International Relations Theories and Their Variety

Subject: Politics & Government
Pages: 11
Words: 2776
Reading time:
10 min
Study level: College


When World War I ended, the primary focus of nations that engaged in the war was to enhance international peace through the establishment of the League of Nations. The principal goal of the organizations was to prevent the emergence of war by enhancing collective security through disarmament and/or settling of probable international discrepancies via intercession and conferences (Walter & Sen 2010).

The organizations were also charged with other tasks such as checking labor conditions, addressing issues of human trafficking, trafficking of arms, enhancing global health, and protecting the rights of the minorities. In this regard, the concern of any international organization, and hence the goal of international relations, encompasses creating an international order that fosters peaceful coexistence of state communities.

The field of international relations is advanced by organizations that fall into the realm of the United Nations’ system. This system constitutes a collection of bureaus, courses, round-tables, and legal frameworks in which states interact and work together.

For instance, the World Bank and the IMF form the apex of the world system of economic and financial politics and governance. The term international relations means the collective interactions that exist between intercontinental communities. These societies include countries, individuals, and even states (Nau 2008). As such, international relations discourses can be approached from a wide range of systems or society-linked theoretical perspectives. Hence, understanding the concept of international relations requires many theories. This paper discusses why many theories must be applied to international relations.

The Discipline of International Relations

The discourse of international relations is developed through a range of theories. The field of international relations is marked by collective dealings between global societies (Nau 2008). International organizations push the development agenda in different nations. The discipline of international relations encompasses an arm of political science that entails studies on global affairs for states or parties that operate in the intercontinental system. Parties to a global system include nongovernmental organizations, multi-agency, and cosmopolitan institutions, and inter-governmental bodies among others (Walter & Sen 2010). These global organizations steer the development plan, endorse, and execute policies that ensure international understanding in different states.

In addition to political science, the discourses of international relations borrow from a myriad of other disciplines such as anthropology, geography, economics, cultural studies, and sociology among others. The knowledge that is developed in these fields of study is deployed to address various issues concerning international relations, including globalization and its implications, ecological sustainability, human rights, the proliferation of nuclear weapons, and nationalism among other subjects. In this sense, the goal of international relations is to ensure the collective development of societies across the globe.

This situation reveals why international organizations control the discourses of international relations to ensure and avail aid to developing nations, which are unable to meet key development agenda because of their low living standards and poverty.

Various theories guide different disciplines, which control the conduct of a particular discourse. This claim suggests that a distinct discipline of study only emerges when theories that describe its existence and applications are developed. Although the subject of international relations has been an issue of concern since the times of Thucydides, a Greek historian (460-395 BC), its theories were developed after the First World War.

Two main hypothetical paradigms, namely post-positivist and positivist conjectures, help in advancing the discourses of international relations. The positivist theories attempt to look into how the relations between nations are shaped (Roskin & Nicholas 2009). They analyze the effects of material forces in shaping the animosity between nations. Natural scientific methodologies are used to realize the endeavor. The main features of the positivist presumption include the evaluation of mechanisms of state interactions, power balance, and even how military bodies of different nations help some nations to exercise supremacy over other nations.

The post-positivist paradigm holds that the social science world is impossible to study from a value-free and objective approach. To this extent, post-positivists nullify the perception and ideas that liberalist ideologies such as coherent choice speculations can explain international relations exhaustively (Mingst & Arreguín 2010). This position implies that scientific methodologies are inadequate and that they cannot be used altogether to explain the social world. Therefore, the subject of international relations is impossible to handle using one theory. In other words, various theoretical paradigms are required to explain it.

Despite the opposing views of the two approaches to the study of international relations, the two theoretical paradigms are instrumental in the discussion of the affiliation between nations and the manner of shaping international relationships. From the positivist approach, while attempting to analyze international relations discourses, the underlying explanation of how, why, and who exercises power in a nation is crucial.

This information is offered by the positivist paradigm through its sub–theoretical facets such as neo-realism. To accomplish this end, it is imperative to develop a clear understanding of constitutive interrogatives such as the components of authority, its connotation, methods of its production, and even how it is practiced (Nau 2008). These aspects form the main subjects of the post-positivist theoretical paradigm approach to international relations. Besides the two broad categories of international relations theories, several hypotheses have been established to explain the processes of establishing the discipline, its operations, and even the regulations that bind members who subscribe to the international relations umbrella. Hence, it becomes vital to discuss the reason for the many theoretical explanations of the discourse of international relations.

Reasons for having Many International Relations Theories

For one to discuss the need for having a range of theories in international relations, it is necessary to pose the question,’ what is the importance of international relations theories?’ ‘Why should the discourse not be explained using one theoretical paradigm that has unified facets and/or rich in epistemology?’ Such a theory can be central since it can offer limited boundaries for predicting future outcomes to some degree of limited doubt to help in choosing the appropriate actions, which can justify choices in the field of international relations. However, the predicted outcomes may fail to be realized.

No counter strategy has been developed to address this outcome. Hence, the international system will not have evidence-based mechanisms for developing an alternative policy to create or restore the world order. Perhaps a good explanation for having many theories for international relations can be developed through the consideration of a theory as a tool that is deployed to capture the universe’s realities.

If a theory can be considered as a net, the implication is that such a net needs to come in different sizes if it must catch different economic, political, and social realities of the world. Since one net cannot have a mixture of meshes, capturing each actuality of the world calls for several nets that have diverse meshes to help in reaching the different facets of the world. In this context, Walter and Sen (2010) confirm the need for various theories that address different social universes that co-exist alongside each other.

One phenomenon may not be fully understood by its causation. For example, social or economic conceptions may not be formed or even caused by the information or experience from a situation that involves political or social crises and conflicts. The actors can be analyzed from different entities that are linguistically constituted through a process of production, filtration, and shipment via cultural, opinionated, and collective experiences. These aspects can only be captured using different ‘nets’ of different ‘meshes’ based on their sensitivity variations.

The concerns of international relations involve a myriad of different knowledge areas, including political knowledge, anthropology, and natural features. Each of these areas is governed by different hypothetical frameworks. For example, in the process of developing intercontinental organizations, globalization has been the key mechanism for enhancing international relations. Therefore, understanding the concept of international relations requires the availability of theories of globalization and its role in helping to create a homogenous world.

The discourses of international relations involve studies on global appreciation among people of different cultures. The international community subscribes to diverse cultures and other ideological differences.

The field of international relations entails harnessing the differences of the international community to reduce the likelihood of occurrence of conflicts. This goal is accomplished through political and diplomatic missions to discuss the needs of different nations in the changing international interaction environments. International organizations develop and address these concerns by deploying a variety of theories that explain the origin and processes of the development of global populations. For instance, the UN conventions are held to address the demands of different nations together with issues of global concern in matters of international relations (Blake 2006).

One of the diplomatic efforts of the UN is to assemble peace talks and treaties in the event of the occurrence of differences in one or more nations. The body engages in settling opinion differences, which lead to war. Differences cannot be settled without understanding people’s historical, political, economic, and social processes. The respective parties have to consult different theories.

The body of international relations deals with bringing unity to global populations. Due to differences among people of diverse backgrounds, a wide range of approaches to theorizing ways in which global populations can be unified is important. Such approaches help in the establishment of the most appropriate theory for bringing together people of different diversities to a common understanding with minimal conflicts of interest that may give translate to global wars. For example, such concerns underline the need for considering the discourses of international relations from the perspective of international society.

The notion of international society has its roots anchored in the perspectives of international law and the classical legal foundation. From this contextual foundation, international society involves communities that engage in the practice of international law (Brown 2009). Within the international relations theories, various writers of the English School Theory such as Martin Wright and Adam Watson have developed the international society concept (MacMillan & Hidemi 2006).

Buzan (2007) describes the international society as an anthology of states and autonomous communities that have a political inspiration that does not necessarily constitute a system since the conduct of one state amounts to an aspect that has to be considered in the computation of the behavior of other political bodies. States that form the international society also need to ‘be established via dialogue and agree on common rules and institutions that can assess the conduct of their relations, and recognize their common interest in maintaining these arrangements’ (Brown 2009, p.49). This definition implies that systems and societies have distinct characteristics.

It suggests the existence of demarcation between them, although it largely fails to establish the location of the demarcation. The above plan provides an ample opportunity to theorize international relations from different speculative perspectives such as classical realism and the English School of thought. In this context, different theories of international relations support or help to develop one another to create a coherent understanding of the contribution of international actors and players in influencing global economic, social, and political agenda.

From the analogy of the net that has been discussed before, different theories are necessary to develop an understanding of the world for which the body of the international relation seeks to enhance the interrelationships between different players and actors in it. One such approach involves studying the world as a system. A system constitutes several parts, which interact harmoniously. Harmonious interaction implies that different components of the system depend on each other so that without strong covalent ties, the different entities stand as an isolated element (MacMillan & Hidemi 2006). A system encompasses the fundamental idea of international relations.

The international system was born after bringing together various isolated political communities and players (people) to foster their regular interactions through the European power projections. In this sense, power is an essential factor for binding isolated components that constitute a system. To this extent, different theories are necessary in explaining diverse systems of world power and the relationship between power holders and civil societies. Since each system of power has its unique characteristics, every structure can only be explained using an exceptional premise.

A system cannot exist without units. From international relations discourses, these units are the states. They provide opportunities for significant interactions to occur (Dunne, Kukri, & Smith 2010). They are arranged and structured according to some common principles, which determine the order that prevails within the units (independent political states or communities). The integration between political communities, which operate autonomously, includes battle, relocation, the state of peacekeeping, trade, and even movement of beliefs. These aspects are explained via different theories.

The global society relates to international order perceptions. Order implies social life measures that are aimed at establishing and enhancing specific morals and goals. The synonymy of international society and order introduces a vast number of possibilities for different stages of social development. In the higher end, society may constitute a collection of states within networks of institutions and regimes that define their conduct. In the lower end, societies may potentially comprise groups of people or political communities that are guided by common norms against key issues such as abduction or assassination envoys.

The possibilities of the different stages of societal development are explained via many theories. Since the body of international relations has a major concern on social developments, ultimately one homogenous theory cannot be deployed to study it.

Classical realism, the conventional theory, and the English school theory offer a good example of how different theories can be deployed to offer opposing or supporting arguments in the discourse of international relations. Classical realism holds that all nations are in a constant struggle to gain power. It suggests that the nature of international systems, rather than political communities, determines power rivalries and struggles (Dunne, Kukri, & Smith 2010). This claim means that various nations behave in the manner they do in an international system to ensure that their power is protected to enhance peace within their borders. Wars and the pursuit of self-interest among nations constitute an attempt to enhance the dominance of one state against another to gain the power of control.

The classical theory supports the above assertions by holding that one of the elementary characteristics of people entails a well-built will for governing through power (Morgenthau 2011). Thus, states are compassionate, bloodthirsty, and distinctive. During their interaction with other countries, a state pursues goals that benefit it individually so that it can out power others to acquire the supremacy to control them. The classical theory maintains that political communities in the international system focus on power accumulation to guarantee their security within the current lawless world. In this sense, power constitutes a vital resource that enables states to harm others (by fighting) in the effort to coerce them.

Power permits the state to acquire something of national interest or prevent other states from taking any resource of national interest from a given nation (Booth 2010). From this theoretical perspective, a state is unitary and autonomous since it acts and talks with a unified voice. It comprises an independent political community. Under the classical theory, the power of states is vested in their military capabilities. The possession of a higher military capability and other coercive means of ensuring that other nations behave in a particular way in the international system is the only way a nation can guarantee hegemony, which is the surest mechanism for enhancing national-territorial security. However, some nations also believe in the homogenous distribution of power and influence in the policymaking process.

The international society school, liberal realism, or the English school theory for international relations confirms the existence of a ‘society of states’ at the international level, despite the presence of anarchy. As opposed to systems, ideas shape, and unite societies. Therefore, these ideas shape the conduct of various players in international politics. They make the theory share commonalities with the constructionist hypothesis, although MacMillan and Hidemi (2006) reckon that it has its roots anchored in political suppositions and the intercontinental law.


States interact at an international level to shape the current world order. Global organizations such as the UN and its affiliated organizations establish rules and regulations that ensure equality, international peace, and free and fair interaction in trade among other concerns. These concerns require different theories to develop them. Consideration of different theories in the discourse of international relations can help in analyzing power systems to develop channels for creating international understanding and long-lasting positive relations between parties in the international system. One category of uniform theories cannot be used to capture the world of various realities. At least several theories have to be deployed to enhance the field of international relations.


Blake, M 2006, ‘Distributive Justice, State Coercion and Autonomy’, Philosophy and Public Affairs, vol. 30, no. 3, pp. 257–295.

Booth, K 2010, Realism and World Politics, Routledge, London.

Brown, C 2009, Understanding International Relations, Basingstoke, Palgrave.

Buzan, B 2007, From international to world society: English School theory and the social structure of globalization, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge.

Dunne, T, Kukri, M & Smith, S 2010, International Relations Theories: Discipline and Diversity, Oxford University Press, Oxford.

MacMillan, A & Hidemi S 2006, The English School of International Relations: A Contemporary Re-assessment, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge.

Mingst, K, Ivan, M & Arreguín, T 2010, Essentials of International Relations, Macmillan Press, London.

Morgenthau, H 2011, A Realist Theory of International Politics and Political Power, Norton, London.

Nau, H 2008, Perspectives on International Relations: Power, Institutions, Ideas, Palgrave, New York, NY.

Roskin, M & Nicholas, B 2009, IR: The New World of International Relations, New York, Palgrave.

Walter, A & Sen, G 2010, Analyzing the Global Political Economy, Princeton University Press, Princeton, NJ.