7 Canonical Books on International Relations

Sorry, no pop-politics pieces here. The purpose of this short list piece is to chronicle the seven best pieces of literature, whether they be articles or books, on the subject of international relations. These books obviously lean towards the understanding of conflict between interstate actors but they form the foundation of international relations as a whole. They outline the fundamentals, the deep theory, and the canon of international relations, and to understand them and digest will give anyone a bit of authority. The key to all of these books is they seek to predict behavior, and to predict behavior is the magic bullet of peace theory. So this article goes out to the scholars, the professionals, and the armchair politicos in desperate need of more meat on the bones of an argument.

1. Neorealism and Its Critics

What better way to start of this list than with the reinterpretation of the founding theory of international relations, realism? In this book the editor compiles the works of many prominent contemporary academics in order to outline the theories and also provide criticism of them as well. Neorealism breaks down into two subsets, offensive and defensive realism, and seeks to curtail the humanist thinking of the old standard realism and apply structural constraints. This book is important to understanding international relations for two reasons. The first is that at the end of the day the theory itself is self-proving and tautological, and the second is that it is the dominant policy of most of our world's governments today. Insider Tip: Focus on the entries by Waltz, the grandfather of modern international political thinking.  

2. The Tragedy of Great Power Politics

The book's author, John Mearshiemer, attempts to add even more weight to the theories outlined by Waltz and Morgenthau before him.  The theory of his book is that all the assumptions about how so-called Great Powers will not fight is wrong. Mearshiemer falls flat on his face throughout the entire book by falling victim to the self -roving evidence of realism and essentially coming to the conclusion that Great Powers seek power to ensure peace and the only way to ensure peace is through war. Why though include this book if it falls so short of offering effective predictive measures? One simple reason: It benefits the reader to understand the field's weakest points. This is a good place to start for anyone who wants to make a good argument against the tighter arguments presented by Waltz. Insider Tip: When reading Mearshiemer stay focused on the question, "What is he predicting and how?" 

3. Rationalist Explanations For War

This seminal piece by James Fearon outlines one of the most provocative arguments for why states act the way they do in any given situation. His argument centers around two things incentive and information. Fearon outlines that all interactions between states are bargaining ones with each actor leveraging information and even false information. Fearon introduces incentives to act and even incentives to deceive. The weak points however are that Fearon operates in a world of perfect information, which is fine for this piece in that it is the legs that many theories afterwards stand on.  Insider Tip: There are a lot of quantitative methods in this piece. You can skip them and still know the theory, which is most important. 

4. Politics Among Nations

Written in 1948, this book by Hans Morgenthau represents the first major foray into defining international relations. Morgenthau introduced the world to realism, which led to the framework for U.S. foreign policy throughout the Cold War. Morganthau's realism takes a more philosophical approach to the actor, portraying the "Statesman" as a noble thinker. What is interesting about this piece is that although largely diminished now in favor of rationalism and neorealism, the structural frameworks that made Waltz famous are present here in their infancy and making note of them and how the literature has evolved is worthy of mentioning. Insider Tip: When reading Morganthau, try your best to read it from the perspective it was written in, then apply it afterwards.

5. The War Puzzle Revisited

Authored by John Vasquez, a professor at the University of Illinois, this piece does what only one other piece so far has done: offer a solid predictor for when war occurs. Vasquez starts by criticizing the relevant theories before his own and deduces that the three prominent theories, offensive realism, rivalry theory, and alliance theory, all are enforced by one predictor: territory. It may seem rudimentary but Vasquez masterfully and successfully underpins territory as the main predictor of conflict. His only weakness is coming up with specific indicators of when territorial issues occur. Insider Tip: Vasquez makes up for his shortcomings in his index with over twenty pages of suggested topics.

6. A Bargaining Model of War and Peace: Anticipating the Onset, Duration, and Outcome of War

The authors of this article, Filson and Werner, seek to extend the assumptions made by Fearon as they pertain to the role bargaining plays in international relations. In Fearon's model, war or militarized conflict (war being defined officially as 1000 battle deaths) is the end of bargaining. From a diplomatic standpoint this rings true, however Filson and Werner suggest that from an information-gathering standpoint war is just an extension of bargaining and information collecting. Filson and Werner thus explain the lack of total war and the existence of peace treaties. Insider Tip: Make sure to read Fearon before Filson/Werner and focus on their takes on information and its importance to international relations. 

7. War and the State

Wagner takes no prisoners with this book.  He outlines in plain sight and without dancing around the issues the audacity of realist claims as well as any number of other theories. Although he leans towards the rationalist and bargaining models, his main thesis centers around the weak predictive nature of any one theory alone and in a way calls for a marrying of the stronger arguments of all of them. So to anyone who sits in a particular school and refuses to budge, Wagner might appeal to seeing how the other half lives. Of all the books on this list this one does the best job at explaining international relations and conflict in the entire sense. Insider tip: After reading Waltz or Mearsheimer, revisit or look at Wagner's first chapter.

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Tom Hagist

Graduate of the University of Rhode Island's Political Science Master's program. Former United States Navy Civilian contractor and avid rationalist in the world of political science.

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