The Study of International Relations

This is a summary of my notes from 12th October 2018 in Major Approaches to the Study of International Relations at Lancaster University.

International Relations – IR – is the name of both the practice and the academic discipline.  It started after The Great War an an attempt to use reasoned debate to develop common interests.  The original IR scholars were liberal internationalists.

Sometimes it is about relations between actors, sometimes the processes.  It is transdisciplinary.  It is eclectic.

The theories help, but can always be criticised in their coverage or assumptions.  The theories let you see better, but also distort part of reality.  All the theories have merits, all have weaknesses.  One needs to be able to criticise them all.  It is a contested discipline. The theories are commensurable: they allow one to see the same world differently and explain different aspects.

Questions posed by IR:

  • Are humans egoist (devoted to their own interests and advancement) or perfectible (capable of being made perfect, improvable)?
  • Is the international system anarchical or an international society?

There are no political opinions in IR.


ICJ’s judgement on Israel

The International Court of Justice is an important part of the United Nations.  It adjudicates disputes between nations and provides legal advice on international law.  Its rulings and opinions on a case are binding on the parties involved.

On 26th January 2024 the ICJ ruled that Israel must prevent genocidal acts in Gaza.

On social media, many people are saying this is meaningless as the ICJ has no teeth.

I think it does have some effect.

In the workplace, when someone bullies another, one can either call it out or let it go. When someone objects to poor behaviour, we can support them or just say “toughen up” or “that’s just they way they are”.

Another outcome is to stand up and say “This is wrong. Do not behave that way.” That gives others the confidence to also stand up and say “We agree, that is wrong.”

That makes most other people think twice before also bulling people. They don’t want to be called out and embarrassed. We have said bullying is no longer normal behaviour.

The same thing really does apply on the world stage. When the ICJ says “This is wrong”, it might have little effect on Israel, but it does send out a message to diplomats, politicians and the media round the world that it is not acceptable. They can’t say “But Israel did it, so we can too”. People feel empowered to say to their leaders “I don’t think we should do that”.

Some see it as ironic that it is South Africa calling it out, given their history. It is not ironic, it was inevitable. They have been through the pain of apartheid, terrorism, revolution but then peace and reconciliation process. South Africa today is not the South Africa of 50 years ago. Change can be radical, and a bad example can become an exemplar.

It is one of the ways the world is very slowly becoming more humane.