Attempting to Think Rationally About Terror

Like everyone else, I want to express my solidarity with the people of Paris after the atrocious attacks of the weekend. It’s a solidarity I feel at a very visceral level, but not because I have been or am likely to be a victim of such an attack – I realise that we who live in the democracies of the North remain very safe. Rather, I find that reading about the nihilistic cruelty involved in such mass casualty attacks and the gloating that accompanies the slaughter leaves me physically stressed. As tenuous as my own connection to the events actually is, the reports of the Utøya massacre, the Suruç massacre, the Charlie Hebdo attacks, sectarian atrocities in the Syrian civil war and accounts of the massive sexual violence perpetrated by Daesh all left me feeling angry, shocked and disgusted. I find it quite hard, therefore, to think about terror attacks in a cool and rational manner in their immediate aftermath. This can’t be too unusual, if one key aim of terror attacks is to generate irrational emotions for political purposes then it’s not surprising that thinking clearly about them is difficult.

What’s especially aggravating is that so much of what is written online and in social media in the aftermath of such attacks disrespects the dead through callous indifference, self-indulgent weaving of conspiracy theories, or cheap political point-scoring. The bombings always mean we should support my politics. Every horror buttresses preconceived worldviews and generates ugly cries of ‘I told you so!’ by commentators with diametrically opposed views. In particular, those peddling two different versions of the clash of civilizations narrative can always find evidence that confirms their prejudices. I say two, because the ideologies held by the crank left and the wingnut right have come to mirror each other. The standard, original brand Huntington clash of civilizations thesis suggests that civilizations are clearly defined, mono-vocal, essentially unchangeable and destined to come into conflict with each other. According to this narrative the Muslim world is a monolith, any violence done in its name is the result of primordial features of Islam and only reveals the true and essential features. So far, so Breivik.

The other variety of the clash of civilizations has come to dominate far left debates on contemporary international relations. It sees civilizations as being clearly defined, mono-vocal, essentially unchangeable just like the classic version. Only in this version, the West is the intrinsically malign, monolithic culture – persecuting Muslims because they are Muslims due to its deep and ineradicable racism and intolerance. This perspective resembles the most crass, manichean vulgarisation of postcolonial theory – but sadly it seems to have some purchase. This is what happens when people are only able to think about power relations, inequality and insecurity in terms of identity, and when culture is taken at face value rather than placed in its social, economic and political context.

A variant of this perspective has greater influence, owing to the fact that it contains an element of truth. This variant, the Chomskyite perspective on world affairs, sees Islamist terror attacks as a mechanical response to Western actions. The international system is a simple environment in which action leads to an equal and opposite reaction in a quasi-automatic fashion. Only the West has any agency, the criminal acts of Western states call forth terrorist attacks on Western citizens as a sort of misdirected but inexorable karmic force.

‘Blowback’ is very real: dangerous proxies do bite the hand that feeds. Western foreign policy does generate grievances that provide some of the impetus for terror attacks – which is not to say that those actions or even those grievances are legitimate. What those perspectives completely miss, however, is that many of the factors that generate Islamist terrorism are internal to the Middle East and the political struggles within and between the states of the region. Halliday argues in The Middle East and International Relations, that such crass perspectives overstate the role of outside powers and underplay the significance of the different strategies pursued by actors engaged in struggles over the state and the political order within the region. So contextualising the Paris terror attacks requires an analysis of Daesh as an organisation, the structural pressures and opportunities it faces, the crisis and collapse of the Syrian and Iraqi states (and yes, the US-UK invasion was central here) and the wider regional sectarian conflict.

The other pitfall to avoid is to assume that we know what the purpose of the terror attacks was. Many people leapt to the conclusion that the goal was to provoke deeper involvement on the part of France and the West. But provocation is only one strategy that may motivate terror. Attacks can also be used as a form of attrition or deterrence, imposing costs and generating fear in order to dissuade an actor from pursuing a particular policy. If this was the goal, then for France to withdraw from the coalition against Daesh would be ‘giving the terrorists what they want’. Indeed given how frequently actors rationalise events due to cognitive dissonance, it’s possible that any change in policy can be claimed as a victory for the perpetrators – after all it demonstrates that they have exercised the power to overcome the will of their enemies and alter their behaviour. Terror attacks may also be used for reputational purposes, as a credible display of strength, resolve and commitment to a cause. The recipients of the message sent through terror are potential recruits or allies in this case, not the enemy themselves. Alternatively, they might not be instrumentally rational in a strategic sense but rather motivated by deeply-felt moral commitments that mandate inflicting harm on a hated enemy – as suggested by Gilbert Ramsay.

In any case, it makes little sense to base one’s reaction to a terror attack on what the perpetrators intended. If the attackers desired to provoke further attacks this does not mean that this should refrain from stepping up its air campaign, as Daesh may have miscalculated as many other violent groups have done in the past when they have provoked their own destruction (Adam Elkus expressed this point very well). Similarly, if the goal of a terror attack is to force a change in policy, then recommitting to that policy does not make sense if the costs really are too great to bear – no matter how painful it may be to admit this. ‘Doing the opposite of what terrorists want’ has a psychological appeal, but is not the basis for sound decision-making.

An assessment should be made based on an unvarnished assessment of the actor’s own goals, the costs of various alternative policies and the likely effects on the overall strategic environment – bearing in mind risk that comes with any compromise of fundamental values. Terror is not the automatic, mechanical result of Western foreign policy and nor should it determine Western foreign policy in an automatic, mechanical fashion.

Edit: An interesting interview with John Berger, who favours the provocation interpretation, focusing on the lack of good options for dealing with Daesh.

More edits: Best comments from the Crooked Timber thread herehere and here, drawing heavily on the Spiegal article. Follow up interview with Haykel after the Atlantic article. Another overview.

Networked Neorealism?

The past few posts have been quite critical of Neorealism. I thought it might be interesting to say something qualified in the theory’s favour. In Networks of Nations, Zeev Maoz presents what he calls the theory of networked international politics. It hasn’t been discussed very much on IR blogs, apart from by Braumoeller over at the Monkey Cage during a discussion of systemic theory and networked vs. traditional approaches. Maoz’s theory applies familiar mechanisms drawn from existing IR theories to analyse social network patterns of interstate interaction. Drawing on Neorealism he analyses patterns of strategic interaction, Liberalism patterns of mutually beneficial self-interested interaction, Constructivism patterns of homophily and the formation of different cultural cliques, and World Systems Theory patterns of inequality and hierarchy. He also makes some novel claims about prestige and status in the network of nations, developing some original hypotheses that develop concepts within social network theory (but which also echo recent and classic discussions of status in international relations). Interestingly, he finds that each theory makes successful predictions in its own core area of competence. Combining the different mechanisms, Maoz puts forward a complex and detailed account of how the spillovers generated by cooperation amongst security-seeking states results in an increasingly complex, evolving network structure of cooperation within the international system. Democratisation within strategically interacting groups of states tends to reduce competition and accelerate the formation of cooperative relationships. Yet the system remains unequal and hierarchies of status may generate conflict.

This is only a brief summary of a dense, detailed book that examines dozens of hypotheses and a huge range of interactions at different levels of analysis within different areas of world politics. One area of focus is what Maoz calls the strategic reference group (SRG), which he refers to as the basic unit of for the analysis of national security policy within his framework. An SRG is a state’s security environment, it is made up of all the states who are likely to be perceived as threats to a state – those the state has been involved in military disputes with, those the state has been in a rivalry with, and allies of both sets of ‘enemy’ states (the friend of my enemy is my enemy). Neorealists believe that states often engage in ‘internal balancing’, arms build-ups, if they believe that they are vulnerable. The military capabilities of others are dangerous unless they are checked and negated by counterveiling power. Building up a state’s own power resources is one way a state can make itself less vulnerable, forming alliances is an alternative strategy. Do states actually behave this way? Maoz finds that yes, states will tend to build up their military capabilities if they are weak relative to their strategic reference group*. Forming alliances makes a state less likely to engage in a military build-up. So it seems that isolated states with many powerful enemies seek to increase their capabilities. States that are powerful, have powerful allies and have few enemies may feel themselves safe enough to reduce their capabilities – perhaps opting for butter instead of guns.

This at least seems to provide support for a Neorealist perspective, especially the Defensive Neorealism of Waltz, Walt and Glaser, as Maoz’s results are consistent with the hypothesis that states seek security by attempt to achieve ‘enough’ power. But there are one or two problems. First, Maoz’s definition of the strategic reference group isn’t thoroughly Neorealist. In Maoz’s analysis, states are not concerned about all other states, just specific threatening states. States have specific issues and disagreements with past enemies, strategic rivals, and their allies. Anarchy is not necessarily a war of all against all in the theory of networked international politics. Second, I’m slightly cautious about the findings as there could be other factors not included in the model that might lead to states within SRGs to experience a growth in military personal and expenditure at the same time or sequentially. Economic growth and industrialisation are likely to be regional processes and may be associated with a rise in military capabilities. Third, Maoz notes that states that are very strong compared to their SRGs are less likely to get involved in conflict. Does this support or undermine Neorealism? If Neorealists are committed to the hypothesis that unipolar global and regional inter-state systems are very unlikely to form and very unstable because they provoke counter-balancing coalitions, then this seems to undermine the theory. Fourth, although Maoz argues that these results are robust and in line with Neorealist expectations, he notes that they don’t have a great deal of predictive power. So Neorealist theories don’t explain all that much how states respond to potential threats – perhaps (as Maoz suggests) because states have many foreign policy tools available to them apart from military build-ups and alliance formation.

Maoz examines many other processes within the global inter-state system in further detail, again finding that some Neorealist claims are borne out. But so are the claims of other theories, such as democratic peace theory. Even on a charitable interpretation of patterns of conflict and cooperation, Neorealism provides an incomplete account of the phenomena that it was created to make sense of.

Maoz’s Networks of Nations is a fascinating application of familiar theoretical frameworks to a host of levels of analysis within the international system – social network analysis seems to offer a veritable smorgasbord of possible levels of analysis for international relations scholarship. Focusing on indirect as well as direct interactions between states offers a very powerful set of tools for scholars looking for behavioural patterns in world politics. It would be especially interesting to see a network analysis of other middle-range theories in IR – is for example territorial peace and conflict a network phenomena? In my view such research would help us think creatively and rigorously about the nature of international systems and move past exhausted theories.

*I think that there is a mistake on page 143, which states that the variable State/SRG capability imbalance is generated by ‘subtract[ing] a state’s military capabilities from the sum of the military capabilities of its SRG members’. The name of the variable, the discussion in the text, and the operationalisation of the variable in the case where a state has no SRG all suggest that this is a typo and that the actual operationalisation is the state’s military capabilities less the sum of the capabilities of the states in its SRG. This operationalisation is consistent with Maoz’s interpretation of the negative coefficient for the variable in regression model for military build-ups: ‘As the difference between the capabilities of the focal state and the aggregate capabilities of its SRG increases, the extent of the absolute and rate-of-change in the state’s capabilities declines’. In other words, states with large capabilities and a weak set of states in their SRG (i.e. a positive State/SRG capability imbalance) are likely to reduce their military capabilities.

Leaving exhausted theories behind

Two years ago prominent Neorealist authors Mearsheimer and Walt lamented the current inattention to grand theory in IR as an academic field (which they also summarised over at Duck of Minerva). They argued that ‘simplistic hypothesis testing’ had replaced inquiry into the fundamental features of world politics and the debate among rival intellectual frameworks seeking to make sense of international relations. There probably is too much ‘simplistic hypothesis testing’ in IR, the use of positivist methods to answer micro-questions that no-one has every actually cared about abounds in major journals. But Mearsheimer and Walt’s critique was odd and misdirected in lots of respects, as others noted at the time it was published. Notably, M & W are dismissive of any non-positivist approach such as critical theory and feminism – yet their commitment to positivism hardly sits well with their aversion to ‘normal science’.

I’ve got time for Stephen Walt as a theorist, his version of Neorealism is flexible and non-dogmatic. His analysis in his blog is measured and rejects nationalistic claims about US exceptionalism. But along with Mearsheimer, his criticism of ‘simplistic hypothesis testing’ reads like rearguard action in support of a version of Realism that just doesn’t convince any more, doesn’t provide any useful leads for empirical research and doesn’t warrant any further theoretical refinement.

The example that they use to illustrate ‘simplistic hypothesis testing’ is telling, as it does little to support their case. Research by conflict theorists on strategic rivalries, they claim, produced:

an expanding set of empirical findings but did not produce a broader synthesis or a general explanation of the various positive and negative results. Instead, we get generalizations of the following sort: ‘Dyads that contend in territorial disputes have a greater probability of going to war than is expected by chance,’ or ‘[Enduring] rivals have a greater probability of going to war than other dyads’ (Vasquez and Leskiw, 2001: 308–309). But we still have little idea why.

Glossed over here is the issue that these findings have been interpreted by scholars as running directly against the default assumptions of Neorealism! Conflict theorists in the steps to war tradition argue that war does not arise out of the general jockeying for power among states, the whirl and dance of military coalitions that states create and dissolve as they each seek to advance their own power or security at the expense of any and all others. Instead, conflict originates in specific issues over which pairs of states disagree – most often territorial issues – and self-reinforcing, reciprocated patterns of power-political behavior between such pairs of states. It is completely false to suggest that the claims in the strategic rivalries literature are atomic, atheoretical hypotheses – they are part of a well-established, elaborate research project set out most fully in Vasquez’s The War Puzzle. It’s also false to suggest that no attempts have been made to explain why territory is especially likely to generate conflict or why strategic/enduring rivals account for so much conflict in modern international history. Vasquez’s original arguments suggested links between the psychology of territoriality and aggression, he and others later emphasised the role of hardliners and the formation of pro-war coalitions within states in sustaining rivalries, others still emphasise the socially constructed aspects of territory and rivalry. The arguments and empirics presented by the steps to war approach might still fail to convince, but it makes no sense to claim that it is not a theoretically-informed research programme that attempts to contribute to our knowledge of fundamentally important features of the international system.
M & W’s example is badly chosen and interpreted uncharitably and misleadingly. On the other hand, Vasquez’s criticism of Neorealism as a research programme, made in 1997, still stands up:

The field hardly needs realism to tell it that states will oppose threats to themselves (if they can) or that revisionist states will seize opportunities to gain re-wards (especially if the risks are low).

Once again, Neorealism offers little more than the banal observation that international politics is a rough-and-tumble world and that states pursue their interests – if we define interests broadly enough to include just about any possible goal that a state might feasibly pursue. Walt has offered some well-judged observations about contemporary international politics, but these are often made in spite of Neorealism – indeed as corrections to the baseline Neorealist model developed by Waltz. The discipline of IR doesn’t need Waltzian Neorealism as a grand theory, certainly not to the exclusion of critical theory, or middle-range research programmes such as steps to war, or the much more convincing rival systemic theories that despite M & W’s protests are actually out there.

The misleading surface plausibility of realism

The other day I made a post championing ‘postclassical’ realism in the vein of Gilpin’s War and Change in World Politics, which I have been reading this morning and can confirm is full of insights about the interrelationship between military power, international institutions, ideology and economic development. In the previous post I quoted Wohlforth on the theoretical weaknesses of contemporary balance of power theory, defended by neorelist acolytes of Waltz. Many years ago Paul Schroeder, the diplomatic historian, took apart neorealist claims about the operation of the balance of power in C19th Europe. One passage in the article was particularly astute, noting that in broad terms neorealism does seem to describe world politics, but on closer inspection the specific mechanisms and processes it identifies and the hypotheses it offers are all unconvincing or even absurd:

Some facts in the history of international politics seem to hold broadly for the modern European states system through much of its existence and thus give the Waltzian picture a prima facie plausibility. It is generally true, though not at all uniformly so, that states in the modern era, regardless of their ideology, domestic structure, individual aims, etc., have claimed exclusive sovereignty over their territory and the sole right to the legitimate use of force within it, have set a high value on their independence and security, have upheld their right to use force in self-defense, have tried to provide means for their defense, and have conducted foreign policy with an eye to maintaining their security and independence. This is obvious and familiar. Nevertheless, the more one examines Waltz’s historical generalizations about the conduct of international politics throughout history with the aid of the historian’s knowledge of the actual course of history, the more doubtful – in fact, strange – these generalizations become.

This surface plausibility is part of the reason that until a few years ago neorealism was something like the default theory of international relations (it’s not anymore, generic rational choice institutionalism has taken its place). But the plausibility is only shallow, the actual content of the theory makes claims at basic variance with the evidence – such as that unipolarity will never emerge or will be hopelessly unstable. Years ago, on my old blog, I wrote that neorealism is something of a squatter on the territory of IR theory: it takes up the space as the ‘power theory’, with constructivism hogging the space as the ‘ideas theory’ and so on. But neorealism is not a good theory of geopolitics. It should be turfed out, and replaced with something better.

On being a geopolitics hipster

My favourite school of realism? You’ve probably never heard of it (well, you might have done).

I’ve thought highly of William Wohlforth and Stephen Brooks for quite a while, their ‘post-classical’ take on international relations – inspired by Gilpin’s War and Change in World Politics – is much more refreshing than the dogmatic, tortured interpretations of contemporary international politics offered by those few who still cling to the neorealist raft. They are still a little bit straight-jacketed by the core assumptions of traditional realism, but their contributions have helped to unpick many of the unthinking assumptions within debates about power politics. But I’ve become even more persuaded as I’ve realised that this approach is much more consistent with the empirical evidence than Waltz’s neorealism. Its proponents and its critics all agree that neorealism is a positivist theory, or an attempt to provide the foundations of one, but I wonder more and more what its positive, falsfiable claims actually are. I don’t even think neorealists have even defined the balance of power, their central concept, in a clear and unambiguous way. It is a distribution of capabilities, a configuration of capabilities, or a process arising from the individual balancing behaviours of states?  Here’s Wohlforth offering a damning verdict on attempts a few years ago to defend what Vasquez would call the neotraditional theory of the balance of power:

The recent decline in the United States’ economic fortunes does not vindicate any prediction made by any balance-of-power realist, has no implications for any theoretical proposition about the functioning of a unipolar system, and has not caused a structural shift to bi- or multipolarity. Things can be made to seem otherwise only when scholars use inconsistent measures of capabilities, do not define terms with precision, forward inherently unfalsifiable arguments, and fail to clarify causal mechanisms.

The Gilpin-Wohlforth-Brooks approach, by contrast, views international relations as a set of overlapping global and regional hierarchies. Conflict occurs as states chafe against their place within the hierarchy. This not only allows dialogue with other hegemonic leadership theories (such as that of Giovanni Arrighi, in honour of whom this blogged was named) but also with quantitative analysis of international conflict – which finds that states of similar material capabilities and close proximity are more likely to experience conflict. All that is needed is a bold, clear theory that unites existing empirical evidence across lines of inquiry and provides a compelling set of causal mechanisms…

But for now, the ‘postclassical’ approach provides the best off the shelf take on geopolitics for students and scholars.

Is ‘Agency’ A Red Herring?

I’m writing a new IR module and, being a bit weary of the way that IR debates are usually presented, I’ve been trying to use the structure-agency debate as one of the unifying threads. Reading up on the topic, I found an interesting article by Loyal and Barnes – the latter of whom I first encountered on philosophy of science reading lists when I was an undergraduate. Describing (common uses) of the term ‘agency’ red herrings in social theory, they note some of the unconvincing features of arguments about the political significance of free will:

A voluntaristic style of discourse may have suited the libertarian socialism of Giddens, but it has also suited the objectives of repressive political and religious regimes, which have sought to constrain their subjects precisely by stressing their freedom of action and making them responsible and accountable for what they do—with their lives in some cases. Conversely, fully causal accounts of action, for example, those in the various theological doctrines of predestination and divine determination, have been adopted by collectives concerned precisely to ignore and contravene the authority of church and state and even actively to oppose and overthrow them. Oddly perhaps, but oddly only to us, through and beyond the Reformation, it suited creative and resourceful opponents of the political and institutional status quo to hold that, of themselves, they could not have acted otherwise.

Free will is a will-o’-the-wisp of a concept. I’m with Spinoza, radical democrat and critical theorist: it can play no role in making sense of the world and human freedom is entirely possible in its absence. Although I don’t see ‘agency’ as intrinsically wedded to the idea of free will as Loyal and Barnes do, their alternative of ‘responsible action’ has a lot to recommend it.

Quantitative Interpretive Methods – Contradiction or Way Forward?

As I said previously, I’ve changed my mind about what quantitative methods can contribute to international relations research. Becoming more familiar with quantitative research has exposed me to the existence of a more diverse set of viewpoints on the appropriate use of statistical techniques and what they can tell us about the social world. I’ve found the anti-inductivist arguments of scholars of the analytical sociology movement and the creative, innovative positivism of Philip Schrodt particularly useful in their criticism of standard practices in quantitative social science.

Another unorthodox perspective is provided by Salvatore Babones. I first became aware of Babones research on the global income distribution a long time ago when I studying for my MA. His work was one of the influences that led me to gradually take the empirics of global inequality more and more seriously, leading me to my current set of interests. Babones, however, is an anti-positivist – something that he considers to be compatible with the employment of statistical techniques. He argues that quantitative methods should not be put in service of theory-testing, which he regards as an attempt to emulate the natural sciences that is of dubious merit when dealing with observational data. Instead, he advocates the use of statistical techniques as powerful tools to enable the researcher to engage in a dialogue with the data as part of a holistic, reflexive research enterprise. This leads him to a surprising conclusion in a recent article:

The goal of interpretive research is not really to answer research questions. The goal of interpretive research is to develop the expertise of the researcher. The decomposition of new environments into basic building blocks that have already been studied and the assembly of those building blocks into conjectural policy solutions is what human experts do. The practice of interpretive data analysis helps them learn how to do it better.

There seems to be some overlap here with the emphasis on the concatenation of mechanisms by analytical sociologists. Interestingly, Babones notes that he is more sympathetic to the use of traditional statistical technique such as regression than some analytical sociologists. Perhaps the difference arises from the more optimistic and philosophically realist position of analytical sociologists: they believe that sufficiently sophisticated and realistic models can succeed at identifying underlying data-generating processes. Babones seems a bit more sceptical, he offers an interpretative perspective in part because he holds that variables are always at least one remove from the entities we are interested in (I wondered if this might dispose him towards latent factor analysis and it turns out he’s edited a book on the topic). In places, Babones’s account seems a bit too inductivist from the position in the philosophy of science that I occupy – but I intend to read his book on Macro-Comparative Research to engage with his standpoint in more detail, as Babones is an expert researcher who has offered a distinct perspective on quantitative methods.

From Utøya to Suruç

The murder of 32 Kurdish socialist youth activists in Suruç in yesterday’s terrorist bombing is reminiscent of the terrorist murder of young members of the Norwegian Labour Party at their summer camp in Utøya by narcissistic fantasist Anders Breivik. The similarity of the two attacks underscores the similarity of extremists – Breivik described his actions in terms of a ‘counter jihad’ and looked, bizarrely, to Salafi extremists for inspiration. Indeed, extremists engaging in terrorism seem to frequently mirror the actions of from their supposed enemies, who are in reality kindred spirits. This can also be seen in the actions of the moronic and reprehensible Zack Davies, who was apparently obsessed with Daesh beheading videos and who sought idiotically to ‘avenge’ the brutal murder of Lee Rigby through a machete attack on a Sikh man in a supermarket. Note also the much commented use of Guantanamo Bay-style orange jumpsuits in Daesh murder videos. There’s an obvious fascination with violence on the part of extremists and a desire to borrow from a common visual lexicon of atrocity. I don’t think that this is just ‘free floating extremism’ as Jamie of Blood & Treasure has often suggested, I would suggest that there is a reciprocal component, in that violent actors feed off each other’s actions.

The attack on Suruç was unlikely to have been inspired by Breivik’s actions, but it demonstrates the similarity of actors motivated by supremacist ideologies and the strategies that they pursue. Suruç and Utøya demonstrate that socialists, social democrats and liberals are often the first victims of extremists. Those promoting peace, equality and social justice are promoting principles that are incompatible with the central tenets of violent supremacist ideologists such as Salafism and white racism.

In a previous post I noted some contributions to the debate over the precise nature of Daesh and its origins. Here is a useful, conventional account of the group’s rise placing emphasis on the sectarian struggles after the invasion of Iraq; here’s a different perspective that agrees with interpretations that emphasise the Baathist element of the group, but argues that the roots of the Baathist-Salafi connection go back to Hussein’s Faith Campaign.

Edit: Tidied up the argument for sake of clarity.

Rethinking IR Theory Through Foreign Policy Analysis I

Time seems to have flown this year. Despite good intentions, I didn’t follow up on a little burst of posts I wrote in April. Exam season and a big shift in my employment circumstances occupied a lot of my time, preventing me from getting back into the groove of blogging. Here goes an attempt to turn this around.

Previously, I wrote about my growing dissatisfaction with ‘Third Image’ international relations theory, that is to say international relations theory focusing wholly or exclusively on the international system. These approaches, exemplified by the work of Kenneth Waltz and Alexander Wendt conceived of the international system as bounded and separate from other social, political and economic processes. From this perspective international system is governed according to its own logic, which means that scholars of international relations don’t need to look beyond their own discipline in order to make sense of international relations – they just need to understand the typical patterns and modes of interaction characteristic of the international sphere. Because over the long-run the international system has certain tendencies that push it in a particular direction, nor do scholars need to pay much attention to the causes or consequences of particular decisions by those acting in the name of states. Third Image theory makes claims that are too general to generate concrete explanations or predictions about particular foreign-policy choices, and the foreign policy choices of states are unlikely to alter the general tendencies that these system-level theories identify. Foreign policy is assumed to be chaotic and idiosyncratic, the general course of international relations comprehensible.

A big problem for some of these theories is that they don’t square very well with evidence. I have become better and better acquainted with the behavioral literature in conflict and peace research, and the evidence tends to sit awkwardly alongside the expectations of Waltz’s Neo-Realism. Quite simply, as Vasquez has maintained, Neo-Realism has not been the source of very many claims that have been corroborated by large-n positivistic research on topics of central importance to Neo-Realism such as conflict between major powers. Just as problematic, rival theories such Liberalism that emphasise factors such as the political system of a state, deemed irrelevant by Neo-Realism, have proven quite successful at generating hypotheses that can survive quantitative tests. Away from the behavioural strand of IR research, a wealth of historical and sociological research has provided evidence that the international system has, since its inception, been shaped quite powerfully by more fundamental forms of social relations such as systems of property rights, gender relations and ways of imagining and depicting space.

Another prong of attack originates in the sub-discipline of foreign policy analysis, the very existence of which demonstrates the enduring power of Third Image thinking in international relations. FPA isn’t on the map of that many scholars of international relations, it’s a corner of the discipline with its own questions, debates and theories. At Brunel I taught an introductory course that combined an overview of the development of the contemporary international system with a primer on foreign policy and the level of analysis problem. The course seemed to go well and the approach clicked for most of the students. Getting more acquainted with some of the classics on FPA prompted me to delve further into this area, and I discovered that there are some really useful contributions alongside some problems and pitfalls. In a follow-up post I’ll discuss Valerie Hudson’s Foreign Policy Analysis: Classic and Contemporary Theory, in which she sets out the stall for FPA as an essential part of IR.

The Congress of Riyadh

A guest post by Conn Hallinan on Juan Cole’s blog compares a meeting of the Arab League in Sharm el-Sheikh  to the Congress of Vienna – which presumably makes the coalition prosecuting the intervention in Yemen a C21st West Asian Holy Alliance. I’ve been thinking and reading about the Congress a fair bit recently, so I thought it was an interesting angle. I’m not sure about Hallinan’s argument that the intervention has nothing to do with religion or actions by Iran. On the first count, I’m not sure that political power, ideology and religion are easily disentangled at the current conjuncture. On the second count, the Houthi groups don’t have to be pawns of Iran for others to be threatened by their success. The very possibility that they could act as proxies or allies in the future, opening up Yemen as a battleground, might be enough to motivate action against them. Such worst-case scenario reasoning may well be more likely given the strategic rivalry that exists between the Kingdom and the Republic, and in the context of the sectarian polarisation sweeping across the region.

The comparison with the interventionist coalition of C19th conservative powers is apt though. I’m currently reading John Owen’s The Clash of Ideas in World Politics, who argues that political instability, leading to ideological polarisation, leading to great power intervention, leading to further ideological escalation is a longstanding and perennial cycle within world politics. Internal ideological challenges and external threats become intertwined and reinforcing as powers compete to impose compatible regimes through intervention and cross-border ideological networks struggle to shift the ideological and geopolitical alignment of states. If he is correct, then the length of past cycles is pretty sobering: around 100 years.

On a closely related topic, I’m going to just note some of the different accounts of what exactly IS is that have popped up: Stern & Berger’s account of the role of foreign fighters, Wood’s comparison of IS to the fanatical sects of the 30 years war, and Reuter’s account of the Baathist origins of IS – which makes him prefer the Stasi as the chosen historical analogue.

I’ve been thinking quite a bit recently about how to think about international relations systemically in the wake of the exhaustion of the paradigm wars in international relations theory. Whatever a revived systemic approach to world politics looks like, transnational ideological networks and non-state violent actors have to have an important place.

Edit: Another article on the Daesh-Baathist connection from the Washington Post, from a little while back. Also, Channel 4 docu.


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