What makes International Relations a discipline

The journey of the modern man, which began in Africa, with a small band of hunter-gatherers, has come full circles, after nearly 80,000 years1 and a population of 6 billion, covering the earth in diverse races, ethnicities and nationalities. Man has been divided along these ethnic and social lines even before the advent of the modern state system. Though they have been living in relative isolation, in a less populated world, they were connected through the advent of trade, journeying2, and the darker means of war and conquest. There had been relations between these ancient societies, which are the precursors to the modern day nation states.

This relationship was evident during the times of the Egyptian Pharaohs, who established ties with parallel rulers elsewhere, formed alliances and pacts that would protect them from the marauding nomads of the steppes of Caucasian heartland.3The Free city states of Greece practiced the art of diplomacy and international cooperation during time of war and strife. The Homeric tales of Iliad is one classic example, when the rulers of the Greek States rallied around the mighty Achilles and his Myrmidon army to win the battle for them4. Thucydides gives an account of alliances that were formed by the Peloponnesian League and the Athenian League to counter the rising hegemony of Sparta5.

As evident from the above, the subject of International Relations is not a modern invention. Interaction over countless number of years have forged the way the international system operates today, and the focus of this paper is to unravel certain mysteries behind it by answering two major questions; 1) Does the study of International Relations qualify as a Discipline, and, 2), Why did this discipline develop in the 20th Century rather than in the 17th Century?

What makes International Relations a ‘Discipline’?

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The word ‘Discipline’ is derived from the Latin word ‘Disciplina’, which means teachings, and in its noun form, it is taken to mean ‘training that corrects, molds, or perfects the mental faculties or moral.’

A more contemporary definition would be ‘An academic discipline, or field of study, is a branch of knowledge which is taught or researched at the college or university level. Disciplines are defined and recognized by the academic journals in which research is published, and the learned societies and academic departments or faculties to which their practitioners belong’6

By virtue of the meaning of the word ‘Discipline’ we can surmise that it refers to any study or act of learning which is distinct, which has its own scope and agenda, and most importantly its own disciples who practice or pursue it in its academic or practical form.

Does International Relations classify as a discipline? And is it a separate discipline in itself or is it a mix of other social sciences? Can it be studied in total isolation or does it need the input from other sciences and disciplines? Can it be studies purely as an academic discipline, or does it need empirical evidence? These are some questions which are very relevant when we ascertain whether International Relations is a discipline or not.

In order to answer these questions, we have to have some form of established perimeters. Firstly, how do we define ‘International Relations’? According to Joshua S Goldstein, ‘International Relations strictly is concerned with the relationship among the world’s governments’7. Encyclopedia Britannica defines International Relations as ‘the study of the relations of states with each other and with international organizations and certain sub national entities (e.g., bureaucracies, political parties, and interest groups)’8.

But, International Relations cannot be said to be the mere interaction between states. It also involves the study of the activities of the other actors, including International Organizations, Multinational Corporations, non governmental institutions which includes both domestic and international organizations. It also deals with other social structures like economic culture and domestic politics. It also has an underlying base in history and geography. 9

As we have established earlier, International Relations cannot be studied in isolation. It needs the input from sources like the disciplines of history, law, ethics, geography, etc… It also needs empirical data, or the adaption of the theories in the practical world. Some practitioners of International Relations prefer a more ‘descriptive approach’, while others use statistical analysis to give explanations and propound theories. The middle stream is concerned with finding a common base among the theories and the phenomena of evolving International Relations.10

The establishment of International Relations as a discipline is further supported by the fact that there are several institutions, colleges and universities which include ‘International Relations’ as part of their academic curriculum. The University of Wales, Aberystwyth, in 1919, which established the Chair of International Politics under a grant given by David Davies, was the first to do so. The LSE (London School of Economics soon established a department for the study of International Relations at the behest of the Noble Peace Prize winner Noel H Baker. Soon, institutions were cropping up all over Europe, including the Graduate Institute of International Studies (Institut universitaire de hautes �tudes internationales) in Geneva, Switzerland, which focused mainly on producing trained professionals for the newly established League of Nations11. The other means of establishment comes in light of the fact that literature that has been produced on the subject, and there are practitioners and disciples of this study.

Emergence of International Relations

Though International Relations had been in existence, it was only in the 20th Century that it came to be recognized as a mainstream discipline and phenomena. It is the product of a particular civilization; the Western civilization centered in Europe, and it developed among those states three hundred to five hundred years ago. 12

The pertinent question arises; why did this stream not emerge as a discipline in the 17th Century? The answer lies in the history of Europe, and the political environment prevalent during that time.

17th Century European State of Affairs

A relatively modern historical sojourn into the Europe would reveal that Europe had been under the all encompassing Roman Empire. Rome was the sole power in the region, and all political and social power emanated from Rome; signified by ‘Pax Romana’ or the ‘Peace of Rome’. The gradual decline of the Roman Empire under the attack of the ‘barbarians’; the Huns and the Maygars left a power vacuum in the Continental Europe, and the Roman Catholic Church cemented their position as the absolute power in Europe, ruling in the name of the God. The Kings and Princes were subjected to the demands of the Church, indeed, the lines of succession, the affair of coronation and marriages were all matters under the Holy Church. But this system was only skin deep. Internally, Europe was divided up among feudal lines.

The Great Powers in Europe at that time were Britain, France, Spain and Hapsburg Empire. These nations were not content to be the vassals of the Church, and the ensuing Thirty Years War was the means by which these powers disassociated themselves with the feudal barons and the Church. The Peace of Westphalia, which was agreed upon after the war had ended gave rise to the modern states of today. The pair of Treaties, the Treaty of Munster and the Treaty of Osnabruck ended the Thirty Years War and the Eighty Years War13, and also marked the end of the supremacy of the Spanish and the Holy Roman Empire.

But, these were not the only wars that were fought during this time. The Great Turkish War and the English Civil War was also fought during this time period. This period also marked the beginning of the Age of Exploration, initiated by Spain, which led to colonization in earnest.

This period was also witnessed absolutism and authoritarian rule, starting from the restoration of the monarchy in England. The nations of Europe were left in ruin, and internal revolutions were creating havoc within. The kings, who had managed to break away from the long rule of the Church, began to consolidate their position within their nations. The development of international relations during such tumultuous times was impossible.

But, this period also marks a historic moment, when, at the Westphalia Peace Accord, the ‘state system’ came into being. The States had to have unquestionable sovereignty, a clearly demarcated territorial boundary and each state was to be accorded same equal right in the international arena. The evolution of the state in to this form had repercussions on the international scene. States could no longer be merged into the territories of other states. Even in a war, a losing state may have to make some territorial sacrifices, but the existence of the state is never challenged. 14

Westphalian Era

The Westphalian State system gave rise to the three most important axioms of international relations theory; firstly the clear demarcation and recognition of territorial boundaries of a state to include the right of self determination and sovereignty, secondly, recognition as an equal, and last, the assurance that states would not interfere in the internal dealings of other states. It also gave rise to the importance of standing armies and protection of the national interests. Prior to the Westphalian accords, nations existed on often ambiguous territorial, social and political lines. The demarcation and recognition of these meant that the states became ‘actors’ in the scene of international politics, and prevented the rise of hegemony permanently.15

The Age of Enlightenment, which began in the 18t Century, was what provided impetus for the development of all aspects of Academia in the subsequent years, through a revision of the Greek and Roman classics, as well as new thoughts and theories, which questioned the established paradigm of deism and mysticism. Contending theories of Liberalism, Capitalism and a host of others in the realms of political science emerged.

The Industrial Revolution which also started in the late 18th Century saw massive developments in all aspects of life, and continued well into the 19th Century. The resulting flow of knowledge and information, and the increasingly speedier modes of transport meant that nations and societies were being brought together16. Incidentally, it was at this juncture that United States of America managed to free itself from the fetters of colonialism and establish its own government.

The demands of colonialism and the by-wars on that issue, and the general practice of ‘Realpolitik’ all over Europe threatened the fragile peace that had been in place. The unification of Germany under the aegis of Otto von Bismarck began to disrupt the political arena of Europe. The alliances that were formed and the treaties that were signed prior to the World War 1 was evidence of the growing sense of impending doom in Europe. The formation of the Triple Alliance and the Triple Entente gave every indication of a continent poised for war.

International Relations in the 20th Century

This was the European and global atmosphere when it entered the 20th Century. In relatively young USA, due to its prudential policies of Isolationism and Protectionism, the tumultuous state of world politics was not felt very greatly. In the Asian region, Japan was a contending power under the Shoguns. Rest of Asia was under the colonial rule, but the powers were in too close a proximity to remain passive. And World War I broke out, only to culminate in 1918, after unseen devastation that wrought havoc not only in Europe, but also the rest of the world.

International relations make center stage with the advent of the League of Nations soon after the World War I. In 1919, after the Armistice, the ensuing Paris Peace accord produced the Treaty of Versailles. In the 14 points that President Woodrow Wilson put forth, the last point created the impetus and laid the ground work for the emergence of the League of Nations. Idealistic and utopian in approach, the protagonists of this theory stressed upon the creation and role of institutions and their role in creating harmony within states. These theories were very normative, moralistic and legalistic in nature. The use of war as a means of diplomacy was banned through the enactment of the Kellogg-Brand Pact.

This paved way for International Relations to blossom, especially when Graduate Institute of International Studies was established, and the discipline of International Relations gained full recognition. The creation of the League of Nations and also the ‘Mandates’ meant that there existed more scope for nations to come together and interact. Another underlying reason was the horrors of the Great War, which the nations did not want to witness again.

The Idealist theory started to crumble within the 20 years. The growing threat of Nazi Germany and Fascist Italy, as well as a Military Japan, and the inability or the impotency of the League of Nations to prevent these happenings threatened its very existence. The invasion of Poland by Germany and the World War II that erupted was the final nail in the coffin for the League of Nations, as well as the end of the Idealistic era of thought. But international relations did not die with the League of Nations, but saw further development in the formation of yet other alliances.

The end of the World War II and the creation of the United Nations breathed new life into the study of international relations, with a host of theorists expounding on why the War occurred, and also projections for the future. The ensuing Realist-Liberalist debates further developed and refined the study of international relations within this time frame.

Another boon for the development of this particular theory was the onset of the Cold War between the USSR and the USA. From a purely academic perspective, the Cold War era was one of the most crucial periods for the development of International Relations. Scholars and practitioners were hard pressed to give reason to the series of alliances and counter alliances and incidences of minor clashes and major arms race.

One major reason for a flourishing International Relations scene was the advent of new nations on to the international arena. The colonized parts of the world started getting their freedom, and these new states began to pursue their own national interests. The existence and the modestly effective functioning of international organizations like the United Nations proved to be a challenge on the Realist school of thought, and the further proliferation of new IGOs, NGOs and other transnational actors saw increased interaction which led to an increase in international relations.

The volume of trade flowing between countries began to increase, which led to an increase in cooperation. Since the adoption of the Breton Woods system, the world economy started to become enmeshed.

The mid 60’s through to the 80’s were a period of renewal and reformation in the old theories. Compromises were made in minor ways, and though the theories remained in essence, allowances were made in the Realist and Liberalist school of thought. The Realists, dubbed as Neo Realism accepted cooperation among nations and the survival of the international organizations, while the Neo Liberals accepted the anarchical nature of world affairs.

Another important factor that led to the enrichment of International Relations within this time period was the input that it received from other sources of the Social Sciences family. Anthropology, Cultural Studies, Psychology and Sociology became crucial to the analysis of International Relations.

The End of the Cold War and the defeat of Communism proved to be a blessing for International Relations. It enabled the scholars and practitioners to ditch the antagonistic Cold War outlook and adopt a more broad ranging view of the international scene as a whole. They began to diversify into the fields like Security Studies, Ecological Preservation and Human Rights.

Regionalism and the proliferation of regional institutions also played an important part. The former EC has blossomed into the EU, and others like ASEAN and SAARC are making headway to attain such levels of integration.

The end of the Cold War saw the rise of new horrors, in the form of ethnic cleansing and genocide in places like Rwanda, Bosnia, Kosovo and Liberia, while the evil triad of famine, civil war and AIDS caused wide spread suffering in parts of Saharan Africa17. This led to increased interaction and cooperation between states, non state actors, and other transnational groups in the form of humanitarian interventions. The rise of fundamentalism and terrorism is the latest global threat, and this has again called upon the nations to come together to counter the threats.

The crux of the argument is, increased interaction through advancements in technology has brought the societies and states closer together, further aided by the creation of international organizations. New challenges and new developments are being faced not by states in isolations, but as regional or international bodies. Commerce and economic interdependence, as well as still prevalent military alliances and interests are keeping nations tied together, while international organizations like the UN and its various bodies provide the lubricant to ease the friction and further enable cooperation.

Two major wars, being almost annihilated into extinction during the height of the Cold War, huge economic reversal with the failure of the Breton Woods System, and the long road back, unseen horrors across the world from incurable diseases and preventable conflicts and battles against faceless and unseen enemies is what the states of the world has faced since the dawn of the 20th Century, and this paved the way for the development of International Relations in this time frame.


International relations have come a long way. As an academic discipline, it has thrived through the contributions of scholars, practitioners and those in between. As a practice, it has benefited from the formal establishment of the discipline as a curriculum of instruction.

If the future of diplomacy and international relations is the creation of a ‘borderless world’ or the establishment of the ‘World Government’, then international relations as a subject may cease to exist. If all the nations of the world become the constituents of one state, then ‘International’ remains no longer. What would remain is ‘Domestic’ at ‘Global Dimensions’. Has it sown the seeds of its own destruction?