What is an Academic Discipline?
Before we zoom in on what is International Relations, let’s zoom out for a moment and ask a more fundamental question: What is an academic discipline?
I really like how R.C. Waldun explain this, explaining “How mastery trumps passion in the quest for the subject you love”.
Here is his 2 min video on the topic:
In higher education, we can define academic discipline as an institutionalised body of knowledge studied in a systematic manner over extended period of time.
Let’s break it down.
“Body of knowledge” means that every academic discipline must focus on something. Physics, chemistry, English literature – they all have something they study.
That ‘something’ is often summarised and explained in introductory textbooks. You can find examples of good International Relations textbooks in the last section of this article.
“Institutionalised body og knwoledge” meands that there are structures created to assist the development and dissemination of knowledge.
These include universities, professional associations, academic journals, book series, conferences, research grants, etc.
Studying something in a “systematic manner” simply means developing and observing best research practice, which may include developing robust methodology or theoretical framework.
“Over extended period of time” means that academic disciplines are there for the long haul.
They don’t appear only to disappear a few months later.
People join and stay within disciplines for life.
International relations is a wide-ranging subject that allows students to investigate and research the relationships between countries and governments. Sometimes it’s called international studies, international affairs, or global studies (…). When you study for an International Relations degree, the focus lies on relationships between nation states and large intergovernmental organizations like the EU, UN or World Health Organisation.
International Relations – sometimes referred to as International Studies – is a branch of Political Science that, through its examination of states, international alliances, transnational organisations and the global economy, seeks to make sense of an increasingly globalised world. A degree in International Relations will deal with issues such as sovereignty, human rights, development, and environmentalism, and introduce you to a diverse range of concepts and theories that offer a number of ways to approach the global issues of the 21st century.
International Relations is concerned with relations across boundaries of nation-states. It addresses international political economy, global governance, intercultural relations, national and ethnic identities, foreign policy analysis, development studies, environment, international security, diplomacy, terrorism, media, social movements and more.
Let’s look for some common elements in all of these definitions.
The first and most obvious commonality is that International Relations is concerned with what happens across national boundaries.
The second definition also notes that it is concerned with “an increasingly globalised world”.
This kind of statement has become commonplace in International Relations, but I would argue that this is more of an aspiration than the statement of fact.
The world may be becoming increasingly globalised. But we also see the opposite trends.
Donald Trump, Brexit, COVID-19 – they all point to the continues importance of the nation state.
The other important element all thee definitions have in common is that they list a broad variety of topics studied under the umbrella of International Relations.
International organisations, foreign policy, development, human rights, etc.
International Relations is indeed a broad discipline with no clear boundaries.
It is also not always easy distinguish domestic policy from International Relations.
For example, were terrorist attacks on September 11, 2011, a domestic act of violence or an international act of war?
Different interpretations are possible.
International Relations as Political Authority
Now that we have addressed the question ‘What is International Relations?’, you have become familiar with the basic tenets of this discipline. Let’s dig deeper.
What is International Relations really about?
One famous proposition came from Kenneth Waltz – an American political scientist.
In his seminal 1979 book Theory of International Politics, he argued that International Relations is about how the international system is organised.
International Relations, he observed, consists of sovereign states.
There is no world government, states have the ultimate authority.
But that also means there is no one to protect them. They have to protect themselves.
And whatever one states does, it has an impact on other states.
That’s why we say they form a system.
Waltz argued that the structure of international system is anarchic, but let’s get back to our question.
What is International Relations really about?
Another proposition comes from the renown contemporary scholar Christian Reus-Smit.
In his recent short introduction to International Relations, he argues the following:
My big claim in this little book is that we should focus on the global organization of political authority, and on the human and environmental consequences of such organization.
What is the History of International Relations?
Now that we know what International Relations is about, let’s look at the history of the discipline.
So when do you think did International Relations begin?
One possible answer is ancient Greece, at the time of the famous Peloponnesian War (431–404 BC).
It wasn’t the war itself, however, which is crucial for us. It is, instead, the way it was told by the Greek historian Thucydides.
His fantastic account of this conflict, which he experienced first hand, led to the arguably most important historical account ever written.
It truly is a great read, and I would encourage you to read it.
It’s a big book. But if you are going to get it, get this edition:
The reason why we could argue that International Relations started with Thucydides is that this books is not only historical. It is also theoretical, in that Thucydides offers some seemingly universal truths about how politics works.
So if we ask ‘What is International Relations?’, one answer would come from Thucydides: It is the study of war, its causes and nature.
Here is perhaps his most famous quote:
Right, as the world goes, is only in question between equals in power, while the strong do what they can and the weak suffer what they must.
It has become widely accepted, however, that International Relations as an academic discipline started at a different point.
Much more recently, in fact.
Right after World War I, in 1919, the world’s first Department of International Politics was established at University College of Wales, Aberystwyth (Wales, UK).
David Davies with sisters, a famous & wealthy peace activist, offered £20,000 to fund the Chair of International Relations (the Woodrow Wilson Chair from 1922), for the following purpose:
in memory of the fallen students of our University for the study of those related problems of law and politics, of ethics and economics, which are raised by the prospect of a League of Nations and for the truer understanding of civilisation other than our own
The League of Nations was the world’s first international organisation concerned with establishing lasting peace among nations.
It preceded the United Nations and it failed because it did not manage to prevent the outbreak of World War II in 1939.
Still, it is a fascinating organisation!
Here is an interesting twist about the Woodrow Wilson Chair (Professorship) at Aberystwyth though.
Its founder, David Davies, imagined that whoever holds that position at any given time, would be a devoted supporter of the League of Nations and the principles of international liberalism.
That wasn’t the case, however.
Davies complained that the professors employed as Woodrow Wilson Chairs didn’t support his ideas.
The most famous disappointment was E.H. Carr, appointed Chair in 1936, who was especially critical of the League of Nations.
Carr became known as one of the founding European fathers of the realist theory of International Relations and he criticised the League of Nations for being naive and neglecting power in world politics.
Davies was angry & disappointed. He even admitted:
I wish to God [he wrote towards the end of his life] I had never initiated this proposal. Almost since the inception of this department it has worked consistently against the programme I have spent most of my time and money in advocating; namely, the development of the League with a real international authority. All the professors from Zimmern onwards opposed these ideas, with the result that we have been landed in another . . . War
Why do selfish states trapped in a security dilemma choose to submit their authority and decision-making autonomy to some international bodies?
You should also check out my free 1-hour course Introduction to International Relations.
Finally, if you are more serious about your education, check out my live online seminar course Geopolitics of the 21st Century.
You may like to check the following textbooks, which are regularly used at universities in the first year of studying International Relations.
- Burchill, et al., Theories of International Relations (Palgrave)
- Daddow, International Relations Theory: The Essentials (SAGE)
- Dunne, Kurki and Smith, International Relations Theories: Discipline and Diversity (OUP)
- Jackson and Sorenson, Introduction to International Relations: Theories and Approaches (OUP)
- European Council on Foreign Relations
- The Diplomat
- Chatham House
- Council on Foreign Relations
- E-International Relations
That should be enough for you to learning more about what is International Relations.
I hope I have answered this question for you.
Do you know any other interesting resources? Or questions? Feel free to share them in the comments below.