29 May, 2022


Towards A New International Relations Paradigm

By Uditha Devapriya

Uditha Devapriya

For far too long, international relations has occupied itself with major powers and major players. Clearly, we need a new paradigm to help countries like us to come up with, and formulate, foreign policy more easily and cohesively. It’s not that theorists have ignored small countries, of course; they have ignored even big players that don’t fit in their conception of the world. China is the big example here, followed by Russia and, to an extent, India. International relationists, whatever ideology they subscribe to, take it for granted that states are the fundamental, ultimate unit of analysis, that world order is governed by the relationships between these units, and that those that can extend their economic-military clout end up calling the shots.

This, of course, is the Realist approach to the subject. Yet even the other approach, the Idealist one, while differing somewhat from the Realists, is rooted in the same conceptual framework. If Realists believe – and for the sake of brevity I will simplify things here – states which possess power prevail over others, Idealists believe states which subscribe to moral ideals will eventually lead the way. As one news anchor put it the other day, Realists believe the world is a jungle and believe it remains a jungle, while Idealists believe the world is a jungle, but think it can be turned into a garden. Yet even fervent Idealists believe in the dominance of some states over others. This is Orwellian idealism: some states are more equal than others…

What problems does international relations face, as an academic discipline? Apart from those conceptual frameworks within which it operates, there are, the way I see it, two broad issues: of historiography, and of contextualisation. To put it pithily, and borrowing from Brian C. Schmidt’s often overlooked 1994 essay on the theme (“The Historiography of Academic International Relations”), international relations (IR) theorists rely on the same historical tradition in their discipline, one which follows the same trajectory and extends from Classical Athens, and assume that theory is or should be based on, and shaped by, external factors.

Most textbook accounts of the subject (to mention a few authors: Jack Donnelly, Ian Clark, Korab-Karpowicz, and Stanley Hoffman) trace it from Thucydides’s version of the Peloponnesian War and, more importantly, the encounter between the Athenians and the islanders of Melos. Apocryphal as it may be, the Melian Dialogue has, since its exposition by Thucydides, served as a classic case of states bending their relations with other states to the diktats of power; thus while shaping the trajectory of IR as a discipline, it has also provided the framework for Realists. From there scholars trace the history of international relations to Machiavelli (15th century Italy), Hobbes (17th century England), the founders of modern international law (17th century Holland and Spain), Kant and Hegel (18th century Germany), down to Marx. Even Nietzsche (also Germany) tends to be included in the pantheon, as he still does.

In the 20th century the subject underwent three great debates: between realists and idealists in the interwar period, between scientific theorists and historicists in the Cold War period, and between positivists and post-positivists during the transition between the post-Cold War period and the new millennium. To explain these schools more clearly: scientific theorists believe in applying concepts from the hard sciences and from psychology to explain foreign policy, while historicists believe in keeping to a historical perspective when rationalising policy; positivists retain the state as the fundamental unit of foreign policy analysis, while post-positivists prefer to factor in non-state actors, and indeed non-state issues like gender and class, when writing on the subject. These finer details, however, should not blind us to the fact that almost all of them take for granted the same academic tradition.

How are we to classify these different approaches and at the same time offer a near universal yet non-totalising critique of them? In 1966, Martin Wight wrote an essay (“Why is there no international theory?”) where he sourced international relations to a) Christian theologians like Erasmus, b) Machiavellians like Machiavelli (obviously), but also the Nazi-supporting Friedrich Meinecke, c) philosophers and historians like David Hume and John Stuart Mill, and d) statesmen and diplomats, too numerous to name or list down here. These are, of course, in addition to the Ancients: Thucydides, along with Plato, Aristotle, and Cicero. Is it just me, or are all these writers, all these examples, white, male, and predominantly upper class or bourgeois?

To admit that they are, of course, is to admit to one way of critiquing them: that IR theory, or rather its trajectory, tends to tilt in favour of an all-white, all-West, and all-male scholarship. To dismiss them because they are all these things, however, is not the point. Brian Schmidt offers a more nuanced critique: taking the premise that IR theory is rooted in a fundamentally Eurocentric worldview, he argues that more often than not, scholars resort to an imagined academic tradition ranging from 5th century BC Greece to 20th century AD USA when validating or “legitimating” their approach to the subject. Hedley Bull’s threefold classification of IR practitioners and theorists, as Hobbesian-realists, Kantian-universalists, and Grotian-internationalists, confirms for me Schmidt’s critique, because Bull’s assumption here is that what worked for Hobbes, Kant, and Grotius in their time will work for the international system for all time. Gunnell (Between Philosophy and Politics: The Alienation of Political Theory) puts it better when he contends that political theory, in general, has engendered a built-in historical “self-image”, in turn built on an imagined great tradition. It is this tradition that Schmidt, and other IR theorist-dissidents, has critiqued.

Schmidt’s second critique flows from his first. International relations theorists, while dwelling excessively, and to the point of obsession, on a neatly drawn trajectory from classical Greece to post-Cold War USA, attempt to approach their discipline based on how well it relates to its external milieu; in other words, the impact of certain societal and historical factors on individuals, schools of thought, and academic disciplines. It is this approach that scholars like Stanley Hoffman take when they observe that the resurgence of IR theory in the United States after the First World War resulted from a convergence of three factors, including political circumstances. Thus containment, as a countervailing strategy against the Soviet Union, became the cornerstone of US foreign policy because theorists needed a rationale to sustain the US’s new role as the global superpower. To put it pithily, what’s good for the US is good for the discipline, and what’s good for the discipline is good for the US.

On the face of it, what this second assumption does is the opposite of the first: while depending on a historical tradition can blind one to present realities, depending on present conditions can blind one to history. Schmidt doesn’t, to my mind, do enough to explain how these are related: he treats them as separate problems, in need of the same solution. But bridging the gap between the two shouldn’t be hard.

If IR theorists rely on an imagined tradition to justify their view of politics, they also, in turn, rely on external conditions to justify their view of politics based on that same imagined tradition. In other words, both the historical trajectory of the discipline and the external conditions of a time period shape the doctrines which have gone into the formulation of foreign policy. This is important to note particularly with regard to the resurgence of theory after World War I, since it was shaped considerably by the rise of the US as a superpower and the immigration of intellectuals and political thinkers from communist and fascist states. What the latter brought with them was that grand tradition which stretched back to Thucydides; what they encountered was the perfect backdrop and setting in which they could continue that tradition. In case you do not know what this has led to, I’ll spell it out: a theory of social science which combines a Eurocentric reading of the past with a US-centric reading of the present.

This is the fundamental problem international relations faces today, as a discipline. But it is not the only problem. Since Thucydides, and especially since World War I, Hans Morgenthau, George Kennan, Hedley Bull, Kenneth Waltz, John Mearsheimer, and Randall Schweller, IR theory has focused on the morals of the Melian encounter: that power (defined in terms of interest) is paramount, that states are what matter, that relationships between states are what count, and that the actions of superpowers are what drive the world. Yet forgotten in that reading of the subject are, on the one hand, the IR theorists who don’t figure in the imagined “great tradition” that scholars subscribe to (to name a few of them: Kautilya, Sun Tzu, and Shiratori Kurakichi), and on the other, the minor powers (India?) and minor players (us) that can, and should, be factored in when deciding on policy and theory.

In his essay, Barry Schmidt reaches a different conclusion but dishes out a somewhat similar recommendation: a “critical internal discursive history” of the discipline, one which can overcome the false, totalising images propagated by a particular reading of the history of the field, in favour of an approach which places emphasis on constant dialogue and debate: a “relatively coherent configuration.” All IR theory since the end of the two world wars has preoccupied itself with what the US thinks, what the West thinks: power as national interest during the Cold War, liberal internationalism after the Cold War. This cannot continue, not least because the world no longer resembles that of the Cold War or the immediate post-Cold War period.

Theorists have spoken of three great debates in the 20th century, plus two more in the 21st. It is time for the next great debate, one which delves, not into conceptual frameworks in international relations, but rather into the very foundations on which IR theory rests. A radical paradigm shift is needed there. But for that we need radical IR theorists. One fails to see them coming in, any time soon.

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