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H-Diplo Roundtable on Copeland’s Economic Interdependence and War

H-Diplo has published a very interesting roundtable on Dale Copeland’s book Economic Interdependence and War. I’d already noted the book as potentially worth a read, as it’s a major recent contribution to the long-standing debate on the relationship between geopolitics and economic interdependence – a topic that many great scholars from Waltz to Arrighi to Modelski have attempted to make sense of. But in the roundtable, it’s noted that Copeland is self-consciously working in the tradition of Kennedy and Gilpin – which piques my interest even further. I re-read some of Gilpin’s IPE scholarship recently, and in my view he is one of the most insightful modern realist thinkers. The relationship between the imperatives of economics and security is not straightforward, and so richly deserving of further exploration. I don’t think it’s much surprise that Copeland takes aim at offensive realism, as any realistic realist theory should acknowledge the difficult trade-offs between different facets of security – especially if it seeks to incorporate the role of political economy.

There’s some sharp disagreement in the roundtable, but it’s interesting to note that the controversies concern two issues that I’ve blogged on in the reasonably recent past. Some questions are raised about whether paradigms are really the best way to organise debates in international relations any more, or whether existing general theories ought to be decomposed into more specific middle-range theories. Classifying arguments into a theoretical taxonomy is a bit of a distraction from substantive debate. Second, a major point of substantive disagreement is over our old friend, relative gains!  Relative gains feature in Copeland’s argument concerning the conditions under which conflict might be preferable to trade. Maass argues that Copeland’s arguments relying on relative gains are flawed for similar reasons to those I discussed in the last post (and a couple of others to boot):

states may concede relative losses to one state in order to achieve relative gains compared to another that poses a greater security threat, they may see their peers engaging in trade and fear being left behind, or they may see the relative gains of trade as fluid rather than fixed and anticipate the balance turning in their favor

Copeland, of course, disagrees with this criticism and argues Maass has missed the wider argument – in which the relative gains issue only plays one part.

I thought the debate over relative gains was long dead, but apparently not. But is it encouraging that such issues are subject to continued debate and elaboration, or a worrying sign that the discipline hasn’t really moved on since the debates of the early 1990s?

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Mistaking Realism for Idealism

This academic year, I’ve been wondering why IR students frequently develop the mistaken belief that they are realists (in the IR theory sense). I say mistaken belief because I think that some of them are not actually realists at all, and if they understood realism as an IR theory and political tradition better they would realise this too. There are clearly students who really are realists, who grasp the theory and believe that it provides a good account of what goes on in world politics – and fair enough. But a sizeable number of students seem to suffer from a sort of false consciousness in which they mistake their own views for the realist perspective.

Previously on the blog, I’ve described neo-realism as a squatter in IR theory textbooks and introductory courses – occupying the role of the power-politics theory of IR even though it is not a very good theory of power-politics. Some theory of power-politics probably needs to be part of the debate in any academic discussion of international relations, and so neo-realism gets undue limelight because it is so familiar and so well-sedimented in teaching materials.  Some students latch onto neo-realism because it is the only theory of power-politics they are familiar with. The evidence for this is that such students tend to think that every power-political explanation is a neo-realist explanation (in fairness neo-realists have often tried to claim this, which led to accusations that neo-realism was a degenerating research programme) and that these students become confused when they are introduced to alternative theories such as Marxism that make very similar claims about the self-aggrandising nature of states.

I don’t think that this is the only reason why students think they are realists or neo-realists even when they might not be. This is because that I don’t think it’s just the specific claims about the operation of the balance of power, for example, that they would disagree with – but the underlying outlook and the normative and explanatory core at the heart of most realist perspectives. What students sometimes miss, I think, is that realism provides an endorsement rather than just a description of the use of power politics. To condemn a state’s behaviour as narrowly self-interested and power-seeking is to depart from a conventional realist perspective (although to condemn it as reckless is not). Realism doesn’t offer a critique of power politics: ruthless behavior is rational and necessary, given the way that the international system is organised.

It’s my hunch that a lot of students that think themselves realists are actually the opposite, they are outraged by the selfish use of power politics by major states – and again, this is an entirely reasonably position to hold. But mainstream IR realism doesn’t provide any foundations for this outrage, it offers a shrug and the insistence that this is the way that things have always been and always will be.

This conflation of realism and its opposite, idealism, is also why Noam Chomsky retains appeal and why he crops up to support ‘realist’ arguments in essays. Like many people encountering debates on international relations for the first time, he assumes that there is a robust framework of rights and duties beyond the state, and that self-aggrandisement is the product of the malfeasance of particular actors. Although Chomsky’s perspective anticipates that important states will act in a self-aggrandising power-political fashion, it is utterly different from mainstream IR realism in how it conceives of the international system. There’s not nothing in Chomsky’s viewpoint, just as there is something of value in some neo-realist arguments, but it’s a limited and reductionist perspective.

It’s not a Marxist or a critical materialist perspective either, as these perspectives reject the idea that the international system is governed by a set of universalistic legal principles that for some reason particular states keep trampling over. Rather, they hold that the rules are fixed from the very outset.

That Chomsky is unable to grasp this argument was revealed in a little spat with Matthew Yglesias from a few years ago that I missed at the time. Yglesias argued that many dubious actions of the US and other greater powers comply with international law, but that this is no great endorsement as these powers get to decide what international law is in the first place. Chomsky accused Yglesias of endorsing law-breaking by the US, to which Yglesias replied that Chomsky had missed the point and that the issue is that the deck is stacked – the US and others make the laws through the Security Council and through other means. Somewhat heroically, Chomsky misunderstood and misrepresented Yglesias again, presenting him as offering an endorsement of American law breaking. The fundamental problem is that Chomsky imagines that international law, and other norms and rules governing international relations, comply with what Chomsky would wish them to be. As Yglesias states, very clearly:

International law, as it exists, was not written by pacifists, political radicals, or grassroots communities in small or weak states. It was, rather, written by political elites who are not committed to pacifism or radical politics via a process in which militarily strong states have disproportionate weight. Therefore, people who are committed to pacifism or radical politics shouldn’t be surprised to find that the existing body of international law often fails to support their policy ideas.

Yglesias’s position is much closer to a critical perspective, but because it doesn’t conform to Chomsky’s idealism he misidentifies Yglesias’s argument as realist. For a realist, it really is silly and naive to think that great powers will (or should) submit themselves to the same rules that they impose on others.

So realist scholars are misidentified as idealists, idealists as realists, and critiques mistaken for apologias.

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 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.

Changing My Mind I: Neo-Realism

As noted in my post a few days ago, I’m going to emulate Stephen Walt with a short series of posts about how I’ve changed my mind on some major issues in international relations since I first starting studying the subject way back at the beginning of the War on Terror. One of those issues is the status of the theoretical perspective that Walt is a major contributor to: Neo-Realism (or Structural Realism). The theory is still described as the orthodoxy within IR, even though that hasn’t been the case for a long while. Nonetheless, as Wohlforth has argued, it’s still an important foil for rival theories. Indeed, criticising the central Neo-Realist text, Waltz’s Theory of International Politics, is one of the few things that gives the discipline any kind of coherence.

Nearly everything I read on IR theory as an undergraduate and MA student was an attempt to refine or overcome the framework set out by Waltz. When introduced to the theory, I agreed with the criticisms that Waltz’s approach was fatalistic, mechanical and ideological: providing a set of rationalisations for callous and cynical foreign policy. But once I started to read ToIP for myself I realised that it wasn’t philosophically naive at all, but the product of serious reflection on the nature of social scientific theory. Although I disagreed with the substantive claims of the theory, I respected it as an intellectual achievement. When I started my doctoral research, I was persuaded by the more positive reappraisals offered by scholars such as Nexon and Goddard as well as PT Jackson, Richard Little and even Justin Rosenberg.

Nonetheless, I’ve cooled on the theory as a starting point for theorising. Waltz’s framework was an intellectually rigorous attempt to define international politics as a separate sphere of social activity governed by its own laws. The problem is that huge amounts of evidence and compelling theory has accumulated that international politics is closely, perhaps inseparably intertwined with domestic politics and the world economy. Waltz attempted to distinguish between theories of foreign policy, which explain particular courses of action, from theories of international politics, which identify recurrent patterns of behaviour. But this gambit depends on the identification of an equilibrium that the system tends towards: if the system has a natural rest point to which it will always tend, we don’t need to be too concerned with how it will get there.

The problem with this argument is that Neo-Realism has had huge difficulty in identifying this equilibrium point. The claim that the international system tends naturally towards a balance of power has proven difficult to defend theoretically and empirically. Scholars have tried to patch up the problems with BoP theory and with Waltz’s ambiguous statements about what Neo-Realism actually expects to occur in international poltiics, but the difficulties have mounted up much more rapidly. Wohlforth, a major proponent of Neo-Realism, has even argued that Robert Gilpin’s argument that concentration of power is the norm would have made a more compelling starting point for Neo-Realist theory – but Gilpin never attempted to separate international relations from politics and economics like Waltz did. Waltz made a compelling case for systemic theory and for a focus on structure, but I think the discipline has absorbed what it needs from Neo-Realism and can move on. The attempt to establish a general equilibrium theory that would enable us to understand any international interaction in terms of the system-wide balance of power has not been successful.

The End of IR Theory? Part II: Brown on ‘Late Modern’ Theory

Duck of Minerva is currently running a symposium on ‘The End of IR Theory’. Yesterday I wrote a post on Bennett’s contribution and Goddard’s response. Chris Brown’s post also caught my interest, so I thought I’d offer a few comments.

In addition to being one of the people most directly responsible for bringing normative concerns back into international relations and establishing international political theory as a sub-field in its own right, Brown has established a niche for himself as something like a curator of contemporary international relations theory, having penned several overviews of the state of the discipline over the years. In the latest installment he seems as cautious and ambivalent about the achievements within international relations theory as he was in a 2007 article and when I saw him speak at the SGIR conference in 2010. In his latest contribution, he focuses on the question of whether ‘later modern theory’ (post-structuralism, critical theory etc.) has made good on the ‘promissory notes’ it issued in the 1980s and 90s. Overall, his judgement is fairly negative.  Much sophisticated work has been done in this area, but it has remained ‘Grand Theory’ in C Wright Mills’ pejorative sense: focusing on the relationship between concepts rather than the application of those concepts to thorny social and political problems.

‘Problems’ are important in Brown’s article and accompanying article. He suggests that the more interesting work done within more mainstream currents of international relations theory has been worthwhile precisely because it has been fairly hard-headed ‘problem solving theory’ in Cox’s sense of the term in an era when the US government seemed to be in the grip of a strange right-wing variant of post-modernism that denied any objective limits on American power to reshape the world. I seem to recall that at a previous BISA conference he suggested that haute IR theory had become sophisticated but risked becoming arcane, perhaps he now believes this has come to pass. He thus calls for ‘critical problem-solving theory’ focusing on searching for solutions to the problems facing the marginal and the vulnerable in world politics – presumably, given his choice of examples, focusing on the extremes of physical and economic insecurity.

It’s hard to completely disagree with his judgement that a research programme has been slow to emerge amongst the ‘late modern’ perspectives. I wrote my MA thesis on the relevance of Adorno and the Frankfurt School for international relations theory, but I ultimately found that these conceptual frameworks did not have the purchase on the empirical (and some of the normative) questions I was interested in. I have found historical sociology and political economy to be much more useful. But maybe Brown’s skepticism about the absence of a research programme is too thoroughgoing: Columba Peoples drew on the Frankfurt School in his well-regarded analysis of US missile defence policy.

On the issue of ‘problem solving’, I wonder if Brown doesn’t stack the decks against critical theory. Mainstream theories have it easy, in some respects, as they have a clear addressee: those who currently wield power in international relations. This was part of the definition of Cox’s idea of problem-solving theory, it takes the currently configurations of power for granted and tacitly accepts the legitimacy of the present power-holders. The existence of ‘reality-based’ US politicians waiting in the wings during the Bush administration gave the mainstream ‘problem solvers’ a set of agents who might very plausibly put their proposed solutions into action. The difficulty for ‘critical theory’ is that it lacks access to equivalent agents, indeed part of the purpose of ‘critical theory’ is to help create an agent capable of bringing about radical change (Gramsci’s ‘modern Prince’). Unfortunately for critical theorists, labour movement is at present very weak in much of the Western world, depriving critical theory of a plausible potential agent of radical change. Notions of the ‘multitude’ remain fairly dubious, the ‘late modern’ contribution to the vacuous field of globalisation theory. This problem of absent agents (the ‘death of the subject’ if you really want to get late modern, I won’t judge) leaves critical theory spinning its wheels, with little torque exerted on pressing political problems. Milja Kurki wrote an insightful article in Millennium in 2011 on the problems currently that critical theory currently faces in its attempt to find influence inside and outside of the academy, I can’t help but think that the lack of agents is the root of the problems that she and Brown identify.

As for the nature of contemporary problems and the scholars who might address them, I agree with LFC’s point in the comments that a central problem faced by the dispossessed throughout the world is poverty and maldevelopment. Unfortunately, as I’ve noted before, such intensely political issues are at risk of being defined as outside the remit of IR due to the rather ridiculous barrier that has emerged between IR and IPE. Indeed, I’d argue that it is in IPE and development/heterodox economics that we find ‘critical-problem solving’ research seeking to address the tangible problems of poverty and inequality by refusing the solutions and explanations advanced by the powerful. I’m thinking in particular of the work of Ha-Joon Chang, Robert Wade, Peter Evans and Raphael Kaplinsky – but there are many others. As for agents, looking towards the democratic representatives of those who are marginal in the world economy might be a good start: Lula for one seems to have a keen understanding of both the structures of power that maintain global inequalities, as well as the concrete potentials for the amelioration and transformation of some of the least desirable aspects of the present world order.

The End of IR Theory? Part I: Bennett and Goddard on Mechanisms

Duck of Minerva, increasingly well-established as the nexus of academic IR online, is hosting a symposium on the ‘The End of IR Theory?’  special issue of the European Journal of International Relations. Lots of interesting posts so far, including one by Mearsheimer and Walt in defence of bold ‘big picture’ grand theorising. Also interesting is Bennett’s take, in which he calls for ‘structured pluralism’ focusing on causal mechanism rather than unproductive inter-‘paradigm’ debate between -isms.  Goddard (who co-wrote what to my mind is one of the best discussions of Waltz in the literature) offers a sympathetic critique, arguing that the pluralism that Bennett advocates might not be all that easy to achieve in practice – as scholars cannot just suspend their pre-established beliefs and reach for the most appropriate mechanisms from a common toolbox when tackling a given problem of explanation. She also defends the pedagogical relevance of introducing students to argument over big ideas in world politics, ‘the lifeblood of the paradigmatic debates’. An overriding focus on the minutiae of mechanisms and nuance of particular theories could result in such a focus being lost.

There’s lots and lots to agree with in this two posts, both on the importance of causal mechanisms for research and advanced-level teaching as well as the relevance of ‘big ideas’ for getting students and aspiring scholars interested in the subject (and let’s be honest, this is why people choose to study and aspire to become scholars of international relations in the first place). In Bennett’s article he makes the important point that

Middle-range theories are not just theories about individual causal mechanisms, but theories about how combinations of mechanisms interact in specified and often recurrent scope conditions or contexts to produce outcomes (p. 470)

This I think provides a bridge from the debate over causal mechanisms within international relations theory to causal mechanisms as understood by historical sociologists such as Charles Tilly (see my post from last year). A central tenet of historical sociology, as I understand it, is that one can indeed locate recurrent causal mechanisms across time and space – but they combine and interact with each other in very different, historically specific ways. So scholars searching for trans-historical covering laws are on a hiding-to-nothing, but – against strongly idiographic approaches that see every historical period, every cultural context as sui generis and incomparable in its uniqueness – we can engage in careful comparisons and draw attention to recurrent sets of causal mechanisms. This is, I think, what Mann means in the later volumes of The Sources of Social Power when he describes the ambitions of his project as lying somewhere between those of Marx and those of Weber.

I’m uncertain, however, about certain aspects of Bennett’s taxonomy of theories of social mechanisms. One dimension of this taxonomy distinguishes between material power, institutional efficiency and normative legitimacy – mirroring the distinction between realism, liberalism and constructivism that seems to have become the orthodox trinity of theories in US IR. I wonder if this set of distinctions leaves room for ideas of social power, as employed by historical sociologists such as Mann. ‘Material power’ implies raw, unsocialised power – what Arendt refused to call power proper but instead termed violence. Institutional efficiency brings to mind Pareto efficiency, discussion of which obscures consideration of inequality and power – as argued by Sen. Mann’s idea of social power involves social organisation (institutions in the broad sense) but involves recognition of the ability of those at the apex of social organization to ‘outflank’ subordinate actors. This kind of power isn’t ‘material’ as such, and it doesn’t really relate to the question of efficiency among institutions. Mann’s notion of social power is quite close to the idea of structural power as employed in Barnett and Duvall’s influential article on concepts of power in IR theory. I’d suggest, therefore, that it’s omission from Bennett’s typology limits this version of ‘structured pluralism’ to some degree.

A Storm of Scholars

What do international relations scholars love more than anything else? That’s right, arguing about cult TV series! Here’s Pablo K’s contribution to the long running discussion of Game of Thrones, looking at power, ideology and gender roles in the latest season. I stick my oar in further down in the comments. Condensed version of my comment: some of his critique goes a bit far, GoT is necessarily limited by its genre (European medieval fantasy) but is more compelling than much generic fantasy.  It’s compelling precisely because of its relatively authentic portrayal of feudal/dynastic society, which means it can’t explore some of the radical social alternatives that Pablo K would like to see examined. For that, you’re best off with science fiction, speculative fiction or slipstream.

Farewell to Kenneth Waltz

ToP

Yesterday via The Duck I learnt that Kenneth Waltz has passed away. Waltz is a central figure in international relations theory, Theory of International Politics can be considered the founding text of the contemporary discipline. There are some tributes (including my own) and a pair of anecdotes/excerpts that illustrate Waltz’s independence of mind and his knack for pithy insight.

I remember sitting down to read Theory of International Politics as a Masters student, already broadly but superficially familiar with neo-realism from an introductory undergraduate course. At this point I was naively, arrogantly confident that theorists I didn’t agree with could easily be pigeon-holed and dismissed as either dogmatic methodological individualists, naive empiricists, or sophists playing word-games. Waltz fell into none of these categories: Theory of Politics is a rigorous, philosophically sophisticated framework for the analysis of international relations. Striving to establish a parsimonious account of international relations as a bounded realm governed by its own structural laws, it draws on microeconomics, Durkheim and Newtonian physics. Like most everyone else in the discipline, I also believe that it is wrong on many of its major points. But everyone who has attempted to think systematically and rigorously about the international system subsequent to Waltz has had no other option but to engage with him. It’s for this reason that even radical critics such as Rosenberg have acknowledged their debts to Theory of Politics.

In engaging with Waltz, scholars of international relations have subjected Theory of International Politics to innumerable criticisms. Many of these criticisms, which often consist of pointing out that Waltz’s theory ignores X or Y, were misconceived. The most convincing interpretation of Theory of Politics, that of Goddard and Nexon, sees Waltz as putting forward a ‘spare account of the dynamics of anarchy’ within a bounded sphere of international politics. This account is offered by Waltz, not as a description of the world as it actually is, but as an idealised framework to enable explanation of particular events against a baseline of expectations. The more serious criticisms, therefore, were those that accused neo-realists of sleight of hand by equivocating between methodological and substantive claims (i.e. outlining a model and then treating this as an accurate description of reality). In addition, arguments from social theorists and historical sociologists have put the validity of this sort of approach into question. Mann, for example, argues that it is impossible to convincingly separate bounded spheres of social life from one another and identify autonomous ‘system-logics’ of such spheres.

Nonetheless, much of the most interesting and insightful contributions to international relations theory – such as those of Cox, Buzan, Little, Rosenberg, Spruyt and Ruggie – have been direct responses to Waltz’s opus. The engagement with Waltz is one of the few things that gives International Relations any kind of coherence as an academic discipline. It is impossible to understand contemporary International Relations without a familiarity with Waltz’s work and for that reason he is sure to be studied for a long time to come.