International Relations Theories Research Paper

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International relations analyzes the strategic interaction among countries within the framework of an international system. As such, it involves issues in the interdependence of unit and system, common to many problems in the natural and social sciences. States (or other units) interact in a situation of anarchy—the absence of a supranational government able to enforce agreements. Theorists of international relations disagree strongly on the impact of anarchy. Does it lead irresistibly to conflict as nations seek to protect themselves, or to cooperation as nations see the benefits of peace? All elements of the interaction are contested in debates, from the definition of the unit (is it the State, or elements of society, or transnational forces beyond the State) to the properties of the system (anarchic or structured, culturalist or materialist). The notion of strategy is widely shared—whatever the units are, they must decide on a course of policy where they must anticipate the actions of other units—but the influences upon strategy are in sharp dispute.

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The disputes can be sorted into two major lines of cleavage: one set of disputes focuses on the nature of the system, the other on domestic influences on foreign policy.

1. System Theories

At present, system theory is split among three contending schools: realism, neoliberal institutionalism, and constructivism. For realists, whose leading theorist in recent decades has been Waltz (1979), anarchy compels nations to behave in ways that may lead to conflict. Without centralized authority, nations face the security dilemma. Operating in uncertainty, they cannot be certain if they will be physically attacked by neighbors, so they take action to protect themselves, such as building up their armed forces. This frightens other countries which in turn cannot be sure whether the military will not be used for offense, so they have to arm as well. The results are arms races, bristling militaries, and a propensity to fight—the condition of 1914. All states, regardless of type (democratic, peaceloving, moral, or the contrary of each) are driven by this logic to prepare for war. Only deterrence, only power balancing, can therefore keep the peace by making war too costly. Nations cooperate only if it is in their obvious self-interest to do.

In contrast, neoliberal institutionalists argue that nations can and do cooperate in conditions of anarchy. Conflict under anarchy is often the result of the problems of collective action. International institutions can overcome these problems: they may reduce transaction costs, provide incentives to trade concessions, create mechanisms for dispute resolution, facilitate information sharing, and supply processes for making decisions, and, through frequent iterations, build trust through frequently observing such mechanisms. Conflict is thus a pole on a continuum, not an inevitable outcome of anarchy. Institutions can increase cooperation even without coercive power over the units. This body of ideas, championed by Keohane, (1984) has been used to explain the substantial growth of international institutions such as WTO (World Trade Organization), the IMF, (the International Monetary Fund) the European Union, and numerous regulatory ‘regimes’ such as those that supervise international aviation, post services, telecommunications, and others.

A third school, constructivists and sociological theorists, complain that both Keohane and Waltz neglected the nonrationalist and nonmaterial aspects of the interaction of units: culture, ideas, values, the internalization of norms, the constitutive elements of identity, and all the tissue of human exchanges and cultures. For constructivists, the interaction of States is socially constructed: ‘anarchy is what you make of it.’ The units form understandings about the world and norms of conduct which guide action. Strategic interaction, for such theorists, is a cultural construction. States internalize from world society a set of norms about their goals and proper practices that shape their behavior. They learn from international society how to act: what is acceptable, what not. Discourse and communication shape behavior. Colonization and slavery were abandoned when world culture turned against them. Notice that this group of theorists stress system, not domestic politics. It is not domestic culture which constrains States here, but the culture of the ‘system.’

The constructivist approach is particularly strong among European researchers, while the realist and neoliberal institutionalists approaches are strong in the US. This is to some degree a historical reversal. Realpolitik arose in Europe, while the Americans were strongly influenced by moralist thinkers, such as Woodrow Wilson. It may also express changing problems: the European countries in the year 2000 examine the multidimensional issues of integrating traditional national cultures into a new institutional form, the European Union; the US thinks about a global role of security and trade.

2. Unit-Centered Theories

Unit-centered theories argue that countries have choices. The system is not wholly constraining. Most of the time, for many States, especially the large ones, the system provides some ‘slack,’ some possibility for alternative responses. This creates a need for theories that explain the choice among alternatives allowed by the system. Three can be noted here: individual cognition and culture; institutions and political system; and interest groups.

2.1 Cognition And Culture

As countries engage in strategic interaction, their leaders must evaluate complex situations. Is Japan’s home Defense Force purely for protective purposes or could it threaten others? Theorists of perception, such as Jervis, examine the ways individuals process information. They see ‘misperceptions,’ such as intelligence failures, arising from the limitations of our cognitive capacity, and from the rational strategies people devise for managing those limitations. The need to use analytic priors, for example, to sort out ‘noise’ from reality, creates a vulnerability to miscalculation. Information cognition theorists stress rationality. They stress what all people have in common, as human beings, that shapes their strategic behavior.

By contrast, cultural theorists stress the differences among people. The most common version of this approach examines the culture of a nation or a civilization. Theorists of this kind argue that Germany or Japan could go to war in the future because the culture of these nations is ‘militaristic.’ Huntington (1996) argues that cultural differences form the basis of conflict in the coming years, as civilizations struggle to protect and defend their core values.

2.2 Political Institutions

Decision-making systems influence outcomes. The way in which decision making is structured shapes the content of what comes out. If preferences are held constant, varying the institution varies the outcome. To understand foreign policy we must analyze the institutions within countries.

A major distinction is between democracies and authoritarian systems. Woodrow Wilson is famous for the theory that war is caused by authoritarianism. WW II and the events that followed discredited this view in favor of realism, but it has revived in recent years with a vigorous literature arguing that democracies do not fight each other.

Another line of reasoning examines variance among democratic institutions: the relationship of executive to legislatures, voting rules and party systems, bureaucratic structures and organizational processes, the structure of the armed forces and its relationship to civilian authorities. All of the institutionalist arguments have in common that they attribute causal effect in making foreign policy to patterns of decision-making.

2.3 Interest Groups And Social Structure

A third line of domestic politics reasoning explains foreign policy by the demands made on governments by the social groups on which governments rely for support. Governments need backing in society. In democracies, they need to win elections and enjoy the confidence of key players in the economy; in authoritarian systems, they need the support of key members of the ‘selectorate’ or elite with control of major power centers. Policy will reflect the preferences of these groups.

International economic policy, concerning such issues as tariffs, trade treaties, and common markets, is examined in this approach as a function of social cleavages around the beneficiaries of policy change: competitive industries support free trade, uncompetitive ones oppose it. Similarly, defense policy has been analyzed in reference to lobbies: defense spending reflects the preferences of a military–industrial complex, a lobby that fights for contracts and a big establishment which confers influence and power.

These three approaches to domestic politics sustain research programs that call attention to quite different processes and types of evidence: on cognition, perception, psychological mechanisms, values, cultural systems, fables, myths, analogies; on the institutions of government, elections, party systems, bureaucracies, voting rules, procedures, agreements and mechanisms; and on the structure of society, the economy, religious groups, business associations, trade unions, and professional groups.

3. Cross-Cutting Approaches

Several lines of research seek to cut across the divide between unit and system, seeking to analyze the interaction between them. One approach examines the impact of system upon the internal properties of the unit itself. This effect has been called ‘the second image reversed.’ Another variant looks at the interaction of the politics of the two dimensions, or ‘two-level games.’

Another brand of theory challenges the centrality of the State in the system–unit approach. The state can be seen as but one of many actors in the international arena: firms, churches, cultures, NGOs, all comprise ‘transnational forces’ which operate in the world, and which may constrain state behavior or supplant it altogether. Thus there are different actors operating in the world, with no need to privilege the State. Theorists in the English School posit these transnational forces as comprising a kind of ‘civil society’ at the international level. They are not part of formal government, either national or international, but part of the culture, organizations, and structures that define the context within which governments operate. These arguments seek to de-center the State, as well as to de-center politics, economics, and military security variables which tend to dominate most writing on international relations.

3.1 Law, Institutions, Norms

The failure of the League of Nations to prevent WW II undermined belief in the relevance of international law to the study of international relations. In recent years, interest in law has returned. International institutions and agreements, especially on fields concerning trade and regulation, the spread of the European Community, and the revived interest in democracy and norms have all contributed to this revival. Countries appear increasingly to delegate authority to institutions which operate in a judicial framework and process. Dispute resolution is shifted away from political processes—direct negotiation by interested parties operating from positions of power—toward formalized procedures in structured institutions administering codes of law or agreements. The European Court of Justice is the most developed example of this kind, but others are evident as well. Specialists dispute whether there is more ‘legalization’ or rather a shift in different issue areas, more in some, less in others, and what the various forces may be at work that shape these patterns.

3.2 Civil Wars, Disintegration; New Political Forms And Integration

At the frontier of the interaction of unit and system is the transformation of the units. Some countries disintegrate as civil war or other processes erupt. Austria–Hungary, the colonies of Britain, France and the Netherlands, the USSR no longer exist, giving way to their component entities. At the same time, other processes appear to be forming new units, of a kind without clear name or label. Economic and political integration have formed the European Union; which is not quite a state nor an international government. It has some properties or functions of many different categories. Is it a harbinger for similar destinies in other parts of the world? Will there be more such entities in Latin America, Southeast Asia, Africa? Answering these questions requires the integration of international relations with issues of domestic politics, of transnational forces and local ones, of culture and rational action, of strategic action and unilateralism, of security and economics.

3.3 Globalization

World trade, the flow of capital, peoples, and culture, gives rise to debates about globalization: is the world more integrated and interdependent, if so why, is this good or bad, and who benefits from it? The processes at work involve countries, as it is they who make the policies that encourage or inhibit globalization, and transnational forces, which may influence the internal preferences of countries and the contexts in which they operate. The debates on this topic involve all the core conflicts of this field.


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