In Chapter 3, we noted the shift in focus in mainstream IR theory, from studying states as actors to examining the environment or structure in which states act – an ‘international system’, or perhaps an ‘international society’. In this chapter, the relationship between actors and their environment, and the nature of the key actors in IR will be examined. To do so, we need to recap one of the oldest and most intractable debates in social science: the agent–structure problem. The debate centres not on the detail of who or what it is that acts in international politics – states, individuals, firms, international institutions and so on – but on whether ‘agency’ (the actions of actors, or their capacity to act) or ‘structure’ (the broad constraints within which actors act, such as international anarchy or society, global capitalism, or international law) is the key determinant of our social world. The argument here can sometimes seem rather abstract, but there are important real-world issues at stake and it is worth persevering; in any event, much recent work in this area does focus on the study of particular cases rather than rehashing old epistemological or ontological controversies. After setting out the agent–structure problem in slightly more detail, we shall focus on agency and the most important agent in IR – the state, exploring the making of foreign policy and the relationship between this particular agent and the international system. Further discussion of the structure of the international system is to be found in Chapters 5 and 6.
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