Comparison of International Relations Theory

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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. 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...
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