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International Relations
October 19, 2007

International Relations

International Relations is the study and practice of political associations among the world’s nations, in particular their governments. International relations may moreover submit to the interactions flanked by nongovernmental groups, such as multinational corporations (companies that operate in more than one country) or international organizations such as the Red Cross or the United Nations (UN). International relations is a large and multifaceted topic both for countries engaged in relationships with other nations, and for observers trying to understand those interactions. These relationships are influenced by a lot of variables. They are shaped by the primary participants in international relations, as well as national leaders, other politicians, and nongovernment participants, such as private citizens, corporations, and nongovernmental organizations.

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To comprehend these interactions, scholars look at the world as a system of nations whose actions are guided by a well-defined set of rules. Scholars call this system the interstate system. The interstate system has existed for less than 500 years and is based on a common understanding of what a nation is and how it should treat other nations. But recent changes in technology and international norms have caused some scholars to question whether this system will continue in the future, or be replaced by some other system of relationships that is not yet known.

Scholars in this field believe that the primary force driving the interaction between nations is economic, not military. They focus on trade and economic relations among nations, especially the political cooperation between nations to create and maintain international organizations which benefit all nations involved, such as the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund. In both security studies and international political economy, scholars strive to explain patterns of conflict and cooperation among nations. Conflicts among nations are inevitable since their political and economic aims and interests often diverge. Cooperation does not refer to the absence of conflict but to the ability of nations to peacefully resolve their differences in a way that is acceptable to all parties involved. When cooperation fails, conflicts often escalate into coercion and ultimately war.

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For one nation to gain something, another must lose. This means alliances with other nations cannot be counted on and cooperation between nations cannot last. Realists believe nations should always be heavily armed and ready for war. Friendships, religions, ideologies, cultures, and economic systems matter little. Nations act selfishly and do not answer to a higher authority. Realists generally believe that the actions of individual nations have the biggest influence on international relations. They believe that nations act rationally, not impulsively, and that nations weigh the benefits and drawbacks of all their options before choosing a course of action. They believe nations are not driven by psychological or cultural influences. Instead, they act with the knowledge that they live in a world where there is no central government over all nations that they can appeal to for justice or protection. Without that higher authority, nations must protect themselves and look after their own interests. Realists believe that these characteristics have applied to all nations throughout history. In a world with an ever-present possibility of war, winning matters above all. The realist approach has been criticized for being too simplistic and for failing to capture the complexities of international relations. Because a nation’s power typically is very difficult to measure, realists have been criticized for their belief that nations strive only to accumulate power. Critics also argue that a nation’s actions result from the conflicting pulls of various interest groups, constituencies, agencies, and individuals. They maintain that the national interest of any nation may be impossible to define because so many different constituencies exist, and a nation’s pursuit of its interests may be far from rational. One glaring example is World War I (1914-1918), which seems irrational because almost all participants lost more than they gained.

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Merrill, Dennis, and Thomas G. Paterson (eds), Major Problems in American Foreign Relations,. Vol. I: To 1920.


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