Debating the state in International Relations

The primacy of the state in International Relations (IR) theorising and analysis has pervaded IR since its inception, but has been eroding in recent decades with the rise of theoretical and empirical endeavours that look at different actors in International Politics such as international organisations, international norms, domestic actors, transnational corporations, inter alia. This piece will lay out some of the main approaches to the state and engage succinctly in the main debates revolving around this topic.

The mainstream theories of IR – neorealism, neoliberalism and constructivism – have long posited (and unproblematised) that the state is the main actor in IR, despite their disagreements on what exactly follows from this. The first theory focuses on how states behave in international anarchy, naturalising principles of behaviour that apply to all the ‘international system’s’ unit. Endowed with the same behavioural dispositions – concern for survival, maximisation of security, and being self-regarding and suspicious – states respond to changes on the distribution of power in a way that maximises their power (measured as material, mostly military, capabilities) in order to increase their security and prospects of survival (Waltz, 1979). What is important to retain from the neo-realist perspective is: i) states are the only actor that matters; ii) all states possess unchangeable and equal behavioural dispositions; iii) their actions are an interplay of systemic incentives and these essentialised dispositions; iv) states are prone to war.

Neo-liberals share the same assumptions about the state, but differ on their prospects for cooperation (Keohane, 1984). If we take a deeper look at this school of thought though, we find some differing outlooks on the state. Some liberals look to the state as one among many important actors in world politics, such as companies, inter-personal networks, corporations, and international organisations. They, too, have agency and impact in world politics and curtail the power and agency of the state to some extent. Liberals would readily argue that the international market renders state intervention futile and ineffective, and constitutes a drive for peace, because states do not want to disrupt the win-win results of trade (Russett, 2013). International organisations take over functions from the state, enhance communication and understanding, and contribute to more peaceful state-to-state relations (Axelrod & Keohane, 1985). According to these authors, we live in an interconnected world where the state is more tamed, performs less functions, and other actors in world politics bring more peace, cooperation and mutual benefits, which further curtails the scope of the state and its willingness to use force (Keohane & Nye Jr, 2017).

Constructivism also takes the state as the main actor (at least in the mainstream versions of the theory), but it does not essentialise its properties. Unlike previous theories, we do not how states are and act: their identities and interests are constituted to a great extent by international culture (Meyer, Boli, Thomas, & Ramirez, 1997). The constructivist take focuses on how world politics constructs the state and how states construct world politics (Wendt, 1999). In more recent versions of constructivism, this prerogative are not exclusive to the state: domestic politics also construct state identity (Hopf, 1998) – and so do international organisations (Johnston, 2008) –, and even non-state actors, like transnational advocacy networks and NGOs, transform state conduct and international normative understandings (Risse & Sikkink, 1999).

A feminist analysis necessarily looks inside the state to reveal structures of female oppression, relinquishing the state-centrism of the aforementioned theories. Feminists critic neo-realism and others for naturalising the state in IR analysis, which precludes the observance of domestic oppression of women (Marhia, 2014). They would highlight how international factors harm women, for instance, when international sanctions have disproportional impact on women and girls in conflict areas (Tickner, 2002). Some go as far as claiming that the so-called ‘social contract’, hence the state, was built upon a patriarchical structure that subordinates women to men (Pateman, 1988). More than hiding oppression, states are tools and vehicles for this oppression.

Post-colonialists put forward an epistemological critique of the state, underlining the hierarchies and hypocrisies of universal statehood that colonialism left. First, sovereignty as it is understood today (territorial integrity, independence on internal affairs, etc.) is a Western creation that excluded non-Western territories for long, legitimising Western dominance over them under the pretext of bringing them up to the ‘standard of civilisation’. Second, statehood and sovereignty nowadays are by no means universal: they are conditional upon meeting Western criteria such as being a democracy or respecting political or civil human rights – then again, the idea that non-Western states are inferior and that they should obey to a ‘standard of civilisation’ remained from colonial times (Pourmokhtari, 2013). The penalty from failing to meet this is the waiver of sovereign rights and the subjection to Western interference or even violence. International institutions are major actors here besides Western states in imposing Western standards to these states.

Marxists would agree that about the role of such institutions, but would alternatively argue that they seek to impose neoliberal policies that foster the market at the expense of development and of the well-being of the working classes (Holman, 1984). The classes (rich business elites vs impoverished working classes), not the states, are the focus of their analysis, but states play a big role in the determination of the fate of the latter: i) core rich states, controlled by business and economic elites, lock periphery states in the global capitalist system to prevent them from developing and for growing at their expense (Wallerstein, 1974); ii) the first set of countries controls institutions that further their integration into markets, making their development even harder. Transnational corporations are also major players in this game, because they exploit cheap natural resources in the periphery and sell them back rich manufactured products to profit. They also are seen to erode the authority of the state in the context of an international market: they can prevent governments from raising corporate taxes or adopt protectionist policies, conditioning social policies, by threatening to withdraw their investment and capitals from the country (Silva Júnior, 2004).

So, what to make of the state in IR? First, looks like positive normative views of the state are rare. Neo-realists say they are prone to conflict, liberals would argue that the market and IOs do a better job than states, feminists say they are naturally oppressive, and several authors from diverse theoretical standpoints blame the state for the most horrible atrocities: state boarders are used to keep immigrants and refugees out, states are the most frequent human rights violators, inter alia.  Some theories would have room for a positive view though: Marxists would like to increase the autonomy of the state from markets, so it could pursue policies that work for the workers; post-colonialists would like state sovereignty to exist de facto for post-colonial states, so they could be free from Western domination. But I would argue that the state’s authority is rarely seen as good.

The debate about how important is the state today vis-à-vis other actors is more divisive. Some authors concur that in a scenario of globalisation, interconnectedness and institutionalisation at the international level, the state “lost much of its former autonomy vis-à-vis international institutions and societal actors, and is now entangled in a web of multiple and interconnected centres and layers of political authority” (Hurrelmann, Leibfried, Martens, & Mayer, 2007, p. 1). The EU takes a lot of typical state functions like law and tariffs setting, as well as controlling monetary policy. Others stress how the state still reins: “States decide to go to war. They erect trade barriers. They choose whether and at what level to establish environmental standards. States enter international agreements, or not, and choose whether to abide by their provisions, or not” (Lake, 2008, p. 41). Despite all rules and other actors, states may do whatever they’d like in the end of the day, just look at Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. This debate is far from unresolved.

Theoretically, we saw how different theories deal differently with state-centrism. The extent to which IR should focus its analysis on state interactions is disputed, but the primacy of the state in theory and empirics has been gradually waning. As to what states are and do, some claim they have inherent features (patriarchical, security-maximising, economically exploitative), while others say this is uncertain and fluid, depending on factors such as interactions with other agents and norms, or position in the world economic system. What we know is that there is a lot we are not sure about the state, but we do know that the state is alive, and so is the debate about it.

Diogo Machado

MA Student of International Relations: Global Governance and Social Theory

University of Bremen & Jacobs University


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