This Introduction begins by outlining what is meant by international relations. It then tells the story of how and why the academic study of international relations emerged when it did in the early twentieth century. Knowing something about the discipline's origins does not tell us everything we need to know about international relations today, but it will help us to understand the legacy left by the discipline's original purpose and by older traditions of thought. Following that, it considers the need to ‘globalise’ the study of international relations, to make it an academic discipline more open to non-Western perspectives and forms of knowledge. It then sketches the contours of the changing agenda of international relations – a shift some scholars describe as a transition from international relations to world politics, or from the ‘traditional’ to the ‘new’ agenda. Although there can be little doubt that new theoretical and conceptual tools have become necessary as political reality has changed, we should not assume that the myriad changes to our world have rendered the ‘traditional’ agenda and its theories obsolete. Far from it: the ‘new’ agenda, as we shall see, supplements but does not supplant the ‘traditional’ agenda. It is now more important than ever to consider the relationships between ‘traditional’ and ‘new’ agendas, and to globalise international relations.
What are international relations?
Every day, the global news media carry stories of events involving foreign governments and their populations. Usually featured under the heading of ‘international affairs’ or ‘world news’, these stories all too frequently tell of political violence, lives and livelihoods lost, human rights violated, infrastructure damaged and hopes for the restoration of peace and prosperity dashed. War, terrorism, civil war and political upheaval rather than peace make the news headlines – and understandably so, because the violent conflict of war so visibly ravages human societies. ‘If it bleeds, it leads’, as the cynical media adage goes.
For over 2000 years of recorded history, humans have been fascinated and frustrated by war and its consequences, so we should not be surprised by its continuing preeminence. But human societies are harmed by so much more than war. Chronic under-development, poverty, political repression, racism and other human rights violations, environmental degradation and climate change are no less harmful, albeit less visible.