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Are states the only relevant conceptual actors in world politics?

| October 15, 2012 | 0 Comments

The theoretical body of knowledge labeled Realism has dominated as well as shaped the modern study of International Relations for many years. One of the core components of Realist thought is the centrality of the state in thinking about world politics. For this reason, discussing the supremacy of the state as the conceptual unit within international politics implicitly involves analysing Realism itself. A number of theories can be used to challenge the intellectual hegemony of Realism, and consequently its association of power with the state. Amongst these Liberalism stands out as one the larger bodies of thought capable of doing this. In answer to the state-centricity proffered by Realism, Liberal scholars look to institutions to explain world politics. Given more space I would seek to develop a deeper critique of the singular interpretation of power which Realism and its main oppositional theories appear to adopt; of the coercive power of A over B. I would outline a more multi-dimensional and diffuse version of power within world politics. However, with limited space this essay will begin by briefly explaining the Realist conception of the state as its unquestionable unit of analysis. Following on from this it will outline the critique of state-centricity offered by Liberalism, including examples to demonstrate some of its theoretical inadequacies.

One of the main paradigms of knowledge within international relations, Realism takes as its basic ontological unit of analysis the sovereign territorial state. Rosenberg refers to the state within Realism as an “irreducible category” (Rosenberg 1990:286) where international politics takes as its most basic and unquestionable building block the state. In addition, Realism ignores any cultural or political differences that may exist amongst states (Mearsheimer 2006:72): as Rupert describes them, ‘pre-social individuals’ (Rupert, 1990:429). Instead states are measured according to their material capability, where world politics is about the overall balance of power that would be at times shifted by an increase or decline in this material economic or military strength of a state (Mearsheimer 2006: 72). For Realists, analyzing the relations that take place between states constitutes the study of world politics.

In challenging the hegemony of state-centrism disseminated by Realism, alternative discourses have arisen within the field of International Relations. Liberal thinkers view international politics in terms of institutions such as multinational corporations as well as civil society organizations which can overarch and align states. They look at how states may seek to cooperate and eliminate war by setting up International Institutions like the UN, as well as economic institutions like the IMF and the World Bank, which subsequently represent significant extra-state actors, or a “new global public domain” (Ruggie 2004: 504) that can determine international events. That institutions like the IMF and the World Bank represent “effective enforcement powers”- as Chimni claims (2004: 2)- perhaps reduces the power and centrality of the state. As Rosenberg outlines, the economy can no longer be seen as an “entirely a nationally constituted instrument ready at the disposal of the state” (Rosenberg 1990: 288), where a Transnational Capitalist Class is oblivious to state borders. These factors need to be taken into account when thinking about the importance of the state in understanding international relations, where in a globalizing world inter-domestic relations take place despite state borders.

Since the critique offered by Liberalism is unable to eliminate the state as a key player in world politics- despite going some way to recognizing a more multi-faceted field that is International Relations- a Realist response is readily available to re-assert the state’s centrality. As Liberalism relies on International Institutions in order to downplay the state, it is simply a case of demonstrating how IIs in fact often represent an extension of certain powerful states. For example, Gowan details how the UN was originally viewed by the Roosevelt’s administration as a political tool for the USA’s global hegemony (2003: 9). Indeed as Chimni claims, the UN can be seen to have continued to function in this manner where the war in Iraq showed that, “the UN is irrelevant where the US is concerned” (2004: 21), returning to the notion that state is central.

It therefore seems that states represent an unavoidable organizing principle within the theoretical landscape of International Relations. The notion of global institutions provided by Liberalism is dismissible once it is accepted that institutions can in fact be manipulated by powerful states. However, though Liberalism and Realism seems to take the state for granted as a solid unit of political analysis, there exist other critiques which widen the debate in attempting to deconstruct the importance of the unit of the state altogether. For example, in its assumption that a state represents a fixed geographical entity, where internal dynamics are irrelevant to the international sphere, Realism is able to ignore the ways in which a multitude of factors such as ethnicity, nationalism and religion can supersede the state (Agnew 1994: 73-4).  One need look no further than the Guardian headlines today to see how such extra-state alliances and relations can affect global politics. As “riots erupt from north Africa to south-east Asia” (Borger 2012) following an anti-Islamic film released on the internet, the state-based model issued by Realist thinkers and perpetuated by Liberalism appears blind to non-European ways of viewing the world- the Muslim Umma or brotherhood for example. In the future such conceptual actors will need to be explored more in order to provide a more complex and accurate interpretation of world politics.



Agnew, John. 1994. ‘The Territorial Trap: the Geographical Assumptions of International Relations theory’. Review of International Political Economy, Vol. 1, No. 1, pp. 53-80.

Chimni, B.S. 2004. ‘International Institutions Today: An Imperial Global State in the Making’. European Journal of International Law, Vol. 15, No. 1, pp. 1-37.

Gowan, Peter. 2003. ‘US:UN’, New Left Review, Vol, 24, pp. 5-28.

Borger, Julian. 2012. ‘New attacks on embassies in wake of anti-Islamic film’, Accessed on 15/09/12.

Mearsheimer, John J. 2006. ‘Structural Realism’, in Tim Dunne, Milja Kurki and Steve Smith (eds), Discipline and diversity. International Relations Theories: Discipline and Diversity, Oxford University Press.

Rosenberg, Justin. 1990. ‘What’s the matter with Realism?’ Review of international studies, Vol. 16, No. 4, pp. 285-303.

Ruggie, John. 2004. ‘Reconstituting the Global Public Domain: Issues, Actors, Practices,’ European Journal of International Relations, Vol. 10, No. 4, pp. 499-531.

Rupert, M. 1990. ‘Producing Hegemony: State/Society Relations and the Politics of Productivity in the United States’, International Studies Quarterly, Vol. 34 No. 4, pp. 427-456.

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Category: Essay & Dissertation Samples, Politics Essay Examples

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