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POLS1402 Christopher Mao

First Midterm Examination 2617366

12th October 2017

What do the theories we have looked at to this point (idealism, realism, Marxism) tell us

about the prospects, and necessary conditions, for cooperation in international politics?

As an academic field still in its infancy, much of the foundation of International Relations

(IR) is supported by theories developed by global scholars following World War I, the event

acknowledged to have instigated the current discussion of IR. Central to this discussion are

the prospects and necessary conditions for cooperation in international politics and essential

to the search for perpetual peace and the cessation of global warfare. Three of the field’s most

influential theories; idealism, realism and Marxism both explicitly and implicitly address

these central facets, and propose distinct hypothetical solutions for the future of international

politics. It is the disparity between these three theories and their respective proposals which

provides a basis for the study of IR.

Considered the first world builders of IR, idealism sought to interpret the events of

WWI and provide political principles to adhere to for the future. Largely advocated by British

journalist, Norman Angell, and two-term President of the United States, Woodrow Wilson,

the theory of idealism is based off the notion that human nature is fundamentally good and

that ‘people are reasonable and empathetic’ (Dyson, 2015). In relation to the idea of

cooperation in international politics; it was the belief ‘that good people, acting ethically,

could transform the world into a pacific paradise’ (Dyson, 2015). As a consequence of

cooperation, progress of human affairs was possible through the nurture of our human nature,

and only hindered by bad institutions and values of the world. This hindrance is seen

tragically through Ned Stark in the TV series “Game of Thrones”, where an honorable and

virtuous behavior, to the point of stubbornness and naivety ultimately leads to his death. A

POLS1402 Christopher Mao
First Midterm Examination 2617366
12th October 2017

more tangible culmination of this school of thought; Wilson’s very own League of Nations

proposed the conduct of international politics through the exercise of democratic legal

principles and judicial process. Sprung from the widely accepted cause of WWI was in part

due to the concentration of power in monarchies, the League was built on the premise that the

more people involved in decision making, the ‘better’ that decision would be. The very

failure of the League can be argued, was due to a lack of enforcement powers, rather than

incompatible operation due to human nature. Likewise, the idea that war was a futile exercise

is echoed by Angell, albeit through an economics perspective, where nations no longer see

war as a viable option for gain with international affairs being modeled over free trade

principles (Dyson, 2015). Cooperation in large, therefore, was the product of a number of

conditions that would allow the inherently empathetic and respectful human nature to thrive.

A perfect example of the lack of these conditions is witnessed in the years leading up to

WWI; the presence of non-democratic states, weapons of war, and countless secret treaties

and pacts leading to the continental mobilization of Europe’s armed forces. Idealists believe

that it is within human nature to cooperate with another, and the necessary environment to

foster such in the realm of international politics is dependent on the existence of democracy

and order, the polar opposite of the conditions ever-present in the lead up to WWI.

As a direct antithesis of idealism, realism was a direct response to the perceived

failings of an idealistic approach to international politics during the “20-year crisis”

stretching from 1919 to the events leading up to WWII. Largely developed by Edward Hallett

Carr, drawing upon ideas theorized centuries earlier by Italian philosopher Niccolo

Machiavelli, realism focuses on a practical approach to world politics, distancing itself from

the intellectual and naively utopic take on the human condition. It stresses that human nature

POLS1402 Christopher Mao
First Midterm Examination 2617366
12th October 2017

is thought to be fundamentally bad or sinful, and to be human is to be innately driven by the

desire to dominate and compete for power. In the context of international politics, this

judgment on human nature is reflected in the nation state structure; which is believed to be in

a state of constant conflict, and the political scene as a whole described as a ‘war of all

against all’ (Dyson, 2015). As a result, progress and cooperation is viewed as a pipe dream

through the lens of realism. A much more achievable alternative and in turn, the ideal

scenario is relative stability of nation states between times of conflict. This is largely driven

by the concept of power being a fundamental desire of every human and in turn, affects the

ability of nation states to cooperate harmoniously. The basic human desire is best witnessed

through the Lannisters, particularly Queen Cersei, in Game of Thrones, who place their

pursuit of power as paramount and stop at nothing to achieve it. Realism stresses that while

cooperation between nation states can exist, nation states will only cooperate with each other

as long as it serves the interests of its own members. The notion of cooperation in the

environment of international politics is met with skepticism amongst scholars who adopt the

theory of realism, in that being human is to be selfish, and to use necessary force to promote

one’s own interests over others.

Separate from the conflicting theories of idealism and realism, Marxism places

importance on social and economic constructs of human society. Central to the theory of

Marxism is the world building principle that humans and politics are grouped by class. In

saying that, Marxism focuses on classes of humans rather than the drivers behind our inherent

human nature. Conceived in The Communist Manifesto by German political theorists Karl

Marx and Friedrich Engels, Marxism was adopted by numerous political leaders such as Mao

Zedong and Vladimir Lenin. The separation of society by class between the bourgeois (the

POLS1402 Christopher Mao
First Midterm Examination 2617366
12th October 2017

middle class) and the proletariat (the working class) is the fundamental principle behind

Marxism, and is believed to exist both in relations of domination and cooperation between

both humans and nation states on the international political stage. In turn, this distinction

between classes is also seen on the political stage, between capitalist states and communist

states, each adopting the role of the bourgeois and the proletariat respectively. Prospects of

cooperation between the two classification of nation states is directly hindered by the belief

that capitalist states are expansive oriented, in constant search for new markets and territories

to exploit and profit from to the point where they may be considered “evil”. Under Marxism,

it is the principle belief that communist states and the proletariat must protect themselves

from exploitation and wait for their impending self-disintegration. In this sense, it would be

rare to see states of different classifications cooperate with another in international politics. It

was critical to Marxism that the proletariat collaborate in their fight against the bourgeois,

and it is within this condition that communist states would see a level of cooperation.

Upon exploration of these three contrasting IR theories, it is apparent that they are

notably stark views of the political environment, with circumstances highly influential on

their formulation. While early IR theory is represented by idealism and realism and their

analysis of human nature at the basic level, Marxism views humans in collective groups of

social class. The dissonance between the theories of realism and idealism are evident in the

contrasting hypotheses of the state of nature thought experiment. For idealists, in the state of

nature, humans recognize each other and cooperative behavior quickly emerges. In essence,

people are reasonable and empathetic (Dyson, 2015). On the other hand, for realists, humans

are inherently sinful, and the scarcity of food and shelter bring out the violent, competitive

POLS1402 Christopher Mao
First Midterm Examination 2617366
12 October 2017
self in every human (Dyson, 2015). These opposing takes on human nature were born from

WWI and WWII and scholarly interpretations of the human drivers behind both wars, while

Marxism was born from scholars who strongly opposed capitalism in the mid 19th century.

Each of these theories stresses certain conditions for the prospects of political cooperation,

either through a thriving positive human nature, or through a necessity for survival.

Ultimately, while these three theories provide contrasting viewpoints about the

prospect, and necessary conditions for cooperation at the international political stage, it is

impossible to unequivocally state that one approach is better than the other. Instead, each

theory should be evaluated as a direct response to the political context from which they were

created, as they are none other than products of the perceived failures of international politics

at the time. While both idealism and realism have differing perspectives of human nature as

early ideologies in the IR field, Marxism takes a distinct approach in separating humans not

by their innate condition, but by their position on the wealth hierarchy. Indeed, each theory

necessitates certain conditions for international cooperation and at varying prospects, which

promise an idealized political prosperity.


Dyson, S. (2015). Otherworldly Politics - The International Relations of Star Trek, Game of

Thrones, and Battlestar Galactica. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press.

Maclean, J. (1998). Marxism and International Relations: A Strange Case of Mutual

Neglect. Millennium: Journal of International Studies, 17(2).

Thies, C. (2002). Progress, History and Identity in International Relations Theory: The Case

of the Idealist-Realist Debate. European Journal of International Relations, 8(2).