7 Tips For a Great International Relations Essay

international relations essay

You may be surprised but it takes less than 1 minute for an experienced teacher to recognise a great International Relations essay.

Conversely, it takes the same amount of time to spot a poorly written one.

In this post, I am going to share my best insights, all in the form of actionable advice you can implement to your own International Relations essay today.

1. Think Theoretically

The most important thing to remember, when writing an International Relations essay, is that the discipline of International Relations is shaped by competing theoretical perspectives.

This does not mean that you must include theories of International Relations into every International Relations essay.

In fact, your International Relations essay topic may have nothing to do with theories. It may be very problem-oriented. 

This does not change the fact, however, that if you want your essay to be great, you must think theoretically about your essay.

What does it mean, exactly?

It means that you must recognise how important theoretical debates are for International Relations.

They are at the core of the discipline.

Take any textbook on International Relations or Global Politics and you will notice how theories are discussed somewhere at the beginning.

The history of International Relations is the history of theoretical debates, contestations, challenges and innovation. 

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2. Convey your appreciation of theory in your International Relations essay

Now that you understand the prominence of theory for International Relations, it’s time to convey that in your International Relations essay. 

How do you do that?

That depends on your exact question.

If your question specifically asks you to engage with theories of International Relations, you do that. 

But what if it does not?

You still find a way to convey that you understand and appreciate the theoretical nature of International Relations. 

You do it mainly with concepts.

Here are some examples:

International Relations Essay question 1

What are the implications for the United States of China’s expanding role in Africa?

With this kind of question, you can begin by outlining China’s expansion in Africa. 

Then, you can invoke the concept of unilateralism to explain how the United States has been unchallenged since the end of the Cold War, and how this is changing.

You can also invoke the concept of the balance of power here, and how it’s shifting.

International Relations Essay question 2

Who are the most important actors in the Global Political Economy and why?

Here, you, of course, need to identify those actors, but you should also offer a bit of a context.

There are different theoretical perspectives in International Political Economy and you may identify neoliberalism, in particular, as an approach which has been facilitating the development of key economic institutions after World War 2. 

The point is this: whatever the topic of your International Relations essay, there is always a way to convey that you are familiar and comfortable with the theoretical dimension of this discipline.

3. When referring to International Relations theory, be specific

I cannot count how many times I have read an International Relations essay which did, indeed, engage with some theories.

But I could still tell that the student had little idea of what he or she was doing. 

How? The reference to theories was too general and not referencing the right source.

For example:

“Realists believe that international anarchy is the cause of war”

This is correct, but if you actually want to make this point in your International Relations essay, you need to explain that you mean structural realism, and Kenneth Waltz in particular.

Be specific what concepts/strands of theory/authors you engage with. This will signal your expertise.

4. Don’t call pre-1918 thinkers ‘realists’ 

When writing your International Relations essay, chances are you will be referring to some classical thinkers often associated with classical realism.

These include, in particular, ThucydidesMachiavelli and Hobbes.

Here is a little secret though.

One sure way your teacher can tell that you have a simplistic view of International Relations is if you simply call these thinkers realists.

Realism, as a theory of International Relations, was established in the 20th century, most notably by E.H. Carr and Hans Morgenthau. 

Thucydides was a Greek historian.

Machiavelli was an Italian diplomat/thinker.

Hobbes was an English philosopher.

Yes, their ideas were incorporated into the realist theory of International Relations.

But remember to label them appropriately for who they actually were if you want to make your International Relations essay great, and not just good.

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5. Don’t claim that a theory can explain everything about the world or that it has become irrelevant

Learn to be nuanced in your International Relations essay.

And I don’t mean write a balanced essay with the structure 50% for, 50% against, conclusion.

I mean be more critical and insightful.

Think about theories of International Relations as lenses.

You put a particular lens and you see the world in a particular way. 

Some things are more in focus, other are more blurred. 

There is no single theory that can explain everything.

But also, don’t say things like: Realism has become irrelevant due to globalisation.

This is untrue. And lazy. Counter-examples can be easily found of how ‘globalisation’ is on the defensive against the resurging nation states.

6. Don’t assume that realism favours conflict

For some reason (Mearsheimer may have something to do with it), students of International Relations often assume that realists support going to war.

Here is the truth: they often don’t. 

For example, realist thinkers were strongly against the war in Iraq.

Why? Because realists care about national power and resources. 

They didn’t see a threat from Iraq to US national security. They thought it was a waste of resources.

And an expensive distraction from the real challenge: rising China.

So don’t just make assumptions in your International Relations essay based on what you instinctively think is right.

7. Don’t dismiss classical liberals as utopians

This one is also common.

Students will often dismiss, almost automatically, figures such as Woodrow Wilson or Norman Angel as utopians.

After all, they did not prevent the outbreak of World War 2. 

But here is the thing. The argument that they were utopians came from E.H. Carr and his book Twenty Years’ Crisis.

This is a great book, by the way. You should read it.

But The Great Illusion by Angel is also very good. 

I bet you never thought about reading that one.

If you want to criticise classical liberals as utopians, make sure you understand their arguments well.

Show your understanding and your International Relations essay will stand out. Promise!

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