International Relations: Definition, History and Scope

Shahid H. Raja
14 min readAug 13, 2023

Abstract

While international relations (interaction among states, and state and non-state actors) are as old as humans starting to live together under a government, IR (the study of these relations) is a new phenomenon. Like every other academic discipline, the study of international relations (IR) has developed its distinctive subject matter since it emerged as a specialized field soon after WWI.

This article explains the scope and subject matter of IR with the help of five pillars (remember the 5As): Aim, Actors, Agenda, Arena, and Actions

Introduction

International relations are a very broad concept and refer to the collective interactions of the international community. This international community includes not only individual nations and states but also non-state entities such as intergovernmental organizations (United Nations, UNICEF, IMF, World Bank, etc.), non-governmental organizations (Oxfam, Doctors Without Borders, Red Cross, etc.), multinational corporations (Microsoft, Google, etc.), and so forth.

What is International Relations (IR)?

International Relations (IR) is the study of relations among the states (countries) and non-state actors (violent like ISIS and non-violent as IMF/World Bank, UNO, etc.) to achieve their objectives. While international relations are as old as humans starting to live together under a government, IR (the study of these relations) is a new phenomenon. The Scholars study these relations from different perspectives known as theories-Realism, Structuralism, etc.). All your analysis and remedies will flow from the perspective you choose.

History of international relations

Although the history of international relations can be traced back to the rise of city-states thousands of years ago, the origins of what we call international relations lie between the centuries of roughly 1500 and 1789. During this period, there was the rise of independent, sovereign states, and the institutionalization of diplomacy and armies. People started exploring the world and interacting with other governments and cultures. Organizations like the Dutch East India Company were among the first multinational corporations, for example, while representatives of various European governments met with foreign governments to establish trade agreements and discuss issues of mutual concern.

The Peace of Westphalia of 1648 was a stepping stone in the development of the modern state system, which was further cemented through the Treaty of Utrecht of 1713. It laid down the basis of the norm that sovereigns had no internal equals within a defined territory and no external superiors as the ultimate authority within the territory’s sovereign borders. The French Revolution of 1789 added to this the new idea that not princes or an oligarchy, but the citizenry of a state, defined as the nation, should be defined as sovereign. Such a state in which the nation is sovereign would thus be termed a nation-state.

Scope of IR Studies

Every branch of academic discipline tries to explain some aspect of the world from different perspectives based on its respective body of literature. This body of literature has been built over a period of time in response to particular problems or questions emerging relating to its subject matter. Similarly, the study of international relations (IR) has developed its distinctive subject matter since it emerged as a specialized field soon after WWI. And, like all other subjects, it has also gradually become multi-disciplinary, drawing on other disciplines, especially history, economics, sociology, geography, philosophy, and law.

There are five pillars of international relations (remember the Aim, Actors, Agenda, Arena, and Actions.

1. Aim

Each branch of knowledge has the aim of studying its respective core elements. For example, economists try to find out the workings of an economic system by asking three questions: what is being produced, how it is being produced, and for whom it is being produced. In political science, they ask an almost similar question to know the dynamics of the political system of a country, namely, who wields the authority to allocate resources to whom and how. Similarly, in international relations, academics try to find out the workings of the global political system by asking three questions: who gets what and how in terms of power, prestige, and resources.

2. Actors

International relations are a very broad concept and refer to the collective interactions of the international community. This international community includes not only individual nations and states but also non-state entities such as intergovernmental organizations (United Nations/UNICEF, IMF, World Bank, etc.), non-governmental organizations (Oxfam, Doctors Without Borders, Red Cross, etc.), multinational corporations (Microsoft, Google, etc.), and so forth.

3. Agenda

The agenda is what they want to achieve. Throughout history, states have had three objectives under their Agenda (Remember the 3Gs): Gold, God, and Glory.

a. Gold refers to the pursuit of economic interests by a nation-state. It could be a pursuit for a physical asset like hydrocarbon resources or water, access to the market for selling your goods and services or an intangible asset like gaining a foothold of a geostrategic location/denying it to your opponents, etc.

b. God: God refers to all those religious/cultural norms and values you consider superior to others and are desirous of spreading, i.e., Islam, Christianity/communism, liberal democracy, etc

c. Glory: Glory stands for considering yourself superior to others either personal aggrandizements like Alexander’s or hegemonic designs of the ruling elite of a country like the USA

However, in the modern era, common threats like global warming, nuclear proliferation, terrorism, etc. have forced these actors to have a common agenda to counter these threats.

4. Arena

Arena refers to the place of action where the actors are pursuing their respective agendas described above. It could be a physical location like the Middle East, space, or even cyberspace.

5. Actions

Actions are the strategies these actors employ to achieve their objectives. These could range from diplomatic means and trade relations on the one hand to economic sanctions and the use of force on the other.

Areas of Study

Some of the major areas studied under IR are as follows:

1. Nation-states

Since their inception after the Peace of Westphalia and their proliferation since WW1, nation-states have been the primary actors in international relations. Each state is conditioned by its geography, resources, population, level of industrial and technological development, ideology, diplomacy, national interest, etc. As such, the study of nation-states, their respective objectives, their weaknesses or strengths, etc., is the starting point of the scope of IR.

2. National Interest

National Interest is an ambiguous concept that carries a meaning according to the context in which it is used. Statesmen and policymakers have always used it in ways suitable to them and to their objective of justifying the actions of their states.

While Morgenthau equated it with “survival — the protection of physical, political and cultural identity against encroachments by other nation-states”, Brookings Institute defines it in the following way: “What a nation feels to be necessary to its security and wellbeing... National interest reflects the general and continuing ends for which a nation acts.”

Irrespective of the precise definition one has in mind, it is the national interest that determines the shape and scope of external relations of a country; this, inter alia, affects the direction of global relations. Accordingly, the scope of IR includes the study of the objectives various countries try to achieve under their national interests.

3. National Power

Other things remaining the same, it is ultimately the power that determines the inter-state relations. The success or failure of a country to achieve the objectives it has set under its national interest is dependent upon the extent of the national power of a country. Thus, a superpower will be in a better position to pursue its national interests than a regional power, and so on. As such, the study of the national power of a country forms an important part of the subject matter of International Politics.

4. Foreign Policies

Strategies chosen by a nation-state to safeguard its national interests by interacting with other state/non-state actors are reflected in its foreign policy. By studying the foreign policies of various nations, one can hope to understand the nature of present-day international relations.

5. International Economic Relations

The increased importance and role of economic and trade relations in global affairs cannot be over-emphasized. can be hardly overestimated. Bilateral or multilateral economic relations in the form of trade, investment, aid, etc., form a very important part of international relations. They are the most important means of influencing the course, content, and direction of relations among nation-states; hence, the study of economic relations forms an integral part of the scope of International Politics.

6. Supra-state Actors

The rapid growth of supra-state actors in the form of international institutions and organizations such as the UNO, WTO, FAO, World Bank, IMF, etc., is one of the most prominent features of post-WW2 international relations. They are acting as the institutionalized means for the conduct of relations among nations. They are increasingly penetrating those domains, which were henceforth exclusively reserved for the domestic state machinery. Thus, the study of these international institutions is an important subject in international relations.

7. Non-state Actors

Along with the rise of the above-mentioned supra-state institutions, there has been a mushrooming growth of non-state actors-violent as well as non-violent. Violent non-state actors, whether they are genuine liberation movements or pure terrorist organizations, have been playing a larger-than-life role in international relations. Similarly, non-violent non-state actors such as multinational corporations, NGOs, and other such actors in the international environment have necessitated the inclusion of a study of the role of these actors in the international system.

8. Concepts and Ideas

International relations can be studied from another perspective, namely hardware and software. While nation-states, non-state actors, supra-state organizations, etc. constitute the hardware of the study of international relations, there are certain concepts and ideas that have been dominating the study of international relations since its inception.

For example, concepts like international law, the balance of power, dictatorship, fascism, capitalism, the end of history, public opinion, etc., have guided and are still guiding and controlling the behaviour of nations in their global dealings. A student of international politics has to study all such concepts and ideas to have a thorough knowledge of the subject matter of international relations.

9. Study of Current Issues & Events

Last, but not least, it is the study of major contemporary issues and events, which are the immediate drivers of inter-state relations at any time. The scope of International Politics includes the study of these issues, like global warming, terrorism, etc., and events like wars and conflicts that shape and condition the behaviour of nations in international relations.

Main theories of IR

To understand the complexities of the subject matter and remain focussed, every branch of knowledge relies on certain theories. The same is true with IR. The world of international relations is vast and complicated, involving numerous actors with different interests, cultures, and ideologies. Theories provide a lens through which we can analyse and interpret these dynamics, helping us to make sense of the world and its various complexities.

The theory of international relations refers to a set of analytical frameworks and concepts that are used to explain and understand the behaviour of states, international organizations, and other actors in the international system. These theoretical frameworks seek to provide a systematic understanding of the complex dynamics of international politics, including issues such as conflict, cooperation, globalization, and the distribution of power among states.

Theories of international relations are diverse and can vary in terms of their assumptions, methodology, and scope. Each theory provides a unique perspective on the international system and offers different explanations for the behaviour of states and other actors. Some of the ways in which theory can help us understand international relations include:

· Explanation: Theories provide us with a framework for explaining why certain events occur in international relations. They help us understand the motivations behind state actions and the dynamics of interactions between different actors.

· Prediction: By using theoretical frameworks, we can make predictions about future events in international relations. This is important for policymakers and analysts who need to make decisions based on the most likely outcomes.

· Understanding Power: Power is a crucial concept in international relations, and theoretical frameworks help us to understand how power is distributed among different actors. They help us to identify who holds the most power, how they use it, and how it affects other actors.

· Normative Considerations: Theories help us evaluate different values and norms in international relations. They enable us to analyse and critique the ethical implications of different actions and policies.

Overall, theory is essential in international relations because it provides a framework for understanding the complexities of the world we live in. It helps us to make sense of events, predict future outcomes, understand power dynamics, and evaluate ethical considerations. The three main theories of international relations are realism, liberalism, and constructivism.

A. Realism

Realism emphasizes the importance of power and security in international relations. Realists believe that the international system is characterized by anarchy, meaning that there is no world government to ensure the security of states. Therefore, states must rely on their own power to protect themselves and pursue their interests. Realists believe that states are rational actors and that the pursuit of power is the most important goal of states in international relations. The main points of realism can be summarized as follows:

1. Anarchy: Realists believe that the international system is characterized by anarchy, meaning that there is no world government to ensure the security of states. Therefore, states must rely on their own power to protect themselves and pursue their interests.

2. Self-help: Realists believe that states are motivated by self-interest and the pursuit of power. States will act to increase their power and security, even if this means acting aggressively towards other states.

3. Balance of Power: Realists believe that the balance of power is an important factor in international relations. States will form alliances and build up their military capabilities in order to maintain the balance of power and prevent any one state from becoming too dominant.

4. National Interest: Realists believe that states act primarily to promote their own national interests. This may include expanding territory, increasing economic power, or promoting their ideology.

5. Role of Individuals: Realists generally downplay the role of individuals in international relations, focusing instead on the actions of states and the system-level factors that shape state behaviour.

Overall, realism emphasizes the importance of power and security in international relations and sees the pursuit of national interests as the primary driver of state behaviour. It is a pessimistic view of international relations that sees conflict and competition as inevitable in the absence of a world government.

B. Liberalism

Liberalism emphasizes the importance of international cooperation and institutions in international relations. Liberals believe that states can achieve their goals through cooperation and negotiation rather than using force. They also emphasize the importance of individual rights and freedoms and believe that international institutions can promote these values. Liberals believe that economic interdependence can promote peace and stability in the international system. The main points of liberalism can be summarized as follows:

1. Cooperation: Liberals believe that cooperation between states is possible and desirable and that it can lead to mutual benefits. States can work together to solve common problems and promote shared goals, such as economic growth and environmental protection.

2. International Institutions: Liberals believe that international institutions, such as the United Nations and the World Trade Organization, are important for promoting cooperation and resolving conflicts peacefully. These institutions can provide a forum for states to negotiate and establish rules for international behaviour.

3. Economic Interdependence: Liberals believe that economic interdependence can promote peace and stability in the international system. As states become more economically interconnected, they are less likely to go to war with each other, since conflict would harm their mutual economic interests.

4. Individual Rights: Liberals emphasize the importance of individual rights and freedoms, both within states and in the international system. They believe that human rights should be protected by international law and that individuals have a right to participate in international decision-making.

5. Democracy: Liberals believe that democracy is a desirable form of government, both within states and in the international system. Democratic states are less likely to go to war with each other since their leaders are held accountable to their citizens and must justify their actions in a public forum.

Overall, liberalism emphasizes the importance of cooperation, institutions, and individual rights in international relations, and sees the potential for progress and peaceful solutions to global problems. It is a more optimistic view of international relations than realism, which emphasizes conflict and competition.

C. Constructivism

Constructivism emphasizes the importance of ideas, norms, and identities in international relations. Constructivists believe that states are not solely motivated by material interests but are also influenced by ideas and norms. They argue that the meaning of power and security is socially constructed and that the behaviour of states is shaped by their identities and the norms that govern their interactions. Constructivists believe that change in the international system can be driven by shifts in norms and identities, rather than just changes in material power. The main points of constructivism can be summarized as follows:

1. Socially Constructed Reality: Constructivists believe that the meaning of power, security, and other key concepts in international relations are socially constructed, rather than objective facts. The behaviour of states is shaped by the ideas and norms that they hold, which can change over time.

2. Importance of Ideas and Norms: Constructivists believe that ideas and norms are important factors in shaping state behaviour. States are not solely motivated by material interests, but also by the ideas and values that shape their identities and goals.

3. Identity Formation: Constructivists emphasize the importance of identity formation in international relations. States’ identities are shaped by their history, culture, and interactions with other states, and these identities can change over time.

4. Role of Actors: Constructivists believe that actors, including states and non-state actors, play an important role in shaping the international system. Actors can shape the norms and ideas that govern international behaviour through their actions and interactions.

5. Possibility of Change: Constructivists believe that change is possible in the international system and that it can be driven by shifts in ideas and norms. Change can occur through persuasion, socialization, or other forms of normative influence.

Overall, constructivism emphasizes the role of ideas, norms, and identities in shaping state behaviour and the international system and sees the potential for change and evolution in the international system. It is a more flexible and adaptable view of international relations than realism or liberalism, which emphasize material interests and institutions, respectively.

The three Cs of International Relations

The usual three common elements of international relations, namely Conflict, Competition, and Cooperation (The Three Cs!) are going on in today’s world. Here are a few examples of each:

Conflict:

· The ongoing civil war in Syria has involved the Syrian government, various rebel groups, and international actors like the United States and Russia.

· The dispute between China and several other countries in the South China Sea over territorial claims and maritime rights.

· The Israeli-Palestinian conflict has been ongoing for decades and has involved violence, diplomatic efforts, and peace negotiations.

· The ongoing conflict in Yemen, has involved Saudi Arabia, Iran, and various Yemeni factions and has caused a humanitarian crisis.

· The ongoing conflict in Afghanistan, has involved the Afghan government, the Taliban, and international actors like the United States and NATO.

· The crisis in Venezuela has involved political turmoil, economic sanctions, and international efforts to support or oppose the government of President Nicolás Maduro.

Competition:

· Economic competition between the United States and China has involved tariffs, trade negotiations, and accusations of unfair practices.

· Competition for influence in the Middle East between Saudi Arabia and Iran has involved proxy conflicts in places like Yemen and Syria.

· Political competition between the United States and Russia has involved tensions over issues like election interference and military activities in places like Ukraine and Syria.

· The rivalry between India and Pakistan has involved territorial disputes, military buildups, and occasional clashes along their shared border.

· The competition between the United States and Russia for control and influence in the Arctic has involved disputes over resource extraction and military presence.

· The competition between Japan and China over disputed islands in the East China Sea has involved naval patrols and diplomatic protests.

Cooperation:

· International efforts to combat climate change, including the Paris Agreement and other agreements and initiatives to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and promote sustainability.

· International efforts to combat the COVID-19 pandemic, including the development and distribution of vaccines, and other measures like travel restrictions and economic support.

· International efforts to promote peace and security, including peacekeeping missions and diplomatic negotiations aimed at resolving conflicts and preventing violence.

· The United Nations peacekeeping missions, which involve troops from various countries working together to promote peace and stability in conflict zones.

· The World Trade Organization (WTO), was established to promote free and fair trade among member countries and resolve disputes related to trade policies and practices.

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