99 International Politics Essay Topic Ideas & Examples

🏆 best international politics topic ideas & essay examples, 📝 good essay topics on international politics, 📌 most interesting international politics topics to write about, ❓ international politics essay questions.

  • Neorealism: Kenneth Waltz ‘Theory of International Politics’ The theories look at the philosophies which shape the relationships between nations and the key interests of the nations which participate in international relations.
  • Strange’s Study of Power in International Political Economy The following paper will discuss and cover Susan Strange’s contribution to the study of power in International Political Economy to evaluate and demonstrate the scholar’s viewpoints and statements as to the given theme. We will write a custom essay specifically for you by our professional experts 808 writers online Learn More
  • International Political Economy Perspectives It is also important to add that the idea of the conflict is leading in the three perspectives as it is accepted that there are conflicting forces that try to control production and wealth distribution.
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  • International Political Economy: Free or Equal While government intervention may help provide equality and social stability, it puts restrictions on personal freedom and the market economy, which prompts many people to argue against it. While many factors were involved, it is […]
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  • International Political Scene: Globalization and Peace Relations Although the role of the State in contemporary international system has been moved to the peripheral, it is arguable that the state still has a major role to play in conflicts.
  • How Useful Is the Concept of ‘Hegemony’ for Understanding International Politics? Whereas, the strength of country’s ‘structural’ power is being concerned with its possession of instruments of direct geopolitical influence, such as army and navy, the strength of country’s arelational’ power is being reflected in this […]
  • International Relations and Political Issues In that sense, political issues in the context of international relations is more sensitive, as the image of the international relations is shaped by the political affairs, and military actions which often involves the participation […]
  • Nongovernmental Organizations in International Politics The differences in ideology may create hardships in terms of approach, perception, and solutions to the problems of social development. Social movements have been part of the political and economic landscape for centuries.
  • Multilateralism and Other Trends in International Political Economy The essay aims to answer the following questions: what perspectives on contemporary international relations in the context of economy and politics appear to be the most important, and could future trends be projected on the […]
  • Globalization Era and Internationalism Politics The age of the Nation-State is over and it is easy to prove this statement is to consider the situation which exists in the modern world about the society, to check the political preferences and […]
  • International Political Economy in Statecraft Simulation In order to evaluate the possible position of each country, we have to grade, classify and establish the most applicable factors, such as the available resources, the governmental system and political approach, the durability and […]
  • World Modern History: Constructing International Politics One of the reasons for that is the fact that every state wants to be the most powerful within the institution, especially when it comes to security.
  • International Organizations in Global Politics A number of scientists tend to prove the idea that the progress in the evolution of the international relations results from the growth of companies and organizations which become influential enough to act at the […]
  • Neorealists and Marxists in International Politics The secularism implies the diminishment of the influence of the Catholic Church and its intervention in the internal affairs of the country.
  • NATO: Theory of International Politics This organization was able to survive the end of the Cold War since it went on serving several helpful purposes for the members and also because the members totally came to an agreement that they […]
  • Current Issues in North Korea International Politics In this paper, an analysis will be conducted involving the current issue of North Korea’s limitation of its citizen’s right to the freedom of speech by preventing them from connecting to the internet and how […]
  • International Politics Discussed by Wendt and Waltz In his book chapter, The anarchic structure of the world politics, Waltz argues that the domestic power structure is defined by the principles that govern it as well as the specialisation of its various functions.
  • How Will Social Media Change the Future of International Politics? Besides this, social media has also contributed greatly to the development of international politics by increasing the knowledge of politics in different parts of the world and encouraging more young people to participate in politics.
  • International Politics and Economical Efficacy One of the most important aspects of any society is the connection between politics and economics, and the intricate social network which is established by the environment.
  • Contribution of Marxism and Imperialism in Shaping the Modern International Political System Therefore, the postulated concepts of class struggles, materialism, and the surfacing of a capitalistic world market incredibly provide a point of alignment of the Marxism concepts and theories of international relations.
  • Daniel W. Drezner: Theories of International Politics and Zombies He observes that the emergence of the Zombies would be the perfect solution to the problems facing powerful states. In chapter eight, Dresner observes that unstable cooperation among states is always the order of the […]
  • The Idea of Political Realism in the International Relations Security as one of the basic issues and the relevance of morality are also recognized to be important elements of realism in international politics.
  • How Has Change in Ship Technology Effected International Politics? Notably, technology has been the main influence in gun development, the sailing of the ship, growth in development of literature and this became more evident with the end of the feudalism and the subsequent emergence […]
  • European Union as an Actor in International Political Economy In the drafting of the constitutional treaty, that charter was included and in addition to that, a declaration of the acquisition of the European Convention on Human Rights by the European Union.
  • International Trade as a Significant Issue in International Political Economy In the current world, there are many aspects which have to be reformatted and improved considerably, and one of them is international trade.
  • International Political Economy and Finance Finally, “From Freefall: America, Free Markets, and the Sinking of the World Economy” by Stiglitz is the evaluation of the economic crisis and the financial sector in different developed and developing countries and their direct […]
  • The Religion Impact on the International Political Scene However, the relationships that exist between the two social institutions depend on the content and level of the political system and religion.
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  • Changes in the Hierarchy of International Politics
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  • The History of Treaties and International Politics By Mario Toscano
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  • The Connections between International Politics and Gender Equality Issues
  • International Politics and Morality
  • Has Globalization Transformed International Politics
  • International Politics: Offshore Athletic Shoe Production
  • International Politics: The Case of Global Microfinance
  • How Critical Theory Improves the Study of International Politics
  • Describing the Modern International Politics as a World in Disarray
  • International Politics and Import Diversification in the Second Wave of Globalization
  • Spanier and Wendzel: Understanding International Politics
  • International Politics: The Incompetence of the United Nations
  • The European Union’s Roles in International Politics
  • International Politics: North-South Gap
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  • The International Politics In Sub-Saharan Africa
  • National Relations and International Politics
  • International Relations Theory and the Future of European Integration
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  • One of the Most Significant Developments in the Twenty-Century International Politics: The European Union
  • The Evolution of Moral Conduct in International Politics
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  • The Most Influential Actors in International Politics
  • The IMF Lending Policies: Sovereignty and Hierarchy in the International Political Economy
  • International Politics: Globalism, Pluralism, and Realism
  • The State-Centric Construction of the International Politics
  • International Politics: The Oil Industry in Venezuela
  • The Main Ideological Currents in International Politics
  • A Foreign Policy for the American People
  • German-US Relations and International Politics: Common Experiences, Values, Interests and Issues
  • How a Rising China Has Remade International Politics
  • Nestle in International Politics: Risks in the Context of Decolonization and the Cold War
  • “Bananas, Beaches and Bases” or Roles That Women Play in International Politics
  • U.S. Dollar as the World’s Dominant and How It Influences International Politics
  • International Politics of the OIC: The Collective Voice of the Muslim World
  • What Is the History of Treaties and International Politics?
  • What Are the Changes in the Hierarchy of International Politics?
  • How Does Critical Theory Improve the Study of Research Papers in International Politics?
  • How Are International Politics and Morality Related?
  • What Connects Realism and International Politics?
  • What Is the Description of Modern International Politics as a World in Disarray?
  • What Is the Role of the European Union in International Politics?
  • What Is the Relationship Between International Politics and Gender Equality Issues?
  • Who Are the Most Influential Figures in International Politics?
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  • What Will International Politics Look Like in Transnational Corporations?
  • How Are International Politics and Import Diversification Related in the Second Wave of Globalization?
  • How Are Transnational Corporations and International Politics Connected?
  • How Does Realism Manifest Itself in International Politics?
  • How Can UN Incompetence Affect International Politics?
  • What Does International Politics Focus On?
  • What Are the Elements of International Politics?
  • What Are the Issues in Global Politics?
  • Why Is International Politics So Important?
  • What Is the Core Concept of International Politics?
  • What Is the Relationship Between Politics and International Relations?
  • Which Are the Main Theories of International Politics?
  • What Are the Approaches of International Politics?
  • Which International Politics Theory Is the Best?
  • What Are the Biggest Political Problems Facing the World Today?
  • How Do Globalization Affects International Politics?
  • What Is the Difference Between International Relations and Politics?
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Political Realism in International Relations

In the discipline of international relations there are contending general theories or theoretical perspectives. Realism, also known as political realism, is a view of international politics that stresses its competitive and conflictual side. It is usually contrasted with idealism or liberalism, which tends to emphasize cooperation. Realists consider the principal actors in the international arena to be states, which are concerned with their own security, act in pursuit of their own national interests, and struggle for power. The negative side of the realists’ emphasis on power and self-interest is often their skepticism regarding the relevance of ethical norms to relations among states. National politics is the realm of authority and law, whereas international politics, they sometimes claim, is a sphere without justice, characterized by active or potential conflict among states, where ethical standards do not apply.

Not all realists, however, deny the presence of prescriptive ethics in international relations. The distinction should be drawn between classical realism—represented by such twentieth-century theorists as Reinhold Niebuhr and Hans Morgenthau—and radical or extreme realism. While classical realism emphasizes the concept of national interest, it is not the Machiavellian doctrine “that anything is justified by reason of state” (Bull 1995, 189). Nor does it involve the glorification of war or conflict. The classical realists do not reject the possibility of moral judgment in international politics. Rather, they are critical of moralism—abstract moral discourse that does not take into account political realities. They assign ethical value to successful political action based on prudence: the ability to judge the rightness of a given action from among possible alternatives on the basis of its likely political consequences.

Realism encompasses a variety of approaches and claims a long theoretical tradition. Among its founding fathers, Thucydides, Machiavelli and Hobbes are the names most usually mentioned. Twentieth-century classical realism has today been largely replaced by neorealism, which is an attempt to construct a more scientific approach to the study of international relations. Both classical realism and neorealism have been subjected to criticism from IR theorists representing liberal, critical, and post-modern perspectives. The growing tensions among superpowers have revived the realist-idealist debate in the twenty-first century and have led to a resurgence of interest in the realist tradition.

1.1 Thucydides and the Importance of Power

1.2 machiavelli’s critique of the moral tradition, 1.3 hobbes’s anarchic state of nature, 2.1 e. h. carr’s challenge to utopian idealism, 2.2 hans morgenthau’s realist principles, 3.1 kenneth waltz’s international system, 3.2 objections to neorealism, 4. conclusion: the cautionary and changing character of realism, other internet resources, related entries, 1. the roots of the realist tradition.

Like other classical political theorists, Thucydides (c. 460–c. 400 B.C.E.) saw politics as involving moral questions. Most importantly, he asks whether relations among states to which power is crucial can also be guided by the norms of justice. His History of the Peloponnesian War is in fact neither a work of political philosophy nor a sustained theory of international relations. Much of this work, which presents a partial account of the armed conflict between Athens and Sparta that took place from 431 to 404 B.C.E., consists of paired speeches by personages who argue opposing sides of an issue. Nevertheless, if the History is described as the only acknowledged classical text in international relations, and if it inspires theorists from Hobbes to contemporary international relations scholars, this is because it is more than a chronicle of events, and a theoretical position can be extrapolated from it. Realism is expressed in the very first speech of the Athenians recorded in the History —a speech given at the debate that took place in Sparta just before the war. Moreover, a realist perspective is implied in the way Thucydides explains the cause of the Peloponnesian War, and also in the famous “Melian Dialogue,” in the statements made by the Athenian envoys.

1.1.1 General Features of Realism in International Relations

International relations realists emphasize the constraints imposed on politics by the nature of human beings, whom they consider egoistic, and by the absence of international government. Together these factors contribute to a conflict-based paradigm of international relations, in which the key actors are states, in which power and security become the main issues, and in which there is little place for ethical norms. The set of premises concerning state actors, egoism, anarchy, power, security, and ethics that define the realist tradition are all present in Thucydides.

(1) Human nature is a starting point for classical political realism. Realists view human beings as inherently egoistic and self-interested to the extent that self-interest overcomes moral principles. At the debate in Sparta, described in Book I of Thucydides’ History , the Athenians affirm the priority of self-interest over morality. They say that considerations of right and wrong have “never turned people aside from the opportunities of aggrandizement offered by superior strength” (chap. 1 par. 76).

(2) Realists, and especially today’s neorealists, consider the absence of government, literally anarchy , to be the primary determinant of international political outcomes. The lack of a common rule-making and enforcing authority means, they argue, that the international arena is essentially a self-help system. Each state is responsible for its own survival and is free to define its own interests and to pursue power. Anarchy thus leads to a situation in which power has the overriding role in shaping interstate relations. In the words of the Athenian envoys at Melos, without any common authority that can enforce order, “the independent states survive [only] when they are powerful” (5.97).

(3) Insofar as realists envision the world of states as anarchic, they likewise view security as a central issue. To attain security, states try to increase their power and engage in power-balancing for the purpose of deterring potential aggressors. Wars are fought to prevent competing nations from becoming militarily stronger. Thucydides, while distinguishing between the immediate and underlying causes of the Peloponnesian War, does not see its real cause in any of the particular events that immediately preceded its outbreak. He instead locates the cause of the war in the changing distribution of power between the two blocs of Greek city-states: the Delian League, under the leadership of Athens, and the Peloponnesian League, under the leadership of Sparta. According to him, the growth of Athenian power made the Spartans afraid for their security, and thus propelled them into war (1.23). Referring to this situation, Graham Allison has popularized the expression “Thucydides trap” to describe the danger which occurs when a rising power rivals an established one (2017).

(4) Realists are generally skeptical about the relevance of ethics to international politics. This can lead them to claim that there is no place for morality in the prescriptive sense in international relations, or that there is a tension between demands of morality and requirements of successful political action, or that states have their own morality that is different from customary morality, or that morality, if employed at all, is merely used instrumentally to justify states’ conduct. A clear case of the rejection of ethical norms in relations among states can be found in the “Melian Dialogue” (5.85–113). This dialogue relates to the events of 416 B.C.E., when Athens invaded the island of Melos. The Athenian envoys presented the Melians with a choice, destruction or surrender, and from the outset asked them not to appeal to justice, but to think only about their survival. In the envoys’ words, “We both know that the decisions about justice are made in human discussions only when both sides are under equal compulsion, but when one side is stronger, it gets as much as it can, and the weak must accept that” (5.89). To be “under equal compulsion” means to be under the force of law, and thus to be subjected to a common lawgiving authority (Korab-Karpowicz 2006, 234). Since such an authority above states does not exist, the Athenians argue that in this lawless condition of international anarchy, the only right is the right of the stronger to dominate the weaker. They explicitly equate right with might, and exclude considerations of justice from foreign affairs.

1.1.2 The “Melian Dialogue”—The First Realist-Idealist Debate

We can thus find strong support for a realist perspective in the statements of the Athenians. The question remains, however, to what extent their realism coincides with Thucydides’ own viewpoint. Although substantial passages of the “Melian Dialogue,” as well as other parts of the History support a realistic reading, Thucydides’ position cannot be deduced from such selected fragments, but rather must be assessed on the basis of the wider context of his book. In fact, even the “Melian Dialogue” itself provides us with a number of contending views.

Political realism is usually contrasted by IR scholars with idealism or liberalism, a theoretical perspective that emphasizes international norms, interdependence among states, and international cooperation. The “Melian Dialogue,” which is one of the most frequently commented-upon parts of Thucydides’ History , presents the classic debate between the idealist and realist views: Can international politics be based on a moral order derived from the principles of justice, or will it forever remain the arena of conflicting national interests and power?

For the Melians, who employ idealistic arguments, the choice is between war and subjection (5.86). They are courageous and love their country. They do not wish to lose their freedom, and in spite of the fact that they are militarily weaker than the Athenians, they are prepared to defend themselves (5.100; 5.112). They base their arguments on an appeal to justice, which they associate with fairness, and regard the Athenians as unjust (5.90; 5.104). They are pious, believing that gods will support their just cause and compensate for their weakness, and trust in alliances, thinking that their allies, the Spartans, who are also related to them, will help them (5.104; 5.112). Hence, one can identify in the speech of the Melians elements of the idealistic or liberal world view: the belief that nations have the right to exercise political independence, that they have mutual obligations to one another and will carry out such obligations, and that a war of aggression is unjust. What the Melians nevertheless lack are resources and foresight. In their decision to defend themselves, they are guided more by their hopes than by the evidence at hand or by prudent calculations.

The Athenian argument is based on key realist concepts such as security and power, and is informed not by what the world should be, but by what it is. The Athenians disregard any moral talk and urge the Melians to look at the facts—that is, to recognize their military inferiority, to consider the potential consequences of their decision, and to think about their own survival (5.87; 5.101). There appears to be a powerful realist logic behind the Athenian arguments. Their position, based on security concerns and self-interest, seemingly involves reliance on rationality, intelligence, and foresight. However, upon close examination, their logic proves to be seriously flawed. Melos, a relatively weak state, does not pose any real security threat to them. The eventual destruction of Melos does not change the course of the Peloponnesian War, which Athens will lose a few years later.

In the History , Thucydides shows that power, if it is unrestrained by moderation and a sense of justice, brings about the uncontrolled desire for more power. There are no logical limits to the size of an empire. Drunk with the prospect of glory and gain, after conquering Melos, the Athenians engage in a war against Sicily. They pay no attention to the Melian argument that considerations of justice are useful to all in the longer run (5.90). And, as the Athenians overestimate their strength and in the end lose the war, their self-interested logic proves to be very shortsighted indeed.

It is utopian to ignore the reality of power in international relations, but it is equally blind to rely on power alone. Thucydides appears to support neither the naive idealism of the Melians nor the cynicism of their Athenian opponents. He teaches us to be on guard “against naïve-dreaming on international politics,” on the one hand, and “against the other pernicious extreme: unrestrained cynicism,” on the other (Donnelly 2000, 193). If he can be regarded as a political realist, his realism nonetheless prefigures neither realpolitik , in which prescriptive ethics is rejected, nor today’s scientific neorealism, in which moral questions are largely ignored. Thucydides’ realism, neither immoral nor amoral, can rather be compared to that of Hans Morgenthau, Raymond Aron, and other twentieth-century classical realists, who, although sensible to the demands of national interest, would not deny that political actors on the international scene are subject to moral judgment.

Idealism in international relations, like realism, can lay claim to a long tradition. Unsatisfied with the world as they have found it, idealists have always tried to answer the question of “what ought to be” in politics. Plato, Aristotle, and Cicero were all political idealists who believed that there were some universal moral values on which political life could be based. Building on the work of his predecessors, Cicero developed the idea of a natural moral law that was applicable to both domestic and international politics. His ideas concerning righteousness in war were carried further in the writings of the Christian thinkers St. Augustine and St. Thomas Aquinas. In the late fifteenth century, when Niccolò Machiavelli was born, the idea that politics, including the relations among states, should be virtuous, and that the methods of warfare should remain subordinated to ethical standards, still predominated in political literature.

Machiavelli (1469–1527) challenged this well-established moral tradition, thus positioning himself as a political innovator. The novelty of his approach lies in his critique of classical Western political thought as unrealistic, aiming too high, and in his separation of politics from ethics. He thereby lays the foundations for modern politics focussed on self-interest. In chapter XV of The Prince , Machiavelli announces that in departing from the teachings of earlier thinkers, he seeks “the effectual truth of the matter rather than the imagined one.” The “effectual truth” is for him the only truth worth seeking. It represents the sum of the practical conditions that he believes are required to make both the individual and the country prosperous and strong. Machiavelli replaces the ancient virtue (a moral quality of the individual, such as justice or self-restraint) with virtù , ability or vigor. As a prophet of virtù , he promises to lead both nations and individuals to earthly glory and power.

Machiavellianism is a radical type of political realism that is applied to both domestic and international affairs. It is sometimes called realpolitik , and is a doctrine which denies the relevance of ethics in politics, and claims that all means (moral and immoral) are justified to achieve certain political ends. Although Machiavelli never uses the phrase ragione di stato or its French equivalent, raison d’état , what ultimately counts for him is precisely that: whatever is good for the state, rather than ethical scruples or norms

Machiavelli justified immoral actions in politics, but never refused to admit that they are evil. He operated within the single framework of traditional morality. It became a specific task of his nineteenth-century followers to develop the doctrine of a double ethics: one public and one private, to push Machiavellian realism to even further extremes, and to apply it to international relations. By asserting that “the state has no higher duty than of maintaining itself,” Hegel gave an ethical sanction to the state’s promotion of its own interest and advantage against other states (Meinecke 357). Thus he overturned the traditional beliefs about morality. The good of the state was perversely interpreted by him as the highest moral value, with the extension of national power regarded as a nation’s right and duty. Then, referring to Machiavelli, Heinrich von Treitschke declared that the state was power, precisely in order to assert itself as against other equally independent powers, and that the supreme moral duty of the state was to foster this power. He considered international agreements to be binding only insofar as it was expedient for the state. The idea of an autonomous ethics of state behavior and the concept of realpolitik were thus introduced. Traditional, customary ethics was denied and power politics was associated with a “higher” type of morality. These concepts, along with the belief in the superiority of Germanic culture, served as weapons with which German statesmen, from the eighteenth century to the end of the Second World War, justified their policies of conquest and extermination.

Machiavelli is often praised for his prudential advice to leaders (which has caused him to be regarded as a founding master of modern political strategy) and for his defense of the republican form of government. There are certainly many aspects of his thought that merit such praise. Nevertheless, it is also possible to see him as the thinker who bears foremost responsibility for the de-moralization of Europe. The argument of the Athenian envoys presented in Thucydides’ “Melian Dialogue,” that of Thrasymachus in Plato’s Republic , or that of Carneades, to whom Cicero refers—all of these challenge the ancient and Christian views of the unity of politics and ethics. However, before Machiavelli, this amoral or immoral mode of thinking had never prevailed in the mainstream of Western political thought. It was the force and timeliness of his justification of resorting to evil as a legitimate means of achieving political ends that persuaded so many of the thinkers and political practitioners who followed him. The effects of Machiavellian ideas, such as the notion that the employment of all possible means was permissible in war, would be seen on the battlefields of modern Europe, as mass citizen armies fought against each other to the bitter end without regard for the rules of justice. The tension between expediency and morality lost its validity in the sphere of politics. The concept of a double ethics that created a further damage to traditional morality, was invented. The doctrine of raison d’état ultimately led to the politics of Lebensraum , two world wars, and the Holocaust.

Perhaps the greatest problem with realism in international relations is that it has a tendency to slip into its extreme version, which accepts any policy that can benefit the state at the expense of other states, no matter how morally problematic the policy is. Even if they do not explicitly raise ethical questions, in the works of Waltz and of many other of today’s neorealists, a double ethics, public and private, is presupposed, and words such realpolitik no longer have the negative connotations that they had for classical realists, such as Hans Morgenthau.

Thomas Hobbes (1588–1683) was part of an intellectual movement whose goal was to free the emerging modern science from the constraints of the classical and scholastic heritage. According to classical political philosophy, on which the idealist perspective is based, human beings can control their desires through reason and can work for the benefit of others, even at the expense of their own benefit. They are thus both rational and moral agents, capable of distinguishing between right and wrong, and of making moral choices. They are also naturally social. With great skill Hobbes attacks these views. His human beings, extremely individualistic rather than moral or social, are subject to “a perpetual and restless desire of power after power, that ceases only in death” ( Leviathan XI 2). They therefore inevitably struggle for power. In setting out such ideas, Hobbes contributes to some of the basic conceptions fundamental to the realist tradition in international relations, and especially to neorealism. These include the characterization of human nature as egoistic, the concept of international anarchy, and the view that politics, rooted in the struggle for power, can be rationalized and studied scientifically.

One of the most widely known Hobbesian concepts is that of the anarchic state of nature, seen as entailing a state of war—and “such a war as is of every man against every man” (XII 8). He derives his notion of the state of war from his views of both human nature and the condition in which individuals exist. Since in the state of nature there is no government and everyone enjoys equal status, every individual has a right to everything; that is, there are no constraints on an individual’s behavior. Anyone may at any time use force, and all must constantly be ready to counter such force with force. Hence, driven by acquisitiveness, having no moral restraints, and motivated to compete for scarce goods, individuals are apt to “invade” one another for gain. Being suspicious of one another and driven by fear, they are also likely to engage in preemptive actions and invade one another to ensure their own safety. Finally, individuals are also driven by pride and a desire for glory. Whether for gain, safety, or reputation, power-seeking individuals will thus “endeavor to destroy or subdue one another” (XIII 3). In such uncertain conditions where everyone is a potential aggressor, making war on others is a more advantageous strategy than peaceable behavior, and one needs to learn that domination over others is necessary for one’s own continued survival.

Hobbes is primarily concerned with the relationship between individuals and the state, and his comments about relations among states are scarce. Nevertheless, what he says about the lives of individuals in the state of nature can also be interpreted as a description of how states exist in relation to one another. Once states are established, the individual drive for power becomes the basis for the states’ behavior, which often manifests itself in their efforts to dominate other states and peoples. States, “for their own security,” writes Hobbes, “enlarge their dominions upon all pretences of danger and fear of invasion or assistance that may be given to invaders, [and] endeavour as much as they can, to subdue and weaken their neighbors” (XIX 4). Accordingly, the quest and struggle for power lies at the core of the Hobbesian vision of relations among states. The same would later be true of the model of international relations developed by Hans Morgenthau, who was deeply influenced by Hobbes and adopted the same view of human nature. Similarly, the neorealist Kenneth Waltz would follow Hobbes’ lead regarding international anarchy (the fact that sovereign states are not subject to any higher common sovereign) as the essential element of international relations.

By subjecting themselves to a sovereign, individuals escape the war of all against all which Hobbes associates with the state of nature; however, this war continues to dominate relations among states. This does not mean that states are always fighting, but rather that they have a disposition to fight (XIII 8). With each state deciding for itself whether or not to use force, war may break out at any time. The achievement of domestic security through the creation of a state is then paralleled by a condition of inter-state insecurity. One can argue that if Hobbes were fully consistent, he would agree with the notion that, to escape this condition, states should also enter into a contract and submit themselves to a world sovereign. Although the idea of a world state would find support among some of today’s realists, this is not a position taken by Hobbes himself. He does not propose that a social contract among nations be implemented to bring international anarchy to an end. This is because the condition of insecurity in which states are placed does not necessarily lead to insecurity for their citizens. As long as an armed conflict or other type of hostility between states does not actually break out, individuals within a state can feel relatively secure.

The denial of the existence of universal moral principles and norms in the relations among states brings Hobbes close to the Machiavellians and the followers of the doctrine of raison d’état . His theory of international relations, which assumes that independent states, like independent individuals, are enemies by nature, asocial and selfish, and that there is no moral limitation on their behavior, is a great challenge to the idealist political vision based on human sociability and to the concept of the international jurisprudence that is built on this vision. However, what separates Hobbes from Machiavelli and associates him more with classical realism is his insistence on the defensive character of foreign policy. His political theory does not put forward the invitation to do whatever may be advantageous for the state. His approach to international relations is prudential and pacific: sovereign states, like individuals, should be disposed towards peace which is commended by reason.

What Waltz and other neorealist readers of Hobbes’s works sometimes overlook is that he does not perceive international anarchy as an environment without any rules. By suggesting that certain dictates of reason apply even in the state of nature, he affirms that more peaceful and cooperative international relations are possible. Neither does he deny the existence of international law. Sovereign states can sign treaties with one another to provide a legal basis for their relations. At the same time, however, Hobbes seems aware that international rules will often prove ineffective in restraining the struggle for power. States will interpret them to their own advantage, and so international law will be obeyed or ignored according to the interests of the states affected. Hence, international relations will always tend to be a precarious affair. This grim view of global politics lies at the core of Hobbes’s realism.

2. Twentieth Century Classical Realism

Twentieth-century realism was born in response to the idealist perspective that dominated international relations scholarship in the aftermath of the First World War. The idealists of the 1920s and 1930s (also called liberal internationalists or utopians) had the goal of building peace in order to prevent another world conflict. They saw the solution to inter-state problems as being the creation of a respected system of international law, backed by international organizations. This interwar idealism resulted in the founding of the League of Nations in 1920 and in the Kellogg-Briand Pact of 1928 outlawing war and providing for the peaceful settlements of disputes. U.S. President Woodrow Wilson, scholars such as Norman Angell, Alfred Zimmern, and Raymond B. Fosdick, and other prominent idealists of the era, gave their intellectual support to the League of Nations. Instead of focusing on what some might see as the inevitability of conflict between states and peoples, they chose to emphasize the common interests that could unite humanity, and attempted to appeal to rationality and morality. For them, war did not originate in an egoistic human nature, but rather in imperfect social conditions and political arrangements, which could be improved. Yet their ideas were already being criticized in the early 1930s by Reinhold Niebuhr and within a few years by E. H. Carr. The League of Nations, which the United States never joined, and from which Japan and Germany withdrew, could not prevent the outbreak of the Second World War. This fact, perhaps more than any theoretical argument, contributed to the development of the realist theory. Although the United Nations, founded in 1945, can still be regarded as a product of idealist political thinking, the discipline of international relations was profoundly influenced in the initial years of the post-war period by the works of “classical” realists such as John H. Herz, Hans Morgenthau, George Kennan, and Raymond Aron. Then, during the 1950s and 1960s, classical realism came under challenge of scholars who tried to introduce a more scientific approach to the study of international politics. During the 1980s it gave way to another trend in international relations theory—neorealism.

Since it is impossible within the scope of this article to introduce all of the thinkers who contributed to the development of twentieth-century classical realism, E. H. Carr and Hans Morgenthau, as perhaps the most influential among them, have been selected for discussion here.

In his main work on international relations, The Twenty Years’ Crisis , first published in July 1939, Edward Hallett Carr (1892–1982) attacks the idealist position, which he describes as “utopianism.” He characterizes this position as encompassing faith in reason, confidence in progress, a sense of moral rectitude, and a belief in an underlying harmony of interests. According to the idealists, war is an aberration in the course of normal life and the way to prevent it is to educate people for peace, and to build systems of collective security such as the League of Nations or today’s United Nations. Carr challenges idealism by questioning its claim to moral universalism and its idea of the harmony of interests. He declares that “morality can only be relative, not universal” (19), and states that the doctrine of the harmony of interests is invoked by privileged groups “to justify and maintain their dominant position” (75).

Carr uses the concept of the relativity of thought, which he traces to Marx and other modern theorists, to show that standards by which policies are judged are the products of circumstances and interests. His central idea is that the interests of a given party always determine what this party regards as moral principles, and hence, these principles are not universal. Carr observes that politicians, for example, often use the language of justice to cloak the particular interests of their own countries, or to create negative images of other people to justify acts of aggression. The existence of such instances of morally discrediting a potential enemy or morally justifying one’s own position shows, he argues, that moral ideas are derived from actual policies. Policies are not, as the idealists would have it, based on some universal norms, independent of interests of the parties involved.

If specific ethical standards are de facto founded on interests, Carr’s argument goes, there are also interests underlying what are regarded as absolute principles or universal moral values. While the idealists tend to regard such values, such as peace or justice, as universal and claim that upholding them is in the interest of all, Carr argues against this view. According to him, there are neither universal values nor universal interests. He claims that those who refer to universal interests are in fact acting in their own interests (71). They think that what is best for them is best for everyone, and identify their own interests with the universal interest of the world at large.

The idealist concept of the harmony of interests is based on the notion that human beings can rationally recognize that they have some interests in common, and that cooperation is therefore possible. Carr contrasts this idea with the reality of conflict of interests . According to him, the world is torn apart by the particular interests of different individuals and groups. In such a conflictual environment, order is based on power, not on morality. Further, morality itself is the product of power (61). Like Hobbes, Carr regards morality as constructed by the particular legal system that is enforced by a coercive power. International ethical norms are imposed on other countries by dominant nations or groups of nations that present themselves as the international community as a whole. They are invented to perpetuate those nations’ dominance.

Values that idealists view as good for all, such as peace, social justice, prosperity, and international order, are regarded by Carr as mere status quo notions. The powers that are satisfied with the status quo regard the arrangement in place as just and therefore preach peace. They try to rally everyone around their idea of what is good. “Just as the ruling class in a community prays for domestic peace, which guarantees its own security and predominance, … so international peace becomes a special vested interest of predominant powers” (76). On the other hand, the unsatisfied powers consider the same arrangement as unjust, and so prepare for war. Hence, the way to obtain peace, if it cannot be simply enforced, is to satisfy the unsatisfied powers. “Those who profit most by [international] order can in the longer run only hope to maintain it by making sufficient concessions to make it tolerable to those who profit by it least” (152). The logical conclusion to be drawn by the reader of Carr’s book is the policy of appeasement.

Carr was a sophisticated thinker. He recognized himself that the logic of “pure realism can offer nothing but a naked struggle for power which makes any kind of international society impossible” (87). Although he demolishes what he calls “the current utopia” of idealism, he at the same time attempts to build “a new utopia,” a realist world order ( ibid .). Thus, he acknowledges that human beings need certain fundamental principles or beliefs that are shared across different cultures, and contradicts his own earlier argument by which he tries to deny universality to any norms or values. To make further objections to his position, the fact, as he claims, that the language of universal values can be misused in politics for the benefit of one party or another, and that such values can only be imperfectly implemented in political institutions, does not mean that such values do not exist. There is a deep yearning in many human beings, both privileged and unprivileged, for peace, order, prosperity, and justice. The legitimacy of idealism consists in the constant attempt to reflect upon and uphold these values. Idealists fail if in their attempt they do not pay enough attention to the reality of power. On the other hand, in the world of “pure realism,” in which all values are made relative to interests, life turns into nothing more than a power game and is unbearable.

The Twenty Years’ Crisis touches on a number of universal ideas, but it also reflects the spirit of its time. While we can fault the interwar idealists for their inability to construct international institutions strong enough to prevent the outbreak of the Second World War, this book indicates that interwar realists were likewise unprepared to meet the challenge. Carr frequently refers to Germany under Nazi rule as if it were a country like any other. He says that should Germany cease to be an unsatisfied power and “become supreme in Europe,” it would adopt a language of international solidarity similar to that of other Western powers (79). The inability of Carr and other realists to recognize the perilous nature of Nazism, and their belief that Germany could be satisfied by territorial concessions, helped to foster a political environment in which the latter was to grow in power, annex Czechoslovakia at will, and be militarily opposed in September 1939 by Poland alone.

A theory of international relations is not just an intellectual enterprise; it has practical consequences. It influences our thinking and political practice. On the practical side, the realists of the 1930s, to whom Carr gave intellectual support, were people opposed to the system of collective security embodied in the League of Nations. Working within the foreign policy establishments of the day, they contributed to its weakness. Once they had weakened the League, they pursued a policy of appeasement and accommodation with Germany as an alternative to collective security (Ashworth 46). After the annexation of Czechoslovakia, when the failure of the anti-League realist conservatives gathered around Neville Chamberlain and of this policy became clear, they tried to rebuild the very security system they had earlier demolished. Those who supported collective security were labeled idealists.

Hans J. Morgenthau (1904–1980) developed realism into a comprehensive international relations theory. Influenced by the Protestant theologian and political writer Reinhold Niebuhr, as well as by Hobbes, he places selfishness and power-lust at the center of his picture of human existence. The insatiable human lust for power, timeless and universal, which he identifies with animus dominandi , the desire to dominate, is for him the main cause of conflict. As he asserts in his main work, Politics among Nations: The Struggle for Power and Peace , first published in 1948, “international politics, like all politics, is a struggle for power” (25).

Morgenthau systematizes realism in international relations on the basis of six principles that he includes in the second edition of Politics among Nations . As a traditionalist, he opposes the so-called scientists (the scholars who, especially in the 1950s, tried to reduce the discipline of international relations to a branch of behavioral science). Nevertheless, in the first principle he states that realism is based on objective laws that have their roots in unchanging human nature (4). He wants to develop realism into both a theory of international politics and a political art, a useful tool of foreign policy.

The keystone of Morgenthau’s realist theory is the concept of power or “of interest defined in terms of power,” which informs his second principle: the assumption that political leaders “think and act in terms of interest defined as power” (5). This concept defines the autonomy of politics, and allows for the analysis of foreign policy regardless of the different motives, preferences, and intellectual and moral qualities of individual politicians. Furthermore, it is the foundation of a rational picture of politics.

Although, as Morgenthau explains in the third principle, interest defined as power is a universally valid category, and indeed an essential element of politics, various things can be associated with interest or power at different times and in different circumstances. Its content and the manner of its use are determined by the political and cultural environment.

In the fourth principle, Morgenthau considers the relationship between realism and ethics. He says that while realists are aware of the moral significance of political action, they are also aware of the tension between morality and the requirements of successful political action. “Universal moral principles,” he asserts, “cannot be applied to the actions of states in their abstract universal formulation, but …they must be filtered through the concrete circumstances of time and place” (9). These principles must be accompanied by prudence for as he cautions “there can be no political morality without prudence; that is, without consideration of the political consequences of seemingly moral action” ( ibid .).

Prudence, the ability to judge the rightness of a given action from among possible alternatives on the basis of its likely political consequences, and not conviction of one’s own moral or ideological superiority, should guide political decisions. This is stressed in the fifth principle, where Morgenthau again emphasizes the idea that all state actors, including our own, must be looked at solely as political entities pursuing their respective interests defined in terms of power. By taking this point of view vis-à-vis its counterparts and thus avoiding ideological confrontation, a state would then be able to pursue policies that respected the interests of other states, while protecting and promoting its own.

Insofar as power, or interest defined as power, is the concept that defines politics, politics is an autonomous sphere, as Morgenthau says in his sixth principle of realism. It cannot be subordinated to ethics. However, ethics does still play a role in politics. “A man who was nothing but ‘political man’ would be a beast, for he would be completely lacking in moral restraints. A man who was nothing but ‘moral man’ would be a fool, for he would be completely lacking in prudence” (12). Political art requires that these two dimensions of human life, power and morality, be taken into consideration.

While Morgenthau’s six principles of realism contain repetitions and inconsistencies, we can nonetheless obtain from them the following picture: Power or interest is the central concept that makes politics into an autonomous discipline. Rational state actors pursue their national interests. Therefore, a rational theory of international politics can be constructed. Such a theory is not concerned with the morality, religious beliefs, motives or ideological preferences of individual political leaders. It also indicates that in order to avoid conflicts, states should avoid moral crusades or ideological confrontations, and look for compromise based solely on satisfaction of their mutual interests.

Although he defines politics as an autonomous sphere, Morgenthau does not separate ethics from politics. The act of protecting one’s country has for him a deep moral significance. Ultimately directed toward the objective of national survival, it involves prudence that is related to choosing the best course of action. The effective protection of citizens’ lives from harm in case of an international armed conflict is not merely a forceful physical action; it also has prudential and moral dimensions.

Morgenthau regards realism as a way of thinking about international relations and a useful tool for devising policies. However, some of the basic conceptions of his theory, and especially the idea of conflict as stemming from human nature, as well as the concept of power itself, have provoked criticism.

International politics, like all politics, is for Morgenthau a struggle for power because of the basic human lust for power. But regarding every individual as being engaged in a perpetual quest for power—the view that he shares with Hobbes—is a questionable premise. Human nature cannot be revealed by observation and experiment. It cannot be proved by any empirical research, but only disclosed by philosophy, imposed on us as a matter of belief, and inculcated by education.

Morgenthau himself reinforces the belief in the human drive for power by introducing a normative aspect of his theory, which is rationality. A rational foreign policy is considered “to be a good foreign policy” (7). But he defines rationality as a process of calculating the costs and benefits of all alternative policies in order to determine their relative utility, i.e. their ability to maximize power. Statesmen “think and act in terms of interest defined as power” (5). Only intellectual weakness of policy makers can result in foreign policies that deviate from a rational course aimed at minimizing risks and maximizing benefits. Hence, rather than presenting an actual portrait of human affairs, Morgenthau emphasizes the pursuit of power and the rationality of this pursuit, and sets it up as a norm.

As Raymond Aron and other scholars have noticed, power, the fundamental concept of Morgenthau’s realism, is ambiguous. It can be either a means or an end in politics. But if power is only a means for gaining something else, it does not define the nature of international politics in the way Morgenthau claims. It does not allow us to understand the actions of states independently from the motives and ideological preferences of their political leaders. It cannot serve as the basis for defining politics as an autonomous sphere. Morgenthau’s principles of realism are thus open to doubt. “Is this true,” Aron asks, “that states, whatever their regime, pursue the same kind of foreign policy” (597) and that the foreign policies of Napoleon or Stalin are essentially identical to those of Hitler, Louis XVI or Nicholas II, amounting to no more than the struggle for power? “If one answers yes, then the proposition is incontestable, but not very instructive” (598). Accordingly, it is useless to define actions of states by exclusive reference to power, security or national interest. International politics cannot be studied independently of the wider historical and cultural context.

Carr and Morgenthau concentrate primarily on international relations. However, their political realism can also be applied to domestic politics. To be a classical realist is in general to perceive politics as a conflict of interests and a struggle for power, and to seek peace by recognizing common interests and trying to satisfy them, rather than by moralizing. Bernard Williams and Raymond Geuss, influential representatives of the new political realism, a movement in contemporary political theory, criticize what they describe as “political moralism” and stress the autonomy of politics against ethics. However, political theory realism and international relations realism seem like two separate research programs. As noted by several scholars (William Scheuerman, Alison McQueen, Terry Nardin. Duncan Bell), those who contribute to realism in political theory give little attention to those who work on realism in international politics.

3. Neorealism

In spite of its ambiguities and weaknesses, Morgenthau’s Politics among Nations became a standard textbook and influenced thinking about international politics for a generation or so. At the same time, there was an attempt to develop a more methodologically rigorous approach to theorizing about international affairs. In the 1950s and 1960s a large influx of scientists from different fields entered the discipline of International Relations and attempted to replace the “wisdom literature” of classical realists with scientific concepts and reasoning (Brown 35). This in turn provoked a counterattack by Morgenthau and scholars associated with the so-called English School, especially Hedley Bull, who defended a traditional approach (Bull 1966).

As a result, the discipline of international relations has been divided into two main strands: traditional or non-positivist and scientific or positivist (neo-positivist). At a later stage the third strand: post-positivism has been added. The traditionalists raise normative questions and engage with history, philosophy and law. The scientists or positivists stress a descriptive and explanatory form of inquiry, rather than a normative one. They have established a strong presence in the field. Already by the mid-1960s, the majority of American students in international relations were trained in quantitative research, game theory, and other new research techniques of the social sciences. This, along with the changing international environment, had a significant effect on the discipline.

Notwithstanding their methodological differences, realists’ assumption is that the state is the key actor in international politics, and that competitive and conflictual relations among states are the core of actual international relations. However, with the receding of the Cold War during the 1970s, one could witness the growing importance of other actors: international and non-governmental organizations, as well as of multinational corporations. This development led to a revival of idealist thinking, which became known as neoliberalism or pluralism. While accepting some basic assumptions of realism, the leading pluralists, Robert Keohane and Joseph Nye, have proposed the concept of complex interdependence to describe this more sophisticated picture of global politics. They would argue that states could effectively cooperate with each other for mutual benefit and there can be progress in international relations, and that the future does not need to look like the past.

The realist retort came most prominently from Kenneth N. Waltz, who reformulated realism in international relations in a new and distinctive way. In his book Theory of International Politics , first published in 1979, he responded to the liberal challenge and attempted to cure the defects of the classical realism of Hans Morgenthau with his more scientific approach, which has become known as structural realism or neorealism. Whereas Morgenthau rooted his theory in the struggle for power, which he related to human nature, Waltz made an effort to avoid any philosophical discussion of human nature, and set out instead to build a theory of international politics using microeconomics as a model. In his works, he argues that states in the international system are like firms in a domestic economy and have the same fundamental interest: to survive. “Internationally, the environment of states’ actions, or the structure of their system, is set by the fact that some states prefer survival over other ends obtainable in the short run and act with relative efficiency to achieve that end” (93).

Waltz maintains that by paying attention to the individual state, and to ideological, moral and economic issues, both traditional liberals and classical realists make the same mistake. They fail to develop a serious account of the international system—one that can be abstracted from the wider socio-political domain. Waltz acknowledges that such an abstraction distorts reality and omits many of the factors that were important for classical realism. It does not allow for the analysis of the development of specific foreign policies. However, it also has utility. Notably, it assists in understanding the primary determinants of international politics. To be sure, Waltz’s neorealist theory cannot be applied to domestic politics. It cannot serve to develop policies of states concerning their international or domestic affairs. His theory helps only to explain why states behave in similar ways despite their different forms of government and diverse political ideologies, and why, despite their growing interdependence, the overall picture of international relations is unlikely to change.

According to Waltz, the uniform behavior of states over centuries can be explained by the constraints on their behavior that are imposed by the structure of the international system. A system’s structure is defined first by the principle by which it is organized, then by the differentiation of its units, and finally by the distribution of capabilities (power) across units. Anarchy, or the absence of central authority, is for Waltz the ordering principle of the international system. The units of the international system are states. Waltz recognizes the existence of non-state actors, but dismisses them as relatively unimportant. Since all states want to survive, and anarchy presupposes a self-help system in which each state has to take care of itself, there is no division of labor or functional differentiation among them. While functionally similar, they are nonetheless distinguished by their relative capabilities (the power each of them represents) to perform the same function.

Consequently, Waltz sees power and state behavior in a different way from the classical realists. For Morgenthau power was both a means and an end, and rational state behavior was understood as simply the course of action that would accumulate the most power. In contrast, neorealists assume that the fundamental interest of each state is security and would therefore concentrate on the distribution of power. What also sets neorealism apart from classical realism is methodological rigor and scientific self-conception (Guzinni 1998, 127–128). Waltz insists on empirical testability of knowledge and on falsificationism as a methodological ideal, which, as he himself admits, can have only a limited application in international relations.

The distribution of capabilities among states can vary; however, anarchy, the ordering principle of international relations, remains unchanged. This has a lasting effect on the behavior of states that become socialized into the logic of self-help. Trying to refute neoliberal ideas concerning the effects of interdependence, Waltz identifies two reasons why the anarchic international system limits cooperation: insecurity and unequal gains. In the context of anarchy, each state is uncertain about the intentions of others and is afraid that the possible gains resulting from cooperation may favor other states more than itself, and thus lead it to dependence on others. “States do not willingly place themselves in situations of increased dependence. In a self-help system, considerations of security subordinate economic gain to political interest.” (Waltz 1979, 107).

Because of its theoretical elegance and methodological rigor, neorealism has become very influential within the discipline of international relations. In the eyes of many scholars, Morgenthau’s realism has come to be seen as anachronistic—“an interesting and important episode in the history of thinking about the subject, no doubt, but one scarcely to be seen as a serious contribution of the rigorously scientific theory” (Williams 2007, 1). However, while initially gaining more acceptance than classical realism, neorealism has also provoked strong critiques on a number of fronts.

In 1979 Waltz wrote that in the nuclear age the international bipolar system, based on two superpowers—the United States and the Soviet Union—was not only stable but likely to persist (176–7). With the fall of the Berlin Wall and the subsequent disintegration of the USSR this prediction was proven wrong. The bipolar world turned out to have been more precarious than most realist analysts had supposed. Its end opened new possibilities and challenges related to globalization. This has led many critics to argue that neorealism, like classical realism, cannot adequately account for changes in world politics.

The new debate between international (neo)realists and (neo)liberals is no longer concerned with the questions of morality and human nature, but with the extent to which state behavior is influenced by the anarchic structure of the international system rather than by institutions, learning and other factors that are conductive to cooperation. In his 1989 book International Institutions and State Power , Robert Keohane accepts Waltz’s emphasis on system-level theory and his general assumption that states are self-interested actors that rationally pursue their goals. However, by employing game theory he shows that states can widen the perception of their self-interest through economic cooperation and involvement in international institutions. Patterns of interdependence can thus affect world politics. Keohane calls for systemic theories that would be able to deal better with factors affecting state interaction, and with change.

Critical theorists, such as Robert W. Cox, also focus on the alleged inability of neorealism to deal with change. In their view, neorealists take a particular, historically determined state-based structure of international relations and assume it to be universally valid. In contrast, critical theorists believe that by analyzing the interplay of ideas, material factors, and social forces, one can understand how this structure has come about, and how it may eventually change (Cox 1986). They contend that neorealism ignores both the historical process during which identities and interests are formed, and the diverse methodological possibilities. It legitimates the existing status quo of strategic relations among states and considers the scientific method as the only way of obtaining knowledge. It represents an exclusionary practice, an interest in domination and control.

While realists are concerned with relations among states and national security, the focus for critical theorists is human security and social emancipation. They focus on social, economic and environmental security for the individual and the group. Despite their differences, critical theory, postmodernism and feminism all take issue with the notion of state sovereignty and envision new political communities that would be less exclusionary vis-à-vis marginal and disenfranchised groups. Critical theory argues against state-based exclusion and denies that the interests of a country’s citizens take precedence over those of outsiders. It insists that politicians should give as much weight to the interests of foreigners as they give to those of their compatriots and envisions political structures beyond the “fortress” nation-state. Postmodernism questions the state’s claim to be a legitimate focus of human loyalties and its right to impose social and political boundaries. It supports cultural diversity and stresses the interests of minorities. Feminism argues that the realist theory exhibits a masculine bias and advocates the inclusion of woman and alternative values into public life.

Since critical theories and other alternative theoretical perspectives question the existing status quo, make knowledge dependent on power, and emphasize identity formation and social change, they are not traditional or non-positivist. They are sometimes called “reflectivist” or “post-positivist” (Weaver 165) and represent a radical departure from the neorealist and neoliberal “rationalist” or “positivist” international relation theories. For critical security theorists, security is not an objective phenomenon. It is essentially social, socially constructed and serves a political agenda. It legitimizes and imposes a political program on society that serves the dominant group. According to the critical securitization theory, the securitizing actor, who could be a politician or the governing party, “encodes a subject or a group as an existential threat to the reference object” (Ari 147). The object could be a state or a non-state group. Such a discursive practice defines threat and danger.

Constructivists, such as Alexander Wendt, try to build a bridge between these two approaches, positivist and post-positivist, by on the one hand, taking the present state system and anarchy seriously, and on the other hand, by focusing on the formation of identities and interests. Countering neorealist ideas, Wendt argues that self-help does not follow logically or casually from the principle of anarchy. It is socially constructed. Wendt’s idea that states’ identities and interests are socially constructed has earned his position the label “constructivism”. Consequently, in his view,“self-help and power politics are institutions, and not essential features of anarchy. Anarchy is what states make of it” (Wendt 1987 395). There is no single logic of anarchy but rather several, depending on the roles with which states identify themselves and each other. Power and interests are constituted by ideas and norms. Wendt claims that neorealism cannot account for change in world politics, but his norm-based constructivism can.

A similar conclusion, although derived in a traditional way, comes from the non-positivist theorists of the English school (International Society approach) who emphasize both systemic and normative constraints on the behavior of states. Referring to the classical view of the human being as an individual that is basically social and rational, capable of cooperating and learning from past experiences, these theorists emphasize that states, like individuals, have legitimate interests that others can recognize and respect, and that they can recognize the general advantages of observing a principle of reciprocity in their mutual relations (Jackson and Sørensen 167). Therefore, states can bind themselves to other states by treaties and develop some common values with other states. Hence, the structure of the international system is not unchangeable as the neorealists claim. It is not a permanent Hobbesian anarchy, permeated by the danger of war. An anarchic international system based on pure power relations among actors can evolve into a more cooperative and peaceful international society, in which state behavior is shaped by commonly shared values and norms. A practical expression of international society are international organizations that uphold the rule of law in international relations, especially the UN.

An unintended and unfortunate consequence of the debate about neorealism is that neorealism and a large part of its critique (with the notable exception of the English School) has been expressed in abstract scientific and philosophical terms. This has made the theory of international politics almost inaccessible to a layperson and has divided the discipline of international relations into incompatible parts. Whereas classical realism was a theory aimed at supporting diplomatic practice and providing a guide to be followed by those seeking to understand and deal with potential threats, today’s theories, concerned with various grand pictures and projects, are ill-suited to perform this task. This is perhaps the main reason why there has been a renewed interest in classical realism, and particularly in the ideas of Morgenthau. Rather than being seen as an obsolete form of pre-scientific realist thought, superseded by neorealist theory, his thinking is now considered to be more complex and of greater contemporary relevance than was earlier recognized (Williams 2007, 1–9). It fits uneasily in the orthodox picture of realism he is usually associated with.

In recent years, scholars have questioned prevailing narratives about clear theoretical traditions in the discipline of international relations. Thucydides, Machiavelli, Hobbes and other thinkers have become subject to re-examination as a means of challenging prevailing uses of their legacies in the discipline and exploring other lineages and orientations. Morgenthau has undergone a similar process of reinterpretation. A number of scholars (Hartmut Behr, Muriel Cozette, Amelia Heath, Sean Molloy) have endorsed the importance of his thought as a source of change for the standard interpretation of realism. Murielle Cozette stresses Morgenthau’s critical dimension of realism expressed in his commitment to “speak truth to power” and to “unmask power’s claims to truth and morality,” and in his tendency to assert different claims at different times (Cozette 10–12). She writes: “The protection of human life and freedom are given central importance by Morgenthau, and constitute a ‘transcendent standard of ethics’ which should always animate scientific enquiries” (19). This shows the flexibility of his classical realism and reveals his normative assumptions based on the promotion of universal moral values. While Morgenthau assumes that states are power-oriented actors, he at the same time acknowledges that international politics would be more pernicious than it actually is were it not for moral restraints and the work of international law(Behr and Heath 333).

Another avenue for the development of a realist theory of international relations is offered by Robert Gilpin’s seminal work War and Change in World Politics . If this work were to gain greater prominence in IR scholarship, instead of engaging in fruitless theoretical debates, we would be better prepared today “for rapid power shifts and geopolitical change ”(Wohlforth, 2011 505). We would be able to explain the causes of great wars and long periods of peace, and the creation and waning of international orders. Still another avenue is provided by the application of the new scientific discoveries to social sciences. The evidence for this is, for example, the recent work of Alexander Wendt, Quantum Mind and Social Science . A new realist approach to international politics could be based on the organic and holistic world view emerging from quantum theory, the idea of human evolution, and the growing awareness of the role of human beings in the evolutionary process (Korab-Karpowicz 2017).

Realism is thus more than a static, amoral theory, and cannot be accommodated solely within a positivist interpretation of international relations. It is a practical and evolving theory that depends on the actual historical and political conditions, and is ultimately judged by its ethical standards and by its relevance in making prudent political decisions (Morgenthau 1962). In place of the twentieth-century Cold War ideological rivalry, the main competition in the twenty-first-century is between the ideologies justifying the expansion of the US-dominated unipolar world and those supporting the reestablishment of a multipolar one (Müllerson 2017). Consequently, the growing tensions among superpowers have contributed to the revival of the idealist-realist debate and have caused a resurgence of interest in realism. John Mearsheimer is an important thinker in this respect, known for his pessimistic concept of offensive realism, which assumes that powerful states, such as the United States, would aim at the maximization of power and domination over others (Mearsheimer 2001). His late work, The Liberal Delusion (Mearsheimer 2019), in which he presents realist arguments against a liberal position, can already be considered a classic of the theory of international relations.

As the current revival of interest proves, realism is a theory for difficult times, when security becomes a real issue. This happens when countries face the danger of an armed conflict. In such situations, realism performs a useful cautionary role. It warns us against progressivism, moralism, legalism and other orientations that lose touch with the reality of self-interest and power. It is a necessary corrective to an overoptimistic liberal belief in international cooperation and change resulting from interdependence, as well as to a critical theory claim that our insecurity is merely a result of securitization.

Nevertheless, when it becomes a dogmatic enterprise, by focusing on conflict alone, realism fails to perform its proper function as a theory of international relations. By remaining stuck in a state-centric and excessively simplified “paradigm” such as neorealism and by denying the possibility of any progress in interstate relations, it turns into an ideology. Its emphasis on power politics and national interest can be misused to justify aggression. It has therefore to be supplanted by theories that take better account of the dramatically changing picture of global politics. To its merely negative, cautionary function, positive norms must be added. These norms extend from the rationality and prudence stressed by classical realists; through the vision of multilateralism, international law, and an international society emphasized by liberals and members of the English School; to the cosmopolitanism and global solidarity advocated by many of today’s writers.

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How to cite this entry . Preview the PDF version of this entry at the Friends of the SEP Society . Look up topics and thinkers related to this entry at the Internet Philosophy Ontology Project (InPhO). Enhanced bibliography for this entry at PhilPapers , with links to its database.
  • Political Realism , entry the Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy .
  • Political Realism , entry in Wikipedia .
  • Melian Dialogue , by Thucydides.
  • The Prince , by Machiavelli.
  • The Twenty Years’ Crisis (Chapter 4: The Harmony of Interests), by E.H. Carr.
  • Principles of Realism , by H. Morgenthau.
  • Peace and War , by Raymond Aron.
  • Globalization and Governance , by Kenneth Waltz.

egoism | ethics: natural law tradition | game theory | Hobbes, Thomas: moral and political philosophy | justice: international distributive | liberalism | Machiavelli, Niccolò | sovereignty | war

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War, Strategy, And International Politics: Essays in Honour of Sir Michael Howard

War, Strategy, And International Politics: Essays in Honour of Sir Michael Howard

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This wide-ranging collection covers many topics of interest in the related fields of military history and strategic studies. The contributors are all distinguished scholars, whose depth of research and variety of approach combine to produce a rewarding book and a substantive contribution to knowledge. Their common theme is the exploration of the relationships between strategic planning, the conduct of war, and high politics. The volume is dedicated to Sir Michael Howard, formerly Regius Professor of History in the University of Oxford. The broad scope of the work reflects the nature of Sir Michael's scholarship over a long and distinguished career.

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Home — Essay Samples — Government & Politics — International Politics

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Essays on International Politics

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The Ways of Analyzing International Politics

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How The Border Wall of Mexico Will Harm The United States

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Impact of Ai on International Commercial Arbitration

"character assassination": moral evaluation of politicians in pakistan, the role of dialogue in politics, rational choice as a theoretical approach in studying politics and international relations, overview of successes and failures of the league of nations, promotion of international relations, the rise of japanese-american conflict during the interwar period, the peacebuilding process, how the united nations is failing in its missions, un organs description, the consolidation of eu as an emerging superpower, the issues of sovereignty and the right to humanitarian intervention, the rise of the far right and european union, advantages and disadvantages of the united nations, the us-iran conflict: on the threshold of the third world war, issues with the red cross: the need to abandon old practices, relevant topics.

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Introduction to International Politics

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Nadia Sophia Porcel Roldán

international politics essay

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This updated and revised second edition examines the conceptualisation and evolution of peace in International Relations (IR) theory. The book examines the concept of peace and its usage in the main theoretical debates in IR, including realism, liberalism, constructivism, critical theory, and post-structuralism, as well as in the more direct debates on peace and conflict studies. It explores themes relating to culture, development, agency, and structure, not just in terms of representations of IR, and of peace, but in terms of the discipline of IR itself. The work also specifically explores the recent mantras associated with liberal and neoliberal versions of peace, which appear to have become foundational for much of the mainstream literature and for doctrines for peace and development in the policy world. Analysing war has often led to the dominance – and mitigation – of violence as a basic assumption in, and response to, the problems of IR. This study aims to redress this negative balance by arguing that the discipline offers a rich basis for the study of peace, which has advanced significantly over the last century or so. It also proposes innovative theoretical dimensions of the study of peace, with new chapters discussing post-colonial and digital developments. Table of Contents Introduction Part I: Towards and Orthodoxy of Peace- and Beyond 1. Peace and the Idealist Tradition: Towards a Liberal Peace 2. A Realist Agenda for Peace: Survival and a Victor’s Peace 3. Marxist Agendas for Peace: Towards Peace as Social Justice and Emancipation 4. Beyond a Idealist, Realist, or Marxist Version of Peace 5. The Contribution of Peace and Conflict Studies Part II: Post-Positivism and Peace 6. Critical Contributions to Peace 7. Post-Structuralist Contributions to Peace 8. Post-Colonial Contributions to Peace 9. New theories: the environment, actors, networks, mobility, and technology

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Acknowledgement The author acknowledges the various universities whose course descriptions have led to the final output of this document. It is the desire that this handbook be used purposely in perpetuating knowledge for the requisite departments and for the students benefit. I wish also to thank all other scholars whose works have been valuable in enrichment of the course outlines herein. Any misdeamenors are the authors. The author’s outlines are open for progressive improvements.

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This book examines the way in which peace is conceptualised in International Relations (IR) theory, a topic which has until now been largely overlooked. It explores the way peace has been implicitly conceptualised within the different strands of IR theory, and in the policy world as exemplified through practices in peacebuilding efforts since the end of the Cold War.


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Home Essay Samples Government

Essay Samples on International Politics

The cold war: a comprehensive examination (dbq).

The Cold War, a geopolitical and ideological conflict between the United States and the Soviet Union, left an indelible mark on the 20th century. This essay employs a Document-Based Question (DBQ) approach to delve into the multifaceted aspects of the Cold War, analyzing its origins,...

  • International Politics

Growing Global International Threats and Defense Strategies

Henry Kissinger was not entirely incorrect when he said “today’s threats more frequently arise from the disintegration of state power and the growing number of ungoverned territories.” However, there are currently several threats are reemerging in the world from a strengthening of power. Some of...

  • International Relations
  • International Trade

Colombia: A Politically Stable Country

Generally, Colombia is a politically stable country. For years, the Colombian government has been trying to combat terrorist groups in Colombia. In 2016, it signed a peace deal with Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), the country’s largest guerilla group, ending the 52 years conflict....

Could 9/11 Attack Have Been Prevented

9/11 was an attack that has negatively impacted the United States till this day. Thousands of people’s lives were taken and till this day, it still affects their health. After this attack happened, people were looking for answers as to why did this happen? Why...

The Complexity of the Crimea Crisis and Possible Solutions to Put an End to It

Crimea is an integral part Ukraine. Crimea is located on the Ukrainian mainland and is a peninsula off the coast of the Black Sea annexed by Russian forces in 2014 and has yet to be taken back. The conflict regards which federal nation has the...

  • International Law

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Russian Foreign Policy Change in Context of The Crimea Annexation

Introduction At the beginning of 2014, a situation that no one in an international environment predicted happened. The annexation of the Crimean Peninsula by the Russian Federation. Against the backdrop of the outbreak of civil conflict and political revolution in Ukraine, Russia took advantage of...

  • Foreign Policy

Mapping Chinese World Exploration: Gavin Menzies' Theory

In elementary school, one of the first substantial pieces of history that the teacher engrains into the developing minds of young students is that Christopher Columbus sailed the ocean blue to discover the United States of America in 1492. What if you were informed that...

Analysis of the Chinese Impact on the World Throughout Its History

China’s role in the world experienced some transformations from ancient to modern times. Some significant changes in roles act by China mainly appeared in the economic and political aspects throughout the three long periods in history mentioned in the course, which were the Antiquity in...

How New World Order Conspiracy Theory Impacted the History

“What is at stake is more than one country, it is the whole entire world. A New World Order has been in place, where diverse/many nations are drawn together in a common cause, so that they can achieve the universal aspirations of mankind such as;...

  • New World Order

Understanding the Policies and Conditions of the Paris Agreement

Introduction A key segment of worldwide approach making today is to battle the harmful impacts of environmental change on our condition. Environmental change as a wonder has caught the eye of the entire world basically in light of the fact that it is something that...

Paris Agreement: The Complicated Tangle of International Politics

With the remarkable expansion in the sphere and scale of human activities triggered by globalisation, environmental problems such as climate change have been considered as a threat to earth and mankind. These problems cannot be solved by a single country. They require joint, cross-border approach...

The Possible Consequences of US Rush Withdrawal from the Paris Agreement

Everyday grocery prices are skyrocketing, a glimpse of snow is near impossible, and polar bears no longer exist. The year is 2050, a little over 30 years from now. A few decades ago, the US made the decision to exit the Paris Agreement that had...

Concept of Power in International System and Its Hierarchy

Modern thinking about power begun in the 16th century and the 17th century with Nicollò Machiavelli (The Prince) and Thomas Hobbes (Leviathan) and they are acknowledged as classics and references in political theories. However, power is not a defined concept; it is a matter of...

  • Hierarchy of Power
  • Machiavelli

Saudi Arabia’s War Crimes: Why Does the United States Fund Them?

In the time it will take the average person to read this 6-page essay, a child in Yemen will have starved to death. Due to the current Saudi-Arabian and Iranian sponsored proxy war happening in Yemen, 2.2 million children are in need of urgent care,...

  • Saudi Arabia

International Cooperation in Sister Province and Sister City Scheme

Background The influence or effect of globalization has brought forth rapid development which almost happens in all aspects of human lives, especially in producing a various form of cooperation in the world. This matter is particularly influenced by the tendency of awareness that each nation’s...

  • Globalization

The International Profit and Dependancy of the Korean War

The major downfall of the European and American forces is that they underestimated the Asian forces, and the willingness of China to fight in protection of its interests. They saw the Koreans as an inferior people, and this prejudice led them to believe that they...

The Pursuit Of Material Self-Interest Behind State Action

The driving factors behind state action is a widely speculated and debated topic. Material self-interest, for one, is said by Neorealist Theorists to be a key factor in determining how states act – Neorealists emphasize the material aspects of international politics, focusing on how it...

  • Materialism

Interstate And Intra-State Conflicts: Main Causes And Effective Ways Of Resolution

The state is the only entity eligible to make use of “physical violence” by this, it can always be involved in every conflict. But this does not presuppose that conflict can occur within the state alone since by being actors of the international system, states...

  • Conflict Resolution
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Best topics on International Politics

1. The Cold War: A Comprehensive Examination (DBQ)

2. Growing Global International Threats and Defense Strategies

3. Colombia: A Politically Stable Country

4. Could 9/11 Attack Have Been Prevented

5. The Complexity of the Crimea Crisis and Possible Solutions to Put an End to It

6. Russian Foreign Policy Change in Context of The Crimea Annexation

7. Mapping Chinese World Exploration: Gavin Menzies’ Theory

8. Analysis of the Chinese Impact on the World Throughout Its History

9. How New World Order Conspiracy Theory Impacted the History

10. Understanding the Policies and Conditions of the Paris Agreement

11. Paris Agreement: The Complicated Tangle of International Politics

12. The Possible Consequences of US Rush Withdrawal from the Paris Agreement

13. Concept of Power in International System and Its Hierarchy

14. Saudi Arabia’s War Crimes: Why Does the United States Fund Them?

15. International Cooperation in Sister Province and Sister City Scheme

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International Politics, Essay Example

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How the Historical Development of Foreign Policy Analysis Resulted from the Cold War Era

Arguably, the attacks against the United States on 11 September 2001 caused an unexpected close to the transitional phase that preceded the end of the Cold War (Herbert Simon, 1985). However if the destruction of the Twin Towers Manhattan and the attacked Pentagon acted as a defining moment in our understanding of recent history, then there could be no period that could come to a close on that particular time. In light of the cultural origins and politico-religion motives of the suspected victims, the tragedies consequently act as a harbinger of a return to the civilization clash that could be enunciated by the political scientists called Samuel P. Huntington in 1993, with its concomitant ethnic and religious determinants. Also, the attacks were not so much linked to the resurgence of old civilization fault lines and their underlying antagonisms without the presence of bipolar ideological conflict but rather the impacts of a palpable United State unilateralism, by extension also, Western political and military preponderance in the decade after the Cold War.

Apart from the fact that watersheds in history lead to conceptual devices informed by individual preferences, the questions that were raised could not even be conclusively answered at this stage because historical analysis is predicated on an ex post facto event assessment (Herbert Simon, 1985). Additionally, there is invariably neither silver bullet nor single explanatory model that might give a definitive answer to the rise of violent conflict of every kind at every stage in history.

The reorientation of Soviet foreign policy under Mikhail Serveievich and the East-West reconciliation is brought about constitute a formidable challenge to international relations theory. Neither realists, liberals, institutionalisms, nor peace scholars recognized beforehand the likelihood of such moments change, and they have all been struggling to find explanations consistent with their theories. The continuing transformation of the international system represents system and double surprise for the profession. Most theorists and policy analysts assumed the fact that bipolarity and associated Soviet-American rivalry could persevere for the foreseeable future.  In the unlikely event of a system change, the catalyst for it would be superpower war.

The old balance of power between the Great Powers of Europe had crumbled before the rampant expansionism and nationalism; the logic of the Cold War gave birth to the world, a global system in which the new strong nations maintained a precarious nuclear balance. Just after the World War II, the Cold War became the defining nature of the international system (Herbert Simon, 1985). After 1975 the entire world witnessed the rise of the Second Cold War including the fundamental change in the global system, changing it into a multipolar system as economic forces increasingly interlocked with political matters in shaping history.

Nonrealists and realists were interested in how and why the East-West conflict was resolved. To answer this particular question, they require a more specific understanding of the nature of that conflict and the stages via which it passed. The dependent variable should be delineated before the search for independent variables can start. Most analysis of the end of the East-West conflict aimed on the regulations of Mikhail Gorbachev. This is quite understandable as his liberalization of the Soviet system, sponsorship of political transformation in Eastern Europe, and commitment to disarmament were the catalysts of accommodation. However, as Kenneth Oye and Richard Herr-man pointed out in their essays here, major improvement occurred in East-West relations long before the coming of Gorbachev to power.

The Cold War is generally believed to have started in 1947 and to have had twin had twin top of tension. The first top, between 1948- 1954, was typified by acute confrontations in Korea, Central Europe, and Taiwan Straits.

During the time of Gorbachev, East-West relations were importantly stable. Twenty-three years had elapsed after the last-threatening problem. The superpowers perceived each other’s commitment to avoid war for granted and had gone into a series of arms control and “regulations of road” agreements that controlled their strategic competition and interaction.

This anxiousness review of the Cold War suggests that the policies given by Gorbachev initiated the last phase of reformations that had been proceeding fitfully from the death of Stalin. Gorbachev could not have contemplated or have been permitted to undertake his basic reforms, asymmetrical arms control agreements, and liberation of Eastern Europe if he or the majority of the Central Committee had expected a hostile West to respond violently to a visibly weaker Soviet Union (Herbert Simon, 1985). The availability of Gorbachev and his major associates to make unilateral concessions showed that for them the Cold War had already receded into the past. They were doing away with its atavistic institutional remaining to enable the cooperation with their former adversaries and the important this was anticipated to come up with.

The aged equilibrium of power between the Great Powers of Europe had disintegrated in the countenance of rampant expansionism and nationalism; the reason of the Cold War provided birth to the bipolar world, a global system in which the new superpowers upheld a precarious nuclear balance. In the instant result of World War II, the Cold War was at first meddled in Europe. In only a decade, however, the Cold War became the defining characteristic of the international system. The conflict’s second decade (roughly 1955–1965) brought the world to the edge of total destruction, but a significant step in the direction of the relaxation of relations between the superpowers was achieved thereafter. After 1975 the world witnessed the coming of the Second Cold War, as well as a basic change in the global system, changing it into a multipolar arrangement.  This caused the economy to gradually interlock with political issues in shaping the history (Herbert Simon, 1985). Lastly, economic pressures, as much as politics, decided the outcome of the Cold War: the Soviet Union eventually paid a high price for collectivism and the attendant command economy it had established, while democratic system and capitalism showed more tough in the West.

Apart from the two most important parties to the Cold War, there were those who achieved and even more who lost. More always than not, for those wedged between the competitors there was no option. They became the victims of the Cold War. It was no coincidence that the hot spots of the Cold War were located in the third world, where millions yearned for national independence only to struggle with massive impoverishment and political unsteadiness once they achieved it. To the superpowers, Europe as the terminus a quo (point of origin) of the Cold War did not present itself as a possible battleground for a significant reason: the hazard of growth—conventional and nuclear—was too high. While most wars of the Cold War were battled in Asia, Africa, and the Middle East in Europe the Cold War advanced into a long calm. As of the late 1950s, the superpowers wooed developing countries with an intention of turning them into auxiliaries, thereby spreading and perpetuating the dynamic of the Cold War beyond its erstwhile limits.

Basing on the above information, the historical development of Foreign Policy Analysis is a result of the Cold War era. The principal dissimilarity between preceding wars, even international wars, and the Cold War was that the previous wars (with the exemption of the U.S. bombings of Nagasaki and Hiroshima in August 1945) had all been battled with conventional weapons, while the adversaries of the Cold War had nuclear caches at their fingertips. The destructiveness of nuclear bludgeons, to state the apparent, far surpassed that of any conventional bludgeon. If the balance of the Cold War had yet been seriously agitated—say, in the late 1970s—this successive endeavor at composing a history of global relations would, in all likelihood, never have been printed (Herbert Simon, 1985). More commonly, the chances and jeopardy of the Cold War whereas it lasted were privileged still than those for which World War II had been battled. Symbolically speaking, if the Cold War had increasingly turned hot, it factually would have been the conflict to end all battles, plunging the world into a nuclear holocaust of unprecedented stages. It is to the starting of this story and its narration that we now revolve.

Seweryn Bialer, (1980) the Soviet Paradox: External Expansion, Internal Decline New York: Cambridge University Press.

Gardner, (1985) the Mind’s New Science: A History of the Cognitive Revolution . New York: Basic.

For instance, see Sarah Mendelson, (1993) “ Internal Battles and External Wars: Politics, Learning, and the Soviet Withdrawal from Afghanistan ,” World

Herbert Simon, (1985) “Human Nature in Politics: The Dialogue of Psychology with Political Science,” American Political Science Review.

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international politics essay

Essay 1- International Politics and Diplomatic History: Fruitful Differences 29 min read

I t may be useful to mark the addition of Security Studies to the H-Diplo list by discussing some of the differences in the way historians and political scientists typically approach our common subject matter. [2]   Is it too much to say that our relations are symbiotic or even that we are doomed to a marriage?  Although we have significant differences and often squabble, we not only need to stay together for the sake of the kids (i.e., our students), but while we sometimes do not want to acknowledge it, we draw great sustenance and even pleasure from each other.  From the political science side, it seems to me that the investment and affections are a bit asymmetric in that most of us see the great importance of international history, [3] while historians draw less from political science and sometimes have the temerity to doubt the value of the discipline.  In my last year of graduate studies at Berkeley I took a fine course on European international history by the renowned Raymond Sontag.  I very much enjoyed and learned from the course, but when I talked to him about drawing on history for my dissertation, while he treated me with great personal kindness, he made clear that he really didn’t see why political science was needed and hoped that I would not muck up his field.  On the other hand, many historians have not only tolerated and even encouraged our intrusions, they have drawn on our theories.  For all our differences, we share a fascination with the patterns, idiosyncrasies, and changes in cross-border relations.

H- Diplo | ISSF Partnership

Christopher ball, h-diplo/issf managing and commissioning editor diane labrosse, h-diplo/issf editor at large george fujii, web and production editor, h- diplo | issf essays , number 1, international politics and diplomatic history:  fruitful differences, author:  robert jervis , columbia university, published by h-diplo/issf on 12 march 2010, https://issforum.org/issf/pdf/issf-jervis-inaguraladdress.pdf.

International Politics and Diplomatic History: Fruitful Differences [1]

Robert Jervis , Columbia University

We both want to explain international history.  When I said this at the H-Diplo conference at Williams College last spring, Randy Schweller objected that political scientists seek to develop and test theories rather than to explain events.  I do not entirely disagree, but would reply that although we have differences in our stance towards facts and generalizations, political scientists want to develop theories that are not only parsimonious and rooted in general social science, but that shed light on (i.e., explain at least in part) events and patterns in international history.

There are important differences in style, aesthetics, and approaches, and my brief remarks can hardly do justice to all of them.  But a minor point may be worth making at the start.  It seems to many of us in political science that historians are gluttons for punishment, and we marvel at their linguistic competence and ability to penetrate and synthesize enormous amounts of material.  Years ago, I was talking to my good friend Bob Dallek about whether he was going to take a break now that he had finished the enormous effort of producing his two-volume biography of Lyndon Johnson.  He said he had originally planned to, “but I just learned that they are opening a million new pages of material on Kennedy, and I just can’t resist.”  Most of us in political science would have a quite a different reaction, but we are very glad that Bob and his colleague produce such books.

There is a perhaps associated difference between the scholars in their stance toward facts.  I do not want to get into the difficult and important question of what exactly we mean by facts, whether they can exist independently of our interpretations, and related issues of epistemology and ontology.  But for all the debate, everyone agrees both that facts do not speak for themselves and that not all interpretations have equal claims on our beliefs.  That said, Schweller’s point is relevant here.  Political scientists generally seek theories of some generality and in pursuit of them the field has provided license to do some but not unlimited injustice to facts and individual cases.  There is no easy way to sum up community norms here, and I will just say that while political scientists cannot give the facts the third degree to get them to tell us what we need for our theories, we can rough them up a bit.  We should be aware of what we are doing, however, and alert our readers of this, taking special care to point them to alternative interpretations.  Since we are often painting in broader strokes and looking for ways to explain a great deal with a relatively few factors and relationships, we can utilize understandings of history that simplify and trim it.  In this way, political scientists have something in common with postmodernists in our willingness to draw on interpretations that we know are partial and contested.  Indeed, in some cases we can be happy to take contested facts and interpretations as hypotheticals.  Thus even if Germany sought a war in 1914 rather than being dragged into it by its weaker ally, Austria-Hungary, political scientists can use the latter interpretation as an example of the pernicious dynamics that can be at work in a multipolar system, especially one in which a strong state has become dependent on a weaker one.

The ground-rules are not entirely clear here, but whatever they are, they are different from those governing historians.  Well, most historians.  It seems to me that A. J. P. Taylor was a political scientist in this regard, much as he would be horrified by the thought.  As I read his marvelous books, they appear to resemble political science in being heavily thesis-driven and even theory-driven.  The facts are pushed, pulled, and twisted to fit his fascinating argument, and this is as true of his first major book, Germany’s First Bid for Colonies as it is of his (in)famous The Origins of the Second World War .  As wrong as he is about both cases, he not only stimulated scholars to go deeper into the material to show his errors, he also developed important ideas that may be fruitful even if they do not apply in these cases.


The passage of time is central to history and so it is not surprising that most historical studies are built around chronology.  This is not to say that these accounts simply put one thing after another, but that understanding how positions develop and change and how relations evolve or unfold through time is central to the historian’s task.  History is a story, and although we sometimes tell stories out of chronological order to achieve various effects, most of them have a beginning, a middle, and an end, even if the choice of starting and stopping points is not easy and is consequential, as I will note below.  To the extent that historians are explicitly concerned with causation, the underlying rationale for this approach is clear:  the events, attitudes, and structures existing at one point in time influence if not determine those that come later.

Political scientists generally do it quite differently.  Regardless of whether they use case studies or statistical data (what are known as large-N studies), they generally use the comparative method to get at causation.  The basic epistemology follows John Stuart Mill in trying to determine the effect of a variable (a term that puts most historians’ teeth on edge) by comparing cases (another term that historians dislike—they are studying people, processes, and events in themselves, not as cases) in which it is present or has assumed one value with cases in which it is absent or different.  The treatment of cases themselves may be chronological, but the exercise is in service of comparisons to other cases.  Later I will discuss the virtues of the comparative method that historians sometimes miss, but here want to note problems with comparisons of which historians are fully aware.  Political scientists try to look at cases that are the same except for a difference on one dimension whose significance they wish to probe, and large-N studies essentially do the same thing with sophisticated statistical methods designed to measure the influence of each factor.  Both share the assumptions that the cases are independent of one another.  Sometimes they are.  But when we are dealing with a series of interactions between to countries, or instances in which countries have been observing what others are doing, this may not be the case.  Later interactions may turn out as they did not because of the variables political scientists are focusing on, but because citizens or decision-makers observed the course of previous interactions and adjusted their behavior accordingly.  To take a crude example, a state may stand firm (or back down) in one confrontation not because of the “underlying” variables political scientists are prone to look at, but because of lessons (perhaps incorrect) drawn from previous crises.

Political scientists do not entirely shun chronology.  Statistical fixes can be deployed, there is quite a bit of work on learning, and some political scientists have stressed the importance of “path-dependence”—the way in which choices and events can set enduring patterns.  But it is nevertheless the case that the comparative method is drilled into them in graduate school (or perhaps it is an affinity with this approach that has drawn them to the discipline), and chronology is rarely the backbone of their analysis.

Related to chronology is something that is more an issue and a question than it is a divide between the two disciplines.  This is the importance (or lack thereof) of turning-points and irreversibility.  Historians often discuss the former explicitly, but demonstrating their existence is notoriously difficult and the related question of irreversibility is discussed even less frequently.  The essential argument has to be that certain events move a relationship or the course of history in a direction from which it is difficult to be dislodged.  The Obama administration has tried to push the “reset” button in Russian-American relations.  The new administration has indeed reversed or changed some of the previous policies, but is a true reset possible?  Or, rather, under what conditions is it possible?  We lack the memory-erasing device used so well in Men in Black .  At the end of a “conversation” in which Director of Central Intelligence John McCone berated an Assistant Secretary of Defense over the latter’s refusal to grant CIA sufficient influence over intelligence satellites, the Assistant Secretary said:  “Mr. McCone, let’s forget about this whole episode, please.” [4]   All we can get, however, is an agreement to pretend that we will forget, which is a pale imitation of forgetting, if not a negation of it.  Some changes can be reversed only with great difficulty, if at all.  Thus many people would like the Obama administration to pick up relations with other countries as they were in January 2001.  But the intervening years cannot be wiped out.  For example, it is possible to argue that if Bush had continued the Clinton policies he could have ended North Korea’s nuclear and missile programs but to also conclude that North Korean policies, preferences, and beliefs have now changed, partly in response to what Bush did and partly as a result of factors in Korean domestic politics, in a way that has ended this opportunity.  This is not to say that events always narrow the range of possible choices; in other cases it can widen them.  What is important is that the sensitivity to changes over time should alert us to the importance of turning points and irreversibility.  Historians may be quicker to see the importance of this, but it is fair game for all of us.

Another aspect of the importance of chronology is the role of timing.  There are three areas of interest here.  First, scholars, members of the interested public, and diplomats often ask whether the time is ripe for a settlement, and although showing whether or not this is the case is extremely difficult (except by resorting to circular reasoning in which the presence or absence of a settlement shows whether or not the time was ripe), the topic is clearly important for analyses of whether there were missed opportunities and—the opposite side of the coin—whether premature diplomatic initiatives have made things worse.

The second category is related but broader.  Decision-makers and commentators often believe that a policy, act, or initiative can be effective if launched at the right time and ineffective otherwise.  Sometimes the key question is what should come first, as in the recent argument between Prime Minister Netanyahu and President Obama over whether progress in negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians would facilitate an agreement with Iran (because the former would make it easier for Arab states to put pressure on Iran) or whether the order should be reversed (because Iran is the more pressing danger and getting it out of the nuclear business would make it much easier to settle other issues in the Middle East).  More generally, an expressed willingness to negotiate can lead to fruitful talks if and only if the other side is ready; a threat may be inappropriate if made too soon and ineffective if made too late, but can convey the desired message if it comes at the right time; a concession that would be taken as a sign of weakness if made too early or right after the other side has taken a belligerent action can lead to reciprocation if it comes on the heels of firmness on other issues.  Saddam Hussein’s offers on Kuwait in 1991 were always “a day late and a dollar short,” and the fact that we have a saying for this phenomenon indicates its prevalence.  Had he expressed a willingness to withdraw earlier, he could have avoided a military defeat and kept his forces intact.  Despite errors like this, leaders often pride themselves on their sense of timing, and Neville Chamberlain’s letters to his sisters are filled with self-congratulatory statements about his skill in this regard and with claims that Hitler has “missed the bus.” [5]   On the other side of this coin, A.J. P. Taylor argued that Hitler “became involved [sic] in war through launching on 29 August a diplomatic manoeuvre which he ought to have launched on 28 August.” [6]   That I would join with most historians in rejecting these claims is not inconsistent with arguing that they are getting at an aspect of interaction that is very important, rarely the subject of explicit analysis, and hard to theorize about.

Timing enters in another way as well, one that has been be of more interest to political scientists.  This is the extent to which timing problems can inhibit agreements and, relatedly, the way in which creative negotiators can construct agreements to surmount these hurdles.  The basic problem is that in many cases each side wants the other to go first.  This is true in two senses.  Each wants the other to take the initiative in opening negotiations, hinting at the possibility of a solution, or making offers of possible concessions.  The reason is that although these steps can lead to agreement if they are reciprocated, they also may be taken by the other side as signs of weakness and may lead it to toughen its position, putting the state at a bargaining disadvantage or even placing an agreement beyond reach.  As with missed opportunities, it is hard to determine how many solutions have been destroyed by this mechanism, but it is clear that national leaders often have refused to take diplomatic initiatives out of fear that doing so would make them appear weak.  An important topic for research is how and when these fears have been overcome and how diplomats have been able to craft initiatives that open the way for fruitful negotiations if the other side so desires while minimizing the undesired consequences if the other seeks exploitation.  Ambiguity and intermediaries can be useful here, but of course such signals lend themselves to being missed or misinterpreted. [7]

The other aspect of this timing problem is that in the absence of enforcement mechanisms, states must safeguard against the danger that the other side will cheat on any agreement that has been reached.  Each will then want the other to take the first steps to carry it out in order to minimize the chance that the state will be exploited and to leave open the possibility for the state to exploit the other.  The basic trick in formulating an agreement is then to divide up transactions into a series of small steps so that reneging at any point provides little gain, and to develop sequences that build trust, provide transparency into what each side is doing, and ensure that at each stage each side has incentives to continue complying.  All this is easier said than done, of course, and both historians and political scientists might do well to devote more attention to these problems.  They help tell us when and why agreements are reached, alert us to the role of diplomatic creativity, and could help states reach agreements in the future.  To take just one example, I suspect that one reason why the agreements between the Bush administration and North Korea fell apart is that they required the North to provide a full accounting of its nuclear materials and programs too early in the process.  Complying would have given away much of the North’s bargaining leverage and reduced the incentives for the U.S. to comply with the later stages of the agreement.

The final aspect of timing questions is one that I adverted to earlier.  Scholarly analyses of conflict have to start at some point in time.  But this is often the nub of the dispute both between scholars and between the countries.  The fundamental question often is the same as the one that comes up in the playground or between squabbling siblings: who started it?  The date that you pick to begin your analysis predisposes an answer to the crucial question of responsibility.  The obvious response to analysis that indicates that country X was at fault in a dispute by pointing to what it did at a particular time is that this overlooks country Y’s previous provocation.  In many cases, threats and hostility between two countries are reciprocated, and disentangling causes and effects is extremely difficult.  There are no simple ways to proceed here, and I will be content with the general point that it helps to be aware of the problem.


It is too easy to say that historians are concerned with individual cases and political scientists seek generalizations.  In fact, we cannot understand any a particular case without implicit if not explicit ideas about how states normally behave, and generalizations rest on specific cases.  Furthermore, some historians explicitly use the comparative method, either between cases or within a single one, as Ernest May did in his analysis of the causes of American expansionism at the turn of the 20 th century. [8]

Nevertheless, the stereotype contains a significant measure of truth.  I think it is not just my own disciplinary affiliation that leads me to believe that the comparative methods can be quite useful, and indeed often are necessary.  Scholars sometimes look at a particular case or the behavior of a particular country and attribute causation to factors unique to those circumstances or country.  The conclusion may be correct, but it can be securely reached only by looking at other cases or other countries.  The obvious example is American foreign policy under George W. Bush.  To oversimplify, many if not most analyses fall into the categories of the good, the bad, and the ugly.  Scholars and analysts who strongly approve of Bush’s policies generally see them as rooted in the unusual American commitment to liberty and taking preventative actions.  Critics, usually on the left, attribute the behavior to the malign imperatives of the American economic system or to a sick political culture.  The methodological problem with both claims is that they do not compare American behavior to that of other countries in somewhat similar circumstances.  I cannot claim to have done so systematically, but my Realist proclivities lean me to the argument that the U.S. is generally behaving as great powers have done in the past when they have confronted situations that combine both danger and opportunity.  The U.S. is not particularly good or particularly bad, international politics just is ugly.  I would not expect such a bald statement to convince skeptics and have provided at least a bit of evidence for it elsewhere, [9] but it is harder to dispute the methodological point that attributions of American behavior to its internal characteristics require comparisons to the behavior of other countries.

Another aspect of the utility of comparisons and generalizations is raised by the perennial debates over of nuclear weapons in the crucial 1945-1947 period.  Although historians argue fiercely about why Truman dropped the bomb, they apply essentially the same techniques of historical analysis, looking at what Truman and others said and heard, how they changed (or didn’t) in response to new events and new information, and what views they held on subjects such as Soviet intentions and the killing of Japanese civilians.  While I find these discussions fascinating, as a political scientist I would approach the matter more simply (giving historians the opportunity to reply that this is unhistorical and simple-minded).  I would start with the generalization that unless there are pressing considerations to the contrary, states involved in a total war will use all the weapons at their disposal.  There are exceptions, of course:  Hitler refrained from using nerve gas during World War II because he mistakenly believed that the Allies had developed this weapon and would reply in kind, and the U.S. decision not to use more primitive but still effective gases in the last stages of the war against Japan is harder to explain.  But do we find cases in which a country had a new weapon of enormous power that might terminate the conflict on favorable terms and declined to use it?  I cannot think of any.  The basic methodological point is that, assuming there aren’t any or at least aren’t many such cases, at one level I would not see any reason to go any further because the explanation for Truman’s behavior is nothing peculiar to Truman, to the U.S., or to the specific situation.  Rather it is just another instance of the prevailing ugly pattern in international politics.

Even if I am correct in the generalization, one can argue about whether it constitutes an explanation and explore the relations among generalizations, laws, and explanations.  Indeed, I can dredge up some faint memories of discussions of Hempel’s “Covering Law” argument.  This is a large topic, and my only point here is that if my generalization is correct, it strongly implies that any leader would have dropped the bomb even if many other circumstances had been different, including concerns about the Soviet Union.  Of course this does not exclude the possibility that the desire to limit the Soviet gains from the war or to intimidate the USSR were also present.  Behavior often seems and perhaps is overdetermined in that we can find multiple impulses, any one of which on its own arguably could have been sufficient to have produced it: a person can die after having been both poisoned and shot.  But this perspective does say that the act of dropping the bomb is not a puzzle, and I think much of the emotional power behind the debate lies in the implicit counterfactual claim that absent Soviet concerns Truman would have behaved differently or that a more thoughtful leader like FDR would have drawn back.

The failure to bring the atom under international control has similarly been the site of fierce arguments, many of which revolve around the traditional and revisionist explanations for the origins of the Cold War, with the attendant distribution of the blame between the U.S. and the USSR.  My analysis again starts (and ends?) with an international politics generalization.  Although Campbell Craig and Sergey Radchenko make an intriguing claim that Truman’s position hardened when he learned of the Soviet spying at Los Alamos, I do not find this necessary to explain why he did not make major concessions or why the negotiations failed. [10]   When has a country agreed to share its military secrets, let alone the material involved (which would have been more valuable than the secrets, most of which the Soviets had or could replicate)?  And when has another great power agreed to give up the pursuit of such a weapon?  Craig and Redchenko make a somewhat similar argument on page 133, and this is implicit in Sean Malloy’s statement that “It would have taken extraordinary political courage on Truman’s part to willingly give up the American nuclear monopoly without first extracting major concessions from the Soviet Union.” [11]   Even the Anglo-American wartime sharing, produced by overwhelming incentives, was strained and far less than complete.  Recent research by Jacques Hymans indicates that many decision-makers in Britain were more open to the idea of international control and that Churchill’s opposition stemmed in large measure from his desire to solidify Anglo-American relations. [12]   But the very fact that they did not have the final authority may have made it easier for them to entertain these ideas, and it is far from clear that had the West started down this road it would have led anywhere.  Similarly, even if Geoffrey Roberts is correct that Stalin was serious in his desire to explore more cooperative arrangements that would have sacrificed a Soviet bomb, I agree with Craig and Radchenko’s reply that it was unlikely that he would have agreed to even reasonable inspections and that negotiations would have foundered. [13]

This does not mean that international control was impossible, but just that in the normal course of international events and even without particularly hostile intent on either side this outcome was extremely unlikely.  Of course one can reply, as Secretary of War Henry Stimson and many atomic scientists did, that the circumstances were so unusual, the dangers of a nuclear arms race so great, and the benefits of internationalization so clear that the standard pattern of international politics should and could have been broken.  Perhaps, but I believe that at minimum the case looks very different when viewed in terms of generalizations about international politics than it does from a detailed examination of the case that ignores this pattern.  Even if the relations between the great powers had been as harmonious as they were after the Napoleonic wars (short of complete harmony, to be sure, but cooperative to an almost an unprecedented extent), it is hard to see an agreement on international control.  The states in the Concert never embarked on cooperative ventures on order of this magnitude.

Those like the historian Paul Schroeder and the political scientist G. John Ikenberry could reply that relying on generalizations in this way implies that international politics does not and cannot change (a common and partially misleading charge often levied against Realism), whereas in fact over time there is progress toward greater cooperation and order.  This implies that the failure to achieve international control, and perhaps the dropping of the A-bombs, are indeed puzzles even though they were typical of earlier international politics.  One response would be that these cases cast doubt on arguments for progress.  A more measured one would be that even if there is progress (and I am inclined to think that there is), the generalizations remain powerful.

The final difference between historians and political scientists that I want to discuss concerns morality.  I will be brief here in part I had an earlier exchange with Paul Schroeder on this subject. [14]   I think that historians are generally more concerned with and willing to make value and moral judgments about the conduct of those they are studying than are most political scientists.  In part, this is linked to what I discussed in the previous section.  If almost all decision-makers would have acted as Truman did, then his behavior appears different morally as well as analytically.  We may want to condemn (or praise) national leaders and other individuals, but unless they are behaving distinctively, then our judgments apply to whole categories of people—or to people as a whole—rather than to individuals.  To the extent that we attribute the individual’s behavior to the circumstances she is in rather than to her personality, preferences, or predispositions, our moral judgments must be tempered.  This of course is the standard Realist argument that the compelling nature of the international environment renders inappropriate the standards of morality that we use in everyday life, and sometimes in domestic politics.  Not all political scientists are Realists and not all diplomatic historians dissent from this tradition, but I think the concern with generalizations leads to resisting ethical judgments about those being studied.  Because political scientists expect leaders to sacrifice others’ interests if not their lives in order to stay in power and to be willing to sacrifice the interests and lives of citizens of other countries in order to preserve those of their countrymen, they find many of the accounts of diplomatic historians to be moralistic and naïve in their responses to normal if unpleasant international behavior.

Perhaps more importantly, most political scientists see their task as explaining behavior, not judging it.  The point of our exercise is to use our theories to understand why people are acting as they are and to discern and disentangle the complex webs of causation.  Moral judgments may be made at the end, but they are not part of our job description.  By contrast, if Paul Schroeder is correct many historians see as central to their calling the need to do justice to and for those who can no longer speak for themselves.  Political scientists not so much disagree as keep their focus elsewhere, on the causes of the behavior and how they fit with our general understanding of politics.

These differences produce tensions between political scientists and international historians that we should not expect to be resolved.  Indeed, they should not be because the diversity of perspectives benefits us all.  The point is not to convert others to our viewpoint, but to understand theirs.

© Copyright 2010-2015 The Authors.

This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 United States License .

[1] This paper grows out of remarks given to open the first H-Diplo Conference on New Scholarship in American Foreign Relations, held on 17-18 April 2009 at Williams College, and I have preserved the informal tone of the occasion.  An earlier version was posted on H-Diplo on 1 June 2009 at:  http://www.h-net.org/~diplo/williams2009 .

[2] I will put aside here questions of the standing of each of these fields in its own discipline.  These are familiar if sorry stories that I think have their roots in intellectual trends within each discipline and the political cross-currents in the academy and the wider society.

[3] I will use the terms international history and diplomatic history interchangeably, although of course one could argue that the former is broader than the latter, which “only” focuses on state-to-state relations.  To pull on this thread would be interesting, but a digression here.  For some discussion, see the H-Diplo thread, entitled “Terminology—diplomatic history, international history, and transnationalism” that started on Thu, 19 March 2009.  The first post is available via http://bit.ly/cfIW4z ; the rest of the thread is available in the discussion logs for March [http://bit.ly/93nMyX] and April [http://bit.ly/bGQAsT].

[4] Department of State, Foreign Relations of the United States, 1964-1968 , Vol. XXXIII, Organization and Management of U.S. Foreign Policy (Washington, D.C., 2004), 421.

[5] Robert Self, ed., The Neville Chamberlain Letters , vol. 4, The Downing Street Years, 1934-1940 (Aldershot, 2005).

[6] A. J. P. Taylor, The Origins of the Second World War (New York, 1961), 267.

[7] Robert Jervis, The Logic of Images in International Relations (Princeton, 1970), ch. 5.

[8] Ernest May, American Imperialism: A Speculative Essay (New York, 1968), especially 3-16.

[9] Jervis, American Foreign Policy in a New Era (New York, 2006), 92-98.

[10] Campbell Craig and Sergey Radchenko, The Atomic Bomb and the Origins of the Cold War (New Haven, 2008).

[11] Sean Mallory, Atomic Tragedy:  Henry L. Stimson and the Decision to Use the Bomb Against Japan (Ithaca, 2008), 153.

[12] Jacques Hymans, “Britain and Hiroshima,” Journal of Strategic Studies , vol. 32, October 2009:  769-97.

[13] H-Diplo Roundtable on Craig and Rodchenko, The Atomic Bomb and the Origins of the Cold War , Vol. XI, No 8.  7 December 2009, pp. 18-20, 27.

[14] Our essays can be found in Colin Elman and Miriam Fendius Elman, eds., Bridges and Boundaries: Historians, Political Scientists, and the Study of International Relations (Cambridge, Mass., 2001).

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Politics is the study of power in its many guises, including military force, political parties, social mobilizations and the realm of ideas. You can focus your attention on the international sphere – that’s known as ‘International Relations’ – or within countries, commonly just called ‘Politics’. You can study either of these topics at Aberystwyth, a combination of both, or give more focus to your studies on more specialist degrees, such as Climate Change, Strategy Intelligence and Security or International Politics and Military History – click here for the full list of options.

But what is it? International Politics is about the world we live in, the challenges we face, power and struggles , and the opportunities – as well as obstacles – for peaceful relations among peoples, societies, states, organisations. It is also about ideas: different understandings of how the world works , what is important and how we might tackle the challenges we face. It considers the histories of peoples and places but also how our world is becoming increasingly complex and interdependent, especially in the increasing conflict and era of climate change .

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