International relations

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IR theories can be roughly divided into one of two epistemological camps: "positivist" and "post-positivist". Positivist theories aim to replicate the methods of the natural sciences by analysing the impact of material forces. They typically focus on features of international relations such as state interactions, size of military forces, balance of powers etc. Post-positivist epistemology rejects the idea that the social world can be studied in an objective and value-free way. It rejects the central ideas of neo-realism/liberalism, such as rational choice theory, on the grounds that the scientific method cannot be applied to the social world and that a 'science' of IR is impossible.

A key difference between the two positions is that while positivist theories, such as neo-realism, offer causal explanations (such as why and how power is exercised), post-positivist theories focus instead on constitutive questions, for instance what is meant by 'power'; what makes it up, how it is experienced and how it is reproduced. Often, post-positivist theories explicitly promote a normative approach to IR, by considering ethics. This is something which has often been ignored under 'traditional' IR as positivist theories make a distinction between 'facts' and normative judgments, or 'values'.

During the late 1980s/1990 debate between positivists and post-positivists became the dominant debate and has been described as constituting the Third "Great Debate" (Lapid 1989).

Positivist Theories


Realism focuses on state security and power above all else. Early realists such as E.H. Carr and Hans Morgenthau argued that states are self-interested, power-seeking rational actors, who seek to maximize their security and chances of survival. Cooperation between states is a way to maximize each individual state's security (as opposed to more idealistic reasons). Similarly, any act of war must be based on self-interest, rather than on idealism. Many realists saw World War II as the vindication of their theory.

It should be noted that classical writers such as Thucydides, Machiavelli, and Hobbes are often cited as "founding fathers" of realism by contemporary self-described realists.[citation needed] However, while their work may support realist doctrine, it is not likely that they would have classified themselves as realists (in this sense of the term). Realists are often split up into two groups: Classical or Human Nature Realists (as described here) and Structural or Neorealists (below).

Political realism believes that politics, like society in general, is governed by objective laws that have their roots in human nature. To improve society, it is first necessary to understand the laws by which society lives. The operation of these laws being impervious to our preferences, men will challenge them only at the risk of failure. Realism, believing as it does in the objectivity of the laws of politics, must also believe in the possibility of developing a rational theory that reflects, however imperfectly and one-sidedly, these objective laws. It believes also, then, in the possibility of distinguishing in politics between truth and opinion-between what is true objectively and rationally, supported by evidence and illuminated by reason, and what is only a subjective judgment, divorced from the facts as they are and informed by prejudice and wishful thinking.

The placement of Realism under positivism is far from unproblematic however. E.H. Carr's 'What is History' was a deliberate critique of positivism, and Hans Morgenthau's aim in 'Scientific Man vs Power Politics' - as the title implies - was to demolish any conception that international politics/power politics can be studied scientifically.

Liberalism/idealism/Liberal Internationalism

Liberal international relations theory arose after World War I in response to the inability of states to control and limit war in their international relations. Early adherents include Woodrow Wilson and Norman Angell, who argued vigorously that states mutually gained from cooperation and that war was so destructive to be essentially futile.

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