Approaches to Global Politics

Key Concepts
  • sovereignty
  • the nation state
  • theories of global politics
  • globalisation
  • interdependence
  • transnational corporations
  • global and local

 Syllabus Outline
    A knowledge of the divisions between realism and idealism, and of the ideas of an anarchic international system and a society of states.

    A knowledge of the processes of globalisation and its impact on the states system.

    A knowledge of the factors driving globalisation (economic, cultural, political) and an awareness of debates about the impact of globalisation, and particularly its implications for the nation-state, and debates about the benefits and drawbacks of globalisation.

    Scheme of Work

    Sovereignty — the fundamental characteristic of a nation state is sovereignty. Sovereignty implies that not only do states enjoy ultimate authority within their territory, and so have supreme decision making and enforcement powers, they also enjoy legal equality with other nation states. Thus sovereign states do not recognise the authority of any supposedly supreme international body.

    Theories — for centuries, political theorists have attempted to explain the origins of international conflict. Since Machiavelli, political realism has dominated policy makers and academics alike. Realists believe that politics is a constant struggle for power and nation states operate to serve their own national interests. Realists also believe that political struggle between humans and international conflicts between nation states are inevitable as they inevitably seek to gain more power and influence. Realists argue that state sovereignty ensures that the global system is anarchical. Thus states cannot rely on organisations such as the UN or concepts such as international law because powerful states will either ignore bodies such as the World Court or seek to use their power to influence the workings of the UN, etc. In contrast, liberalism stresses that governments, not people, cause war. As democracies promote ‘government of the people, by the people, for the people’, it is argued that peace can only be secured if democracy is spread throughout the world. Moreover, free trade will ensure mutually compatible aims of economic growth and prosperity and states will not wish to make war because economic growth, harmony and peace ensure that the national interest is served. If disputes do occur, international law and legal bodies will enable disputes to be settled without military conflict. Finally, collective security will ensure that aggressive states will find the cost of war to be too great, with the prospect of victory too small, and so military conflicts will be avoided.

    Globalisation — the increasing interconnectedness of states and societies and a multifaceted concept involving economics, culture, sociology and communications. As well as being aware of the different facets of globalisation, students will also examine the implications of globalisation for the nation state and the traditional state-centric global system.

    Content Explanation and Advice

    Key Themes

    Historical Background to Global Politics (Note: questions will not be set on historical issues alone)
    World wars of 20th century (WW1 and WW2); Cold War period (1945 as turning point in world history?); post-Cold War period (1989-91 as turning point in world history?); globalization (international trade and interdependence since 1980s and 1990s); 'war on terror' (9/11 as turning point in world history?).

    Sovereignty and the State-System
    Emergence of the modern state-system (rise of modern state in 17th century Europe; decline of other forms of authority (Papacy, Holy Roman Empire etc); 1648 Peace of Westphalia); development of nation-states (rise of nationalism from late 18th century onwards; nature of nation-state (political and cultural unity)); state-centric view of international politics (billiard-ball model)

    Nature of sovereignty (principle of absolute and unlimited power; internal sovereignty (unchallengeable authority within state borders; monopoly of legitimate means of violence,etc); external sovereignty (state/national sovereignty; legal equality of states; principle of non-interference; inviolability of borders, etc); sovereignty in practice (hierarchy of states; imperialism, etc.)

    Debating the relevance of sovereignty – realist belief that states, and therefore sovereignty, remain key to global politics; state sovereignty as basis for international law (norm of noninterference), etc. Erosion of sovereignty - development of 'post-sovereign' states; economic globalization and the loss of economic sovereignty; permeable borders and transnational actors (transnational corporations (TNCs), nongovernmental organisations (NGOs), terrorist groups, etc); growth of regional and global governance; trend towards humanitarian intervention; 'failed states', etc.

    Theories of Global Politics (Note: questions will only be asked on realism and liberalism)

    Key themes of realism – traditionally the foremost theory of international politics; power politics; states as key global actors; nature and origins of state egoism (human egoism,classical realism); international anarchy and its implications (self-help and survival force states to prioritise national security and military power); importance of balance of power;ethical considerations irrelevant to foreign affairs, etc. Realist theories of war and peace (war is inevitable; human aggression, etc; implications of international anarchy); security dilemma (fear and uncertainty mean that a possibly defensive military build-up by one state will always be interpreted as aggressive by other states, hence arms races and international tension); only the balance of power maintains (ever fragile) peace.

    Key themes of liberalism – liberalism as key form of idealism (belief that international politics should be based on morality); optimism about human nature (reason and progress);tendency towards balance or harmony in human (and international) affairs; bias in favour of cooperation (complex interdependence; growth of international organisation and global governance) etc. Liberal theories of war and peace – political causes of war (multinational empires (Woodrow Wilson); authoritarian government; economic causes of war (economic nationalism; autarky); diplomatic causes of war (balance-of-power systems); how peace is upheld (free trade and commercial liberalism), national self-determination, democracy ('democratic peace' thesis, republican liberalism), international rule of law (institutional liberalism).

    Radical theories – Marxism/neo-Marxism (critique of international/global capitalism;core/periphery analysis; world-system theory; dependency theory, etc); anarchism (corruption of state power; hegemonic states seek world domination).

    (Note: questions will not be set on radical theories as such; they are nevertheless relevant, for instance, to debates about globalization and the causes of poverty).


    Nature of globalization – widening and deepening of interconnectedness and interdependence; economic globalization (neoliberalism; interlocking financial markets and transnational capital flows; increase in world trade, etc); cultural globalization (cultural homogeneity; information and communications revolution; time/space compression); political globalization (emergence of global-governance system), etc.

    Impact of globalization - debate about extent of impact (‘hyperglobalizers’ vs globalizationsceptics vs ‘transformationalists’); implications for the state and sovereignty (tyranny of global markets? post-sovereign states?); rise of non-state actors (TNCs, NGOs, terrorist groups, social movements etc); growth of complex interdependence (competition through trade, not war); growing importance of international bodies (global problems need global solutions, regional and global cooperation); rise of cosmopolitan sensibilities (human rights;development ethics; global civil society, etc); impact of global economic crisis) etc.

    For and against globalization – Pro-globalization arguments: worldwide prosperity and growth; interdependence and dispersal of global power; democratisation; widening 'zones of peace', etc.; Anti-globalization arguments: risk and uncertainty (crisis tendencies in the economy etc); globalization as Americanization / westernization (biases within global capitalism); tyranny of TNCs (threat to democracy); deepening inequality and poverty; environmental degradation, etc.


    Liberals believe that global politics is biased in favour of cooperation for a number of reasons:
    • Liberals believe that a principle of "balance" applies to international affairs, and that it is reflected in the overlapping interests of states, i.e. advantages to states are not mutually exclusive, not "zero-sum" - "win-win" situations are possible
    • Cooperation amongst states is encouraged by economic interdependence, particularly in the form of international trade, which also helps to promote general prosperity, i.e. a lack of cooperation and hostility especially will only work to reduce prosperity in the long term and will therefore be avoided by rational actors
    • The global trend towards democracy promotes cooperation and reduces the incidence of war because democratic states tend to share the same fundamental political culture and values, i.e. "democracies do not go to war against each other"
    • The post-war trend towards enhanced global governance supports cooperation among states by establishing norms and increased trust, helping to facilitate rule-governed behaviour, e.g. membership in the UNO and global institutions of economic governance