Book Review

Book Review







As some theorists try to downplay the thoughts of other academicians on matters concerning the field of international relations, the world is evolving and developing thus bringing forth new challenges. Sullivan tries to take the reader through this field in a historiographical manner, clearly highlighting the main cause of the dilemma among these theorists.   

Book Review

Part 1

Summary of Content

Michael P. Sullivan’s Theories of International Relations: Transition vs. Persistence, which was published in the year 2001 by Palgrave Macmillan, analyzes the reasons why theorists in international relations prefer to put their own framework in higher esteem as compared to others brought forth in the same field. Each theorist feels that their framework is superior to others and that others can be brusquely called off. By historiographically analyzing the diversity in this field, the author tries to make sense of this dilemma.

In his book, Sullivan sees the dependent variables in this field’s theories as “changing chameleons”. It is by this assertion that the difficulty is instigated. Like chameleons, the latest developments in the real world have an effect on international relations thus influencing the developing theories. Although the changes may be positively influential in some instances, they may also have adverse effects in other cases. In other words, there may be confusion in some of the scenarios that are raised (Sullivan, 2001).

To further expound on this, Sullivan begins by recognizing the 1992 event when the United States got out of the Subic Bay. At this point, this occurrence was not significant in historical books since it was not out of the ordinary. It would not have made sense even if it had happened some forty years earlier. However, it would prove to be quite significant as it marked the end of the Cold War (Sullivan, 2001). If theorists of different periods were to come up with their concepts, each theory would classify the event with a different significance due to the significance of the event in different periods. This is why theorists have remained to be at ‘war’ with each other.

Many debates in this field dwell on every other reason apart from the behaviors of the studies. In most cases, the foci of the studies may either be in mutually exclusive or different behaviors (Sullivan, 2001). Additionally, some debates are rather repetitive. They have no originality and only try to bring points that have been discussed repeatedly with a change in the debaters. In such cases, there is only one thing that is left certain. Little progress has therefore been noted in the field of international relations.

Apart from addressing the major challenges facing this field, the book also draws some attention to some ways of addressing the problems in the field’s theories (Auger, 2001). One way can be through examining the development of the diverse strands of the field’s theory with the anticipation of identifying more clearly what each theory strives at explaining. The focus should be on the diversity of schools of thought. This is mainly on the points of agreement, disagreements and where one’s thoughts overlook the others. It should also be identified whether the theories being referred to as new are actually the old ones with a different name/title.

Through the levels of analysis given by Kenneth Waltz, the book categorizes the diverse theoretical debates in this field (Auger, 2001). The author examines the range of methods used to study international relations, varying from thoughts about the agency and individuals, to models of decision making. Others include debates concerning the nation state and a number of modifications of systems theories.

As Walz’s three levels confirm, the theories can either be categorized into Man, the state and war theories. Some theories fail to recognize the category into which their theories fall, or they fail to recognize the category into which the other theorists fall (Elman, 2002). In such confusion, these theorists tend to come against each other, instead of appreciating each others works. In other words, as the theorists’ persistence on the same areas of the international relations, they tolerate each others critics in order to emerge as the real theorists.

Over the past five to six decades, contemporary approaches to international relations theory have changed in a significant way. With the on-going changes, it is relevant that current intellectual fashions be adhered to (Kaya, 2003). It is also significant that the theory and practices be brought together in order to make sure that the desired results are not only theoretical but also practical in the real world. Demonstrating the difficulty of assessing the theories in competition is significance.

In most cases, the theories cannot be understood individually. It is important that each be related to the other rather than each being analyzed independently. The author feels that each theory has a relationship as much as it has a difference with the other theories in question. It is up to the professionals and the theorists to link the similarities, and identify the differences in order to come up with theories that develop the field of international relations rather than pull it apart.

People, which include nations, have a role to play when it comes to bringing forth structures and systems making up theories. People become close and sometimes antagonistic to the systems they dwell in. This is because familiarity can result to contempt and solace. Ideological and normative contemplations influence the kinds of systems we recognize, make and the systems we appreciate and do not appreciate (more often than not). This is how the nation state based models work.

In his work, Sullivan brings out fascinating advances in many fashions in which systems known internationally can be visualized (Wilson, 2002). As he identifies, the inherent problems occurring in all these systems and fashions can be solved in one way or another. In order to solve such problems, the main role players must migrate from the concrete level of the actors in the real world and stay in a systematic level of being aggressive. This process requires perspectives that are fertile and creative imaginations. They aid in rising above specifics to systems that have been conceptualized thus making them untouchable.

Nevertheless, the author appreciates that the different systems which make the theories in international relations must be in existence. These systems describe the diverse forms of behaviors, structures and patterns making up a particular area in the same field.  It is only unfortunate that most of the systems tend to give a description of the same concrete system. Such kinds of observations can be seen in the system analysis occurring in the 1950s and the 1960s. Due to the immense circulation over the same area that took place during this time, the analyses do not pertain to the developments taking place since.

For emphasis on the implications of the various debates arising through the various theories in this field, is the response to China’s state of rising power (Elman, 2002). From one angle, China’s rising power gives a threat in altering the balance of power experienced globally. This is a negative alteration especially because their ambition is being motivated by their growing influence. On the other hand, it is felt that the key to China’s conduct in the future will be a modification in their behavior through incorporation in the world markets and the extension of democratic principles.

Additionally, there are those who feel that the affairs between China and the rest of the world will be fashioned by identity and culture issues. In other words, the whole debate relies around China being treated as any other society in the world or being singled out as a society that is in need of special treatment. This makes Sullivan feels that some problems are just being approached differently yet they have been in existence for decades. If not so, he feels that this just the same problem being tackled differently yet conveying the same messages.

In a summary, Sullivan clearly puts it across that there is no single theory or approach that can bring forth the complexity in the field of international relations (Kaya, 2003). The different competing ideas are necessary although they should be used to the advantage of the field rather than being used to water down each others ideas. A single theoretical orthodox cannot be effective and efficient in this field. It is just that the theorists have not yet realized this aspect of the field.

As Sullivan clearly puts it, the competition is necessary. Each theory enables the professionals to identify the weaknesses and the strengths thus spurring the needed refinements. They also reveal the flaws appearing either in the previous structures and systems or the developing ones (Auger, 2001). It is significant that the inventiveness should be emphasized as compared to being invective. However, heterogeneity of modern-day scholarship should be welcomed and encouraged.

As well identified, the realism, constructivist and liberalism theories, amongst other theories have a converging point. The realists realize that ethnicity, nationalism, militarism and other factors are equally significant. The liberals identify that power is the centre of international behavior and constructivists acknowledge that there will be a greater effect of ideas if they are strengthened by states which are powerful and they are reinforced by persevering material forces (Wilson, 2002).

It is however, significant to identify the most significant in an area. As Sullivan takes note, the realists theories are the most used when it comes to matters concerning international relations. The balance of power is particularly significant to most states and so they spend more effort analyzing the areas of possible conflicts. As a result of such interests, most European and Asian countries have taken it upon themselves to expand the presence of the United States military in their respective regions. The NATO issue and the Kyoto environmental protocol are some of the events that have taken place showing that the theories concerning matters of international relations should blend towards improving relations rather than pulling them apart.

Part 2

Reaction to the Work

Relation of Work to what Learnt

The theories of realism, liberalism and constructivism learnt in this unit have been identified in this book by Sullivan. In the work learnt, the all the theories suggest diverse approaches to international relations. However, Sullivan tries to explain the similarities and the differences in each of the theories and how each can be used to strengthen the other instead of downplaying the other theory.

We have learnt that the realism theory shows that self-interested states are in constant competition for security and power. Liberalism main concern is for power being controlled by political and economic considerations. This means that the main desire is for commitment to the values of liberalism and prosperity. On constructivism theory, it perceives that the elite beliefs shape the state’s behavior. Social identity and collective norms also play crucial roles in shaping the behavior of the state.

Furthermore, we have identified that main installments of the realism theory is economic and military power to be specific, for liberalism theory are democracy promotion, economic exchange and international institutions, and for constructivism theory is discourse and ideas. On the prediction of post Cold War, realism advocated for the rebirth of explicit formidable competition and power. Liberalism advocated for increased cooperation due to free markets, liberal values and international institutions. Constructivists were agnostic since their theory could not predict the substance of ideas.

The limitations we have summarized are that the realism theory does not give a satisfactory account of the change experienced internationally. The liberalism theory does not give power the role it deserves. In other words, it overlooks the significance of power. The constructivism theory mostly dwells on the past and cannot be used for future purposes. It analyses past events but does not anticipate future events.

Relationship between Materials Used, Feelings, Expressions and Understanding

In his book, Sullivan explores the post Cold War and analyses the similarities and the diversities that the theories brought forth or predicted (Wilson, 2002). He also identifies the uniqueness of every theory and the diversity in the theories thus showing their significance in today’s international relations. However, there is the persistence that the realism theory suits best as on matters concerning international relations.

Emotionally, the work triggers a number of issues. First, there is the realization that a lot of people struggle from superiority complex. As Sullivan identifies, each of the theorists wants to feel that their theory is superior to the other. Such feelings not hinder the professionals from solving the real issues, but they also hinder students from seeking help from others. Everybody wants to disregard other people’s efforts since they feel that their efforts are worthwhile. Such feelings also hinder the professionals from realizing their own flaws. This same case applies to students of international relations. They concentrate so much on what they believe in and forget about the strengths in the other theories.

As a result, the book provokes one to appreciate the works of other professionals other than downplaying them. Similarly, the students in this field should appreciate the works done by those who were before them other than concentrating on the flaws that were in the researches. This is an evolving yet a developing world. The strengths and weaknesses of the theories of the past will enable us to get the solution of today’s problems. Otherwise, the professionals spend more time arguing out the differences instead of dwelling on the solutions, and then this field will remain stagnant.

Through reading the book, my understanding in the field of international relations and in writing was markedly improved. The author is one of the experts in this field. He has tried to tackle a weighty topic in a few pages. Through his understanding, I have been able to understand that the three theories should complement each other rather than work against each other. Although the diverse systems and structures are significant, it is also necessary to realize a consensus point.

Merit of the Work

As earlier mentioned, this book has been written by a person who has considerable experience in this field of international relations. He has many ideas and many things to write in so few pages (250 pages). Due to this virtue, the presentation and organization of the work has proved to be a daunting task. In order to present too many ideas in such a limited space, there is rapid procession of the topics (Auger, 2001). This means that there is rapid jumping of one topic to the other. For example, sixty years of the work and research done by the realists have only been put down on twenty eight pages.

In most cases, the author constantly uses “on one hand” and “on the other hand” in order to present his ideas. This kind of presentation plays a disadvantage and an advantage to the work. It is a disadvantage as it disrupts the flow of the author’s work. It also leaves the reader hanging on the conclusion of the point. The conclusion is uncertain. It is an advantage as it enables the reader to understand the two sides of the point the author is trying to present.

Due to his awareness of the field, the author has taken assumptions that the reader also has the same immense knowledge of the field (Kaya, 2003). There are no definite explanations of the theories and the theorists in international relations. A man like Kenneth Waltz has constantly been mentioned in this book, but there is no clear explanation of his argument. This presentation gives a challenge to the reader who has no knowledge in this field. He/she cannot be able to follow some of the contents in the book if not all.

The author has laid more emphasis on some theories as compared to other although he has tried to mention all the three theories. For example, the author has placed less emphasis on the constructivists’ theory. Although it may be one of the most recent theories to be brought forth, it will be a limitation to the readers who believe in this theory. More emphasis should have been given on this theory in order to convince the reader on its weaknesses or strengths rather than just stating them out.

Recommendation to others

The above mentioned are the flaws of the work. However, the book is very suitable for specialists. It gives one a neutral perspective of all the theories in this field in order to notice that one requires them all and not just one particular theory. It also analyses the various theories and then leaves the reader to make their own conclusion as much as the author gives his conclusion.

In the future, our understanding would be impecunious if the way we think would be limited to only one theory. The one who calls him/herself a diplomat should be mindful of the realist’s importance on the inevitable role of power, adhere to the liberalist’s responsiveness to domestic forces, and reflect once in a while on the vision of change of the constructivist. This is because they will all make a better professional as compared to relying on only one side of the system.

For those who are just beginning to understand the field of international relations, it is important that they first read on materials that have talked about the basics of this field. As earlier noted, this book does not give the details from scratch. It goes straight to the major theories and theorists as though the reader already knew about them initially. Since Sullivan is a well known professional in this field, the terminologies and concepts used can be well known by people at a higher level of learning or those who are at a higher understanding of the field.

The ongoing debates in this field must be well understood In order to come with an affirmative solution to the rising problems (Elman, 2002). This book is an excellent guide to those who have a major interest in this field. It is also of significance to the people who decide rethink the issues that relate to these debates. For one who does not have an idea whether they are talking about the same issues that have been discussed over the decades or they are raising other new issues, it is good to have this book at hand. It will help one sort out the difference.


It is significant for everyone interested in the field of international relations to understand the diverse issues arising in this field. For those advancing, it is significant to understand that the world is changing, and so should the systems and structures governing the various fields change. For those beginning, it is good to recognize the similarities and the differences in each theory in order to understand what to anticipate in the future.



Auger, V. A. (2001). Theories of International Relations: Transition vs. Persistence by Michael P. Sullivan. The Journal of Politics, Vol. 66 (1): 282-321.

Elman, M. F. (2001-2002). Theories of International Relations: Transition vs. Persistence by Michael P. Sullivan. Political Science Quarterly, Vol. 116 (4): 685-687.

H.W Wilson Company. (2002). Book Review Digest, Volume 98. Michigan, H.W. Wilson Co.

Kaya, A. (2003). Book Review: Michael P. Sullivan, Theory of International Relations: Transition vs. Persistence. Millennium: Journal of International Relations.

Sullivan, M. P. (2001). Theories of International Relations: Transition vs. Persistence. New York, NY: Palgrave Macmillan.


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