A Brief Introduction to Theories on International Relations and Foreign Policy

POLI 468

Bill Newmann



The selections we will be reading have one main focus.They seek to answer the big question in international relations and foreign policy: Why do states behave the way they do in the international system?Some people argue that this is a question of international relations theory and others say it is a question of foreign policy theory.For our purposes, we can consider them the same issue.Why do states behave the way they do is the question that theories of international relations and theories of foreign policy are trying to answer.The fact that these are treated as separate bodies of theory says more about political scientists than it does about the nature of state behavior.

Since political science is concerned with theory building, each of these books focuses on theories.As stated in the syllabus, the search for theory is a search for rules to explain social science phenomenon (in this case foreign policy behavior).Each author is developing a theory to explain the behavior of all states, not just one state.That is the trick here.Can you find universal patterns of activity, universal rules that can used to explain how any state behaves? Each author is developing a theory (a rule about state behavior) and then testing it with case studies.You are assessing those theories and the evidence that supports them.So think in those terms.Donít be confused by scientific jargon.Just remember that theories are statements about cause and effect.When I heat up a liquid, it will boil.Thatís cause and effect.To become a scientist, you start to experiment Ė you heat up different liquids to see if they all boil at the same temperature, then you try to make rules about the different types of liquids you heat up, say types of juices vs. types of oil.Thatís science.Now, since this is social science and weíre dealing with nations, we canít run experiments.You canít invade several nations to see what their different reactions to invasion might be.So you use historical data to test your theories. Thatís what youíre examining in your papers.An author has developed a theory or tested two theories.How well does the authorís argument hold up when tested against the historical data?

The authors might use terms that you are unfamiliar with.I am going to provide a brief introduction to some of the key ideas in international relations that will give you a starting point and a quick reference for dealing with the theoretical issues.The authors are very good at illustrating their theories, but this might help just in case.Also, these are starting points for the authors.They take some of these basic notions and redevelop them.So their views of each of these theories might be slightly different from the way I describe them.Theories evolve and below Iíve given you the basic starting points for each theory.



Levels of Analysis

One of the key questions in international relations and foreign policy is the question of how you examine state behavior.This is the level of analysis problem.Scholars see several levels of analysis through which state behavior can be examined.

System level analysis examines state behavior by looking at the international system.In this level of analysis, the international system is the cause and state behavior is the effect.Characteristics of the international system cause states to behave the way they do.Change in the international system will cause change in state behavior.The key variable in the international system is the power of a state within the system.Some states are powerful; others are weak.So for example, the cold war had two powerful states.Therefore the central cause of all state behavior in the cold war was the fact that the US and USSR were the two powerful states in a bipolar system.Today, there is unipolar system Ė one superpower (or hyperpower) -- and that defines the behavior of all other states in the system. (See neo-realism below).So this level of analysis might explain the US intervention in Iraq as a matter of the US, the one and only powerful state, flexing its muscles to police the world against states that threaten it.The US wants to preserve its dominance and therefore crushes all challengers.

State level analysis examines the foreign policy behavior of states in terms of state characteristics.For example, some scholars say that all democracies behave a certain way; they donít fight with other democracies.Some scholars might look at the different behaviors of weak or strong states; states that live in rough neighborhoods (Germany or France) vs. states that live in more benign surroundings (the US).Some scholars might say that the foreign policy behavior of every state is a cultural characteristic, defined by the historical legacy of the state, the religious or social traditions, or the economic and geographic nature of the state itself (see constructivism below).State level of analysis might explain the US intervention in Iraq as a function of the missionary quality of US foreign policy.The US has always had an idealist streak in its foreign policy (some disagree with this) and sees ďbad guysĒ out there in the international system.The US is compelled by the nature of its political system and its belief that some day all states will be like the US.It has a drive to remake the world in its own image.The job of US foreign policy is not done until all states are democratic and all nations have free market economies.

Organizational level analysis examines the way in which organizations within a state function to influence foreign policy behavior.States donít make decisions.Organizations bargain with each other to create a foreign policy that is a compromise between competing organizations.This level of analysis for example, might look at the Iraq war and try to explain it by examining the interests of the US military, the department of defense, the state department, and central intelligence agency.How did these organizations create US foreign policy would be the key question at this level of analysis.

Individual level analysis focuses on people.People make decisions within nation states and therefore people make foreign policy.Scholars might look at the roles of different leaders. This level of analysis might explain World War II by examining the role of Hitler.It might look at the end of the cold war by studying Gorbachev.It might suggest that the economic reforms in China are a result of the transition from Mao Zedongís leadership to Deng Xiaopingís rule.This level of analysis also includes cognitive theories --- theories that explain foreign policy by looking at the way leaders perceive the world. Larsonís book is an example of this.This is a focus on perception, misperception, and communication.Individual level analysis might ask questions such as these: Are there aspects of George W. Bushís character and belief systems that have defined the US response to the 9/11 attacks?Would Al Gore or John Kerry have behaved any differently in a similar situation?How do Bush and his senior decision makers perceive the world and their role in it?


The books that we have for this class, examine foreign policy behavior from several different levels.



Theories of State Behavior

The following list illustrates some of the theories that youíll be reading about.Each one is a specific theory that tries to explain the way states behave.Youíll get plenty of ideas within the books, so Iíll give you the brief outline.Remember though that the authors will take these basic ideas and modify them.Again, these are starting points for theory and the authors are modifying them to build better theory.


Classical realism is a state level theory that argues that all states seek power.That is the first and last principle of state behavior.States seek to increase their power; they seek to decrease the power of their enemies; and everything they do is in the name of amassing power.States see other powerful states as rivals because power, when it is not in your hands, is threatening.People are greedy, insecure, and aggressive, so the states they govern will have those same characteristics.This doesnít mean war, however.There can be peace, but a durable peace is based upon a stable balance of power Ė the big players in the international systems are roughly equal in power resources, so therefore no one thinks they can win a war.If you donít think you can win a war, you generally donít start one.The US and USSR were rivals in the cold war because they were the two most powerful states after WW II. They were both wary of each otherís power and became enemies.But they did not go to war because they were roughly equal in power.


Neo-realism is a system level theory that is an offshoot of classical realism.It argues all of what classical realism does.However, it sees the cause of all the power struggles and rivalries not as a function of the nature of states, but as a function of the nature of the international system.States are out there alone.There is no world government, no one looking out for states, no rules that canít be easily broken.The world is anarchy and states do what they can get away with to gain power and they do what they must to protect themselves.Power creates rivalry because it is threatening by its nature.If some other state is more powerful than your state, you have no way to protect yourself but to defend yourself or attack your rival first.A neorealist might say the cold war was caused by the fact that there were only two powerful states that survived WW II.Sine there was no world government or rules of behavior to restrain the rivalry it became the cold war.This theory dominates scholarly thinking today and will be discussed in a lot of the books.


Neo-classical realism is a sort of revival of classical realism.It accepts all of the above about power rivalries, but it suggests that state characteristics (state level variables) play a large role in the behavior of states.States donít just seek power and they donít just fear other powerful states, there are reasons that states seek power and there are reasons that states fear other states.Itís a sort of combination of classical and neo-realism that factors in both system level and state level variables.For example, a neo-classical realist might look at the cold war and say that the differences in ideology between the US and USSR was a factor in the US-USSR rivalry that exacerbated the tendency for two powerful states to form rivalries.


Liberalism adds values into the equation.It is often called idealism. It is a state level theory which argues that there is a lot of cooperation in the world, not just rivalry.States donít just compete or worry about power.States try to build a more just world order.They often do so because they have learned that in many instances cooperation is a better strategy that conflict.States try to create enforceable international law.States are progressive forces for social justice.Liberalism might look at the cold war and examine the different values of the US and USSR and point out the repressive and murderous nature of the Soviet state as the key to the US and USSR animosity.It also might look at the decades-worth of US-USSR cooperation in the midst of the cold war (arms control, the lack of direct conflict).


Neo-liberalism is an offshoot of liberalism. It is a system level version of liberalism and focuses on the way in which institutions can influence the behavior of states by spreading values or creating rule-based behavior.Neo-liberals might focus on the role of the United Nations or World Trade Organization in shaping the foreign policy behavior of states.Neo-liberals might look at the cold war and suggest ways to fix the UN to make it more effective.


Cognitive Theories are those mentioned above which examine the role of psychological processes Ė perception, misperception, belief systems Ė on the foreign policy behavior of states.It can be state, organization, or individual level of analysis depending on whether the research is focusing on the psychological dynamics of a state decision maker or the shared perceptions of an organization, or the shared belief systems of a nation.Cognitive theorists might look at the shared images of the US and USSR political leaders had of each other and explain the cold war as the product of these negative images and the inability of either state to reshape the perceptions of the other.


Constructivism is a theory that examines state behavior in the context of state characteristics.All states are unique and have a set of defining political, cultural, economic, social, or religious characteristics that influence its foreign policy.States have identities and those identities define their behavior in the international system.The US has a foreign policy character.Russia has a foreign policy character.The cold war is a product of the clash of those identities.The end of the cold war may be a function of changes in the Russian identity.