Meaning, nature and scope of IR

The definition of International Relations (IR) varies from a layperson to scholars. It means one thing to individuals inhabiting at the power centers of the World (the West) and means other thing to the impoverished peoples of the South. It is a complex tapestry of conceptions that is palatable to one and vulgar to the others. The definitions are also either narrow or broad. It is either state-centric, or society-centric or anthropocentric in connotations. It is defined in a way that suits those who govern and those who are governed. A striking balance is therefore required to satisfy the interpreters of IR especially for the people who dislike inevitability of power politics qua realpolitik.

IR encompasses or covers all facets and dimensions of relations amongst nations. It includes political, economic, social, cultural and ideological spheres of a state which interface that with the others. Specific to the influences on the state and its citizens we can say that IR is the study of respective spheres of (inter)actions at different levels – either above or below a state and with different actors – either state or non-state. However a universal acceptance of a definition is still elusive. It suggests that there is no single viewpoint on understanding and explaining IR.

The traditional scope of IR is associated much either with state-centric notions of our existence or with forces international in nature that shape our private lives. Whereas today it is identified more with job prospects and career in IR. We sometimes pursue our study according to the conditions of job markets or scope of the subject in securing employment. The important aspect of after education is to explore avenues on your own to expand the scope of the received knowledge in a society. Without internship or voluntarism in non-government sectors one can not augment experiences of real world situations. It also emphasize on interpersonal and communication skills as well as working on a multicultural environment in diverse situations. MNCs play a prominent role in current international relations and international business diplomacy is one area where management students would be suitable to undertake the profession.

Some put forward a limited list and others exhaustive list but it can not be forthrightly said that scope is fully decided because the international environment as well as this discipline is in a state of flux. Even then its scope and main areas of study have been distinctly demarcated viz. study of the state system, relations in conflict and cooperation, general and diplomatic history, power, international law, international organizations, international systems, integration and community approach, geopolitics, conflict management and conflict resolution, war and peace, ideologies, nationalism, colonialism and imperialism, foreign policy, national interest, policy-making, national character, psychological factors, military-strategic factors, alliances and groupings, arms control and disarmament, demographic factors, economic factors and area and regional studies.

Purpose and Importance of IR

IR is both an academic and public policy field, and can be either positive or normative as it both seeks to analyze as well as formulate foreign policy. Apart from political science, IR draws upon such diverse fields making it cross and inter-disciplinary study. It involves a diverse range of issues, from globalization and its impacts on societies and state sovereignty to ecological sustainability, nuclear proliferation, nationalism, economic development, terrorism, organized crime, human security and human rights.

The course on IR will attract interest from young students all over the country and abroad as Nepal is at the centre of Asia touching two giant countries – India and China. It is to realize the importance of this country and its people in bridging between two vast economies by becoming a transit state and, in total, maintaining harmony among them for the development, solidarity and unity of Asia. Therefore it is felt that there is a need for an academic discipline of this type in Nepal at the threshold of 21st century and in the context of globalized world.

To fulfill the desires and aspirations of men and women who would like to pursue academic life in International Relations. To open avenue to critically examine at every level of analysis – individual, local, national, regional and global which would illuminate and enlighten in understanding and analyzing complexities of today’s world. The demands of budding talents of Nepal in this regard, it has become extremely necessary to introduce this inter-disciplinary course.

The aims of this course is to familiarize students with the central concerns of IR – foreign policy analysis, international organization, strategic studies, diplomacy, globalization, international political economy (IPE), international law and IR theory. It will provide students with tools for the critical interpretation of both secondary and primary texts, equip them with an in depth knowledge of international history and politics during the mid 20th century to the present, equip students with the skills and opportunity to conduct autonomous supervised research projects including assignments, seminars, a long essay and dissertation and develop their competency at communicating their ideas.

It therefore aims to cater students wishing to develop their specialist knowledge in international affairs/politics and diplomacy. It prepares students for exciting careers in the diplomatic service, inter-governmental agencies, national and international non-governmental organizations and international media. Also they will go on to high-caliber jobs and will be accepted into prestigious university programmes and secure research positions around the world. The purpose is to lure the best and brightest students of Nepal to do an inter-disciplinary academic exercise.

By the time one finishes studies in IR, he/she will have developed high levels of initiative, self-discipline and creativity. It will enhance employment prospects and will give them a tremendous sense of personal achievement. The course is stimulating, challenging and ultimately rewarding – intellectually, and in whichever direction students choose their careers their horizon will expand and worlds of possibility will open up as a result of advanced course in IR.

IR has both theoretical and practical utility. It can be adapted for use in general education in each community and each country with their worldview and various interpretations giving to its generalizations.

Its practical importance can not be negated with regard to practical assignment of individuals when conduction IR. They include national or international officials, statesmen, politicians, international jurists, international financiers, international propagandists, educators, journalists and activists. It aids in their practical activity to discern situations on the ground reality to be addressed, to obtain relevant information, to frame goals and to make decisions initiating action. IR can be investigated further for research purpose to answer innumerable questions about the future of international relations as well as to find shortcomings in the existing theoretical and political knowledge of the world. Some scholars point out that it teaches the formula to be pursued for human survival and progress, understanding and controlling human problems of global repercussion such as war and conflicts, aims at objectivity, balance and perspective. To others the value and purpose of IR is about understanding the role of subjectivity (meaning nation’s viewpoint and even authors), fostering internationalism along with nationalism and establishing a better world.

  • Individual and the World

Americans are unconcerned about world event s and issues. Minority of well-educated Americans follow foreign news and most of them have little information about global politics. As we are not mere spectators on the theatre of global drama which is played over and over we are all caught up in the tidal ebb and flow of global happenings. The importance of studying IR is to make one knowledgeable about the world and to try to mould it according to one’s liking as international politics does matter. It does affect one’s economic life, habitat and substantially one’s existence.

  1. Economic condition

As international industrial and financial structures become interestingly intertwined the impact of international economics on an individual continues to expand (ex. job losses in developed countries and petro-states can have effect on remittances of Nepal). The term intermestic symbolizes the merger of international and domestic concerns. The ubiquitous connections briefly explore three aspects of that relationship. How international trade, the flow of international capital, and defense spending all affect finances of individuals we need to deeply understand.

– International trade and your finances

The global flow of goods (tangible items) and services (intangible items such as revenues from tourism, insurance and banking) are important to your financial circumstances. International trade and your job are interrelated. Exports create jobs and jobs are also lost due to rising imports.

– The flow of international capital and your finances

Investment capital whereby foreign investors provide jobs for domestic workers and the product and marketing decisions that they make have a wide impact. The infusion of foreign capital save the companies facing crisis and provide jobs as well. The inflow of foreign investment capital had deeper impacts on economies of India and China.

International financial capital markets allow people to own individual shares, stocks, bonds of mutual fund shares. It has gone up in Nepal as well as in the developed countries. It is not the concern of the rich. Financial aid and tuition waiver at foreign universities and higher education sector provide relief to needy foreign students.

– Defense spending and your finances

Americans paid taxes to buttress America’s involvement in world affairs. In F/Y 2001 the US government spent $ 1.9 trillion foreign aid accounting 1% of the budget. The defense spending was considerably 16.1% which equals about $ 1,100 per American for national defense. Israel has the highest per capita spending on military. With 5% of the world’s populations, the US accounts for 37% of the world’s military spending and make military-industrial complex lucrative.

  1. Habitable world – environmental sustainability of development

There are demographic pressures, ageing population, teeming youth force in Nepal. High population growth rate also affects the pattern of consumption of food, energy creating ecological calamity, environmental disaster and global warming due to emission of green house gases. High food prices in international market with food deficit can result in famine and malnourishment in remote corners of the country.

  1. Interconnected life with a corporeal world

Human resources are utilized in the country and the abroad as human insecurity looms large. Under skilled and knowledgeable work force look greener pasture of the developed countries for job prospects and academic career. They even do menial jobs which are dirty, dangerous and difficult (3Ds). Around thousands leave TIA the only international airport in the country and it is an irony that on average three dead bodies of Nepalese arrives home.

Can we make a difference?

Yes, we can. There are multiple ways but to name a few. Direct voting or referendum on international questions as Danish, Irish, Polish and Czech voted for the Lisbon Treaty. The Swiss are well known for practicing this process. We can vote for suitable candidates who can deliver much on foreign policy fronts especially abrogating the 1950 treaty with India, harnessing of water resources for our benefits. We can also demand from the leaders on the accountability of the use of international aid. We can involve in direct action at local and national level by influencing global relations through activism and entrepreneurial activities.

Conceptualising the World into theories

Every statement that is intended to describe or explain anything that happens in IR is a theoretical statement. It is naïve and superficial to try to discuss IR solely on the basis of ‘the facts’. This is because whatever facts are selected – any at all – are literally abstract. The serious student of IR needs to consider afresh the problem of how to picture IR as a whole. The problem of theorist is to simplify the complexity without distorting it. That task, in turn, requires attention to the procedures of theory-building.


‘Theory’ is not a static body of knowledge rather it is a ‘tool on the road to knowledge’ in the same way that ‘facts are not knowledge but only the raw materials’ that have to be transformed via ‘theorising activity’ into propositions that can be ‘tested in the process of empirical research.’

Theory consists of both analysis and synthesis. To analyse is to unravel, to separate the strands, or to take to pieces. To synthesize is to reassemble, to piece together the parts in such a way as to compose a whole that makes sense.

According to Robert Cox, “Theory is always for someone for some purpose”.

As a development of Marxist thought, critical theory seeks to unmask the global domination of the rich North over the South. It views knowledge as inherently political; social scientists and social science as instruments of power.

Generally speaking IR scholars derive three schools of thought on it viz. realism, liberalism and Marxism. They should be strictly designated as ‘paradigms’ but they are also more casually termed perspectives, approaches, world views, frameworks or general theories. The voices from the margins as called by advocates of critical theory and post-modernism are making presence felt in the current discourse of IR. Infact IR is impervious to a growing awareness of feminist approaches to it. The political has become the personal. Gender issues, ethnicity and more traditional concepts of nation-states, nationalism, culture and religion reflect new emphasis in IR on identity studies.

There are five basic values of state system – security, freedom, order, justice and welfare. Each of them is generalized respectively by realist theories, liberal theories, International Society theories, International Political Economy (IPE) theories of IR.

For realists, IR is a system of ‘billiard-ball’ states in intermittent collisions. For pluralists, it is a ‘cobweb’, a network of numerous crisscrossing relationships. For structuralists, it is a ‘multi-headed octopus’, with powerful tentacles constantly sucking wealth from the weakened peripheries towards the powerful centers.

  • Popular schools of thought – realism and idealism

At least for five centuries or more we have followed a path that has been characterized by self-interested states struggling to secure their self-interests in a largely anarchistic international system. The alternative path not undertaken argued that states need to abandon the pursuit of short-term self-interest and take a more cooperative globalist approach. They favour a decline in the central role played by states in the international system, a rise of global institutions such as the UN and regional supranational organizations like EU. The world needs to find a new way to govern itself from the perspective of the advent of nuclear weapons, the deterioration of the global environment and other looming problems.

Two approaches are not an ‘either-or’ choice. Realism, realpolitik, balance of power, nationalist, conservative and state-centred (state-centric, state-based) on the one hand and the other idealism (idealist), globalism, (new) world order, liberal, liberal institutionalism and internationalist. Besides these there are number of related orientations – feminism, political economy and constructivism. Realists are pessimists and idealists are optimists about the existing world.

  • Politics according to the doctrine of realism and idealism

Both disagree over the nature of Homo Politicus (political humankind) and their respective views govern their approaches to domestic as well as to international politics. Realists portray politics in somber hues and believe that political struggle among humans is probably inevitable because people have an inherent dark side. Some scholars trace their intellectual roots all the way back to Thucydides, the chronicler of the Peloponnesian War. Thucydides argued that the casus belli between the Athenians and the Spartans around 420 BC was an increase in Athenian military power and the security dilemma it posed to Melians of the Spartan League. He is said to have begun one of the main traditions of thinking about international relations. Niccolo Machiavelli, Thomas Hobbes and Max Weber are also regarded as seminal thinkers without getting designation of being realists. The realist doctrines may have germinated in the writings of these early thinkers but its recent formulations as a theoretical approach to the study of IR began in the later 1930s and early 1940s.

E.H. Carr and Hans J. Morgenthau are pioneers in that development. They were among the first scholars to use the term ‘realism’ and to elaborate its fundamental assumptions by contrast with the allegedly idealistic study of IR that prevailed during the interwar period. They claimed to delineate hard realities of international life and unmasked the reality of politics challenging romanticism and utopianism. Idealists with its belief in peace and emphasis on free trade in effect were blind to accumulation of power by states and the perpetuation of status quo. There are three basic tenets of realist philosophy derived from Machiavelli:

  1. History is a sequence of cause and effect – a synchronization involving hard power (political or military) or high politics of security and survival. It outweighs rationality, an intellectual effort over “imagination”, a utopian believe.
  2. Theory does not as utopians assume create practice but practice makes theory.
  3. Politics are not as utopians pretend a function of ethics but ethics of politics. Morality is the product of power.

Thomas Hobbes envisaged anarchical society wherein humans possess an inherent urge to dominate, animus dominandi.

Morgenthau extrapolates relations between individuals on a wider scale in not essentially different in relations amongst nations. He said “politics is governed by objective laws which have their roots in human nature”. It is reflected in a rational theory of politics and international relations. He mentioned about six principles of realism wherein human nature and ethics of state are dealt with.

Therefore with negative view of human actions and desires liberal thinkers profoundly misread the facts of history and misunderstood the nature of international relations. There are profound conflicts of interest both between countries and between people according to Carr. Thus IR is far more about conflict than about cooperation. Morgenthau was preoccupied with human nature at the base of international relations no less than any other human relations. And humans were self-interested and power seeking and that culminates easily in aggression. The second major element of the realist view concerns the nature of international relations – an international anarchy. The third component is a cyclical view of history. In contrast to the liberal view that qualitative change for the better is possible, realism stresses continuity and repetition. They hold a notion of power politics between states which exist in an international anarchy.

A relatively more recent variation on realism is neorealism which focuses on the anarchic nature of a world system based on competition among sovereign states while classical realists stress human nature as decisive in shaping world politics. They both doubt that there is an escape from conflict. Anarchy/hierarchy is the nature of the international system based on sovereign actors (states). They answer to no higher authority, overarching authority providing security and order. It is a self-help system with each state relies on its resources to survive and prosper. Classical realists believe human nature is immutable and neorealists are skeptical about utility of international organizations or the ability of interdependent nature of relations to promote cooperation. National policy of a state is formulated on national interests.

Idealism and the Nature of Politics:

Idealism refute that all or most humans are inherently political predators. They believe in over of cooperation and less conflictual relations. Basic liberal assumptions are: 1. a positive view of human nature, 2. a conviction of cooperative rather than conflictual state of international relations, 3. a belief in progress. They believe in human reason applying rational principles in international affairs. The human reason can triumph over human fear and the lust for power. The core concern of idealism is the happiness and contentment of individual human beings. The classical realism focused on freedom, cooperation, peace, progress.

Early thinkers are John Locke (constitutional states and toleration), Jeremy Bentham (international law and reciprocity) and Kant (progress and perpetual peace). The basic tenets of liberalism are intertwining of human progress, human reason and cooperation which results in the process of modernization towards the development of the modern state. Idealists trace their intellectual lineage to Jean-Jacques Rousseau who understood the human potential to come together to build a cooperative and peaceful global society.

Utopian liberalism as the early study of IR has traits of Wilsonial idealism. It is the conviction that through a rationally and intelligently designed international organization. It should be possible to put an end to war and to achieve more or less permanent peace. Norman Angell, a contemporary liberal of Wilson, is a forerunner of later liberal thinking about modernization and economic interdependence. It involves a process of change and progress which renders war and the use of force increasingly obsolete.

Idealists as critics say are out of tough with current thinking; they put moral principles before practical or prudential considerations and are naïve about the world around them. They are futurists who seek a perfect world. The self-proclaimed realists had coined the term to describe liberal internationalism of the interwar years and such a labeling deserves debatable. Recent research indicates that the idealist thinkers of the period were not as ‘other worldly’ as many realists suggested. Idealism surfaced in reaction to the carnage of the 1st World War. Most intellectuals and policymakers of the day pointed the blame on the Realpolitik of the European great powers and resolved the task of abolishing war as an instrument of statecraft. Philanthropists such as Andrew Carnegie, Ford and Rockfeller devoted some portion of their wealth to educate people about benefits of developing internationalist orientation. Indeed the birth of IR as a separate discipline coincided with these developments. Wilson’s 14 Point at the Versailles Peace Conference in December 1918 not only provided an outline for the settlement of the 1st World War but also served as the basis for the establishment of the League of Nations. Idealists shared a belief in progress and were of the view that deliberations under the rule of law and the procedures of parliamentary democracy could be firmly established in international diplomacy. That’s why they placed so much importance on the League of Nations and on strengthening international law.

A fundamental belief of idealism is that what unites human beings is more important than what divides them. The idealists rejected communitarian and realist arguments that the state is itself a source of moral value for human beings. Instead, they defended a cosmopolitan ethics and sought to educate individuals about the need to reform the international system. Interwar idealism was as much a political movement as an intellectual one.

The idealism is a sort of a passé paving the way for mutation into neoidealism (often called neoliberalism) school of thought. Neoidealists subscribe like neorealists much of the world conflict to the anarchic world system based on competition among sovereign states. Like all idealists, neoidealists believe that humans can cooperate in order to achieve mutual benefits. Since the anarchical system hinders cooperation, it is building through effective international organisation can the best path to cooperation achieve. That’s why their prescription and emphasis on institutions make them liberal institutionalists.

  • Power of Power politics and norms and values of Justice

They are poles apart in describing the two facets of governance, the power and justice. Both as standards of international conduct disagree over their roles. Realists maxim holds that the “might is right” whilst idealists contend that “right makes right”.

Realism and Power Politics

It is an undisputable belief on power that leads state exercise to secure their frequently conflicting interests. This is a salient feature of the main action at international arena. They hold that objectives of politics internationally are to augment power, to keep or retain it or to exhibit it. It is not a novel thought as Indian seer Kautilya had expressed these mantra two millennia ago.

The essence of politics is the struggle for power and foreing policy is based on the tenets for a strategy of survival and struggle for existence. So in an international climate of anarchy of a state ignores or do not follow this dictum then it barely fits in those strategy. Thus the national interest takes into account of enhancing or preserving the state’s security, its influence and its power- military and economic. The sutra of success for a state in international politics lies in the mightiness of these elements. Therefore it is unconscionable or irrational to follow policy based only on ethics or morality. So the morality of the state is national survival but that does not imply realists are amoral. The moral duty of the state in its highest form is to do good for its citizens. More moderately realists prescribe that morality should be weighed prudently against national interests .

Idealism and norms and values

  • Competition and cooperation – dynamic views
  • Positivism or what is of reality – an appraisal of divergent theories

Methodology of studying world politics

Some of the most important IR questions are methodological in nature. Such issues became prominent with the ‘behavioural revolution’ in the 1950s and 1960s. Since the end of the Cold War, methodological issues have returned to center stage in a debate between positivist and post-positivist methodologies. In most academic disciplines, including IR, there are two fundamental kinds of controversy. One kind debate involves over substantive issues i.e. questions of fact. The other controversy involves over methodological issues i.e. conceptual and philosophical questions that are involved in the way that we carry out our research.

  • Political Scientists and world politics – analytical orientations, descriptive (empirical) or prescriptive (normative) – goals and research methods

The concepts of war, order and peace, justice and injustice, anarchy and sovereignty as an intellectual concern were occupied prominent place in a long history of international relations. Political scientists study world politics in order to formulate theories – generalizations – about politics. Thus they would like to unravel the phenomena and patterns that are constant at spatio-temporal realm. There are many methodologies and approaches to arrive at understanding of IR. Nonetheless a political scientist main concern is with theory. Keeping this in mind IR scholars has three subsidiary goals: description, prediction and prescription.

Description is the oldest and most fundamental of these three goals. It focuses on patterns. When researcher studies a single event or case studies or a series of events across time or space the object is not to just describe the event(s). Instead the goal is to relate them to a pattern of other events for e.g. democratic peace, multipolarity, anarchy is what states make of it, etc.

Prediction is even more difficult than description because of complexity of unpredictable human nature. Forecasting is fallible and inaccurate when no one predicted the end of the Cold War except the dissidents and litterateurs. Moreover the rise of Great power can fall in certain period as the history of Roman and British Empires are of any guide.

Prescription is a third goal. Some scholars go beyond their objective studies and come to normative or moral philosophy of IR i.e. what ought to be. They enter into direct policy-making field whereas those who can not make influence indirectly through working in think-tanks, as columnist and public author of influencing books.

Political scientists conduct research or gather evidence to support their hypothesis through three basic methodologies – logic, traditional observation and quantitative analysis. Logic involves applying it in deducing or deriving specific reasoning for particular political observation such as deterrence theory, negotiations or game theory in decision making, foreign policy analysis etc. Traditional observation uses varied techniques to study political phenomena. One method is historical approach – personal interviews, archives and participant observation. History can be prelude to the current problems and underlying conflict can be traced to the past. Quantitative analysis use mathematical modeling for measurable phenomena such as cross border trade, human migrations,

  • Level of Analysis (international system, state or individual)

There are three levels of analysis form which world politics can be investigated. They are system-level analysis, state-level analysis and individual-level analysis and are not mutually exclusive.