Theoretical Review of International Relations

Theoretical Review of International Relations

In theoretically portraying the world, researchers in the international relations field have come up with different theories to represent the world. Indeed, these theories provide significant insight to laymen in understanding the concept of international governance. Key among these theories is the world systems theory and the international system theory both of which conceptualize the world albeit in different ways. These two theories have different perspectives on how they portray the world in terms of the individual representations of the countries. While the international systems theory portrays the actors as political entities, the world systems theory encompasses a wider view of the political systems, cultural practices, economic relations as well as religious institutions (Boucher, 2008). The differences of the two theories notwithstanding, each of the theory portray the true happenings of the world and are equally effective in their application.

The international systems theory envisions the world countries as political entities with the overall state of the international system being regarded as anarchic in nature. In the theory, the state is considered as sovereign with no other authority existing above the state (Buzan & Richard, 2000). In representing the countries as sovereign states, the theory effectively dictates that each state must prioritize its interests above all other interests.  In the end, the theory pictures a scenario where states are staged against each other in the political arena with each accumulating as much power as possible. However, in the process of amassing political strength, world states have evolved a system of polarity through which they exert this power. Ultimately, system polarity is a collective number of blocs of states exerting power in the international arena.

One of the different types of exerting power is through multipolarity whereby the existence of a number of influential actors results in a balance of power. Normally, these actors are superpowers who define the international agenda and dictate the happenings in the world. Essentially, the norms of the system are vividly clear to each of the states such that the interest of one of the countries is not compromised in the process. The different actors may upset the balance of the system in cases where they do not follow the norms. In view of the same, the actors may form alliances to serve specific purposes which may shift from time to time depending on the interests of the actors (Buzan & Richard, 2000). In contrast, bipolarity system has a longer duration because it is based on permanent interests where two blocs may be formed against each other. In some instances, international organizations are loosely developed with the purpose of mediating between the two blocs. Still, there is another system known as hegemony whereby one state commands widespread influence in the international system.

The world systems theory encompasses a wider range of parameters in describing the state of the world. Indeed, the theory includes aspects of the political systems, cultural practices, economic relations as well as religious institutions (Kohl, 2007). Conceptualized by Immanuel Wallenstein in the 1970s, the world systems theory depicts wealthy nations as benefitting from other states through the exploitation of the citizens in these states. In the same breadth, however, the low status countries do enjoy minimal benefits in the world system, despite being exploited by the wealthy ones. The understanding behind the formulation of the theory is based on the fact that manner of integration of individual countries within the capitalist world system determines the economic development in the country. The theory therefore portrays the wealthy countries as enemies of the low status countries in terms of economic development.

The world systems theory suggests that the economic system is divided into three hierarchal units where countries are classified as core, semi peripheral or peripheral countries (Boucher, 2008). The renowned world superpowers form the core states and include countries such as Germany, Japan and the US. These countries are highly industrialized and urbanized making them dominant and capitalist in nature. In addition, core countries have high technology production patterns as well as high wages due to their capital intensive nature. In this regard therefore, the core countries have minimal exploitation and coercion in terms of labor. On the other extreme, peripheral states such as those in Africa and South America depend on core countries for capital. In addition, this dependence has rendered the peripheral countries to be less urbanized and equally minimally industrialized. Normally, these countries use traditional methods of production with low literacy rates and poor accessed to technology. The semi peripheral segment comprises of countries such as Taiwan, India, Brazil, South Africa, Mexico and Nigeria and most of the BRICs countries. The semi peripheral countries form a buffer between the core and the peripheral countries and are commonly referred to as the middle income countries.

The world systems theory further asserts that most of the world’s technology and capital is owned by the core countries. Indeed, these countries have greater control in economic agreements as well as world trade agreements in all the different spheres of development. Moreover, the core countries lead in terms of cultural development in the fact that they attract intellectuals and artists thus making them ideal cultural centers (Kohl, 2007). On the other hand, peripheral countries are the main sources of labor and raw materials for use in the core countries. In fact, it has been argued that labor and material flows from the peripheral countries to the core with finished products flowing in reverse. Still, semi peripheral countries also exploit the peripheral countries and are exploited by the core countries thus making them central states. Despite their exploitation from core countries, the semi peripheral states have a better economic balance compared to the peripheral countries. Overall, however, it is the core countries that extract the most benefit by retrieving raw materials from the other segments with little cost. The core countries also set the prices for raw materials that are exported by the peripheral countries to prices lower than the market price thus driving small farmers out of business.

The world systems theory has numerous strengths in its representation of the world. It acts as a guide in the description of the factors that affected the shaping of the world into its current state. In addition, the theory helps in bringing out a focus on the Western Europe region in the years between 1450 and 1670. The representation of the world in hierarchal segments helps in showing the importance of dependency in the world (Buzan & Richard, 2000). As thus, dependency is not a one-way process but incorporates the different divisions of the world to include both poor and rich countries. Another strength associated with the theory is the fact that it tackles and explains the concept of globalization in great detail. By extension, therefore people can adequately understand the basis of inequality from the angle of international labor division with the core countries undermining the peripheral states. The realization and acknowledgement of a semi peripheral segment in the theory presents a source of strength by presenting nations that do not conform to the two extremes.

Despite the many advantages, the world systems theory has weaknesses including the lack of insight on the constant changes of the world economy. In view of the same, fewer countries conform to the categories discussed in the theory as the world changes in all the different aspects of economy. For instance, the changes in social and economic aspects of China have changed its position in the categories over time thus rendering the theory ineffective (Kohl, 2007). Moreover, the representation of rich countries as colonial kings has dented their position in the international sphere with fewer countries willing to trade with the rich countries. The theory thus fails in bringing out international harmony between the rich and poor countries and presents a scenario where there is international suspicion. The international systems theory is narrower in both breadth and aspects thus making it less popular. In this regard, the theory has fewer strengths and weaknesses with lower approval ratings. It is effective in allowing for comparisons and contrasts between the different systems portrayed in the theory. In addition, the theory also adopts a holistic and comprehensive approach thus allowing scholars to organize the disjointed parts of the system into a whole.

The two theories are equally effective in their representation of the world by focusing on unique and ideal aspects of the world. However, the world systems theory is much more encompassing because it incorporates the political systems, cultural practices, economic relations as well as religious institutions. In this regard, the theory presents a better evaluation of the international politics by its incorporation of many factors in its analysis. However, the seemingly huge advantage that the theory has over the international systems theory should not be confused as a guarantee of its effectiveness. Indeed, part of this paper has faulted the world systems theory with regard to its analysis of the world. The effectiveness of the two theories is therefore dependent on the aspects that are under analysis on a case to case basis. That notwithstanding, however, the world systems theory forms a generally better evaluation of the concept of the world.




Kohl, P. L. (2007). The use and abuse of world systems theory: The case of the pristine West Asian state. Advances in Archaeological Method and Theory, 11, 1-35.

Buzan, B., & Richard, B. B. (2000). International systems in world history: remaking the study of international relations (No. 327 (091)). Oxford University Press,.

Boucher, D. (2008). Political theories of international relations (Vol. 383). Oxford: Oxford University Press.