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  1. IR Theories: Overview

  2. Classifying the Theories • Major Theoretical Schools • Realism (positivist) • Liberalism (positivist) • Constructivism (postpositivist) • Other Schools • Marxist variants • Lenin’s Imperialism • Dependency Theory • World Systems Theory • Historical Materialism

  3. Classifying the Theories • Critical Theories (Interpretive, Postpositivist) • Postmodernists • Critical Theorists • Feminists • Neomarxists

  4. Realism “…the strong do what they can and the weak suffer what they must.” Thucydides, The Melian Dialog

  5. Three Assumptions of Realism (Weber, 14) • International politics is composed of sovereign nation-states. • There is no world government, which means that there is no international orderer. • The absence of a world government or orderer by definition means that international politics is anarchical.

  6. Realism (cont’d) • Key thinkers • Classical realism • Philosophical Foundations: Thucydides, Hobbes • Modern theorists: Hans Morgenthau • Key work: Morgenthau’s Politics Among Nations: The Struggle for Power and Peace • Structural Realism • Modern theorist: Kenneth Waltz • Key works: Man, the State and War and Theory of International Politics

  7. Table 2.1: Realism vs. (Neo)Realism (Weber, 15)

  8. Classical v. Neo • The major difference between classical realism and neo-realism (also called structural realism) is the way they look at the international system and the implications of anarchy and the importance of human nature. • The “natural” explanation versus the “social” (see Weber, 16)

  9. Classical Realism

  10. The Nature of Man (Thomas Hobbes) • The Equality of man • Equality of body: “For as to the strength of body, the weakest has strength enough to kill the strongest, either by secret machination or by confederacy with others that are in the same danger with himself.” • Equality of mind: “…they will hardly believe there be many so wise as themselves…”

  11. State of Nature (Hobbes) “if any two men desire the same thing, which nevertheless they cannot both enjoy, they become enemies; and in the way to their end (which is principally their own conservation, and sometimes their delectation only) endeavour to destroy or subdue one another.”

  12. Law of Nature (Hobbes) “A law of nature, lex naturalis, is a precept, or general rule, found out by reason, by which a man is forbidden to do that which is destructive of his life, or taketh away the means of preserving the same, and to omit that by which he thinketh it may be best preserved.”

  13. War (Hobbes) “Hereby it is manifest that during the time men live without a common power to keep them all in awe, they are in that condition which is called war; and such a war as is of every man against every man. For war consisteth not in battle only, or the act of fighting, but in a tract of time, wherein the will to contend by battle is sufficiently known: and therefore the notion of time is to be considered in the nature of war, as it is in the nature of weather.”

  14. Principle Number One • “Political realism believes that politics, like society in general, is governed by objective laws that have their roots in human nature” (57) • Implications • Preferences aren’t the issue (the world is as it is, not as you might want it to be) • Rational theory is possible. • Truth can be distinguished from opinion • Human nature is constant

  15. Principle Number Two • “The main signpost that helps political realism to find its way through the landscape of international politics is the concept of interest defined in terms of power” (58). • Implications • Politics is to be understood apart from economics, ethics, aesthetics or religion. • Assumption: statesmen act in terms of interest and power. • “To search for the clue to foreign policy exclusively in the motives of statesmen is both futile and deceptive” (59).

  16. Principle Number Three • “Realism assumes that its key concept of interest defined as power is an objective category which is universally valid, but it does not endow that concept with meaning that is fixed once and for all” (59). • Implications • The exact definition of power may change over time or because of context. • If change to the international system happens, it will be within the strictures of “the perennial forces that have shaped the past” and not because of some new innovation born of abstract theoretizing.

  17. Principle Number Four • Morality and state action: “Realism maintains that universal moral principles cannot be applied to the actions of states in their abstract universal formulations, but they must be filtered through the concrete circumstances of time and place” (61). • Note the Lincoln quote and the idea of outcomes as the issue.

  18. Principle Number Five • The morality of a given state’s action cannot be linked to “the moral laws that govern the universe” (61). • In other words: God isn’t on the side of specific state.

  19. Principle Number Six • Politics is about power (just as economics is about wealth and the legal profession is about law).

  20. Structural Realism: Why Conflict in the International Arena? • Neorealist see power as a means, not an end (63-64). • “The struggle for power arises simply because men want things, not because of the evil in their desires” (64). (Contrast this with classical realism.) • “Neorealism contends that international politics can be understood only if the effects of structure are added to the unit-level explanations of traditional realism” (65).

  21. More Structural Realism • It’s the very structure of the international system! • Lack of central authority means states pursue their own interests, often forcefully and in conflict with the actions of other states. • Hence, “war occurs because there is nothing to prevent it” (Waltz 1959:188 as quoted on Weber, 19). • The stag hunt example (also on 19).

  22. Even More Realism (other varieties) • Offensive • “assumes that nation-states want to maximize their aggregate power and will therefore be predisposed to expansionist policies (Sterling-Folker, 15). • Key works: Mearsheimer 2001 and Zakaria 1998.

  23. Even More Realism (other varieties) • Defensive • “Defensive realism predicts great variation in internationally driven expansion and suggests that states ought to generally pursue moderate strategies as the best route to security. Under most circumstances, the stronger states in the international system should pursue military, diplomatic, and foreign economic policies that communicate restraint” (source: • Examples of defensive realism include: offense-defense theory (Jervis, Stephen Van Evera, Sean Lynn-Jones, and Charles Glaser), balance-of-power theory (Barry Posen, Michael Mastanduno), balance-of-threat theory (Stephen Walt), domestic mobilization theories (Jack Snyder, Thomas Christensen, and Aron Friedberg), and security dilemma theory (Thomas Christensen, Robert Ross, and William Rose). (Sources: Jeffrey W. Taliaferro, 'Security-Seeking Under Anarchy: Defensive Realism Reconsidered,' International Security, 25, 3, Winter 2000/2001: 152-86; and John J. Mearsheimer, (2002), Tragedy of Great Power Politics, W.W. Norton, New York). (Source:

  24. Even More Realism (other varieties) • Neoclassical: looks at the relationship between third and second image/level analysis (i.e., the structure of the international system and the internal policy-making of states) • Examples: Friedberg 1988, Schweller 1998, Sterling-Folker 2002, Taliferro 2004 and Wohlforth 1993 Source: Sterling-Folker 16 & 17.

  25. Liberalism • Liberalism covers a fairly broad perspective ranging from Wilsonian Idealism through to contemporary neo-liberal theories and the democratic peace thesis. Here states are but one actor in world politics, and even states can cooperate together through institutional mechanisms and bargaining that undermine the propensity to base interests simply in military terms. States are interdependent and other actors such as Transnational Corporations, the IMF and the United Nations play a role. • Some texts: Relevant chapters in David A. Baldwin (ed), Neorealism and Neoliberalism: The Contemporary Debate, and C. Kegley (ed) Controversies in International Relations: Realism and the Neoliberal Challenge. Source:

  26. More Liberalism • Key intellectual progenitors: Locke, Rousseau, Kant • Variants • Neoliberalism • Complex Interdependence • Idealism/ Liberal Internationalism: A political theory founded on the natural goodness of humans and the autonomy of the individual. It favours civil and political liberties, government by law with the consent of the governed, and protection from arbitrary authority. In IR liberalism covers a fairly broad perspective ranging from Wilsonian Idealism through to contemporary neo-liberal theories and the democratic peace thesis. Here states are but one actor in world politics, and even states can cooperate together through institutional mechanisms and bargaining that undermine the propensity to base interests simply in military terms. States are interdependent and other actors such as Transnational Corporations, the IMF and the United Nations play a role. (Source: • Democratic Peace Theory (Kant)

  27. Table 3.2: What Can Realism Explain and What can’t Realism Explain? (Weber, 40)

  28. A Liberal Variant: Idealism (Broadly Defined)—(Table 3.1 in Weber)

  29. Kegley’s Definition of the Idealist Worldview • Bad behavior is because of bad institutions and structural arrangements • War is not inevitable. Less anarchy will equal less war

  30. Kegley’s Definition of the Idealist Worldview (cont’d) • Human nature is good/altruistic • Human concern for the welfare of others makes progress possible. • War and injustice require multilateral/collective solutions • International society must reorganize itself to eliminate anarchy

  31. Kegley, Idealism and Levels of Analysis “Violence and war are never finally located in any of the three images for Kegley. This is because war and conflict—bad behavior—can be eliminated if only political and social arrangements are better organized” (41).

  32. Table 3.3: Waltz v. Kegley

  33. Constructivism Constructivism is a structural theory of the international system that makes the following core claims: (1) states are the principal units of analysis for international political theory; (2) the key structures in the states system are intersubjective, rather than material; (3) state identities and interests are in important part constructed by these social structures, rather than given exogenously to the system by human nature or domestic politics. (edited passage from Alexander Wendt, "Collective Identity Formation and the International State," American Political Science Review, 88 (June 1994), pg 385.) Source:

  34. Intro to Constructivism • The issue is not the “core nature” of states (e.g., good or bad). The issue is whether how states act and why they do so (see 60). • In other words: “[s]tates determine the “nature” of international anarchy” (60). • “…what states do depends on what their identities and interests are, and identities and interests change” (60).

  35. Intro to Constructivism (cont’d) • Favors process over structure. • Rejects rationalism • Rationalists (means ends logic,pptimized by use of institutions) • Constructvists (action is influenced by environment) Source: • Rejects the notion of international anarchy • Wendt focuses on the role of “practice” over structure. • If we focus on practice and process, then “anarchy is what states make of it”.

  36. Box 4.1: What’s Wrong with Rationality? • Rationalism takes the identities and interests of states as given because it only recognized changes in state behavior but not changes in the states themselves (i.e., their identities and interests) • Rationalism also takes the identities of and the interests generated from international anarchy as given. For rationalists, neither the structure of international anarchy nor the self-help system it is said to produce can be changed. • Overall, rationalism limits theoretical understandings of change in agents and structures because it only examines changes in behavior and excludes an examination of changes in identities and interests.

  37. Box 4.2: Three Fundamental Principles of Constructivist Social Theory • “People act toward objects, including other actors, on the basis of the meanings that the objects have for them”: SOCIAL ‘KNOWLEDGE • “The meaning in terms of which action is organized arise out of interaction”: SOCIAL PRACTICE • “Identities [and interests] are produced in and through ‘situated activity’”: SOCIAL IDENTITIES AND INTERESTS Source: Wendt 1995 (Weber, 65)