In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section International Relations Theory

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Anthologies
  • Reference Resources
  • Journals
  • Methodology
  • Realism
  • Liberalism
  • Constructivism
  • The “English School”
  • Marxism
  • Neoconservatism
  • Critical IR Theory
  • Feminist IR Theory
  • Post–Cold War IR Theory
  • Political Theory and IR Theory
  • Foreign Policy and IR Theory
  • History and IR Theory

Related Articles Expand or collapse the "related articles" sectionabout

Forthcoming Articles Expand or collapse the "forthcoming articles" section


International Relations International Relations Theory
Jonathan Cristol
  • LAST REVIEWED: 26 November 2019
  • LAST MODIFIED: 26 November 2019
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199743292-0039


International relations (IR) theory is difficult to define. It is often taught as a theory that seeks both to explain past state behavior and to predict future state behavior. However, even that definition is contested by many theorists. Traditional IR theories can generally be categorized by their focus either on humans, states, or on the state system as the primary source of conflict. Any bibliography of international relations theory is bound to create controversy among its readers. Why did the author choose one theory and not the other? Why did the author choose one source and not the other? Indeed, a wide variety of permutations would be perfectly valid to provide the researcher with an adequate annotated bibliography, so why were these particular entries chosen? This article identifies Realism, Liberalism, and Constructivism as the three major branches of IR theory. These three branches have replaced the earlier realism-idealism dichotomy. The “English School” could be considered part of any of the aforementioned three branches, and its placement in the IR theory world is the subject of some debate. It has therefore been given its own section and is not included in any of the other sections. Critical IR theory and Feminist IR theory are often considered part of constructivism; however, there is much debate over whether they constitute their own branches, and so they are included in this article (as well as in their own entries in the OBO series), though the sources are somewhat different. Post–Cold War IR Theory is given its own heading because there are a number of theories that were proposed in the immediate aftermath of the Cold War that are still widely taught and discussed in the field. Perhaps the most controversial inclusion is that of Neoconservatism. Though it is quite possible to mount a case for it to be considered a theory of US foreign policy, it is theoretically distinct from other IR theories (the belief in bandwagoning instead of balancing). The final three sections are included to show how political theory has influenced IR theory, and how history and foreign policy have influenced IR theory (and vice versa). The included sections and citations represent both the mainstream of IR theory and those nonmainstream theories that have just started to break into the mainstream of IR theory. This article provides a starting point for both the beginning and the serious scholar of international relations theory.

General Overviews

The overviews listed in this section are generally designed to be introductory international relations (IR) textbooks and not specifically IR theory textbooks. The only article listed in this section is Snyder 2004, which is the best source for someone who needs to quickly learn the basics of realism, liberalism, and constructivism. Like Snyder, every source listed herein considers realism, liberalism, and constructivism to be the major IR theoretical frameworks. Drezner 2015 shows how these three, and other, theories explain and predict the response to crises. Duncan, et al. 2009 examines a wide range of IR theories, but the discussion is limited to the chapters dedicated to IR theory. Kegley and Blanton 2016 focuses on the traditional theories, returning to them throughout the book to show how they influence and are impacted by current events. Mingst, et al. 2019, one of the most widely used undergraduate IR texts, includes sections on how different theories might deal with current international issues. Shimko 2015 devotes only one chapter to IR theory, but it does the best job of implicitly and explicitly weaving theoretical discussions throughout the text. Of the few widely used textbooks solely devoted to IR theory, Dunne, et al. 2016 is the most comprehensive and the clearest. It makes an ideal textbook for a midlevel or advanced IR theory class in that it goes far beyond the traditional theories, with chapters written by leading experts on the subjects that they cover. Booth and Erskine 2016 is similar in structure and breadth, but goes more deeply into the discipline and relevance of IR theory itself. Genest 2004 is a hybrid textbook and anthology. Genest covers a very wide variety of theories, which the author explains through his own writings; he adds classic and modern works to bring the tradition to life. Viotti and Kauppi 2019 presents a broad overview of IR theory, including a substantial discussion of the intellectual roots of IR theory.

  • Booth, Ken, and Toni Erskine. eds. International Relations Theory Today. 2d ed. Malden, MA: Polity Press, 2016.

    This book provides an overview of the state of IR theory as well as how IR theory grapples with real-world problems. Generally clearly written, but most useful for graduate students and specialists in the discipline. All of the chapters are written specifically for this book; it is not an anthology.

  • Drezner, Dan. Theory of International Politics and Zombies: Revived Edition. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2015.

    DOI: 10.1515/9781400852284

    Drezner provides an overview of major international relations theories through the lens of a zombie apocalypse. The book uses this unlikely scenario to demonstrate the different IR theoretical approaches to “real world” crises. A fun, breezy read that provides an excellent overview of IR theory to the undergraduate student.

  • Duncan, W. Raymond, Barbara Jancar-Webster, and Bob Switky. World Politics in the 21st Century. Student Choice Edition. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 2009.

    In the chapters that specifically deal with IR theory, this work is more comprehensive in discussing a wide variety of theoretical approaches than the other texts listed here. However, outside of those chapters, the discussion of theory is quite limited. A useful undergraduate textbook.

  • Dunne, Tim, Milja Kurki, and Steve Smith, eds. International Relations Theories: Discipline and Diversity. 4th ed. New York: Oxford University Press, 2016.

    A truly outstanding and clearly written general textbook on IR theory. The innovation here is to have A-list thinkers from within the various traditions write the chapters on those theories. Chapters range from “Structural Realism” to “Feminism,” with separate chapters on “Poststructuralism,” “Postcolonialism,” and “Green Theory.” All of the chapters are written specifically for this book; it is not an anthology.

  • Genest, Marc A. Conflict and Cooperation: Evolving Theories of International Relations. 2d ed. Belmont, CA: Wadsworth, 2004.

    A hybrid textbook and anthology. Genest provides a detailed chapter for each major theoretical tradition, as well as for some theories not covered in depth by other texts cited in this section. After an introductory essay about each theory, he includes articles and excerpts that exemplify that tradition, including classic texts and more recent works. An excellent lower-level graduate textbook or advanced undergraduate textbook.

  • Kegley, Charles, Jr., and Shannon Lindsey Blanton. World Politics: Trend and Transformation. 16th ed. Boston: Wadsworth, 2016.

    One of the most widely used undergraduate IR textbooks. Devotes a full chapter to competing theoretical approaches and then returns to theory by devoting considerable time to examining how those approaches lead to policies.

  • Mingst, Karen A., Heather Elko McKibben, and Ivan M. Arreguín-Toft. Essentials of International Relations. 8th ed. New York: W. W. Norton, 2019.

    Along with Kegley and Blanton 2016, one of the most widely used undergraduate IR textbooks. Only one full chapter is devoted to IR theory, but there are sections on IR theory within chapters on other subjects, including international law, peace and security, and foreign policy decision making.

  • Shimko, Keith L. International Relations: Perspectives & Controversies. 5th ed. Boston: Wadsworth, 2015.

    This undergraduate international relations textbook contains only one chapter purely dedicated to IR theory, but it does an excellent job in weaving theory through the entire text. Shimko presents balanced, theoretically informed cases for and against current issues and problems in IR.

  • Snyder, Jack. “One World, Rival Theories.” Foreign Policy 145 (November/December 2004): 52–62.

    An update on a similarly named 1998 Foreign Policy article by Stephen Walt. Snyder provides his take on the basic principles of realism, liberalism, and constructivism and compares and contrasts them. Perfect brief overview of the three dominant traditions in IR theory.

  • Viotti, Paul R., and Mark V. Kauppi. International Relations Theory. 6th ed. Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield, 2019.

    This book provides a comprehensive overview of IR theory. It covers a wide range of theories, but its unique innovation is its almost 170-page discussion of the Western and non-Western intellectual roots of IR theory.

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