What Is International Relations?

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  • 0:01 International…
  • 1:23 Schools of Thought
  • 4:30 Subfields
  • 5:20 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Shawn Grimsley

Shawn has a masters of public administration, JD, and a BA in political science.

The study of international relations is becoming ever more important as our world becomes more interconnected. In this lesson, you'll learn about what international relations is and some important related concepts.

International Relations Defined

International relations is an academic discipline that focuses on the study of the interaction of the actors in international politics, including states and non-state actors, such as the United Nations (UN), the International Monetary Fund (IMF), the World Bank, and Amnesty International. One of the key features of the international system is that it's a state of anarchy - each state in the system is sovereign and does not have to answer to a higher authority.

Imagine living in a confined space with a group of other people with limited resources. Further imagine that there is no law enforcement and that the only 'law' is agreements between individuals and self-help is the only means of enforcement. In short, every person can do whatever he or she wants only subject to what the others in the space will do as a result. This situation gives you an idea of the world in which states live.

International relations involves the study of such things as foreign policy, international conflict and negotiation, war, nuclear proliferation, terrorism, international trade and economics, and international development, among other subjects. As you may expect, international relations' broad scope requires an interdisciplinary approach, drawing upon the fields of economics, law, political science, sociology, game theory, and even psychology.

Schools of Thought

Like most areas of scholarship, there are different schools of thought in the field of international relations. Let's take a quick look at the major ones:

Liberalism is a school of thought and argues that states exist in an environment of anarchy, as discussed above, and primarily act in their own self-interest. Liberalism argues that states act in their own self-interest by cooperating, which increases predictability and transparency in the anarchical world stage. For example, institutions, such as the United Nations, help states come together in a deliberative fashion to try to solve important issues affecting global stability and the interests of the international community.

Realism, like liberalism, holds that states live in an anarchical world and act in their own self-interest. However, unlike liberals, realists don't buy into cooperation. Realists contend that all states are focused on survival through the acquisition of power and preventing other states from obtaining more power than they have. For example, some states have invaded their neighbors or established colonies in the past to acquire resources to increase their power.

The English School takes a different approach than liberalism and realism. The English School focuses on the concept of international society. These theorists view the world stage as occupied by a society of states that are bound by a set of rules, norms, and institutions that are mutually agreed upon by their members. In their views, while states cannot completely escape an anarchical environment, certain rules apply to members of the international community. We can see this in international law.

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