Perception and International Relations Theories

International Relations Theories are important tool to understand and interpret International Relations. In this article, we will examine how different schools of International Relations Theories evaluate the perception. Namely we will focus on Realism, Liberalism and English School.

Realist school of International Relations Theories as the main representative of positivist thinking firstly was not interested in perception of self by others. In realist understanding the real world is perceived in the same way by all actors. Their main concept of power was analyzed as something which is taken for granted. Realists argue that all actors behave according to the distribution of power. However, later it was realized that there is inconsistency between real power and perceived power. No matter how much powerful one state is, if this power is not perceived by others as much powerful as it is, then it does not mean anything.

Thus, new concept of ‘soft power’ emerged. Joseph Nye explains notion of soft power as the ability to shape others’ wishes. Soft power rests “on the attractiveness of one’s own culture and values or the ability to manipulate the agenda of political choices in a manner that makes others fail to express some preferences because they seem to be too unrealistic.”[1]

All states try to transfer their real power, in Nye’s terminology hard power, into soft power. In our context, soft power means the perception of self by other. Later it was understood that perception of power can be more important than power itself. It is because the perception of power of self makes the self control the minds of others. Eventually, it became clear that it is perception which leads to miscalculations in international relations. That is why states are concerned with their image and perception in other states. For any state, it is important to know what people of other states think about it.

As Morgenthau expressed it “For the struggle for power on international scene is today not only a struggle for military supremacy and political domination, but in a specific sense a struggle for the minds of men.”[2]

To sum up, in realist understanding all works related with improvement of image, prestige, and reputation of the state whether it is propaganda, image making or perception management are considered to be a part of foreign policy which aims to achieve power. And power in words of Morgenthau means control over minds and actions of men.[3]

In Liberalism in contrast to Realism, there is no term as ‘to control minds of men’ but instead there can be a term ‘enlighten minds of men’ due to their belief in progress in the spirit of Enlightenment. In this sense, Liberals take into account influence of many factors including the human factor in decision process. As it put by Paul R. Viotti and Mark V. Kauppi, “Calculations of interest or utility—gains and losses—can also be affected by misunderstandings or misperceptions on the part of decision makers as a result of incomplete information, bias, stress, or uncertainty about cause and effect relations related to policy options under consideration.”[4] To overcome the misperception which can lead to war, Liberals propose two remedies. One is democratization of society and second is global governance. The first remedy aims to build peace from down to up that is from unit to system, while the second one aims to do so from up to down, from system to unit. According to the first way which is democratic peace theory, democracies tend not to go to war with each other.[5] The second way was based on the understanding of collective security which unfortunately did not work during the League of Nations. Nevertheless, it became one of the foundations of United Nations Organization.

As we see Liberalism is much more focused on the overcoming of misperceptions. However, it should be noted that assumptions of Liberalism especially democratic peace theory constructed a world where authoritarian regimes are perceived as enemies. In the words of Robert Kagan, the world is divided in the line of democratic regimes and authoritarian solidarity.[6] In conclusion it can be said that Liberalism contributed to the study of perceptions by recognizing that International Relations are composed not only by nation-states but also by non-state, transnational actors, non-governmental organizations, interest groups and individuals.

English School in comparison with Realism and Liberalism stands one step closer to phenomenon of perception by introducing sociological aspect of international relations. The term international society means that states compose a society and act according to rules of society.[7] According this societal-international focus of English School, states like individuals in society affect each other in different ways. In other words, social relations among states shape their attitudes towards each other. In this sense, although English School is positioned between Hobbesian Realism and Kantian Liberalism, it has more common with Constructivism. It is because both English School and Constructivism make emphasis on social dimension of International Relations.

To sum up, all three schools pay attention to perception in IR. But in the final analysis it was Constructivism who comprehended the significance of perception. So, in the next article we will focus on Constructivism’s view on perception.


[1] Joseph S. Nye, Jr., Soft Power: the Means to Success in World Politics, New York, Public Affairs, 2004, p. 7.

[2] Hans J. Morgenthau, Politics among Nations: The Struggle for Power and Peace, Fifth Edition, Alfred A. Knopf, USA, 1973, p. 148.

[3] Ibid., p. 28.

[4] Paul R. Viotti and Mark V. Kauppi, ‘Liberalism: Interdependence and Global Governance’ in International Relations Theories, Fourth Edition, Longman Pearson, p.119.

[5] Micheal W. Doyle, “Liberalism and World Politics,” American Political Science Review, 80, 4 (1986), p. 1156.

[6] Robert Kagan, The Return of History and the End of Dreams,  Alfred A. Knopf, New York 2008, p. 54.

[7] Hedley Bull, The Anarchical Society, Macmillan, London, p. 261.