International Relations Theory Today

International Relations Theory Today

The merits of Theory of International Politics will be discussed below, but the success of the book does not simply rest on its own qualities, impressive though these are. The wider context is provided by the rise to dominance of rational choice theory in the Political Science community in the United States. The presupposition of rational choice thinking is that politics can be understood in terms of the goal-directed behaviour of individuals, who act rationally in the minimal sense that they make ends–means calculations designed to maximize the benefits they expect to accrue from particular situations (or, of course, minimize the losses). This overall perspective – sometimes termed ‘neo-utilitarian’ – draws much of its strength from the discipline of Economics, where rational choice assumptions are fundamental, and was widely applied in the study of domestic politics in the US from the 1960s onwards, with electoral, interest group and congressional politics in the forefront. It encourages the application of tools such as game theory to the study of politics, and opens up the possibility of quantitative studies employing regression analysis (and other statistical techniques largely developed by econometricians). Arguably, both the individualism of rational choice theory and its scientific aspirations are particularly congenial to the American psyche, which accounts for the dominance of this approach in the US, as opposed to its comparative unimportance in Britain and, until recently, much of the European continent.


Although Waltz’s realism is sometimes described as structural realism, and structuralism is generally seen as the polar opposite of rational choice  theory, it is the possibilities opened up by assimilating his approach to rational choice theory that account for the long-term significance of his work – and, contrariwise, the bitterest and most sustained critiques of Waltz have come from opponents of rational choice theory. In effect, Waltz made possible the integration of IR theory into the dominant mode of theorizing politics in the US – what remains to be seen is whether this constitutes a giant leap forward in our abilities to comprehend IR, or a major detour down a dead-end. The rest of this chapter sets out these alternatives.


From realism to neorealism

The very term neorealism is somewhat contentious, because many realists regard the ideas it conveys as containing nothing that would merit the prefix ‘neo’; nonetheless most observers disagree, and feel that something did change with realism in response to the pluralist challenge and neorealism is one way of noting this change. In any event, there is general agreement that the most significant realist/neorealist work is Kenneth Waltz’s Theory of International Politics (1979). Waltz is a scholar with a classical realist background. His first major work, Man, the State and War (1959), is still a starting-point for modern thinking about the causes of war and, for the most part, is a work of international political theory in the traditional mould; in the 1950s Waltz had been the secretary of the American Rockefeller Committee for the Study of the Theory of International Relations which was founded in 1954, and was conventionally realist in orientation and traditionalist in method. Theory of International Politics, on the other hand, is anything but traditionalist in style and presentation, or conventional in its arguments.


Waltz’s basic strategy for preserving realism in the face of the pluralist challenge is to restrict its scope. First, whereas for Morgenthau ‘theory’ is quite a loose term – despite his frequent references to laws of politics and such like – for Waltz, theory is defined quite precisely in his first chapter, and in terms drawn from the thinking on scientific method of Karl Popper as refracted through the lens of modern economic theory. Waltz is concerned to produce interrelated, linked, law-like propositions from which testable hypotheses can be drawn – although he does acknowledge that ‘testing’ is likely to be a more impressionistic process in International Relations than it is in the exact sciences. Waltz vehemently denies being a ‘positivist’ in any wider sense of the term, but his apparent belief that there are real-world regularities that it is the role of theory to explain would seem to put him in that camp, at least given the usual implications of the term positivism (Waltz 1997, 1998).


However, Waltz does not just restrict the kind of theory he is producing; crucially he also restricts its scope. His aim is to produce a theory of the international system and not a general account of all aspects of international relations. This enables him to gaze benignly on many of the changes described by the pluralists, because they do not address the nature of the international system as such, only aspects of its component units. One of the positions he advocates most forcefully is that it is only possible to understand the international system via systemic theories; to attempt to understand the system by theories which concentrate on attributes of the units that make up the system is to commit the ultimate sin of reductionism. We know reductionism is wrong because we know that there are patterns of the international systems that recur over time even when the units that make up the system change; these patterns must be the product of the system itself, and cannot be the product either of mutable features of its sub-systems, or of human universals, such as an alleged tendency towards aggression, that, by definition, appear throughout history and not simply in international systems. Thus, to take one of his examples, Lenin must be wrong to explain imperialism in terms of the dynamics of monopoly capitalism, because imperialism has been around forever, while monopoly capitalism is of recent origin (Waltz 1979: 19ff.). In fact, this is not a compelling critique of Lenin, because the latter recognizes this point and stresses that modern imperialism is different from its predecessors – nonetheless, Waltz’s general point is clear.


Once we focus on the system we can see, he suggests, that there are only two kinds of system possible – a hierarchical or an anarchical system. In a hierarchical system, different kinds of units are organized under a clear line of authority. In an anarchical system, units which are similar in nature, even though they differ dramatically in capabilities, conduct relations with one another. The distinction between hierarchy and anarchy is crucial to Waltz; the present system, he argues, is clearly anarchical, and has been since its late medieval origins. None of the changes identified by the pluralists amounts to a change of system – this would only come if hierarchical institutions were established, that is, some kind of world government. Much of Theory of International Politics is given over to demonstrating that this is not taking place, and that the sort of developments identified by pluralists only scratch the surface of things; the underlying reality of the system remains the same.


The international system is a ‘self-help’ system; states (which for theoretical purposes are assumed to be unitary actors) are obliged to look after themselves, because there is no one else to look after them. Waltz does not assume that states are self-aggrandizing, necessarily aggressive bodies, but he does assume that they desire to preserve themselves. This means that they are obliged to be concerned with their security, and obliged to regard other states as potential threats. They must continually adjust their stance in the world in accordance with their reading of the power of others and of their own power. The result of these movements is the emergence of a balance of power. The balance of power is the theory of the international system. Balances of power can be defined in terms of the number of ‘poles’ in the balance – the metaphor gets a bit confused here – and the number of poles is defined by the number of states which can seriously threaten each other’s basic survival; Waltz argues that this means the system (in 1979) is bipolar. Only the United States and the USSR have the ability to threaten each other’s survival. As we will see, most writers on the balance of power see bipolar balances as inherently unstable, because changes in the capacity of one actor can only be met by similar changes in the other – and this process is always likely to get out of sync. Waltz disagrees; according to him, bipolar systems are easier to manage because there are fewer interested parties involved.


This is a theory of the structure of the international system, and a good question would be how structure relates to ‘agency’ – what does it mean to say that states must behave in certain kinds of ways? Again, how can it be assumed that a balance of power will always emerge or that states will be able to manage a bipolar system, given that they do not consciously wish to create balances – indeed, most states would prefer to eliminate potentially threatening states (that is, all states other than themselves)? Waltz’s answer to these questions is that there is no actual guarantee that balances will form or that power management will be successful; however, states that do not respond to the signals sent to them by the international system, that is to say states that ignore the distribution of power in the world, will find that they suffer harm as a result; indeed, under some circumstances, they could face loss of independence. Since states do not want this to happen the likelihood is that they will take the necessary steps (Waltz 1979: 118). But they may not; some states, but not very many in the twentieth century, have actually lost their independence, while others because of a favourable geographical position, or some other natural advantage, have the luxury of being able to make quite a few misreadings of the demands of the international system without suffering serious harm. Nonetheless, the tendency is for states to respond to their cues.


Here, and at other points throughout the work, Waltz employs analogies drawn from neoclassical economics, and especially the theory of markets and the theory of the firm. The pure competitive market is a classic example of a structure that comes into existence independent of the wishes of the buyers and sellers who, nonetheless, create it by their actions. Each individual actor must respond to the signals sent by the market – but ‘must’ in this sense simply means that, say, farmers who attempt to sell at a price higher than the market will bear will be unable to unload their crops, while farmers who sell for less than they could get are passing up opportunities for gain which will be taken up by others who will drive them out of business. Similarly buyers will not want to pay more than is necessary and will not be able to pay less than the going rate. The market structure emerges out of these decisions, yet the decisions are shaped by the market structure. The analogy can be taken further. In an uncompetitive market, an oligopoly, a small number of firms are able to manage prices and output in such a way that by avoiding direct competition each is better off than they would otherwise be. These firms have no interest in each other’s survival – Ford would like to see General Motors disappear and vice versa – but as profit-maximizers they realize that positive attempts to get rid of the competition would be far too dangerous to contemplate; a price war might bring down both firms. In the same way, the United States and the Soviet Union had a common interest in regulating their competition, even though each would have preferred the other to disappear had this been achievable in a riskless, costless way.


It is this economic analogy that might be said to justify the ‘neo’ in ‘neorealism’. In effect, and crucially in terms of the influence of his work, Waltz is offering a ‘rational choice’ version of the balance of power in which states are assumed to be self-interested egoists who determine their strategies by choosing that which maximizes their welfare. This is a long way in spirit from the agonized reliance on the mainspring of the sinfulness of man characteristic of Morgenthau and the ‘righteous realists’ (Rosenthal 1991). In this respect, he is closer to Carr, whose quasi-Marxist emphasis on scarcity and the human condition seems to parallel Waltz’s account of anarchy and the desire for self-preservation. Carr did not adopt a rational choice mode of theorizing, but even this style of reasoning is not unknown in the classical tradition. Rousseau’s fable of the stag and the hare is similar in import to Waltz’s account of the egoism of states: a band of hunters can collectively meet their needs by bringing down a stag, but at the crucial moment one leaves the hunt in order to catch a hare, satisfying his individual needs, but causing the stag to be lost – an excellent illustration of the problems involved in collective action. Nonetheless, in spite of these predecessors, there is something new here in the way in which Waltz puts together the argument.


The extraordinary influence of Waltz’s work can also be seen in the impetus it has given to other scholars to develop structural realist thought, which has resulted in a conceptual split within the paradigm between ‘defensive’ and ‘offensive’ realists. The two strands of thought agree on the basic assumption that states’ desire for security is compelled by the anarchic structure of the international system. However, defensive realists, who include Stephen Van Evera (1999), Stephen Walt (1987, 2002) and Jack Snyder (1991) as well as (although not as clearly) Kenneth Waltz, hold that states attain security by maintaining their position within the system, so their tendency is towards achieving an appropriate amount of power, in balance with other states. Offensive realists, the most influential of whom is John Mearsheimer (1990, 1994/5, 2001), assert instead that security is so elusive in a self-help system that states are driven to attain as much power (defined as material, particularly military, capability) as possible: to become the global, or at least regional, hegemon. This leads them to pursue aggressive, expansionist policies, argued by offensive realists to be much less costly and more rewarding than they are seen by defensive realists, who see such policies as irrational. Defensive realists argue that more power can lead to less security, therefore that the rational state has little incentive to seek additional power once it feels secure relative to other powers within the system. Contrary to offensive realist assumptions, the international system does not reward states who seek to dominate, but rather those who maintain the status quo. The main contribution of offensive realism has been to account for the behaviour of revisionist states which is missing from Waltzian neorealism.


A further break with Waltzian thought can be seen in the impulse in the recent work of scholars such as Wohlforth (1993), Schweller (1998) and Zakaria (1998) to supplement structural neorealism with unit level analysis. This work, labelled ‘neoclassical’ or ‘postclassical’ realism, contends that state behaviour cannot be explained using the structural level alone, and uses the insights of classical realists such as Machiavelli, Morgenthau and Kissinger in order to reintroduce individual and domestic governmental level variables (rejected by Waltz in Man, The State and War, 1959) into explanations of state behaviour in the international system. Waltz’s neorealism is obviously controversial, but it remains not only the most convincing restatement of the realist position in recent times, but also a restatement that links IR theory to the mainstream of (American) political science. Theory of International Politics is, justly, the most influential book on International Relations theory of its generation.


From neorealism to neoliberalism

From the perspective of the late 1970s it might have been anticipated that the way International Theory would develop in the remaining decades of the twentieth century would be along the lines of a contrast between (neo) realism and pluralism, with, perhaps, a left-wing critique of both theories hovering in the background. To some extent this has happened, and a number of accounts of contemporary International Relations theory are presented in terms of three perspectives or ‘paradigms’ (Little and Smith 1991; Viotti and Kauppi 1999). However, in the United States, which is the effective home of the discipline, theory developed in a rather different way. The pluralists of the 1970s mostly became the ‘neoliberal institutionalists’ of the 1980s and 1990s, and in the process came rather closer to neorealism

than might have been expected.


Scholars such as Robert Keohane and Robert Axelrod developed models which shared a lot with neorealism (Keohane 1984, 1989; Axelrod 1984; Axelrod and Keohane 1985). They accepted the two basic assumptions of international anarchy and the rational egoism of states; the aim of their analysis was to show that it was possible for rational egoists to cooperate even in an anarchical system. Drawing material from the same kind of sources as the neorealists – in particular game theory, public choice and rational choice theory – they recognized that cooperation under anarchy was always liable to be fragile. ‘Free rider’ states – which took the gains of cooperation without contributing to the costs – would always be a problem, and the ‘prisoner’s dilemma’ game modelled very clearly the difficulty of relying on promises of cooperation made in circumstances where enforcement was impossible. However, if international regimes could be established within which information could be exchanged and commitments formalized, the possibilities for cooperation would be enhanced. Establishing regimes is a difficult process, and most of the existing regimes in, especially, the international political economy were established by a ‘hegemonic’ power, the United States, in the immediate post-war era – a ‘hegemon’ in this context being defined as a state that has the ability to establish rules of action and enforce them, and the willingness to act upon this ability. One of the key propositions of most of these writers is that US hegemony has declined dramatically in recent years, thus posing a problem – is it possible for cooperation to continue ‘after hegemony’? The answer usually given is ‘yes’ – but at sub-optimal levels, because what is happening is that the regime is living on the capital built up under hegemony. The neoliberals are clearly saying something rather different about international cooperation from the neorealists, but a common commitment to rational choice theory makes them part of the same broad movement. The neorealist Joseph Grieco, in an article ‘Anarchy and the Limits of Cooperation’, helpfully sets out the points of disagreement between the two camps (Grieco 1988).


Grieco suggests that a key issue concerns absolute as opposed to relative gains from cooperation. Neoliberals assume that states are essentially concerned with the absolute gains made from cooperation; as long as they are happy with their own situation, they will not be too worried about how well other states are doing. There is a clear parallel here with liberal trade theory, where the fact that parties will gain unequally from trade that reflects comparative advantage is deemed less important than the fact that they will all gain something. Neorealists, on the other hand, assume that each state will be concerned with relative gains from cooperation, that is with how well other states are doing as well as how well it is doing. This follows from the neorealist focus on the balance of power, which rests precisely upon the assumption that states will continually scan each other for signs that their relative power position is changing. This difference in orientation, Grieco suggests, means that neorealists and neoliberals focus on quite different problems when it comes to the limits of cooperation. For neoliberals, it is not at all difficult to see why states cooperate – it is in their (absolute) interest to do so. The problem, rather, as we have seen, is that states have a tendency to cheat, to become ‘free riders’, and what is needed is some mechanism that prevents cheating. This would allow states to realize their true long-term interest in cooperation as opposed to falling prey to the temptation to settle for short-term gains – it is easy to see why this branch of theory is termed neoliberal. For neorealists on the other hand, ‘cheating’ is something of a non-problem. From their point of view, the difficulty is getting cooperation going in the first place, because states will only cooperate when they expect that the gains they will receive will be greater than, or at least equal to, the gains of all other relevant parties – quite a tough criterion to meet.


Grieco argues that the neorealist assumption that states concentrate on relative gains is backed up by observations of how states actually behave in the international system, and also by public opinion data which he shows suggests that the US public at least is more concerned with relative gains than with absolute gains. On the other hand, neoliberals can point to the extensive network of international institutions which exists and, indeed, is continually added to, which rather undermines the proposition that states are chronically unwilling to cooperate. From the neorealist perspective, the neoliberals are engaging in a doomed enterprise. While accepting an essentially Hobbesian definition of the situation – that is, the two criteria of anarchy and rational egoism – neoliberals argue that cooperation can take place without the presence of a Hobbesian ‘sovereign’; this cannot be. Neoliberals argue that although cooperation will be sub-optimal it will still be possible.


However this debate is resolved, what is clear is that neoliberals and neorealists are much closer together than their non-neo forebears. Whereas the latter understood the world in fundamentally incompatible terms, stressing either harmony or disharmony of interests, and the importance or unimportance of domestic structures, the ‘neos’ both rest their position on what are taken to be the facts of anarchy and of the rational egoism of states. It may be going too far to write of a unified ‘neo–neo’ position (Waever 1996), but certainly the two positions are close enough to be seen as offering different understandings of what is essentially the same (rational choice) research programme. Moreover, this is a research programme within which the work of the majority of IR scholars can be located. Nonetheless, implicitly or explicitly, the ‘anarchy problematic’ established by Waltz, sets the agenda for most contemporary IR research.


Constructivism and the ‘English School’

Theorists of globalization reject the ‘state-centrism’ involved in neorealist/neoliberal rational choice theory in favour of an approach that stresses global social, economic, cultural and political forces. Other critics of rational choice IR are less concerned by its focus on the state, and more critical of the implicit assumptions that underlie that focus, in particular the assumption that the nature of the state is, in some sense, given and that the rules that govern state behaviour are simply part of the way things are, rather than the product of human invention. By definition, rational choice IR theories assume that states engage in goal directed behaviour, but within a context that that is given in advance; they study how states play the game of being rational egoists in an anarchic world, but they take for granted that states are rational egoists and that the identification of the world as anarchic is unproblematic; in other words that the game is preordained. Critics challenge this set of assumptions.


These critics share a hostility to rational choice approaches, but relatively little else, and finding even a rudimentary classification schema here is difficult; for purposes of exposition they are here divided into two groups. First, the work of constructivists and their English School cousins will be examined; then, moving progressively further away from the mainstream of IR theory, critical theorists, poststructuralists and others misleadingly termed postmodern writers will come under scrutiny.


Constructivism is the fastest growing oppositional movement within IR theory, but a good part of this growth is a by-product of the lack of any clear definition of what this approach might involve. Unfortunately, constructivism has become a bumper-sticker term, a label appropriated by those who wish to assert a degree of independence from mainstream American IR theory while maintaining a certain level of respectability – it has come to be seen as a kind of acceptable ‘middle way’ (Adler 1997). In the late 1980s and early 1990s this was not the case. Then, the writings of Friedrich Kratochwil (1989), Nicholas Onuf (1989) and Alexander Wendt (1987, 1992) established constructivist ideas as a genuinely radical alternative to conventional IR.


The central insight of constructivist thought can perhaps best be conveyed by the notion that there is a fundamental distinction to be made between ‘brute facts’ about the world, which remain true independent of human action, and ‘social facts’ which depend for their existence on socially established conventions (Searle 1995). There is snow on the top of Mount Everest whether anyone is there to observe it or not, but the white and purple piece of paper in my pocket with a picture of Edward Elgar on it is only a £20 note because it is recognized by people in Britain to be so. Mistaking a social fact for a brute fact is a cardinal error – and one constructivists believe is made with some frequency – because it leads to the ascription of a natural status to conditions that have been produced and may be, in principle, open to change. Thus, if we treat ‘anarchy’ as a given, something that conditions state action without itself being conditioned by state action, we will miss the point that ‘anarchy is what states make of it’ and does not, as such, dictate any particular course of action (Wendt 1992). We live in ‘a world of our making’ not a world whose contours are predetermined in advance by non-human forces (Onuf 1989).


A variety of different possibilities emerge.


  • First, unfortunately, there may be no development at all, and in the 1990s a number of essentially empirical IR scholars have proclaimed themselves to be ‘constructivist’ in so far as they accept the above points, but have not changed their working methods in any significant way, at least not in any way that outsiders can discern. This is constructivism as a label.


  • Second, it might be noted that because a structure is the product of human agency it by no means follows that it will be easy for human agents to change its nature once it has been established – agent–structure questions tease out the relationships between these two notions (Wendt 1987).


  • Third, once we recognize that the nature of the game of international politics is not simply to be taken for granted, the road is opened up for a Wittgensteinian analysis of the rules of the game, an account of the ways in the grammar of world politics is constituted – Kratochwil and Onuf have been particularly important in developing this side of the constructivist project; for a paradigm of this kind of analysis the reader is referred to Kratochwil’s account of the place of the rule of nonintervention within the Westphalian game of ‘sovereignty-as-dominium’ (Kratochwil 1995). Alternatively, some German constructivists have adopted an essentially Habermasian approach, focusing on communicative action in world politics (Risse 2000).


However, perhaps the most popular line of development has been in another direction, towards using constructivist ideas to throw light on normative issues, in particular those that revolve around matters of identity, and, by extension, on issues of cooperation between states (Ruggie 1998; Wendt 1999). As noted above, ‘neo–neo’ IR theory assumes cooperation takes place between egoists under conditions of anarchy, if, that is, it takes place at all. The identities of the actors in question is a matter of no significance, and norms promoting cooperation will have no purchase on what is essentially a process of ends–means calculation, in which the end (‘security’) is given in advance and is the same for all actors, and the context is provided by a notion of anarchy that is essentially incontestable and unchanging. Constructivists challenge each item in this formulation. Identity does matter: US relations with, for instance, Canada and France are different from her relations with Egypt and the People’s Republic of China not simply for reasons of security, but because the first two countries share with the US a

common (broad) identity that the latter two do not – more dramatically, as Ruggie points out, it mattered enormously that the US became (briefly) hegemonic post-1945 rather than the USSR, in ways that cannot be captured by those who simply portray ‘hegemony’ as an abstract requirement for a particular kind of cooperative regime. Equally, the idea that there is only one ‘anarchy problematic’ will not do; anarchy means ‘no rule’ but need not, though it may, mean chaos. The possibility exists that within an anarchical framework norms can emerge.


This latter thought is developed extensively in the second half of Alexander Wendt’s ambitious Social Theory of International Politics (1999). As the title suggests, this book is a deliberate attempt to set up an opposition to Waltz’s Theory of International Politics, although, as the title also suggests, it also pays a kind of homage to the earlier volume. The first part of Social Theory presents a clear, albeit at times somewhat anodyne, version of constructivist epistemology, while the second half develops notions of the importance of identity and norms, and the politics of different kinds of anarchy – including the possibility of the emergence of an ‘anarchical society’. This latter possibility highlights the connections between

this version of constructivism and the work of a group of theorists generally known as the ‘English School’.


The ‘English School’ is so named because its major figures, although often not English, worked in England (in particular at the London School of Economics, and at Oxford and Cambridge) during its formative years. It is best defined as a group of scholars – most notably Martin Wight, Hedley Bull, Adam Watson, R. J. Vincent, James Mayall, Robert Jackson, and more recently Tim Dunne and N. J. Wheeler – whose work focuses on the notion of a ‘society of states’ or ‘international society’: the history of the English School is well told in Dunne (1998). The term ‘international society’ conveys two points, both of which are examined at length in the masterwork of the School, Hedley Bull’s The Anarchical Society (1977/1995/2002); first, the focus of study should be primarily on the world of states and not on sub-state entities or universal categories such as ‘humanity’; however, second, states when they interact do not simply form an international system, a no normative pattern of regularities, rather they form a society, a norm governed relationship whose members accept that they have at least limited responsibilities towards one another and to the society as a whole. These responsibilities are summarized in the traditional practices of international law and diplomacy. States are assumed to pursue their interests in the international arena, but not at all costs – or, rather, if they do pursue them at all costs international society will be in danger. The link between this kind of thinking and Wendt’s constructivist thought is clear. International relations take place under conditions of anarchy, but in an ‘anarchical society’; states act within a system of norms which, most of the time, they regard as constraining. Moreover these norms are created by the states themselves; Dunne explicitly makes the connection in an article entitled ‘The Social Construction of International Society’ (1995).


This is not the only direction in which English School thought can be taken; Barry Buzan, the inspiration for a recent attempt to revitalize the School as a research programme, draws connections with neoliberal institutionalist thought on regimes (Buzan 1993, 1999, 2004). Perhaps more to the point, the notion of international society is quite closely connected to an older, pre-rational choice, kind of realism. One way of looking at the concept is to see it as an occasionally idealized conceptualization of the norms of the old, pre-1914 European states system. This is the real version of European statecraft as opposed to the ‘crib’ that Hans Morgenthau and others prepared for the American domestic political elite in the 1940s. If

this is right, a good question would be whether ‘international society’ provides a satisfactory starting-point for understanding our contemporary world order, where the majority of states are non-European. It is at least arguable that the old order worked as well as it did because there was quite a high level of cultural homogeneity in the system; Europeans shared a common history, albeit one of frequently violent relationships, and common Greco–Roman cultural origins. Even so the divide between (Greek) Orthodox and (Roman) Catholic Europe was a source of some tension, as had been, in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, the divide in the West between Protestant and Catholic Europe. How much more problematic would be the normative basis for an international society composed, as today it must be, of states based in many cultures.


There are two possible answers here. One is that although the modern world is incontestably multicultural in social terms, the Western invention of the nation-state has proved remarkably attractive to a great many different cultures. Whether because they genuinely meet a need, or because, given the

existing order, territorial political units are more or less unavoidable, nation-states seem to be desired everywhere. The only part of the world where the institution is under serious threat from an alternative form of political organization is at its place of origin in Western Europe in the form of the European Union. A second answer is less contingent and more complex. It is that the very rationale of ‘international society’ is its ability to cope with cultural diversity, with the practices of the society supporting the freedom of its members to pursue their own conceptions of the Good (Nardin 1983).


To summarize, some versions of constructivism, especially that associated with Wendt’s recent writings and the English School, offer not-dissimilar critiques of the current intellectual dominance of rational choice IR theory, and cognate accounts of how the world might be studied other than through the assumption that rational egoists maximize their security under the anarchy problematic. In opposition to positivism, they share the view that theory in part constitutes the world. However, on some accounts, the critical impulse of early constructivist writings has been lost by Wendt; it is noticeable that in the Review of International Studies Forum on Social Theory of International Politics, mainstream IR theorists were rather more favourably disposed towards his arguments than more radical critics, and Friedrich Kratochwil has argued that Wendt is in the process of constructing a new orthodoxy (Review of International Studies 2000; Kratochwil 2000). Certainly, Wendt has cast himself as a ‘loyal opposition’, challenging the mainstream, but eager for dialogue with it; the title of Wendt’s 1999 book conveys this very nicely, being at once a challenge and a tribute to Waltz. In any event, in the final section of this chapter, the work of oppositionists who can by no stretch of the imagination be thought of as loyal, will be examined.


Critical, poststructuralist and ‘postmodern’ international thought

All constructivists are, in some sense post-positivist, indeed anti-positivist in so far as they reject the rational choice, neo-utilitarian reasoning of mainstream IR theory, but the currently dominant trend of constructivist thought, represented by Wendt and Ruggie, remains closely in touch with the research agenda of the mainstream – that is, the relations of states, specifically problems of cooperation and conflict. The writers to be considered in this final section on contemporary IR theory are much less wedde

to this conventional agenda; they take their inspiration from elsewhere, in fact from a variety of elsewhere since there is no one source of inspiration for this ‘new learning’. We find here Frankfurt School Critical Theorists, feminist writers, writers inspired by the French masters of thought of the

last half century–Foucault and Derrida in particular – and even, although the word is much misused, the occasional genuine ‘postmodernist’. These thinkers do not have a great deal in common, save for two important intellectual commitments; all desire to understand International Relations not as a free-standing discourse with its own terms of reference, but rather as one manifestation of a much broader movement in social thought, and all hold that theory must unsettle established categories and disconcert the reader. On both counts, IR must be seen in the context of Enlightenment and post- Enlightenment thought. Just how it is to be seen in this context is what is contested, and to understand this contest a step back has to be taken, in the direction of the Enlightenment itself.


Enlightenment is ‘humanity’s emergence from self-imposed immaturity’ (Reiss 1970: 54). In other words, the Enlightenment mandated the application of human reason to the project of human emancipation. Human beings were challenged by the great thinkers of the Enlightenment to know themselves and their world, and to apply that knowledge to free themselves both from superstition and the forces of ignorance, and, more directly, from political tyranny, and, perhaps, the tyranny of material necessity. Originally, the main carrier of the project of emancipation was ‘liberalism’ in one form or another, but one belief held by all the writers examined here, and by most constructivists, is that contemporary forms of liberalism, such as the neo-utilitarianism represented by rational choice theory and mainstream IR theory, no longer perform this function. To use the influential formulation of Robert Cox, contemporary liberal theory is ‘problem-solving’ theory – it accepts the prevailing definition of a particular situation and attempts to solve the problems this definition generates – while emancipatory theory must be ‘critical’, challenging conventional understandings (Cox 1981). Thus, whereas neorealist/neoliberal thinking accepts the ‘anarchy problematic’ as given, and seeks devices to lessen the worst side-effects of anarchy, the new approaches wish either to explore and elucidate the ways in which this problematic serves particular kinds of interests, and closes down particular sorts of arguments, or to shift the argument on to an altogether different subject.


If it is generally agreed by these authors that contemporary liberalism can no longer be seen as an emancipatory discourse, there is no agreement as to whether the project of emancipation itself is recoverable. Here a quite sharp divide emerges between those who believe it is, although not on modern liberal lines, and those who believe that the failure of liberalism in this respect is symptomatic of a problem with the goal of emancipation itself. The former look back to, variously, Kant, Hegel and Marx to reinstate the Enlightenment Project: the latter, variously, to Nietzsche, Heidegger and Foucault to critique the underlying assumptions of emancipatory theory.


The former group – call them ‘critical theorists’ for the sake of convenience – are clearly related to the left-oriented, progressivist, international thought of the last century and a half, including radical liberalism before it became part of the official world-view of the dominant international powers. The single most influential critical theorist was, and remains, Karl Marx; it was Marx who set out most clearly the propositions that ‘emancipation’ could not be simply a political process leaving economic inequalities untouched (which has been the failing of liberalism), that capitalism, though its subversion of traditional forms of rule was to be welcomed, itself created oppression, and, most important in this context, that capitalism was, at least potentially in his day, a world-system, a force that had to be understood in global rather than local terms – which means that ‘emancipation’ must be a global project. Unfortunately these core insights, which most critical theorists would endorse, were embedded by Marx within a framework which contained much that contemporary history has shown to be decidedly un-emancipatory. The direct descendants of Marx – the Bolsheviks in the Soviet Union, Mao and the Chinese Communist Party, and various national communist regimes in Cambodia, Cuba, North Korea and Vietnam – were, between them, responsible for more human misery in the twentieth century than the adherents of any other world-view, Nazism included. Moreover, the various directly-inspired Marxist theories of IR – Lenin’s theory of imperialism, and numerous variants of centre–periphery and world-systems analysis – have proved equally unsatisfactory, although, as will be seen in Chapter 8 below, highly influential in the non-Western world. As a result of this record, contemporary critical theorists tend to work with Marx via intermediaries, the most important of whom have been, for international political economists, the Italian/Sardinian Marxist and victim of fascism, Antonio Gramsci, and for international political theorists, the Frankfurt School and, in particular, its leading modern theorist, Jürgen Habermas.


Setting aside the Gramscian heritage for later consideration, the contribution of Habermas to critical theory has been to move Marx-influenced thought away from economic determinism and the class struggle, and towards an engagement with Kantian ethics and Hegelian notions of political community. Habermas shares Kant’s universalist account of ethical obligation which he recasts for our age in terms of ‘discourse ethics’; moral issues are to be understood as resolvable via dialogue under ideal conditions; that is, with no voice excluded and without privileging any particular point of view or taking for granted that inequalities of wealth and power are legitimate. Politics is an ethical activity which takes place within communities – but communities must be understood to be as inclusive as possible; some level of exclusion may be inevitable if citizenship is to be meaningful, but the basis for inclusion and exclusion is subject to moral scrutiny.


Habermas has written on the theory and practice of international relations in books and articles on such diverse subjects as Kant’s international theory, the Gulf War of 1990–1 and the Kosovo Campaign of 1999, but his standard bearers in English-language International Relations have been scholars such as David Held and Andrew Linklater, with a rather more Marx-oriented, wider, Frankfurt School perspective represented by Mark Neufeld and Richard Wyn Jones (Habermas 1994, 1997, 1999, 2002; Held 1995; Linklater 1998; Neufeld 1995; Jones 1999, 2001). Linklater and Held have developed different aspects of the notion of cosmopolitan democracy. Held’s work is oriented towards an explicitly normative account of the need to democratize contemporary international relations; the central thesis is that in an age of globalization (of which Held has been a major theorist) the desire for democratic self-government can no longer be met at a national level and so the project of democratizing the international order must be prioritized, however difficult a task this may be. Linklater is less concerned with institutional change, more with the transformation of notions of political community, and the evolution of an ever-more inclusive dialogue. These are themes that clearly relate to Habermas’s thought, but many writers in critical international studies – especially in sub-fields such as ‘Critical Security Studies’ – take a broader view of the critical theory project. Both Neufeld and Jones remain closer to the Marxian roots of critical theory than Linklater and Held, and are rather more critical generally of the powers that be in contemporary world politics.


These few comments can only give a flavour of the work of critical theorists – readers are urged to follow up the suggested reading listed below – but enough has been said to make it clear that the account of International Relations they offer is radically different from that of mainstream IR. A valuable illustration of the chasm in question can be found in the 1999 Review of International Studies Forum on Linklater’s The Transformation of Political Community (1998); the blank incomprehension of Randall Schweller, representing the mainstream, results in an almost-comically hostile response. However, in the same Forum, the equally critical comments of R. B. J. Walker point in another direction. Linklater’s brand of critical theory is ultimately devoted to the rescuing of the emancipatory project of the Enlightenment – but can this project be rescued? Ought it to be? Perhaps it is not so much a case of work such as rational choice IR betraying the Enlightenment Project, but rather representing it all too faithfully.


This is the approach taken by writers characteristically referred to as poststructuralist or sometimes, usually inaccurately, postmodern, and if the above account of Habermas and critical theory is dangerously thin, any attempt to provide an equivalent background for these scholars within a study of this scope presents even more difficulties – once again readers are urged to follow up some of the references given below. A few themes only can be identified; first, following up the reference to Walker above is ‘inside/outside’; then, closely related, a new approach to ethics and to pluralism; next, speed, simulation and virtual reality; and finally, the contribution of feminist writing.


For the critical theorist Linklater, the community is necessarily to some degree exclusionary, but the aim is to be as inclusive as possible and to make the costs of exclusion as low as possible – this is, of course, an explicitly normative project, although Linklater insists that trends supportive of this end are immanent in our current world order. Walker may share some of these normative goals, but is more directly concerned with the way in which the very system of sovereign states is constituted by and rests upon a sharp inside/outside distinction (Walker 1993). It was the emergence of this sharp distinction in the early modern era that created the Westphalia System and, more recently, has created the discourse of International Relations itself; moreover, the emancipatory discourses of the Enlightenment rest upon a structurally similar distinction; the privileging of a particular voice by the Enlightenment – European, rationalist, male – is not something that is incidental and can be eliminated by a better dialogue, any more than the bounded community can be redesigned to avoid the privileging of the interests of its inhabitants.


It is not always clear where Walker wishes to take these points, but writers such as William Connolly and David Campbell offer some suggestions. Both focus on issues of ‘difference’ and ‘otherness’ and both propose strategies for dealing with otherness that reject the universalism of conventional emancipatory politics. Campbell, in studies of the Gulf War and the Bosnia conflict, attempts to show the emptiness of rule-oriented approaches to ethics, symbolized by such constructions as Just War theory in which the actions of parties to a conflict are tested against an allegedly impartial and objective ethical yardstick (Campbell 1993, 1998). Instead he proposes an ethics of encounter, a more personal, less general approach to the identities and interests of groups and individuals, in which those identities and interests are not taken as given but are seen to be constructed in the course of conflicts – a classic illustration being the way in which the various parties to the Bosnian conflict are created by that conflict rather than representing pre-existent monolithic identities such as ‘Muslims’ or ‘Serbs’. Connolly’s interests are less obviously international, his contribution more closely related to the ‘Culture Wars’ of the modern US, but his critique of American pluralism as a unifying and categorizing force as opposed to the kind of ‘pluralization’ that he would favour, in which no attempt is made to privilege particular kinds of interest and where the self-definition of actors is respected, draws on similar resources (Connolly 1995, 2002).


Campbell and Connolly are self-described ‘late-modern’ writers, who have by no means lost contact with the notion of emancipation – their worry, most explicit in Connolly, is that conventional notions of emancipation are likely to combine with contemporary technology to create a world in which ‘difference’ is abolished, in which human variety is ‘normalized’ and, as Nietzsche put it over a century ago, everyone thinks alike and those who do not voluntarily commit themselves to the madhouse (Connolly 1991). The theme that the speed of modern life, the capacity for simulation and the creation of ‘virtual reality’ will fundamentally shift the ways in which we are able to think of ourselves as free and emancipated has been taken up in the discourses of IR, most prominently by James Der Derian. His early and pioneering work on the genealogy of diplomacy pursued Foucauldian themes, but his later work on spies, speed and ‘anti-diplomacy’ has rested in particular on the work of Paul Virilio – one of the only writers referred to in this section who could accurately be described as postmodernist, in so far his oeuvre suggests that the pace of contemporary existence (in every sense of the term) is actually taking us beyond the modern into a new era (Der Derian 1987, 1992, 1998, 2001). Der Derian’s work on ‘virtual war’ has interesting connections with other attempts to trace the changing nature of warfare.


There is no particular reason why feminist writings should be associated with poststructuralism as opposed to the other positions outlined in this chapter – and, indeed, one of the most influential of feminist writers on IR, Jean Bethke Elshtain, whose work on war and the public/private divide, certainly could not be described in these terms (Elshtain 1987, 1998). Nonetheless, the majority of feminist writers in the field do fall naturally into this section rather than, say the constructivist or critical theoretical section. The central point here is that the voice of the European Enlightenment is seen as masculine, and feminist writers such as Christine Sylvester (1994, 2001), J. Ann Tickner (1992, 2001), Cynthia Enloe (1993, 2000, 2004) and Cynthia Weber (1999) are not prepared to see the association of ‘European, rationalist and male’ as contingent (in the way that, for example, a liberal feminist simply concerned with ‘women’s equality’ might). These writers share with the other authors discussed above the view that the project of emancipation of the Enlightenment is not recoverable by, in this case, simply adding women to the equation. Instead they attempt, in various ways, to develop accounts of the social world that trace the influence of gender in all our categories, most particularly, of course, in this context, in our notions of the ‘international’.


As with the other writers in this section, the goal is to dislocate our sense of what is ‘normal’, to cause us to re-think assumptions that we did not even know were assumptions. Tickner and Enloe engage in this project in ways which ultimately connect back to the wider goals of critical theory and an expanded, revised notion of human emancipation. Other writers have no such ambition. Perhaps the most striking and controversial piece of writing in the latter camp is Cynthia Weber’s account of US policy towards the Caribbean and Central America over the last generation in terms of the projection of fears of castration created by the survival of Castro’s regime in Cuba (1999). This particular example of feminist IR writing is by no means typical, but the forging of links with another substantial body of contemporary social theory – in this case, gender studies and so-called ‘queer theory’ – certainly illustrates the general ambition of post-positivist IR to break away from the statist assumptions characteristic of mainstream theory.

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