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What is international relations (IR)?

Mike McCartney

15th April 2021

And can any examples be provided of what kinds of topics or questions it looks at?

Yes, there was a good example of an key IR theme in the paper recently...

There was a brilliant piece in the Observer at the weekend about the power struggle between what some see as the three world superpowers, the USA, Russia and China.

International Relations is a popular adjunct to a degree in Politics for many students of A Level Politics. In terms of the availability of courses, a quick search reveals that there are a total (single honours and combined honours) of 655 related (I couldn't filter by straight IR courses) courses available at UK universities. These range from the likes of King's College, London (which is an IR course) with a standard offer of A*AA at A-Level to London Met (also straight IR) with a standard offer of 32 UCAS points. So, what is IR and how does it differ from 'straight' politics?

According to International Relations EDU, it can be defined as:

"International relations is the study of the interaction of nation-states and non-governmental organizations in fields such as politics, economics, and security. Professionals work in academia, government, and non-profits to understand and develop cooperative exchanges between nations that benefit commerce, security, quality of life, and the environment."

They go on:

"International relations (often referred to international affairs) has a broad purpose in contemporary society, as it seeks to understand:

  • The origins of war and the maintenance of peace
  • The nature and exercise of power within the global system
  • The changing character of state and non-state actors who participate in international decision-making."

Source: What is International Relations | What is International Studies (

The LSE outline the underpinnings of their degree in the subject thus:

"Questions of central interest to the programme are: Why, on the one hand, do states go to war and what impact does this have on the international system? Why, on the other hand, do they often cooperate and obey international law? What is meant by "governance" and how do we explain regional developments like the European Union, or the re-emergence of the United Nations?

We will also investigate the widely different character and circumstances of states, examining the implications of the highly uneven distribution of power, money, welfare and knowledge in the international system for the foreign policies of states towards each other, and for the maintenance of international order."


So, to Simon Tisdall's article in the Observer at the weekend.

In it he touches upon the idea of multi-polarity, the second or new cold war, the use of hard power, realism and the 'balance of power'. Cleverly, he argues that the relations between the USA, Russia and China are akin to those described by Orwell in 1984 (which would be a recommended read, or reread, for one's UCAS form if they were interested in pursuing IR for a degree, by the way).

From Tisdall's column:

"What’s now unfolding could be portrayed as the ultimate fulfilment of George Orwell’s nightmarish vision, in his dystopian novel, Nineteen Eighty-Four, of a world divided geographically, politically and militarily into three rival super-states: Oceania (North America plus Britain), Eurasia (Russia and Europe), and Eastasia (China).

Publication of Orwell’s book in 1949 coincided with the formation of the US-led North Atlantic Treaty Organization (Nato) and the emergence of Joseph Stalin’s Soviet Union as a nuclear-armed power. It also saw the proclamation of the People’s Republic of China by Mao Zedong. Yet these were early days.

Orwell’s prediction of an endless, three-way global confrontation proved premature. China needed time to develop. The Soviet Union eventually imploded. The US, declaring a unipolar moment, claimed victory. Yet today, by some measures, Orwell’s tripartite world is finally coming into being. 2021 is the new 1984."

Read the article in full here, if you are interested:

Mike McCartney

Mike is an experienced A-Level Politics teacher, author and examiner.

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