What is International Relations Theory?

International relations, or the relationships and interactions among different states, is inherently complex, both as an academic discipline and in practice. International relations theory is the study of international relations from a theoretical perspective.

It provides a conceptual framework for analyzing international relations. They seek to answer the big question in international relations and foreign policy, i.e., Why do states behave the way they do in the international system?

How Three Levels of Analysis helps understand the International Relations?

In international relations, we use three widely accepted levels of generalization (or abstraction) to help understand highly complex problems in world politics. These different levels of analysis illustrate the different reasons why countries go to war, sign treaties or pursue alliances.

The three levels of analysis is commonly associated with the work of Kenneth Waltz. Since the publication of Kenneth Waltz’s Man, the State, and War in 1959, scholars and diplomats have found it useful to think about the numerous factors that shape international relations by breaking them into different levels of analysis — individual, state, and the international system.

These are widely accepted levels of generalization to understand complex problems in world politics. Over the years, these levels have been discussed, refined, and expanded, but ,they remain the same. The framework aims to demonstrate that we can explain the behavior of nation-states in the international system by looking at three general sets of factors.

Kenneth Waltz’s Analysis of International Relations and Causes of War

Kenneth Waltz’s initial contribution to international relations was his book Man, the State, and War, which classified theories of the causes of war into three categories, or levels of analysis. Waltz refers to these levels of analysis as “images” and uses the writings of one or more classic political philosophers to outline the major points of each image.

First Image – Man

The first image argues that wars are often caused by the nature of particular statesmen or political leaders, such as Napoleon, or by human nature more generally.

Second Image – the State

In the second image, Waltz contended that the domestic makeup of states causes wars. A prime example that Waltz refers to is Lenin’s theory of imperialism, which argued that the main cause of war is rooted in the need for capitalist states to continue opening up new markets to perpetuate their economic system at home.

Third Image – War

The third image contends that the cause of war is found at the systemic level; the anarchic structure of the international system is the root cause. In this context, “anarchy” is not defined as a condition of chaos or disorder but rather one in which no sovereign body governs the interactions between autonomous nation-states.

While each level of analysis (Individual and Systemic) offers its unique approach to understanding the international system, international relations can best be explained and understood at the “Systemic Level.”

At this high level of analysis, describing, explaining, and predicting events in IR is most effective because of (1) the wide scope that is used to view broad issues, (2) the disregard for cultural/individual factors that could contentiously play into the system, and (3) the attention paid to identifying the dominant forces in the field and, consequently, finding patterns in the larger picture.

To properly assess the Systemic Level’s efficacy in studying International Relations, we must first consider the Levels of Analysis as a whole and what each level suggests. As we will see, the first level explains nation-state behavior largely based on factors external to the country, while the other two emphasize internal factors.

Individual Level of Analysis in International Relations

Fig.1 Nepoleon Leadership

Individual Level of Analysis in International relations contends that human nature is the driving force of international politics. IR is driven primarily by the actions of individuals or outcomes of psychological forces. That is to say, individual leaders make decisions. The individual level of analysis locates the cause of events in individual leaders or the immediate circle of decision-makers within a particular country. It focuses on human actors on the world stage identifying the characteristics of human decision-making. It depends greatly on the Leadership style, leader’s beliefs, goals and value system.

The individual level emphasizes the “great man in history” concept. In this view, the very personalities of leaders shape foreign policy. Leaders are not simply mechanically responding to international or state systems but taking an active role in determining international relations.

According to the individual level of analysis, it is the real people who make decisions that determine the pattern of behaviour among states in the international system. This level of analysis is frequently seen in Great Man’ or the philosophical analyses of human nature.

The former emphasizes the critical role played by certain individuals who happen to be in the right place at the right time to exert fundamental influence on the unfolding events. The latter tends to hold, as did Hobbes and others before him, that there is a basic, aggressive tendency in human nature, and that tendency will emerge again no matter how much we wish to suppress it. War occurs because individuals are inherently aggressive. War (not peace) is the natural state of affairs among groups of individuals interacting in the international system as nation-states. It is the basic view of human nature held by most analysts who consider themselves realists.

At this level, we look closely at the human side of international relations. We examine the perceptions and misperceptions of key actors, delving into their unique perspectives and understanding of the world around them. We strive to uncover the motivations and goals that drive these actors in the complex system of international relations. It brings us to a deeper understanding of human nature and how it shapes global politics.

It can be illustrated through many examples. For example, the cause of World War I was the leaders in power at that time. Kaiser Wilhelm Il is considered the level from which the cause originated. It may have been his need for power to hide a sense of inferiority, or it may have been his inability to understand the intricacies of statecraft the way Otto von Bismarck did. Or it may have been his idea about the monarchy and German destiny.

All three possibilities are drawn from an individual level Of analysis. The most obvious example of individual-level analysis is explaining World War II through Adolf Hitler’s leadership. Hitler, seen from this perspective, decided to pursue world domination and dragged the German people (afflicted by the same frailties of human nature that affect us all) into his scheme.

According to this level of analysis, there was nothing inevitable about the war’s causes or outcomes. Had Hitler not come On the scene, no power vacuum would have drawn Germany toward domination. According to this perspective, the fact that we had these Particular individuals on the scene at that particular time is what explains the causes and outcomes of the Second World War. Finally, another would be when scholars attribute the end of the Cold War to the relationship between President Reagan and Soviet leader Gorbachev. This level suggests that the economic reforms in China are a result of the transition from Mao Zedong’s leadership to Deng Xiaoping’s rule.

This level of analysis explains foreign policy by looking at how leaders perceive the world. If you want to know why a nation-state behaves as it does, you need to ask questions such as: Who are the most important decision-makers, their motivations and perceptions, and what are they trying to achieve? What is the type of decision being made? What kind of process is required to reach a decision? For example, Are there aspects of George W. Bush’s character and belief systems that have defined the US response to the 9/11 attacks? Would Al Gore or John Kerry have behaved differently in a similar situation? How do Bush and his senior decision-makers perceive the world and their role in it?

However, in today’s global context, the individual-level analysis needs a stronger foundation. Accurate predictions are unlikely to be made, given the massive number of assumptions that need to be made first. Considering individuals and their place in the international system are undoubtedly useful in IR.

However, this level of analysis only allows for a narrower understanding of global politics and the forces in play. Recently, this level has been referred to as the decision-making level, which focuses on more general factors than the peculiarities of individuals. It emphasizes that decisions about war and peace, conflict and cooperation are made by individuals, organizations, and institutions within a society.

It also stresses the types of decisions being made (different policies generate different decisions) and the processes with which they are made whether public opinion plays a role, whether the process is open or closed, etc.).

State Level of Analysis in International Relations

Fig 2. State Level Analysis in International Relations

The state translates its power into the national interest. People view states as ‘black boxes.’ States are assumed to be power-seeking entities that enter into competition with one another without a central power to overawe them.

This second level of analysis argues that because states are the primary actors, one of the most common state-level approaches emphasizes the nature of the political system as a significant determinant of state behavior. The internal character of those states matters most in determining overall patterns of behavior. Because states are sovereign entities, they act relatively independently. Since they are part of the same system, the interaction of those independent decisions leads to war or peace, conflict or cooperation.

This level is concerned with the internal structure of states, sifting out good and bad states and (ideally) trying to change them for the better. This level of analyzing IR concerns itself with specific functions and faults of a state rather than the state as a whole and how it fits into the international structure.

When conducting foreign relations, one must consider how the state fits into the larger system regardless of whether or not they mirror the “perfectly democratic” United States. We are left with a better image of what a state represents by judging it based on its unique political and social makeup. But we need to find out how the state fares in a larger arena.

State Level Analysis believes that the domestic regimes of states drive IR. It examines the foreign policy behavior of states in terms of state characteristics. Unique features such as the type of government, international context, mechanisms or specific types of policy available, political institutions, economic structure, level of development, ideology, history, and culture inspire a state’s particular behavior.

Some scholars might say that the foreign policy behavior of every state is a cultural characteristic defined by the state’s historical legacy, religious or social traditions, or the economic and geographic nature of the state itself. For example, it is important to note that the Cold War was not just a conflict between two superpowers but that one of the two powers was a democracy.

Similarly, the economic systems of the two powers — capitalist and communist — were also significant. The state-level analyst could point to the collapse of the USSR’s economy in the 1980s as one of the factors leading to the end of the Cold War. Similarly, US cultural belief that its political and economic systems are “good” while other systems are “bad” explains the US intervention in Iraq.

State-level cases may come from various characteristics of the domestic system, e.g., capitalist and socialist economies generate different attitudes and behavior, and the Muslim and Christian religions or democratic and non-democratic political ideologies may behave differently. Stable or unstable institutions at the domestic level may affect state behavior equally. The failure of domestic institutions may also cause war. In World War I, the internal collapse of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, or the brittle coalition inside Germany of agricultural and industrial interest, such as rye and iron, are often cited as important causes. Similarly, we can also use the second level to explain the causes of WWII.

International System Level in International Relations

Fig 3. International System Level

The international system level suggests that nation-states behave the way they do because of certain fundamental characteristics of the systems of which they are all apart. The idea is that the system exerts a force on the states that compels them to behave and react in certain predictable ways.

The system-level analysis examines state behavior by looking at the international system. It is the system logic that drives state behavior in world politics. In this level of analysis, the international system is the cause, and state behavior is the effect. The characteristics of the international system cause state to behave the way they do.

Change in the international system will cause a change in state behavior. The international or systemic level of analysis argues that instead of the internal characteristics of nations or individuals, the characteristics of the international system lead nations to behave in particular ways based on how much power they hold. Here the focus is on the system composed of similar (sovereign) states.

The System-Level Analysis relies on the effect of that international system, i.e., anarchy, on state behavior. The structure (or system) of international politics compels states to act in the international system. Anarchy and the state’s distribution capabilities determine the best possible policy formulas, and the theory implies that states no longer have a conscious interest in forming foreign policy.

The most easily understood example of international-level analysis is the Cold War. There was a bipolar system where two nations — the United States and the USSR – held substantial power. Tensions inevitably arise between two nations holding the majority of international power as they base all their decisions on maintaining their power among nations and preventing the other nation from gaining more power.

As China gained power in the 1970s, a tripolar system emerged, and no one wanted to be the “odd man” out, with the other two nations allied against the third. The United States used this to its advantage by reopening relations with China and thus forcing the USSR’s hand in diplomatic relations.

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