Introduction to International Relations









Paradigms of International Relation

Since starting to teach 203 at the UW about 12 years ago, the world has witnessed numerous international conflicts: Somalia, Rwanda, The Gulf War of 1990-1991, the Yugoslavia Wars, including the war in Kosovo, and most recently, the war in Afghanistan (which is not limited to Afghanistan). Such conflicts and pervasive violence might seem unusual but nothing could be further from the truth. The hard facts are that in international politics wars are a routine part of the landscape.

At one level things are quite different from war to war: the concrete issues change (in 1990 it was the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait, in 2001 the terrorist attach on the World Trade buildings), the individuals change too (Hussein, Milosevic, and Bin Laden). But beneath the leaders and the issues over which they struggle, there is an underlying similarity to these conflicts.

These similarities suggest that we look for the underlying patterns, that we try to study the events not for their uniqueness but for their ordering principles. Thus, I start with the idea of paradigms or approaches to IR. The first one we look at is realism, then liberalism.

I. Meaning of Paradigm.

In 1962 Thomas Kuhn wrote The Structure of Scientific Revolutions in which he set forth his ideas concerning paradigms and paradigm shifts.

A paradigm is a view of the world, a worldview that includes agreement on what the basic units are, what the key problems to be explained are, and a theory to provide the explanation. While scientists argue about paradigms in quite explicit terms, we should recognize that we all have some worldview, about the international system as much as about the physical world.

If, in thinking about IR, the first thing that comes into your head are the nation-state, government leaders, power, statecraft, alliances, conventional and nuclear weapons etc., you are likely to be a realist.

If you think of trade, competition, MNCs, Microsoft, transnational interest groups, capital flows, professional organizations and Alan Greenspan and the Secretary of Commerce rather than Donald Rumsfeld and Condy Rice, chances are that you are a Liberal theorist.

If in thinking about issues of war and peace, you find yourself looking into the beliefs and stereotypes of politicians, their prejudices, images of the enemy, and of operational codes (How does Henry Kissinger think, or Slobodan Milosevic), you are implicitly subscribing to a psychological paradigm of IR.

Finally, if you think of international morality, the influence of religious and transnational secular beliefs, of principles, ideas, norms, conventions, and international law, you are what many have called at least until recently, an idealist.

I'd like to begin to explore two paradigms of IR – the Realist and Liberal paradigms. The Realist paradigm focuses on states in their relations with one another. The theory is situational in that it seeks to explain outcomes and actions of states in terms of the environment; in particular, realists like to look to shifting power capabilities to explain international conflict and war. While realists will often appeal to second-image variables (such as nationalism), they do so in a subsidiary way. Nationalism is always there, realists will point out, but national passions get ignited only under certain circumstances, and these circumstances are usually characterized by changes in the international distribution of power.

Liberal democratic theory, on the other hand, and liberal economics, look more to the nature of the states themselves.

These two paradigms prompt an important distinction in IR theory, between unit-centered and systemic theories. Unit-centered theories look to the internal organization of states, to the nature of key interest groups, to the form of government, to whether national feelings are hostile, inward-looking, and exclusive or open and cosmopolitan. To a Liberal, the fundamental problem of conflict in the Balkans today stems from the xenophobic, hostile, illiberal nature of Serbian and Albanian nationalism. To a realist, the "real" cause lies at a much deeper level, namely the collapse of the Soviet Union and the creation of a power vacuum in the Balkans.

Hans and Fritz fight one another because they are aggressive, greedy, hostile, uneducated (pick your adjectives); This is a unit-centered explanation. Or

Hans and Fritz fight one another because they are placed in a competitive environment without the institutions to resolve conflict; this is more of a systemic explanation.


Realism provides an elaborate theory of international conflict. For now, I will just provide the bare bones, the fundamentals. Realism has a theory which rests on the importance of states operating within an environment of anarchy. The major variables of concern are national interests, the distribution of power, and war. However, before going too far, I should say that the attack on the World Trade Center towers by Al-Quaeda break the mould and present a conceptual challenge to realism, in that the attack was initiated by a non-state actor. This is a problem for realism because its theory is premised on the capacity to retaliate against a territory. And Al-Quaeda has no return address.

(a) the Units: nation-states. The basic units for realism are nation-states. Nation-states are political organizations that result from the fusion of nationalism and statehood. Nationalism is best thought of as a psychological or cultural variable. German nationalism has a certain Volkish component to it. The idea of a people and common blood line are very important. For the British, nationalism attaches to the monarchy, the Parliament, and a certain civil tradition. For the French, the language counts for a great deal, as well as a hard to define sense of a distinctive mission in the world.

(1) nations and nationalism. Nationalism as the "we-feeling", this sense of belonging to a group, is attached to an autonomous (indeed sovereign) form of political organization called the state.

(2) The state can best be thought of as an autonomous political organization of ultimate authority. That is, the state is a sovereign organization, one that is constitutionally independent, which answers to no higher legal authority.

(3) Fusion of states and nations. This does not mean that for every nation there is a state. There are by conservative estimates, between 800 and 1000 nations in the world today, and this does not count some of the smaller splinter groups who would like to be treated as autonomous political entities. The Quebecois do not have a state, nor do the Kurds, nor the Palestinians, nor yet the Kosovars in Kosovo.

But many more national groups have their own sovereign state than did ten years ago, or fifty years ago. (There were 51 original signatories to the UN in 1945). Today, there are perhaps 190.

So, states are sovereign, and they possess a legal monopoly of the means of violence, and subject to some limitations of international law, leaders of states can do pretty much what they want within their borders. This is essentially what sovereignty means; it is a right to govern within one's borders free from external constraint.

(b) the environment: anarchy. Anarchy is merely the outward appearance of sovereignty. When we say the international system is anarchic, we do not mean that it is chaotic, rule-less, or without any underlying patterns. Far from it; Patterns of behavior in the international system are very law-like in the underlying regularities. Anarchy simply means no central ruler. If states report to no higher authority, i.e. if they are sovereign, it follows that there is no central ruler, and it follows from this that the international system involves the interaction of a multiplicity of states who themselves have no ruler. In its starkest form, the mode of interaction of international politics involves the pursuit of national interest on the basis of power; Power against Power.

(c) Consequences of Anarchy. What are the consequences of anarchy for international politics? At a minimum, life within anarchy weakens trust and makes states hesitant to interact a lot with one another, and to depend on one another for their livelihood. Thus, for as much as states trade with one another, they do not develop divisions of labor internationally to compete with the domestic division of labor. The greater the mistrust and insecurity, the less a state is willing to depend on others. Some states have concluded that the only way to do it is to become self sufficient (the PRC during the Maoist period, Albania, Tanzania), though they have done so at great cost. Other states choose their allies carefuly (Europeans trade mostly with Europeans and within the North Atlantic), the US with North and South America, and with WE; the socialist countries within the Socialist Bloc and so on.

Trust is hurt because there is no enforcement mechanism. When you take out a loan domestically, or write a contract with someone, for example contracting for the services of someone to do a longterm job, you generally expect that the contract will be fulfilled. But there are often differences of opinion about contracts. Within the dometic context, there are always courts and the police. The arm of the state lies in back of even the simplest contract. Since we know that laws will be enforced, we are not as likely to renege. In the international system, courts are either non-existent or very weak, and even if courts operated better, they would still need to have the laws enforced. Without a centralized police force, laws will not be given force. As a result, power is likely to be relied on to a much greater extent in the international system. As Thucydides said, "In the international system, strong states do what they can, and the weak suffer what they must".

Thus, if trust and cooperation are damaged, so is security. Under anarchy, states are continually in a position where they must be watchful for their physical and economic security. Nothing is likely to come easily. Even the most mundane economic intercourse is likely to be underwritten by force. Force of course, does not always have to be on display. Far from it, it is most effective when it is not being used.

(d) Major variables

(1) the national interest

Countries act the way they do because of the “national interest”..They do not act out of sentimentality, or because of the personal wishes of leaders. They usually do not act so as to advance abstract causes, such as the fostering of democracy, the advancement of human rights, or “the good will of mankind”. Leaders of countries may say all of these things but this is a cloak, a fig leaf, for their real underlying interests. In the last Gulf War, the US said it was acting to prevent a vicious authoritarian leader (Hussein)f rom attacking a small, defenseless country, Kuwait. But more likely we were concerned about a steady, cheap supply of oil, or preventing any one country from becoming too strong in the Middle East. Similarly, Hussein assured all of the countries of the ME that he had no intention of attacking Kuwait, but of course this is exactly what he did.

The point is not that states always do bad things. The point is that they do what is in their interests.

It is difficult to identify the national interest accurately but we can attempt to do so by a careful analysis of each situation, asking what the concrete interests of the countries were (are) for every case.

Take the Gulf War in 1990-1991. Why did the US go to war against Iraq?

(1) the balance of power. The idea is simple. We did not want Hussein to become more powerful than he already was. Our policy in the ME was to prevent any one country from becoming too powerful. Iraq and Iran had must finished a nine year war. Iran was exhausted. Iraq was the power that threatened to upset stability in the region.

So we didn’t want Saddam Husssein to get rich because if he did, he might upset the balance of power in the region.

(2) a second explanation. We went to war because we were afraid that if we did not, Hussein would control too much of the ME oil supply, and he could limit production and raise prices. We went to war because we did not want a repeat of the quadrupling of oil prices that we saw during the 1970s.

George Bush said “Our jobs, our way of life, our freedom, would all suffer if control of the world’s great oil reserves fell into the hands of one man, Saddam Hussein”

(3) A third explanation lies with domestic politics. It is not a favorite realist explanation but it qualifies. What really explains our decision to go to war in the Gulf is not BOP politics, or cheap oil (except indirectly) but rather the presidential ambitions of George Bush.

There was a big debate at this time within Bush’s staff about the advantages and disadvantages of going to war. Public confidence in the country was at a 20 year low. Bush’s chief of staff, John Sununu, said that “ a short, successful war would be pure political gold for the president; it would guarantee his reelection”.

We may not know which of these explanations is true but they are all candidates for the national interest. But out of the three explanations, the first one is most consistent with realism, because it draws of the balance of power. Power, and particularly the BOP, is a central idea in realist theory.

Major variables (continued)

(2) The Distribution of Power.

Last time we said that power was the ability to control outcomes, or the abilityof A to get B to do something that B would not otherwise do. This ability could either be based on positive incentives or negative incentives, that is either on the capacity to make promises to make others better off, or the threat to make others worse off. So the offer or the threat are the two main ways of accomplishing one’s power objectives.

But of course these are the outcomes. What we want is some indicator, some measure of underlying power capacity, so that we can rely on this indicator to predict outcomes. We want to be able to look at countries and to say, this country is powerful, or this country will be able to get its way pretty consistently in international relations. In order to predict, we need a measure of power that is separate from the power outcomes themselves. What could these measures be?

(1) measures of military hardware: ICBMs, tanks, ships, submarines, troops, intelligence etc.

(2) economic indicators: GNP, trade, investments abroad, supply of technology around the globe, whether a country is a leader or follower in the production of high technology.

(3) Information: universities, higher education, basic R and D, intelligence, industrial research and so on.

(4) State capacity: the cohesiveness and organizational capacity of a state.

Most of our measures of national power produce a picture of powerful states that is too muscle-bound. States have bulked up so much with their steroid-fed weight programs that they cannot perform the agility feats required of the modern international system. Fifty thousand nuclear warheads for the US and the SU did little if anything in terms of positive goals, though they probably assured that nothing terribly bad happened either. The problem is that there is a disconnection between the goals of states and the means at their disposal. Power has to be usable; it has to be brought to bear in specific contexts.

The constraints on the use of power have changed. When the US wanted the Japanese to open their markets to US exports in 1853, Commodore Perry sailed into a Japanese port and threatened bombardment. Today, the US and Japan have many trade disagreements –over rice, auto imports, liberalization of financial services etc and we engage in endless trade negotiations with Japan t o try to resolve these problems.

Similarly, a Canadian diplomat remarked recently (see Nye, Understanding International Conflicts) that he did not fear that the US would march into Toronto and seize the city again, as it did in 1813, but rather that Toronto would be programmed out of relevance by a computer firm in Texas, or that the Canadian economy would be taken over by US MNCs and US television programming. Thus softer forms of power resting on economics and information seem to be more important.

Realism is interested in how every country stacks up in terms of the raw calculus of power but it is also interested, even more so, in the way power is distributed. To realists, it matters if power is spread evenly over many countries, concentrated in just two, or distributed over 4-5 countries.

Two types of international systems that realists like to discuss are bipolar and multipolar ones. A bipolar system is a system in which power is in two countries, or in two poles of countries. A pole is a single country or collection of countries where there is a predominant bloc leader and several other countries closely allied to the bloc leader. The period 1945 to 1990 was a bipolar period. Most historians and political scientists think this period was remarkably safe, and perhaps paradoxically also stable. The system was not prone to change, the membership stayed almost exactly the same over the entire period, and there were very few battle deaths.

The second type of system is multipolar. A multipolar system is one in which power is distributed over at least three countries, but normally 4,5, 6 or more. The international system from 1648 to 1945 was multipolar: austria, Prussia, Italy, France, Russia and England were the main actors.

Major variables (continued)

(3) The final concept is war. I won’t say anything about this concept here because we have a lot to say about it later. War is organized violence (i.e. state-directed violence) across national borders. For realists, war is a normal part of the international landscape. It doesn’t always occur. There may be long periods of peace, but like rain in Seattle, it is always on the horizon.


Realism provides a pessimistic theory of IR. To the charge that the theory is pessimistic, realists respond that the issue is not pessimistic or optimistic, but whether or not the theory is correct. Realists point to the presence of war as an integral part of the state system since the time of recorded history. The Peloponnesian Wars rack the ancient Greek city-state system but World Wars I and II destroyed much of Europe in this century. Indeed, to look with a cold eye on the wars of the 20th century doesn’t leave one much cause to speak of progress.

Are things getting better? Are wars obsolete? Have we educated ourselves out of the senseless butchery and learned to live peacefully as members of the community of nations? Realists scoff.

Look to power, not sentiment; look to national interests, not lofty nice-sounding words. These are the keys to understanding now nations actually behave.

To Liberalism