Great Debates (international relations)


In international relations theory, the Great Debates refer to a series of disagreements between international relations scholars.[1] Ashworth describes how the discipline of international relations has been heavily influenced by historical narratives and that "no single idea has been more influential" than the notion that there was a debate between utopian and realist thinking.[2]

First Great Debate

The "First Great Debate" also known as the "Realist-Idealist Great Debate"[3] was a dispute between idealists and realists which took place in the 1930s and 1940s[4] and which was fundamentally about how to deal with Nazi Germany.[5] Realist scholars emphasized the anarchical nature of international politics and the need for state survival. Idealists emphasized the possibility of international institutions such as the League of Nations. However, some have argued that defining the debate between realism and idealism in terms of a great debate is a misleading caricature and so described the "great debate" as a myth.[6][7]

According to revisionist narrative,[8][9] there was never a single 'great debate' between idealism and realism. Lucian M. Ashworth argues, the persistence of the notion that there was a real debate between idealism and realism, says less about the actual discussions of the time, and more about the marginalisation of liberal and normative thinking in the international relations in the post-war period.[10] Richard Devetak wrote in his international relations textbook:

The structure of Carr’s masterpiece revolves around the dichotomy between realism and liberalism. In fact, he helped create the impression that the newly established discipline was dominated by a debate between realism and liberalism. This subsequently became known as the ‘first great debate’, although – as Andreas Osiander (1998), Peter Wilson (1998), Lucian Ashworth (1999), and Quirk and Vigneswaran (2005) have shown – no debate actually occurred, if by that we mean a series of exchanges between realists and liberals. Indeed, recent work suggests that the very idea of narrating the discipline’s history as a series of ‘great debates’ is questionable. Even so, it is important for students to learn and appreciate the stories the discipline has told about itself, which is why I persist with the narrative.[11]

Second Great Debate

The "Second Great Debate" was a dispute between "scientific IR" scholars who sought to refine scientific methods of inquiry in international relations theory and those who insisted on a more historicist/interpretative approach to international relations theory. The debate is termed "realists versus behaviourists" or "traditionalism versus scientism".[12] This debate would be resolved when neorealists such as Kenneth Waltz (1959, 1979) adopt a Behaviouralist, and hence positivist scientific approach to their studies.

Third Great Debate

The "Third Great Debate" refers to the interparadigm debate between proponents of liberalist, realist and Marxist international relations theories,[13] as well as the academic debate between proponents of realism, institutionalism and structuralism.[citation needed] This debate was topical during the 1970s and 1980s.[14]


Some scholars have lamented the so-called "paradigm wars", particularly between (neo)realism and (neo)liberalism. Jack S. Levy argues that while the realism-liberalism debate “has imposed some order on a chaotic field,” the distinction ignores diversity within each of the two camps and inhibits attempts at synthesis. Levy suggests instead focusing on making testable predictions and leaving “the question of whether a particular approach fits into a liberal or realist framework to the intellectual historians.”[15] Bear F. Braumoeller likewise proposes that the “temporary theoretical convenience” of separating realism and liberalism “was transformed into ossified ontology” that inhibited attempts at theoretical synthesis. Socialization also leads to a situation where “scholars working primarily within one paradigm who attempt [to combine paradigms] are likely to be chastised for theoretical impurity.”[16]

Fourth Great Debate

The "Fourth Great Debate" was a debate between positivist theories and post-positivist theories of international relations. Confusingly, it is often described in literature as "The Third Great Debate" by those who reject the description of the inter-paradigm debate as a Great Debate.[17] This debate is concerned with the underlying epistemology of international relations scholarship and is also described as a debate between "rationalists" and "reflectivists".[18] The debate was started by Robert Keohane in an International Studies Association debate in 1988 and can be considered an epistemological debate, about how we can know 'things' rather than an ontological one,[19] that is to say a debate about what we can claim to know. As Balzacq and Baele summarize, this debate is "a discussion which, in the 1980s and 1990s, followed a composite claim for a more diverse, less epistemologically and ontologically naïve, and more critical IR".[20]


Steve Smith has argued that the differing positions have largely ignored each other meaning that it makes little sense to talk of 'debates' between rival theoretical frameworks.[21] Emmanuel Navon has argued that the three debates are a sham since there is nothing new about debating human nature and human knowledge, while the 'third debate' artificially imports the deconstructionist French fad into the study of International Relations.[22]

See also


  1. ^ Ken Booth, Michael Cox, Timothy Dunne,The eighty years' crisis: international relations 1919-1999, Issue 1, p1: "The story of international relations is conveniently told in a series of 'great debates'.
  2. ^ LM Ashworth, Did the Realist-Idealist Great Debate Really Happen? a Revisionist History of International Relations,International Relations, Vol. 16, No. 1, p31 (2002)
  3. ^ LM Ashworth, Did the Realist-Idealist Great Debate Really Happen? a Revisionist History of International Relations,International Relations, Vol. 16, No. 1, 33-51 (2002)
  4. ^ Ken Booth, Michael Cox, Timothy Dunne,The eighty years' crisis: international relations 1919-1999, Issue 1, p1
  5. ^ Richard Devetak, Anthony Burke, Jim George (2007) An Introduction to International Relations: Australian Perspectives, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, p. 90
  6. ^ Vigneswaran, Darsha, International relations’ first great debate : context and tradition.ISBN 0 7315 3133 7, p5
  7. ^ Peter Wilson (1998). The myth of the ‘First Great Debate’. Review of International Studies, 24 , pp 1-16
  8. ^ Wilson, P. (1998) ‘The Myth of the “First Great Debate”’, Review of International Studies, 24: 1–15.
  9. ^ Ashworth, L. M. (2002). "Did the Realist-Idealist Great Debate Really Happen? a Revisionist History of International Relations". International Relations, 16(1), 33–51.
  10. ^ Ashworth, L. M. (2002). "Did the Realist-Idealist Great Debate Really Happen? a Revisionist History of International Relations". International Relations, 16(1), 33–51.
  11. ^ Devetak, R., George, J., & Percy, S. (eds.). (2017). An Introduction to International Relations. Cambridge University Press, p. 13
  12. ^ Guzzini, Stefano (1998) Realism in international relations and international political economy: the continuing story of a death foretold, New York: Routledge, P. 32
  13. ^ Weaver, Ole,The rise and fall of the Inter-paradigm debate, International theory: positivism and beyond, Steve Smith, Ken Booth, Marysia Zalewski, p151
  14. ^
  15. ^ Levy, Jack S. (Jun 1998). "The Causes of War and the Conditions of Peace". Annual Review of Political Science. 1: 139–165. doi:10.1146/annurev.polisci.1.1.139.
  16. ^ Braumoeller, Bear F. (2009). "Rediscovering Complexity and Synthesis" (PDF). The Future of Political Science: 100 Perspectives (1 ed.). New York: Routledge Press. ISBN 978-0415997010.
  17. ^ Y Lapid, The third debate: On the prospects of international theory in a post-positivist era, International Studies Quarterly (1989) 33, 235–254
  18. ^ Smith, Steve (2007) "Introduction" in T. Dunne. M. Kuki, and S. Smith (eds.) International Relations Theories: Discipline and Diversity. Oxford: Oxford University Press. p. 10
  19. ^ Smith, S, (2007) 'Introduction' in Dunne, T., Kuki, M. and Smith, S. (eds.) International Relations Theories: Discipline and Diversity. Oxford: OUP. p. 5
  20. ^ "The Third Debate and Postpositivism : The International Studies Encyclopedia : Blackwell Reference Online". Retrieved 2016-12-12.
  21. ^ Smith, S. (2008) The Oxford Handbook of International Relations, C. Reus-Smit, D. Snidal (eds.),Oxford: Oxford University Press, p. 726
  22. ^ Emmanuel Navon, "The Third Debate Revisited" Review of International Studies 27/4 (2001), pp. 611-625

Further reading

  • Darshan Vigneswaran, Joel Quirk, International relations' first great debate: context and tradition, Issue 2001; Issue 2004 of Working paper, Dept. of International Relations, Research School of Pacific and Asian Studies, Australian National University, 2004
  • Mohamed Hamchi, “IR Fourth Debate: Pluralistic or Hegemonic? Limitations to Bridging the Gap,” Algerian Review of Security and Development, Issue n°1, July 2011.