Why I Love International Relations Theory (And You Should, Too!)

Before we get to discussing international relations theory, take a moment to think about the following questions:

  • Why do wars and conflicts erupt so often?
  • Why have the European states not been fighting each other since world war two?
  • How come it is OK for the United States and Russia to have nuclear weapons but not for Iran?
  • Why is the United Nations unable to prevent so many conflicts and wars?
  • Why did the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) not disappear with the end of the Cold War?

I will stop here. Now, here is what I want you to do. I don’t want you to think about the actual answers to these questions.

I mean you can if you want to, but that’s not the point. The point is this: do you think that these questions are important? I do.

Those questions raise some of the most fundamental problems of international politics.

Now, I bet that when you were going through this list, you could not help yourself but to think about the answers. Here are some ideas you may have had:

  • Wars and conflicts erupt because states only think about their own interests.
  • European states remain at peace because they have learned their lesson.
  • The US and Russia want to protect their nuclear status.
  • United Nations can’t do anything without the agreement of the major powers.
  • NATO did not disappear because it serves the US interests.

Of course, you may have come up with different answers. The point is, whatever your answer, you have engaged in theorizing. Get it?

You have thought about the world in theoretical terms, even if you did it without intention. Well done. But what is theory anyway?

What is a theory?

There is no single definition of theory. In the study of world politics, we can understand theory as
abstractions from a complex reality and (…) attempt to provide generalizations about the phenomena under study.Dunne, Hansen, Wight (2013)

What is an abstraction from a complex reality? It’s simple. When thinking about everything that happens in the world, we get overwhelmed.

It’s because there is so much happening at the same time, our brains cannot process it. Don’t believe me? Try this:

Imagine you are a political leader

Imagine that you are a political leader of your country. You work in the ministry of foreign affairs, so it is your responsibility to stay up to date with world events.

Now, imagine trying to understand and look into every instance of violence in the world. Violence involving people who did not like the result of a football match.

China's use of violence and international relations theory
Violence involving refugees trying to cross a border of a country without authorization. Finally, violence involving the people organized into two different countries.

How do you feel? I bet you feel this is too much, and some of this violence is not even relevant to your post. Some of it will be relevant for local police authorities, right?

How do you know which instances of violence are relevant for you to understand as a foreign minister?

Creating abstractions from reality

This is how: you know it through creating abstractions from a complex reality.

This is how: you know it through creating abstractions from a complex reality. What is an abstraction? Abstraction means dealing with ideas rather than events.

So you don’t deal with every single event involving violence in the world. Instead, you look for certain ideas about violence to know whether it’s relevant to you.

What are those ideas about violence which you are likely to find relevant? The most obvious is the idea of war. War is not the same as violence.

Of course, every war involves violence, but not every violence entails war. We have to figure out in our heads what kinds of violence we want to classify as war.

And you, as foreign minister, would be well-informed about this. So when you are in your office, you want to know about those kinds of violence which signify war.

Then, of course, you want to differentiate between the idea of interstate war and civilian war. What are some of the other kinds of violence relevant to you? Another one would be terrorism.

Again, the same reasoning applies. While every terrorism involves violence, not every kind of violence is terrorism. And so on.

From abstractions to theory

Now, how do we move from those abstractions to theory? We try to come up with general statements about them. Examples of abstractions are:

  • war
  • peace
  • terrorism
  • nuclear proliferation
  • nuclear deterrence
  • conflict prevention
  • international organisations
  • Cold War
  • soft Brexit
  • hard Brexit

Each of those abstractions relates to the real world, to the real problems and issue. But each of them represents a certain idea of that reality that we hold in our head. They are an image of that reality.

Going back to our list of questions, you can see that:

  • We want to know about wars and conflicts in general, not about any one in particular
  • We also want to know about the lack of violence between European states over a longer period of time. Not between one or two states in a given year.
  • Finally, we want to know why Washington has the general policy of not allowing Iran to develop a nuclear weapon. Not why the US president said he distrusted Iranian intentions during one speech.

You get the idea. When theorizing, we seek to make sense of the complex reality. We want to understand that complex reality by zooming in on the important factors.

That’s because we try not to get overwhelmed with details. As a result, we operate with ideas (images) about the world, rather than events. We finally try to make some general statements about those ideas to better make sense of them.

What is international relations theory?

OK, so you have the idea what theory is. Now, let’s talk international relations theory. Will I surprise you if I say there is no single definition?

I know I won’t. You can guess that already. But don’t worry, I won’t leave you with that in(famous) phrase ‘oh, it all depends…’. Sure it all depends, but I said I love international relations theory, and I will tell you exactly why.

Before I do that, let’s look into different types of international relations theory.

Explanatory theory

This is the most popular kind. It is explanatory in the sense that it attempts to explain events. This theory looks for causes.It is also empirical because it deals with the ‘real world’ problems.

This theory assumes that we can look at the world as external observers/experts and explain it. It deals with questions starting with the word ‘why’.

‘Why have the European states not been fighting each other since world war two?’ We can investigate this question by seeking factors which will help us to find the answer.

We will call these factors independent variables. By doing this, we would engage in explanatory theorizing.

Normative theory

Normative theory is the kind of theory which does not seek to explain. Instead, normative theory is
that body of work which addresses the moral dimensions of international relationsBrown (1992)
That’s the simplest definition. A more developed understanding would be the following:
Normative statements typically address how things should be, or ought to be, whether or not we should value them, which things are good or bad, and which actions are right or wrong.
Dunne, Hansen, Wight (2013)
As such, normative theories look like claims based on beliefs and values. Here are some examples:

  • Acts of suicide terrorism are immoral.
  • Fighting climate change is the responsibility of all states.
  • States should respect their commitment to international laws and institutions.
  • States should always be self-interested and advance their own interests first.
  • Wealthy nations should help less developed nations.
  • States should not go to war, but we can justify some wars.

You get the idea.

Constitutive theory

Another example of international relations theory is a constitutive theory. This one asks how social phenomena (state, sovereignty, democracy) are constituted.

For example, what is a state? What kinds of attributes are necessary for the social organization so we can call it a state? Another example is the European Union.

What exactly is the European Union? Is this a federation, or an intergovernmental organization? Is this a super-state? Every one of those concepts contains a specific meaning.

This meaning is a set of attributes which, taken together, amount to a single concept. What we do here is we describe and explain the EU by applying the most appropriate concept.

Theory as a lens

Now, this is my favorite kind. When I said I love international relations theory (and indeed, you should too!), I meant theory as a lens. Here it what it means.

Do you know how lenses work in a DSLR camera? In contrast to the compact digital camera, a DSLR camera has exchangeable lenses.

This means that you can achieve a different effect of the image depending on the type of lens you use. Each lens will give you a different effect. You will see the real world in a different way, depending on the lens.

What does it have to do with international relations theory? It’s simple. It means that each theoretical tradition (a paradigm), offers a different view of the world.

Here are some examples:

Realist perspective: the world as a brutal and conflict-driven place.

Liberal perspective: states can cooperate and peace can be long-lasting.

English School perspective: the world is like a state society but on a larger scale. We can call it international or world society. There are rules, laws and institutions.

Constructivist perspective: the world is full of norms. States have their own identities which shape their behavior.

Marxist perspective: the world is full of conflict organized along economic lines.

Feminist perspective: the world is filled with gender inequalities which affect world politics.

Now, I have simplified these perspectives. Each perspective is, of course, more richer and more complex. But you get the idea, right?

Why I love international relations theory

Returning to my initial questions, your answer will depend on your preferred perspective.

In the explanatory theory, we want to apply carefully-designed methods to identify causes. Many experts are skeptical whether we can actually come up with definite answers. I am among them.

There are too many things we don’t know and too many factors affecting world politics.

It allows you to look at the world problems through different perspectives. And when you do, you will find something interesting each time.

This is why I like international relations theory as a lens. It allows you to look at the world problems through different perspectives. And when you do, you will find something interesting each time.

On its own, none of the perspectives is likely to give you the full picture of the problem. But when combined, they can be revealing.

For example, the Realist perspective is hardly interested in women during conflict. But this does not mean that the hardships experience by women are unimportant.

You just need a different perspective to appreciate them.

But here is where it gets interesting. The lens perspective on international relations theory is not only useful for your own use. Crucially, it also allows you do better understand the perspective of others!

Consider this quote from Kofi Annan, former United Nations Secretary General:

Ask a New York investment banker who walks past Ground Zero every day on her way to work what today’s biggest threat is. Then ask an illiterate 12-year-old orphan in Malawi who lost his parents to AIDS. You will get two very different answers. Invite an Indonesian fisherman mourning the loss of his entire family and the destruction of his village from the recent, devastating tsunami to tell you what he fears most. Then ask a villager in Darfur, stalked by murderous militias and fearful of bombing raids. Their answers, too, are likely to diverge. Annan (2005)
Why will their perspectives differ? They will differ because of how their unique experiences have shaped their perceptions.

Orphans in Malawi and international relations theory
The idea is that what we think is the most urgent security problem in the world is not universal. Our unique experiences and cultures shape our perceptions. As a result, we have differing perspectives.

This is how you apply international relations theory

Here are examples of how you can apply international relations theory immediately.

Understand your own perspective

First, you can apply international relations theory to better understand your own perspective. Return to the questions from the beginning.

Did you come up with some answers? If you did, you can now take a step back and see which perspective you used.

Your preferred perspective likely depends on your wealth, background, gender, culture, age, education. As a result, we may look at the same problem, but you can interpret it in a different way.

For example, I can see peace in Europe as a triumph of international institutions (Liberal perspective).

In contrast, you can see the same phenomenon being a result of the US hegemony and influence in Europe (Realist perspective).

Either way, international relations theories encourage you to look inside you. They invite you to ask yourself why you thing the world is this way and not the other.

Understand the perspective of others

  • Why did Richard Nixon, as a US President, opened up to Communist China?
  • Why did Bill Clinton involve US troops in Somalia?
  • For what reason did George W. Bush invade Iraq?
  • Why was President Obama more concerned with climate change than Bush?
  • Why did Trump announce he wants to limit US military involvement overseas?

The answer is simple: they all have different theoretical perspectives guiding their behavior.

Those perspectives are likely to be implicit. Policy leaders hardly ever justify their policy in theoretical terms. Imagine how nice it would be for us if they did?

But they do hold those perspectives. They are informed by – you guessed it – their experiences, background, education, etc.

Judge policy decisions

Exactly. International relations theories allow you to assess policy decisions. Here is how to do it:

Point to limitations: you can argue that a policy only takes into account one perspective. You can then point to other perspectives, which can make the policy more appropriate.

Point to alternatives: you can argue that there is a better policy alternative. Stephen Walt has been applying the Realist perspective to criticize US humanitarian interventions.

‘Deconstruct’ policies: you can uncover reasons behind a particular policy. For example, is Theresa May’s conservative background related to her EU attitude?


As you see, international relations theory has practical applications. And I have not even discussed other kinds of theories here.

That was not necessary. All I wanted to do here is to show you how you can start using international relations theories right now.

And how you can do it in a very practical way, in your every-day discussions about world politics. Good luck!

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2 Comments on “Why I Love International Relations Theory (And You Should, Too!)”

  1. This was a really useful and insightful article to get people engaged about international theory

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