Global Politics

by Andrew Heywood

Chapter 3 Notes: Theories of Global Politics

  • Why have realists argued that world affairs should be understood in terms of power and self-interest?
  • Why do liberals believe that world affairs are biased in favour of interdependence and peace?
  • How have critical theorists challenged mainstream approaches to global politics?
  • In what ways have critical theorists questioned the nature and purpose of theory?
  • What are the empirical and moral implications of global interconnectedness?
  • Do theoretical paradigms help or hinder understanding?

No one sees the world just 'as it is'. All of us look at the world through a veil of theories, presuppositions and assumptions. In this sense, observation and interpretation are inextricably bound together: when we look at the world we are also engaged in imposing meaning on it. This is why theory is important: it gives shape and structure to an otherwise shapeless and confusing reality. The most important theories as far as global politics is concerned have come out of the discipline of International Relations, which has spawned a rich and increasingly diverse range of theoretical traditions. The dominant mainstream perspectives within the field have been realism and liberalism, each offering a different account of the balance between conflict and cooperation in world affairs. Why do realists believe that global politics is characterized by unending conflict, while liberals have believed in the possibility of cooperation and enduring peace? And why have realist and liberal ideas become more similar over time? However, from the 1980s onwards, especially gaining impetus from the collapse of communism and the end of the Cold War, a series of new theoretical voices have emerged. These 'new voices' have substantially expanded the range of critical perspectives on world affairs, once dominated by the Marxist tradition. How have theories such as neo-Marxism, social constructivism, poststructuralism, feminism, postcolonialism and green politics cast a critical lens on global politics, and how do they differ from one another? Finally, the emergence of globalization has posed a series of new theoretical challenges, most significantly about the moral and theoretical implications of global interconnectedness. How is it possible to 'think globally'? In what ways and to what extent does global interconnectedness require that we re-think existing theories?

  • Theory can be viewed, most broadly, as a kind of abstract or generalised thinking that is designed to explain, interpret or evaluate something. However, three types of theory exist in the form of explanatory theory, interpretive theory and normative theory. Theories also differ in terms of their scope and scale, allowing us to distinguish between theoretical traditions or paradigms, sub-traditions and specific theories.
  • The realist model of power politics is based on the combined ideas of human selfishness or egoism and the structural implications of international anarchy. While this implies a strong tendency towards conflict, bloodshed and open violence can be constrained by the balance of power. The key dynamics in the international system flow from the distribution of power (or capacities) between and among states.
  • The central theme of the liberal view of international politics is a belief in harmony or balance. The tendency towards peace, cooperation and integration is by factors such as economic interdependence, brought about by free trade, the spread of democracy and the construction of international organizations. However, over time, liberalism (or neoliberalism) has become increasingly indistinct from realism.
  • The key critical perspectives on global politics are Marxism in its various forms, social constructivism, poststructuralism, feminism, green politics and postcolonialism. In their different ways, these theories challenge norms, values and assumptions on which the global status quo is based. Critical theorists tend to view realism and liberalism as ways of concealing, or of legitimizing, the global power asymmetries.
  • Many critical theorists embrace a post-positivist perspective that takes subject and object, and therefore theory and practice, to be intimately linked. Post-positivists question the belief that there is an objective reality 'out there', separate from the beliefs, ideas and assumptions of the observer. Reality is therefore best thought of in 'inter-subjective' terms.
  • Increased levels of global interconnectedness, linked to accelerated globalization, has brought a series of new theoretical challenges. These include the difficulties that complexity poses to conventional linear thinking, and the possibility that the world now constitutes a single moral community.