International relations may be a new science, but the core values at its heart are universal. This is a discipline that’s fundamentally about how humans operate, and the levels of analysis that it encompasses take into account everyone from the individual to the whole world. Predicting behavior is a major part of international relations, but the approach that those in the field take towards these predictions can vary. Three levels of analysis typify the field of international relations.
The individual approach to international politics would posit that it was Alexander the Great himself and not the strength of Macedonia that led to the conquest of the Persian Empire. From this perspective, history’s most monumental flash points are predicated by meaningful men and women who took the stage and forced change. By this notion, World War II was a war shaped by the ideologies of men like Churchill and Truman, Hitler and Mussolini, and the Cold War can be explained according to the temperaments and sensibilities of American and Soviet leaders. While few would argue that they’re the sole determinant factors in historical tide shifts, their influence still has a major impact on these moments in history.
A state level analysis looks at the character of a state’s people to provide texture to historical trends and help navigate present day politics. From this perspective, the rise of Nazi Germany wouldn’t be simply seen as the rise of a charismatic demagogue in the form of Adolf Hitler. It would be viewed through the context of the fall of the Weimar Republic and the rise of an ethnic identity movement dating back to Otto Von Bismarck. It would also take into account the economic depression resulting from the first World War and the geographic conditions of Europe that allowed Germany to so rapidly conquer their neighbors.
The most abstract level of analysis, the international system evaluates a nation’s actions not on the substance of a nation’s character or the major figureheads but instead in simple terms of power dynamics. World War I could be seen as an inevitability not because of the imperial or warlike nature of the European nations but because of the strength and technology of the major European states on a global scale. Similarly, the polarized stalemate nature of the Cold War – fought via proxy wars rather than direct combat – would be perceived as an inevitable result of two global superpowers largely balanced in strength and influence.