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.