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International relations theories debate Essay

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Updated: Feb 8th, 2019

States remain the core units in the study of international theories (IR), practices, and disciplines. The position of the state as the core unit of this study is not likely to change in the near future. When studying IR, state policy is the subject of several analyses. For instance, it is the state’s decision to go to war, to invoke trade restrictions, and to enact environmental treaties. In addition, it is the decision of the state to enter into any international agreements and to decide whether or not to abide to the stipulations that are spelt out by such agreements.

Even IR theories that do not focus on the importance of state will often touch on the relevance of a state’s practice. The study of IR concerns itself with the actions of the state, and the effects these actions have towards other states. States are often analyzed as common units when considering IR theories and practices. This essay argues that it can be assumed that formulation of theories in the study of IR necessitates the consideration of the state as a unitary actor that seeks to maximize its power or wealth.

All theories, be they in science, mathematics, psychology, and physics are aimed at simplifying complex concepts by making them explainable. Different theories can be grouped depending on the similarities of their assumptions. Any theory can only be confirmed after it has been tested.

Therefore, theories will take a long time before they are truly accepted in scholarly circles. Several theories of IR assume that states are the main elements in global politics. Theories that put states in the middle of international relations do not ignore the other elements that formulate IR. The rationale behind states being the main actors in IR theories is that it is almost impossible to propose a theory without having examined the singularity of the state.

By focusing on the analysis of the state as a single unit, international relations scholars usually hope to understand the mechanisms behind international politics. The advantages of using this approach often outweigh the disadvantages. The opponents of this approach argue that it is empirically beneficial to consider a wide range of factors and not only the state. In addition, it is argued that considering more factors enhances the research on international relations.

The debate on this aspect pits those who favor empirical advantage versus those who favor theoretical accuracy. In this case, realist theorists are pitted against non-realist theorists such as neoconservatives and idealists. However, focus on the simplicity of IR theories is more beneficial because theories are meant to simplify concepts as opposed to making them more complex using empirics. The structure of realism favors this concept.

Another reason why it is important to consider states as unitary actors is because it can be assumed that the needs of the states represent the needs of a particular society. According to realist theorists, the state is a homogenous unit with homogeneous needs.

Therefore, the state and its politics being unitary, eliminates the need for sorting out various elements of domestic countries. In addition, the state is considered as a single entity with a uniform political path. Realist theories are formulated under the assumption that national interest coincides with a state’s power.

On the other hand, non-realist theories operate under the assumption that national interest coincides with a state’s survival. In addition, non-realist theories assume that the state seeks to ensure its survival and the pursuit of power is only relevant when a state’s survival is at stake. According to realists, a state’s need to seek power stems from human nature. Consequently, this human nature helps in the definition and interpretation of a state’s actions.

Both power and survival occur at the state’s political level, and this is further validation of the realists’ argument. By considering the state and its actions as a central unit, it is possible to analyze several theories that touch on international politics. Most of the theories that oppose realist theories usually forward a more context-specific item of national-interest. For instance, there is a constructivist IR theory that has nuclear war avoidance as its main item of interest.

Therefore, such a theory claims that the national-interest of any state and its citizens is to avoid a nuclear war. However, realists can argue that this item is covered in the pursuit of military and economic power that is specified by realist theories. Most of the specific items that are focused on by non-realist theories relate directly to the state. Considering liberal and constructivist theories cover issues that fall under the state’s jurisdiction, realists conclude that it is simpler to analyze the state as a unitary actor.

States are sovereign units that have unlimited authority over the areas they cover and the inhabitants of those regions according to liberalist and realist theorists. Any decision that is made by the state applies to all citizens that live in that state. For instance, if the state decides to increase the import tax, all the citizens will feel the effects of this decision. The laws that are followed by citizens all around the world are dependent on the jurisdiction of particular states.

Even international laws are dependent on the states’ association with other states. The relationship between states is the fundamental principle in IR. Therefore, it is hard to analyze IR practices without considering the state as a unitary actor. The concepts of states, their jurisdictions, their relationships with other states, and their internal hierarchy are the main argument in neorealist theories.

These concepts also necessitate the consideration of states as unitary actors. The proponents of theories that dispute the position of states as unitary actors argue that sovereignty of these units is relative. According to this school of thought, the sovereignty of any state tends to rest on another unit such as a monarch, a parliament, or a group of citizens. These units ‘lend’ their sovereignty to states.

Therefore, the argument about states being the units that regulate citizens’ actions is flawed. The opposing group argues that it is hard to assign sovereignty to a state without considering the other units of power within a state. The examples given to dispute states’ sovereignty include states whose policies are made by few elite individuals, democracies with power-wielding parliaments, and states that are ruled by a dictator. Even though the actual policy makers may vary, the state is still the symbolic bearer of power.

The technicalities that undermine the sovereignty of states are not enough reasons to dispute the position of states as unitary actors. The reason for this is because the units of power that are defined by non-realists are not recognizable to other states. For instance, the American congress cannot get into talks with the Queen of England even though the two are units of power within their states.

The state’s responsibility of speaking and acting on behalf of its citizens enhances its unitary actor status. Other actors such as non-governmental organizations lack this aspect. For example, a non-governmental organization cannot speak or act on behalf of its members. Moreover, the actions of such an organization do not necessarily bind their members. In addition, most of the other organizations attract membership voluntarily.

On the other hand, membership to states is involuntary and the actions of states are binding to their citizens. These unique abilities underline the central nature of states. The importance of state actors over other types of actors is the subject of their consideration as units of analysis when dealing with major IR theories.

There is a lot of criticism toward theories that are centralized on states being unitary actors. Several schools of thought dispute the notion that the only way to analyze IR theories and practices is by using the state-centric perspective. Several theories have been forwarded as rebuttals to state-centric theories. Some idealist, liberalist, and neoconservative theorists dispute the legitimacy of the concept of ‘national interest’. The concept of the state being a single entity that represents the interests of all citizens is disputed by idealists.

It is argued that the concept of national interest is ambiguous and self centered in nature. Considering the state as a single unit is a misleading concept according to opponents of this concept. The idea that one interest might apply to all citizens in a particular state is often criticized. This critique is based on the fact that in a single state, several people are affected by the same issue differently.

For instance, global warming is considered a national interest in most states across the world. The interests of the nation are said to represent the interests of its citizens. However, global warming does not affect all citizens in the same way. For example, global warming has made some areas warmer and therefore more suitable for farming while other areas are losing productive land as a result of its effects. This example successfully disputes the concept of national interest.

Realist theories are formulated with the concept of national interest as their central agenda. Non-realist theories are formulated under the assumption that most of the so-called national interests do not cover the interests of every citizen. Therefore, non-realist theories make use of special interest groups within a unitary state to better define the needs of different people within the society.

Subdividing a society into several autonomous groups is said to eliminate the bias that is usually achieved by treating the state as a unitary player. However, this rebuttal fails to put into consideration some important points. First, even though states are not essentially homogeneous, their actions apply to all citizens irrespective of their sub-divisions. The other important thing to put into consideration is that refuting the legitimacy of national interest does not necessarily prove that a state’s authority is not important.

Reiterating the necessity to consider states as unitary actors in the study of IR does mean that all other approaches are false. However, theories that focus on this approach have made a better argument as opposed to theories that do not necessarily agree with this approach.

Theorists that favor consideration of states as unitary actors use the central nature of the state to study patterns in IR. This approach is also used to help states address their challenges and those of their citizens. In future, states are likely to remain as the central subjects in the study of international relations. This is in spite of the fact that some of the lesser actors are gaining importance in the international political arena. IR theories are not constant and they are subject to change.

Introduction to the speech

The importance of states in the study of IR theories cannot be ignored. States are considered as important units when it comes to defining IR practices. This has often been the trend in the study of IR theories and practices. The success of this trend has seen it survive a lot of criticism from some IR theorists while it continues to enjoy support from others.

Today, our team will prove that IR study is based on the assumption that for the purpose of creating any IR theories, states should be considered as rational unitary actors that seek to maximize their power. I will now open the floor to our first proponent.

Conclusion to the Speech

The position of the state in the study of IR cannot be ignored. The state is the unit around which several IR theories are formulated. Several of these theories support the consideration of the state as the central element in IR study. The support accorded to this approach is based on the fact that it simplifies IR study. It is also likely that this approach will continue to be used by IR scholars even in future.

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"International relations theories debate." IvyPanda, 8 Feb. 2019, ivypanda.com/essays/international-relations-theories-debate/.

1. IvyPanda. "International relations theories debate." February 8, 2019. https://ivypanda.com/essays/international-relations-theories-debate/.


IvyPanda. "International relations theories debate." February 8, 2019. https://ivypanda.com/essays/international-relations-theories-debate/.


IvyPanda. 2019. "International relations theories debate." February 8, 2019. https://ivypanda.com/essays/international-relations-theories-debate/.


IvyPanda. (2019) 'International relations theories debate'. 8 February.

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