International Relations

International Relations Theories : Relevant Enough?

International relations is the study of the relationships and interlinkage of governments of different countries. This study takes into consideration the relations and the interconnection of their economies, culture, and histories. And, most importantly, their foreign policies, as the relations between different countries ultimately boils down to their foreign policies. And as we know, this study of International Relations isn’t possible without International Relations Theories

International Relations Theories
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So, in this blog, we’ll be discussing certain international relations theories and their relevance to contemporary geopolitics.

International Relations Theories


The theory of Realism is probably the most influential and dynamic school of thought in the arena of International Relations. The theory of Realism assumes that the states/organizations/individuals are rational actors and aim to maximize their own power. And if another state/organization/individual becomes more powerful than them, then this poses a security threat or challenge.

International Relations Theories
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Realism also assumes the world to be anarchical, which means that there is no central authority controlling their actions and influencing their decisions. The theory considers ‘human nature’ as the driving force of conflict.

The core assumptions of realism are –

  • States are the unit of analysis
  • The ultimate objective of the states is to maximize their power
  • States are assumed to behave in a rational way

One might say that in the current times the assumption of realism, which considers the world to be anarchical (without any central authority) has become irrelevant with the advent of International Organizations after World War 2, like the United Nations, European Union, etc. So, we can conclude that the world is not anarchical and also that the theory of realism provides a pessimistic outlook of the international system and relations.

Almost all the countries of the world have joined the United Nations (196 countries except Palestine and Vatican City). These countries came together to work collectively in the international arena and to prevent another war. If the member countries of the UN act in a non-cooperative manner, then the UN has various measures to punish them and the most common and dynamic measure is sanction. Sanctions are penalties that are used to force the countries to obey the rules and, to behave in a cooperative manner. These sanctions can be of different types such as diplomatic sanctions, economic sanctions, military sanctions, sanctions on the individual, etc.

International Relations Theories
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But still, there are various countries that are disrupting the rules-based order, such as North Korea, China, Iran, Russia, etc. There are numerous sanctions imposed on them by various countries, but they still tend to be rigid in their position. The illegal annexation of Crimea by Russia and China’s growing assertiveness towards Hong-Kong, which is seriously harming its sovereignty and affecting its democracy are some major issues. And these developments, together with the continuous civil wars and gross human rights violations in countries like Yemen and Sudan have made the assumption of realism (about anarchy) more relevant.


Neorealism can also be considered as the modern form of realism. Some aspects of neorealism are similar to realism. In neorealism, the units of the international system i.e. states are assumed to interact with each other.

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Core assumptions of neorealism are-

  • The international system is anarchical.
  • The system is characterized by the interaction between states.
  • Within the international structure, the distribution of capabilities (power) may vary over time and between different states.

Contrary to realism, the structure of the international system is determinant of state behavior, and it’s the structure of the international system that encourages certain actions by the state and discourages certain others, in other words, the structure of the international system is the driving force of conflict. So, we can conclude that the variations in state behavior are due to the variations in the characteristics of the international structure.

The theory asserts that cooperation between the nations is unlikely to happen, but the states might form alliances with other like-minded nations in order to balance the power of another nation. And in this system of all against all, this alliance would lead to the formation of a counter-alliance. Contemporary examples of this type of alliance and counter-alliance are China-Pakistan and India-America.

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The Security Dilemma

There’s one more instance when the theory of realism and neorealism becomes highly relevant in the International Arena, ‘the arms race.’ One nation might want to disarm, but the assumption that another nation might maximize its military power by taking advantage of its disarmament keeps it from achieving its goal, because as realism suggests, that the world is lacking a central authority that protects the interests and sovereignty of nations, especially those who choose to disarm.

The rise of a hegemon

International Relations Theories
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(Hegemon – a superpower having geopolitical and cultural dominance)
The rise of a hegemon always proves to be a disruption in the global order. And the entrenched powers always fear its rise. Due to this rise, the entrenched nations might form an alliance in order to counter it. The contemporary example of a hegemon is China, and the entrenched power is America and the West.

The Cooperation

Realism and Neorealism also state that the cooperation between nations is unlikely to happen in this anarchical world of all against all. But however, there are various regional integration organizations, and the member countries are cooperative with each other, and the foremost example of this type of integration is the European Union and ASEAN. But the theory still makes sense if we look at the integration as an attempt to enhance the economies of the European region, and most importantly, to improve their collective power and influence at the international level. So, the influence and power of Portugal in the international arena is much more being a part of the European Union than it could have been if it wasn’t a member. So we can assume that Portugal joined the European Union with the aim to maximize its own power and influence.

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International Institutions

As realism states that cooperation between the nations is unlikely to happen, and so is the establishment of International Institutions because the rules and orders of these institutions would ultimately constrain their own actions and aspirations. States want to form or be a part of an international institution until the institution is consistent with its own interests. So, even if the institution is formed, it’s most likely to reflect the preferences of the most influential and powerful member countries.

Neoliberal Institutionalism

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If we look at the theories of realism and neorealism, one thing is clear, they have a very pessimistic outlook towards international relations, may it be cooperation between nations, formation of international institutions, or the balance of power between nations. But contrary to the theories of realism and neorealism, neoliberal institutionalism provides a much optimistic outlook towards international institutions and cooperation between the states. However, some core assumptions of neoliberal institutionalism are similar to realism and neorealism.

Core assumptions of Neoliberal Institutionalism are-

  • The international system is assumed to be anarchic
  • Other than states, there are various other players who influence world politics, these players influence the way in which states behave and conduct foreign policies.
  • The states are not assumed to be cohesive but rather assumed to be constituted by different actors. It’s also assumed that certain factors such as domestic politics and international institutions influence the priority and behavior of the state in the international arena.
  • The players influencing world politics (other than the state) such as a multinational corporation cooperate across the border which shapes the state’s behavior and influence their foreign policy.
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As stated earlier, the theory of neoliberal institutionalism is optimistic towards the formation and effectiveness of international institutions. The institutions play a major role in world politics and influence the way in which states define their self-interest. And ultimately, cooperation between states in this anarchical world order is possible due to these institutions. Although it’s impossible to assume that every single member state would behave in a cooperative manner, institutions are vested with certain powers, and by exercising those powers, institutions can coerce nations to behave in a cooperative manner. And as discussed earlier, that power is sanction. And with this framework, long-term peace and cooperation between the states are possible. And the best example of this type of cooperation is the European Union. However, it cannot be ignored that certain actions of the union might even disincentivize states, and they even want to cease being a part of the organization, ex- BREXIT, and GREXIT.

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The theory also states that these institutions would not ‘just reflect the interests of most influential powers’, however, there could be a certain inclination towards their preferences. Because once these major powers involve themselves in this interdependent and interlinked organization, they, like less powerful nations, would be constrained in their behavior (they cannot do whatever they want). And in the long run, this interdependence and interlinkage would lead to cooperative behavior, and even in times of conflict, would incentivize pragmatism.


This international relations theory is opposed to realism and neorealism in certain assumptions. The theory asserts that a state’s behavior is not determined by the structure of the international system, but rather depends on the constructed social reality of the state. So, according to the theory, the behavior of a state towards another state is because of how these states see each other. And this point of view is in turn dependent on the social reality of the states, which is assumed to be constructed by the population. So, the enemy of a state is not because it holds more power, but because it is perceived as an enemy. 

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The assumption about institutions

The institutions, other than offering rules and norms could also influence the behavior of the states, without using coercive measures. The creation of these institutions and the interactions between different states having different ideologies could influence a non-democratic state to undertake democratic measures and concentrate on human rights issues.

Wanna know more about International Relations, check it out – International Relations: Analyzing the ‘Friendly Relations’








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