Comparison of International Relations Theory

12 December 2016

Contemporary international relations is a complex field. Understanding events and attempting to make sense of them can be a daunting task. There are, however, tools available, which can assist in providing clarity to these complex issues. The first of these tools is historic knowledge. Without historic background of an issue, it is nearly impossible to understand the events driving that issue in modern times. A second tool, the one which will be the focus of this paper, is international relations theory.

Theory can be defined as “a belief, policy, or procedure proposed or followed as the basis of action,” (Merriam-Webster) and can be used “in many cases as a basis of prediction. ” (Mingst 56) There are three major theories which we can use to analyze events: liberalism, realism, and constructivism. These theories provide us with different points of view from which to analyze issues in today’s world. By looking at events, both past and present, in the context of a given theory, we can begin to understand those events and the driving forces behind them, as well as to make predictions about future events.

Comparison of International Relations Theory Essay Example

The first of these theories, liberalism, is based upon the belief that man is innately good and that social conditions can be improved, paving the way for progress. Liberalism has its roots in “Enlightenment optimism, nineteenth-century political and economic liberalism, and twentieth-century Wilsonian idealism. ” (Mingst 60) Liberalism sees man as rational, and through rationalism, society flourishes. Liberalism views the state not as an individual on the international stage, but as a member of a larger international community.

Liberalism argues that war is not a part of human nature, and that it is brought on by the corruption of institutions. As such, liberalism posits that war can be avoided through reformation of the corrupt institutions, and through mutual cooperation among nations, which is in the self-interest of each nation. “According to liberal thinking, the expansion of human freedom is best achieved in democracies and through market capitalism. ” (Mingst 60) By way of free market and free trade, nations form dependencies upon one another, contributing to the deterrence of war.

Liberals believe in international institutions as a means to mediate differences and ensure the avoidance of war. This is achieved through international laws, courts and treaties among nations. In keeping with the theme of multinational cooperation, liberalism does not allow for the use of force in the self-interest of the nation, but through “fights for right and good, devoid of raw national interest. ” (Krauthammer) This, of course, does not rule out the use of force in self-defense, but in the self-interest of the nation “shaping the international environment by projecting power abroad to secure economic, political, and strategic goods. (Krauthammer) Such use of force would contradict the tenets of inherently good human nature and multinational cooperation. The second of these theories is realism. Realism looks at the world stage, not as a cooperative international community, but as a series of individual states acting on their own behalf, in the interest of self-preservation. Realism views the international system as a system of anarchy, leading states to depend only upon themselves. In this anarchic system, states have the right to self-preservation, and the system’s stability rests upon a balance of power.

While recognizing the participation of international institutions, realism views them as unimportant since the state is the primary agent in the political arena. While individuals may participate in the decision making process of the state, decisions are carried out in a unified manner. Realism believes in the rationalism of man, and argues that “rational decision-making leads to the pursuit of the national interest. ” (Mingst, 64) For realists, state security is a primary concern.

The state must protect itself from foreign and domestic enemies, and this is achieved through “increasing its domestic capacities, building up its economic prowess, and forming alliances with other states based on similar interests. ” (Mingst, 64) Realism blames war not on the corruption of social institutions, but the notion that “humans are basically power seeking and self-absorbed. ” (Mingst, 65) Constructivism, the third theory, is a fairly new theory, which has “returned scholars to the foundational questions, including the nature of the state and the concepts of sovereignty and citizenship. (Mingst, 72) The principles of the theory are not clearly defined, and its qualification as a theory is questioned by some. However, constructivists do agree that the world is too complicated to be summed by one central theory. Constructivists believe that the actions of the state are driven by “elite beliefs, identities, and social norms”. (Mingst, 72) These factors determine the interests of the state, and these factors are, in turn, subject to change as a result of various influences. In essence, the state is a product of its environment.

Constructivists agree with the notion that power is important to the state. However, constructivists have different ideas as to what power is, and strive to find different sources of power. The differences between liberalism and realism are easily defined. Where liberalism views the individual as inherently good, realism views the individual as greedy and egoistic. To liberalism, the state is a functioning member of an international community, in much the same way that an individual is a functioning member of his respective community.

Realism on the other hand, sees the state as a power hungry individual in an unstructured international system. While liberalism believes war to be avoidable through education, reformation of social institutions, and shared interests with other nations, realism finds war to be an unavoidable consequence of the self-preservation of the state. Liberalism sees the potential for and desires change, while realism finds change unlikely. Both theories agree on the principle that the international system is anarchic in nature.

However, whereas realism relies on a balance of power to keep the system in check, liberalism does so through cooperation of international institutions and mutual interest of various states. In understanding international relations and world events, understanding the theories and principles through which to view these events is a good start. However, it is also important to ask yourself how you intend to use the theory. These theories can be applied to contemporary situations in order to understand the actions and reactions of various parties relevant to a specific issue.

The theories can also be used to look at current events and attempt to predict future events. Another use for the theories is to apply them to past events, in an attempt to explain and understand why the events happened, and why various parties, or states, executed certain decisions. For an example of applying theory to a past event, we can look to the Gulf War of 1991. From the historic record, we know that Saddam Hussein ordered Iraqi forces into Kuwait in 1990, and essentially annexed the country.

The United Nations responded with various diplomatic options, including trade embargos and economic sanctions, in an attempt to oust the Iraqi military from Kuwait without the use of force. In the end, however, the diplomatic options were exhausted, and in January of 1991, a US-led coalition entered Kuwait and drove the Iraqi military out of the tiny country. With regard to the United States, we can apply the principles of the theory of liberalism to understand the decisions that were made.

The US acted in concert with the United Nations, and allowed for the diplomatic options to be exhausted before resorting to military force. This is in keeping with the liberalism principle of avoiding war through the cooperation of international institutions. In the end, when the option of military force was put into play, it was done so with the cooperation and support of a myriad of nations around the world. Additionally, the ultimate use of force can be explained not as an act of aggression on the part of the United States, but as retaliation against the aggressive act of another nation.

Therefore, from the standpoint of liberalism, the US can be seen as having used military force not to protect its own interests, but in the interest of the liberty of another nation, with full support and cooperation from the international community. Conversely, while realism does not rely on international institutions, it does recognize the role played by these institutions. Additionally, we know that the US had an interest in the stability of the Middle East due to its reliance on Middle Eastern oil.

Therefore, from a realist standpoint, it can be said that the cooperation and support of the international community was simply a favorable outcome for the US, but that the motivation for US military action was actually the defense of its interests in the region. In this case, the US would have been acting purely out of its own interests. In addition, in conjunction with the oil interest, it was in the interest of the US to maintain the balance of power and stability in the Middle East, as well as to protect its strategic allies in the region.

Therefore, with Iraq already having invaded one oil producing country, and the threat of an invasion of Saudi Arabia, a major oil producer and regional ally, it was in US national interest to intervene. This is in keeping with the realist line of thinking that man is greedy, and that the state should act in the interest of self-preservation. As we can see, in this application, the liberalist and realist points of view have some common goals–namely, the liberation of Kuwait. However, the motivations for those goals and the desired end states range from slightly different to completely different.

The constructivist standpoint, however, is a little more ambiguous. Constructivists don’t view the international system, anarchic or otherwise, as the driving force behind foreign policy. Rather, policy is driven by the beliefs of the elite and social identity. Our way of life is our social identity. In other words, our social identity, simply put, is oil. Therefore, from the constructivist point of view, intervention on the behalf of Kuwait was a necessary means to protecting our way of life. The constructivist interest, like that of the realist, was oil.

However, the reasons for the oil interest are quite different. In conclusion, there are several different ways to interpret various events. One of the methods by which we can attempt to make sense of these events is the use of international relations theory. The three major theories used in this process are liberalism, realism and constructivism. The application of these theories allows us to understand the actions and motivations of various players involved in these events, whether past or present, as well as to predict future events.

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