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A Historical Perspective on International Relations

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A Historical Perspective on International Relations
Lesson 1: A Historical Perspective on
International Relations
Do you remember the three mainstream theoretical perspectives that were introduced
in IRLS210, International Relations I? Do realism, liberalism and constructivism sound
familiar? How about the three levels of analysis: individual, state and systemic? Does
that ring a bell? I know you all remember the five main actors on the world stage:
states, IGOs, NGOs, MNCs, and networks/non-state actors. Well, let’s start with a
review of these terms anyway.
In this lesson, we will take a look at how the international system works. At the end of
the lesson, students will be able to compare contending theories of international
relations related to changes in the world system from 1945 to the present.
In this course, we will build on what you learned in
International Relations in several ways. We will, for example,
Finish and record

study some of the different variants of the three mainstream
theories of international relations. We’ll also examine some
of the major examples of war and conflict in the 20th and
21st centuries in order to gain an in-depth historical
perspective. We’ll also introduce you to many more
concepts and terms that define the study of international
relations. Overall, this course will give you the historical
background and conceptual tools needed to understand
contemporary international relations.
Realism is considered the pessimistic point of view because realists focus on the
self-interest of the state and its power (Rourke and Boyer 2010).
Neorealists add the caveat that the anarchical world system is to blame for this
dog-eat-dog type of system (Rourke and Boyer 2010).
Three Mainstream Theoretical Perspectives
The field of international relations, over the past century or so, has been dominated by three
mainstream theoretical perspectives: realism, liberalism, and constructivism realism, liberalism, and constructivism.

Realism vs. Liberalism vs. Constructivism
States are primary
actors and are
States are not the
only important
Beliefs and ideas are
culturally and social
constructed. States
not the only
important actors.
International system
is inherently
Cooperation is
possible despite
anarchy although
not inevitable.
Anarchy exists
because actors
agree that it does. It
can change if the
norms change.
Liberalism differs from realism in that it
assumes the positive of human nature and
believes that history moves forward to
progress and change for the better. As with
realism, liberalism is a wide school of
thought that applies to psychology,
sociology, political science, and in our case,
international relations.
There are different forms of liberalism:
sociological, interdependence,
functionalist, complex interdependence,
institutional liberalism (neoinstitutionalism),
republican liberalism (democratic peace
theory), neoliberalism. We’re going to focus
on a couple of offshoots of liberalism here,
among others: neoliberalism.
Interdependence Interdependence is a mutual dependence with a significant cost. In other words, it is a
special relationship between two or more states where one of the parties has a stronger
leverage than the other; in this relationship, parties give each other goods or services.
Interdependence, therefore, is a power relationship of sorts.
Interdependence should not be confused with interconnectedness.
Interconnectedness Interconnectedness is not a conscious relationship. Everything is interconnected,
without any cost or loss or gain or exchange. Interdependence, on the other hand, is a
conscious choice of the actors to maximize benefits and minimize costs.
Interdependence can be symmetrical and asymmetrical. In a symmetrical relationship, both
sides need each other to the same extent. This hardly ever happens in international relations.
In an asymmetrical interdependence (almost all relationships) one side needs the other
more. It is less painful for the less dependent side to leave or downgrade the relationship.
The less dependent party will use or threaten to use the leaving or downgrading of the
relationship to get the more dependent party to do what it otherwise would not do. In other
words, this actor would exercise a combination of power and interdependence.
Sensitivity and Vulnerability
In a relationship of interdependence, states can be both sensitive and/or vulnerable to
the changes in this relationship. Sensitivity Sensitivity is the degree to which a change will have
an impact on the existing relationship. On the other hand, vulnerability vulnerability is the
degree to which a state can deal with the impact of the change, and a number of
substitutes is a measure of vulnerability.
Let’s look at an example to explain the concepts of vulnerability and sensitivity. We
mentioned earlier the 1973 oil embargo. The US, Western Europe, and Japan were all
engaged in a relationship of interdependence with the Organization of the Petroleum
Exporting Countries (OPEC) countries. They needed oil from OPEC. OPEC, on the
other hand, needed support for pro-Arab, anti-Israeli policies. In 1973, OPEC
introduced a change in the relationship by putting an embargo on exports and
increasing prices. The US, Western Europe, and Japan were all sensitive to that
change, for they all felt a domestic economic impact of that change. However, not all
of them were vulnerable. The US was able to substitute the oil it was getting from the
Middle East with the domestic production. Western Europe was vulnerable to some
extent because it could substitute with oil from some of its former colonies in Africa.
Japan, however, was vulnerable to a much greater extent because it had no available
1953-1968 1974 1975
From 1953-1968, exports rose from $41 million to $415 million. “With great fanfare,
representatives of the United States and the Soviet Union signed a trade agreement in
Moscow in October 1972” (Yergin). Between 1972 and 1974, US exports to the
Soviets increased 4 times from the 1969-1971 period to peak in 1973 at $1,200
million. In 1972, the Soviet Union pressed for more and received Most Favored Nation
(MFN) status for 5 years. In that time, Soviet trade constituted 56% of US trade with the
Eastern Block, of which 84% was US exports.
Example of Application of Complex
Interdependence between the US and the
Soviet Union
Trade interdependence was used as linkage diplomacy in the US—Soviet Union relations
during détente, where the asymmetry leaned toward the US, which made the Soviet Union
more vulnerable.
Soviets lacked mid-level scientists and engineers; the solution was to import Western
technologists. Trade contributed to economic growth and efficiency. The US’s imports from
the Eastern Block in that time were minimal and could have been gotten from other sources.
Since the US didn’t have great trade benefits, it used the trade issue to provide linkages for
concessions on other issues. And in the beginning, it worked.
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Expansion of Eastern-Western trade in the early 1970s coincided with the Strategic
Arms Limitation Talks (SALT) I and Anti-Ballistic Missile (ABM) treaties, and Soviet
cooperation on the Vietnam and Middle East negotiations (1973 Egyptian attack on
Israel). The US established further linkages of trade and MFN status to increased
emigration of Soviet Jews (domestic reasons after 1973).
The US attempted to exercise more power and push for more concessions from the
Soviet Union. The US misjudged the asymmetry of the relationship. 1974 brought
about Jackson-Vanik and Stevenson Amendment. The Jackson-Vanik Amendment
denied the MFN status to nations that prohibit free emigration and the Stevenson
Amendment restricted the level of export-import credits available to the Soviet Union
to $300 million. US exports to the Soviet Union went down to $607 million in 1974.
After that, the Soviet Union got most of its imports from Western Europe and Japan.
I often explain the mainstream theoretical
perspectives as colored lenses that alter
what you think is important about a situation
or event (Pease 2010). As such, they alter
what you think are appropriate solutions,
which is why considering each perspective
is important to create a solid analysis.
I like to explain the levels of analysis as levels
of magnification.
Three Levels of Analysis
States, intergovernmental organizations,
nongovernmental organizations,
multinational corporations, and
networks/non-state actors are the five main
actors in the world system (Rourke and
Boyer 2010). Chile, China, and South Africa
are all examples of states.
Honestly, a lot of international relations
terms have a bit of fuzziness to them, which
is why creating a taxonomy of terms is so
important. For papers, I recommend
defining the key terms you use so that you
can create boundaries around your
argument and focus on articulating the
nuances of it. This approach also limits the
number and scope of the counterarguments
you need to address.
A state is a large social system with a
set of rules that are enforced by a
permanent administrative body
(government). That body claims and
tries to enforce sovereignty. That is,
the state claims to be the highest
source of decision-making of the
social system within its jurisdiction,
and it rejects outside interference in
making or enforcing its set of rules.
The many smaller systems within the
state are not sovereign, nor are large
international organizations like the
United Nations since states routinely
reject their authority. The state is a
political concept that refers to the
exercise of power or the ability to
make and enforce rules.
The Five Main Actors in the World System
‹ ›
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For now, I recommend memorizing the definitions of all the items covered in this
lecture. They are the basic building blocks to understanding and analyzing
international relations. Next, we move on to the topic of World War I.
Anarchy Anarchy
Anarchy is the defining characteristic or ordering principle of the international system.
The term anarchy simply means the absence of a worldwide government. There is no
authority above states to enforce contracts, adjudicate disputes among states, or
prevent the outbreak of war.
Key Terms

Knowledge Check
In this interdependence relationship, one side needs the other more. Which
one of the following best describes this interdependence?
 Correct
You answered 1 out of 1 correctly. Asking up to 5.

Show next question

Scroll for more information
Arquilla, John. 2007. “Of Networks and Nations.” The Brown Journal of World Affairs XIV (1):
Beavis, M. 2015. The IR Theory Knowledge Base.
Definition of principal terms in international relations.
Nau, Henry R. 2012. Perspectives on International Relations: Power, Institutions, Ideas.
Washington, DC: CQ Press.
Pease, Kelly-Kate S. 2010. International Organizations: Perspectives on Governance in the
Twenty-First Century. 4th ed. New York: Longman.
Rourke, John T, and Mark A Boyer. 2010. International Politics on the

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