Sample Term Paper on International Relations Theory and Policy-Making

International Relations Theory and Policy-Making


In the field of politics, theory is considered one of the important tools of statecraft since it provides the basic framework upon which decisions are made (Checkel, 2008). Logics in decision making provides for proper analysis and identification of a problem as well as designing a control plan to either prevent the problem from occurring or reduce its negative consequences (Onuf, 2012). It is however notable that most policy makers attach little significance to the vast theoretical literature, especially those focusing on International Relations (IR). Even though policy-makers still find no grounds to incorporate theories in their discussions for the purposes of ensuring process validity, one important aspect of IR theory to recognize is that its debates portray competing theoretical visions, which if ignored may result into foreign policy disasters (Checkel, 2008).

In this context, International Relations theory is considered essential for diagnosing socio-economic and political events; explaining the cause-and-effect relationships between such events; prescribing appropriate response strategy, and comparing and evaluating the impact of other policies across different political dimensions (Checkel, 2008). The fact that most policy makers ignore IR theory discourages scholars from providing useful information about IR theory that can aid in decision making, and as a result, majority of the theories used by policy-makers are either flawed or irrelevant. Therefore, the observable gaps between policy and IR theory must be narrowed before placing greater values on any policy-relevant theoretical work.

From the foregoing discussion, it becomes necessary for policy-makers to restructure the political environment to ensure system compatibility and understanding of the relevance of theory in areas of decision-making (Onuf, 2012). This paper focuses on the relationship between International Relations theory and Policy-Making, and discusses the ways and extent to which IR theory can be considered relevant to the decisions of policy-makers.

Characteristics of IR theory that make it relevant/desirable for policy-making

It is a common knowledge among scholars that policy decisions and their implementation can be affected by several factors like knowledge type, the experience of a policy-maker and typologies (Pollack, 2001). The knowledge and types of skill include policy-maker’s invariability and factual knowledge like information about the opponent’s force. The policy-makers can also apply the rule of thumb, classify situations based on specific traits, or apply empirical laws to determine the correspondence between reliable phenomena.

Before focusing on the relevance of IR theory as applied in policy decision, it is important to determine the extent to which the elements of IR can be considered efficient in policy making (Pollack, 2001). Studies have given the various traits of IR theory that makes it similar to other theories applicable in areas of policy creation and implementation. Just like other theories, the IR theory is considered logically consistent with empirical validity. This follows the fact that the theory has been tested and found to provide logical explanations that are consistent with the prevailing socio-economic and political conditions (Pollack, 2001). The IR theory if applied in policy decision would provide accurate guide that will connect every event and its cause as well as giving a description about how the events have succeeded in shaping the political environment. Other than the logics, the theory is complete in its context since it does not leave policy-makers wondering about the causal relationship of events. For example, an IR theory stating that “leaders only engage in war when they expect the utility of doing so to be higher than the expected utility of engaging in alternative choices is complete and logically impeccable (Pollack, 2001). The IR theory therefore gives enough reasons for policy makers to take action, especially if the outcome of the action is desirable. If, for example, an IR theory states that “human nature causes war” or rather “oxygen causes war,” the attention of policy-makers is drawn to the notion that without the mentioned elements, war cannot occur. IR theory also holds an explanatory power in the sense that it accounts for phenomenon that would otherwise appear mystified (Reinalda & Verbeek, 2003). The theory in this context becomes applicable in decision making because it illuminates the diverse array of particular behaviours that had seemed unrelated to the problem at hand.

Apart from the three traits that make IR theory desirable in decision-making, political decisions tend to focus more on theories that explain how a single policy is likely to affect the fates or lives of a wider population. This means that even though policy-makers may have different opinions about the relative importance of IR theory in decision-making, the fact that the theory is capable of explaining a problem that affects an entire population makes it desirable (Reinalda & Verbeek, 2003). The basis of this argument is begged on the understanding that a theory must not necessarily address a puzzle of individual’s interest for it to be considered applicable in serving the political needs of a population. In the same line of argument, IR theory is prescriptively rich and capable of yielding useful recommendations that can be followed to meet certain political goals. Bases on this reason, most scholars advise on the needs to include variable that can be interpreted by policy-makers so that there are some form of leverage as far as decision-making is concerned. For example, IR theory is known for its ability to explain why a particular policy objective cannot be met and this is important in decision making since it provides policy-makers with reasons not to pursue such an objective because of its elusive goals (Reinalda & Verbeek, 2003). The theory has become important in forecasting political condition and therefore the risks attached to poor policies can be easily avoided.


The relevance of IR theory in policy decision

Academic theorizing is a fundamental aspect when it comes to policy creation and process implementation. It is now clear from the studies conducted that most policy-makers dismiss IR theory because in many instances (Reinalda & Verbeek, 2003), the theory reveals the truth about individual’s political intentions and also criticizes some of the actions taken by government officials, especially in the event such actions are considered inextricably linked to particular policies. In everyday encounters, policy makers are challenged to figure out, before implementation, the events that merit attention of the public. This means that policy-makers must determine the issues or items to that can be excluded from the policy without realizing negative outcomes as well as determining the objectives or choosing policy instruments that will give the desired outcomes (Reinalda & Verbeek, 2003). Whether the policies selected are correct or wrong, it is still arguable that the selection is based on some sort of theory, and possibly the IR theory when it comes to national and global politics.

It is can also be noted that debates in domestic and foreign events cling on certain competing theoretical claims. This makes individual policy makers to believe that their choice of actions will produce the desired outcomes without giving attention to the claims made by other participants. For instance, policy makers believed partially on the different theories that were presented to explain the cause of conflict in Bosnia and Kosovo (Reinalda & Verbeek, 2003). During the war, there were those policy makers who believed on intervening through multi-ethnic democracy as the only way to end the conflict. These group of individuals put the entire blame on the machination leaders like Slobodan. On the other hand, the individuals who had touch with ethnic partition felt that the conflict was triggered by security dilemma, which was created by the intermingled population and the only way out was to disintegrate the population along the ethnic lines.

Having a common ground in decision-making is only possible if those involved policy creation are ready to listen to the views and policy intentions of other participants (Reinalda & Verbeek, 2003). With IR theory, it becomes possible to diagnose, predict, prescribe and evaluate the causes and effects of both socio-economic and political events. The contributions of IR theory in political decision-making or in the creation of relevant social and economic policies can be examined under the subheadings: diagnosis, policy prediction, prescription and process evaluation as discussed below.


Policy-makers are known to face various challenging circumstances that require proper diagnosis and presentation of facts. The information used in this context is in most cases ambiguous, and when seeking to address a recurrent problem or challenging event, policy makers must use IR theory to diagnose the problem or event in order to understand its nature, causes, effects and mitigation strategies (Richardson & Mazey, 2015). IR theory is also considered important when it comes to interpretation of problems since it provides a wider set of diagnostic possibilities to choose from. IR theory gives a less sophisticated diagnostic approach policy decisions and it simple typologies provide essential backgrounds used by policy-makers to devise appropriate response to challenging events (Richardson & Mazey, 2015). Through diagnosis, the IR theory becomes relevant in policy making since it assists individuals to design fashionable remedy to a problem even if the cause of the problem cannot be determined. Decision-making requires policy makers to have an understanding of their past, provide historical interpretations of events, give an analysis about how such events were solved and finally use the past solutions as benchmarks for the new policies (Richardson & Mazey, 2015). The general argument as posted in this section of discussion is that IR, just like other theories, takes policy makers through the diagnosis stages, which are relevant in the context of decision-making. For example, the discussions that were levelled against the Iraqi war had diagnostic elements of IR theory (Richardson & Mazey, 2015). For the political analysts who focused entirely on the personality of Saddam Hussein and his political regime, it was possible to classify him as an irrational serial aggressor who only acquires weapons for mass destruction. On the other hand, political analysts who focussed on the Iraqi external events predominantly saw Saddam as a risk acceptant and an irrational leader (Richardson & Mazey, 2015). The policy predictions were based on the different diagnosis and the aim was to shape the contrasting theoretical opinions, which today have important influence on contemporary policy recommendations.

After diagnosis, IR theory guides individuals through the research in order to obtain more information that would help in the development and implementation of a policy. It is possible to determine from the presented discussions that policy-makers have the tendency of relying on the existing knowledge such as factual information. The available IR theory does not deter such information, but rather assists individuals to make appropriate decisions concerning the kind of information to be included in the policy statement based on its relevance to the problem or event at hand (Risse‐Kappen, 2006). As an illustration, studies have indicated that both policy makers and theorists have better understanding of power in an important concept. Even though there is no a specific formula that can be used to measure the relative power of nations, we can never judge that power of actors by examining they the quality and quantity of opera production, or hair length of citizens, or the appearance the national flag (Risse‐Kappen, 2006). It is however noted that both policy makers and theorists use factors like population growth rate, gross national productivity, military power, and innovative prowess to determine the global influence because these factors make it possible for countries to affect the socio-economic and political functions of other nations.


IR theory is also relevant in anticipating events since it helps policy makers to identify the central casual forces in a political era. The predication is also based on the idea that IR theory provides a picture of the political world, which is important when it comes to understanding the wider context in which policies can be applied. The knowledge derived from IR theory can be used to make adequate preparations in order to prevent unnecessary problem developments (Risse‐Kappen, 2006). For example, the Cold War was marked by the concepts of liberalism, which intended to provide optimistic forecast about the collapse of communism and the spread of western institutions.

Similarly, IR theory can be used by individuals to predict how different nations or states can evolve overtime and the threat of a growing economy to other nations. The theory becomes applicable in determining the policy preference of a foreign nation and how such preferences will affect the economic performance of other nations (Richardson & Mazey, 2015). The predictions can only be made if there are policies that explain political trends, or how the conditions will in future evolve into a condition of change. For example, the case of China presents a situation where policy change has grown to affect the virtual behaviours of some political powers. China’s role in political economy increases by day affecting global production, economic performances and political decisions of other nations. According to the realists, the increased power and political recognition would in future make China more assertive. On the contrary, the liberalists argue that the transition from a dependent to an independent nation is likely to dampen global economy (Richardson & Mazey, 2015). The whole idea here is that the two theorists agrees to the fact that China is slowly expanding its economic and political capacities and this have significant impact when it comes to decision-making.


Domestic and global policy actions are developed and implemented based on the crude notion of causality. Policy makers may choose to implement policy B and not A or C if they believe policy B will produce some desirable outcomes than both A and C. The ability to determine outcomes and select the best policy out of the possible policies requires proper application of IR theories and specific prescriptions, which occur in various ways.

In the first prescription affects the choice of goals in which case policy-makers find the opportunity to evaluate the desirability, applicability and feasibility of each policy before final implementation (Richardson & Mazey, 2015). For example, the expansion of NATO followed the belief that the policy would help member countries stabilize the emerging democracies and also improve the influence of US across some of the important regions. The expansion of NATO was also considers a means to other goals, which could only be achieved through policy establishments. Apart from evaluating the desirability and feasibility of a policy, IR theory is considered relevant when it comes to designing means to achieve specific results (Richardson & Mazey, 2015). For example, the theory of deterrence informs policy makers that they must credibly threaten the things valued by potential adversaries in order to become political icons. With the help of IR theory, some of the policies have gone to the extent of explaining the role of international institutions in decision-making. It is also true that IR theories can be used by policy-makers to identify the conditions that determine whether a policy instrument is applicable and how likely the instrument will in improving condition. In general, the process of formulating a policy require proper generalization of contingent or conditional factors capable of affecting a global economy and its political regimes (Richardson & Mazey, 2015).


Theory is an important too used by individuals to determine the effectiveness, applicability, and efficiency of a decision. Individuals use theory as benchmark to find out if a policy is capable of achieving certain outcomes (Richardson & Mazey, 2015). It is possible that without a least a sketchy theory, it would be hard to identify the objectives of a theory and the definition of success or failure cannot be easily determined. In other words, IR theory becomes relevant as a tool used by policy makers to determine the extent to which a policy decision meets the objectives of individuals, states or political organizations.


The characteristics above make IR theory desirable for decision-making and the outcome of a policy can still be improved if the theories are stated clearly (Hudson, 2005). The only reason that sometimes makes IR theory undesirable in policy making is the fact that some of its elements are hard to understand. This would mean that potential users must take more time to read, understand, master or interpret the theory before deciding to incorporate in a policy (Hudson, 2005). An obscure theory or an impenetrable theory is likely to be rendered undesirable and not capable of influence the decisions of busy policy-makers. The fact that IR theory can improve decision making means that policy-makers cannot formulate policies without a rough idea about the relevance or importance of specific theories. The explanation why most policy-makers ignore IR theories underlies specific qualities and contemporary policy reminders derived from the incentives governing the political world.


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