International Relations: Definition, History & Scope
While international relations(interaction among states, and state and non-state actors) are as old as humans started living 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 WW1.
This article explains the scope and the subject matter of IR with the help of five pillars (remember 5As)- Aim, Actors, Agenda, Arena and Actions
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 started living 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 this 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 to 1789. During this period, there was the rise of the independent, sovereign states, 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 to 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 thence 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 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 WW1. 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 5As)- Aim, Actors, Agenda, Arena and Actions;
Each branch of knowledge has the aim of studying its respective core elements. For example, economists try to find out the working of an economic system by asking three questions namely 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 a 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 working of the global political system by asking three questions namely who gets what and how in terms of power, prestige, and resources.
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.
Agenda is what they want to achieve. Throughout history, states have had three objectives under their Agenda (Remember 3Gs)-Gold, God, and Glory.
- Gold: Gold refers to the pursuit of economic interests by a nation-state. It could be a pursuit for a physical asset like hydrocarbon resources/water or access to market for selling your goods and services or an intangible asset like graining foothold of a geostrategic location/denying it to your opponents etc.
- God: God refers to all those religious/cultural norms and values you consider superior to others and are desirous of spreading them I.e., Islam/ Christianity/communism,/liberal democracy, etc
- 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
Arena refers to the place of action where the actors are pursuing their respective agenda described above. For a small country, it could be just its immediate neighbourhood. A regional power could be a region, consisting of several states. Global powers having global agenda, are every country’s neighbours. It could be a physical location(Middle East), space, or even cyberspace. Or it could be a metaphysical space-human right, global warming
Actions are the strategies these actors employ to achieve their objectives. These could range from Diplomacy, open or back-door, trade relations-access or denial to markets, Aid-Economic, military, moral, diplomatic, Economic sanctions-tariffs, quotas, banning of trade/investment, Threat of use of force/Actual use of force, Soft Power-cultural invasion, exchange of artists
Areas of Study
Some of the major areas studied under IR are as follows
Since their inception after the Peace of Westphalia and their proliferation since WW1, the nation-states are 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., are 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 policy-makers 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 interest
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 interest agenda 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 the nation-state of relations; 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 matter of international relations
7. Non-state Actors
Along with the rise of the above-mentioned supra-state institutions, there has been a mushroom 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 the 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 the nation-states, non-state actors, supra-state organizations, etc constitute the hardware of the study of international relations, there are certain concepts and ideas which have been dominating the study of international relations since its inception. For example, concepts like international law, the balance of power, dictatorship, fascism, capitalism, 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 the least, it is the study of major contemporary issues and events which are the immediate drivers of inter-state relations at any time. Scope of International Politics includes the study of these issues like global warming, terrorism, etc, and events like wars and conflicts which shape and condition the behaviour of nations in international relations.
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From the e-book “International Relations; Basic Concepts & Global Issues- A Handbook”, published by Amazon and available at https://www.amazon.com/dp/B08QZSRWT1