Human Nature in the IR Theories

In the discipline of International Relations(IR), theories always question the causes of conflicts in the system. These theories examine inter-state, individual and state relations, as well as human nature to shed light on conflicts. Each theory has a certain positive or negative statements about human nature. Because IR is examined in three levels as individual, state and international system. The individual is the building block of society. Therefore, the source of the conflicts is sought first in the individual and then in other actors. This paper describes how theories such as Realism, Liberalism, Marxism and finally psychoanalysis such as Freud examine human nature in IR.

Believes that politics, like society in general, is governed by objective laws that have their roots in human nature” (Morgenthau, 1993) In realism, which is the cornerstone of the IR discipline, we are confronted with the discourse that human nature constitutes a powerful element in politics. Realism is basically a view that argues that the system is formed by competition and conflict. Realist thinkers think that all actors in the system care only for their own security and that their national interests are at the forefront. Let us look at how this egoistic attitude is interpreted throughout human history and see if there has been any change in the view of realism.

General Sun Tzu, a Chinese philosopher before Christ, said that people hated wars by nature but that they should be brave to fight. Because according to him, only a state with a strong army can protect his country from war. “The different measures suited to the nine varieties of ground; the expediency of aggressive or defensive tactics; and the fundamental laws of human nature: these are things that must most certainly be studied.” (Tzu, 2005) Another thinker, Augustine, said that the human mind is important, but the most important is the will. Augustine thinks that good people are faithful to God through the will and faith, and that the bad behavior of people who do not exhibit this behavior comes from their own. He said that these bad people deserve to be punished by the authoritarian person. In the international system, he said, all people are on the peace side and endure war because they want peace.

If we look at other philosophers, the Leviathan book by Thomas Hobbes, the famous British philosopher of the 16th century who was influenced by the Renaissance, became the primary book of human nature by realists. In this book he argued that man is innately evil, selfish, egoistic and self-interested. Therefore, he said, a social contract should be made and society should be ruled by an absolute sovereign. He says “a war of all against all” and argued that people are competitive and fighting to win by nature. (Hobbes, 1996) Influenced by another renaissance, the philosopher Machiavelli, like Hobbes, argues that human nature is selfish and violent, and at the same time says that the behavior of individuals who make up this society must be governed by a strong authority.

Another strong theory after realism is liberalism. But liberalism is not as pessimistic as realism for human nature. Liberalism says that human nature is inherently good, and argues that human freedom must be protected. They think that there is a need for a government to protect the safety of society, but that the government may pose a threat to the freedom of society. They therefore argue that laws, judges and the police are needed to secure the individual’s safety and freedom. (Paine, 1776)

Rousseau, one of the famous liberal philosophers, said his famous word “man is born free, but he is everywhere in chains” and argued that people are good by nature and have no interest in war. On the contrary, he stated that the higher the freedom and happiness of the individual, the better the welfare level of the society. He did not refer to human nature as the cause of war, but to the nature of the state. “Let us then admit that force does not create right, and that we are obliged to obey only legitimate powers” (Rousseau, 1895) With his famous work, the Social Contract, he inspired political reforms in Europe, especially in France, and argued that the rulers did not have divine legislative power, but on the contrary, the dominant power was in the people.

Another philosopher who does not defend the realists’ discourse for human nature is John Locke. Locke believes that individuals can create a society that is more peaceful and minimizes conflict with the desire for cooperation and peace. “reason, which is that law, teaches all mankind, (…) that being all equal and independent, no one ought to harm another in his life, health, liberty or possessions (…)” (Locke, 1980) Thus, Locke stressed the importance of individuals’ right to life, freedom and property, and laid down the permanent formula of peace at the individual level, without violating the rights of others.

The origins of modern liberal theory in the system of IRs are seen in Immanuel Kant’s Perpetual Peace article. This article is seen as a peace guide for nations. Because the article advocated sharing of mutual trust, freedom and common good as well as cooperation between states. Basically, Kant said that people created a god as an impulse from their nature because they wanted to secure their souls and their freedom. In other words, he argued that in the nature of people, there is always a desire to keep their existence safe. He therefore argued that there should be good communication or agreement between statesman and citizen. He said that rulers should adopt the principles of justice in the arena of IRs and that individuals should defend their rights. “If the consent of the citizens is required in order to decide that war should be declared, nothing is more natural than that they would be very cautious in commencing such a poor game, decreeing for themselves all the calamities of war.” (Kant, 1963)

In the theory of Marxism, known for its class struggle, Karl Marx criticizes capitalism and does not overlook human nature. It does not criticize human nature as the innate form of behavior, or later features, but rather the behavior of people as a whole in which social relations occur. In other words, he argues that human nature changes with social and historical concepts. “Feuerbach resolves the essence of religion into the essence of man. But the essence of man is no abstraction inherent in each single individual. In reality, it is the ensemble of the social relations. Feuerbach, who does not enter upon a criticism of this real essence is hence obliged:

  1. To abstract from the historical process and to define the religious sentiment regarded by itself, and to presuppose an abstract — isolated – human individual.
  2. The essence therefore can by him only be regarded as ‘species’, as an inner ‘dumb’ generality which unites many individuals only in a natural way.” (Marx, 2002)

In essence, Marxism theory says that the individual creates himself. In other words, man can change the world with the power of labor, and so when they change the world, they change themselves. (Leigh, 2018) When Marxists examine the concepts of war and state, they emphasize that the working class is not interested in the world economy in order to increase the productivity of their productions, but the bourgeoisie class tries to create a more competitive system. According to Marx and Engels, eliminating class differences and accepting people as equal is the best solution to stop this confrontational system. They argued that by bringing social democracy into the international system, victory and peace could be preserved.

When examining the human nature of the three most fundamental theories of IRs, we see that individuals mostly examine the behaviors on the external effects. By looking at Sigmund Freud’s psychoanalysis as a different point of view, let us look at the philosophical aspects of the effects of human nature on IRs. Freud expressed a different perspective based on the instinct and personality of human nature. Freud sees humans as animals with biological impulses from birth. He considered this to be a species with primitive impulses, and said that these impulses controlled only by the pressure from people’s social environment. He said that this instinct was controlled by four basic emotions: self-protection, non-suffering, aggression and the need for love.

This psychoanalysis is seen as the main source of wars and conflicts in the international system. Because psychoanalysts say that people have a sense of aggression even in their daily lives, this situation is also experienced among rival states. They have shown two reasons as the cause of war. They underlined that an ordinary person does not directly cause a war, but indirectly. Because they said that aggressions, hostile and irritable behavior caused either internal confusion or civil war  by protesting. As a second reason statesmen have shown. Because they argued in them that the urge of aggression can naturally occur at any moment. Freud said that in order to end these conflicts in the system, if people solve their feelings of self-destruction within themselves, they will face consequences such as war and violence.

In conclusion, when we consider the basic theories of IRs discipline and Freud’s psychoanalysis, the impact of the nature and behavior of people, the smallest unit in the system, can be seen clearly. While the selfish human nature in realism is the cause of war and conflict, liberalism thinks that human nature should be free. Because, according to them, while there is no negative factor in human nature, the nature of states causes war and conflict. On the other hand; in the theory of marxism, it is stated that the most innocent side of the class struggle is the working class, but they are most affected by wars and conflicts. In this theory, it is understood that competitive and self-directed managers and other upper classes cause conflicts of system. But when we look at Freud’s psychoanalysis, it is stated that the negative features of human nature like realism are a good factor for wars and conflicts. Thus, when examining the discipline of IRs, we have once again understood that human nature is a primary factor to be aware of.




Hobbes, T. (1996). Leviathan. Oxford&New York: Oxford University Press.

Kant, I. (1963). Perpetual Peace. (L. Beck, Trans.) Indiana: Bobbs-Merrill.

Leigh, E. G. (2018, June 23). Marxism and Human Nature. Retrieved from Counterfire:

Locke, J. (1980). Second Treatise of Government. Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing Company, Inc.

Marx, K. (2002). Theses On Feuerbach. (C. Smith, Trans.) Brussels: Lawrence and Wishart.

Morgenthau, H. J. (1993). Politics Among Nations: The Struggles for Power and Peace. McGraw-Hill: Boston: Brief Edition.

Paine, T. (1776). Common Sense: The Inhabitants of America. Boston: J.P. Mendum.

Rousseau, J. (1895). Social Contract. London: Swan Sonnenschein & Co.

Tzu, S. (2005). The Art of War. (L. Giles, Trans.) New Delhi, India: New Dawn Press.

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