Theoretical Framework & Approaches
International relations is the study of cross border interactions among actors that participate in
affairs or politics among other nations, organizations, individuals, or local governments.
Realism is based on the view of the individual as primarily selfish and power seeking.
Individuals are organized in states, each of which acts in a unitary way in pursuit of its own
• Power is primarily thought of in terms of material resources necessary to physically harm
or coerce other states.
• States exist in an anarchic international system, characterized by the absence of an
• States’ most important concern is to manage their insecurity, and they rely primarily on
balancing the power of other states and deterrence to keep the international system intact.
Defensive realism: want to have military power but war cost a lot – practice strength but it is
more of a defensive mechanism, you just want the world to know you have this power
Offensive realism: show your power, might be costly in the short run, but in the long run it
enhances your reputation of power
Neorealism gives precedence to the structure of the international system as an explanatory
factor, over states.
• The international structure is a force in itself; it constrains state behavior and states may
not be able to control it. Like classical realism, balance of power is a core principle of
neorealism. However, neorealists believe that the balance of power is largely determined
by the structure of the system. A state’s survival depends on having more power than
other states, thus all power are viewed in relative terms.
• Neorealists are also concerned with cheating. The awareness that such possibilities exist,
combined with states’ rational desire to protect their own interests, tends to preclude
cooperation among states
Liberalism holds that human nature is basically good and that people can improve their moral
and material conditions, making societal progress possible. Bad or evil behaviour is the product
of inadequate social institutions and misunderstandings among leaders.
• Origin of liberal theory is found in the Enlightenment optimism: human nature that is
defective, but problems arise as man enters society. War is a product of society. To
overcome defects in society, education is imperative.
• Another origin, nineteenthcentury liberalism, reformulated the Enlightenment by adding
a preference for democracy over aristocracy and for free trade over national economic
• The basis of liberalism remains firmly embedded in the belief of the rationality of
humans and in the unbridled optimism that through learning and education, humans can
develop institutions to bring out their best characteristics. Neoliberal institutionalism asks why states choose to cooperate most of the time even in the
anarchic condition of the international system.
Radicalism assumes the primacy of economics for explaining virtually all other phenomena.
• Karl Marx: private interests control labor and market exchanges. A clash inevitably arises
between the controlling, capitalist bourgeois class and the controlled proletariat workers.
During the evolution of the economic production process from feudalism to capitalism,
new patterns of social relations were developed. Radicals are concerned with explaining
the relationship between the means of production, social relations, and power.
• Dependency theory: an articulation of radical theory – terms of trade are purposely
Constructivists believe that neither individual, state, nor international community interests are
predetermined or fixed.
• Individuals in collectivities forge, shape, and change culture through ideas and practices.
State and national interests are the result of the social identities of these actors.
• Constructivists see power in discursive terms—the power of ideas, culture, and language.
Power exists in every exchange among actors, and the goal of constructivists is to find the
sources of power and how it shapes identity.
• Constructivists claim there is no objective reality, if “the world is in the eye of the
beholder,” then there can be no right or wrong answers, only individual perspectives.
Thus, they see sovereignty not as an absolute, but as a contested concept.
International Relations in Practice
Sovereignty is the authority of the state, based on recognition by other states and by nonstate
actors, to govern matters within its own borders that affect its people, economy, security and
form of government.
• The “absolute and perpetual power vested in a commonwealth.” Absolute sovereignty,
according to Bodin, is not without limits. Leaders are limited by natural law, laws of God,
the type of regime, and by covenants and treaties.
Legitimacy: absolutist rule is subject to limits and imposed by man. In Two Treatises on
Government, John Locke attacked absolute power and the divine right of kings. Locke’s main
argument is that political power ultimately rests with the people rather than with the leader or the
Nationalism: the masses identify with their common past, their language, customs, and
practices. Individuals who share such characteristics are motivated to participate actively in the
political process as a group.
Systems are regularly interacting units that can be either mechanical or biological. The changing
of one unit changes another unit. The international system is a system that includes states and
multinational corporations. • Realists: shape how actors act, power and plurality.
o Neorealists: have no place for international systems, they are just an extension of
o Realists like stability and explaining the current situation: endogenous change is
from within and actors trying to increase their power. Exogenous change is from
the outside and how they influence your state.
• Liberals: look at the organization of the international system, but they do not believe it is
the defining feature of the state. They look at the economy and the military, but they
focus on processes and actors (multiple interactions, engeos, civil society, multinational
corporations, states, governments).
o States are sovereign, political entities in the international system. They’re are a lot
of common interests and identities, and even if you see the international system
are anarchic, liberalists will argue that there are so many interactions that they
help coordinate state efforts.
o Liberals are open to change, they see international system as something that is
constantly changing due to relations, technology and communication,
transportation, economic issues and how people interact.
• Radical theorists: will talk about stratification and the distribution of wealth, as well as
• Constructivists: look at the system as always changing, it is not just the distribution of
power that matters but the meaning of power (social construction). It is still very
Eurocentric, although power has definitely changed.
Peripheral Dependence: Canada is an emerging principle power. Canada is just a weak,
penetrated power influenced by the US. It is a country that didn’t look at foreign policy for a
long time (1990s). Canada’s alliances don’t really need them anymore.
• Economic: we rely on foreign investment
• Bandwagoning: Canada tends to go with what the US wants
• Low rank/activity: focuses on relations with the US, and you can see the weak state with
the more focus they have on another state
State and International Relations
To be considered a state, four fundamental conditions must be met:
• A state must have a territorial base
• A stable population must reside within its borders
• There should be a government to which this population owes allegiance
• A state has to be recognized diplomatically by others. A nationstate is the foundation for national selfdetermination, the idea that people sharing
nationhood have a right to determine how and under what conditions they should live.
The Realist View of the State
• Realists hold a statecentric view: the state is an autonomous actor constrained only by
the structural anarchy of the international system.
• As a sovereign entity, the state has a consistent set of goals—that is, a national interest—
defined in terms of power. Once the state acts, it does so as an autonomous, unitary actor.
The Liberal View of the State
• The state enjoys sovereignty but is not an autonomous actor. The state is a pluralist arena
whose function is to maintain the basic rules of the game.
• There is no explicit or consistent national interest; there are many. These interests often
change and compete against each other within a pluralistic framework.
The Radical View of the State
• The instrumental Marxist view sees the state as the executing agent of the bourgeoisie.
The bourgeoisie reacts to direct societal pressures, especially to pressures from the
• The structural Marxist view sees the state as operating within the structure of the
capitalist system. Within that system, the state is driven to expand, because of the
imperatives of the capitalist system.
• In neither view is there a national interest or real sovereignty, as the state is continually
reacting to external capitalist pressures.
The Constructivist View of the State
• National interests are neither material nor given. They are ideational and continually
changing and evolving, both in response to domestic factors and in response to
international norms and ideas.
• States have multiple identities, including a shared understanding of national identity,
which also changes, altering state preferences and hence state behavior.
States are critical actors because they have power, which is the ability not only to influence
others but to control outcomes so as to produce results that would not have occurred naturally.
• Power itself is multidimensional; there are different kinds of power.
• A state’s power potential depends on its natural sources of power. The three most
important natural sources of power are:
o Geographic size and position: a large geographic expanse gives a state automatic
power, although long borders must be defended and may be a weakness.
o Natural resources: having a soughtafter resource may prove a liability making
states targets for aggressive actions. But the absence of power does not mean that
a state has no power potential.
o Population: sizable populations give power potential and great power status to a
state. However, states with small, highly educated, skilled populations such as
Switzerland can fill large political and economic niches. • Tangible Sources of Power
o Industrial development: with advanced industrial capacity (such as air travel), the
advantages and disadvantages of geography diminish.
o With industrialization, the importance of population is modified: large but poorly
equipped armies are no match for small armies with advanced equipment.
• Intangible Sources of Power
o National image: people within states have images of their state’s power potential
—images that translate into an intangible power ingredient.
o Public support: a state’s power is magnified when there appears to be
unprecedented public support.
o Leadership: visionaries and charismatic leaders are able to augment the power
potential of their states by taking bold initiatives. Likewise, poor leaders diminish
the state’s power capacity.
Individuals, Politics and the State
Individuals who matter:
o When political institutions are unstable, young, in crisis, or collapsed, leaders are
able to provide powerful influences.
o When they have few institutional constraints. In dictatorial regimes, top leaders are
free from constraints such as societal inputs and political opposition and thus can
change policy unfettered.
o The specifics of a situation. Decision makers’ personal characteristics have more
influence on outcomes when the issue is peripheral rather than central, when the
issue is not routine, or when the situation is ambiguous and information us unclear.
o Personality characteristics affect the leadership of dictators more than that of
democratic leaders because leaders because of the absence of effective institutional
• Individual decision making
o Individuals are not perfectly rational decision makers. The individual selects,
organizes, and evaluates incoming information about the surrounding world. In
perceiving and interpreting new and oftentimes contradictory information,
individuals rely on existing perceptions.
• Informationprocessing mechanisms
o Individual elites utilize, usually unconsciously, a number of psychological
mechanisms to process the information that forms their general perceptions of the
1. Individuals strive to be cognitively consistent, ensuring that images hang
together consistently within their belief systems.
2. Elites in power look for those details of a present episode that look like a
past one, perhaps ignoring the important differences. This is referred to as
the evoked set.
3. Perceptions are often shaped in terms of mirror