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Ir Theory and Its Complexities

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IR Theory and its Complexities

International relations theory explains the role of America in foreign policy and world politics. This essay will explain the purpose of theory and its limits in terms of how it clarifies, confuses, and omits. Also, it will show the dangers of committing to just one theory in policymaking. International relations theories applied today are oversimplified and fall short to interpret foreign policy. President Obama’s foreign policy on Syria is a strong example of how multiple theories are used when putting in place new policies. By doing so, he has created his own unique foreign policy that addresses different theoretical issues in the world today. In contemporary international politics, international relations theories are most efficient when their core beliefs mix together to create a new conceptual framework for interpreting and acting on foreign policy.

Author Jack Snyder in his article One World, Rival Theories argues that, “Theories of international relations claim to explain the way international politics works, but each of the currently prevailing theories falls well short of that goal” (62). Rather, these theories aim to provide a conceptual framework for where foreign policy interactions are analyzed. More specifically, policymakers use theory as, “A systematic way of explaining some phenomena and as a guide to action” (Datta, 4). In other words, IR theory is not a search to find truth, but a tool to understand the world as it is, and to change it through the power of critique with a certain perspective.

Theory functions to describe, predict, and prescribe foreign policy decisions. It is used to study past events and relate them together using patterns to find a certain behavior, to provide an argument for what is expected to happen, and to use normative claims on what is ought to be done for future policy (Datta, 4). These functions of policy have been used long throughout American history to develop a better understanding of international relations.. Even in a world that’s constantly changing, the classical theories, such as realism and liberalism, are still used today as dominant perspectives in American foreign policy.

International theories, such as realism and liberalism, used as analytical tools help clarify foreign policy decisions by providing basic concepts to explain how states interact with each other and how they might interact with each other. They provide a sense of clarity and transparency in global politics. Richard Betts, the author of Conflict or Cooperation: Three Visions Revisited, agues that, “[Theories] are vital for clarifying thinking about the forces that drive international relations, the main directions to expect events to take, and one’s basic faith in matters of politics.” Although, there resonates a new complexity within foreign policy, causing skeptics to question the simplicity of theory. Shen Dingli, a professor of international studies, explains that contemporary international relations are confusing because they aren’t “science”. Shen writes, “Sciences are defined as patterns repeatable under the same condition. Yet international relations or global politics cannot be measured as science with the latter’s scientific sampling or measuring.” As a social science, it doesn’t have the exact same patterns so it cannot be perfectly understood. As international relations become more complicated, traditional IR theories are oversimplified and thus cannot account for the actuality of political life.

Theory can even go as far as excluding factors of foreign policy. Decision-makers who are loyal to one theory tend to view the world through that particular filter that only allows them to see only events relevant to that theory. For example, a realist might disregard an event that a liberalist deems crucial, and vice versa. Also, traditional theories are at fault of ignoring the interests of powerless groups affected by foreign policy. This brought the feminist approach to foreign policy. Author Joyce P. Kaufman stresses the importance that this approach “advocates the need to look not only at who made policy and why, but also the impact of those decisions on the people who were most affected and often had the least access to decision-makers” (12). This perspective reminds us the importance of understanding the impact of decisions on people instead of on the processes by which decisions are made.

Commitment to a single strategy can be damaging because none of the traditional theories have a strong ability to explain the change in events (Snyder, 61). For example, the liberal theory is strong at predicting what happens after states become democratic, but is weak in predicting the timing of democratic transitions and how to make these transitions as peaceful as possible. By only applying one theory of foreign policy, the decision-maker is at risk for implementing misguided policies. Due to the uncertain guidance of theory, policymakers “fall prey to simplistic or wishful thinking about how to effect change by, say, invading Iraq or setting up an International Criminal Court” (Snyder, 61). The most effective course of action is to use the insights of each theoretical tradition as a check on the irrational components of the others. If used effectively, a check system will show the weaknesses in arguments and prevent those from implementing misguided policies (Snyder, 61).



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