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International Relations: Theories and the State


The role of the state in international relations is highlighted differently, depending on the theory exploring this concept. Different theoretical ideas seek to explain the connection between the power of the state, its politics, and the international influence on the domestic activities. The theories give major roles to the state, while others reduce the significance of the state in the IR process. This paper seeks to explore the theories and their projecting of the role of the state in international relations. It will also explore whether IR is too state-centric in a world characterized by more inputs from non-state factors.

Theories and the Role of the State

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Different theories elaborate the roles of the state in international relations. Some of these theories include the realist view, the liberalist, the Marxist perspective, and the constructivist theories (Dunne, Kurki, & Smith, 2013). Each of the theories recognizes the power of the state, while offering different ideas on its role.

Comparison of the Theories

The four theoretical perspectives identify the state in ways that are largely comparable. For instance, realism and liberalism recognize the state as a sovereign entity with a consistent set of goals (Drezner, 2011). According to these perspectives, the state usually bears national interests that are defined in terms of power. The power of the state has different bases, including the geographical size, natural resources, and the size of the population (Dunne et al., 2013). Regardless, the theories also recognize intangible sources of power such as the national image and the support it garners from the public. From this perspective, the action of the state is regarded as the action of a self-governing actor. Thus, sovereignty forms the basis for the functioning of the state from these theoretical perspectives in maintaining the current national interests (Drezner, 2011).

In the same manner, structural Marxist theories elaborate the state as being influenced by external capitalist pressures. This presupposition resembles the realism ideal that the state is constrained by the anarchy of the international system (Drezner, 2011). Under the Marxist approach, the state is inclined to expand as capitalistic external pressures require this action. Realism recognizes the structural anarchy as a constraint to the expansion or free exercise for the state (Drezner, 2011). For these theories, international politics represent continuous struggles between parties with varying self-interests. There is a lack of a central authority to control these activities, leading to the capitalist nature of the actors that include the individual states (Drezner, 2011).

Marxism, Liberalism, and Constructivism offer similar views regarding the nature of national interests. Under structural Marxism theory, there is barely any national interest as it is compelled to change in reaction to the capitalistic pressures that occur externally (Drezner, 2011). Liberalism, on the other hand, recognizes that there can never be one national interest, and it settles on the existence of many interests. These interests vary according to change, and they tend to be in constant competition against each other within their pluralistic framework (Drezner, 2011). From the constructivist perspective, national interests can neither be given nor take materials form. Instead, constructivism identifies national interests as being in a state of change, which is in response to the domestic factors or the international conditions surrounding the state (Dunne et al., 2013).

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Consequently, the theories bear similarities in their perceptions of the state. The similarities do not extend across all the theories uniformly, but specific features in each theory emerge prominently in other constructs.

Contrasting the Role of the State in the Theories

The four theories identify different roles of the state in understanding international relations. For instance, realism is the most state-centric theory and it suggests an image of both sovereignty and autonomy. From a realist perspective, the state acts as an autonomous entity, while attending to uniform national interests (Dunne et al., 2013). The realists believe that the state is the main actor in international relations, leaving no position for other actors such as NGOs. In this regard, the prominent supposition is that the state is an aggressive actor, which is often in competition with other states and only limited in expansion by its opposing powers (Drezner, 2011). The primary goal for this state is usually the maintenance of its own security, facilitating its survival in the long term (Drezner, 2011).

The realism theory differs sharply from the liberalist perspective. Liberalism postulates that the state is not the sole actor in international relations. Instead, the theory recognizes the role of other actors depending on the preference rather than the capabilities of individual states (Dunne et al., 2013). Further, national interests tend to vary and influence state actions differently. The interaction between states, unlike the realist perspective, takes both a high politics and low politics level. High politics involves interactions between states on security matters, while low politics features economic interaction among business entities (Dunne et al., 2013).  

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The Marxist perspective focuses on the economic aspects of the state instead of the liberal and realism issues of cooperation and conflict (Drezner, 2011). In this regard, Marxism regards the state as an actor whose sole purpose is reaction to capitalistic pressures. From this perspective, the state is the executing agent of the middle class (Dunne et al., 2013). The class owns most of society’s wealth and the means of production, and it usually reacts to direct societal pressures. Thus, the state is regarded as executing the demands of this class and reacting to pressures from the capitalist class. This perspective does not recognize any national interest or sovereignty as in the liberal and realist views on the actions of the state (Drezner, 2011).

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