International Relations Theory

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International Relations Theory

The theories of international relations try to find out the key patterns of interaction between parties involved in international politics and provide a framework to explain the underlying structure and nature of these interactions (Nye, 2004). The theories generally state the manner in which international politics should be carried out and how the world should look like. According to Nye (2004) the theories have historically been viewed as unequal and competing with each individual theory providing its own alternative explanations to the nature of international relations. The historical evolution of the theories is that they try to critique the flaws of each other in providing an alternative explanation. The international relations field has evolved over time and has many theories which use different approaches, methodologies and explanations to explain interaction between nations (Nye, 2004). This paper tries to predict how states and other international actors would respond to an invention of reliable fusion energy technology which is cheap, abundant, safe, clean and carbon emission free by the scientists of one country’s government using neo-realism and neo-liberalism theories of international relations.

The availability of energy is critical to the running of every country. Many people therefore agree that the issue of energy security has been a very important for many countries since the energy crises that affected many countries in the 1970’s (Wenger, Robert & Jeronim, 2009). The oil consuming countries have experienced shortages in the past since they depend on oil imports from producing countries for supplies to meet their energy needs. The issue of energy security has therefore been very important in international relations debates. The energy debate has therefore been mostly shaped by the inequality between the oil producing and oil consuming countries. Oil supply has become a subject of both real and perceived susceptibility for different states (Wenger 2009). Different studies have been carried out in relations to the increased rate of energy consumption and increased dependency on energy imports by different countries. The studies have also focused on the contribution of competition for energy to different conflicts. The international relations theories can be directly applied in understanding the forms of collaboration, competition and conflicts relating to energy. This paper seeks to try and explain the underlying theoretical assumptions the neo-realism and the neo-liberalism theories provide for understanding what would happen if one country discovered a new and more efficient fusion energy technology.

Neo-Realism and Energy

Neo-realism is one of the general schools of thought within international relations and was put forward by Kenneth Waltz (Nye, 2004). The theory is a specific variant of realism. In the neo-realist theory waltz classified the actors in international relations into three levels. These levels include the individual, the state and the interstate system. According to this system the interstate system is the most important in international relations. According to this theory the interstate system comprises of states actors which compete with each other to fulfil their own self-interests (Nye, 2004).

The neo realist theory makes three important assumptions about the states and the characteristics of the international system in which they belong. First the interstate system is anarchical in nature with each state being sovereign from each other and therefore chaos is expected since no state can control the others. According to Walt (1998) “the international system consisted of great powers each seeking to survive and because the system is anarchic each state has to survive on its own”. In this system the survival of any state is not guaranteed and in order to survive each state is driven to accumulate power in order to provide for its own security. According to Wendt (1992) “Each country in this system acts in its own self interest in order to maximize its own survival and is therefore driven to accumulate as much power as possible”. Conflict may therefore arise as there is no supreme authority to prevent way between states due to a breakdown in international relations.

Another assumption of the neo-realist theory is that the functions of each state within the system are not differentiated. Each state is tasked with providing security for its citizens from external threat and ensuring there is law and order internally. The final assumption is that the distribution of resources between the similar countries determines the balance of power between these countries. This means that each country has its own resources and capabilities to counter the resources of another country. The status quo in the system is therefore that no one country can be able to dominate all the other countries and therefore each country tries to be better than the other rather than better than all of them put together.

The three assumptions about the nature of the international system lead to a number of hypothesis on how countries are likely to behave within the system. One of the most important hypotheses about the behaviour of states within such a system is that states are more likely to balance against the rising powers and growing threats rather than bandwagon with these states. The balance of power theory provides that each state is independent to choose whether to balance internally by allocating more resources to economic security and the military or to balance externally by forming alliances with states with similar interests and therefore similar enemies. The neo-realist theory is concerned more with power over morality, stability over justice and continuity over change.

International Relations Theory
International Relations Theory

Predicting what would happen if a new energy technology was invented using the neo-realist approach requires understanding how this new energy would affect the existing balance of power within the energy sector. There is a balance which exists internationally between the energy producing countries and the consumers. However this balance is threatened by the issue of energy security. After the oil shocks of the 1970’s the security of supply of oil became a matter of security concern for many developed countries. Security can be defined from an offensive or defensive point of view. According to the neo-realist security is from the defensive point of view due to the anarchy structure of the society. According to the neo-realist theory, states struggle to survive within an international system that does not have a worldwide authority to controls what happens. To maximize their chances of survival states therefore try to rise to power by accessing the required resources and therefore influence their relationship. Energy security is the only vulnerability point for many developed countries and therefore they sometime prefer to use an offensive strategy to secure the source.

According to the neo-realist theory security is not considered to be as a result of the direct threat but the political interpretation of the threat. The international relations theory considers anarchy as part of the international system which is why states are very concerned about security. In the international arena there are energy related interactions between states which involve an energy dependency between the states. In the international system the energy interaction involves export, import and transit of energy resources. Energy security between states   can be measured using the strength of dependence which is determined by factors such as possibility of diversification, level of domestic resources and the energy trade balance. The dependence of a state on energy from another state is perceived as a threat. A good example is the European countries which depend on Russia for their gas supply. Russia uses manipulation of gas supply and prices as a tool for political influence. Many countries therefore realise that there can be no energy security if one of the energy supplying nations is willing and able to use energy resources as a weapon of influence.

From the above analysis and using the neo-realist theory the states and other international actors would respond in different ways to an invention by one government scientist of a new reliable energy solution. The first way in which the state actors would respond to the invention is through cooperation. The state and international actors with similar interest would form an alliance to protect their own interests. As the States and international actors which currently supply energy would try to maximize their chances of survival in the new order they would form alliances to counter the new country which is rising due to supplying alternative source of energy.

The Neo-realist theory also suggests that the new technology would provide, power, influence status, security, respectability and prestige on both the regional and international stage. The fact that one country owns the technology will increase the worries and fears of the neighbouring states. This would be construed as a threat to the states in the region which may spiral out of control in the form of a regional wide race for the new technology. The neo-realists argue that the states will try to balance internally by allocating more resources in this case to researching the new energy technology.

Neo-liberalism and international energy politics

New liberalism is another widely used theory to explain state behaviour in international relations. This theory emerged in the 1970’s and 1980’s (Baldwin,1993). The neo-liberalist theory was developed as a response to the neo-realist theory. The neo-liberalist accepted the neo-realist argument that states operate in a state of anarchy. However, the neo-liberalists argue that even in the anarchic international system made up of independent states, cooperation can be possible through building institutions, norms and regimes which will bring about positive results for everyone.

According to Peet (2003) “neo-liberals states are not supposed to attack each other but should consider each other as legal and non-threatening”. They believe that global economic ties and international organizations act to strengthen peace. The neo-liberalists believe that the rule of law and the strengthening of democracy make it easier for states to cooperate. The theory advocates that having economic interdependence helps countries meet their needs better than through war. The main tools of this theory are international institutions and free international trade which allows for free movement of goods, ideas and resources which allows people to find affordable resources and to maximize their profits. The neo-liberals also believe that the state should not control the market but let the market forces control the market. The European Union a regional institution has been a good example of how sovereign states can cooperate through economic and political interdependence making war unthinkable in the region (Pease 2012).

The neo-liberal approach can be used to explain what could happen in international energy politics if a new sustainable energy technology is developed. In order to understand what would happen if a more sustainable energy source was invented by one state from a neo-liberal perspective it is important to understand what the current situation is from a neoliberal explanation. Currently the energy market is a less liberalised and is mostly controlled by states and international actors. This allows many illiberal practices to take place in relation to international relations of the energy industry. Some of the notable illiberal practices in the energy sector are secret deals between international companies and oil producing countries which have led to underdevelopment, resource conflicts and support of authoritarian governments (Wenger 2009). A Neo-Liberal approach would aim at eliminating all the illiberal practices which occur in the market due to control by the state.

From a neo-liberal perspective state and other actors would respond in different ways to the invention of a new energy solution. First states would respond by promoting regional and worldwide energy organization and institutions. From the liberal perspective the development of a big organization with many members would allow members to cooperate and benefit from the new energy technology. A big energy organisation would ensure that the whole market is controlled by one organization which would make liberalising the market easier.

Another way that the state would respond is through greater liberalisation of the economy to eliminate the imperfections within the energy market. Allowing the market forces to determine who provides the energy solution would ensure that only the most economically efficient institution provide the energy solution eliminating the threat of war and conflicts often associated with other forms of energy. This is essential to promote healthy international relations.

Another possible response by state and international actors is international regulation which would deter illegal trade and practices which often lead to conflicts. A nice example of this is the international regulations of diamonds which were seen as the major cause of conflict in different parts of Africa. The regulations require the global diamond industry to commit them to an international process of diamond certification. A similar regulation would be made for the sector.

Another likely way the actors would respond is by promoting good governance in different states to eliminate the illegal practises such as rent seeking and distortions by the rent seeking states. The international actors are likely to demand for more transparency, fairness and accountability in order to ensure that price of the new technology is managed in a more efficient way. The states would respond by demanding more transparency to avoid secret deals which strengthen illiberal practices and undermine international relations. Openness would be one of the preconditions for the different state and international actors to cooperate.


International relations theories provide good models for explaining the nature of international relations in different sectors. The theories offer alternative explanations for the interactions. The neorealist theory view states as competing against each other. It can therefore be conclude that the states would respond in a way that best meets their own self interest. On the other hand the neo-liberal argue that the states will respond in such a way that the cooperation brings positive results for everyone.


Barkin J. Samuel, (2002) “Efficiency and ideas,” in international relations: The Key Concepts. New York: Routledge.

Baldwin, David A. 1993. Neo-realism and Neo-liberalism: The Contemporary Debate, New York: Columbia University Press.

Nye, Joseph S. 2004. Soft Power in International Relations: the means to success in world politics. New York: Public Affairs

Peet, Richard. (2003) “Neoliberalism and Nature: The Case of the WTO”. Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science, Vol 590 p188–211.

Pease, Kelly-Kate, (2012) “Critical Theories and Approaches,” in International Relations and Organizations: Perspectives on Governance in the Twenty-First Century. New York: Longman.

Walt, Stephen M., (1998), “International Relations: One world, Many theories,” Foreign policy Vol 110 p29-46.

Wendt, Alexander. 1992. ‘Anarchy is what states makes of it: the social construction of power’, International Relations Organization, vol 41 (3) p50-57.

Wenger, Andreas; Robert W. Orttung, Jeronim Perovic. (2009). Energy and the Transformation of International Relations. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

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My name is Steve Jones and I’m the creator and administrator of the dissertation topics blog. I’m a senior writer at and hold a BA (hons) Business degree and MBA, I live in Birmingham (just moved here from London), I’m a keen writer, always glued to a book and have an interest in economics theory.

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