Book Review: International Relations: A Concise Introduction

International Relations:  A Concise Introduction, by Michael Nicholson

I imagine this book serves as a fairly familiar, if a bit outdated, primer for the IR field but for a variety of reasons this particular book fell short for me, mostly political in nature.  I do happen to be very interested in international relations [1], but the field itself has strong political implications and this book does not quite manage to dodge all the minefields.  There are some clear ways this book shows a political bias, as it would perhaps be unavoidable, but there are definitely some areas this book could have avoided if it was trying to appeal to an audience that didn’t happen to be leftist, and it failed in those opportunities, particularly in its enthusiastic speculation on climate and on its picture of the earth as a closed system, albeit a somewhat anarchical one.  One thing the author does well is to remind the reader that this book is an introduction to a debate, and so it is, and implicitly the author admits that International Relations is still very early as a field, given the fact that it seeks to tackle massive questions with a woefully inadequate theoretical framework.  One cannot fault its ambition, only its execution.

The contents of this book are admittedly brief enough, at about 230 pages of main material, that they do not present too much of a challenge for the reader.  Each of the book’s twelve chapters, moreover, contains recommendations for further reading, which means that if the reader likes the approach the author takes as well as his perspective that there are plenty more books to read if one is so inclined.  The chapters themselves are also organized in a thoughtful order, introducing aspects of anarchy in the international order, discussing states, nations, and governments, looking beyond the state to non-state actors in the modern world, providing a brief and mildly depressing history of the twentieth century, looking at imperialism and its general family of relationships, giving some of the theories of IR like realism, pluralism, and structuralism, giving post-positivist theories like Marxism, postmodernism, feminism, and constructivism, basically worthless theories, then moving on to issues of security, violence, and the military, before three chapters on global political economy, globalization, and the global environment before closing with a final chapter on the insoluble nature of moral problems in international relations.  It is striking that a book which seeks to present International Relations as much as possible in a scientific light should end where it should have begun, with a recognition of the essential nature of morality to any discussion of what is and what ought to be.

In reading this book, many of the fundamental problems of International Relations become more clear.  For example, the free rider problem, a difficult problem within societies, is even more difficult when one is dealing with states that do not really recognize any higher authority that does not agree with them or cannot be persuaded.  Additionally, many of the theories of the field are basically full of smuggled moral assumptions that masquerade as scientific approaches.  Related to this is the fact that much involving international diplomacy as well as the behavior of both state and non-state actors depends heavily on the psychology of the people involved.  The general fuzziness of matters of history as well as psychology make International Relations a particularly dodgy field when it comes to its own theoretical base.  A field is only as strong as its weakest link, and International Relations has plenty of weak links, and (perhaps unsurprisingly) plenty of people whose theories are a bit too close to home for more than loud yelling to happen in a world where alternative facts run rampant.  Welcome to the debate, indeed.

[1] See, for example:

About nathanalbright

I'm a person with diverse interests who loves to read. If you want to know something about me, just ask.
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5 Responses to Book Review: International Relations: A Concise Introduction

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