International Relations Theories

Topic: International Relations
Words: 4991 Pages: 36


The world has seen numerous theories attempting to explain how the global political arena works. All these theories have advantages but are also flawed. Nonetheless, they are a set of lenses that when viewed separately, offers the world a fragment of the entire picture. To this end, people cannot limit ourselves to a single theory, neither can they assert that any one theory is the right one. Liberalism, realism, constructivism, feminism and Marxism are some of these international relations theories (Slaughter & Hale, 2011).

As the authors assert, realism believes that states are selfish and constantly pursuing self-serving interests while liberalism suggests that nations are not always on the brink of war and can peacefully co-exist. On the other hand, constructivism suggests that a country’s social, cultural and historical belief systems determine its foreign policy behavior and efforts while Marxism advocates for implementation of the socialist theory to put an end to capitalism and focus on collective good rather than private profit (Slaughter & Hale, 2011). Lastly, feminism as explained by Tickner et al. (2004) has gained ground in the recent decades as it seeks to raise the standards of women in the international realm by creating parity between men and women.

Explaining these theories practically using an example of the United States of America and Mexico which are two neighboring countries would show that Mexico fights drug lords in the country so much despite drug consumption being so much higher in the United States. From a realist point of view, Mexico cannot afford to lose the United States as a trading partner. The United States is Mexico’s biggest trading partner and Mexican laborers working in America send an enormous amount of money back home (Trade Summary for Mexico, 2020).

Also, working with the U.S. is a much more sensible alternative as Mexico does not have the capacity to go to war with the U.S. From a liberal perspective, Mexico helps the U.S. fight drug lords but puts pressure on the U.S. to fix its high consumption problem but from constructivism Mexico’s real issue is disparity of wealth and poverty that drive populaces to sell drugs. For feminists, Mexico overlooks more peaceful ways to solve the issue due to its patriarchal society while Marxists would say that Mexico suffers from unequal wealth distribution due to its economy’s capitalist nature, resulting in the underprivileged looking for other survival means. All these theories make sense of the world and how countries interact, creating a whole picture. They are discussed in detail below, highlighting how they came to be, their key concepts and ideas and their similarities and differences.


History and Background

Liberalism refers to an international theory that maintains that sovereign nations are not subject to any internal authorities like the military or other governments. As documented by Keohane (2012), liberalism owes its origin to both philosophical and scholarly awakenings. Thus, the theory’s principles were primarily anchored on peace and cooperation. Doyle and Recchia (2011) argue that the earliest adoption of liberalism could be seen in different spheres of human interactions like religion.

The first instance of political liberalism was witnessed in the late 17th and 18th centuries. According to Keohane (2012), liberalists waged a fierce campaign against inherited and noble inequality. The campaigns were immensely fueled by the works of renowned philosophers like Immanuel Kant, Smith, Voltaire, and Locke, who drew their inspiration from the long wars and the enlightenment era (Keohane, 2012). Basically, the dreadful effects of the long wars created a spontaneously shared contempt against warfare throughout continental Europe. As such, the writings of most thinkers like Immanuel Kant were greatly shaped by the occurrences around them. According to Doyle and Recchia (2011), nearly all the philosophers who promoted the idea of liberalism believed that war was rudimentarily unnecessary and that every human being is inherently born with specific rights.

A closer examination of Locke’s ideas published in 1689 gives a comprehensive meaning to the liberalism school of thought. In arguing on the essence of natural laws and rights, Locke dismisses the unnecessary restrictions in form of statutes imposed on humans (Doyle & Recchia. 2011). Locke believed that humans should be left in their natural state, which can only be altered by their experiences. Hence, governments should only exist to enforce the fundamental rights of humans, such as liberty and health.

Key Concepts and Main Ideas

It is widely accepted that liberalism advocates for the peaceful co-existence of nations. Consequently, the concepts and ideas of individualism, freedom, and rights are critical in comprehending the doctrine of liberalism. As insinuated by Keohane (2012), the concept of individualism is central to the theory of liberalism since it champions individual welfare before social welfare. It is the idea of individualism that people in society are diverse in their own unique way, and their characters, identity, and taste may not necessarily be identical. It is, therefore, important to consider the diverse nature of people within a society (Doyle & Recchia. 2011). For this reason, liberals aim to create a society that provides equal opportunity for growth to everyone regardless of their beliefs or identity. As such, liberals are cautious of a government that appears to overcontrol the lives of its citizens.

Also, freedom is a key concept and idea of liberalism. Keohane (2012) remarks that freedom emanates from the universal viewpoint that a society should be constructed in such a manner that people can be allowed to freely live their lives. However, liberals are weary of the dangers of granting absolute freedom to people as it is not practical. In most cases, absolute freedom results in the abuse of the very rights that liberalism advocates for. For instance, absolute freedom can make it relatively easy for people to harm one another in society (Keohane, 2012). Although the framers of the liberalism school of thought concur that freedom is central to the doctrine, they have failed to unanimously spell out the steps of guaranteeing practical freedom.

Presently, the concept and idea of rights are of great concern, especially in the political arena. In an article by Doyle and Recchia (2011), it is expressed that rights have become an integral component of a prosperous and peaceful society. A right is a provision that enables a person or a group of people to behave in a certain way while simultaneously bestowing authority upon others to oversee the provisions. Early developers of the liberalism theory, like Locke, argued that every individual is born with natural rights. Hence, rights such as the right to life and liberty are unalienable. However, politics and society have revolutionized drastically since the times of Locke (Keohane, 2012). For this reason, present-day liberals heavily criticize governments that appear to oppress human rights.


History and Background

Realism is considered one of the core doctrines in the international relation theory. It played a central role in validating the realpolitik of early Europe. Although the realism school of thought is considered an intensively diverse concept, unification is arrived at in the idea that world politics is prominently a conflict zone with nations competing for power and wealth (Wight & Joseph, 2010). The principles of realism are often contrasted with the existing ideals of liberalism.

As noted by Guzzini (2013), there are multiple versions of the realism school of thought, such as classical realism, which was first put forward during the 1940s. Classical realism was tailored to address the utopian motions that thrived during the interwar era and aimed at striking a balance between morality and the pursuit of power. Although a significant number of the realist concepts were drafted by the theologian Reinhold Niebuhr, and Carr introduced “realism” against “utopianism,” it was Morgenthau who introduced the concept of political realism and elaborately constituted an international relation theory (Guzzini, 2013).

Later on, Kenneth Waltz claimed that Morgenthau’s theory was not scientific enough in its approach and initiated the structural realism theory widely known as neorealism. Shortly after its publication, the theory of structural realism become synonymous with the doctrine of realism. As such, Wight and Joseph (2010) note that structural realism and classical realism are widely accepted as the realist views of society. Even though the two forms of realism school of thought have glaring differences, especially in their perspective on the triggers of war and the objective of nations’ foreign policy, they share common beliefs that allow them to be categorized as a realist (Wight & Joseph, 2010). For instance, the international system is perceived as anarchic. Moreover, nations are the main characters in the system.

Key Concepts and Main Ideas

The primary concepts and ideas of the realism school of thought revolve around the notion that states ought to carter first for their own interests. Ideally, nations are the in the world political arena solely for their own benefit. For this reason, realism constitutes a spectrum of concepts and ideas, which include state-centrism, survival, and self-help. The concept of state-centrism is the view of the realists that nations are the core actors in world politics (Wight & Joseph, 2010). Hence, it is a state-centric principle of international relations. The idea sharply contradicts the liberal theory, which takes into consideration the functions of international institutions and other non-state players in world politics.

Survival indicates a nation’s main objective of withstanding adversities in an international system. In most cases, the motive of survival is dramatically influenced by anarchy. With no central figure or body of authority, international politics is evidently a power contest among nations with personal ambitions and interests. According to Guzzini (2013), anarchy occasionally results in hostile situations that necessitate nations to forge alliances with one another in order to effectively balance power. The concept of balancing power is essential in the realism theory as the theory acknowledges the ability of the nations to apply force in the international system (Wight & Joseph, 2010).

Nevertheless, the principle of self-help points out that nations must pursue their interests on their own without necessarily relying on help from other states. Ideally, realists argues that states often seem reluctant to offer help to other states as it always results in the exhaustion of resources and critical security personnel and equipment, effectively leaving the state vulnerable (Guzzini, 2013). This creates a feeling of imbalance of power and vulnerability in the international political arena.


History and Background

The constructivism theory is a doctrine in international relations that outlines how important aspects of international relations are defined by ideational factors and not necessarily by essential material factors. However, the theory maintains that the interests of actors can only be shaped by common ideational factors (Hynek & Teti, 2010). Contrary to other main international relations theories like realism, constructivism perceives the interests of states as socially imposed. Thus, interests are not static.

The term constructivism was first used by Nicholas Onuf to express theories that emphasize the socially constructed basics of international relations. From the late 1980s and 1990s, constructivism has been extensively applied in international relations. According to Hoffmann (2010), the earliest form of constructivism aimed at fostering the idea that norms are central to international relations. In fact, early documentation by Peter Katzenstein on national security illustrated how insightful constructivists were in the sector of security studies.

After suggesting that norms were essential in managing international politics, successors of the constructivism theory concentrated on identifying situations where norms were necessary and where they were not. As Hynek and Teti (2010) document, most of the recent studies on constructivism have aimed at comprehending norm entrepreneurs: persuasion, argument, and speech. Alexander Wendt is easily the most iconic figure in the promotion of social constructivism. Hoffmann (2010) argues that Wendt’s article titled Anarchy is what states make of it: the social construction of power politics played a central role in the formulation of theoretical frameworks applied in challenging the flawed views of neoliberalists and neorealists.

There are various strains of constructivism. However, conventional constructivist scholars like Elizabeth Kier mainly used methodologies that are universally accepted in the international relation community (Hynek & Teti, 2010). In most instances, such scholars conducted studies on constitutive and causal explanations. In contrast, critical constructivists appeared to be more concerned with linguistics and discourse; thus, they utilized non-positivist epistemologies.

Key Concepts and Main Ideas

Constructivism observes the world and principally outlines what we can determine about it. Consequently, the key concepts and ideas of the constructivism theory are based on the fact that structure and agency occur mutually (Hynek & Teti, 2010). Agency is defined under constructivism as the ability to execute an action, while structure denotes the international system that comprises ideational factors.

Other central concepts and ideas in constructivism include interests and identities. According to constructivists, nations are allowed to bear several identities that are socially generated via interactions with other actors. Ideally, identities exist to represent how an actor comprehends their purpose, which ultimately gives rise to their interests in the process (Hoffmann, 2010). A significant number of constructivists deem the concepts of interest and identity as critical as they incorporate both actions and interest. For instance, the identity of a relatively small nation insinuates a collection of interests that are glaring distinct from those implied by the identity of a relatively large nation.

Nevertheless, social norms are key ideas and concepts in the theory of constructivism. An article by Hynek and Teti (2010) describes social norms as a measure of acceptable behaviors for actors within a specific identity. It is critical to comprehend that the idea of social norms is only applicable to nations with the same identity. As such, it is logical to postulate that certain behaviors are more welcomed than others. The ability of actors to adhere to a specific mode of behavior is heavily influenced by the logic of appropriateness which dictates that actors should behave in a manner that is appropriate and non-offensive (Hoffmann, 2010).


History and Background

Marxism theory is both a classical and critical approach that question the policies that govern international relations. Davenport (2013) argues that the theory mainly exploits the sociological and philosophical viewpoints of its creator, Karl Marx, to redefine and outline key elements of international relations. Formulated in the 19th century, Marx was keen to show how political relationships are dictated by methods of surplus extraction (Smith, 2022).

Although the international relation concept arose almost half a century later after the Marxism theory, there were clear indications of disparity between politics and economy, world order and world economy, foreign and domestic. One of the most definitive instances in the construction of the Marxism theory in international relations occurred just before and during the First World War. As documented by Davenport (2013), it was during the First World War that the idea of Marxism was first coined and embraced.

In the 1990s and 2000s, Marxism witnessed an unprecedented embracement by various governments around the world. Although the term Marxism competed for primacy with the term hegemony, which was highly preferred by a number of writers during the era, several features differentiated Marx’s theory from hegemony (Smith, 2022). For instance, while Marx’s theory heavily focused on the society’s production mode to elucidate its belief and power, hegemony mainly aimed at describing the common elements of international relations like anarchy and power balance.

Key Concepts and Main Ideas

The Marxism theory of international relations is pegged on vital concepts and ideas such as proletarian internationalism, anti-imperialism, self-determination, and peaceful co-existence. Davenport (2013) notes that the concept of proletarian internationalism is key to Marxism theory as it creates an understanding of the need for unity in society, especially among the working-class group at the international level. Based on Marx’s argument, the ultimate goal of being economically secure can only be pushed through an international socialist order. The international proletarian principle has certain constructs which comprise common interest and independence of all nationalities, unit action, and the notion that working-class individuals have no country (Smith, 2022).

The anti-imperialism concept considers the fact that it is impossible to completely eliminate the bourgeois world orders. As such, capitalism is expected to achieve its ultimate stage, which is imperialism. However, at the imperialism stage, certain predicaments cannot be overlooked. They include armed conflicts, wars and militarism. According to Davenport (2013), the present international era is heavily characterized by monopoly, unbalanced political and economic developments, and absolute capitalism.

Marxism equally argues the concept of self-determination. Karl Marx, in constructing his theories, accepts the existence of self-determination as the primary means of leading an organized and functional international community (Smith, 2022). The concept of self-determination acknowledges the need for every state in the world to be free, especially in deciding their political destiny. As such, every colonial set-up must not be tolerated, as strong international relations can only be fostered through self-determination.

Peaceful co-existence, as a primary idea of the Marxism theory, champions the need for every nation in the world to live in peace without overstepping or criticizing the political and social systems of other nations (Davenport, 2013). Hence, the concept of peaceful co-existence implies that the proletarian revolution can be achieved in numerous countries and that nation around the world can survive the adverse consequences of capitalism by invoking anti-imperialist contradictions. However, peaceful co-existence should not be the only basis for gauging the limits of socialism.


History and Background

The feminism theory in international relations utilizes the gender lens to examine themes such as trade, security, war, and peace. Historically, feminist theorists in international relations have failed to cling to a spot within the international relations schools of thought. In most cases, their works were either discredited or simply not given enough weight. True (2010) remarks that the feminism theory of international relations shares considerable methodologies with other theories like the constructivism theory.

Jean Bethke is central to the development of feminist theory. In her book titled Women and War, Jean focused on gender roles as viewed by most of the international relations theories. Specifically, Jean laments how armed civic cultures in international relations have been skewed to inherently exclude women (True, 2010). According to Jean, women should not only be assigned passive roles during international relations activities but also be given an equal chance to showcase their worth.

Other feminist international theorists include Ann Tickner. Through her many articles, You just do not understand: Troubled engagements between feminists and IR theorists, Tickner has been able to influence the feminist theory of international relations (Doyle, 2018) significantly. In most of her augments, Tickner maintained that feminist international relation theorists primarily failed to make it within the conventional frames of epistemology and ontology.

Key Concepts and Main Ideas

The key concepts and ideas in the feminist theory of international relations are sex, gender, choice, equality, and discrimination. Ideally, numerous constraints exist in society to prevent individuals, especially women, from realizing equity and equality (True, 2010). The constructs intersect different spheres of social life and social transformation. However, understanding the social constructs against women in society aids in the division of labor in international relations to ensure inclusivity regardless of gender. Basically, both men and women ought to be economically and politically equal. Also, the feminism theory acknowledges oppression and power ad key concepts and ideas (Doyle, 2018). It is only through fierce advocacy against oppression and abuse of power that actual change can be realized in society.

Comparative Assessment

To conduct a comparative assessment, the theories discussed above can be divided into categories that easily portray their similarities and differences. Using Ari’s (2018) groupings of international relations theories, the above theories can be classified into neo-marxist theories, global society theories and traditional theories, with each category bearing distinct features that set it apart from the others. Termed differently in Holsti’s (1985) Dividing Discipline, these groups can be called globalism, pluralism and realism. Viotti and Kauppi’s (1993) further development of Holsti’s work purports that pluralism mainly permits the peaceful coexistence of different lifestyles, convictions and interests through the acknowledgement and acceptance of diversity within a political body. On the other hand, realism does not subscribe to the notion of peaceful coexistence as it perceives world politics as a field of conflict with actors in constant pursue of power and wealth (Viotti & Kauppi, 1993). Globalism too presents its uniqueness by attempting to understand the world’s interconnections to highlight underlying patterns and explaining them (Viotti & Kauppi, 1993).

The theories of international relations (realism, feminism, Marxism, constructivism and liberalism) subscribe to either of the three categories mentioned above, easing the realization of similarities and differences. For instance, constructivism that uses a nation’s social, cultural and historical belief systems to dictate its foreign policy behavior and efforts as suggested by Adler (2013) falls under globalism as it seeks to use patterns to create meaning of a country’s political behavior within the international landscape. However, different authors present different groupings with Pouliot (2004) noting that constructivism could fall under a group of theories known as reflectivism because of its representation of a deviation from methods following a rationalist viewpoint. In light of this information, a comparative assessment would use dimensions of each theory such as main actors, primary goals of states (core beliefs), preferred international order, primary mode of interaction between units and main instruments as well as flaws to determine and break down similarities and differences. This can be summarized as follows:

Realism Liberalism Constructivism Feminism Marxism
Main actors States- exhibiting similar behavior despite difference in types of government. Commercial interests, international institutions, states States, international knowledge communities, moral entrepreneurs Feminist theorists. Multinational corporations, transnational elites, social classes.
Core beliefs/ primary goals of states Pursuit of survival and security, power maximization and national interest. World peace, coordination and cooperation to meet collective goals. Shared normative frameworks and interactions for community building. Regulation of power denied from or denied based on gender, especially on women. Implementing socialist theories could help societies kill capitalism and its self-destructive nature.
Main instruments State diplomacy, military power. Global commerce, nternational institutions. Belief systems (social, cultural and historical), international institutions. Power systems and social and political developments inhibiting women from progressing. Social classes.
Preferred international order A balance of power system underpinned by self-help and alliances to maintain international order. A collective security system underpinned by institutions, liberal democracy and free trade. Collective identity and shared norms forging global and regional security communities. Equality between men and women. Dismantling the capitalist structure of global systems.
Primary mode of interaction between units Strategic interaction backed by economic and military power and causal ideas. Two-level bargaining (international and domestic) backed by trade, causal ideas and other forms of functional institutionalism. Socialization through principled ideas and institutions Professions Relationships, conflicts
Theory’s intellectual blind spots Does not acknowledge that legitimacy can be a source of military power, does not account for change and progress in international relations Forgetting that some transitions to democracy are violent, failing to understand that democratic regimes survive only if they safeguard military power and security Makes narrow and unspecific predictions about international relations Does not strive for the equality or dignity of females. Economic issues such as reduced incentives and distortion of price signals, suppression of individual rights, a form of historical determinism, lack of internal consistency.

Figure 1: Dimensions of theories’ comparative assessment.

Other Differences

As noted above, the five theories differ in main actors, primary goals of states (core beliefs), preferred international order, and primary mode of interaction between units and main instruments as well as flaws. While realism believes in the pursuit of survival and security, power maximization and national interest as put forward by Naaz (2006), liberalism believes in world peace, coordination and cooperation to meet collective goals as Bell (2014) suggests.

According to Naaz (2006), realism uses the human nature viewpoint, suggesting that just states behave like humans, who are naturally power seeking, aggressive, interest oriented, egoist and sinful. Therefore, states have negative characters like being aggressive or overly power-seeking to the extent of controlling other nations, making conflict and war inevitable (Naaz, 2006). Contrastingly, liberalism believes that conflict and war do more harm than good (Bell, 2014). In this regard, states would avoid conflict at all costs and work together towards international cooperation. For instance, a nation would prefer asking a neighboring nation for an agreement to help secure a border.

The aforementioned core beliefs lead to different qualities for each theory, creating divisions in the theories. For instance, realism has qualities such as the security dilemma, the inevitability of war, the importance of international anarchy and balance of power while liberalism believes in the significance of growth of international institutions, global governance, complex interdependence, harmony and balance within the international system and the importance of optimism regarding human nature (Bloor, 2022).

According to the author, this difference in qualities creates disparity for the two theories through significance accorded to institutions and states, the likelihood of conflict, security, power and human nature. Beginning with human nature, liberalism draws from the thought that nation states are like individuals whose best interests shape behavior. Therefore, actions such as conformity with international relations conventions and norms, combining authority within a regional organization and cooperation with other states reveal would be ideal in bringing out shared benefit in activities such as mutual security and trade. On the other hand, realists are pessimistic about human nature. States or a group of them ignore international cooperation and diplomacy and view each other as contenders in the quest for power politics. For instance, the League of Nations did not stop Nazi Germany from military expansion during the 1930s (Bloor, 2022).

Moreover, power, order and security and the likelihood of conflict are other difference avenues for the theories. While realism is cynical about power and uses it to gain self-help, liberalism is normative in this subject and believes in conflict resolution by international institutions (Bloor, 2022). In contrast, constructivism sees power as the ability to constitute and structure social relations’ nature between actors (), with feminism suggesting that power is currently unevenly distributed (Tickner et al., 2004). In Marxism, class domination in capitalist societies create inequality (Bloor, 2022).


Despite how different theories offer audiences different ways with which to view the world as explained above, they have some similarities. First, realism and liberalism believe that no government in the world can stop countries from going to war. From the theories, military power is essential in acquiring a nation’s significant needs (Naaz, 2006). In liberalism, military power can be used to protect the state during invasion. Equally, realists believe that military power is an avenue for states to exhibit their power and protect themselves.

Additionally, liberalism, realism, feminism and Marxism believe that states consider their best interests. As earlier noted, liberalism considers citizens’ and the entire nation’s needs and ideas though actions such as conformity with international relations conventions and norms, combining authority within a regional organization and cooperation with other states for mutual benefits in areas like security and trade. Similarly, realists would use militaristic expansions, aggression and conflicts to maintain power and keep the country stable. By ignoring international cooperation and diplomacy and viewing each other as contenders in the quest for power politics, countries only try to do what is best for them. This is the case with feminism and Marxism as the former tries to create better policies for women and the latter is always in the quest for economic equality through the elimination of capitalism.


In conclusion, the world has seen numerous theories attempting to explain how the global political arena works, with all these theories having advantages and flaws. Nonetheless, they are a set of lenses that when viewed separately, offers the world a fragment of the entire picture. To this end, we cannot limit ourselves to a single theory, neither can we assert that any one theory is the right one.

The five theories discussed above (realism, liberalism, constructivism, feminism and Marxism) provide a clear picture of how nations interact with each other. In realism, states are in constant pursuit of survival and security, power maximization and national interest while liberalism believes in world peace, coordination and cooperation to meet collective goals. Realism uses the human nature viewpoint, suggesting that just states behave like humans, who are naturally power seeking, aggressive, interest oriented, egoist and sinful. Therefore, states have negative characters like being aggressive or overly power-seeking to the extent of controlling other nations, making conflict and war inevitable.

Contrastingly, liberalism believes that conflict and war do more harm than good. Constructivism believes in shared normative frameworks and interactions for community building, feminism in regulation of power denied from or denied based on gender, especially on women and Marxism on implementing socialist theories to help societies eliminate capitalism and its self-destructive effects. With differences exhibited in main actors, primary goals of states (core beliefs), preferred international order, and primary mode of interaction between units and main instruments as well as flaws, these theories reveal distinctions in the following aspects: significance accorded to institutions and states, the likelihood of conflict, security, power and human nature. Despite these differences, these theories have some similarities.

For instance, liberalism, realism, feminism and Marxism believe that states consider their best interests. Liberalism considers citizens’ and the entire nation’s needs and ideas. Similarly, realists would use militaristic expansions, aggression and conflicts to maintain power and keep the country stable. This is the case with feminism and Marxism as the former tries to create better policies for women and the latter is always in the quest for economic equality through the elimination of capitalism.

Studying these theories in detail can help professionals in the international relations realms in the United States to better understand how to view the world from how different countries engage with each other and the functioning of international systems. These international relations theories that vary from straightforward realist concepts, equality-centric strategies and liberal ideas can aid international relations experts and diplomats in designing a government’s direction regarding international concerns such as political issues.


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