An Introduction To International Relations Theory

International relations: an introduction to realism, liberalism, constructivism and the English School.



[dropcap]O[/dropcap]fficially established in Aberystwyth after World War I with the ambitious aim of eradicating future conflicts, the discipline of International Relations (IR) is currently one of the youngest academic fields despite the occurrence of war between nations having existed for centuries. The effort of understanding how world politics works and which tenets shape its most visible outcomes – such as war, international crises, and revolutions – has underpinned several attempts in elaborating and debating interpretative frameworks capable of providing policy-makers, practitioners and Joe Bloggs with a useful and detailed set of theoretical and explanatory tools. In this article I will be presenting the main four theories of IR: realism, liberalism, constructivism and the English school.


The first assumptions on realism as a way of conducting state foreign policy were detailed by a series of writers who belonged to the group of classical thinkers of political realism. Political actions, historical and technical accounts provided by Sun Tzu, Thucydides, Machiavelli, Hobbes, and E. H. Carr, to name but a few, are usually referred to as the most significant contributions to the development of a well-defined philosophical pattern connected with realism. As for its academic tradition, realism presents the international realm as an anarchic political arena characterized by a struggle for power among self-interested states: it is generally pessimistic about the prospects for eliminating conflict and war. Having been the dominant theory throughout the Cold War, its intellectual straightforwardness and logical linearity provide simple but powerful explanations for war, alliances, imperialism, and the many obstacles to cooperation between states, especially within the normative environment of international organizations. Against this backdrop, currently realism can rely on the work of a wide spectrum of insightful scholars such as Kenneth Waltz, John Mearsheimer, Stephen Walt, William Wholforth, Robert Jervis, Joseph Grieco and Marco Cesa, each of them depicting the different theoretical strands of realism (neo-classical realism, structural realism, offensive and defensive realism, and the theory of alliances).


Liberalism is as close to it gets as the complete opposite to realism. Frequently associated with the Kantian perspective of world politics and rooted in European Enlightenment thought, liberalism is firmly convinced about the possibility of achieving durable international peace through cooperation between states. At the core of this theory is the importance of rules and the formal and informal institutions in which such regulations are embedded. Liberalism is also differentiated in various theoretical strands. The first is concerned with the relevance of economic interdependence and prosperity as major tools for discouraging states from using force against each other (complex interdependence theory). The second approach (usually attributed to Woodrow Wilson – the American President of League of Nations fame) regards the spread of democracy – considered more peaceful than other forms of government – as the best antidote to the war (democratic peace theory). Finally, institutional theory, according to which the anarchy that affects the international arena can be successfully overcome thanks to the promotion of long-term state interests (such as security) in a shorter period of time through the use of international institutions such as the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) or the United Nations (UN) (the so-called systems of collective security). Among its scholars, the most notable academic figures in liberalism are Robert Keohane, John Ikenberry, Michael Doyle, Bruce Russett, Inis Claude and Robert Axelrod.


Recently developed by the seminal work of Alexander Wendt, constructivism takes beliefs and values as crucial elements in determining a reality that is socially constructed – as supposed to liberalism and realism which take such things for granted. Thus, social practice, discourse and interaction among the participants of the international realm (both state and non-state actors) are the fundamental drivers of this ongoing and maieutic process in which the emerging norms and values shape their own interests and identities. Without offering any predictions, but focusing on an attempt to explain the reasons for political change, the constructivist perspective looks at power not as an irrelevancy but as a subjective product of ideas and identities. The definition of “power” – according to the constructivist interpretative framework – is influenced by the cultural and the historical context in which it is analysed. Similarly, Wendt argues that the realist conception of anarchy does not adequately explain why conflict occurs between states. The real issue, in fact, is how anarchy is perceived in Wendt’s words, “anarchy is what states make of it”.

The English School

“The English School” is a term coined in the 1970s to describe a group of British and British-inspired writers for whom international society is the primary object of analysis. According to this theoretical view, sovereign states form an international society, although framed within an anarchic context. The state of insecurity and violence which features this kind of “anarchical society” is to some extent mitigated by the role of international law and morality. As a matter of fact, English School’s members describe their theoretical membership as rationalist and related to the Grotian tradition: this approach concurrently considers elements of realism, such as power politics, balance of power and the state of anarchy, and liberalism (international institutions, morality and cooperation) as well. As a result, the English School maintains that the international political system is more civil and orderly than realists suggest. However, its vision, supported by the fact that violence is an inescapable characteristic of the international society, is largely differentiated from the utopian one, firmly rooted in the possibility of perpetual peace. Some of the most important scholars who developed and are currently embedded in this fourth and original IR thought include Hedley Bull, Martin Wight, Tim Dunne, Barry Buzan and Andrew Linklater.

The Importance of Being Eclectic

Going beyond this brief description and considering the wider spectrum of contemporary IR theories, it’s worth noticing how each of them gives an interpretative key for unlocking the issues of world politics. In order to thoroughly understand the complex and variegated field under question, it is important to take into account and debate all the aforementioned theoretical approaches. Each of them offers detailed and thoughtful contributions about the role of power, domestic forces, political change and thus the possibility for improving our current international society.

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