4.6 International Relationships

The study and practice of international relations have led international relations scholars to suggest different ways that states might and should behave about their neighbors around the world.

Theories of International Relations


Realism suggests that states should and do look out for their interests first. Realism presumes that states are out for themselves first and foremost. The world is, therefore, a dangerous place; a state has to look out for No. 1 and prepare for the worst. When George W. Bush convinced the U.S. Congress that he should send in U.S. soldiers into Iraq in 2003 and take out Saddam Hussein, this was realism in action. Realism suggests that international relations are driven by competition between states, and states therefore do and should try to further their interests. What matters, then, is how much economic and military power a state has. When your neighbor misbehaves, you cannot call the police.

Classical realists, say this is just human nature. People, by nature, are at some level greedy and insecure and behave accordingly. So even if you are not greedy and insecure, you have to behave that way, because that is the game. Structural realists say it is more about how the world is organized—an anarchic system creates the Hobbesian state of nature, referring to the 16th century English philosopher who justified the existence of the state by comparing it to a somewhat hypothetical “state of nature,” a war of all against all. So states should seek peace, but prepare for war.

This tends to make national security look like a zero-sum game: Anything I do to make myself more secure tends to make you feel less secure, and vice versa. A realist might counter that a balance of power between states, in fact, preserves the peace, by raising the cost of any aggression to an unacceptable level.

Realists argue that war, at some point, is inevitable. Anarchy persists, and it is not going away anytime soon.


Liberalism suggests in fact, states can peacefully co-exist, and that states are not always on the brink of war. Liberal scholars point to the fact that despite the persistence of armed conflict, most nations are not at war most of the time. Most people around the world do not get up and start chanting “Death to America!” and trying to figure out who they can bomb today. Liberalism argues that relations between nations are not always a zero-sum game. A zero-sum game is one in which any gain by one player is automatically a loss by another player. My gains in security, for example, do not make you worse off, and your gains in anything do not make me worse off. The liberal theory also points to the fact that despite the condition of anarchy in the world, most nations are not at war, most of the time. So the idea that international relations must be conducted as though one were always under the threat of attack is not necessarily indicative of reality.

There are different flavors of liberalism. Liberal institutionalism puts some faith in the ability of global institutions to eventually coax people into getting along as opposed to going to war. Use of the United Nations, for example, as a forum for mediating and settling the dispute, will eventually promote respect for the rule of international law in a way that parallels respect for the law common in advanced democracies. Liberal commercialism sees the advance of global commerce as making less likely. War is not very profitable for most people, and it is not suitable for the economy. Liberal internationalism trades on the idea that democracies are less likely to make war than are dictatorships, if only because people can say no, either in legislatures or in elections. Consider that public protest in the U.S. helped end U.S. involvement in Vietnam – that kind of thing does not always happen in non-democratic states although it can. Argentina’s misadventures in Las Malvinas – the Falkland Islands – led to protests that brought down a longstanding military dictatorship and restored democracy to the nation in 1982. Together, these three are sometimes called the Kantian triangle, after the German philosopher Immanuel Kant (1724–1804), who outlined them in a 1795 essay, Perpetual Peace.

The liberal argument that states can learn to get along is somewhat supported by the work of Robert Axelrod’s publication, The Evolution of Cooperation, who used an actual experiment involving a lot of players and the prisoner’s dilemma game to show how people and perhaps states could learn to cooperate. The prisoner’s dilemma is a relatively simple game that is useful for understanding various parts of human behavior. In this game, you have two players, both prisoners. Each player has two choices: Defect to the authorities and rat out the other player in exchange for a reduced sentence, or cooperate with the other player and go free. If the players each defect they get 1 point apiece; if they cooperate, they get 3 points apiece. If, however, one player cooperates and the other defects, the defector gets 5 points, and the cooperator gets zero.

Given that set of constraints, in a realist world, both players defect and score only 1 point each. The best result would be for both to cooperate, go free, and generate the most points between them. In the Axelrod experiment, the game was iterated or repeated, so that in a round-robin featuring dozens of players, each player played the other player multiple times. The players were all notable game theorists, and each devised a particular strategy in an attempt to win the game. What Axelrod found was the player in his experiment who used a strategy called “tit-for-tat” won. Tit-for-tat began by cooperating and then did whatever the other player did last time in the next round. In a repeated game, which certainly describes relations between states, players eventually learned to cooperate. Axelrod cites real-world examples of where this kind of behavior occurred, such as the German and Allied soldiers in the trenches of World War I, who agreed at various times not to shoot each other, or to shell incoming shipments of food. As the soldiers came to understand that they would be facing each other for some time, refraining from killing each other meant that they all got to live.


Constructivism is another and also interesting way of looking at international relations. It may tell us more about why things are happening the way they do, but somewhat less about what we should do about it. Constructivism argues that culture, social structures, and human, institutional frameworks matter. Constructivism relies in part on the theory of the social construction of reality, which says that whatever reality is perceived to be, for the most part, people have invented it. Of course, if the theory were entirely true, then the very idea of the social construction of reality would also be socially constructed, and therefore potentially untrue. To the extent that reality is socially constructed, people can make choices. Hence the constructivist argument is, in part, that while the world system is indeed a form of anarchy, that does not demand a realist response to foreign policy. People can choose to otherwise. So constructivists might argue that the end of the Cold War between the U.S. and the Soviet Union was at least in part a decision by Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev to change his thinking. He attempted then to ratchet down tensions with the U.S. and to liberalize Soviet society. The fact that the Soviet Union promptly disintegrated does not change that.


Realism, liberalism, and constructivism may be the three most prominent theories of international relations, but they are by no means the only ones or the most important. Feminist scholars look at international relations through the prism of gender relations, noting that for much of human history, women have been relegated to a sideline role in politics and government. This is not wise: More than half the people in the world are women.

Nonetheless, males have dominated both the study and practice of international relations, but feminist scholars note that women’s roles as wives, mothers, and workers have made all of that possible. Also, a female perspective on foreign policy might be different. Feminist theory sometimes argues that having more women in positions of power could change things, as women may be more likely to believe peace through international cooperation is possible.

Feminist international relations theory has variants, of course. Liberal feminism wants to ensure that women have the same opportunities in society as do men, so that means liberal in the broader sense of general support for democratic capitalism. Critical feminism, on the other hand, sees capitalism as the source of women’s oppression, and seeks to create new structures for society. Cultural or essentialist feminism stresses the differences in how women view and think about the world. It argues that women’s approach to the world would be more likely to bring peace and avoid conflict.

As usual, there is probably some kernel of truth in all of these ideas, and places where we could find cases that contradict these notions. Clearly, for example, women tend to be less involved in violent crime, and women in some parts of the world are being sold into slavery and prostitution, where their lives are primarily controlled by men. On the other hand, it was a female politician, former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, who marshaled her country’s military to go to war with Argentina and reclaim the Falkland Islands in 1982. However, while history is full of valiant female warriors and influential leaders – from the Trung sisters and Trieu Thi Trinh of Vietnam, to Joan of Arc, and Queen Elizabeth I – they are much less common than are men famous for their conquering exploits. Moreover, the women warriors, generally, are famous for having defended their homelands as opposed to conquering somebody else’s. While some men have felt threatened by the rise of feminism in the last 60 years, it is an opportunity to look at the world in a slightly different way, perhaps shedding some light on why things happen the way they do.


Neo-Marxists look at international relations through the perspective of our old friend Karl Marx. Remember that Marx saw the world in terms of its productive relations, so that how we organize production determines social and political relations as well. The neo-Marxist theory applies this to international relations, and tends to argue that capitalism drives states to compete and attempt to dominate each other.

For example, under the variant known as Marxism-Leninism, named after the Russian revolutionary leader, Vladimir Ilyich Lenin (1870–924), world relations are defined by the desire for industrial nations to develop both sources of raw materials and markets for finished products (what Lenin called the core and the periphery). Lenin was writing at a time when most of Africa had been carved into colonies by the European powers, and the British Empire still stretched from Africa to India to Hong Kong, so there was some evidence for what he was saying. The collapse of the Soviet empire and China’s turning away from purely Marxist economics has taken some of the steam out of the Marxian railroad of history, and we may not agree with Marx and Lenin’s suggestion that a socialist dictatorship is a necessary step on the road to nirvana. However, it could be wrong to reject their analysis altogether. Economic problems and conflicts do continue to inform international relations, and states to continue to try to acquire raw materials as well as markets for finished goods. China, for example, is investing heavily in Africa to lock up supplies of minerals for its growing manufacturing sector. The Chinese are not always the best employers. To the extent that they mistreat African workers, the states where this happens will face the competing demands of a big country that is paying them much money for resources, and the needs of its citizens who work for the Chinese.

Neo-Marxists might point to this an example of where liberal commercialism is just the capitalist class protecting its own. China is nominally still a communist state, but its economic system is much more a sort of state-sponsored capitalism. Capitalism, Neo-Marxists argue, in its relentless quest for rising profits, leads to the degradation and impoverishment of workers. The realist explanation of U.S. policy about Central America is that the U.S. propped up right-wing dictatorships there because they opposed communism. The other explanation was that U.S. commercial interests, such as the United Fruit Company, pushed to maintain their stranglehold on the banana industry. This helped lead, for example, to a CIA-sponsored coup in Guatemala 1954. The company had convinced the U.S. government that the democratically elected Guatemalan president was pro-Soviet. What is known for sure is that he was promising to redistribute land to Guatemalan peasants, which would have threatened the company’s monopoly on the banana trade.

In the view of neo-Marxist analysis, the Cold war was about the threat to U.S. business interests. The same would be true for the first and second Gulf Wars, with the U.S. fighting Iraq in part to preserve access to Middle Eastern oil. The United States intervened when Iraq invaded Kuwait much more quickly than it intervened in the former Yugoslavia, when Serbs were killing Bosnian Moslems in much higher numbers than Iraqis were killing Kuwaitis. Neo-Marxism also is a realist in its orientation, since it presumes that conflict and potential between states is the reality of international affairs. However, in their eyes, that conflict is driven by the conflict between business interests and workers.

International Institutions

Even as the Cold War dragged on, the nations of the world created international forums for attempting to address disputes between nations. World War I, the war to end all wars, as it was known at the time, prompted the victors to create an international body known as the League of Nations. At its peak, it included 58 nations, and created several forums for addressing political and economic issues. It lasted from 1920 to 1942, and suffered immediately from the failure of the United States to join. The U.S. became somewhat isolationist following World War I, the end of which created only an uneven peace and seemed to foster as many problems as it solved.

Nonetheless, the league represented the high point of interwar idealism, built on a belief that nations could talk instead of shoot, and that diplomacy would solve more problems than would bombs. Despite its best intentions, it was mostly powerless, and the member nations failed to act when Italy invaded Italy unprovoked in 1935. The league effectively collapsed with the start of World War II.

Following the end of the war, however, the nations gathered to try it again, creating the United Nations in 1947. The U.N., headquartered in New York City, declared its support in its charter for a broad range of human rights, and attempted to provide a multilateral forum for talking things out. Although every member nation gets one vote, a certain number of decisions must be funneled through the 15-member Security Council, which consists of five permanent members, including the United States, France, China, the Russia Federation (formerly the Soviet Union), and the United Kingdom. The other ten members are elected by the General Assembly to two-year terms, with each region of the globe represented on the council.

The five permanent members each have veto power, and can block action by the council. Also, since the members are often taking what can only be described as a realist perspective on their approach to foreign policy, Russia may seek to block concerted action in war-torn Syria, where it has interests, just as the U.S. will block U.N. resolutions to condemn Israel’s handling of the Palestinian question. Which is, in case you have missed it, whether there will ever be a fully sovereign Palestinian state. The Security Council’s permanent membership is overwhelmingly white and western. One suggestion has been to add Brazil, India, Germany and Japan (sometimes called the G-4) as permanent members, plus perhaps one African and one Arab state. The existing permanent members have not exactly jumped on that bandwagon, as doing so would reduce their power on the council. The U.S. supports adding Japan and perhaps India; the Chinese oppose adding Japan. Great Britain and France have supported adding the entire G-4.

The U.N., through its member nations and its various branches, has had some success. Member nations have contributed combat troops for peacekeeping missions, which attempt to separate belligerent groups in one country or region to forestall all-out war. It has in fact, since its inception, negotiated 172 peace settlements that have prevented all-out war in various parts of the world. U.N.-led efforts, via the World Health Organization, to stamp out various diseases have met with some success, a few nations will object to efforts to end deadly diseases such as smallpox. U.N. cultural efforts have probably also helped preserve important historical sites all over the world, and have at least underscored the importance of preserving some of our shared past. So while the U.N. has not managed to end the war, it has not been an abject failure.

One of the essential documents that came from the United Nations is called the Declaration of Human Rights (http://www.un.org/en/documents/udhr/).  Based on the United States Bill of Rights, this declaration declares what rights humans have throughout the world no matter what nation they are a citizen of.

The U.N. includes the International Court of Justice, which has been used to settle disputes between nations. It has 15 justices elected from the U.N. General Assembly, and while the Security Council can enforce its decisions, council members may also veto that action. Consequently, the court has acted with mixed success. In 1984, for example, the court ruled that U.S. efforts in Nicaragua, in fact, violated international law; the U.S. ignored the decision. In other instances, the court has been able to help solve border disputes between nations. Special courts also have been established by the U.N. to try war criminals from conflicts in Rwanda and the former Yugoslavia.

Other international organizations have had some impact globally, particularly in economic areas. The World Bank and the International Monetary Fund have attempted to spur economic developments and end poverty, with decidedly mixed results. Critics abound on both the left and the right. Conservative critics say they waste too much money; liberal and left critics say it merely helps cement the economic dominance of the western world. Sometimes they fund projects that make sense, such as wastewater treatment projects around the world, while at other times, they support efforts, like digging a canal to flood a seasonal river in Africa to produce fish in the desert, manage only to produce the most expensive fish in the world. Similarly, the World Trade Organization (WTO), which is a forum for resolving trade disputes and for encouraging open trade, is neither all good nor all bad.

Not every intergovernmental organization (IGO) is global in scope. The world is peppered with regional organizations, ranging from the European Union (EU) to the African Union.

The EU is particularly noteworthy. It grew out of the end of World War II, beginning with a customs union to ease trade between Belgium, the Netherlands, and Luxembourg. From there it grew into trade agreements over coal and steel, to the European Common Market, and finally to the EU in 1993. It now has 27 member states in a political and economic union. While not quite the United States of Europe, it does have an elected parliament with the ability to make some common law for the entire group, and a common currency, the euro. Travel and trade over national borders are considerably eased, and crossing from one EU state to another is now little more complicated than crossing from one U.S. state to another.

No other intergovernmental organization is quite that extensive. For example, ASEAN, the Association of Southeast Asian Countries, has ten member states and focuses on promoting economic development and shared expertise and resources. The North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) is a relic of the Cold War. Initially created to help forestall Soviet aggression in Europe, it remains a mutual defense pact between the U.S., Canada and much of Europe. An attack on one member is regarded as an attack on all, so that the U.S. response to 9.11 was in fact at NATO response.

To the extent that international institutions work at all, it is because nations adhere to what the institutions say. While a hard-line realist perspective would encourage ignoring the U.N. or the WTO, a liberal perspective would suggest that nations go along if only because it is in their interest for others to do the same. A nation cannot very well expect another nation to observe the rule of law if it does not do so itself. International law, therefore, works because of reciprocity—each state expects the others to behave the same way, so it adheres to the law to encourage others to do the same.

The United Nations

The United Nations (UN), headquartered in New York City in 1949, is an international organization whose stated aims are facilitating cooperation in international law, international security, economic development, social progress, human rights, and achievement of world peace. The UN was founded in 1945 after World War II to replace the League of Nations, to stop wars between countries, and to provide a platform for dialogue. It contains multiple subsidiary organizations to carry out its missions.

Replacing the League of Nations

The League of Nations failed to prevent World War II (1939–1945). Because of the widespread recognition that humankind could not afford a third world war, the United Nations was established to replace the flawed League of Nations in 1945. The League of Nations formally dissolved itself on April 18, 1946, and transferred its mission to the United Nations: to maintain international peace and promote cooperation in solving international economic, social, and humanitarian problems.

Creation of the United Nations

The earliest concrete plan for a new world organization was begun under the aegis of the U.S. State Department in 1939. Franklin D. Roosevelt first coined the term ‘United Nations’ as a term to describe the Allied countries. The term was first officially used on January 1, 1942, when 26 governments signed the Atlantic Charter, pledging to continue the war effort.

On April 25, 1945, the UN Conference on International Organization began in San Francisco, attended by 50 governments and several non-governmental organizations involved in drafting the United Nations Charter. The UN officially came into existence on October 24, 1945, upon ratification of the Charter by the five then-permanent members of the Security Council – France, the Republic of China, the Soviet Union, the United Kingdom, and the United States – and by a majority of the other 46 signatories. The first meetings of the General Assembly, with 51 nations represented, and the Security Council, took place in London in January 1946. Since then, the UN’s aims and activities have expanded to make it the archetypal international body in the early 21st century.

UN Peacekeeping

The United Nations Peacekeeping began in 1948. Its first mission was in the Middle East to observe and maintain the ceasefire during the 1948 Arab-Israeli War. Since then, United Nations peacekeepers have taken part in a total of 63 missions around the globe, 17 of which continue today. The peacekeeping force as a whole received the Nobel Peace Prize in 1988.

Though the term “peacekeeping” is not found in the United Nations Charter, the authorization is generally considered to lie in (or between) Chapter 6 and Chapter 7. Chapter 6 describes the Security Council’s power to investigate and mediate disputes, while Chapter 7 discusses the power to authorize economic, diplomatic, and military sanctions, as well as the use of military force, to resolve disputes. The founders of the UN envisioned that the organization would act to prevent conflicts between nations and make future wars impossible; however, the outbreak of the Cold War made peacekeeping agreements extremely difficult due to the division of the world into hostile camps. Following the end of the Cold War, there were renewed calls for the UN to become the agency for achieving world peace, and the agency’s peacekeeping dramatically increased, authorizing more missions between 1991 and 1994 than in the previous 45 years combined.

During the Cold War

Throughout the Cold War, the tensions on the UN Security Council made it challenging to implement peacekeeping measures in countries and regions seen to relate to the spread or containment of leftist and revolutionary movements. While some conflicts were separate enough from the Cold War to achieve consensus support for peacekeeping missions, most were too deeply enmeshed in the global struggle.

Though the UN’s primary mandate was peacekeeping, the division between the US and USSR often paralyzed the organization, generally allowing it to intervene only in conflicts distant from the Cold War. In 1956, the first UN peacekeeping force was established to end the Suez Crisis; however, the UN was unable to intervene against the USSR’s simultaneous invasion of Hungary following that country’s revolution. In 1960, the UN deployed United Nations Operation in the Congo (UNOC), the most significant military force of its early decades, to bring order to the breakaway State of Katanga, restoring it to the control of the Democratic Republic of the Congo by 1964.

The UN Peacekeeping Force in Cyprus (UNFICYP), begun in 1964, attempted to end the conflict between the ethnic Greeks and Turks on the island and prevent wider conflict between NATO members Turkey and Greece. A second observer force, UNIPOM, was also dispatched, in 1965 to the areas of the India-Pakistan border that were not being monitored by the earlier mission, UNMOGIP, after a ceasefire in the Indo-Pakistani War of 1965. Neither of these disputes was seen to have Cold War or ideological implications.

There was one exception to the rule. In the Mission of the Representative of the Secretary-General in the Dominican Republic (DOMREP), 1965–1966, the UN authorized an observer mission in a country where ideological factions were facing off. However, the mission was only initiated after the US intervened unilaterally in a civil war between leftist and conservative factions. The US had consolidated its hold and invited a force of the Organization of American States (dominated by US troops) to keep the peace. The mission was approved mainly because the Americans presented it as fait accompli and because the UN mission was not a full peacekeeping force. It included only two observers at any time and left the peacekeeping to another international organization. It was the first time the UN operated in this manner with a regional bloc.

The UN also assisted with two decolonization programs during the Cold War. In 1960, the UN sent ONUC to help facilitate the decolonization of the Congo from Belgian control. It stayed on until 1964 to help maintain stability and prevent the breakup of the country during the Congo Crisis. In West New Guinea from 1962 to 1963, UNSF maintained law and order while the territory was transferred from Dutch colonial control to Indonesia.

After the Cold War

With the decline of the Soviet Union and the advent of perestroika, the Soviet Union drastically decreased its military and economic support for several “proxy” civil wars around the globe. It also withdrew its support from satellite states and one UN peacekeeping mission, UNGOMAP, was designed to oversee the Pakistan–Afghanistan border and the withdrawal of Soviet troops from Afghanistan as the USSR began to refocus domestically. In 1991, the USSR dissolved into 15 independent states. Conflicts broke out in two former Soviet Republics, the Georgian–Abkhazian conflict in Georgia and civil war in Tajikistan, which were eventually policed by UN peacekeeping forces, UNOMIG, and UNMOT respectively.

With the end of the Cold War, several nations called for the UN to become an organization of world peace and do more to encourage the end to conflicts around the globe. The end of political gridlock in the Security Council helped the number of peacekeeping missions increased substantially. In a new spirit of cooperation, the Security Council established more substantial and more complex UN peacekeeping missions. Furthermore, peacekeeping came to involve more and more non-military elements that ensured the proper operation of civic functions, such as elections. The UN Department of Peacekeeping Operations was created in 1992 to support the increased demand for such missions. Several missions were designed to end civil wars in which competing sides had been sponsored by Cold War players.

The end of the Cold War in the early 1990s changed the foreign policy equation radically. Gone, or at least significantly reduced, was the nuclear standoff between the United States and the Soviet Union. It has been replaced by a somewhat multipolar world, in which the United States is the dominant military power, but finds itself among competing for power centers in Europe, China, India, and Russia, with radical change occurring in the Middle East and North Africa, potential conflicts with Iran, and the threat of global terrorism a reality since the tragedies of 9–11.

So while this is a world still defined by anarchy, it is not a world that appears to sit on the edge of some version of World War III. The issues that define foreign policy may have more to do with resource allocation and environmental protection than with negotiating a nuclear standoff. So the end of the Cold War coincided with and perhaps accelerated the rise of other organizations who are now players in the field of international relations. While some of these institutions grew out of the end of World War II, their role in the world perhaps been magnified since the 1990s.


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Introduction to Human Geography by R. Adam Dastrup, MA, GISP is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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