The Major Theories of International Relations

The Major Theories of International Relations

The theories of international relations provide a framework for analyzing situations involving the interactions between different state actors and non-state actors or the phenomenon arising from the decisions and actions of these actors. There are three major theories in international relations. These are realism, liberalism, and constructivism. Each has its core assumptions. These theories also correspond to the schools of thought in international relations because each of them has its group of adherents who have introduced, developed, and used derivative theories. Understanding the different theories of international relations is akin to having a set of different lenses and tools from which one can understand the complex relationships and interactions among international actors and the consequences arising from these interactions.

Three Major Theories of International Relations

1. Realism

The theory of realism in international relations generally assumes that the international system is inherently disorderly and relations are anarchic because primary international actors such as state actors are perpetually locked against a struggle for power and security.

Another general assumption of this theory is that states are the primary actors in the international politics. The absence of an effective supranational authority that would oversee the conduct of these states is the assumed reason why the international landscape is anarchic.

States desire power to ensure self-preservation. The behaviors and actions of these international actors are driven by self-interest. There can be no middle ground or moderation with regard to the scope of power accumulation. A state either has power or none at all.

2. Liberalism

Another one of the major theories of international relations is liberalism. It contradicts the theory of realism. Take note that realism is about the individual self-interest of states while liberalism is about the importance of interdependence and cooperation among states.

The general assumptions of this theory center on the notion that the rejection of power politics is the only possible outcome of international relations. Hence, the international system is not inherently anarchic, rather, it provides opportunities for cooperation.

States are also not the only primary actors in the international system according to liberalism. Non-state actors such as supranational authorities, multinational companies, and nonprofits are considered to have important roles in shaping international relations.

3. Constructivism

The theory of constructivism is a delineation from both realism and liberalism. It does not merely perceive international relations as the sole product of the behaviors and actors of primary actors. This theory claims that international relations is a social construction.

One assumption of this theory considers international politics as a real interaction influenced by the identities and practices of actors and directed further by the incessantly changing norms. The interactions among actors shape their individual motivations.

Both realism and liberalism consider actors as egoists whose identities and interests supersede their interactions with other actors. Constructivism considers these actors as social beings whose identities and interests are shaped by social structures in place.

Other Key Theories of International Relations

1. Marxism

Marxism is a theory in international relations based on the same economic theory that emerged from the works of Karl Marx. The specific Marxist international relations theories reject realism and liberalism by arguing that the global economy should be the primary focus of analysis. Note that realism and liberalism are politics-centric theories of international relations.

Nonetheless, when applied in international relations. Marxism argues that the instability in the international system is a product of the different facets of class struggle such as the problems due to capitalism, exploitation of resources by the few, uneven distribution of wealth and economic inequality, and the institutionalization of unfair privilege and injustice

2. Functionalism:

Functionalism is one of the contemporary theories of international relations that surfaced from the notions about the obsolescence of states or national governments as the primary actors in the international system. It gained momentum during World War I and World War II and further with the integration of Europe or the emergence of the European Union.

This theory does not consider a state as a form of social organization. It argues for the rejection of realism through the promotion of the idea that global integration or globalization is a process arising from the common interests of actors. This integration creates a system with functions that are more important than the individual functions of individual actors.

3. The English School

Another contemporary theory of international relations is called the English School. It combines the principles of realism and liberalism and intends to answer the question of how to understand or analyze international relations by incorporating the cooperative aspect of liberalism into the realist conception of the conflicted nature of the international system.

It also argues that there are three distinct spheres at work in international politics. These are the international politics, which involves power politics, the international society, which comes from the institutionalization of shared interests and identities of actors, and the world society, which is characterized by the creation of unified global identities and arrangements.

4. Feminism

Feminism in international relations is a broad term that represents different concepts and models patterned after a particular theory in feminism. It analyzes the international system based on the assumption that the concepts of power, dominion, and security from other international relations theories are gender-biased or are based on dominant patriarchal notions.

The theory also argues for the importance of understanding the impact of women in shaping the international system. Other arguments include looking at how the concept of masculinity shaped foreign policy and diplomatic relations, considering women as a separate group of international actors, and the use of the concept of femininity in handling conflicts.

5. Green Theory

Green Theory focuses on international environmental cooperation. It is considered one of the radical theories of international relations because it examines the international system outside of the purview of mainstream theories. This theory focuses on the cross-border problems and issues concerning the environment and affecting the international system.

One of its general assumptions is that the other theories of international relations are blind to the ecological problems and the role of the environment in shaping the international system and the interactions among international actors. A more specific argument asserts that there is a need to respond to environmental problems arising from globalization.