How to Understand International Politics

Reading about international relations and global affairs in contemporary publications like Foreign Affairs, MacLean’s, or The Economist rarely give you levels of analysis other than that of the state. When I was first familiarized with the concept of levels of analysis, introduced to the study of international relations by a father of the field Kenneth Waltz in ‘Man, the State, and War’, it seemed to reveal a step-by-step manual toward uncovering a much wider range of political questions (and answers) which I had not found previously accessible. Waltz’s three levels have since been elaborated on and expanded to five — prompting a little debate yet unlocking a lot of methodological possibility.

Reading from the typical sources of political news and international analysis, some of which named above, we gain an understanding of the state-level of analysis. This level is the traditional level by most international relations ‘realists’, those who see states (or countries) as the primary actor of international politics as agents in international events and change. It is helpful, of course. Yet it is also limiting.

It tends to do a great job revealing state-to-state relations, alliances, dimensions of rational choices between states, their regional ties, and their security patterns. Why do states conduct certain foreign policy choices? This is a question well-suited for this state-level approach. Now consider the possibilities when we look at events and issues of political, economic, and sociological importance happening on these various levels:

  1. The Individual Level — the history, religious, cultural, and ideological background of key leaders and decision-makers obviously have an impact on the decisions they make. With this approach comes the possibility of drawing insightful analysis about foreign policy, what happens in negotiations, what issues tend to be prioritized, and how interactions between world leaders may change depending on the individuals involved, not the states.
  2. The National/Domestic Level —Unlike the state-level, this level allows analysts looking at international processes to prioritize domestic and institutional mechanisms that may impede or promote certain outcomes. One example of this is the role of national legal regimes and processes in the national adoption of international law. When the World Trade Organization (WTO) members signed and ratified the Trade-related Aspects of Intellectual Property (TRIPS) legislation, the process of embedding this legislation into China’s legal system and beginning with compliance measures proved to be a struggle, even though China desires to be part of this prestigious and beneficial trade club. National linkages make appearances in international issues through this methodological approach.
  3. The State level — this level is next in the sequence — but only one level.
  4. The Structural Level— what happens above the state in international relations? A more theoretical set of considerations that Waltz again is famous for uncovering. Waltz’s ‘structural’ realist argues that the very anarchic (lacking government, not necessarily chaotic) international system, where states knock against one another like different sized billiard balls, creates a structure that enables the possibility of some types of actions and inhibits the possibility of others. It is this structure that, in large part, influences how states behave. Now, this is not the state-level, it is grander. Waltz intends to mean that the current distribution of power (unequally concentrated in one state, two states, or more-or-less equally distributed across many) allows us to predict precise appropriate actions that states will take toward certain issues.
  5. The Global Level — This approach is much broader than the previous four levels. It is also a little more limiting but necessary for several pertinent issues today. The Global level-of-analysis allows for insights into issues that affect the global. These are typically issues that are not state-contained. Several notable issues that are effectively looked at using this methodology are environmentalism and global climate change, the global financial system, global immigration and diasporas, global radical ideology, or maritime rights. These issue areas are not necessarily contained within ideas of power or state-hood but are borderless and often include many more than just one or two states. They may also characteristically suffer persistence at the hands of the tragedy of the commons — the question: whose responsibility is it if it affects everybody?

This piece was intended to involve some other issue in methodological IR but this discussion will do just fine to refresh myself on the very important intricacies of studying IR and introduce a reader, if they have yet to be introduced, to these ideas. These levels-of-analysis are central to the study of international relations. They are, to a large extent, the roots of the field’s methodological philosophy and give depth to the study of international politics.

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