The Dilemma of Multiple Theories in International Relations in Analyzing Political Phenomena

By SAKHRI Mohamed


International relations as a field of study encompasses a wide range of theories and approaches for understanding the complex political dynamics between nation states and other international actors. However, the diversity of IR theories also presents a dilemma for scholars and policymakers in determining which theories or combination of theories provides the most accurate analysis of political phenomena. This article examines the major IR theories of realism, liberalism, constructivism and critical theories, and analyzes their strengths and limitations in explaining and predicting political developments. It argues that no single theory can adequately capture the multidimensional realities of world politics. A multitheoretical approach that synthesizes key insights from different perspectives presents the most comprehensive framework for analyzing complex political issues in the contemporary international system.


International relations (IR) as an academic discipline covers a broad spectrum of theories and methodological approaches. The expansive scope of the field reflects the multifaceted nature of political relations between state and non-state actors in the international arena. From security competition between great powers, to transnational flows of trade and finance, to societal problems that transcend national borders, IR scholars have developed divergent theoretical lenses for understanding world politics.

While diversity of perspectives enriches IR discourse, it also poses a dilemma regarding which theories or combination of theories can best explain contemporary political phenomena and offer meaningful policy prescriptions. For instance, realist and liberal frameworks often reach opposing conclusions about the prospects for international cooperation. Critical theorists challenge the core assumptions of mainstream approaches. Given these divisions, what theories should guide the analysis of major political developments? Can a single theory or compatible set of theories comprehensively capture the complex dynamics of the modern international system? Or is a multiparadigmatic approach necessary for insightful analysis?

This article examines the dilemma of contending theories in IR and their relative explanatory power. It provides an overview of leading theories, analyzing their strengths and limitations. The discussion concludes that integrating key insights from different theoretical traditions offers the most promising avenue for analyzing multifaceted political issues in a complex world.

Major Theories of International Relations


Realist theory has dominated mainstream IR discourse, particularly in the United States, since the end of World War II. Classical realists like Hans Morgenthau and E.H. Carr emphasized irreducible power competition rooted in egoistic human nature and anarchy in the international system. Structural realists Kenneth Waltz and John Mearsheimer later developed a more scientific theory minimizing individual-level factors and focusing on the structure of the international system as the primary driver of state behavior. Despite their differences, realist approaches share a core set of assumptions: the centrality of states as rational unitary actors, the primacy of power and security in state interests, and the overriding constraint of international anarchy on cooperation. From this perspective, the world is inherently conflictual; states compete for power and exercise calculated self-interest. Morality has little place, as survival dictates Machiavellian strategic behavior (Donnelly 2000).

Realism’s parsimonious assumptions and predictive capacity give it an elegant simplicity and policy relevance appealing to practitioners. Realists anticipated Cold War geopolitical rivalry based on national interest. The theory remains influential today in foreign policy circles. However, critics argue realism relies on a reductionist model of state behavior that ignores normative factors, downplays international institutions, and leads to self-fulfilling prophecies of conflict. It provides little basis for progress toward international cooperation.


In contrast to realists, liberal IR scholars emphasize cooperation, interdependence and international norms and institutions as mitigating conflict in world politics. Liberalism encompasses different strands. Institutional liberalism focuses on how regimes and organizations like the United Nations and World Trade Organization facilitate cooperation through information sharing, collective problem solving and development of legal norms. Economic liberalism highlights how states rationally pursue absolute gains from trade and economic interdependence. Democratic peace theory contends democracies tend not to fight each other because they share norms of compromise. Cosmopolitan liberalism advocates moral obligations to humanity over narrow national interests (Dunne 2020).

Liberalism sees possibilities for improving cooperation, human rights and global welfare within the current international system. Institutions help temper the effects of anarchy by providing mechanisms for resolving disputes and negotiating mutually beneficial bargains. Economic integration raises the costs of interstate conflict. The democratic peace phenomenon suggests democracy can overcome warlike tendencies.

However, critics contend liberal assumptions of natural harmony of interests are naive. Institutions reflect underlying power realities rather than transcend them. Globalization faces backlash from groups who feel marginalized. Liberals underestimate nationalism and overestimate the pacifying effect of democracy and interdependence. Liberally inspired policies like economic conditionality have mixed results at best.


Constructivist theories focus on the social construction of world politics. Interests and identities are not objective givens, but intersubjectively produced and reproduced through shared ideas, norms and culture. Anarchy is what states make of it. Conflict is not inherent as realists claim, but occurs when threats and mistrust reinforce enemy images between states with opposed identities (Wendt 1994). However constructive state identities and shared knowledge can foster cooperative security cultures, as among the Nordic countries.

The key contribution of constructivism is highlighting the importance of normative and ideational structures in shaping state interests and actions, not just material capabilities. These social structures constitute actors and give meaning to their behavior (Guzzini and Leander 2006). Constructivism elucidates the role of norms in areas from human rights to environmental politics. It helps explain variation in state policies that realists attribute simply to self-interest.

However, critics contend constructivism lacks parsimony and falsifiability. It provides few generalizable propositions amenable to testing. Social structures may be constitutive, but material forces still propel policy. Identities and norms alone cannot explain all state behavior nor transform geopolitical realities. Constructivism works better to explain change in some issue areas more than others.

Critical Theories

Critical IR theories argue mainstream approaches implicitly reproduce structures of dominance and fail to challenge the deep status quo biases of world politics. Approaches like Marxism, feminism, postcolonialism and the Frankfurt School critique and seek to radically transform global power relations.

Marxist theories expose how elite class interests within states drive conflicts that benefit the capitalist system overall. Gender perspectives focus on how patriarchal structures disadvantages women in security and economic realms. Postcolonialism reveals how colonial era exploitation and cultural domination persist through discourses and institutions that subjugate the developing world (Blaney and Tickner 2017). Critical theories aim to empower marginalized groups and advocate transnational solidarity to challenge intersecting inequities.

However, critics argue critical theories provide better deconstruction than reconstruction of world politics. Their activist orientation risks ideological bias that skews analysis. Focusing on certain groups in isolation misses how identities and inequities intersect. And the radical utopian visions of critical scholars often gloss over complex realities on the ground.

Toward a Multitheoretical Synthesis

Given the diversity of international relations theories, each with certain strengths but also limitations, a multitheoretical approach that synthesizes key insights from different traditions offers the most promising avenue for analyzing complex issues in world politics. As Sil and Katzenstein argue, theoretical pluralism that explores compatible yet distinct causal mechanisms from major paradigms provides deeper, more comprehensive explanations than any single theory (Sil and Katzenstein 2010).

For instance, Moravcsik (1997) develops a “liberal realist” framework that marries core realist assumptions about state power and interest with liberal focuses on state-society relations and transnational interdependence. But the synthesized theory downplays ideational factors and non-state actors. Alternatively, Shannon’s (2009) “constructivist realism” suggests combining realist insights on material power and security with constructivist views on identity and social norms. This recognizes military priorities along with ideational influences. Yet it underplays economic interdependence and transnational relations.

An even more eclectic synthesis could integrate insights from realism on power and anarchy, liberalism on institutions and norms, constructivism on identity, and critical theory on hegemonic discourses and marginalization. This provides multiple angles of vision to examine complex political dynamics, causes and consequences. For instance, analysis of great power tensions can consider realist power balancing, effects of interdependence, nationalist identity construction, and postcolonial exclusion of developing states from global governance. A multidimensional approach provides a richer explanatory framework and basis for praxis.

Critics contend eclecticism lacks coherence, trades parsimony for complexity, and allows cherry picking theories to suit biases. But complexity is inevitable for multidimensional political problems. A rigorous multi-paradigm analysis that specifies how different causal logics interact improves on reductionist applications of single theories. Parsimony is not only about theoretical elegance but explanatory power for real world issues. As long as scholars are transparent about assumptions and boundaries of different theories, multitheoretical synthesis provides a path for more incisive IR analysis and informed policymaking.


International relations is a profoundly complex field. Diverse theories provide unique yet partial insights that reveal different facets of world politics. Realism sheds light on power competition but understates possibilities for cooperation. Liberalism elucidates how institutions and interdependence furnish means for common gains but downplays risks of discord. Constructivism reveals ideational structures but often lacks parsimony. Critical theories unpack hidden inequities but risk one-sided perspectives. Given their respective limitations alongside unique strengths, utilizing key concepts from multiple IR theories promises greater analytical depth and practical utility. Rigorous multitheoretical synthesis can furnish comprehensive yet nuanced frameworks for explaining multifaceted political issues and providing balanced policy advice in an increasingly complex world.


Blaney, David L. and Tickner, Arlene B. (2017). “International Relations Scholarship Around the World”. Worlding Beyond the West, pp.1-33.

Donnelly, Jack (2000). Realism and International Relations. Cambridge University Press.

Dunne, Tim (2020). “Liberalism”. In John Baylis, Steve Smith, and Patricia Owens, eds. The Globalization of World Politics: An Introduction to International Relations. Oxford University Press, pp.100-113.

Guzzini, Stefano, and Leander, Anna (2006). Constructivism and international relations: Alexander Wendt and his critics. Routledge.

Moravcsik, Andrew (1997). “Taking preferences seriously: A liberal theory of international politics”. International organization, 51(4), pp.513-553.

Shannon, Vaughn P. (2009). “Norms Are What States Make of Them: The Political Psychology of Norm Violation”. International Studies Quarterly, 53(2), pp.421-442.

Sil, Rudra, and Peter J. Katzenstein (2010). Beyond paradigms: Analytic eclecticism in the study of world politics. Palgrave Macmillan.

Wendt, Alexander (1994). “Collective identity formation and the international state”. American political science review, 88(2), pp.384-396.

SAKHRI Mohamed
SAKHRI Mohamed

I hold a Bachelor's degree in Political Science and International Relations in addition to a Master's degree in International Security Studies. Alongside this, I have a passion for web development. During my studies, I acquired a strong understanding of fundamental political concepts and theories in international relations, security studies, and strategic studies.

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