In regards to political science, international relations is arguably the most complex sub-field. Indeed, between all of its theories, traditions, and different ways of looking at a single thing, some question whether it can really truly be called a discipline anymore. Although the amount of research traditions in international relations are numerous, three that are particularly prominent are realism, the English School’s theory on international society, and constructivism. These three theories can be better understood if they are compared and contrasted with one another. Furthermore, although all three of the theories are capable of evaluating systemic changes in international politics, I argue that the research tradition of constructivism does the best job of this.
Offensive realism, to start, is a very popular tradition in the United States that brew from the Cold War problematic (or, in other words, the perspective that superpowers are the main actors in global politics). Essentially, realists view politics as a struggle for power (with power being in regards to the military) and believe that the goal of each state is survival. For a state to survive, they argue that states rely on offensive military capabilities (meaning that they balance their military capabilities based on the capabilities and not intentions of other states) to balance power and increase their own relative power. This emphasis on increasing one’s own relative power stems from the realist reliance on uncertainty and trust of other states. Indeed, if states are under the constant assumption that other states are working not for but against them, it only makes sense that states should stay well-prepared with a strong military. With this in mind, it is clear that realists do not view international politics as an international society in which the states work together. Instead, they view it as an anarchic international system in which the actions of one have the capacity to influence of affect the actions of another state and in which there is no one state above all other states.
The English School, on the other hand, is a theory that emphasizes the idea of an international society instead of the realist international system. In this society, the English School theory argues that states are essentially united by three common goals (all of which differ from the realist goal of mere survival): avoiding violence (life), ensuring promises are kept (truth), and preserving property rules (property). Naturally, realists would argue that it would be possible for states to share these common interests as they believe that it is impossible to be sure of the intentions of other states. Furthermore, there are a number of stances in which the realists and advocates of the English school would differ. In the case of intervention, for example, as expected by their goals, realists believe that intervention should only be done if it will increase a state’s relative power as they believe that is the way to achieve a balance of power. The English School, on the other hand, tends to not support intervention at all (in the case of a pluralist international society) or only support it for humanitarian issues (in the case of solidarist international relations). Additionally, while realists tend to be more focused in explaining the “what” of international politics, the English School is more interested in exploring the “why.” An example of this can be seen in the perspective of “the state” in the two traditions. Realists, for example, maintain that sovereign and territorial states are the key actors in international politics. While the English School might agree with this claim, it would also work to define these two terms by investigating how sovereignty and territoriality came about and by deciding what type of actions these two terms legitimize.
The constructivist tradition is more like realism in that it also prefers the idea of an anarchical international system over an international society. However, the focus on the “why” instead of the “what” puts the constructivist tradition more in line with that of the English School. Essentially, as the name implies, a major emphasis of constructivism is placed on the belief that the international system, international institutions, and global politics itself are socially constructed (albeit sometimes unintentionally) and are continually influenced and formed by constant development of social interactions. For example, while realists may argue that the rise of China was a natural and inevitable consequence, constructivists would argue that it was actually reliant on particular interests and identities of individual actors. Indeed, while both realists and the English School focus on states as the only key actors capable of change, constructivists also belief in the power of individuals to promote political change in global politics by noting that the way an individual acts towards other people or things is dependent on the meaning that they give to them, and is by no means uniform.
For these reasons, I believe constructivism to be the most valuable research tradition to use while analyzing change in global politics. Realism, for example, is simply too limited in its interpretation of global politics in that it only considers the actions of superpowers to have any agency (which obviously excludes a large portion of the world) and in that it views power as the basis of any and all actions made by the states (and I think it can hardly be argued that states only ever act with the intention of increasing power). Although the English School would be more useful the realism, its focus on the idea of international society would make it difficult to examine the actions of states who do not seem to share the three common goals of life, truth, and property. Therefore, constructivism seems more all-encompassing as, by examining differing identities and goals of both states and individuals, it doesn’t neglect anyone nor any motive in its analysis of social change. Furthermore, as personal motives are some of the strongest impetuses for any sort of action, constructivism works to uncover some of the deepest roots of political change.
An example in which constructivism can be used to examine political change is the shift in the ideas of European territoriality which moved from ideas of land as a commodity (with loose, frequently moving borders) to a “motherland” (with tightly controlled borders within which states are sovereign). While realism would perhaps argue that this implementation of tight borders was so a state could try to make claim as a regional hegemon and the English School might argue that these tight borders were useful in that it became easier to identify “rulebreakers,” constructivists would focus on the individual impressions and perspectives that promoted this action, thus digging deeper than either of the other fields and not making the assumption that each actor is acting for the same reason.
Overall, it is clear that the field of international relations is a large and diverse field. Indeed, it contains theories that focus on power (realism), cooperation between states (the English School’s theory of international society), and the importance of individual identities (constructivism) in shaping global politics. Arguably, this emphasis on individual identities in shaping political action is what makes constructivism the most useful research tradition in looking at political change as it doesn’t leave out any actor (as realism does) or motive (as the English School does). No doubt, with all of the change in the world today, the field of international relations will morph to continue meeting that change.