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The International Relations’ Theories Concept and Aspects Analytical Essay

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Updated: Oct 4th, 2019


International relations theory is important to understanding international politics and the general view of the world. These theories assist in the study of why states behave the way they do in the international system and the foreign policies they uphold. The behaviour of states under different circumstances is analyzed using different levels of analysis including system, state, organizational and individual levels.

The system level of analysis evaluates the state behaviour from the international relations system’s perspective while the state level analysis evaluates from the states’ perspective. Different international relations theories’ scholars have consequently applied different levels of analysis to come up with unique theories.

Some of these theories include classical realism, realism, neo-realism, liberalism, and neo-liberalism and constructivism theories. However, the most common theories today are neo-realism, neoliberal institutionalism, and social constructivism some of which are result of combination of different individual theories.


Most theories use the concept of anarchy to explain international relations but conceptualize it differently. Anarchy simply defined as a state of disorderliness implies absence of a government when considering the subject of international relations. In international theory, anarchy is present even if order prevails since there is no one in a position to instil order in a hierarchical way to sovereign states (Bull 1987, p. 25).

The claim that international relations exist in an anarchic environment has raised many debates across opponent theorists in the world today. Anarchical theory assumes that the international arena consists of sovereign states that are not subject to any higher power meaning that there is tension and distrust in their relations (Weber 2005, p.2).

This implies that there is no world government and the sovereign states can only make treaties and agreements which no one is responsible to oversee thus the states will remain a part of the treaty as long as it serves them good. The theory further assumes that there is no world government and finally that the absence of this world government makes international politics anarchical.

States in the international politics face either a choice of cooperating and maintaining the status quo to bring mutual benefit or defect and cause war. According to Jervis (1978), the absence of international sovereign institutions and authorities permits occurrence of wars in the world (p.168). He goes ahead to introduce the case of ‘stag hunt’ where the states can cooperate by trapping the stag and share out the meal or any one of them defect to go after a rabbit though less liked and the result is that they will all loose.


Though many anarchy myths have come up with different ways of explaining realism of international anarchy, none compare to the most widely accepted theory of Kenneth Waltz in 1954. Waltz theory titled ‘international anarchy is the permissive cause of war,’ and scholars credit him as the genesis of all realism and neo-realism theories.

Various assumptions that help in explaining anarchical theory though it is mostly straightforward and easy to understand guide this theory (Glaser 1997, p. 174). The first assumption is that sovereign nation-states make up the international politics without an overseer to watch their activities. In fact, the ability to be independent and have absolute control of your territory and people is what makes a nation-state sovereign.

However, debates as to the definition or scope of sovereignty are still going on amongst the different scholars. The second assumption states that the world does not have a government thus the sovereign states described in the first assumption do not have an overseer. The theory does not explain any further, why and how higher power does not exist but it simply states the absence of a higher power over a sovereign state.

This prevails regardless of there being international bodies like United Nations (UN), which the theory declares that it does not affect the state’s independence since membership to such organizations is optional or voluntary. The last assumption is the result of the first two and states that the international politics are anarchical due to the lack of an international government and sovereignty of states.

It is clear from the three assumptions that they build on each other and international politics to be anarchical, the states have to remain sovereign and without a world government. Neo-realists assume that the main target for states in the world is to survive in the environment and the increase of the power of a state can ensure the survival.

In this theory, power is the main defence mechanism since without power a state does not have the capacity to attack (Kagan 2002, p. 3). They also see no way out of anarchy in international politics since according to them its unrealistic to think of a world government because sovereign states can never be secure enough to surrender their authority to someone else.

Further, neorealist advocates for assessment of social causes of conflicts beyond just the natural ones. Neorealist conceptualize international anarchy because of social relations among sovereign nation states explaining it that bad people behave badly because of the bad social organizations while they could have been stopped from misbehaving if they were living in socially good organizations, which may lead to wars around the world.

Waltz, in his theory in the 1950s put an argument that has since become the foundation of neo-realism as its known. He observed the anarchical world was at the three level or images in a bid to evaluate the causes of war in the world. The first image he looked at was the individual and more specifically ‘man’ where the term man represented the individual’s human nature.

The theory observed that men’s bad behaviour were because of their bad nature leading to selfishness thus conflict and war. However, this claim was highly refuted because the human nature alone could note suffice the explanations as to why wars happened not continuously but sometimes. It therefore went further to establish that if human nature was insufficient to explain the causes of war, then addressing the social and political institutions could shed more light.

Waltz concluded that if human nature could not change then the only hope of averting possibility of war was social and political institutions that could change. On the other hand, if human nature could change then these same institutions were the one to propel the change. Therefore, this asserts that social and political institutions need to supplement the human nature to be able to affect the presence or absence of war.

Waltz went to the second level of analysis and observed the state and societies within them. From other second level image theorists, he gathered that there were good and bad states and it was the bad states which caused wars. However, he found this inefficient since the theorists could not just agree on the best form of governance in good states and after all, even if the whole world was to have good states it was not an assurance that the world would be safe or peaceful.

He concluded that the state level was also incomplete and the international level or the third image could compliment it. He observed that in a world full of many sovereign states with each state having their own form of governance and self-determination depending on their priorities and fears, conflict was inevitable. The theory of neo-realism links anarchy, state actions and conflicts.

According to the causes of war, international anarchical environment could explain conflicts. Further, he suggested that this environment was to blame for lack of cooperation among states in the international system. Although the theory, as suggested by Waltz, exemplified the place of anarchical environment as the primary reasons for war, it stressed that the three images should be considered concurrently since if the individuals and state were to pursue peace on their own there would be no need for war (Barry, Jones, & Little 1993, p. 34).

In the theory of neo-realism the behaviour of actors depend on two major forms of organization namely, hierarchy and anarchy. Hierarchy shows organization within states in a monopolistic market and specialization in a bid to making life better for the people while anarchy shows organization of politics globally where there is no central government and states are working towards being independence as much as possible, the market in this case is more oligopolistic.

The theory of neo-realism largely received criticisms especially by the neo-liberalism theory due to the structural approach it presented. Waltz’s definition of a political structure by its ordering principle and the capability distribution implied that some changes in the current world were misplaced. An example is the nuclear revolution in the military technology, which according to the definition, is a unit change and not a structural change (Powell 1986, p. 324).

The critics insist that the use of the unit level as the scapegoat for any unexplained variances contributed to stagnation of the theory. Neo-realism assumes that in an anarchical environment, the international institutions play a very small part in shaping the international politics (Wendt 1995, p. 77).

Further, the proponents of this theory argue that the probability of cooperation in anarchy is very low because of suspicions by sovereign states (Ashley 1984, p. 258). Even though the theory says that cooperation is impossible, the emergence of international rules and treaties that states are remaining obedient to is a sign of weakness to the theory.

Neo-liberal institutionalism

While the neo-realism theory insists that there is no way out of anarchy, this theory offers an array of hope by pointing out that aversion of conflict in the international system is achievable through an international society. It does not necessarily mean forming a world government but a formal or informal cooperation between states can be an alternative to anarchy (Keohane 1986, p. 55).

The theory propagates that all humans are morally good and their behaviour depend on the organization of the state thus good organization result to good people while bad organization leads to bad people. The theory of neo-liberalism became popular mainly after the end of the cold world war. Neither realistic nor neorealist could explain post cold war occurrences between states where cooperation increase marked the increased liberal free trade agreements, democracy and a renewed role of the United Nations (Campbell 1999, p. 123).

It was here that Kegley came up to explain the new theory of liberalism and he argued on six points that defined the liberal’s worldview. This included; human nature was good, basic human concern for others made progress possible, bad human behaviour was a result of bad organization, war was inevitable but could reduce, war and justice were international problems that required unity to face and finally that the international society needed to organize itself to eliminate anarchy.

Kegley arranged his arguments using the three images just like Waltz but they differed on the third image. For neo-liberalists, violence and war are not located in the third level and in fact, they do not appear anywhere at all since social and political organization can eliminate the vices classified as bad behaviour. Instead of anarchy, this theory places ‘international society’ (Krasner 1983, p. 99).

The theory does not imply the formation of a world government but a pursuit of common goals and interests that stir the states to cooperation. Neo-liberals purport that there is an international society in the world and it originates from drawing an analogy within a state thus the domestic analogy used here implies that if there is a society within the state then there can be a society among states.

The sovereign states has governments, which exist as formal institutions of social relations in the state hence for well organized state, the population will as well be organized translating to good morals. The best form of organization for a state according to neo-liberals is democracy because it is least restrictive on its people.

It is the form of governance that mostly encourages freedom of speech thus it is a system seen to represent the views of the people and not their own ideas. The good people in a democratic environment influence those with bad morals for the betterment of the society (Beitz 1999, p. 57). However, not all governments can be democratic and such states are likely to cause war since they selfish motives drive them.

If there are many democratic states in the world, they will influence the autocratic states o change into democracy. The theory states that for democracy to prevail a good communication, which is the basis for a better and united international society should exist. Because of this theory, communication has allowed people to begin emphasizing on welfare rather than warfare and if a domestic society exists then an international community should exists as well.

Social constructivism

According to this theory, anarchy is what states make of it thus suggests that the effects of international anarchy are not very predictable. It presupposes that international anarchy has no nature by itself thus depends on the nature given to it by the state. When states are in conflict the nature of anarchy is conflict while if they cooperate, the nature changes to cooperative (Bennett, & Shapiro 2002, p. 77).

According to this theory, the actions of the state depend on their identities and interests, which can change any time (Nardin, & Mapel 1993, p. 7). The proponents of this theory observe that the other two theories have similarities, which include; the dominant actors are the state, they explain international relations through rationalism and everyone defines security from their own point of interest.

The main point of critic is rationalism where the neorealist and the neoliberals consider behavioural changes but neglect identity or interest changes. Rationalism takes the identities of and the interests generated from international anarchy since the structures cannot change. This theory introduces a second structure other than that of the international anarchy known as ‘the intersubjectively constituted structure of identities and interests in the system’.

The theory argues that states are the departure points and they take different identities and interest before interacting with other states. This theory introduces us to three fundamental principles that include; social knowledge where people act on the basis of their own understanding, social practice where the said meanings result from interactions and social identities and interests.

The theory only acts as a bridge between neo-realism and neo-liberalism or links process and structure. The theory of social constructivism has had its critics as well. It introduces the liability by failing to deliver on the promise of reification because it reifies the state in a bid to escape a reified logic of anarchy. Also in reifying the state, the theory fails to restore a focus on process and practice in international politics.


It is evident from the theories discussed above that international relations’ theories have continued to adapt to changes as different scholars develop new theories. However, what remains clear is that there is no single self-explanatory theory that explains the concept of international relations and that is universally accepted.

The theme of anarchy stands out from all the themes and ironically serves as a unifying factor of the theories. Most of the explanations of all the theories discussed above revolve around this particular concept hence it is very important when considering international relations.

Reference List

Ashley, R. K., 1984. The poverty of neorealism. International Organization, 38(2), pp.225-287.

Barry, B., Jones, C., & Little, R., 1993. The Logic of Anarchy: Neorealism to Structural Realism. New York: Columbia University Press.

Beitz, C., 1999. Political Theory and International Relations. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

Bennett, J., & Shapiro, M.J., 2002. The Politics of Moralizing. New York: Routledge

Bull, H., 1987. The Anarchical Society. London: Macmillan.

Campbell, D., 1999. Writing Security, revised edition. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.

Glaser, C., 1997. The security dilemma revisited. World Politics, 50(1), pp.171-201.

Jervis, R., 1978. Cooperation under the security dilemma. World Politics, 30(2), pp. 167-214.

Kagan, R., 2002. Power and weakness. Policy review, 113, p.3-11.

Keohane, R.O., 1986. Neorealism and its Critics. New York: Columbia University Press.

Krasner, S.D., 1983. International Regimes. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press.

Nardin, T., and Mapel, D., 1993. Traditions of International Ethics. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Powell, R., 1994. Anarchy in international relations theory: the neorealist-neoliberal Debate. International Organization, 48(2), pp.314-344.

Weber, C., 2005. International Relations Theory. A critical introduction. Milton Park, Abingdon: Routledge.

Wendt, A., 1995. Constructing international politics. International security, 20 (1), pp. 71-81.

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