How to view International Relations theory

International Relations consists of a confusing array of theories that posit how the international system and interactions between states take place. I recently read an old article by Walt from the days of my Masters degree, which gives a nice summary of IR up until 1998. He gives a quick overview of the main schools of thought developed by scholars since the end of World War II. Although all theories have their roots in philosophy from centuries past, IR as a focused field of study is quite young and most of the theories taught in classes were developed in the last 70 years.

I will list the IR theories covered by Walt below, with a short description. For more detail, one need only read his article or search for the plethora of other articles that exists on each respective theory. All in all, Walt goes over:

Realism: A school of thought that treats power as the deciding factor in international relations. States will always act in self-interest and self-preservation. Institutions (such as the UN) have little real effect on international relations.

  • Neo-realism: Focuses on how the international system is inherently anarchic and uncertain, leading states to pursue self-interests above all else in order to survive.
  • Offensive Realism: States will seek to conquer other states when doing so brings tangible benefits and relatively easy.
  • Defensive Realism: The international system will be at peace when states’ defences create a deterrent for conquest.

Liberalism: Globalization, institutions and democracy make cooperation between states not only possible but also preferable.

  • Democratic Peace Theory: Democracies do not wage war upon one another. If all states were democracies, there would be no war.

Marxism: Conflict is a caused by Capitalism and the elite’s (aka the “core”) exploitation of domestic working classes and developing countries (aka the “periphery).

Constructivism: Changes in the degree of cohesiveness among states occurs because of new ideas and values, which can either bind states together or create rifts between them.

After reading about these theories, I can’t help but feel as if something is missing, something that isn’t being said. Is it something that the theories aren’t explaining? Or is it some gap in my own understanding? When I thought about this more, I realized that there is some misrepresentation going on in IR theory. The misrepresentation is that these theories don’t seem like theories at all.  IR scholars call them “theories”, but what they really are is different aspects of, and approaches to, international relations. They do not disprove each other, but rather complement each other. After reading about them it becomes clear that, indeed, IR scholars are intelligent people; they’re not just writing about things that don’t exist. Each “theory” is a piece of the pie and has been proven true at one time or another in world history. Even Marxism has its merits, because there is without a doubt a class structure to the international system, just as power is important, and economic globalization dissuades states from going to war. The predictions in the table below are “resurgence of great power competition” and “increased cooperation accompanying globalization,” both of which have occurred.


It is not difficult to see that all the theories are true, because we are people and the theories explain just that: people. IR scholars do not even go into complex psychology in their writing, because most of the time explaining and predicting international developments is as simple as asking yourself “what would I do if I were in charge of a state?” IR is not so different from normal human relations. Most people act to better themselves and avoid pain, just as scholars say states do. They are assisted in this by other people and institutions, and their actions are determined by their ideas and worldviews.

In conclusion, I think it is important to avoid becoming confused when reading about IR “theory.” The answer to the uneasy feeling you get after reading about it is not to read more and more articles, hoping your increased understanding will alleviate the uncertainty. The answer is to simply have a flexible view of IR and to recognize that the “theories” are more like “perspectives.” Each one shows how international relations works in different ways and circumstances. It is also important to realize that scholars may often take the “state” for granted and treat it as an organism in it’s own right, but the term “state” in reality refers to nothing more than the finite number of people running the government at a particular point in time, all of whom have names and ways of thinking of their own.



Walt, Stephen M. “One World, Many Theories”. Found in Foreign Policy, No. 110 (Spring 1998), pp. 34-46.


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