What is International Relations?

International relations is the study of the interaction of nation-states and non-governmental organizations in fields such as politics, economics, and security. Professionals work in academia, government, and non-profits to understand and develop cooperative exchanges between nations that benefit commerce, security, quality of life, and the environment.

Our richly connected, complex world demands professionals skilled in international relations, an exciting field of study that presents a globally oriented perspective on issues that transcend national boundaries.

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The study and practice of international relations is interdisciplinary in nature, blending the fields of economics, history, and political science to examine topics such as human rights, global poverty, the environment, economics, globalization, security, global ethics, and the political environment.

Exceptional economic integration, unprecedented threats to peace and security, and an international focus on human rights and environmental protection all speak to the complexity of international relations in the twenty-first century. This means the study of international relations must focus on interdisciplinary research that addresses, anticipates, and ultimately solves public policy problems.

International relations (often referred to international affairs) has a broad purpose in contemporary society, as it seeks to understand:

  • The origins of war and the maintenance of peace
  • The nature and exercise of power within the global system
  • The changing character of state and non-state actors who participate in international decision-making

For example, some institutions may study the psychological and social-psychological reasoning behind the actions of foreign policymakers, while others may focus their international studies on the institutional processes that contribute to the goals and behaviors of states. Ultimately, the area of international relations studied depends on the goals or objectives of the organization.

The Value of International Relations in a Globalized Society

Although international relations has taken on a new significance because of our increasingly interconnected world, it is certainly not a new concept. Historically, the establishment of treaties between nations served as the earliest form of international relations.

The study and practice of international relations in today’s world is valuable for many reasons:

  • International relations promotes successful trade policies between nations.
  • International relations encourages travel related to business, tourism, and immigration, providing people with opportunities to enhance their lives.
  • International relations allows nations to cooperate with one another, pool resources, and share information as a way to face global issues that go beyond any particular country or region. Contemporary global issues include pandemics, terrorism, and the environment.
  • International relations advances human culture through cultural exchanges, diplomacy and policy development.

The practice of international relations is valuable in a wide array of settings. Some examples inlcude:

    • Humanitarian organizations
      • Action Against Hunger
      • Oxfam International
      • World Food Programme


    • Government agencies
      • Department of State
      • Department of Homeland Security
      • Department of Commerce


    • International corporations
      • General Electric
      • BP
      • Exxon Mobile
      • Toyota
      • Nestle
      • Siemens


    • Media outlets
      • BBC
      • Washington Post
      • The Guardian
      • Der Spiegal
      • New York Times
      • Forbes
      • Wall Street Journal


    • Intergovernmental organizations
      • World Trade Organization
      • United Nations
      • NATO


    • International communications
      • Amnesty International
      • Freedom House
      • Human Rights Watch
      • Reporters Without Borders


  • Research centers/Think tanks
    • Brookings Institution
    • Center for International Policy
    • Council on Foreign Relations
    • Global Public Policy Institute
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The Theories and Principles of International Relations

International relations may be an offshoot of political science, but this field of study is exceptionally in-depth in its own right. As our global society evolves and expands, international relations will evolve and expand along with it as we continue to explore new and exciting way to link our complex world.

For example, traditional dimensions of international relations related to international peace and prosperity include topics such as international diplomacy, arms control, and alliance politics. Contemporary studies in international relations, on other hand, include topics such as international political economics, environmental politics, refugee and migration issues, and human rights.

Examining the Levels of State Behavior

Professionals studying international relations often determine the level at which they will analyze a state’s behavior:

  • System Level Analysis: System level analysis looks at the international system; more specifically, how the international system affects the behavior of nation states, with the key variable being that the international system includes the power of each state rather than being independent of them.
  • State Level Analysis: State level analysis examines how a state’s characteristics determine its foreign policy behavior. This type of analysis often views states as having cultural characteristics based on their religious or social traditions, and their historical legacy, and includes an analysis of economic and geographic factors.
  • Organizational Level Analysis: Organizational level analysis examines how organizations within a state influence the state’s foreign policy behavior. In other words, organizational level analysis views that organizations—not states—make the decisions that create a state’s foreign policy.
  • Individual Level Analysis: Individual level analysis views the leaders of states as being the largest influencers of foreign policy.

Examining the Theories of International Relations

The study of international relations involves theoretical approaches based on solid evidence. Theories of international relations are essentially a set of ideas aimed at explaining how the international system works.

The two, major theories of international relations are realism and liberalism:


Realism focuses on the notion that states work to increase their own power relative to other states. The theory of realism states that the only certainty in the world is power; therefore, a powerful state—via military power (the most important and reliable form of power)—will always be able to outlast its weaker competitors. Self-preservation is a major theme in realism, as states must always seek power to protect themselves.

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In realism, the international system drives states to use military force. Although leaders may be moral, they must not let morality guide their foreign policy. Furthermore, realism recognizes that international organizations and law have no power and force, and that their existence relies solely on being recognized and accepted by select states.

Liberalism (Idealism)

Liberalism recognizes that states share broad ties, thus making it difficult to define singular independent national interests. The theory of liberalism in international relations therefore involves the decreased use of military power. The theory of liberalism saw its first strong post-WWII emergence in the 1970s as increasing globalization, communications technology, and international trade made some scholars argue that realism was outdated.

Liberal approaches to the study of international relations, also referred to as theories of complex interdependence, claim that the consequences of military power outweigh the benefits and that international cooperation is in the interest of every state. It also claims that exercising economic power over military power has proven more effective.

Although the liberal theory of international relations was dominant following World War I while President Woodrow Wilson promoted the League of Nations and many treaties abolishing war, realism came back into prominence in the Second World War and continued throughout the Cold War.

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