International Relations CSS | The Definition and Scope of IR

Since its inception, international relations has been defined in many ways. Writers differ greatly upon the definition of the subject.
It appears quite natural, as Stanley Hoffman says, “how could one agree once and for all upon the definition of a field whose scope is in constant flux, indeed, a field whose fluctuation is one of its principal characteristics”.
As such, international relations cannot be defined in any generally acceptable way.
Prof. Charles Schleicher defines international relations as the relation among States. Quincy Wright defines international relations as “relations between groups of major importance in the life of the world at any period of history.”
According to Prof. Hans Morgenthau, international relations is a struggle for power among nations. Norman Podelford and George Lincoln define international relations – as the interaction of State politics with the changing pattern of power relationships. However, a good working definition of international relations is given by Harold and Margaret Sprout.
They define international relations as “those aspects of interactions and relations of independent political communities in which some element of opposition, resistance or conflict of purpose or interest is present.”
In fact the term international Relations can be interrelated and defined in two senses narrow and broad. In narrow sense, the term is confined to the study of official relations conducted by authorized leaders of the state. However the relations between businessmen, scientists etc. of the various countries are not covered in the scope of international relations.

This is an age of science the scientific inventions have reduced time and space factors to nil .Now a days, no state can offered to live in isolation .It has to cultivate relations with other states of the world to its necessity .As no individual can live outside the society so no state can live outside the international community.
Hence, international relational ship is as much a product of necessity as social existence itself. The study of international relations is considered to be a modern phenomenon but in fact in its rudimentary form, it can be traced back to the drawn of history. The code of inter-state conduct was developed thousands of years back when the Egyptians, Chinese, Greek and Indian Civilizations were flourishing. But at that time, the international relations were designed to serve the limited purpose of assisting the rulers to consolidate their powers tactfully. In fact, international relations in ancient and medieval times were not international in character. Till the end of the medieval period, relations of the states were regional relations.
There has been a great confusion in defining international phenomenon which came to be described variously by various scholars as international relations, international affairs, world affairs, world politics and international politics.
This was due to the fact that there was no systematic study on the subject. The real interest in the subject emerged only after the First World War in 1919 when the first Chair of International Relations was founded at the University of Wales.

Nature and Scope of International Relations:

(a) Conflict as the essential element of relations:

Since politics is a necessary element of relations, for an understanding of the nature and scope of international relations, a brief discussion of the term “politics” is necessary.

Everything in politics, whether domestic or international, flows from the fact that people have needs and wants. The efforts to satisfy needs and wants bring people into contact with one another. This contact leads to the formation of groups.

But the needs and wants of various groups are bound to differ, though the need and wants of the members of one group are normally supposed to be common. Groups do certain actions and follow certain relations in order to satisfy the needs and wants of their members.

The actions done to achieve one’s interests through persuasion or pressure at the cost of other is what means politics. Although, there is a good deal of controversy among scholars on the question of the details of the elements of relations, all of them agree that the existence of groups is the basic element.

Politics, thus, arises from the very existence of groups and disagreement among them and from the efforts of men to create relationships under which their needs and wants can be fulfilled to the maximum possible extent.

Quincy Wright would define Politics as “the art of influencing, manipulating, or controlling major groups so as to advance the purposes of some against the opposition of others.”

Thus there are three important characteristics of relations; the existence of groups, disagreement between groups and the efforts of some to influence or control the actions of others. Relations, then, is a phenomenon of groups, disagreement, and group action.

Disagreement, however, should not be total so as to exclude every possibility of co-operation, Relations cannot exist in a state of complete disagreement as it cannot exist in a state of complete agreement. Relationships between groups should be somewhere between the two.

The purpose of a group trying to influence or control the actions and policies of other group or groups is to alter this type of relationship in its own favour. That is why, Sheldon Volin has described politics as the process of our continuous efforts to establish such relationships with others as could be most beneficial to us.

This definition of relations as a process is of special significance. This is so for two reasons. One is that our wants and desires are unlimited and the other is that we always go on trying to achieve their maximum satisfaction, even though we realize it well that their complete satisfaction is never possible.

Thus the relationship between all units participating in the process of politics is inherently full of conflicts.

(b) Conflict differentiated from Disputes:

We should not, however, confuse conflict with disputes. Conflict is that state of relationship among the units participating in the process of politics which arises, and continues to exist, from the fact that the wants and desires of those units are unlimited and from the further fact that they regard one another as their rivals.

Disputes, on the other hand, arise from specific issues. Thus conflict is abstract and dispute is the concrete manifestation of conflict. Disputes can be counted but conflict cannot be.

It can at best be measured in terms of degrees. Whether a group of two or more countries have a large or small number of disputes, depends upon how acute is the state of conflict between them.

(c) Conflict is a permanent phenomenon in relations:

This state of conflict can at times be more acute and at times less acute but can never cease to exist. Thus conflict is the permanent phenomenon in relations.

Bertrand de Jouvenel has rightly pointed out that conflict can never be eliminated from relations and therefore, political disputes are always “solved” only temporarily.

He explodes the “myth of solution” in relations and holds that what we often regard as “solutions” of disputes are in fact nothing else than compromises reached between the parties to a dispute only temporarily.

Briefly stated, the conflict nature of relationship among the participating units means that those units should ceaselessly try to control or influence the behaviour of each other so as to alter that- relationship in their own favour.

(d) Relations is a Struggle for Power:

The ability or capacity to influence or control the behaviour of others is, generally speaking, called power. It should, however, be remembered that this definition does not exhaust either the meaning or the content of power.

But an essential characteristic element of relations is an effort on the part of some to control the actions of others. And since the ability to make such efforts is power, relations also involves power.

It is in this sense that all relations is considered to be a struggle for power. Power becomes a means for the fulfillment of needs and wants. Relations without power is unthinkable. Power thus becomes the means for the achievement of our wants and desires.

There is, in fact, a close relationship between the end of relations and means of relations. Since we always continue to satisfy our wants and desires, the need for power which is the means to achieve our ends, also continues to exist.

The continuity of this inter-relationship between end and means makes power the most important element of relations. The result is that we try to acquire power not only for our wants and desires of the present but also for those of the future.

Thus, acquisition of power becomes an end in itself and the demarcating line between end and means is often not clear. Hence the phrase “power-politics” is rather an inaccurate phrase, because all politics by its very nature is power politics.

In fact, relations is nothing else but a process in which power is acquired, maintained, used and expanded. The study of relations is the study of this process.

We study the needs and wants of groups and their differences only because it helps us in the study of the process of the acquisition and use of power.

Relations at the International level means International relations:

Relations at the international level is termed international relations. In the case of international relations, nations work as groups, their needs and wants are called interests or national interests, and disagreement among groups or between interests is called conflict.

But the element of power remains the same. International relations, then, becomes a process of adjustment of relationships among nations in favour of a nation or group of nations by means of power. Thus, three important things relevant to international relations are: national interests, conflict and power.

The first is the objective, the second is the condition and the third is the means of international relations. But the second is of greater significance than the first or the third, because if conflict is not there, national interests and power will have little function to perform.

In this sense, international relations can be described as a set of those aspects of relations among independent political communities in which some element of conflict of interest is always present.

However, it does not mean that power struggle in a continuing state of conflict against each other. Not every -nation is hostile to every other nation.

Nations whose interests are identical or harmonious, are likely to have some sort of co-operation as a basis of their relationships and use this basis in their struggle against their enemies.

Thus, international relations involves conflict as well as co-operation. Joseph Frankel argues that war and peace represent the extremes of the two recurrent modes of social interaction, namely conflict and harmony, and therefore our study of international relations should include both.

(a) Conflict occupies a prominent place in International Relations:

But conflict occupies a more prominent place in international relations. This is so due to the fact that co-operation itself is the result of conflict.

This is so in two ways. Firstly, nations with identical or harmonious interests co-operate with each other in order to win the conflict with other nations. Secondly, co-operation is sought to be achieved only because international relationships are basically conflict.

The study of international relations is primarily a study of the process in which a nation tries to have an advantageous position in a conflict with other nations or groups of nations’ by means of power.

Conflict cannot be eliminated from international society and the process of adjustment by means of power always goes on.

(b) Conflict is a continuing phenomenon:

Therefore, international relations like all relations, is by nature a continuing phenomenon. This nature of continuity also imparts the central place to conflict in international relations.

Even the most co-operative and friendly relationship may at times become conflict. Sino-Indian relations may be cited as an appropriate example in this connection.

The relation between India and China were most cordial and friendly for more than a decade. But since 1959 and especially after October, 1962, the two countries have been involved, in a conflict of a serious nature.

From the point of view of a student of international relations, the present phase of Sino-Indian relations is a more important subject of study than all the earlier phases. It is because the interest of international relations is to know how conflict is or can be resolved, although the study of cordial relationships is not outside the scope of international relations.

For a student, again, international relations is the study of the control of conflict and establishment of co-operation. But as co-operation is possible only through the control of conflict, he has to pay greater attention to conflict.

(c) International Relations is an interaction of Foreign Policies:

Conflict arises from incompatibility of interests of nations. And nations try to safeguard their interests by trying to influence and control the behaviour of other nations.

National interest, however is, served through foreign policy. Thus, nations come into contact with each other through their foreign policies. In this sense, international relations can also be described as an interaction of foreign policies.

Feliks Gross maintains that the study of international relations is identical to the study of foreign policy. Russell Field also holds more or less the same view. The argument of the supporters of this view is that it is not possible to understand international relations without understanding the foreign policies of States.

This argument has some validity. But it has been challenged by writers like Fred Sondermann and others.

Sondermann holds that even the understanding of foreign policies depends upon the understanding of historical experiences, governmental structures and of foreign policy factors, which in turn requires an understanding of the relevant social, political, economic and cultural factors of each society.

Some scholars have even gone to the extent of holding that even the understanding of the factors of society is not possible without the knowledge of the attitudes and subconscious compulsions of those individuals who participate in the formu-lation of foreign policy. Thus, the understanding of foreign policy itself is a very complicated affair and so also of the relationship between international relations and foreign policy.

(d) Foreign Policy closely linked but not identical to international relations:

The study of international relations is closely linked to the study of foreign policy but is not identical to it. The study of foreign policies of States is an important aspect of the study of international relations.

But the latter is a broader field of inquiry. As a matter of fact, the question of relationship between international relations and foreign policy is made difficult by the fact that neither foreign policy nor international relations has a clearly defined starting point.

However, the study of foreign policy provides the most important single helpful factor to the study of international relations. We have said earlier that international relations is a process in which nations try to safeguard their interests, which are not compatible with these of others, by means of power.

Since this process apparently works through foreign policies of States, the study of foreign policies may fulfill in some measures the requirements of the study of international relations.

It is only in this sense that the study of international relations centers on the process and effects of interactions between foreign policy decisions. But the study of foreign policies of States does not exhaust the scope of the study of international relations and the former remains subordinated to the latter.

Harold Sprout and Margaret Sprout would call foreign policy as subcategory of international relations.

Different approaches to the concept of International Relations:

In point of fact, there are marked differences among authors as to the nature and definition of international relations. Thus Charles Schleicher includes all inter-State relations in international relations, although he concedes that all inter-State relations are not political.

Norman Padellord and George Lincoln define international politics as the interaction of State policies within the changing patterns of power, relationship For Norman Palmer and Howard Perkins, the study of international relations is essentially concerned with the State system.

Robert Strausz Hupe and Stefan Possony include international relations the actions of citizens and the decisions of politically significant private groups. Hans Morgenthau, on the other hand, focuses his entire analysis of international relations on political relations and on the problems of peace.

International relations to Morgenthau, is the struggle for, and use of power, among nations. On the other hand, there are a number of standard textbooks written in recent years under a direct or indirect influence of the behavioral revolution in social sciences.

John Burton, for example, conceives of International relations as a system of peaceful communication whereby States consciously and in their own interest would like to avoid conflict because the costs of conflict are too high.

Thus, there are broad and narrow ranges of phenomenon included for study, description, and explanation in international relation. The criterion adopted for the inclusion or exclusion relates to the authors proposes and his basic attitudes with which he starts his study. In fact, this is a broader question of the approach to the study of international relations.

The impact of what we have called the sociological nature of the twentieth century is more important than even the various authors’ purposes and attitudes, because purposes and attitudes are also in a way conditioned by the developments in the various fields of international life.

If we could summarize all that we have said above about the nature of international relations, we will view international relations as a process in which nations try to serve their national interests, which may be in conflict with those of other nations by means of their policies and actions.

The focus of study under the scientific school has however introduced various levels of analysis. During the traditional or classical stages, the major unit of study was the State how States formulate their interests, how these interests are pursued through diplomacy, balance of power, send the various means through which national power is achieved.

It is with the impact of scientific revolution that the content of study of international relations has started growing in different directions. More emphasis has now been put on processes.

There has in fact emerged these days an amalgamation of the traditional and modern approaches. This amalgamation lays emphasis on the study of interaction process and the impact of international environment on the behaviour of the participants.

Accordingly, Legg and Morrison emphasis, that the study of international relations should be conducted at three levels national, regional and world.

The units of analysis include individual actor (his values and goals, his perception of the world, intention of others, his own role), State (its resources, population, economic system, political system, classes and social structure), foreign policy decision-making system (its goals, orientations and strategies), the instruments of promotion of foreign policy (diplomacy, propaganda, capability of economic diplomacy and military and warfare), regional and international level actors (such as, EEC. COMECON, ASEAN, NATO, United Nations) and the processes of interaction (negotiation) bargaining, communications, war etc.

Significance of the study International relations

In this inter-dependence world the significance of the study of international relations has greatly increased. Its study gives us an opportunity to know the basic motivation of the states in world affairs, the way these objectives are pursued and the reasons, which ultimately undermine their success or failure. It is fact that such a study does not in any way increase the prospects of world peace and harmony but it do provides the people of the world an insight into their problems, and increases their boldness to live confidently in this world of immense diversity.


All said, the general definitions should broadly apply to international relations in any period either at the beginning of this century, or during the inter-war years, or after the Second World War.

What is significant about the nature of the post-1945 international relations is that various developments in international life have brought about a change in the nature of the concept of sovereign States, the conflicts among States, the national interest, and the means of achievement of national interest, that is, power It is as a result of a change in the nature of all these things that international relations has also undergone a significant change. But change does not mean a complete break with the past.

Even today, therefore, international relations retains some of its old and essential elements. With the change in the nature of international relations, the methods of its study have also changed.

The change in both the spheres, however, has come mainly from one fundamental source, namely developments in various aspects of international life. But it is the change only in the concept of conflict, national interest, and power that is primarily concerned with the nature of international relations. The change in the methods of study of international relations is a matter of approach.

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