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Theoretical perspective on international relations

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Published: Mon, 5 Dec 2016

Which theoretical perspective on International Relations are you most persuaded by and why?

After studying various IR theories it soon became apparent that the dominant traditions within the field, Realism and Liberalism as well as their “Neo” counterparts, were inadequate and over-simplistic. This was due to their narrow focus on the state as the supposed main international actor, and their corresponding conception of a unitary “national interest”; as well as a reductionist determinism common to, yet different in, all of them, rooted in a positivist approach to study. Initially the traditional Marxist and Structuralist perspectives appeared to overcome these shortcomings, but after further analysis I came to realise that these too failed to provide a complete picture of the complex international system, offering instead a limited economic determinism of their own, while somewhat hypocritically claiming a monopoly on “objective”truth. I found that Critical Theory, especially that of Robert Cox, retained the best elements of the Marxist critiques while avoiding the traps of overstating the importance of any one particular driving force in international relations or an infeasible epistemology.

The assumption, shared by Liberals and Realists alike, that the sovereign state is the central actor in international relations, working towards the attainment of a “national interest”, is problematic; and both traditional and Critical thinkers in the broader Marxist tradition provide a convincing critique of this view (Daddow, 2009, p. 81). Structuralists argue that it fails to take into account transnational actors such as MNCs, and more importantly classes, thereby concealing a complex and divided picture of the nation state behind a cover of uniformity. They rightly question the existence of a national interest, something often taken for granted by Realists and Liberals which not only brushes over the inner constitution of the state by arbitrarily treating it as a singular unit of analysis when in fact it can be broken down into a number of smaller or different units with competing interests, but fails to see that these alternative priorities may transcend and supersede those of the nation state – thus proving of greater significance in the shaping of global reality. Structuralists go against the implicit assumption that national ties are more important to statespeople and citizens than class ones, arguing that the pursuit of national power is ultimately a symptom of class domination – the driving force behind state policy and other international behaviour (Ashley, 1986, pp. 268-270; Mearsheimer, 2007, pp. 78-79; Steans and Pettiford, 2001, pp. 72-100; Waltz, 2000, p. 27). The previously impenetrable state-centric “Cold War assumptions” began to fall apart with the growth of transnational civil society and the rise of a global economy, combined with the increasing exhaustion of US hegemonic power; which represented a shift in the character of world order (Cox and Sinclair, 1996, pp. 3-18). In this context the Critical Theoretical critique emerged. While Cox admits that states are the focal terrains of conflict and institutional means of action internationally, he adopts a method of “historical structures”, which I will discuss in greater depth below, realising that the state is only part of what is to be explained. He criticises the state-centric theories for implicitly taking “the production process and power relations inherent in it as a given element of national interest”. He sees the world “as a pattern of interacting social forces”, and focuses on different forms of state, and how these change under pressure from civil society and world order (Cox and Sinclair, 1996, pp. 3-18; Rupert, 2007, pp. 148-165). So Critical Theory to an extent incorporates the more traditional Marxist and Structuralist critiques, and offers a decisive condemnation of the limits of state-centrism.

The Classical branches of Liberalism and Realism suffer from overly-deterministic political theories based on their limited conceptions of human nature, from which they extrapolate ideas about international reality. Liberals believe humans to be rational and perfectible, and to possess an essential goodness. This translates on an international level to a significant potential for cooperation for mutual gain and peaceful resolution of conflict, provided people have the ability to freely express themselves. They therefore take a positive view of international institutions, which they believe provide a medium to do so. They also promote a “Democratic-Peace” theory, which maintains that internal checks and balances within democracies prevent them from going to war with one another because the people, so long as their consent is required, would be unwilling to support it due to their being able to relate to other democracies, who’s values they regard as legitimate, and because human nature is not naturally inclined towards war – especially seeing as people would rationally aim to minimise their own suffering (Panke and Risse, 2007, p. 97; Spiro, 1994, pp. 52-55 ; Waltz, 2000, p. 8). Realists on the other hand see humans as aggressive and self-interested creatures, primarily concerned with their own safety and security, which means that their vision of the international anarchic system is one in which lasting peace and cooperation is unlikely in the face of unending power competition between states (Daddow, 2009, pp. 81-92). Marxism, in all its variants, seeks to link human nature to social conditions and debunk such notions of people’s behaviour being in any way naturally predetermined, understanding that human characteristics are historically produced and therefore mutable; we are neither wholly and inevitably good and rational nor selfish and aggressive creatures. They therefore see capitalism and the current world order, a system that is based on and which cultivates particular human attributes, as temporary, rather than an inescapable expression of human nature (Rupert, 2007, pp. 148-165). In a dialectical understanding of history, humans are both the products and the producers of historical processes, shaped by the artificial social relations in which they have collectively chosen to live their lives. Tensions within each distinct set of historical relations create pressures towards systemic change, which in turn have an effect on how people live their lives, on their work and on their fundamental individual nature (Rupert, 2007, pp. 148-165). In a capitalist environment, to the shallow observer individual attributes and related forms of social organisation appear as necessary and universal, independent of social context (Rupert, 2007, pp. 148-165). Critical Theorists take this a step further, arguing that in addition to social or economic position, an individual’s personal ideology and cultural background will play a large role in shaping their behaviour, and the political system will reflect the prevailing trends or “hegemonic” ideas (Rupert, 2007, pp. 148-165). Thus the Liberals and Realists are wrong to develop static theories which see an infinite perpetuation of the status quo, be that a default position of war or an unstoppable path to prosperity and peace, rooted in narrow conceptions of humans with pre-given propensities and purposes (Rupert, 2007, pp. 148-165). Democratic Peace theory is therefore unfounded, as is shown by the US intervention in Chile in the 1970s, but so is the idea that states will always pursue strategic gain. Whether there is peace or war perhaps is determined more by how people of different countries view each other, by their ideologies and identities (Spiro, 1994, pp. 53-58; Waltz, 2000, pp. 7-12).

A related problem with the mainstream theories of IR is their positivist approach. This intrinsically involves a separation of the subject and the object of study (Daddow, 2009, pp. 84-86). Critical Theorists apply the above point about the effect of ideology on the behaviour of actors to IR analysts, arguing that objectively valid forms of knowledge cannot be arrived at independent of prevailing practices, norms and social values. They argue that the construction of knowledge is a purposive social practice; and accuse positivist thinkers of adopting “instrumental reason” – “a technical rationality of means (choosing the most efficient instrument to pursue a pre-given goal) which claims neutrality as to ends”. Theories which claim to identify an objective truth are misleading, and are in reality underpinned by normative commitments (Rupert, 2007, pp. 148-165). Traditional Marxism is not immune to these criticisms, for it adopts its own “scientific” truth claims, although it limits postulating universally valid laws to the capitalist period. The weakness of such “scientific” approaches can be seen by the variation in what they identify as reality – while Realists identify an anarchic system made up of competing states for instance, Structuralists identify a dichotomisation between “core” and “periphery” with a somewhat concerted effort by the former to exploit the latter. This shows that what we see is indubitably influenced by our subjective opinions. This is because it is impossible to capture the totality of global phenomena with observation alone, as the world is simply too vast, and so we must have theory to allow us to select from great jumbled reality certain facts which we can piece together to paint a coherent picture of the world – the content of our selection is inevitably shaped by our preconceived notions of what we expect to find, as well as what we are looking for. Another layer of criticism is outlined by Cox; “insofar as this approach aspires to a general science of society, it cannot discriminate between times and places”(Cox and Sinclair, 1996, pp. 3-18; Daddow, 2009, pp. 121-132). Although it can allow for variance in technological capacities and the leverage of actors, it cannot allow for fundamental change in “either the basic nature of the actors or in their mode of interaction”. For example realists cannot conceptualise actors that are not power-seeking, or a system in in which power-balancing does not occur; just as traditional Marxism cannot account for significant variation of behaviour or structure within capitalist history (Cox and Sinclair, 1996, pp. 3-18). For Cox, “there are different forms of state and world orders, whose conditions of existence, constitutive principles and norms vary over time” (Gill cited in Cox and Sinclair, 1996, pp. 3-18). Theories which identify general laws or human regularities are only sustainable within “within defined historical limits” (Cox and Sinclair, 1996, pp. 3-18). It is the research program of Cox’s historicism, “to reveal the historical structures characteristic of particular eras within which such regularities prevail” (Cox and Sinclair, 1996, pp. 3-18). The end of the Cold War is a recent example of conjunctural change which fundamentally transformed the preexisting pattern of relations between states. Ethnic and civil conflicts are now preeminent issues within the global system, in place of East-West tensions (Cox and Sinclair, 1996, pp. 3-18).

The final Critical Theoretical critique which persuaded me of its strength in relation to other IR theories is its attack on the rigid determinism of structural doctrines. Neoliberalism and Neorealism, as well as traditional Marxism/Structuralism, each recognise a single factor to be the driving force behind international behaviour. For Neorealists, the condition of international anarchy is the primary element that shapes state behaviour, supposedly creating potent external pressures that override all others. The uncertainty that this environment places states under obliges them to pursue relative power gains, particularly in a military sense, as a means of survival in the face of the ever-present possibility of war with potentially hostile neighbours – whose interests are opposed to theirs. This creates homogeneous and predictable external behaviour among states (Keohane, 1986, pp. 163-167; Mearsheimer, 2007, pp. 72-75; Steans and Pettiford, 2001, p. 95; Thies, 2004, pp. 160-163; Waltz, 2000, pp. 10, 34, 40). However, were anarchy an unchanging condition with unchanging affects on state behaviour as Neorealism posits, the world would surely be more chaotic than it currently is. This view does not seem to be able to account for sustained periods of stability (Keohane, 2000, p. 198; Mearsheimer, 2007, pp. 73-75). They disregard entirely the role institutions could be said to play in promoting peace, as well as other important webs of relations between states, such as economic relations, which may forge alternative patterns of state behaviour (Daddow, 2009, pp. 93-100). Neoliberals on the other hand have an obsession with international institutions. They believe that “process” is what shapes state behaviour, which they define as ‘the pattern of interactions among states…”as they attempt to reach collective agreements, and what they create in order to assist them in reaching those agreements.”‘ Institutions are often indistinguishable from “process”, as they provide a medium for, and are the result of communication and diplomacy. They therefore see a lack of process in an anarchic system as the source of conflict, rather than the anarchic system itself (Sterling-Folker cited in Thies, 2004, pp. 163- 168; Thies, 2004, pp. 163- 168). While being very critical of these two theories Marxism adopts its own economic determinism, which holds that processes intrinsic to the economy are the primary determinants of social and political life; driving international behaviour therefore are economic considerations by, and for the benefit of, domestic and international ruling classes. Lenin and Luxemburg argued that colonial expansion by the major industrial countries was a by-product of advanced processes of capitalist accumulation, which resulted in the need for raw materials, new markets to counteract overproduction, and the export of capital to negate the effects of over-accumulation. They argued that a major source of conflict was “inter-imperialist rivalry”, as the world was finite and much of it had already been colonised. WWI appeared to validate this theory. In the modern era, the “neocolonial” structure of the international trading system is evidence of the continuation of these fundamental relationships, with MEDCs exporting expensive manufactured goods and LEDCs exporting raw materials and cash crops with ever-declining prices. This ensures that wealth continues to be concentrated in the richer countries (Rupert, 2007, pp. 148-165; Steans and Pettiford, 2001, pp. 72-100). A major problem with these deterministic approaches is that they take rational behaviour by those they identify as central actors, whether states or classes, as given, based on the structures they identify as shaping it. They ignore that what is rational for an actor may depend on their identity in a cultural or religious sense (rather than based on class or nation), as well as on ideology, and may change over time. For instance, the Marxist view of imperialism is perhaps only part of the truth. It dismisses the possibility that a genuine, although racist, paternalistic attitude was held by Western leaders at the time, and that their real attempts to “civilise” the natives could have coincided with economic goals. The first Critical Theorists emerged in the Frankfurt School in the 1920s-30s due to the perceived rigidity of the economic determinist doctrine, which could not explain the triumph of Fascism in Europe in the inter-war years or the failure of the international proletarian revolution (Daddow, 2009, pp. 93-100; Grenville, 2005, pp. 36-37; Rupert, 2007, pp. 148-165). Cox realises that these subjective factors translate into there being varying expressions of capitalism, which Marxist determinism cannot account for, and sees that the social relations Marxists identify as being the basis on which power and behaviour is produced are the result of historical processes and therefore may not forever remain how we see them now. He recognises that even fundamental driving forces of world order may change over time (Cox and Sinclair, 1996, pp. 3-18; Rupert, 2007, pp. 148-165).

Cox argues that structures are historically distinct phenomena, limited in their applicability to a particular time and place. Each represents a particular configuration of forces that

        does not determine actions in any direct, mechanical way but imposes pressures and constraints. Individuals and groups may move with the pressures or resist and oppose them (in ways that bring about structural changes), but they cannot ignore them.

Cox’s approach seeks to identify different historical structures and then explore their make up, how they are socially produced, which kinds of social agents they empower, and what tensions and resistances they engender (Cox and Sinclair, 1996, pp. 3-18; Daddow, 2009, pp. 93-100; Rupert, 2007, pp. 148-165). He shows that structure consists of three sets of interacting forces. The first set comprises material capabilities, which means both dynamic productive technology and accumulated resources. The second encompasses ideas, both “historically durable” concepts that tend to cut across social divisions, and rival collective images of social order that are specific to cultural, religious and local contexts. The third set of forces are institutions, which play a role in stabilising and perpetuating particular orders as they embody the material power relations and ideas that prevail at their point of origin, “which in turn influence the development of ideas and material capabilities”. They may also acquire a degree of autonomy, and become the “battleground” for opposing tendencies. (Cox and Sinclair, 1996, pp. 3-18; Daddow, 2009, pp. 93-100). Cox’s approach identifies distinct structures, and places these structures into three broad “levels” of the social world: social forces, forms of state, and world orders. He examines the constant interaction among the component structures within each level, and between the levels themselves. He takes a process-orientated perspective and seeks to show that these levels are not in any fixed relationship to each other, just as the three categories of forces are not; with developments in one affecting the developments in the others. His ultimate goal is to capture the totality of the historical processes that led to the present configuration of structures on each of these levels, and to

determine what “tendencies to social transformation… [arise] from the contradictions between ascendant and descendent social forces” (Cox and Sinclair, 1996, pp. 3-18; Daddow, 2009, pp. 93-100; Rupert, 2007, pp. 148-165).

Marxists and Critical Theorists see the Classical and Neo branches of Liberalism and Realism as limited because each takes a priori a world of preconstituted social actors, whether individuals or states, with pre-given purposes and trajectories. They are therefore unable to understand the social processes through which such actors are historically constructed, and this implicitly denies possibilities for alternative future worlds (Rupert, 2007, pp. 148-165). Beyond this the Marxist critique fails, and only Critical Theory can provide a theory which takes into account variation over time and space in the forces that determine international behaviour.

  • Ashley, R.K. (1986) “The Poverty of Neorealism” In Keohane, R.O. (ed.) Neorealism and its Critics. New York: Columbia University Press. pp. 255-297
  • Cox, R. and Sinclair, T.J. (1996) Approaches to World Order. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. pp. 3-57
  • Daddow, O. (2009) International Relations Theory. London: SAGE Publications. pp. 69-100
  • Keohane, R.O. (1986) Neorealism and its Critics. New York: Columbia University Press. pp. 158-200
  • Mearsheimer, J.J. (2007) “Structural Realism”InDunne, T., Kurki, M. and Smith, S. (ed.)International Relations Theories: Discipline and Diversity.Oxford: Oxford University Press. pp. 71-88
  • Panke, D. and Risse, T. (2007), “Liberalism” In Dunne, T., Kurki, M., Smith, S. International
  • Relations Theory, New York: Oxford University Press. pp. 89-106
  • Rupert, M. (2007) “Marxism and Critical Theory” In Dunne, T., Kurki, M., and Smith, S. (ed.) International Relations Theories: Discipline and Diversity. Oxford: Oxford University Press. pp. 148-165
  • Spiro, D. (1994) The insignificance of the liberal peace. International Security, Vol. 19 (2): 50-86
  • Steans, J. and Pettiford, L. (2001)International Relations: Perspectives and Themes.Essex: Pearson Education Limited. pp. 40-216
  • Thies, C.G. (2004) Are Two Theories Better Than One? A Constructivist model of the Neorealist-Neoliberal debate.International Political Science Review,Vol. 25 (2): 159-183
  • Waltz, K. (2000) Structural Realism after the Cold War. International Security, Vol. 25 (1): 5-41

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