X Welcome to International Affairs Forum

International Affairs Forum a platform to encourage a more complete understanding of the world's opinions on international relations and economics. It presents a cross-section of all-partisan mainstream content, from left to right and across the world.

By reading International Affairs Forum, not only explore pieces you agree with but pieces you don't agree with. Read the other side, challenge yourself, analyze, and share pieces with others. Most importantly, analyze the issues and discuss them civilly with others.

And, yes, send us your essay or editorial! Students are encouraged to participate.

Please enter and join the many International Affairs Forum participants who seek a better path toward addressing world issues.
Sat. February 04, 2023
Get Published   |   About Us   |   Support Us   | Login   | Join Mailing List
International Affairs Forum
IAF Articles
The Spectrum Toolkit: An Integrative Analysis of Conceptual Issues in International Relations
Comments (0)

An infinite number of conceptions exist regarding the nature of interstate relations in our world. Ideas, mindsets, and opinions are subject to vastly multifaceted realities. Efforts to make sense of our world order, or lack thereof, are nonetheless plentiful. From Lenin to Fukuyama, attempts to theorize relations within and between states appears a deeply human struggle. These authors, subject to unavoidable human biases, often present opinions relating to specific conceptions of reality. This presents the need for an integrative analytic tool for international relations that acknowledges its limits and accommodates contradictive realities. In full comprehension of the complexity of the task, this piece will argue that states’ behavior internationally depends on their relation to a normative global discourse. Friction within and between states arises from both self-perpetuated and externally supported perceptions of peoples’ behavior, and thereby states’ behavior, diverging from this discourse. It can be understood as maintaining relative balance on five key spectrums.

Inspired by Jacques Derrida’s conception of deconstruction, the five spectrums identified are informal/formal (IF), sovereignty/self-determination (SSD), empowered/disempowered (ED), interdependence/independence (II), and hard/soft power (HS). They should be interpreted as conceptual tools, and not as a forum through which to remedy global misbalances. They will be developed through the application of the overarching internal/external (inside and outside the nation-state) dichotomy. This acknowledges the importance of exploring both the internal and external factors that influence IR as a whole, especially to understand the causal powers and interests of states (Wendt 1987: 346). Following the aforementioned order, the focus of each is as follows: internal (IF), internal to external (SSD), internal and external (DD), external to internal (II), and external (HS).

Post-positivism and post-modernism are the theories that both inspired the development of and assist in interpreting the five spectrums. Post-positivism reflects the normative dimension, recognizing human biases and the influence of perspective (Allmendinger 2002: 83). Post-modernism acknowledges the importance of language and discourse in the construction of realities (Alvesson and Sköldberg 2009: 19). Additional international relations theories, explicitly Marxist, realist, feminist and international political theories, will be employed for particular spectrums to enhance the depth of their analysis.

 Before the five spectrums can be explained and analyzed, a brief critical engagement of Stephen M. Walt’s attempted summary, as well as Laura Sjoberg’s response, will be conducted to provide critical context.

When critiquing authors’ synopses of IR, it is important to recognize the language they employ, particularly their motivation and tone. Self-reportedly motivated by a comedic television sketch, Walt’s piece is laced with an almost mocking review of modern tertiary education requirements to attain a degree in IR. He identifies five issues familiar to any IR student, as consistent themes of IR syllabus worldwide, and articulates them in language typically aligned with realist theory. Identification of an anarchic international system, that “consists of relative capabilities and interacting units (states) are key realist concepts (Sterling-Folker 2006: 22). Sjoberg’s response, motivated to oppose the issues he raised with her own conceptions, is therefore as pigeonholed as the institutions Walt refers to. Her piece, emphasizing the importance of people’s social constructions, particularly disadvantaged ones, in constructing global politics, takes the tone of feminist theory. Opposing the ‘mansplaining’ of Walt, Sjoberg palpably depicts IR as a field controlled by patriarchy, “held to be a structural feature of all social orders” (Steans 2013: 25). A major flaw of such previous attempts is their narrow focus on a chosen theoretical approach. Walt’s text takes the tone of power and chaos, while Sjoberg’s takes one of subjugation and dominance. It is this choice of theory-based language and targeted motivation that renders the reality presented by both pieces unconstructive when endeavoring to consider opposing realities.

With these flaws identified, the five spectrums can now be developed as a toolkit that accommodates competing theories, ultimately assisting in comprehending IR in a more holistic manner.

The first spectrum (informal/formal) relates to the formality of a state’s internal informal norms. Following the assumption made by North, individuals’ behaviour in society is reliant on the pervasiveness of informal constraints present within that state (1990: 36). As such, Sjoberg’s identification of the ‘private sphere’ should not be considered as synonymous with informality. Rather, informal constraints are interpreted as codes of conduct, norms of behaviors, and broader social conventions, rather than simply the ‘non-public’ (Sindzingre 2006: 19). It is the extent to which formal structures, explicitly the written language of legislation and constitutions are developed to reflect informal norms that determines a states placement on this spectrum.

The informal end of the spectrum represents a total absence of formal legal structures, where informal norms solely influence behavior. The formal end represents formal structure entirely detached from societal informal norms, and therefore typically enforced on people regardless of their will. A perfect balance on this spectrum would entail a state whose formal structures perfectly reflect the informal norms of its people.

A theoretical example of positions on the spectrum provides useful illustrations of what they may signify. For instance, a Marxist interpretation of the informal end of the spectrum may interpret it as a realization of the defeat of the formal capitalist hegemonic ruling structures, dictated by the bourgeoisie, and the emancipation of man to live entirely by his informal norms. As Marx and Engels articulate, “the proletariat…cannot stir, cannot raise itself up, without the whole superincumbent strata of official society being sprung into the air” (1848: 250). Total informality in this case is synonymous with total emancipation, and a dissemblance of the formal structures. This theoretical utilization demonstrates that the extreme of either end may not always be conceived of as detrimental. Comprehending how terminology dictates what these informal norms are and how they’re interpreted is necessary to employ the spectrum as an analytical tool.

A gap in IF spectrum is that it does not comment on whether the informal norm, typically dictated by majority opinion, has a positive or negative effect on society. The IF spectrum, however, does not attempt to solve such internal imbalances between majority and minority, as those imbalances are subject to how the discourse of informal norms is presented and interpreted.

As such, the informal/formal spectrum still sheds necessary light on the development of internal norms of states that impacts wider behaviour, and therefore acts as a foundational conceptual dichotomy for analyzing international relations.

The second spectrum (sovereignty/self-determination) can be conceptualized as the extent to which a state’s internal representation of its people is matched by the legitimacy of the external recognition of sovereignty it receives from the international community. There are two distinct vocabularies of this spectrum. Firstly, the state-bound ethics of principal, where state sovereignty is accepted internally by its populace and supported externally by international law, grounded in the legal principles of the Peace of Westphalia (Krasner 2001: 25). Secondly, the stateless ethics of virtue, where state sovereignty is not accepted internally by its populace, and claims of self-determination are supported externally by international law. This is recognized in Articles 1 and 55 of the UN Charter, which stipulates the virtue of “equal rights and self-determination. Further, several international conventions such as the ‘International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights’ and the ‘International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights’ affirms the right of self-determination (Attorney-General’s Department 2015).  Given that both claims are contradictorily supported by different international legislations, the level of peoples’ internal identification with their states externally exerted sovereignty determines its placement on this spectrum.

The sovereignty end signifies an internal perception that the state represents perfectly its entire people, and a complete support for that representation over all others. The self-determination end of the spectrum signifies an entire populace’s conception of being unrepresented by the state, and therefore seeking to be acknowledged as separate from the state. The balance is the capacity for a state to adequately represent diverse factions of its population.

The application of realist theory is useful in grasping how this spectrum can be utilized. Realism, particularly a Waltzian structuralism version thereof, often refers to states as “abstract, characterless concentrations of capabilities” (Sterling-Folker 2006: 52). Under this theoretical lens all countries would fall on the sovereignty end of the spectrum, as the focus is narrowed to the external that is detached from the people and their claims. Applying realism here strongly sways the placement of all states on this spectrum.

A core gap in the SSD is the assumption of pluralist ethics that relies on a horizontal, rather than hierarchical, conception of state sovereignty. It attempts to express global relations as more than a narrowly defined Machiavellian world of anarchical power politics, as Walt seems to do. Subsequently, it potentially overestimates the ethical adherence apparent in Kant’s horizontally conceived community of mankind (Moore and Farrands 2010: 35). If states were to simply ignore the ethical norms, or normative discourse of ethics, requisite for functional dialogue between sovereign states, then the realm of global affairs becomes far more ambiguous to categorize.

The sovereignty/self-determination spectrum nonetheless brings attention to how internally representative a state is of its people; exposing its legitimacy in the external international relations it conducts.

The third spectrum (empowered/disempowered) can be understood as the level and nature of power a state has in global affairs. Recognizing that power in one of the most contested and complex ideas in the social sciences, Barnett and Duvall’s conception of power will be utilized for simplicity. They identify three levels of power, which together present power as the ability of a state to fulfill their goals (Barnett and Duvall 2005: 38). This does not imply the disenfranchising implicit within Sjoberg’s conception of hierarchical power imbalances. Nor is it the zero-sum interpretation of a ‘balance of power’ that Walt raises. It is possible for all states’ to be equally placed on this spectrum if they are all fulfilling their own goals.

States placed on the empowered end would require dominance over other states to achieve their goals (dominant empowerment). Those on the disempowered end would not be fulfilling their goals because the others, intentionally or unintentionally, do not allow it (power dominated). Achieving state set goals in an international context, without disadvantaging others states, is balance on the ED spectrum.

Both internal and external power must be equally considered here. The internal check is included to ensure that states that maintain international empowerment at the cost of disempowering their internal populace are not unduly perceived here as more balanced. For example, using feminist theory, if states’ external goals are fulfilled while its internal structure maintains gendered disempowerment, then it cannot be counted as truly empowered. As Louis McNay argues, dividing the international from the domestic often maintains a hegemonic masculinity that insulates global contemplation from the arguable subjugation of women worldwide (2013: 163). Employers of this spectrum should always clarify the internal/external divide when presenting placements, so that aspects of internal imbalance, such as the poverty raised by Sjoberg, is not ignored.

The empowerment/disempowerment spectrum provides integrative context into the level of realization of state goals both internally and externally, and subsequently their motivation for the relations they seek to fulfill those goals.

The fourth spectrum (interdependence/independence) concerns the extent to which a state externally relies on others to maintain their internally sought quality of existence. Reliance can take the form of trade, financial aid, and a myriad of factors requisite for survival (Santos 1970: 233). It is undeniable that globalization has changed IR conceptions, with technological advances and rising multinational partnerships. A more globalized world order has influenced theorists to increase their focus on both the internal and external factors. Waltz (1979) and Jervis (1997), for instance, give priority to factors of the international system like polarity, while Moravcsik (1997) and Milner (1997) prioritize domestic features as key to understanding increased interconnectedness. It is the extent to which a state interacts with other states for the purposes of retaining their desired life quality that determines its position here.

The II extremes in this case are relatively self-explanatory. The interdependence end represents a total dependence on others states to support the desired life quality. The independence end represents total self-sufficiency, and further a lack of desire to participate in global relations/trade as a consequence. Balance here is a state actively participated in global affairs while retaining the sustainable ability to function independently.

A potential gap in this spectrum is its reliance on existing imperfect methods of measuring quality of living, such as GDP and the HDI index. However, as arguably the best existing measurement mechanisms, our conception of their effectiveness might be self-fulfilling (Helpman 1998: 70). Given the perceived power of these methods’ abilities to reveal the intricacies of a states development, they serve as useful guides to how states should perceive each other and what they can offer.  They are therefore important to take into account when considering how dependent a state may be, influenced by a measurement that ostensibly reveals the value that can be received by partaking in international relations.

The interdependence/independence spectrum is an essential consideration of states behavior towards others on a global scale, based on their placement between overreliance and isolation.

The fifth and final spectrum (hard/soft power) refers to the methods used to conduct external international relations. Hard power can be broadly understood as influence exerted by economic or military means, and soft power as power pursued through more indirect means of moral authority, diplomacy, culture, and history (Stolberg 2006: 3). The extremes of both ends of the HS spectrum signify the use of one form of power at the exclusion of all others. Balance can be articulated as an adoption of smart power, defined as “complementing military and economic might with greater investments of soft power” (ibid).

While the identification of such methods is arguably straightforward, the impact this has on global balances is far more complex. This spectrum allows consideration of the predominance of certain techniques, but the assessment of their effects is dependent on perspective. Under international political theory (IPT), emphasis is put on questioning the principles that underlie methods of power to uncover the assumptions underlying them (Burchill et al 1996: 293). The assumption of using purely hard power may be that it’s more realistically viable in ensuring the principle of state security (echoing realism). Soft power may be preferred if binding state-centric security measures are conceived to be inadequate to foster maintainable relations (echoing cosmopolitanism). Employing IPT reveals that perspective influences the choice in methods of power, and subsequently how a state may conduct its international relations.

The hard/soft power spectrum therefore provides contextual analysis of the motivation behind the behavior of states towards others, as shaped by the ‘smartness’ of the power they choose to employ.

In conclusion, the five spectrums provide conceptually marked points to better comprehend a state’s internal structure and external behaviors. Those that largely converge towards the center reflect a normative discourse, typically accepted by the majority of state, which implies similar behavior and subsequently less friction in the relations between those states. Applying Marxist, realist, feminist and international political theories has allowed deeper analysis of how different theoretical interpretations can skew a state’s capacity to converge with the normative discourse. The interpretation of language and motivation behind behavior, provided by post-positivist and post-modernist perspectives, illuminates the importance of perceptions that influence behavior internationally. The five spectrums allow both identification of key conceptual issues and further analysis of their theoretical and real implications. Their introduction, above all else, should serve to encourage deeper and more integrative consideration of the normative discourses that drive international relations. 

Author’s Bio: Jessica Tselepy is in her third and final year of a Bachelor of Arts majoring in International Relations and Psychology at the University of Queensland. She has a keen interest in the effect of human factors in international decision-making processes, particularly in conflict management and the international political economy. She hopes to pursue a career in the field of international relations, focusing on international security legislation and conflict resolution.




Allmendinger, P. (2002). Towards a post-positivist typology of planning theory.Planning Theory1(1), 77-99.

Alvesson, M., & Sköldberg, K. (2009). (Post-) positivism, social constructionism, critical realism: three reference points in the philosophy of science." In Reflexive methodology: new vistas for qualitative research, edited by M. Alvesson and K. Sk?ldberg. London: Sage Publications.

Attorney-General’s Department. (2015). Right to self-determination. Canberra, Australia.

Barnett, M., & Duvall, R. (2005). Power in international politics. International Organization59(01), 39-75.

Burchill, S., Linklater, A., Devetak, R., Paterson, M., & True, J. (1996). Theories of international relations (p. 10). London: Macmillan.

Dunne, T., Kurki, M., & Smith, S. (Eds.). (2013). International Relations Theories. Oxford University Press.

Helpman, E. (Ed.). (1998). General purpose technologies and economic growth. MIT Press.

Kirgis, F. L. (1994). The degrees of self-determination in the United Nations era.American Journal of International Law, 304-310.

Krasner, S. D. (2001). Sovereignty. Foreign Policy, 20-29.

Marx, K., & Engels, F. (1848). The communist manifesto. Karl Marx.

McNay, L. (2013). Gender and agency: Reconfiguring the subject in feminist and social theory. John Wiley & Sons.

Moore, C., & Farrands, C. (Eds.). (2010). International relations theory and philosophy: interpretive dialogues. Routledge.

North, D. C. (1990). Institutions, institutional change and economic performance. Cambridge university press.

Santos, T. D. (1970). The structure of dependence. The american economic review, 231-236.

Sindzingre, A. (2006). The relevance of the concepts of formality and informality: a theoretical appraisal. Linking the Formal and Informal Economy: Concepts and Policies, Oxford University Press, Oxford, pp58–74.

Steans, J. (2013). Gender and International Relations. John Wiley & Sons.

Sterling-Folker, J. A. (Ed.). (2006). Making sense of international relations theory. Boulder, Colorado: Lynne Rienner Publishers.

Stolberg, A. G. (2006). The international system in the 21st century. USAWC Guide to National Security Policy and Strategy, 2nd Ed., Carlisle Barracks, PA: Strategic Studies Institute, US Army War College, 3.

United Nations. (1945). Charter of the United Nations. United Nations 2015. Available at: http://www.unwebsite.com/charter [accessed 17 May 2015]

Wendt, A. E. (1987). The agent-structure problem in international relations theory. International organization41(03), 335-370.

Comments in Chronological order (0 total comments)

Report Abuse
Contact Us | About Us | Support Us | Terms & Conditions Twitter Facebook Get Alerts Get Published

All Rights Reserved. Copyright 2002 - 2023