Saturday, December 25, 2010

International Relations (IR): Three Levels of Analysis

Because of the anarchic global arena that we live in, the study of International Relations (IR) is constantly forced to consider and examine how best to approach such a complex and abstract concept as worldwide interface. J. David Singer attempts to explain the global political structure with respect and accreditation to Kenneth Waltz’s original concept of “Levels of Analysis,” in his writing, International Conflict: Three Levels of Analysis. Though his [Singer] findings are inconclusive in terms of favoring one level of analysis over another when considering how best to approach IR, the arrangement and classification conceived by Waltz can conceptualize the numerous political theorists’ models and offer a more keen understanding of foreign actors and their place in the international system. While each of the levels of analysis (Individual, National, and Systemic) offer their own unique approach to understanding the international system, IR can best be explained and understood at the “Systemic Level.” At this high level of analysis, describing, explaining and predicting events in IR is most effective because of (1) the wide scope that is used to view broad issues, (2) the disregard for cultural/individual factors that could contentiously play into the system, and (3) the attention paid to identifying the dominant forces in the field and, consequently, finding patterns in the larger picture.
            To properly assess the efficacy of the Systemic Level in the study of IR, we must first consider the Levels of Analysis as a whole and what each level suggests. Beginning with the “First-Image” examination, the Individual Level of analysis takes in to account the specific psyche of human beings and their natural state of being whether it be an optimistic or pessimistic view. For an optimist, man can and should be changed for the better while a pessimist would argue the reverse – man is selfish and greedy and the only thing stopping him is a larger political and social system.1 Examining distinctive qualities of humans as well as culture and religion, a First Level analysis of IR lacks meaning in terms of creating a clear picture of the international system as a functioning entity especially in a post- Peace of Westphalia-world where many different nation-states make up the majority of “official” foreign affairs. The inherit danger in drawing on the Individual Level for meaning in a global realm is the tendency for First-Image analyses to get too philosophical relying on assumptions and theories as to explain the true state of mankind which in itself is debatable . From such a weak foundation as this, accurate predictions are unlikely to be had given the massive amount of assumptions that need to be made first. Considering individuals and their place in the international system is undoubtedly useful in IR, however this level of analysis does not allow for a broader understanding of global politics and the forces in play.
            Shifting to the National/State Level of analysis, we see a better grasp of the elements in play, but perhaps lack a complete understanding of their place in the broader system. The Second-Image analysis is concerned with the internal structure of states, sifting out good and bad states, and (ideally) trying to change them for the better.2 With such an approach to IR as this, one concerns themselves with specific functions and faults of a state rather than the state as a whole and how it fits in to the international structure. When conducting foreign relations, one must consider how the state fits in to the larger system regardless of whether or not they are a mirror image of the “perfectly democratic” United States. By judging individual states based on their own unique political/social makeup, we are left with a better image of what that state represents by itself, but as far as how the state fares in a larger arena, we can’t be totally sure.
            Taking in to account the two lower levels of analysis, the Systemic Level of analysis doesn’t concern itself with cultural or even particular state-specific political distinctions; the purpose of Third-Image analysis is to find stability in an anarchic world. With so many international actors, the Systemic read on foreign affairs is practical in approach and realistic in practice. In this level of analysis, one looks at the dominant forces in the field that cause war and their weight in the system as a whole.3 The unique factor of a Systemic Level of analysis approach to IR is its ability to encompass the two lower levels of analysis, Individual and National /State Level analyses. With these First and Second-Image analyses considered, a Third-Image analysis can better assess and predict future events. The main purpose of IR is to gain the most accurate picture of the international system and the most influential/significant actors in it; in a Systemic Level of analysis, the framework is built to start the process of examining where best to shift national energies.
            With the “Three Levels of Analysis” approach to IR conceived by Kenneth Waltz and further articulated by J. David Singer, we are given an organized structure in our political school of thought to better help us understand and predict events in an international system. Since it is a system, the Third-Image analysis or Systemic Level of analysis serves most effective in best explaining and understanding IR. This approach to grasping the broad picture of IR forces one to channel thought through a wider spectrum considering larger factors in play in an anarchic world. The Systemic Level’s more common success in predicting foreign affairs does not come from its attention to fickle details of a state but rather its awareness of the international system as a functioning whole.


  1. I am a student of Peace and conflict and i appreciate this article. Its clear and to the point and has helped me the concept better!

  2. In reading this article, I finally found the answer to my question. International Studies is tough!

  3. I am a student in an international relations class. This article helped me understand the systemic level of analysis better. Thanks!

  4. layer on layer. Has this system predicted an outbreak of hostilities?

  5. 12/01.201/ Jinan, China: 山东大学... thanks