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Lecture 03:
Debates and theories in
International Relations
The beginnings of IR
• Before 1918, International Relations did
not exist as a separate subject
• Issues now considered as part of
International Relations were seen as part
of other subjects – political theory, history,
economics and international law
• International Relations began as an
attempt to make sense of a significant
event in world history – World War I
Explaining World War I
• For several thinkers,
particularly in English-
speaking countries, a
new approach was
necessary to understand
World War I
• These thinkers felt there
was a need to explain
how the world could fight
such a disastrous war,
and to ensure it could
never happen again
Liberal internationalism
• This was the first body of
IR theory
• Developed by liberal
thinkers in the USA and
Britain
• The most famous
proponent of these ideas
was the US President
Woodrow Wilson
LIs and the causes of war
• For the liberal internationalists, the war was
possible for two reasons:
• The absence of democracy in domestic
politics – they argued that people do not want
wars, and wars are started by autocratic
regimes
• Flawed international institutions – the
anarchic system with secret diplomacy meant
there was no mechanism to prevent war
LI and democracy
• If the absence of democracy caused war,
then the LI aim was to promote democratic
political systems
• LIs believed if all states were
democracies, there would be no wars
• These ideas owed much to the earlier
claims of Thomas Paine (Common Sense,
1776) and especially Immanuel Kant
(Perpetual Peace, 1795)
LI and the League of Nations
• LIs felt the problem of anarchy – the
absence of a higher authority – would be
solved by creating the League of Nations
• The League could replace the old system
of secret treaties and alliances with
‘collective security’ – every member would
guarantee the security of other members
• Law would replace war as the underlying
principle of the new system
LI assumptions
• The LI belief in democratic systems and
international cooperation assumed a
‘harmony of interests’
• This assumed international politics was
not a zero-sum game, with automatic
winners and losers
• Democratic states could always find
peaceful solutions to apparent clashes of
interest
Problems with the LI vision
• Although liberal internationalism was the first
body of IR theory, many were unconvinced from
the start
• Events in Europe and elsewhere undermined LI
beliefs
• Several undemocratic regimes enjoyed obvious
popularity, and many of these regimes glorified
war
• The League of Nations was powerless to prevent
aggression without going to war to protect peace
• It seemed LIs had been mistaken about states
and about human nature
A new IR theory: Realism
• Realism as a theory of International
Relations began as a critique of liberal
internationalism
• As the shortcomings of LI became only too
obvious, many thinkers looked for a new
approach to explain contemporary events
• Like the LIs, realists drew heavily on older
ideas from political theory and elsewhere
The path towards Realism
• Niebuhr (Moral Man and Immoral
Society, 1932) criticised LI
assumptions about the goodness of
human nature
• EH Carr (The Twenty Years Crisis,
1939) criticised LI beliefs as ‘utopian’ –
he claimed that LIs deal with the world
as they want it to be, but ‘Realists’ deal
with the world as it is
• Carr claimed that conflict is inevitable
because of the scarcity of resources –
only those who possess resources
promote ‘law and order’
Morgenthau and Classical Realism
• After World War II, Hans J
Morgenthau produced the
standard work of Classical
Realism (Politics Among
Nations: the Struggle for Power
and Peace, 1948)
• Morgenthau’s work dominated
IR theory for a whole generation
• Morgenthau used ideas from
older political thinkers –
Thucydides and Machiavelli – to
support his own ideas
Morgenthau’s Realism
• Morgenthau’s Realism had three main
principles:
• Statism: states are the most important actors
in IR; other actors are less important
• Survival: in a dangerous world (dangerous
because of human nature), states have to
concentrate on survival
• Self-help: no other state or institution can be
counted on to ensure survival
Classical Realism and the past (1)
• Classical realists used ideas from
older thinkers to support their
concepts
• In Ancient Greece, Thucydides'
account of the Melian Dialogue
stressed the importance of power
and the dangers of being weak:
“The strong do what they have the
power to do and the weak accept
what they have to accept”
Classical Realism and the past (2)
• Classical Realists also recalled
the ideas of Niccolo Machiavelli,
author of The Prince (written
around 1513)
• Machiavelli stressed two
necessary ideas for a wise ruler:
• policies are more important than
principles
• the end justifies the means
Waltz and Structural Realism
• Kenneth Waltz has dominated IR
debate since 1979
• His Theory of International Politics
claimed that structures of
international politics – not human
nature – made states act the way
they do
• He proposed ‘defensive realism’ –
the idea that states want to maximise
security
• Waltz’s aim was to establish a proper
scientific basis for Realism
Later strands of Realism
• John Mearsheimer (2001): “offensive realism” –
claimed all states seek to maximise power as the
best path to peace
• Randall Schweller (1996): “neoclassical realism”
– not all states have similar interests – can be
‘status quo’ states or revisionist states
• Fareed Zakaria (1998): not all states are ‘like
units’ – some are better at translating national
power into state power
Problems with Realism
• Are states the most important actors? Are
globalisation and interdependence changing
this?
• Do states act only out of self-interest?
• Does realism preclude co-operation between
states (and other actors)?
• Are all forms of international action about
maximising power?
• Is this a conservative theory that doesn’t
allow for changes that make the world a
better place? Is it unethical?
Neoliberalism
• Some ideas of Liberalism resurfaced in the work of
pluralists such as Keohane and Nye, who developed
ideas of ‘complex interdependence’
• In response to Waltz, these ideas crystalised into
Neoliberalism
• Neoliberalism acknowledges the Realist claim that
states are the most important actors, but still
stresses the importance of cooperation
• The debate between Neoliberals and Neorealists
has been dubbed the “neo-neo debate”; there are
significant differences between the two, but also far
more common ground than there was in the 1930s
Outside the debates: Marxism
• Marxist theories in
International Relations
build on the work of Karl
Marx, with contributions
from Friedrich Engels
• Marx’s main interest was
in the conflict between
social classes: the
proletariat or working
class and the bourgeoisie
or ruling class
Marxism in International Relations
• The application of Marx’s
ideas to International
Relations came long after
Marx’s death in 1883
• In all the many strands of
Marxism, the focus is on
class rather than states,
and economic issues are
of central importance
Lenin and imperialism
• The first key Marxist contribution
to what became International
Relations was Lenin’s Imperialism:
the Highest Stage of Capitalism
(1917)
• He argued that the colonial
exploitation of under-developed
states was a natural consequence
of capitalism
• Lenin’s work built on the ideas of
the non-Marxist John Hobson,
whose Imperialism (1902) warned
that colonialism was driven by
economic competition between
the developed states
Dependency theories
• Dependency theories developed around the same
time as decolonisation, and tried to explain how
economic exploitation could continue after the end
of colonial rule
• Core or developed countries integrate periphery or
developing countries into the capitalist system in
order to exploit their resources
• Using inequalities in the system, the core countries
maintain the dependency of the periphery
• Many non-Marxists also developed such theories
World systems analysis
• Immanuel Wallerstein treated
the world as the main unit of
analysis
• He refined the dependency
theory model to describe the
history of world capitalism
• In WSA, the core exploits the
periphery; the semi-periphery
is an intermediate stage,
both exploiting the periphery
and exploited by the core
Problems with Marxist IR theory
• Is class as important as Marxists say? Can
other factors influence what happens in IR?
• Are conflicts/wars always about class?
• Does capitalism dominate what happens in
the world? Are there different agendas that
are important?
• Are Marxist theories too ‘rigid’ or
‘prescriptive’ in describing what happens in
international politics?
Realism
Focus Power relationships between states
Main
points
Statism – states are the only important actors (sovereignty is important)
Survival – the world is anarchic (no institution is more powerful than states)
and dangerous, so states must pursue self-interest in order to survive (as
survival is their priority)
Self-help – in the dangerous world, states cannot count on others to
guarantee their survival
Main
variants
Classical realism:
EH Carr (1939) The Twenty Years’ Crisis – a fierce attack on early liberalism
Hans Morgenthau (1948) Politics Among Nations – the first true work on
realism – human nature causes states to pursue self-interest
Structural realism or neorealism
Kenneth Waltz (1979) Theory of International Politics – states pursue self-
interest because of ‘structures of international politics’ (that is, anarchy), not
human nature; ‘defensive realism’ – states seek to maximise security
John Mearsheimer (2002) Tragedy of Great Power Politics – ‘offensive
realism’ – states should maximise their power rather than just survive
Liberalism
Focus Wider relationships between a wider range of actors
Main
points
The world is not always dangerous or insecure
Cooperation is possible and desirable
States are not the only important actors – other actors are also important
Sovereignty is not everything
States are interdependent
Main
variants
Liberal Internationalism – the set of theories emerging from Wilsonian
idealism; developed after the end of World War I; closely linked with belief
in the League of Nations, peace, law (‘law not war’), democracy; lost
popularity after the failure of the League
Neoliberalism or Liberalism Institutionalism – a response to neorealism;
acknowledges the realist emphasis on the central importance of states,
but still stresses the benefits of cooperation
Marxism
Focus Economic relationships between richer and poorer states
Main
points
Richer states exploit poorer states because of the nature of world
capitalism
The concerns of Realists and Liberals are irrelevant – world capitalism is
the dominant factor
Main
variants
Lenin (1917): Imperialism – tried to explain imperialism – the conquest of
overseas territories by European states – using economic terms
Dependency theories – a set of theories developed by Marxists and non-
Marxists to explain how the economic exploitation of poorer countries
could continue after the dismantling of the European empires; divided
states into the core and periphery
Wallerstein: World Systems Analysis – a refinement of dependency
theories; this added a third, intermediate group of states – the semi-
periphery

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03 the main theories in international relations

  • 1. Lecture 03: Debates and theories in International Relations
  • 2. The beginnings of IR • Before 1918, International Relations did not exist as a separate subject • Issues now considered as part of International Relations were seen as part of other subjects – political theory, history, economics and international law • International Relations began as an attempt to make sense of a significant event in world history – World War I
  • 3. Explaining World War I • For several thinkers, particularly in English- speaking countries, a new approach was necessary to understand World War I • These thinkers felt there was a need to explain how the world could fight such a disastrous war, and to ensure it could never happen again
  • 4. Liberal internationalism • This was the first body of IR theory • Developed by liberal thinkers in the USA and Britain • The most famous proponent of these ideas was the US President Woodrow Wilson
  • 5. LIs and the causes of war • For the liberal internationalists, the war was possible for two reasons: • The absence of democracy in domestic politics – they argued that people do not want wars, and wars are started by autocratic regimes • Flawed international institutions – the anarchic system with secret diplomacy meant there was no mechanism to prevent war
  • 6. LI and democracy • If the absence of democracy caused war, then the LI aim was to promote democratic political systems • LIs believed if all states were democracies, there would be no wars • These ideas owed much to the earlier claims of Thomas Paine (Common Sense, 1776) and especially Immanuel Kant (Perpetual Peace, 1795)
  • 7. LI and the League of Nations • LIs felt the problem of anarchy – the absence of a higher authority – would be solved by creating the League of Nations • The League could replace the old system of secret treaties and alliances with ‘collective security’ – every member would guarantee the security of other members • Law would replace war as the underlying principle of the new system
  • 8. LI assumptions • The LI belief in democratic systems and international cooperation assumed a ‘harmony of interests’ • This assumed international politics was not a zero-sum game, with automatic winners and losers • Democratic states could always find peaceful solutions to apparent clashes of interest
  • 9. Problems with the LI vision • Although liberal internationalism was the first body of IR theory, many were unconvinced from the start • Events in Europe and elsewhere undermined LI beliefs • Several undemocratic regimes enjoyed obvious popularity, and many of these regimes glorified war • The League of Nations was powerless to prevent aggression without going to war to protect peace • It seemed LIs had been mistaken about states and about human nature
  • 10. A new IR theory: Realism • Realism as a theory of International Relations began as a critique of liberal internationalism • As the shortcomings of LI became only too obvious, many thinkers looked for a new approach to explain contemporary events • Like the LIs, realists drew heavily on older ideas from political theory and elsewhere
  • 11. The path towards Realism • Niebuhr (Moral Man and Immoral Society, 1932) criticised LI assumptions about the goodness of human nature • EH Carr (The Twenty Years Crisis, 1939) criticised LI beliefs as ‘utopian’ – he claimed that LIs deal with the world as they want it to be, but ‘Realists’ deal with the world as it is • Carr claimed that conflict is inevitable because of the scarcity of resources – only those who possess resources promote ‘law and order’
  • 12. Morgenthau and Classical Realism • After World War II, Hans J Morgenthau produced the standard work of Classical Realism (Politics Among Nations: the Struggle for Power and Peace, 1948) • Morgenthau’s work dominated IR theory for a whole generation • Morgenthau used ideas from older political thinkers – Thucydides and Machiavelli – to support his own ideas
  • 13. Morgenthau’s Realism • Morgenthau’s Realism had three main principles: • Statism: states are the most important actors in IR; other actors are less important • Survival: in a dangerous world (dangerous because of human nature), states have to concentrate on survival • Self-help: no other state or institution can be counted on to ensure survival
  • 14. Classical Realism and the past (1) • Classical realists used ideas from older thinkers to support their concepts • In Ancient Greece, Thucydides' account of the Melian Dialogue stressed the importance of power and the dangers of being weak: “The strong do what they have the power to do and the weak accept what they have to accept”
  • 15. Classical Realism and the past (2) • Classical Realists also recalled the ideas of Niccolo Machiavelli, author of The Prince (written around 1513) • Machiavelli stressed two necessary ideas for a wise ruler: • policies are more important than principles • the end justifies the means
  • 16. Waltz and Structural Realism • Kenneth Waltz has dominated IR debate since 1979 • His Theory of International Politics claimed that structures of international politics – not human nature – made states act the way they do • He proposed ‘defensive realism’ – the idea that states want to maximise security • Waltz’s aim was to establish a proper scientific basis for Realism
  • 17. Later strands of Realism • John Mearsheimer (2001): “offensive realism” – claimed all states seek to maximise power as the best path to peace • Randall Schweller (1996): “neoclassical realism” – not all states have similar interests – can be ‘status quo’ states or revisionist states • Fareed Zakaria (1998): not all states are ‘like units’ – some are better at translating national power into state power
  • 18. Problems with Realism • Are states the most important actors? Are globalisation and interdependence changing this? • Do states act only out of self-interest? • Does realism preclude co-operation between states (and other actors)? • Are all forms of international action about maximising power? • Is this a conservative theory that doesn’t allow for changes that make the world a better place? Is it unethical?
  • 19. Neoliberalism • Some ideas of Liberalism resurfaced in the work of pluralists such as Keohane and Nye, who developed ideas of ‘complex interdependence’ • In response to Waltz, these ideas crystalised into Neoliberalism • Neoliberalism acknowledges the Realist claim that states are the most important actors, but still stresses the importance of cooperation • The debate between Neoliberals and Neorealists has been dubbed the “neo-neo debate”; there are significant differences between the two, but also far more common ground than there was in the 1930s
  • 20. Outside the debates: Marxism • Marxist theories in International Relations build on the work of Karl Marx, with contributions from Friedrich Engels • Marx’s main interest was in the conflict between social classes: the proletariat or working class and the bourgeoisie or ruling class
  • 21. Marxism in International Relations • The application of Marx’s ideas to International Relations came long after Marx’s death in 1883 • In all the many strands of Marxism, the focus is on class rather than states, and economic issues are of central importance
  • 22. Lenin and imperialism • The first key Marxist contribution to what became International Relations was Lenin’s Imperialism: the Highest Stage of Capitalism (1917) • He argued that the colonial exploitation of under-developed states was a natural consequence of capitalism • Lenin’s work built on the ideas of the non-Marxist John Hobson, whose Imperialism (1902) warned that colonialism was driven by economic competition between the developed states
  • 23. Dependency theories • Dependency theories developed around the same time as decolonisation, and tried to explain how economic exploitation could continue after the end of colonial rule • Core or developed countries integrate periphery or developing countries into the capitalist system in order to exploit their resources • Using inequalities in the system, the core countries maintain the dependency of the periphery • Many non-Marxists also developed such theories
  • 24. World systems analysis • Immanuel Wallerstein treated the world as the main unit of analysis • He refined the dependency theory model to describe the history of world capitalism • In WSA, the core exploits the periphery; the semi-periphery is an intermediate stage, both exploiting the periphery and exploited by the core
  • 25.
  • 26. Problems with Marxist IR theory • Is class as important as Marxists say? Can other factors influence what happens in IR? • Are conflicts/wars always about class? • Does capitalism dominate what happens in the world? Are there different agendas that are important? • Are Marxist theories too ‘rigid’ or ‘prescriptive’ in describing what happens in international politics?
  • 27. Realism Focus Power relationships between states Main points Statism – states are the only important actors (sovereignty is important) Survival – the world is anarchic (no institution is more powerful than states) and dangerous, so states must pursue self-interest in order to survive (as survival is their priority) Self-help – in the dangerous world, states cannot count on others to guarantee their survival Main variants Classical realism: EH Carr (1939) The Twenty Years’ Crisis – a fierce attack on early liberalism Hans Morgenthau (1948) Politics Among Nations – the first true work on realism – human nature causes states to pursue self-interest Structural realism or neorealism Kenneth Waltz (1979) Theory of International Politics – states pursue self- interest because of ‘structures of international politics’ (that is, anarchy), not human nature; ‘defensive realism’ – states seek to maximise security John Mearsheimer (2002) Tragedy of Great Power Politics – ‘offensive realism’ – states should maximise their power rather than just survive
  • 28. Liberalism Focus Wider relationships between a wider range of actors Main points The world is not always dangerous or insecure Cooperation is possible and desirable States are not the only important actors – other actors are also important Sovereignty is not everything States are interdependent Main variants Liberal Internationalism – the set of theories emerging from Wilsonian idealism; developed after the end of World War I; closely linked with belief in the League of Nations, peace, law (‘law not war’), democracy; lost popularity after the failure of the League Neoliberalism or Liberalism Institutionalism – a response to neorealism; acknowledges the realist emphasis on the central importance of states, but still stresses the benefits of cooperation
  • 29. Marxism Focus Economic relationships between richer and poorer states Main points Richer states exploit poorer states because of the nature of world capitalism The concerns of Realists and Liberals are irrelevant – world capitalism is the dominant factor Main variants Lenin (1917): Imperialism – tried to explain imperialism – the conquest of overseas territories by European states – using economic terms Dependency theories – a set of theories developed by Marxists and non- Marxists to explain how the economic exploitation of poorer countries could continue after the dismantling of the European empires; divided states into the core and periphery Wallerstein: World Systems Analysis – a refinement of dependency theories; this added a third, intermediate group of states – the semi- periphery