There are books written by academics describing various theories of international relations with chapters that discuss specific theories the discipline has given rise to. Notwithstanding the variety of theories and the multitude of commentators, most of the chapters will, at some point, say that the theory under discussion is not a single theory; that each contains a variety of different themes linked in some way to the core tenets of that particular theory. The result is that there is no single coherent theory that covers all aspects of the relationships between states.
This paper makes a proposal which is intended to alter how the study of international relations is structured. The proposal has three linked elements; a move away from international relations towards inter-governmental relations; consideration of the factors that influence inter-governmental relations, and the abandoning of the assumptions of singularity that currently influence theories of international relations. Taken together these provide a starting point for a re-evaluation of the relationships between states.
This proposal is simple – hence the brevity of this paper. However, the proposal deals only with the structure of the debate. The complexity lies in its application - considerations dealing with the who, what, when, where, why and how of influences. Before we can consider these influences, we need first to look at who is being influenced.
Many theories of international relations take the state as their primary focus. However, whilst states have physical attributes that do not change or change only slowly, all human activity within these physical areas is governed by human beings. As such state governance changes sooner or later, either by the death of an autocrat or the voting out of office of a government. Political parties pursue their own agendas subject to the need to appeal to enough voters to get elected or re-elected. The leadership of autocracies changes less often than some democratic governments and is less susceptible to the influence of that state’s citizens. Whether autocratic or democratic, all control passes from the individual leader or from one group of people in government to another sooner or later. For that reason, it makes sense to examine the difference that those in charge of states make to the policies of particular states and the relationships between states.
In other words, a state-centric theory fails to capture the variety of possible outcomes that might be achieved by a state, compared to a theory that embraces the influences that affect the decisions taken by the individuals that lead state governance and that state’s interaction with the wider world. The change of name to inter-governmental relations, coupled with an examination of the influences on any government, is intended to highlight the move away from state-centric theories and a greater focus on those controlling, or seeking to control, the actions of a state.
A change to Inter-Governmental Relations (IGR) is a more accurate definition of what is actually being examined and also provides an opportunity to put the sterile arguments about theories that have existed for decades to one side and start again.
If it is accepted that a better starting point in any discussion of the relationships between states is the actions and policies of the people that control states, then we need to consider what influences those people. All human beings are susceptible to influence. What those influences are and how they affect decisions is a matter for future debate.
The existing theories of international relations provide us with a basic list of influences, albeit called interests rather than influences. The factors that affect state leaders may be internal or external. For the purpose of this paper, internal factors represent the influence exerted by people and institutions that are physically located within the same state or, indeed, the same political party. External factors refer to influences that are applied from beyond the borders of the state being considered. Some influences may be both internal and external.
Internal influences include party politics and the economic preferences of political parties. The latter usually falls somewhere on the continuum between small government and social welfare models. Also included are nationalism (and its manipulation), religion (or a lack thereof), the type of leadership – autocratic, democratic, or a pseudo-democratic system dominated by a single leader. The personalities of national leaders, the physical characteristics of the state – size, population, natural resources, location, and whether it is landlocked or has access to the sea, and how wealthy a country is or how that wealth is distributed amongst its citizens also hold influence. Lastly, whether the state is federal or unitary and the extent of any powers devolved to specific areas within a state. The primary influencers are the national media and mainstream political parties.
The external influences include the fact that the international system is anarchic and the consequential need to safeguard, by a variety of means, the continued existence of the state and the safety of its citizens. The means may include military power, economic influence, or membership of international organisations. The best means to apply will vary over time dependent upon conditions in the wider world. The external influencers are other states, particularly those nearby or that share a border, international organisations, regionalism, international political economy, and alliances with other states, both formal and informal and, of course, hegemons. Both the influence exerted and the external states or bodies that exert influence change over time.
Some influences can be both internal and external. This applies, in particular to international trade. A state that has a high level of unemployment faces the risk of insurrection and the toppling of the government of the day. One way to avoid this is to sell more of a state’s products abroad to maintain a high level of employment at home. Whilst this may ensure the continuance of the government of the day, that government is then under the influence of those that choose to trade with it whether that trade is controlled by foreign governments or trans-national corporations.
The shift to consideration of influences is not a complete break with the past, but a re-focussing of the debate. For that reason, in addition to the influences identified above which form the basis of the theories of Realism and Liberalism, other influences include the role of women, Marxism, Post-colonialism, and Green policies. Indeed, anything included in the index of any textbook on the theories of IR can be discussed as an influence. In addition, IGR could draw on other disciplines, for example, social psychology, to understand how influences affect the decision-making process.
One of the factors that has inhibited the debate on international relations (IR) in the past has been the assumption of singularity, a term coined by the author that will now be explained.
Assumptions of singularity
It is not uncommon for theories of international relations to assume that all states are unchanging as are the state’s priorities. This is particularly true of Realist assumptions about states and their need for military power. Liberalism has its own singularities. One example is Kant’s assumption that war is unnatural. By shifting the focus of research and theories towards influences we can better acknowledge the variety of people that govern decision-making within countries, their aims and objectives whilst in government. There is no ‘one size fits all’ approach to theorising about inter-governmental relations. For every athlete reaching for an Olympic medal, there is a couch potato reaching for the remote – and a whole range in between. The same applies to governments and their leaders. As a result, theories that assume a single purpose, method, or approach are doomed to provide an incomplete understanding of the world and the relationships between states and their governments.
The only constant in life is change.
Individually the three factors described above may appear to add little, if anything, to the existing (or past) debates about the relationship between states and between state governments. The strength of these proposals lies in their combination. The leaders of states are influenced by a variety of factors that may change over time. Questions about the relationship between states can be answered, at least partially, by looking at what factors have the most influence, under what circumstances, and when, then looking at how these influences affect the actions or inactions of states.
Justifying the proposed change.
The genesis of this paper lies in two factors. Firstly, as mentioned above, books discussing theories of international relations reveal that terms such as Realism, Liberalism, etc are umbrella terms. They serve to group together theories with similar, but not identical, bases and conclusions. There is competition both within and between theories. What is common is that theories tend to minimalize the impact that individual leaders have, even if the theory discusses the role of human nature in general. The author’s attempt to consider how leaders affect the relationship between governments led, very rapidly, to the realisation that the influence of leaders is but one of the many influences that affect inter-governmental relations. In divorcing the study of international relations from the study of the factors influencing governments International Relations has, perhaps, missed the point.
The second factor is what might be termed the Brexit question. None of the current or past theories of international relations can explain why a British government controlled by the Conservative Party took the UK into the European Economic Community (EEC) in the 1970s and then out again 45 years later. The Conservative Party of 1970 had the same aims and objectives as it did in the 2010s – or did it? Clearly the personnel in the party changed – its leader in 1973 was ousted a year later after losing a general election. Many of the other members of the 1973 cabinet were no longer in politics or even alive in 2016 when a referendum on leaving the EU was held. A new generation is in power. The EEC had changed, becoming the European Union and altering its aims and objectives in a way that the majority of Member States (or their leaders) deemed more appropriate to the new century. All these changes make nonsense of any assumption of singularity.
This proposal has been set out as succinctly as possible with the aim of opening a debate. It aims to justify the structure it proposes without applying the elements of that proposal. This is for many reasons. The target audience is those working in the field who will already be familiar with the various existing theories and their workings. These theories have evolved over decades, and it may take a while for the new proposed structure to be worked through. The advantages of the proposed change are taken to be self-evident.
Looking at what happens in IGR through the lens of influences permits some of those influences to be examined using a scientific methodology whilst acknowledging that a different approach may be needed for other influences. Positivists and post Positivists will both have a role to play and one does not need to exclude the other.
It is anticipated that any future debate on influences may well come in the form of an attempt to create a hierarchy of those influences. This will not be problematic provided that everyone remembers that that hierarchy will change constantly. Not all influences will apply to all given circumstances. What works regarding one situation will not necessarily apply to a different situation, even if the government itself is the same. Opinions change.
The answer to the Brexit question? A variety of internal and external influencers, for a variety of reasons, used a variety of means and methods to influence the outcome of the referendum. The winners were greatly assisted by the incompetence of the losers (and vice versa). The UK may or may not seek to rejoin the EU at some time in the future. When, why and with what success is currently unknown, but that may change.
Ian Kilbey LLB, LLM is a retired Law Lecturer. He worked in the Law Schools of Birmingham and Leicester De Montfort universities. He is currently reading for an MA in International Relations at the University of Nottingham, UK.
I would like to acknowledge Dr Ben Holland of the University of Nottingham, for his advice and support.