International Relations Theory Primer

What’s with international relations theory?  For starters, theory provides a valuable theoretical framework for understanding a discipline or field of study.  University students pay good money to become versed in theory for a reason.  Theory allows us to understand the assumptions and ideas guiding the policy and process of diplomacy–and is an essential part to understanding international relations.

This quick primer will help get you up to speed on the two major streams, realism and idealism:

And now, for my personal fave–an exploration on international relations theory in the face of frozen Nazi zombies:


3 thoughts on “International Relations Theory Primer”

  1. As I watch these videos about idealism and realism, it’s funny cause I find myself agreeing with both of them. Ill be like “yeah, that makes sense” then I watch the other one and think “I agree with that too.” I feel like there are correct concepts in both of them, it just depends on what youre focus is. I think even the situation that a state finds itself in can determine if they take a more realist or idealist action. Theres a short little article that summarizes idealism and realism at

  2. I remember when taking Intro to International Politics, my professor impressed on we the students, that in all likelihood we would never be able to only agree with just realism or just idealism. The world we live in is simply not as clear cut as such theories may make it seem. As a realist you cannot just act entirely in the interests of you state, it is, ironically, unrealistic. Seeking that much power, and refusing to trust as much as possible, does not lead to a stable government in out globalized world. On the other hand, though idealism and liberalism allow friendship between nations, it also paints a rainbow and sunshine world that is just not likely to come about until we reach the millennium. However, on the whole, I tend to agree more with the liberal theory of international relations. It is better to trust, and make connections socially, economically, etc. with other countries rather than outdo them in power. I find economic liberalism to be especially compelling because as states become more and more economically interdependent on one another the likelihood of conflict that would endanger such ties becomes less and less. For more information, and an interesting look at the forces of globalization and nationalism, see Benjamin Barber’s “Jihad vs. McWorld” (

  3. While both arguments are compelling and I find points in both upon which I can agree, I get the feeling that I’m watching videos on optimism and pessimism. Dr. Bowen specifically said that the liberal view isn’t one of “kittens and rainbows.” I agree with him that there are many opportunities for conflict resolution and cooperation on many levels. However, pessimism (or realism) is needed because not everyone wants to take advantage of the opportunities Dr. Bowen is talking about. Also, different “opportunities” are attractive to different leaders. That’s why the UN is often accused of being very ineffective; many states get the opportunity to express their opinion, instead of the most powerful ones taking care of their priorities first. It’s essentially a prisoner’s dilemma; powerful countries might have big incentive to invade smaller countries, but when everyone gets involved, the costs outweigh the benefits.

    Also, Dr. Bowen states that “conflict is a major component of the international system.” It seems that liberalism isn’t anti-conflict, but realizes that there are so many other ways to solve problems without defaulting to war.

    The following video is pretty dumb, but I think it would be good for us to remember not to oversimplify theories like these to the point of ridiculousness. The same goes for political party loyalty:

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