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.


Posted on July 20, 2015, in foreign policy, international relations, Waltz. Bookmark the permalink. 4 Comments.

  1. The fact that ISA has a journal called Foreign Policy Analysis suggests the subfield at least is generating a fair amount of research. (Since ISA stopped mailing journals in hard copy, except if the subscriber specifically requests it, I haven’t kept up with its journals very well. I’m an ISA member and could access the journals online, but I don’t find myself doing that very often.)

    Thinking out loud here, I wonder whether the line between ‘third image’ or systemic theory and foreign policy analysis is always that sharp. It is for Waltz and Wendt, true. But works like Snyder, Myths of Empire, Zakaria, From Wealth to Power, even (albeit often fairly schematically) Mearsheimer, Tragedy of Great Power Politics all engage with the history of foreign policies in an effort to illustrate and/or confirm their general arguments/theories about state behavior. They’re not centrally concerned with the psychology of individual decision-making, but Snyder and Zakaria at least are concerned with the domestic roots of, and influences on, foreign policy (though they draw different general conclusions). And the concern with domestic sources of f.p. is explicit in ‘neo-classical realism’. Writing this comment has reminded me that I’ve been meaning to look at Randall Schweller’s most recent book, which apparently goes off in a new direction, but I haven’t.

  2. P.s. Sorry about the messed-up italics in first part of comment. Didn’t close the tag properly. Sigh.

  3. It’s true that the subfield is an established niche, with its own research programmes, theories and questions. However, it was pretty marginal to the central debates in IR during the 80s and 90s. The journal FPA was only launched in 2005, and was part of a push by scholars like Hudson to give the discipline a second wind.

    You are right that Snyder and Zakaria emphasise the domestic sources of state behavior in the international system. But one limitation of this genre is that they still make Neo-Realist assumptions about how a state ‘should’ act. Then domestic factors are brought in to explain deviations from the Neo-Realist baseline. That’s a bit limiting.

    I would disagree with the idea that Mearsheimer considers FPA issues or the domestic sources of international behaviour, let alone the social basis of international relations. Mearsheimer analyses states as unified rational actors whose goals are given by the structure of the international system. Domestic political, bureaucratic or psychological factors have no bearing – foreign policy is just a series of nash equilibrium choices by interchangeable actors.

    Again, you are right re: neo-classical realists, who have tried to bridge Neo-Realism and FPA, emphasising the differences among both states and statespeople – moving away from what Hudson calls ‘actor-general theory’.

    I liked Schweller’s book on Tripolarity when I read it, although some arguments were quite ambiguous if I recall correctly.

    In defence of my original claim, I think that IR theory has nonetheless been dominated by debates arising from the arguments of Watlz, Keohane and Wendt. That, at least, is what it felt like learning and teaching the subject.

    A secondary point, which I will make in a follow-up post, is that the FPA subdiscipline did not live up to its full potential in the 1990s. Many of the influential second-image theories that were put forward were advanced by IR theorists tinkering with third-image theories (Snyder, Zakaria, Russet). FPA didn’t contribute as much as it could have.

  4. I agree that FPA was pretty marginal to the main debates in the ’80s and ’90s (some of which of course were quite narrowly focused, ‘neoliberalism’ v. neorealism, etc.).

    I might characterize Snyder, especially, slightly differently than you do above, but that would be quibbling.

    On Mearsheimer: probably I shouldn’t have mentioned him as I didn’t mean to imply that he was interested in the domestic sources of state behavior. However, hidden, so to speak, in some of what he says there may be hints of a road he didn’t take. For instance, he says that great powers are not “mindless aggressors” but calculating ones, weighing risks and benefits of aggression, and sometimes miscalculating because of partial information, etc. (‘Tragedy’, pp.37ff.). This is one fairly obvious place where some FPA-type considerations could have come in, as some leaders and/or decision-making apparatuses are better at ‘calculating’ than others. But of course I agree that M. does not go there. (And as various things I’ve written at my blog indicate, I’m not a fan of his basic approach or of the Waltz version of structural realism either.)

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s