The Significance of the Discipline of International Relations

International Relations (IR) is an important discipline and constitutes a significant area of modern social science. It is primarily considered as the study of the relations among nation-states. But this view is oversimplified, because contemporary international relations cover a very broad subject-matter. Yet, for a basic understanding this view is helpful.

International relation is a major discipline in social science, which illustrates international politics on a worldwide scale. International relations study the history, culture, government, economy, and social aspects of nations around the globe. Studying of international relations became so vital for every nation to understand other countries’ national interests in terms of politics and economy. In the twenty first century, there having been conflicts around the world with so many great powers are involved. Scholars in the field of international relations face challenges, while they analyze or conduct researches about other nations’ politics because every day international politics are changing so rapidly(Hall,2015).
A key factor in the school of international relations is power. Powers is very substantial in international relations because this has changed throughout human kind and many great power countries had some time of greatness in history. However, international relations can also define power in many aspects. For example, one way of power in international relations is explained one actor employing influence over another, which this brought so many conflicts in today’s international politics. “Now we know that the power of a society to influence others depends largely upon the capacity of the individual members of that society to discipline themselves” (Gross, 1958 p.133International relations (IR) or international affairs is a discipline of politics interdisciplinary field, which students and scholars study primarily focused in social science. International relations field is separate from political science because the field is taught globally. Today, the world has become more connected than ever before in human history. However, international conflicts made more complex among the great powers influence over poor and weak nations. Influence and interests span the globe. The International relations subject became a key element to study and understand every nation’s political and economic interests, while doing any kind of relationship interdisciplinary.


As an academic discipline, international relations is not very old. Its systematic study started after the First World War, and universities in West Europe and the United States (US) introduced separate courses on it from the 1920s. But as relations among states or pre-state political systems, the subject is very old. As the relation among nation-states, IR is believed to have developed with the Peace Treaty of Westphalia of 1648, which is considered as the creator of modern nationstates in Europe. But before the birth of modern nation-states, pre-state political systems had developed in different parts of the world. Relations among these pre-state political systems could be viewed, rather incoherently, as the beginning of international relations.

Today IR is also concerned with new and emerging issues like environment, globalization, terrorism, and energy. The discipline also analyses the significance of non-state actors like international organizations, multinational corporations, and non-governmental organizations. The importance of these non-state actors, along with nation-states and issues like environment, globalization, energy, and terrorism, gradually came to acquire a significant place in the study of international relations after the First World War. Thus International Relations appeared as a structured and comprehensive academic discipline after the First World War; and as a separate branch of study, the subject was offered in European and American universities from the 1920s.

The study of IR as a discipline evolved further and matured significantly after the Second World War. With the process of decolonization almost complete, and the appearance of new states in Asia, Africa and Latin America, contemporary international politics assumed a new dimension after the war, a period when IR as a discipline progressed significantly. With the end of the Balance of Power system that had existed for three centuries, the post-Second World War international order was different; it saw the emergence of two non-European nuclear (weapon) superpowers, the US and the Soviet Union, instead of the earlier five to six major nonnuclear (weapon) European powers. From the end of the Second World War (1945) to the end of the Cold War (1991), several issues gained prominence in international relations. These are: strengthened existence of non-state actors as significant players in international relations; energy; environment; terrorism; globalization; and communication revolution. These issues helped to shape a new global order vastly different from those of the past. This new order in effect made the study of international relations more dynamic, complex, and broader in scope.

As a discipline, international relations is also addressing these issues with more sincerity and articulation after the Cold War.

Nature of International Relations

 The controversy that haunted modern international relations for a long time since its emergence in the 1920s, revolved around its status as an independent academic discipline. Some scholars were unwilling to recognize it as a separate, autonomous academic discipline, and thought it to be largely dependent on subjects such as political science and history. The controversy that existed for more than four decades, till the 1960s, seems to have died down now with IR getting the recognition of an independent academic discipline. An autonomous academic discipline requires, mainly, a systematic body of theory, appropriate methodology, and a distinct subject matter. International Relations today is capable of meeting these criteria to exist and flourish as an autonomous discipline.

Interactions between IR and other social science disciplines have increased over the years, but the former’s ‘dependence’ on the latter has been considerably minimized, thus helping it to emerge as an autonomous discipline with a distinct set of theories, methodology, and subject matter.

Definition of International Relations

Like many other social science disciplines, it is not easy to define International Relations in a few words. Although states and their interactions constitute the primary focus of IR, the discipline is concerned with many more issues like non-state actors, international political economy, international security, international environment, globalization, terrorism, area studies, and military studies. Relations among states, in a broader sense, cover many such issues, yet leave out many more to be analysed separately. For instance, in a broader sense, international political economy, international security, globalization or environment, to cite a few, are somewhat linked to interactions among states; yet these issues may go beyond the sphere of relations among states. Non-state actors may also influence these issues profoundly. Therefore, IR being viewed as interactions among states is oversimplification, though helpful for a primary understanding. A broader and more comprehensive definition of the subject would be this: International Relations as a branch of social science is concerned with relations among nations, and other issues like non-state actors, international political economy, international security, foreign policies of major powers, globalization, international terrorism, international environment, and area studies. This definition indicates that the scope and subject matter of IR has become vast today, unlike earlier times when IR was mainly concerned with nation-states and their interactions.

Scope of International Relations

Like many other social science disciplines, IR has no definite boundary, and contemporary IR covers a very broad area of study. Creation of artificial and mandatory boundaries for the sake of making a discipline autonomous is not a necessity in any modern social science discipline, because inter-disciplinary exchanges can make all the disciplines enriched. IR also lacks specificity, and contemporary IR, particularly after the Second World War, has broadened its scope beyond limitations.

Today, the study of international relations broadly covers the following areas.

  1. Nation-states and their relations: The operation of the nation-state system and relations among nation-states have always made international politics possible, and constituted the basic subject-matter of IR. These would continue to remain the primary area of study in the discipline.
  2. Non-state actors: The importance of non-state actors in the study of IR has been increasing over the years. Non-state actors like the multinational corporations (MNC), international non-governmental organizations (INGO), and the inter-governmental organizations (IGO) exert considerable influence in today’s international relations. So, these non-state actors are important ingredients of the study of contemporary IR.
  3. International political economy (IPE): International political economy is the study of international relations with the help of economic activities and analyses. With the onset of globalization from the mid-1980s, a renewed interest in IPE has developed among scholars. Along with political and security angles, the study of international relations is frequently analysed today with the help of economic views.
  4. International security: Security has always remained the primary concern of nationstates. The concern for security had led to war and peace in the past, and would continue to promote these in the future. A peaceful international order is always linked to the notion of international security that includes, among others factors, non-proliferation of weapons of mass destruction, and reduction of tension among states. Studies on war and peace and strategic studies in IR are also related to international security.
  5. Foreign policies of important powers: Foreign policies of major and medium powers constitute important subject-matter of IR because these powers are the driving force in international relations. When the balance of power system was prevalent, the study of foreign policies of major European powers was considered important. In contemporary IR, analyses of foreign policies of the US, China, Russia, Japan and India may be useful as these states have become major actors in recent times.
  6. Globalization: This primarily refers to economic activities which have serious impact on political and social spheres. With the ascendance of liberal economy over mercantilist economy since the early 1980s, the term globalization has assumed increasing popularity and usage, and become significant in the study of IR. Although globalization and IPE are closely related, these are not identical, as subsequent chapters in this book would reveal.
  7. International environment: Environmental issues have now assumed greater significance in the study of IR than ever before because industrialization and technological progress have enhanced concerns for environmental safety all over the world. Environmental issues have made states across the world highly interdependent today because carbon emissions from industrial plants in one part of the world may affect other parts; or shortage of river water in a state may lead it to war with its neighbouring states. A stable and peaceful international order is dependent on environmental issues in today’s world.
  8. International terrorism: Terrorist activities involving citizens of more than one country and having transnational impacts constitute international terrorism, an important area of study in IR. It is also referred to as ‘cross border’ terrorism. International peace and security are closely related to this issue.
  9. Area studies: Sometimes it becomes rather difficult to study international political, security, or economic issues from a broader perspective. So area studies have become popular nowadays. Under it, such issues concerning different areas of the world are taken up separately for analysis. For instance, West Asia, South Asia or Central Europe may be taken up for exclusive analysis under area studies, which has gained prominence in contemporary IR with increasing proliferation of regional organizations and free trade areas (FTA).

The expanding scope of international relations lead to the view, and also to the controversy, that the discipline is becoming increasingly unmanageable, and that it lacks a clear conceptual framework. But this view is born out of pessimism about the discipline, and is not acceptable. Today, the subject has a definite and useful theoretical framework to support research in different areas. The broad scope may actually be helpful for it, because the varied subject matter may lead to more research and analyses, as well as greater specialization within the discipline. The broad scope of political science, physics or history, for that matter, has enriched these disciplines and helped them to grow further. There is little rationale therefore to worry about the expanding scope of IR; it will help the discipline to mature into a well-defined and enriched branch of modern social science.

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