When we consider international relations as a distinct discipline, it should be different from other fields of study. Therefore we have to think whether the field of international relations is different from sociology, economics or any other subject. It is because the subjects such as sociology, economics and political science have characteristics which are totally different from each other. Therefore a subject can be considered as a distinct discipline when it has acquired specific characteristic features.
“A discipline implies a set of skills and techniques; a body of theory and of propositions; and subject matter. This assertion is perhaps necessarily a bit vague and subject to judgmental discriminations, for the astrophysicist, the biophysicist, and the microphysicist share some skills of techniques, some matters of theory and of propositional import, and the common subject matter of physics only at an appropriate level of generalization. This vagueness at the boundary, however, need not distress us, for when we turn to international relations, as the subject matter involving transactions across national boundaries; it is immediately evident that these transactions come within the purview of many different recognized disciplines. For example, international trade comes within the purview of economics; international religious movements and cultural diffusion patterns may be studied by the sociologist; international tensions may come within the province of the psychologist; and wars, international political movements, and patterns of alliance fall within the realm of political science.” [Kaplan 06]
International relations as a discipline deals with policies developments and interactions, the effects of which cross the national boundaries and affect the lives of people in different countries of the world. There were relations among the states from the past, even before the modern states were formed. Though they were not systematic and regular the ancient civilizations had their own transactions. Therefore these relations can be taken as evidences to prove that the concept of international relation was there in the world from the time of ancient civilization. Even at that time philosophers have recognized this but they did not analyzed, and even though they analyzed relations there was something lacking. It has been already recognized by the scholars of some other disciplines. In the present context, international relations have become more integrated with other spheres of study as a result of technological development. Therefore today defining international relations can be modified according widened scope of relations. Even at the time of civilization period there were interactions among civilizations though they were not systematic, frequent and regular. Next there were transactions among modern territorial sovereign states. Those transactions were systematic, frequent and regular. The Treaty of Westphalia was a recognizable event for the international relations. Then there was a period of revolution mainly with three revolutions; industrial, French and American revolutions.
Though the concept of international relations was deeply rooted in the world from the past the question whether it is a distinct discipline remains as a question. But when we gather information on the growth and development of the international relations there can be seen certain characteristic features such as;
- A distinct field
- Frequently adopted concepts
- Analytical methods and approaches
- Theories and a specialized vocabulary
Martin Smith in his article on “The Growth of a Discipline” talks about the main concepts and approaches of international relations.
“International relations emerged as a separate discipline in the aftermath of the First World War. For centuries previously the subject was a province variously of law, philosophy, history and other disciplines; each with its own way of seeing the world” [Martin, Steve.16]
The first approach under international relations was the idealistic approach. Idealistic approach to analysis of international relations brought about a change in the earlier studies in that field. It was developed into a specific discipline or a field of study through the contribution of many intellectuals who responded to the concept that intellectual behavior of the states could be altered in relation to the idealistic perspective. Furthermore “The Idealist/Reformers took the view that the system could be reformed, improved and managed better – and they showed how this could be done.”[Dunn] This was the specific feature that highlighted the international relations as a distinct field.
The idealistic approach was a failure because it could not achieve its main purpose of perpetual peace and The League of Nation was also a failure. Later on another idea arose following the failure of idealistic approach in international relations, stating that power is the main intention or purpose of states that initiate their behavior in the global context. It was named as realism by the people who developed and who argued on this topic. It was Hans J. Morgenthau who added and modified new principles and theories to this discipline which clarified the significance importance of studying international relations. According to realism the power was their main intention. They argued that idealistic reformers “were wrong-headed, over-optimistic and – more pertinently – misunderstood the nature of political power at the international level.” [Dunn].But the concept of power in international relations is totally different from political science. According to him to understand the behavior of the state, unlike idealist, we should consider, “human nature as it is and not as it ought to be, and with historical events as they have occurred, not as they should have occurred.” [Martin, Steve. 23]
John Vasquez in a book entitled power politics argued on the main assumptions of realism which further confirms that international relations as a distinct field of study. The three central assumptions that he mentioned are as follows.
- Nation states or their decision makers are the most important actors for understanding international relations.
- There is a sharp distinction between domestic politics and international politics.
- International relation is a struggle for power and peace. Understanding how and why that struggle occurs and suggesting ways for regulating-it is the purpose of the discipline. All research that is not at least indirectly related to this purpose is trivial. [Martin,Steve.31]
After 1960 the international relations was changed from classical approaches to modern approaches like scientific, behavioral and systems approach. After that international relations became more systematic and scientific based more on scientific theories, empirical data and analysis. When think about the concept of behavioralism, this concept was not included in the initial stage of international relations when it began as a discipline. When we distinguish behavioralism within international relations, the specific terminology, way of seeing, observation indicate the distinction between other natural sciences and international relations as a social science.
Though the techniques were derived from natural sciences the concept of studying human behavior in this approach much more related to social science rather than not static in natural science theories. This is another boundary where we can detach international relations from natural sciences as it observes human behavior.
Systems approach was a result of attempts which made to study international relation as any systematic way. Through this approach many concepts in international relations as a discipline could be well understood. There can be seen distinct concepts of international relations such as national interest, power, security, survival, intervention, interdependence etc.
For example if we take the concept of national interest is explained and studied under systems approach as the initial interest of a nation state, which is the constituent of the international system. This concept is studied only in international relations and it cannot be studied under any other field of study.
Even though many approaches were introduced into international relations it did not change the foundation of the discipline. Through every approach each scholar and each philosopher tried to defined international relations according to their point of view. Their central focus was on state as the main actor in international relation. This is ultimate and most important factor in clarifying international relations among other disciplines. That is international relations is the study of relations between the “distinct political entities in a system of self-help, devoid of central authority, where the question of order was of primary importance, given the problems associated with war, where it was taken as axiomatic that the outbreak of war was symptomatic of disorder.” [Burton] which can also be suggested as “decentralization of power”
For further explanation scholars attempted to fix core meanings of international relations by referring them in terms of
The above mentioned three characteristics have an inter relation. When having a wide view on these characteristics there can be identified that there is not central governance among states. For example nearly two hundred states do not have central governance and they have a governance of central authority. Furthermore if we take the international court, nations agree to it if only they like. Self-help also can be taken as a fact which comes with decentralization. It is because when the states do not have centralized governance they themselves have to work for their security and defense, but this does not mean that they do not have relations and agreements with other states. According to that self-help become a distinct feature in international relations. When the states work for self-help there can have anarchy. Though the states have laws and traditions for themselves, when they do not have centralized authority it can creates anarchy. Therefore according to the above explanation it can be said that decentralization, self-help and anarchy have turned international relations into a distinct discipline.
Today people in different countries of the world studied international relations as a separate subject. They studied it like that because of its distinct features. Olson in his article on “Growing Pains of a Discipline: Its Phases, Ideals, and Debates” says; “Today International Relations as a separate subject is widely accepted in the United Kingdom, France, and other European countries”
Therefore according to the above explanations International Relations is a distinct discipline which has acquired characteristic features of its own.
- Dunn, J, David, John Burton and the Study of International Relations: an Assessment http://www.gmu.edu/academic/ijps/vol6_1/Dunn.htm.
- Hilts, Martin, and Smith, Steve. Explaining and Understanding International Relations. Oxford, Clavendor Press, 1996.
- Olson, William etal, The Theory and Practice of International Relations.
By Kavindi Gamage
Visiting Lecturer at the University of Sri Jayawardenepura, Sri Lanka