Developments in International Relations

Published date01 June 2013
Date01 June 2013
Subject MatterArticles
Rakhahari Chatterji is Professor of Political Science (Retd) of University of
Calcutta, Kolkata, India. E-mail:
in International
Relations: Issues and
Rakhahari Chatterji
This article offers a concise, though not exhaustive, intellectual history of
International Relations (IR) as a formal academic discipline. It begins with
the backdrop of the discipline’s emergence in the aftermath of World
War I, and a critical account of the ‘first wave’ of theoretical activity,
that is, idealism. This entailed a sharp onslaught in the form of the rise
of realism which arguably transformed IR into an ‘American’ discipline
which, the author feels, was good for neither realism nor IR as a disci-
pline. This brings us to the methodological debate—known as the second
great debate in IR—between the traditionalists and the behavioralists,
and the author asks if it was only a ‘phoney war’. The period between the
1960s and early 1990s witnessed a bewildering multiplicity of theoretical
developments and analytical concerns which ranged from game theory
and decision-making models; through integration theory and ‘world soci-
ety’ approaches; to the birth of neo- or structural realism. Meanwhile, the
Marxist school of IR focused on the vital issue of the relations between
the weak and strong in international politics—left unaddressed by the
‘American discipline’—and stimulated the literature on dependency and
world system. The final sections of the article deal with the post-positivist
tradition in IR (which sparked off the ‘third debate’) and the level-of-
analysis problem (which highlighted the issue of macro- and micro per-
spectives in the study of IR). It concludes with the observation that this
phenomenal diversity of theoretical and methodological approaches poses
a major obstacle to agreeing on any grand definition of discipline of IR.
Jadavpur Journal of
International Relations
17(1) 1–39
2013 Jadavpur University
SAGE Publications
Los Angeles, London,
New Delhi, Singapore,
Washington DC
DOI: 10.1177/0973598414524120
2 Rakhahari Chatterji
Jadavpur Journal of International Relations, 17, 1 (2013): 1–39
International Relations, idealism, realism, dependency, post-positivism,
level of analysis
International Relations (hereinafter for the academic discipline, IR) as a
social science discipline is very young, being born in the twentieth cen-
tury. There may even be doubts regarding its status as a social science
discipline; many may consider it only as a sub-discipline of political
science. Political Science, as we know, is a very old discipline beginning
with the writings of Plato and Aristotle and Kautilya, and having a very
rich philosophical tradition. IR largely shares that tradition, and in that
sense, it is quite proper that with its recognition as a formal subject for
academic exercise, it came to situate itself within both the curricular
framework of political science as also within the structure of political
science departments in the universities.
It is not a fact, however, that the subject matter of what today we call
IR was unknown before its emergence in the last century. The core issues
of war and peace, power, and justice have troubled mankind from its
birth. The Greek historian Thucydides’ Peloponnesian War, and espe-
cially ‘The Melian Dialogue’, was probably the earliest and the sharpest
expression of these human concerns. Yet, with the development of mod-
ern state system under absolute political rulers (monarchies, for instance),
the issues of war and peace came to be regarded as matters of ‘high poli-
tics’, beyond the grasp of the common man, not to speak of women. As
the eminent French intellectual, scholar and writer, Raymond Aron,
characterized it, international politics was considered as the specialized
activity of diplomats and soldiers. Foreign policy, the stuff international
relations/politics was made of, as also its implementation through diplo-
mats, emissaries, and plenipotentiaries had a ‘primacy’ not accorded to
domestic politics, which required that it were kept close to the royal
household or the high nobility of the royal court. Similarly, international
law, which also began to emerge in more or less institutionalized form
with the emergence of the state system, required for their formulation the
specialized knowledge of jurisprudence. These were neither accessible
nor comprehensible to the ordinary mortals.
But however ordinary, the common people were mortals indeed, and
hence, the core issues of war and peace over which they hardly had any
Developments in International Relations 3
Jadavpur Journal of International Relations, 17, 1 (2013): 1–39
say, were matters of life and death for them. These reached a particularly
critical moment during the horrific and unprecedented destruction of
World War I. The precious peace at the end of the War was felt to require
for its longevity, if not permanence, both a deeper and more widespread
public commitment. This necessitated the creation of an informed and
well-instructed public in matters relating to international relations in
general and the mechanisms of international peace in particular. A formal
recognition of these needs was found in the establishment of the
Woodrow Wilson Chair for International Politics by David Davies at the
University College Wales, Aberystwyth in 1919 (Lawson 2002: 6). This
event marked the formal flagging off of a new discipline whose main
focus was an understanding of the causes of war as well as exploration
of the conditions of peace among states and nations. The end of a long
and arduous war and the final arrival of peace gave birth to an atmos-
phere of optimism, a belief that commitment to peace was universal and
that the institutionalization of peace through the League of Nations
marked the beginning of an inevitable progress toward making the world
a better and safer place. That is to say, the founding thoughts of this
twentieth century discipline of IR were idealistic.
Evolution of the Discipline or
Waves of Theoretical Activity in IR
Hedley Bull, in writing the story of the development of IR during the
first 50 years of its disciplinary life, finds it helpful to recognize three
successive waves of theoretical activity: the ‘idealist’ or progressivist
doctrines that predominated in the 1920s and early 1930s, the ‘realist’ or
conservative theories that developed in the late 1930s and during 1940s
as reaction to the idealism of the preceding decades, and the ‘social sci-
entific’ theories of the late 1950s and 1960s whose origin lay in the dis-
satisfaction with the methodologies on which both the earlier kinds of
theory were based (Bull 1995: 184–85).
John Vasquez agreed with this chronology when he said, ‘the twenti-
eth century history of international relations inquiry can be roughly
divided into three stages: the idealist phase, the realist tradition and the
“behavioural” revolt’ (Vasquez 1983: 13).

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