars interested in challenging the origin of state interests. Constructivists (Hopf, 2002; Katzenstein, 1996; Lapid & Kratochwil, 1996; Wendt, 1992) focus on the formation of national identity as a prerequisite for understanding and explaining national interests. Issues of identity and the norms that shape and constrain it remain hidden by mainstream approaches to IR that assume a given and predetermined national interest exists among all states. As with the feminists, these scholars ask a set of critical questions that requires a reexamination of traditional theories. The aim of constructivist IR scholarship is to challenge the underlying motivations that both liberal and realist scholars assume states have when conducting their foreign policies. By challenging the essence of these mainstream theories, constructivists are engaged in more than correcting a perceived flaw in IR scholarship; they are also engaged in reimagining the conduct of international affairs and allowing alternative interpretations of historical events to emerge.

Consider the following example. During the cold war, American and Soviet identities were based on a consideration of the other as an enemy. Each state had a negative perception of the other based on the qualities one possessed as distinct from what the other possessed. The United States perceived itself in positive terms because it upheld democratic values and political and civil rights. It perceived the Soviet Union in negative terms because it claimed the Soviet Union did not possess these traits. The Soviet Union perceived itself in positive terms because it was concerned with economic and social equality. It perceived the United States in negative terms because it claimed the United States did not possess these concerns. As a result of these identity constructions, each state determined the other to be an enemy and subsequently viewed the other’s actions as hostile and threatening. Constructivists argue that this scenario is what is missing from the work of mainstream IR scholars when they seek an understanding of the national interest. Only by identifying how national identities are created can the interests that form from those identities be understood. The events of the cold war come to be seen as a set of identity performances that reinforce a self–other dynamic in international politics rather than the logical outcome of two states pursuing predetermined national interests. As one prominent constructivist, Alexander Wendt (1992), has stated, anarchy is what states make of it; it is not an enduring cause of war in itself.

Constructivist international relations scholarship has become an important voice in understanding terrorism, ethnic conflict, and religious violence. Constructivists have developed detailed case studies exploring how the formations of particular identities among one group exclude membership for other groups. These studies point out that these identities do not cause war but do give rise to a self–other dichotomy that can be exploited by political entrepreneurs seeking power.

Environmental International Relations

A third alternative approach to understanding international relations requires scholars to reexamine the ability of the state and the state system to solve pressing ecological problems that are transnational in scope and require cooperation among multiple actors. With the rise of national environmental movements in the United States, western Europe, and New Zealand in the 1960s and 1970s, the international community held its first global environmental conference in Stockholm, Sweden, in 1972. The United Nations Conference on the Human Environment was first proposed by Sweden in 1967 and was later supported by the United States. Scientists and policymakers were becoming increasingly concerned that economic activity in one region of the world was affecting the quality of the environment in other regions of the world.

As international relations scholars turned their attention to environmental issues, it soon became apparent that the mainstream theoretical emphasis on states, state sovereignty, and the national interest was not an adequate approach to resolving the pressing problems associated with the transnational dimension of the environmental problems. Realism and liberalism were constrained by a state-centric understanding of international politics. The world map that defines both theories is political. The world is divided into states with clearly defined borders. Ecosystems and environmental pollution, however, do not respect state borders. Environmental IR theorists (Haas, 1990; Luterbacher & Sprinz, 2001; Newell, 2006) questioned the disciplinary focus on a political world map and sought to reimagine the map as physical in nature. Political solutions to environmental problems require states, nongovernmental organizations, scientific groups, multinational corporations, and others to cooperate in ways that realists and liberals may not emphasize. Unlike peace agreements after major wars or security alliances during times of peace, solutions to environmental problems usually require the cooperation of more than just state actors. For example, state participation in a security alliance requires the cooperation of key government agencies within a state (the foreign and defense ministries, the chief executive, and a legislative body) but does not require much in terms of changes to the behaviors of the average citizen. Solving transnational environmental pollution, however, might require international governmental organizations, state agencies, corporations, and citizen groups to be involved in changing individual behaviors. Moreover, environmental problems are often linked to economic issues. Solving environmental problems can require states to forego economic development plans and limit short-term economic gains for the sake of improved long-term environmental sustainability.

These challenges to traditional international relations scholarship require theorists to construct alternative understandings of international relations. Scholars in this area of IR have researched how environmental scarcity can be a cause of war. Thomas Homer-Dixon (2001) argues that under certain conditions, environmental degradation can contribute to international conflict. Scholars have also examined how the international community has responded to environmental concerns. By examining the institutional structures created since the first international conference in 1972, scholars such as Oran Young (1989) and Peter Haas (1990) have contributed to the field by including epistemic communities (or groups of scientists with a vision of the problems and potential solutions) and regimes into the study on environmental IR.

In the aftermath of the 1972 conference, the international community has been active in institutionally managing the international environment. The United Nations created the United Nations Environmental Programme and held a subsequent international conference in Rio de Janeiro (the United Nations Conference on the Environment and Development) in 1992. Broad international treaties to manage the oceans (United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea III), air pollution (Convention on Long-Range Transboundary Air Pollution), the movement of hazardous waste (Basel Convention on the Control of Transboundary Movements of Hazardous Wastes and Their Disposal), and global climate change (United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change) have been negotiated.

Future Directions in International Relations

The discipline of international relations is adapting to new challenges at the dawn of the 21st century. States are confronted with emerging security threats including terrorism, cyber crime, and ethnic conflict. Challenges posed by uneven development, poverty, inequality, and malnutrition undermine possible state-centric responses. Humanitarian crises caused by political violence, corruption, and environmental disasters require substantial cooperation among international actors. A growing awareness of ecological interdependence demands that practitioners, scholars, and ordinary citizens reconceptualize international politics. Many of these new challenges are caused by a process of globalization that has been occurring for centuries. Globalization manifests itself in many ways but is most often referred to as a shortening of time and space that allows human beings to interact more directly than in times past. With rapid changes in communications technologies and information systems, groups once limited by time and space play an increasingly important role in international politics. These nonstate actors challenge IR scholars to incorporate additional variables into more complex theories of world politics.

New Security Threats

Although terrorism is not a new issue in international politics, the globalizing forces that allowed for increased economic trade and wealth also allow terrorists to strike at larger targets. State-sponsored terrorism has been a concern among IR scholars for decades. New forms of terrorism involve nonstate terrorist groups with political grievances against states. Terrorism is generally defined as a premeditated, politically motivated violent act meant to cause fear among noncombatants. Nonstate terrorist groups challenge states in two ways. First, terrorist groups undermine the political fabric of domestic societies by invoking fear among the populous and undermining the legitimacy of the state to maintain peace and security. Second, terrorist activities challenge the foundation of international society by compromising sovereignty. IR scholars have adapted mainstream IR theories to incorporate terrorist activities. Current analysis seeks to understand the rationality of terrorist organizations and the security responses that states make in order to minimize terrorism.

Cybercrime is another emerging security threat that international relations scholars have begun to investigate. A growing amount of national and international commerce and communication takes place electronically. Disruptions to the electronic infrastructure of global commerce threaten national economies and undermine the welfare of societies. In addition, states must protect electronic databases and the classified information they contain. New directions in security studies have been developed to understand and account for the challenges that states face with regard to cybercrime.

Increasingly, conflict between groups involves intrastate ethnic conflict rather than interstate conflict. This represents a theoretical challenge to a discipline founded to transcend or mitigate interstate conflict. As the preceding discussion demonstrates, mainstream IR theories have focused on understanding international wars and promoting effective mechanisms for peace. IR scholars recognize the need to develop a much more sophisticated understanding of conflict that can incorporate both intra- and interstate dimensions of conflict. For instance, recent works by Robert Jackson (1990) and Mohammed Ayoob (1995) explore the internal dimensions of conflict and provide a sophisticated understanding as to how the complex statemaking process creates certain states beset by internal conflict and strife. Moreover, these studies demonstrate how these states undermine regional stability. Future research in this area will be necessary in order to develop increasingly useful theoretical models to predict potential areas of conflict and employ international resources prior to their onset.

Development Strategies and Humanitarian Crises

In September 2000, member states of the United Nations adopted a set of millennium development goals to reduce poverty and to increase education, access to health care, and gender equality by 2015. These development goals provide evidence of the continued shift away from the traditional issue areas of international politics. Increasingly, states recognize the need to cooperate on a number of issues that were once considered internal or domestic issues. With the challenges posed by the new security threats and a growing awareness and appreciation for cosmopolitan values, state actors recognize the need to share development strategies and improve the human condition for all. This concern over the welfare of all human beings and a broad interest in humanitarian responsibility challenges earlier normative concerns in IR. Recent studies in IR involving issues of economic development, poverty, inequality, malnutrition, and humanitarian crises suggest a new normative shift in the norms and values examined by IR scholars. These new values are enshrined in concepts like a responsibility to protect those individuals and groups in states who are not being protected by their own states. This departure from traditional understandings of state sovereignty and the principle of nonintervention suggests a new debate about what constitute appropriate sovereignty is currently emerging among practitioners and theorists.

Ecological Challenges

In response to the first global environmental issues in the 1970s, states developed complex institutional mechanisms to manage these problems. The persistence and proliferation of these problems has increased the need to further study cooperative strategies for managing them. Declining biodiversity, a looming energy crisis, and challenges to adequate food supplies are three key areas of environmental concern. However, the most difficult environmental problem to solve appears to be global climate change. Insufficient compliance with the Kyoto Protocol and the development demands of industrializing states such as China, India, Brazil, and Russia require states to resolve long-standing collective action problems in order to construct effective treaties for solving climate change. Collective action problems involve scenarios where the most rational actions taken by individual actors are suboptimal for achieving group success. That is, the best option for the group is not necessarily the best action for each individual member of that group (Olson, 1965). Global climate change is often perceived to be a classic collective action problem. IR scholars interested in this subject are seeking more sophisticated theoretical approaches to resolving climate change by invoking complex and varied incentive strategies to achieve cooperation (Luterbacher & Sprinz, 2001; Newell, 2006).


Although a young discipline, international relations has developed increasingly sophisticated approaches to explaining international conflict and the myriad issues that have emerged over the past 100 years. The complexities of world politics and rapid globalization require contemporary IR scholars to investigate more complex issues than those who originally developed the discipline. Although mainstream theoretical approaches to the study of international politics are still important in the field today, alternative theoretical emphasis on gender, norms, and environmental interdependence require scholars to consider a set of important theoretical questions left unexamined by mainstream approaches. Further, new security, humanitarian, and ecological challenges appear to undermine state-centric approaches in the discipline and require scholars to push the boundaries of the discipline in new directions.


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