Concepts In International Politics


A2 Government and Politics: International Politics: Unit 3: Concepts


A concept most commonly associated with the cold war era (c.1945-1989)

The structure and development of the international system was heavily shaped and influenced by superpower relations during the cold war period.

Each of the two main blocs was organised according to power, ideology and regimes

Bipolarity assumes a zero sum conception of power and International Relations

The concept of bipolarity exists in distinction to the concept of multipolarity where there are a minimum of three and perhaps many more spheres of influence

In military term the two blocs possessed enormous capability which in formed the idea of MAD. It is sometimes argued that this mutually assured destruction prevented the cold war from escalating into a ‘hot’ one

However, there were military exchanges between east and west, most notably  those which took place in Korea, Vietnam, Africa and Latin America over most of the period of the cold war. Here the superpowers either sought to maintain or extend their spheres of influence.

It is also the case that the concept overestimates the degree of internal cohesion within the blocs. It should be remembered that French – U.S. relations have often been strained and that France left NATO in 1966. Also The Soviet Union used tanks to crush popular rebellions in Hungary in 1956 and in Czechoslovakia in 1968.

The concept itself is somewhat flawed as it lacks a perspective on other international developments such as de-colonisation and underdevelopment.

Past Questions:

To what extent was the Bipolar International order more stable than the multipolar order?

When, and in what ways, was international politics best seen as bipolar?

What are the implications of Bi-polarity and multipolarity for global order?


A type of international system with a minimum of three actors with substantial power potential to act upon and shape the international order

These actors could be states but equally blocs or coalitions

Waltz (1979) argued that international systems characterised by multipolarity, rather than bipolarity are inherently unstable

The criteria for substantial power potential are as follows:





Where a state or non state actor can act upon and shape the international system in all of these areas it may be regarded possessing superpower or polar potential. Where a minimum of three actors has this range of influence then the international order is characterised as multipolar.

The above criteria are also indices of superpower status but again all four are required

Whereas as bipolarity concentrates on east –west issues as the basis for the international order a multi-polar approach examines a wider range of issues such as Northern Hemisphere dominance over the global economy as being equally important in shaping the international order.

Arguments have surfaced that the international order is less multipolar than it is unipolar with the United States the one remaining superpower. In military terms U.S. hegemony is unquestioned as is its desire and intent to use it. Pressure groups with close ties to the Bush White House have founded The ‘New American Century”

“…Established in the spring of 1997, the Project for the New American Century is a non-profit, educational organization whose goal is to promote American global leadership…”

The end of the cold war has prompted a debate over whether we are now entering an inherently unstable multipolar international order. The matter is extremely complex. In economic terms the EU, Japan and the U.S. are seen as the key poles with other actors such as the ‘tiger economies’ possessing near pole status.

Regional powers such as Pakistan can exert tremendous influence on the international order especially where they are seen to be vital to the strategic interests of the U.S.A.

The transition from a bipolar to a multipolar era predates the end of the cold war. There is the question of whether this in more or less stable than the era of bipolarity

Past Questions:

Is International politics now multipolar?

What are the implications of Bi-polarity and multipolarity for global order?


Evans (1998) defines unipolarity as

“ …a type of system or structure with one pole or polar actor being identified as predominant in shaping and influencing the international order…”

An actor being defined as any entity which plays an identifiable role in international relations. Although the term lacks precision it possesses sufficient flexibility and scope to overcome the limitations of the term state.

The unipolar actor need not be a state. Historically they have tended to be multinational empires.

Unipolar systems are likely to be stable where there is widespread consensus throughout the system as argued by hegemonial stability theory.The ending of the cold war has prompted some speculation that the U.S. is now the only superpower and in its willingness to exert this power and influence to shape the international order it is the centre of a unipolar order.

At the end of the cold war Francis Fukuyama wrote that we are at the ‘…end of history…’ where economic liberalism and liberal democracy would triumph and spread across the globe.Equally however the ‘…end of history thesis…’ could just as easily provide the underpinnings of a multipolar order in international relations.

The real question is the extent of American military, economic, diplomatic, political and cultural influence across the globe and the intent of the U.S. in the exercise of such power whether unilaterally or in concert with other actors (multilateralism).



Euro federalism

The term ‘…United States of Europe…’ was first used and advocated by Winston Churchill in March 1946.

The architects of the EEC saw integration between the states of Europe as a means of building Europe’s prosperity and avoiding future conflicts.

The Treaty of Rome (1957) foresaw ‘…ever closer economic and political union…’

Subsequent treaties such as the Single European Act (1986) and the Maastricht Treaty (1992) have attempted to give expression to these aims by removing barriers to trade in goods services and people and paving the way for a single European Currency with interest rates set by the European Central Bank for the whole of the Euro Zone.

Even proponents of ‘…ever closer economic and political union…’ are wary of the term Euro-federalism, given the negative implications firstly of a loss of sovereignty and secondly because of the implications of remoteness, bureaucracy and lack of  accountability.

In particular British conservatives often use the term to denote some aspect of EU development or integration with which they disagree. Thus the recently proposed EU constitution is negatively attacked as being federalist or yet another step on the road to the creation of a federalist Europe. The direct implication is a loss of national sovereignty.


A relatively straightforward concept used with regard to supranational institutions such as the EU and  the member nation states.

It implies that decisions should be taken at the most appropriate level, i.e at the level at which it is most practical to take the decision and at the level at which the ramifications of the decision are most likely to be felt. This necessitates a degree of autonomy from the centre which may be manifested in increased national control vis a vis Europe or increased devolution from Westminster.

Decisions affecting trade or the environment might me most appropriately taken at the supranational level.

Decisions affecting a state’s security or vital and strategic interests might be most appropriately taken at the national level.

Decisions affecting a local or regional economy might be most appropriately taken at a sub national level by regional assemblies, local authorities or  parliaments or assemblies such as those established in Scotland and Wales in 1999.

The essence of subsidiarity is that it  reinforces claims for the supremacy of national sovereignty over those of the supranational institution.

Indeed the Tindemanns Report (1975) established the viability of the principle of subsidiarity in relation to the functioning of the EU Commission, nonetheless accepting that this would place limits on the extent of  areas of competence of the EU, in relation to the member states.

Great Power(s)

A somewhat outmoded term for referring to the status and influence of nation states

The term is often associated with the realist tradition of International relations and Politics

The categorisation and classification of states as Great Powers has now largely been superceded by the terms superpower (Fox, 1944), Hyperpower, or regional powers.

The term great power refers to the ranking of states according to their economic, military and diplomatic influence and is very much a product or early international relations between nation states.

At the Congress of Vienna (1815) Austria, France, Russia, Prussia and Britain conferred upon themselves ‘Great Power’ status. Primarily this meant that they would act, in concert, to adopt a managerial role in relation to maintaining order and stability in Europe and even beyond.

Outside of Europe two other states, the USA and Japan, gained great power status, following, respectively, victories over Spain (1898) and Russia (1904-1905).

Great Power status was then institutionalised in the form of the League of Nations after WWI and the United Nations after WWII

According to Hobsbawm, (The Age of Empire) the sphere of influence of the ‘Great Powers’  gradually spread to other continents

The classification remains useful. Clearly not all great powers are superpowers. The defining criteria implies that military capacity is paramount. A great power is able to maintain its security independently of others and may possess some nuclear capability.

Economic power is seen as a necessary condition of great power status but is not of itself a sufficient one. Hence Japan may be better seen as a regional power whilst China may be seen as a great power, approaching superpower status.

Whilst the UK and France have large economies, diplomatic influence (a permanent seat on the UN Security Council)and nuclear capability, it is doubtful whether they are any longer great powers in the original sense of the term 


As a process it is often termed intergovernmentalism whereby individual nation states come together for a specific purpose which may be part of an ongoing strategy to achieve some end goal.

IGCs or intergovernmental conferences take place with increasing frequency on matters such as trade, the environment, debt relief and other matters.

As an end state confederalism is assumed to be a semi or fully permanent intergovernmental organisation such as the G7 or G8 or may even take the form of a permanent structure such as the EU.

It is at this point that intergovernmentalism becomes less process and more end state.

Where institutions such as the EU develop supranational features, then the status and integrity of the independent sovereign nation state may no longer be preserved.



This refers to laws or institutions which are above the state and to which the state must comply.

The term refers to decision making bodies which may supercede or override the authority of the individual nation states who are constituent members of the organisation.

The basic principle is that individual nation states cede or forego sovereignty in specific areas such as trade, defence, the economy or the environment for mutual benefit or gain.

The clearest and most obvious example of a supranational organisation is the EU, whereas it is more difficult to assess whether the UN possesses supranational features.

In many ways the status of the UN as a supranational organisation rests on the ability it has to obtain compliance from its members states. Where resolutions have been passed it remains necessary for other members states to possess the political will and, if necessary, the military means  to enforce such decisions.

Article 25 of the UN charter empowers the Security Council to exercise executive powers over its constituent members in matters of peace and security. Article 25 has only been invoked twice, once in Rhodesia in 1966 and again in Iraq/Kuwait in 1991. The UN also issued SC 1973 authorising NATO air Power deployment ostensibly to protect Libyan civilians.



 This is a rather difficult, vague and imprecise concept.

At its core it holds that the defining factors of nationhood, national identity and sovereignty such as territory, language, culture, political formations and institutions, economic activities are subject to global forces of change such that these defining characteristics wane and the world becomes more uniform.

According to Evans and Newham (1998), the term is difficult to pin down but nevertheless they attempt a definition of globalisation as :

‘…the process whereby state centric agencies and terms of reference are dissolved in favour of a structure whereby different actors operate in a context which is truly global rather than merely international…’

The impetus towards globalisation can be detected in the following forms:

TECHNOLOGICAL: New Media and other Technologies are shrinking time and space. The Internet and the expansion of satellite communications have brought the world closer together.

ECONOMIC: The growth of supranational economic activity, through the removal of barriers to trade in goods and services but not yet people.

POLITICAL: The ‘triumph’ of liberal democracy and the end of history – Francis Fukuyama, 1992.

ENVIRONMENTAL: A truly global issue requiring co-operation and intervention on a global scale. The selfishness of individual nation states is thrown into sharp relief by attempts at curbing greenhouse gases and resolution attempts at other important environmental issues.

CULTURAL: This is partly driven by the New Media Technologies and very strongly connected with certain forms of economic activity. The Hollywood film industry and US TV dominates the global film and television industries. In addition the truly global scale of corporations such as Gap, Nike, Coca-Cola and McDonald’s has delivered an era of cultural and economic imperialism or what has sometimes been termed coca-colonisation (Mazrui, 1977)

Two arguments flow from these evident trends:

The first is that the pace and direction of globalisation is difficult to determine. There remain vast differences between nation states and geo-political regions.

Secondly there are those who argue that the processes outlined are inevitable and that this is either a desirable or negative process.

FOR: (Fukuyama, Huntington, Bell, Touraine, and Smith)

AGAINST: (Ballard, Schiller, Chomsky, Foucalt)

The arguments in favour of globalisation is that it opens up and spreads markets and wealth, that it spreads democracy and that all nations are involved in a fair and free exchange of ideas and culture

The arguments against globalisation is that it is likely to exacerbate existing divisions between the rich North and the poor South and that it is a tool of US/ Western dominance and exploitation. This is achieved through IGOs (Intergovernmental Organisations) such as The World Bank, The G7/G8, The IMF and The World Trade Organisation)


A critical weakness of the concept of bi-polarity was that it focused on east west issues to the detriment of the southern hemisphere and the overwhelming importance of processes such as decolonisation, neo-imperialism and underdevelopment.

The concept of a Northern-Southern hemisphere divide began to gain credence in the 1950s following the decline of European 19th C. style colonialism, following the Second World War.

In using the term a number of political, social, economic and cultural assumptions are made.

Crudely, the north is viewed as industrialised, politically mature and stable, technologically advanced and  economically powerful whilst the south is none of these.

Theorists such as Frank (1977) have argued that the poor economic state and the attendant political and social instability of much of the so called third world is directly attributable to a new form of imperialism. This thesis holds that the 3rd world is deliberately underdeveloped by the richer nations of the North western hemisphere so that they may exploit natural resources and cheaper labour costs.

Bipolarity also assumed that the south was relatively free from the influence of east west relations yet the cold war was often fought out militarily in Africa, South East Asia and Latin America.

Bipolar theory, as well as homogenising the north also homogenised the south. Complex variables render the term North South divide vague, imprecise and arguably unusable in any meaningful sense.


A form of imperialism which involves establishing and maintaining rule over a subordinate state or territory.

The main characteristics of colonialism are political and legal domination by an alien minority, economic exploitation and racial and cultural inequality.

Between the 15th and 19th centuries the main colonising powers were Portugal, Spain, Holland, Britain and France, whilst in the late 19th and early 20th centuries Germany, Belgium, Italy, the USA, Japan and Russia became colonising powers.

Colonialism was seen as both an expression and a consequence of Great Power status

The legitimacy of empire building was gradually challenged by the growth of liberal ideas and by emergent nationalism.

Concepts such as self-determination, sovereignty, independence and equality were incorporated into the founding principles of the UN creating the context for a transition from colonialism to decolonisation.

In traditional terms colonialisation as military occupation and remote rule is seen as an outmoded form of the expression of one state’s dominance over another.

However the term has been somewhat revived in the form of neo-colonialism or neo –imperialism an assumed consequence of the negative aspects of globalisation. The forms of exploitation and inequality are sufficiently similar to those of the past for the term to be usefully deployed.

In essence colonialism involved remote rule, economic exploitation, inequality of treatment, processes of separation and racism.

In the post-colonial world many of the new independent states still experience some of these. Whilst southern hemisphere states are often resource rich they are often economically poor.

In addition aid is seen as a tool of domination whereby political interference and economic pressures are exercised.


Aid is the transfer of goods and services between international actors on a concessionary basis, covering grants, loans and donations granted by governments charities, international organisations or even private individuals.

Aid may be transferred on a one off basis or as part of a set of regular contributions to a recipient state.

It may take many forms including famine relief, military aid, humanitarian aid and the provision of personnel such as engineers, scientists or health care workers

Aid often comes with conditions, or be granted for particular reasons. It may be granted in order to secure markets or may be used to prevent a state coming under the sphere of influence of a rival state. The conditions under which it is granted may be entirely humanitarian, to avert a catastrophe such as famine drought or environmental disaster.

By far the largest programme of aid ever granted was the Marshall plan. Although it was opposed by the Soviet Union, it was  nonetheless effected under the supervision of the USA through the CEEC (Committee for European Economic Co-operation) and the OEEC (Organisation for European Economic Co-operation) when some $17bn was utilised by 1952.

Though described by Winston Churchill as ‘ the most unsordid act in history’ and described by Marshall himself in  June 1947 thus:

“Our policy is not directed against any country or doctrine but against hunger, poverty, desperation and chaos”,

The real purpose of the Marshall Plan was to  prevent Western Europe falling under Soviet influence and implement a post war restoration of Western Europe in order to provide markets for American goods and services.

Aid can prove particularly expensive for both donor and recipient states. Recipient states often have difficulty in meeting debt repayments and often social programmes such as housing, schools and hospitals find their budgets slashed.

Given the consequences of crippling 3rd world debt a pressure group Jubilee 2000 was formed. Its aims were as follows:

  • advocating 100% cancellation of the unpayable and uncollectable debts of developing countries;
  • promoting a framework of justice and discipline for relations between sovereign debtors and international creditors.
  • democratising the international financial activities of sovereign governments and multilateral institutions, making them more transparent and accountable to citizens;
  • highlighting environmentally sustainable policies for financing development
  • advocating the repayment of the north’s ecological debts to countries of the south
  • critiquing IMF-imposed structural adjustment policies which, by imposing deflationary economic policies, help to transfer assets from sovereign debtors to international creditors. IMF policies elevate the rights of foreign creditors over those of citizens, and remove policy autonomy from sovereign governments;
  • developing policies for financing development in a more self-reliant way, without recourse to dependency on foreign donors and creditors.

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