I prepared the paper below for students this year and intend to use it again next year (2010) - any comments, suggestions most welcome
No single theory captures the complexity of contemporary world politics.
International relations is dominated by the debate between neorealists and their various critics.
Realism, in its many variants, has been attacked but not wholly replaced.
Theories of international relations seek to explain what states try to achieve in the external realm and when they try to achieve it.
A theory is a causal explanation. It identifies recurring relations between two or more phenomena and explains why that relationship obtains. It helps us sort important factors from the unimportant; that is, which trends, facts, events etc deserve the focus of our attention and why.
A key test of a theory is parsimony, the capacity to explain the maximum number of phenomena with the minimum number of assumptions.
Theories simplify reality and help us understand it.
Everyone uses theories, whether they know it or not. You can't analyse data without resorting to causal explanations.
But theories often lack the specificity needed to make and implement decisions. As a result, policy-makers are often dismissive of the value of theories.
Nevertheless, bad theories can lead directly to foreign policy disasters and good theories can result in policies that work (achieve objectives).
Theories have several components: diagnosis (what is wrong), prediction (what might happen), prescription (what we should do about it), evaluation (did our policies work).
Debates within and among these theories have largely defined the international relations discipline.
These theories all have difficulty explaining change.
· focuses on the shifting distribution of power and the enduring propensity for conflict, military power depends on economic growth and strong political institutions
· key assumptions: states are the primary actors, anarchy is the international condition, states behave rationally, states seek to keep the system in balance (against capability, threat)
· realism depicts the international system as composed of unitary, rational states motivated by a desire for security
· neoclassical realists assume that states respond to the uncertainties of international anarchy by seeking to control and shape their external environment. As their relative power rises states will seek more influence abroad, and as it falls their actions and ambitions will be scaled back accordingly.
· neorealism (or structural realism) focuses on the international system and argues that the relative position of a state in the system is the best explanation of its behaviour.
· argues that pragmatism about power can yield a more peaceful world
· provides simple but powerful explanations for war, alliances, imperialism, obstacles to cooperation, and other international phenomena
· stresses that policy must be based on positions of real strength and often favours modest and prudent approaches, states must not over-reach
· argues international institutions cannot constrain a hegemonic power
· realism has been modified because states with similar domestic systems often act differently in the foreign policy sphere and dissimilar states in similar situations often act alike.
· theorists have sought to understand the influence of internal factors on external behaviour. But there is not yet a coherent theory that links domestic with internationally politics causally.
· the triumph of the West in the Cold War boosted liberalism
· argues that realism cannot account for progress and foresees a journey away from the anarchic world as trade and finance forge ties between nations, and democratic norms spread
· globalisation is changing the nature of world politics: interstate use and threat of military force have virtually disappeared in certain areas of the world
· highlights the cooperative potential of mature democracies, especially when working together through effective institutions
· argues that international institutions help overcome selfish state behavior by encouraging states to forego immediate gains for the greater benefits of enduring cooperation
· institutions cannot force states to behave in ways that are contrary to their interests, but even powerful states are increasingly reliant on institutions
· argues that realism cannot explain this growth in the number and importance of institutions
· "soft power" is becoming more important
· theory of democratic peace holds that democracies never fight wars against each other. But they are prone to launch messianic struggles against warlike authoritarian regimes to “make the world safe for democracy.” In economic relations between democratic states, however, threats and coercion are ever present.
· liberalism highlights the rising number of democracies and the turbulence of democratic transitions. Countries transitioning to democracy, with weak political institutions, are more likely than other states to get into international and civil wars
· points out that the rising democratic tide creates the presumption that all nations ought to enjoy the benefits of self-determination which can also lead to conflict
· doubts that nascent democracy and economic liberalism can always cohabitate
· argues that foreign policy is and should be guided by ethical and legal standards
· stresses that a consensus on values must underpin any stable political order
· constructivists believe that debates about ideas are the fundamental building blocks of international life
· a theory that emphasizes the role of ideologies, identities, persuasion, and transnational networks is highly relevant to understanding the post-9/11 world.
· constructivists find absurd the idea of some identifiable and immutable “national interest,” which some realists cherish
· constructivists often study the role of transnational activist networks—such as Human Rights Watch or the International Campaign to Ban Landmines—in promoting change. These movements often make pragmatic arguments as well as idealistic ones, but their distinctive power comes from the ability to highlight deviations from deeply held norms of appropriate behavior.
· illuminates the changing norms of sovereignty, human rights, and international justice, as well as the increased potency of religious ideas in politics
· the USA is a 'true revolutionary power'. Ronald Steel (NYT 1996): "We purvey a culture based on mass entertainment and mass gratification ...the cultural message ... goes out across the world to capture, and also to undermine, other societies"
· both liberal human rights movements and radical Islamic movements have transnational structures and principled motivations that challenge the traditional supremacy of self-interested states in international politics.
Niall Ferguson, “Power,” Foreign Policy, January/February 2003
Ethan B. Kapstein, “Is Realism Dead? The Domestic Sources of International Politics”, International Organization, 1995
Robert O. Keohane, "International institutions: Can interdependence work?", Foreign Policy, 1998
Robert Keohane and Joseph Nye “Globalization: What’s New, What’s Not (and So What?),” Foreign Policy, Spring 2000:
David McCraw, "The Howard Government's Foreign Policy: Really Realist?" Australian Journal of Political Science, September 2008, 43:3, 465 - 480
Gideon Rose, “Neoclassical Realism and Theories of Foreign Policy”, World Politics, 1998
Jack Snyder, "One World, Rival Theories", Foreign Policy, November / December 2004
Stephen M. Walt, "International Relations: One World, Many theories", Foreign Policy, 1998
Stephen M. Walt, "The relationship between theory and practice in international relations", Annual Review of Political Science, 2005
James Watson, “China’s Big Mac Attack,” Foreign Affairs, May/June 2000