Major Theoretical "Schools" of International Relations


The Study of International Relations

International Relations, as defined by Goldstein, concerns the "relationships among the world’s national governments". It is closely related to other actors like the United Nations, social associations such as economics, as well as geographical and historical influences. International Relations is therefore concerned with "all of the exchanges, transactions, contacts, flows of information, and actions of every kind… among the separately constituted societies of the world". As can be seen, the study of International Relations is extensive and various schools of thought have been developed to attempt an explanation of the subject.


Pre-World War I Theories

Schools of thought in International Relations developed due to changes in the world political scene and repercussions in its social context. Marx and Lenin’s socio-economic theories were the most significant in the pre-World War I period. For instance, Marx felt that the 19th Century American expansion to the west was due to the pressures of overpopulation, rural unemployment and underemployment. Similarly, Lenin attributed colonisation to the capitalist economic system. His theory of imperialism argued that capitalist countries divided the world into large colonies in order to seek new markets and increase profits.


National Socialism and Idealism

With the advent of World War I, two new schools of thought emerged. National Socialism centred around the issue of how best to assert and establish national power. It promoted the theory that "might makes right", that the most powerful nation states should rightfully dictate to the weaker states. As advocated by both Mussolini and Hitler, Italy and Germany focussed their entire productive capability to the strengthening of their military and the expansion of their states.

Political Idealism, another school of thought developed in the post-World War I era, believed that man was innately altruistic and generally sought the welfare of others as well as himself. Advocates of idealism, such as US President Woodrow Wilson, believed in the principle of "peace through law". They felt that wars could be prevented through the formation of international organisations like the League of Nations, which could act against military aggressors. Idealists also called for the implementation of anti-war legislature, social system reforms and the creation of an international system for free trade.


Inter-Paradigm Debates of Idealism, Realism and Behaviouralism

The failure of idealism to prevent World War II resulted in the emergence of realism as an alternative school of thought. Proponents of this theory, such as Hans Morgenthau and Henry Kissinger, believed that idealism failed because international conflicts were inevitable. This was due to various states’ nationalistic pursuit of power through militaristic means. Political realists believed that the balance of power was the central mechanism for regulating conflict. They also advocated that the international system was anarchical and states interacted because of certain conventions such as diplomacy, international law, and even war itself.

Critics of realism felt that the theory merely focussed on states as the primary actors and neglected other actors such as inter and non-governmental organisations, ethnic groups and religious movements. A new school of thought, known as behaviouralism, was developed in the late 1950s and the early 1960s to attempt a shift from the traditionalist use of history and political terms such as "state". Championed by behaviouralists such as James Rosenau and Morton Kaplan, the theory emphasised a more scientific and rigorous approach, based on variable analysis and studies on the various conditions imposed by differing variables. The behaviouralist debate however failed to impact the international relations scene as it tended to have limited relevance to the real world, as rapid changes in the political scene made behaviouralist studies irrelevant even before they were completed.

In order to counter the arguments raised against it, and due to rising economic concerns, the realist school generated a new brand of work in the 1970s and 1980s, that of neo-realism. This variant school of thought emphasised realist themes of state, power and conflict, at the same time advocating that the economy plays a significant role in inter-state relations, and is "an instrument… of state power". Neo-realists like Kenneth Waltz believed that the balance of power served as the central mechanism for the international political system, and that the nature of an inter-state system was determined by the character and number of its great powers. Other neo-realist ideas include the decision to view the international political system as one with a "precisely defined structure". This, Linklater argues, is neo-realism’s "greatest advance" beyond realism; that it seeks to emulate social-scientific developments in the behaviouralist approach, in order to outline the mean structural features of the state system.


The Post-Positivist Debate

The late 1980s saw a number of powerful attacks on the realist and positivist positions. These attacks, collectively referred to as post-positivism, advocated ideas far removed previous theories. For instance, the theory of post-modernism claimed that there is no single rationality or historical narrative. It argued that there is no optimal way of doing things; that reality is a social construction determined by beliefs and behaviour. Another post-positivist theory, known as post-empiricism, deals with the issue of "facts". It argues that facts do not innately exist in the world, but are built up from concepts, which are in turn based on theoretical assumptions. Hence facts are not independent of theories, and should not be used to test theories.

The advent of post-positivism has the potential to create a "profound" impact on social thought. Vasquez argues that the new critiques will affect most of the approaches to international relations theory. However, as he rightly points out, many of the different approaches are not theories per se, but merely "conceptual frameworks" to explain the nature of international relations.


An Analysis of Neo-realism & Post-Modernism

Neo-realism: an Analysis of its Characteristics

One such "conceptual framework" is the idea of neo-realism. Theorists like Waltz believed in an anarchic system with no difference in the function of different states, each of them distributed with an unequal capability. By assuming such systemic constraints on states and their foreign policy behaviour, neo-realists sought to establish that systemic forces, and not states, are responsible for foreign policy behaviour despite the disparity in ideology inherent in various states. This systemic account also hoped to develop a more thorough and rigorous basis for international relations study.

The main mechanism behind the neo-realist theory is that of "hegemonic stability". This idea, which refers to "domination from a leader", states that if an economic power can sufficiently dominate the international economy, it can provide a stability which enables other states to co-operate with it and with one another. In the light of the cold war period, neo-realists believed that a bipolar world system dominated by the United States and the Soviet Union was more stable than earlier multipolar models, and hence more likely to persist. This was because a bipolar world reduced the chances of war between the superpowers due to security and survival concerns. Nuclear weapons were another important factor because their presence did not guarantee victory nor make the prospects of defeat bearable.


Arguments against Neo-realism

With the 1990-91 breakdown of the Soviet Union and other Warsaw Pact countries, neo-realists such as John Mearsheimer argued that the end of bipolarity was a cause for concern. They feared multipolar military alliances and inter-power dependencies, which could lead to conflict and war. Critics such as Fukuyama however argued that a decline in bipolarity had led to the spread of liberal democracy. This had resulted in the idea of using consensus rather than force to settle conflicts. Rosecrance’s "rise of the trading state" also raised relevant arguments against neo-realism. He argued that the great powers had not only replaced military conflict with peaceful economic co-operation, they had also been more willing to perform more specialised roles. These arguments counter directly the neo-realist ideals of systemic importance and highlight the importance of individual units in relation to the political system. Another question raised against neo-realism is its "ahistorical" nature. Critics say that by lifting the system of states out of social and cultural conditions, neo-realism fails to grasp the significance of "contemporary moral and cultural change". It also fails to note the social construction of sovereignty and the idea that states need not have arisen of out anarchy, but as a result of international processes.


Impact of Neo-realism Today

With the advent of the 1997 Asian economic turbulence, neo-realism as an idea has borne certain political significance. The collapse of various economic markets such as Thailand and South Korea has highlighted that systemic forces, such as eroding investor confidence, have directly affected a country’s international relations policy. Such countries have been forced to turn to international financial institutions such as the International Monetary Fund (IMF) for bailout packages to help prop-up their economies. The idea of international financial institutions is also a neo-realist concept. It relies on the "hegemonic stability" obtained through the economic dominance of an institution like the IMF, through which states are forced to co-operate with to obtain much needed funds and restore investor confidence.

Neo-realism has however failed to address how contemporary issues such as social, cultural and religious values affect international relations. Failings in the Middle East peace process have highlighted the religious tensions between Israel and the Arabic world, which have been in place since the creation of the Israeli state. Racial tensions in the fragmented Yugoslavia have also largely shaped the foreign policy of the United States and other international players.


Post-Modernism: an Analysis of its Characteristics

Another "conceptual framework" discussed today is that of post-modernism. This notion believes in the arbitrary nature of modernity. It subscribes to the idea that modernity is not a model and merely an instance that shaped the political system. Post-modernism also denies the idea of historical progress, saying that history is not moving forward or backward. Because of these assumptions that nothing is necessary, post-modernists believe that existing arrangements were merely created by human beings, and what is conceived to be truth was actually a "choice" made by a predecessor. Theorists like Foucault also argue that reality is a social construction, and that people create and construct it through their beliefs and behaviour. Language, conceptual frameworks and paradigms are also believed to shape the world through the very spreading of their ideas. Whenever people believe and act on these ideas, the reality emphasised by them will subsequently be constructed.

A key by-product of this argument is that identity is probably one of the "more intimate" forms of social construction imposed on individuals. This has profound influence over the destiny and life of an individual, group and society, because it is often associated with issues such as inter and intra-state wars, minority persecution and majority privilege policies. The 1980s and 1990s have highlighted various post-modernist concerns such as the need for an identity and its impact on human rights. The theory’s emphasis on discourse is also significant in the way states have sought to adopt and project their legitimacy. This is especially true due to the widespread effect of communication and the media.


Arguments against Post-Modernism

Critics of post-modernism however say the theory possesses an underlying "amoralism" with its denial of any generally applicable moral principles. They also disagree with the theory’s inability to provide substantial explanations of historical events and its neglect of more material processes of production, social relations and everyday life. A more serious criticism is that post-modernism’s social construction fundamentals are flawed and that the theory itself produces a self-contradiction. Vasquez argues that if every idea is a social construction and nothing is permanently true, then post-modernism’s view of the world is also a social construction, and is therefore also temporal.


Impact of Post-Modernism Today

The post-modernist idea of identity as a social construction has a significant impact on today’s political climate. This is especially as it has given birth to the created idea of a nation, which comprises of a community of people bound together by a common descent, but who do not own the geographical territory to constitute a state. Recent years have seen the political activities of such nations, such as the Kurds and the Tibetans, who have sought the formation of a state, but have been denied constitutional sovereignty from their geographical masters.

Post-modernism has however been inadequate in dealing with other pressing issues of international relations as a result of its ahistorical stance, for instance it neglects the historical separation of Singapore from Malaysia and other chronological events in the current bilateral dispute. Post-modernism also neglects material concerns such as trade benefits as expressed by the United States’ treatment of the human rights situation in China.



As can be seen from the analyses of the various schools of thought, the study of international relations cannot be confined to a mere conformity to any one school. It is through an amalgamation of these various ideas and theories that one is able to obtain a more coherent picture of the international relations scene, and hence understand its various nuances and intricacies.


The above essay was written by Mark Lim Shan-Loong on the 22nd September 1998.



Goldstein, Joshua S. International Relations. 2nd ed. New York: Harper Collins, 1996.

Halliday, Fred. Rethinking International Relations. London: Macmillan Press, 1994.

Heywood, Andrew. Politics. London: Macmillan Press, 1997.

Hollis, Martin and Steve Smith. Explaining and Understanding International Relations. 2nd ed. London: Oxford University Press, 1991.

Linklater, Andrew. "Neo-realism in Theory and Practice." International Relations Theory Today. Eds. Ken Booth and Steve Smith. Cambridge: Policy Press, 1995. 241-60.

Papp, Daniel S. Contemporary International Relations: Frameworks for Understanding. New York: Macmillan Publishing Company, 1984.

Smith, Steve. "The Self-Images of a Discipline: A Genealogy of International Relations Theory." International Relations Theory Today. Eds. Ken Booth and Steve Smith. Cambridge: Policy Press, 1995. 10-34.

Toma, Peter and Robert F. Gorman. International Relations: Understanding Global Issues. Pacific Grove, California: Brooks and Cole, 1991.

Vasquez, John A. "The Post-Positivist Debate: Reconstructing Scientific Enquiry and International Relations Theory After Enlightenment’s Fall." International Relations Theory Today. Eds. Ken Booth and Steve Smith. Cambridge: Policy Press, 1995. 217-40.


Comments? Email to share your thoughts.




The Writing Page