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The First Great Debate Challenges To Realism Politics Essay

Paper Type: Free Essay Subject: Politics
Wordcount: 1927 words Published: 1st Jan 2015

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The subject matter of International Relations as a branch of political science can be defined in different ways. As in most social science disciplines there is no scientific consensus on the field and thus the definition we adopt would be conventional and reflect a particular account of the world. [1] Since there is no common definition of international relations, there exist multiple theories explaining the principles of interplay of what each of them consider being main actors – would it be states, non-state institutions or classes. C. Brown and K. Ainley argue that there are no right or wrong theories as all have political implications, therefore, the pluralism of contesting theories each presenting different perspective should be preserved. [2] 

The aim of this essay is to examine the work by Ole R. Holsti [3] Theories of International Relations and critically address the arguments he presents. In the course of this essay I will briefly summarize author’s description of state of affairs in international relations theories complementing it with personal interpretation.

Holsti assumes the main aim of his essay is to contribute to exchange of ideas between political scientists and diplomatic historians. [4] The text addresses diplomatic historians to introduce them theoretical approaches used by political scientists.

Author describes the first “great debate” on theories of international relations namely challenges presented by different groups of models to classical and modern realism. [5] He classifies theories that challenge realist concepts on system level into three groups: Global Society/Complex-Interdependence/Liberal-Institutionalism, Marxist/World System/Dependency and constructivism, neglecting differences inside these groups to emphasize main differences between theoretical perspectives. [6] He also examines several decision-making models that go beyond structural analysis of international relations focusing on political processes inside the units of the system. [7] 

The Great Debate

In this chapter I am going to summarize five major arguments of realist theories from classical to neo-realism described by Holsti and their critics by other international relations theories on systemic and decision-making levels.

Although it might seem very simplistic, if one could generalize the five points of classical realist theory described by Holsti [8] into one sentence, the result might be the following: Sovereign states as main units of the anarchical international system act as unitary rational actors to achieve security through involvement into war and peace based on relative capabilities.

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In the first place, Holsti states that classical realists consider “as central questions the causes of war and the conditions of peace” [9] , arising from the “structural anarchy” of the international system, meaning that there is no higher authority above states to settle conflicts. This kind of structural organization of the international system gives rise to the “security dilemma” that is attempts to reach absolute security by one state is in direct proportion to insecurity of all other parts of the system. [10] 

Each of the five points made by classical realists were further developed and complemented by modern realist or neo-realists, namely K. Waltz and later R. Gilpin, but equally they all seem to hold numerous controversies. At first glance, it appears to be that the assumption of rationality of states is based on, I would argue irrational by itself pessimistic concept of “human nature” would it be secular or religious. [11] Moreover, the whole approach to explanation of international relations in terms of military struggle for security (can easily be substituted by “superiority”) against all other states may lead to a conclusion that there is constantly a world war all against all. Fortunately however this is not the case.

Furthermore, Holsti points that Robert Gilpin developed the argument that “international system is in a state of equilibrium if no state believes that it is profitable to attempt to change it.” [12] Therefore, it appears to be that the question of engagement in a war is defined solely by mathematic correlation between costs and benefits. Would this neo-realist assumption be true, the most powerful states would have been involved in constant expansion until one of them achieves an empire comprising the entire world.

The aforementioned controversies of the realist theories show us that there should be more complex motivation in the relations between actors in international relations. Apart from the involvement in war or peace, states are likely to cooperate on a number of issues like trade, science, education, migration, environmental challenges etc. Even the most powerful states are currently unable to cope with some issues that are cross-border like terrorism or spread of epidemic diseases. [13] The increasing interdependence of states and growing influence of non-state actors like NGOs, transnational corporations and international organizations in contrast to decline of the nation-state are the main arguments of the group of theories labeled by Holsti as Global Society/Complex-Interdependence/Liberal Institutionalism. State remains the point of departure for these theories, but the views on its future role vary from acknowledgment that state is a major source of change in the international system to its irreversible decline. [14] 

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Despite encompassing broader range of motivations, except war and peace that determine international relations, the latter group of theories presents just another perspective with its limitations and inability to explain certain tendencies currently taking place in the world. Together with integration processes and interdependence, we can observe rise of nationalism and disintegration in different parts of the world, especially in the Central and Eastern Europe.

Marxism/World Systems/Dependency together with post-modernist theories are rare cases where Holsti expresses his own standpoint apart from impartial description of previous groups of theories, using satirical remarks. [15] Holsti describes the arguments of this group of theories very shortly. Marxism/World Systems/Dependency theories consider as determining factor of international relations the mode of production and inequality inside the world capitalist system. According to M/WS/D models, the role of state is secondary in relation to classes.

On condition that one accepts Marxist paradigm and his interpretation of capitalism, the explanation of international relations based on exploitation within one world capitalist economy seem convincing. The system cannot be anarchical, if one of the parties depends on other. However, at least one problem appears in this regard related to Marxist interpretation of actors in the international relations – classes. The criteria for defining classes are more or less clear – the relation to the means of production, place in the system of production and distribution. The problem is that the exploited across the world do not necessarily define themselves as proletariat and do not realize the need for workers solidarity. Thus, they cannot act as an independent actor in international relations.

Constructivism challenges all the systemic theories of international relations by demonstrating that all notions developed to explain reality are socially constructed, thus, cannot be considered as consequence of the system. The behavior of actors is determined by the way they perceive the reality, not by reality itself. [16] I agree with Holsti’s argument that constructivism is rather an approach than a theory and can contribute to expanding other theories of international relations. [17] 

Finally, Holsti shows the importance of decision making models in international relations. Certain decisions may be taken or not, depending on the inforrmation acquired and processed within the actors. This proves the importance of consideration together with systemic factors also internal conditions of actors in international relations theories.


The theories discussed by Holsti represent different approaches to explaining international relations. Each of them presents their view why the states or other actors behave like they do and only in that way. All of the theories tend to universalize and explain the relations between states in terms of simple models. My standpoint is that there cannot be a single universal pattern in which the whole diversity of global processes will fit. This is why none of the theories of international rlations is appropriate to be the theory of globalization. However each of them can be useful in research of certain aspect of globalization. For example, structural realism is considered to be ahistorical, nevertheless, it can be applied to the research of conflicts. Other theories may be used to study complex interdependencies and entanglements in the world.

The globalization research should be based on a certain theory, but this theory cannot be limited to one perspective. The most important, I believe, is to take into account different perspectives and approaches in the study of globalization. Therefore, none of them can be priviledged or neglected as they are based on the socially constructed notions.


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