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From this point on, we will begin our examination of the various theories of international studies and diplomacy. We will begin by examining the Systems theory as it relates to international studies, noting in particular the various theorists and how this theory helps us to explain what happens in the relations between countries at the regional and state levels.


At the end of this unit, you should be able to:

  1.  Explain the Systems theory 
  2.  Relate it to international studies 
  3.  Discuss Talcott Parsons Theory of Social Equilibrium 
  4.  List the names of the Systems theorists 


3.1 The Systems Theory

The systems theory is probably the most widely used in international relations. Borrowed from Biology and Engineering sciences, its emphasis is on the working mechanism of a set-up for goals attainment. System theory aids in determining a political system’s capacity for maintaining its equilibrium in the face of stress and for adapting to changes that are forced internally and externally. It is assumed that all existing political units interact with one another according to some regular and observable pattern of relationship.

A system is an autonomous unit of complex elements, which interacts and is capable of adapting within itself. Each set of element is interdependent. The behaviour of each state depends upon the behaviour of other states; or in terms of gamesmanship, every player’s move or “strategy” – the set of moves he calculates he must take to win – depends on the moves of every other player. A system, then, is an abstract way of looking at a part of reality for purposes of analysis; hence we speak of a human being’s “circulatory system”, in which the parts or “subsystems” – the veins, arteries, organs, and cells – must all work properly if the larger body system is to give peak performance or, perhaps run at all. In other words, when man eats, digestion takes place, as well as waste disposal. This helps to lubricate the body system for a healthy living leading to reproduction. Any malfunctioning, say the blood system, must destabilize other sub-systems; hence drug may be taken to create proper functioning for continuity.

In the game of international politics, each state in the state system is the guardian of its own security and independence. Each regards other states as potential enemies who might threaten fundamental interests. That is, each state action either destabilizes or attempts to maintain equilibrium. Consequently, states generally feel insecure and regard one another with a good of apprehension and distrust. The result is that all become very concerned with their strengths or power. In other to prevent an attack, a state feels it must be as powerful as the potential aggressor, for disproportion of power might tempt the other state to attack. A “balance of power”, or terror or equilibrium, however would make victory in war unlikely. Therefore, equilibrium will in all probability deter attack (Morgenthau Power Theory). “Equilibrium is balanced power and balanced power is naturalized power”. Thus, a balance of power is the preservation of the system itself. Any attempt by any nation to expand its power (destabilizes the system) and attain dominance, which would allow it to impose its will upon the other states; will be resisted. When the balance is disturbed, the tendency will be for responsive action to be taken to return it to a position of equilibrium. In other words, states are actors whose purpose is to play the role the system has “assigned” them in maintaining this equilibrium. If they fail in their assignment by disregarding the operational rule, that power must be counterbalanced, and thus place their own security in jeopardy. The balance of power is therefore an empirical description of how states do act (or more cautiously, how most of them, especially the great powers, act most of the time) and also a prescription for states to show how they should not. From the above analysis, a country is a subsystem whatever her behaviour is; it either destabilizes or maintains equilibrium. 

The twoworld wars and their intervention by the U.S and the former Soviet Union on other states have in one way or the other destabilized the system or maintained it. The middle east crisis destabilized international peace, created global oil price inflation and nurtured the solar energy idea and subsequent effort to explored international system through an attack situation could affect the functioning of the other subsystems and therefore the whole system.

Thus, American bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1941 partly brought World War II to an end. So was her bombing of Libyan cities of Tripoli and Benghazi to prevent Gaddafi’s imperialistic posture. That Saddam Hussein annexed Kuwait disturbed by the system, but the intervention of the UN and US-Allied Force, came to restore equilibrium in the Gulf.

The inability of the north to transfer technology to the south explains the imbalance in the economies of the third world. The Liberian, Sudanese, Somalian, Sierra Leonean, Rwandan, Burundi crises have disturbed the African system, but efforts by the ECOMOG, the AU, the US and the UN are ongoing to restore equilibrium.

3.1.1 Modernisation Theory

This theory argues that third world participation in the world economy through such channels of foreign trade, foreign investments, and foreign loans would transform the developing societies of Europe and North America. Underlying this argument was the assumption that active participation in the global economic activities on the part of the developing societies would stimulate a greater surplus and increased socio-economic development. Moreover, the activity of the state in the third world would expand, the middle class would broaden, labor would become more organized, and investment in education, health and other social services would increase dramatically. This theory tallies with the third world philosophy of development since independence and apart form some internal measure to redress the total adoption of the mechanism of the theory, it still forms the core of their development strategies. It was on the basis of this that third World states began placing much hope on foreign investment, export promotion and various strands of debt-relief, and their domineering presence in their budget speeches. It has since been discovered that despite the Third World’s increased participation in the international economic order, their economy seems to be stagnating. Despite the effort to reformulate the theory by distributing its shortcoming to the internal structural weakness (official corruption, inefficient and oversized bureaucracy, and authoritarian leadership) of the state, the theory had come under severe attack by a group of third World Scholars, known as the dependency theorists.

3.1.2 The International Interdependence (Globalization)

Theory This theory takes into cognizance the fact that states in the international society co-operate rather than antagonize (for what one has, the others may lack in sufficient quantity to survive). And that from a small society of independent and self-sufficient, the European states, the international community has developed into a very large interdependent international system called “global village”. The membership of political units has tripled in this century, now closely knit. The world’s nation-states are heavily interdependent in terms of their need for natural resources which are unevenly distributed: – gold in Africa, oil in the Middle East, Titanium in Oceania, Tin in South America and technological expertise in the United States, Asia and Europe. Nations with the largest population – China, India and Commonwealth of Independent States (Former Soviet Union) – impact gain, while the under-endowed developing nations, with two thirds of the world’s populations, need all the products that the industrialized nations produce.

Transnational and cross-national reciprocal needs have greatly multiplied the number of transactions between states. Modern communication systems have accelerated the frequency of these contacts, making the world a global village – globalization.

Nation-states can prosper by negotiating trade and aid issues as well as sharing resources. Indeed higher standard of living is the ultimate objective of foreign policy. Therefore, mutual recognition by all states of one another’s needs and interests provides the only rational terms upon which international politics should be conducted. The interdependence model copes with war by alleging that historical, war is the exception rather than the rule in the relations between states. The monopoly of nuclear fusion by the major power notwithstanding, they can hardly wage conventional war successfully. The United States, for example, was relatively unsuccessful in waging guerilla war in

Vietnam for a variety of reasons. The American military, unfamiliar with guerilla warfare, was unable to fight the war under constraint imposed by government policy; the impact upon the domestic economy was disastrous, and public opinion at home forced its president to decline to run for office again; while opinion abroad subjected the nation to unprecedented vilification. Thus the United States had to seek the support of other powers “Allied Forces” of the United Nations to prosecute the Gulf war in 1991 that led to the withdrawal of Iraq from Kuwait.

Proponents of the interdependence model would maintain that most of the transactions between states are in fact negotiated agreements in a peaceful environment, but there is competition.Closely related to the interdependence theory is the transnational school. The center nexus of this school is that the state (union-state) and the state system have collapse with private interests taking over the pursuit of human security and welfare. This is as a result of the rapid and continuous developments in communications, transportation and military technology. The bottom-line of transnational interdependence reflects the diffusion of power in the international system where private interest can act to constrain official policies and where poor and weak states may be able to “take advantage of the trans – nationalisation of technology” to increase their destructive capability.

3.1.3 Talcott Parson’s Theory

According to Talcott Persons, if societal equilibrium is to be maintained, four functional pre-requisites must be performance:

  1.  Pattern maintenance – the ability of a system to ensure the reproduction of its own basic patterns, it values and norms. Families and households serve this function.
  2.  Adaptation to the environment and to changes in areas of scientific and technological change.
  3. Goal attainment – the capacity of the system to achieve whatever goals the systems has accepted or set for itself. The polity and government perform this.
  4.  Integration of the different functions and subsystems into a cohesive coordinated whole. This is achieved through the cultural subsystems, e.g. mass communications, religion and education.

According to Parsons, the formulation of common values, which cuts across national boundaries, is essential to international order. Parsons sees the need for the development of procedural consensus agreement among participants in international politics about the institutions and procedures for the settlement of problems and differences.


What should be of interest to students of international politics is that system framework helps us to understand the different interactions that lead to decision-making in foreign policy and the linkage politics. Other theorists of system analysis include David Easton, Karl Deutsch, Gabriel Almond, David Spiro, Richard Rosecrance, George Modelski, and Morton Kaplan.


We have comprehensively discussed the Systems theory, including Talcott Parson’s theory of Social Equilibrium and the application of this to the study of international relations.


  1. Discuss Talcott Parsons theory of Social Equilibrium and relate it to the international system.
  2. How can the systems theory be used to understand the notion of international peace and stability?


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