Why and How Shall We Study Global Politics?

Students of Study International Relations are required to be broadly informed about a number of different processes influencing international and global transformations, while at the same developing the ability to abstract and systemize these aspects in order to reach a generalized understanding of them. Consequently, there is a constant tension between theory development and decision making procedures in a world that is often too complex to be captured in a few explaining variables. Nevertheless, researchers have to try: without theory development and – by definition – reduction of complexity, there will be no scientific work, and no generalizations derived from the study of political cases that may, in turn, also help decision making. Coping with this tension and designing proper research while not forgetting about its applicability to decision making is both the greatest challenge and the greatest joy of “doing” IR.
To sum up, we study International Relations as an academic discipline because

  • it provides us with a broad understanding of world politics;
  • it provides us with the methodological tools and theoretical approaches to understand and explain international, transnational and global processes in a comparative fashion;
  • it helps us to abstract single events or outcomes in order to reach general statements about the functioning of the international system.

1. The Development of International Relations – IR History

In this chapter we will briefly look at the origins of IR as a discipline. We will then move on to how its research agenda has changed over time. Lastly, we will consider whether IR deserves to be regarded as a full-fledged academic discipline, and to what extent different regional understandings of IR exist.
Until World War I, there was no such thing as an academic discipline called “International Relations.” But the outbreak and unprecedented cruelty of World War I showed the limits of subjects like history and law, which until then dealt with international questions, to explain what happened. Against this background, the Welsh liberal parliamentarian David Davies endowed a Chair for International Politics at the University of Aberystwyth, Wales, in April 1919. Courses taught in the early years focused on international institutions (crucially the League of Nations), political philosophy, and questions of governance.
Until the late 1930s, the discipline was characterized by two phenomena. First, the varied academic backgrounds of scholars led to a diversity of writing on the subject. Lawyers and historians held an outstanding position within the field, and thus formulated the agenda and methodology for the first years of IR. Alfred Zimmern, appointed the first Chair in International Politics in Aberystwyth, was a historian by training.
Secondly, the discipline was not professionalized; so many writers were not academics. Mostly publicists, they did not care much about academic standards and scientific research but often delivered accounts full of ideology and populism.
Born out of the ruins of the First World War, academic IR was initially guided by the desire to foster an improved understanding of the interactions between states in order to control world politics and avoid future wars. Three topics dominated its early research agenda:

  • International Organizations. This part of the agenda was mainly dealt with by lawyers and focused on the constitutional structure of the League of Nations.
  • The State. Early theorists focused their research on the behavior and motivation of states and statesmen as well as the history of the state system.
  • Avoiding War. A large share of research was dedicated to normative questions of creating a peaceful world.

In summary, it is significant to note that the emergence of IR as a discipline was ambiguous. Despite the label international politics, it was in its early years much closer to history and law. The dominance of normative thinking in academic IR, combined with the wide practice of non-academics writing about international politics, challenged its evolution into a coherent academic discipline in the early years. Today, it faces new challenges regarding novel types of actors and issues for which IR has to develop meaningful analytical tools. In the following chapter, we discuss some of these new themes.

2. Important Issues, Topics, and Problems in International Relations

In the following, some major discussions in world politics will be introduced to give insight into the variety and complexity of the debates in the field. Naturally, in a field as diverse as IR, there is an indefinite number of debates, such that the issues introduced below are intended to serve as examples rather than a comprehensive overview. We will again connect these issues to the five-image categorization scheme introduced above to provide some orientation as to the level of analysis these issues are studied on.

2.1 Conflict and Cooperation

When IR emerged as an academic discipline after World War I, its natural points of interest were the causes for war and the prospects for stable peace. Idealists called for mechanisms to prevent future wars, maintaining that this lay also in the best interests of states and governments. Woodrow Wilson was the first in a long row of proponents of establishing rules to prevent war (institutions).

The liberal school of thought explained war as being brought about by undemocratic rulers pursuing their personal interests at the expense of the underprivileged population. Furthermore, they criticized that foreign policy was made behind closed doors and was thus not subject to the approval of anyone apart from the ruling elite. Therefore, liberals called for democratic governments accountable to their citizens. Liberal theorists claim that democracies do not fight each other, although they may remain aggressive to non-democratic states (see Doyle 1983, Russett 1993 on the so-called principle of democratic peace). Apart from that, liberals call for mechanisms of collective security to establish a monopoly of power beyond the nation state. [Third Image: State-Level]
For (Neo-)realists, the picture looked fundamentally different, as they understood conflict to be inherent in the international system. Due to the absence of an overarching authority, states are always insecure about the intentions of other states. The anarchical structure of the international system and the consequent security-dilemma give rise to conflict. As conflict is part of the system, the only way to deal with it is to always be prepared, and, when conditions allow for it, to build a system of checks and balances. However, such a system must be based on power, not on cooperation. States have to enter into short-term alliances in order to prevent other states from becoming too powerful. Realists believe that states only cooperate if they can benefit at least as much or even more than other states and that once cooperation is achieved it has only little chance of being sustained, as states are prone to cheat. This way of reasoning assumes that governments are out only to achieve relative gains by out-maneuvering other states. Although constructivists share much of the realist view of the current international system, they come to a fundamentally different conclusion regarding the possibility of avoiding conflict. They believe that a world without violent conflict can be created by sharing knowledge. [Fifth Image: System-Level]

So far we have been talking about war and peace, but it could well be argued that today the focus of IR should be a broader one. Inter-state war is not the major instance of violent conflict anymore, as it has been replaced by the so called “new wars” (e.g. Mary Kaldor, Christopher Daase), which can include state and non-state actors alike, and have only little respect for territorial boundaries. In the western world, violent conflict has become rare (but not absent, as conflicts in the Spanish Basque region or Northern Ireland demonstrated). Thus, conflict in the western world evolves less around questions of security than around trade (e.g. the “banana controversy” between the EU and the Americas) or political power (the British refusal to approve the 2005 EU budget due to farming subsidies overtly beneficial to French farmers). The arena of conflict between western states has in many cases moved to international forums, which have partly managed to internalize conflict. One of the most prominent examples for such internalization is the European Court of Justice, which will be discussed at greater length in the European Politics module. Taking these developments into account, one of the most relevant questions in global politics continues to evolve around issues of conflict (be it armed, political or economic) and cooperation.

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