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A theory is a set of ideas which provide an explanation of something. Theories act as frameworks for guiding scholars and researchers in their work so as to avoid duplication of ideas or repeating the mistakes which were made by previous researchers or scholars.
In international relations, theories are used to explain the relationships between nations of the world. The theories look at the philosophies which shape the relationships between nations and the key interests of the nations which participate in international relations (Acharya & Buzan, 2009).
Various theories have different explanations about why, how and to what extend do nations interact. However, the overriding principle in all international relations theories is that nations relate for specific interests and in their relations, they usually try to create a win win situation which is characterised by a symbiotic kind of relationship.
One of the theories of international relations is neorealism which was derived from the classical realism theory (Brown & Ainley, 2009).
This is a state-centric international relations approach in that it looks at states as the key actors in international politics. The theory is based on historical writers such as the works of Rousseau, Machiavelli and Thucydides (Edkins & Vaughan-Williams, 2009). The main argument of realism is that international relations is characterised by anarchy, in which states interact for their selfish interests.
Realism therefore negates the mutual understanding of states in their relations but rather puts more emphasis on the struggle of nations to amass as much resources as possible in order to advance their own interests. With realism, economic success is the leading interest in international relations (Booth & Smith, 1995).
As mentioned above, neorealism is a reformulation of classical realism. Its key proponent is Kenneth Waltz, who outlined it in his book titled ‘Theory of International Politics’ published in 1979 (Baldwin, 1993). For the last decade, the neorealist approach has gained popularity in the field of international relations.
The theory is critical of classical realism because of the persistence use of the concept of human nature in the explanation of relationships by nations. According to neorealists, international relations are shaped more by the structural constrains rather than human nature which includes motivation and strategy.
It is also shaped by the anarchic principle, which has been widely decentralized meaning that all states have similar needs but what separate them are their capabilities to achieve those needs. States therefore have to be very careful when choosing which state or states to partner with in efforts to increase capabilities of meeting their needs.
What this means is that nations have to enter into a relationship only with nations which have the potential of improving their capability of meeting thier needs. If this is not done carefully, the result is that some nations end up losing and others benefiting from the relationship thus creating a situation reffered to as security dilemma (Baldwin, 1993).
In order for nations to improve their capabilities of meeting their needs in the international platform, they engage in what is reffered to as balance of power which takes place in two forms namely internal and external balancing.
Internal balancing of power entails the acceleration of economic growth and investing more in military. External balancing entails entering into alliances with other nations so as to keep the power of other powerful nations or alliances of nations at check (Baldwin, 1993).
According to neorealists, there exist three systems of capability distribution in the international arena. They include a unipolar system, a bipolar system and a multipolar system. In international relations, polarity is defined as the distribution of power within the international system.
A unipolar structure constitutes of one state, whose capabilities (economic, military, cultural and geopolitical) are too high to be counterbalanced by other states. Bipolarity has to do with a situation in which two states are predominantly powerful over the others while muiltipolarity has to do with a situation in which more than three states are powerful and can act as centres of power in the world at the same time (Krauthammer, 1991).
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Realists are of the view that the current international system is a bipolar one, pitting the United States (US) on one hand and the other nations on the other.
According to them, bipolarity is the least prone structure to war because the second tier states (those which are close to the super power in terms of capabilities) usually foster their good relationships with the super power, each of them having the interest of forming an alliance with the super power to outwit the others in the fight for supremacy.
The closest rivals in the supremacy for bipolarity include Britain, German, Japan and China. All these are known to partner with the United States in many ways, both as strategies for increasing their internal stability and increasing their supremacy (Kugler & Lemke, 1996).
However, critics of neorealsim are of the view that since unipolairity is characterized by one state whose capabilities are too high to be counterbalanced, it means that the threat of rivalry between power hegemons is not a possibility.
According to the hegemonic theory, the presence of a powerful state enhances international peace because there is no competition for supremacy. The given state therefore enhances international peace as long as it is able to retain its power differences and suppress any efforts by other states to close the gaps in power (Huntington, 1999).
Acharya, A., & Buzan, B. (eds). (2009). Non-Western International Relations Theory.London: Routledge.
Baldwin, D.A. (1993). Neorealism and neoliberalism: the contemporary debate. New York: Columbia Univ. Press.
Booth, K., and Smith, S. (eds). (1995). International Relations Theory Today, Oxford:Polity.
Brown, C., & Ainley,K. (eds). (2009). Understanding International Relations (4th, Ed.). Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan.
Edkins , J., & Vaughan-Williams, N. (eds). (2009). Critical Theorists in InternationalRelations. London: Routledge.
Huntington, S.P. (1999). “The Lonely Superpower,” Foreign Affairs, Vol. 78, No. 2, p. 36.
Krauthammer, C. (1991). “The Unipolar Moment,” Foreign Affairs, Vol. 70, No. 1 winter, pp. 23–33.
Kugler, J., & Lemke, D., eds., (1996). Parity and War: Evaluation and Extension of the War Ledger. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press.