What is International Relations? (Ultimate Answer)

what is international relations

I am really happy you want to learn about International Relations. I believe it is one of the most fascinating topics one can study. But let’s get right to it: What is International Relations?

The short answer would be the International Relations is the study of anything that happens politically beyond the borders of a single nation state.

The ‘study’ is the key word here. Why? Because when we capitalise International Relations, we indicate that we are going to refer to an academic discipline.

All right, I feel we have already moved forward quite a bit. Let’s take a few steps back.

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.

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What is International Relations?

Now that we know what an academic discipline is, let’s look at some definitions learn what International Relations is about. The first one comes from Study.eu:

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.

This one comes from the British International Studies Association (BISA):

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.

Finally, this one comes from San Francisco State University (SFSU):

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.

what is international relations - Kenneth Waltz

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 does it mean?

It means that, according to Reus-Smit, in International Relations we should focus on how and where political authority is organised.

And that will expose us to the most important problems of global politics.

Take Brexit, for example, which refers to the United Kingdom withdrawing from the European Union.

Fundamentally, Brexit has been about who should exercise political authority in the UK.

Those in favor of leaving argue that political authority should be exclusively exercised by UK government.

Or, take the war in Syria. Again, the question there is who should exercise authority in that country?

When Donald Trump withdrew the United States from the so-called Paris Climate Accord, he signaled that he did not want to share political authority with international agreements on combating climate change.

I hope you can see that this interpretation makes good sense!

Why Political Authority Matters

OK, so we have established that we can think about International Relations in terms of how political authority is organised.

As we have also established that we can take most problems of global politics and find that the question of political authority will be at their core.

But why does it matter? It matters no only for our questions ‘What is International Relations?’

It crucially matters for how the world works.

It matters because the organisation of political authority impacts world politics in important ways.

Here are some key domains of the social and political world which the organisation of political authority shapes:

  1. Individuals’ rights: some states are authoritarian, others democracies.
  2. The functioning of economies: some states have command economies, others liberal.
  3. The provision of health and education: some states have well-funded welfare systems, others don’t.
  4. The diversity and inclusivity of cultural communities: some states are multicultural, others nationalistic.
  5. The protection or exploitation of nature: some states are ‘greener’ than others.

All of this impacts societies, countries and world politics in important ways. For example, it makes a huge difference whether political authority is organised in an authoritarian or democratic way, as summarised here.

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

Soon after Aberystwyth, more International Relations departments were created in other universities around the world.

The discipline of International Relations was born.

What are the key problems in International Relations?

No answer to the question ‘What is International Relations?’ would be complete with the history of the discipline.

Considering the circumstances of when the discipline of International Relations was born, I am sure you can guess what was the only problem it was concerned with.

Yes, it was the problem of war and peace.

Thinkers and activists of the early 1920s were asking:

  1. What was the ultimate value of the war to the states involved?
  2. If war was against states’ interests, how did they march into this disastrous conflict?
  3. Why did those states continue to send thousands of their citizens to their deaths for for minimal gains?

There was no easy answers to those questions, but the war problem defined International Relations in first few decades of systematic study.

Over time, the scope of International Relations began to expand.

The first important period of that expansion was in the 1970s – the period of improved relations between the Soviet Union and the United States, which were locked in a conflict known as the Cold War.

In the 1970s, both rivals caught a bit of a breathing space and optimism grew about the promising role of international organisations and cooperation.

Two scholars in particular – Robert Keohane and Joseph Nye – developed the agenda for the study of international organisations.

They asked:

Why do selfish states trapped in a security dilemma choose to submit their authority and decision-making autonomy to some international bodies?

And so international organisations became the new focus of study in International Relations, alongside war and peace.

Then, in the 1990s, another major expansion took place. And it has not stopped.

Among the topics which have become central to the study of International Relations are:

  • environmental and climate change politics
  • international political economy
  • international security, including traditional and new security threats
  • gender and the role of women in International Relations

And many others.

That broad variety of topics is, in fact, what is International Relations today.

As for myself, I still like the original focus of International Relations the most.

War, conflict, security. What’s your favourite topic? Write down in the comment below!

What is the Future of International Relations?

We have discussed the past and present of what is International Relations.

What is the future of this academic discipline?

I will give you my personal view.

I think that the future of this discipline will be shaped by the tension, if not an open conflict, between two completely different approaches.

The first approach we can realist, or traditional.

But what I mean here is not ‘realist’ in the sense of any particular realist International Relations theory.

Rather, I mean that there will be people committed to studying International Relations as it was studied before.

They will study the causes of war and the conditions for peace.

They will recognise the inherent flaws and limitations of states and they will be OK with it.

They will argue that they want to study the world as it really exists.

The second group of people, in contrast, will adopt a completely different approach.

We can call it a normative approach.

Now, wait a minute – you can say. – Aren’t you describing the very first debate in International Relations – that between realists and liberals?

Yes and no.

Yes because indeed, there was already a similar discussion in the early decades of the discipline and Carr was at its centre.

But also ‘no’, because in the future that debate will be even more polarised.

My prediction is that the people who will adopt a normative approach will not be of the liberal type – the likes of Normal Angel.

They will be more combative and they will aim to deny the very legitimacy of approaching International Relations through the traditional/realist lens.

They will argue that one must be a bad parson to adopt such a regressive view.

We already see some early signs of that division in the way universities (or rather university marketing teams) promote the study of International Relations as essentially a normative approach to ‘make the world a better place’.

This trend will only intensify in the future.

That’s just one aspect of the future of International Relations and there will certainly be other trends too.

What is International Relations will evolve.

But I think this one will be fundamental to the very study of the discipline.

International Relations Resources

In the final part of this article I want to share with you some resources which will help you to learn more about what is International Relations.

These are the resources I personally use learn from.

Online Courses

If you are new to International Relations, or would like to systematise and expand your knowledge, I would encourage you to check out my on-demand video courses.

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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.

Textbooks

You may like to check the following textbooks, which are regularly used at universities in the first year of studying International Relations.

Magazines

Websites

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.

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