Lenses of Anlaysis Home Section Title
Table of Contents Resources Menu
First Lens
Second Lens
Third Lens
Case Study
First Lens
Second Lens
Third Lens
Question Strings
International Security
International Economics
Environmental Issue
Regional Instability

The Third Lens

Printer-friendly Version

The Third Lens examines the international system, which influences the behavior of international actors, be they key individuals, governments, countries, or corporations. Three key variables of the international system come into focus with the Third Lens: structure, dynamics, and institutionalized features.

Third-Lens scholars begin with the observation that there is no world government—international relations occur in a system dominated by individual states. The basic structure of world politics is anarchic. According to Third-Lens scholars, a certain pattern of behavior emerges from anarchy known as balancing, that is, the impulse to form temporary or longer-term associations to withstand the pressure of powerful nations. The Third Lens focuses on how states and other international actors react to the distribution of power across the international system. It helps researchers focus on the tendency of international actors to balance against power when it becomes too concentrated around a particular state or group of states. Finally, the Third Lens sharpens attention on institutional and legal arrangements that shape international behavior. Despite the absence of a world government, there are standards of behavior and routine processes in the international system. States and other actors arrange themselves in regional or global organizations, and these institutions shape how world politics are conducted.

When using the Third Lens for analysis, we begin by identifying the overall global or specific regional distribution of power that might relate to the issue or event we are examining. This concentrates attention first on the balance of power between states, since they are the primary actors driving international relations. We then can assess how this distribution of power might shape the behavior not only of states, but of other actors as well, such as multinational corporations and nongovernmental groups, that influence international relations and are affected by the distribution of power.

There is a reason why, for example, corporations supporting the creation of the Free Trade Area of the Americas (FTAA) or opposed to the Kyoto Protocol on greenhouse emissions focus their lobbying efforts on Washington, D.C. rather than in San Salvador: At present, the United States is without doubt the world's most powerful nation. When domestic groups, like the Zapitistas of Mexico, use the Internet to project their message concerning minority rights in Mexico they are playing to international public opinion in an effort to enlist support as a counterbalance to the Mexican government's power. Through the Third Lens, we can analyze how nongovernmental groups can affect the relationship between governments and their populations.

Through the Third Lens we focus the system itself as an explanation for international politics—how power is distributed and whether institutional processes or legal standards exist as shaping forces.

Comparing Pictures: The Third Lens

Studying world politics with a focus on the international system requires excluding individual leaders and the internal workings of states from our view. When we do this, we are left with the system of state structures. Scholars who examine international relations through the Third Lens assume that the behavior of individuals may change based on their environment and that states—the primary actors in international politics—may influence or be influenced by the international structures in which they exist. In short, the Third Lens reduces world politics to its most basic elements.

Both First-Lens and Second-Lens scholars argue, however, that the Third Lens obliterates the detail needed to explain world politics. The First Lens reveals that the life and political experiences of world leaders differ dramatically and that these backgrounds shape very different worldviews that, in turn, motivate very different decisions. First-Lens analysis suggests, for example, that the Cuban Missile Crisis (audio) unfolded as it did, not because of the international system, but because John F. Kennedy was president of the United States. Individual leaders, they argue, have a direct effect on the direction of international relations.

Second-Lens scholars, on the other hand, contend that you must look inside states to assess their capabilities and their patterns in order to understand how nations act on the world stage. The historical experiences, resource base, government and geography of Germany are important variables in assessing its approach to world politics. These differ significantly from those of Fiji, which has had a very different impact on international relations.

In short, the Third Lens's weakness may in fact be what its adherents see as its strength—its parsimony. Some Third Lens scholars concede that the focus on the system provides an explanation of the underlying causes of international politics, while the First and Second Lenses reveal the specific causes of particular decisions or policies. However, the key variables that come into view through the Third Lens are important, whether conceived of as underlying causes or if used to explain specific events directly.

Third-Lens Variables



Printer-friendly Version  
Credits Copyright 2001 W. W. Norton & Company Copyright 2001 W. W. Norton & Company