The Scope of International Relations

Every branch of academic disciplines tries to explain some aspect of the world from different perspectives based on its respective body of literature. This body of literature has been built over a period in response to particular problems or questions emerging relating to its subject matter.

Similarly, the study of international relations (IR), a branch of political studies, has developed its own distinctive subject matter since it emerged as a specialized field soon after the WW1. And, like all other subjects, it has also gradually   become multi-disciplinary drawing on other disciplines especially history, economics, sociology, geography, philosophy and law.

While international relations are as old as humans started living together under a government, IR (study of these relations) is new phenomenon. The scholars study these relations from different perspectives known as theories-Realism, structuralism etc. All your analysis and remedies will flow from this perspective you choose.

Scope of IR Studies

There are five pillars of international relations (remember 5As)- Aim, Actors, Agenda, Arena and Actions;

Aim: Each branch of knowledge has an aim of studying its respective core elements. For example, economists try to find out the working of an economic system by asking three questions namely what is being produced, how it is being produced and for whom it is being produced. In political science, they ask almost similar question to know the dynamics of a political system of a country namely who wields authority to allocate resources to whom and how. Similarly in international relations, academics try to find out the working of the global political system by asking three questions namely who gets what and how in terms of power, prestige and resources.  

Actors: International relations are a very broad concept and refers to the collective interactions of the international community. This international community includes not only individual nations and states but also non-state entities such as inter-governmental organizations (United Nations/UNICEF/IMF/World Bank etc), non-governmental organizations (Oxfam, Doctors Without Borders, Red Cross etc) multinational corporations (Microsoft, Google, etc) and so forth.

Agenda is what they want to achieve. Throughout history, states have three objectives under their Agenda (Remember 3Gs)-Gold, God and Glory.

  • Gold: Gold refers to the pursuit of economic interests by a nation state. It could be a pursuit for a physical asset like hydrocarbon resources/water, or access to market for selling your goods and services or an intangible asset like graining foothold of a geostrategic location/denying it to your opponents etc.
  • God: God refers to all those religious/cultural norms and values you consider superior to others and are desirous of spreading them I.e., Islam/ Christianity/communism,/liberal democracy etc
  • Glory: Glory stands for considering yourself superior to others either personal aggrandizement like Alexander’s or hegemonic designs of the ruling elite of a country like the USA

However, in modern era common threats like global warming, nuclear proliferation, terrorism etc have forced these actors to have common agenda to counter these threats

Arena: Arena refers to the place of action where the actors are pursuing their respective agenda described above. It could be physical location like the Middle Eeast, or space or even cyber space.  

Actions: Actions are the strategies these actors employ to achieve their objectives. These could range from dipolomatic means and trade relations on the one hand to the economic sanctions and the use of force on the other.

Areas of Study

Some of the major areas studied under IR are as follows  

1. Nation-states

Since their inception after the Peace of Westphalia and their proliferation since WW1, the nation-states are the primary actors in international relations. Each state is conditioned by its geography, resources, population, level of industrial and technological development, ideology, diplomacy, national interest etc. As such, the study of nation states, their respective objectives, their weaknesses or strengths etc., are the starting point of the scope of IR.

2. National Interest

National Interest is an ambiguous concept that carries a meaning according to the context in which it is used. Statesmen and policy-makers have always used it in ways suitable to them and to their objective of justifying the actions of their states.

While Morgenthau equated it with “survival—the protection of physical, political and cultural identity against encroachments by other nation-states”, Brookings Institute defines it in the following way “What a nation feels to be necessary to its security and wellbeing … National interest reflects the general and continuing ends for which a nation acts.”

Irrespective of the precise definition one has in mind, it is the national interest which determine the shape and scope of external relations of a country; this, interalia, affects the direction of the global relations. Accordingly, the scope of IR includes the study of the objectives various countries try to achieve under their national interest

3. National Power

Other things remaining the same, it is ultimately the power which determines the inter-state relations. The success or failure of a country to achieve the objectives it has  set under its national interest is dependent upon the extent of the national power of a country. Thus a super power will be in a better position to purse its national interest agenda than a regional power and so on.  As such, study of the national power of a country forms an important part of the subject-matter of International Politics.

4. Foreign Policies

Strategies chosen by a nation state to safeguard its national interests by interacting with other state/non-state actors is reflected in its foreign policy. By studying the foreign policies of various nations, one can hope to understand the nature of present day international relations.

5. International Economic Relations

The increased importance and role of economic and trade relations in global affairs cannot be over-emphasised.  can be hardly overestimated. Bilateral or multi-lateral economic relations in the form of trade, investment, aid etc., form a very important part of international relations. They are the most important means of influencing the course, content and direction of relations among the nation-state  of relations; hence the study of economic relations, forms an integral part of the scope of International Politics.

6. Supra-state Actors

Rapid growth of supra-state actors in the form of international institutions and organisations such as the UNO, WTO, FAO, World Bank, IMF etc., is one of the most prominent feature of the post WW2 international relations.  They are acting as the institutionalized means for the conduct of relations among nations. In fact, they  are increasingly penetrating those domains which were henceforth exclusively reserved for the domestic state machinery. Thus, study of these international institutions is an important subject matter of international relations

7. Non-state Actors

Along with the rise of the above -mentioned supra state institutions, there has been a mushroom growth of non-state actors-violent as well as non-violent. Violent non-state actors, whether they are genuine liberation movements or pure terrorist organisations, have been playing larger than life role in international relations. Similarly, non-violent non-state actors such as multinational corporations, NGOs and other such actors in the international environment has necessitated the inclusion of the study of the role of these actors in international system.

8. Concepts and Ideas

International relations can be studied from another perespective namely hard ware and soft ware. While the nation-states, non-state actors, supra-state organisations etc constitute the hardware of the study of international relations, there  are certain concepts and ideas which have been dominating the study of international relations since its inception. For example, concepts like international law, balance of power, dictatorship, fascism, capitalism, end of history public opinion etc., have guided and are still guiding and controlling the behaviour of nations in their global dealings. A student of international politics has to study all such concepts and ideas to have a thorough knowledge of the subject matter of international relations.

9. Study of Current Issues & Events

Last but not the least, it is the the study of major contemporary issues and events which are the immediate drivers of the inter-state relations at any time. Scope of International Politics includes the study of  these issues like global warming, terrorism etc,. and events like wars and conflicts which shape and condition the behaviour of nations in international relations.

Previous Post
Next Post

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *