Tag: liberalism

Is the Liberal World Order Finished?

This is a guest post by Dillon Stone Tatum, Assistant Professor in the Department of Political Science and Geography at Francis Marion University.

If the liberal world order isn’t dead, commentators have killed it. The recent explosion in analysis focusing on what Donald Trump, or broader populist movements, mean for the future of world order have already written both the eulogy and the obituary for liberal internationalism. Robert Kagan makes this argument most bluntly in suggesting “the collapse of the world order, with all that entails, may not be far off.” Kagan is not alone. Others like Stephen Walt express concern with the decline of a liberal order. And, John Ikenberry argues that this new order is already upon us—that “in this new age of international order, the United States will not be able to rule. But it can still lead.”

Rest in Peace, liberalism.

  Continue reading

Theory as thought

Recently a friend and colleague wrote me to say:


“The SS piece is actually really useful to me as a model for dealing with Political Science post paradigm wars.”


Which prompts me (as if academics ever need such a prompt) to revisit an issue I raised almost a year ago: the role of theory in policymaking. In that long ago post, I mentioned that Patrick James and I had an article under review that addressed the relationship between theory and policy from a fairly novel perspective, and I am happy to say that article—entitled “Theory as Thought: Britain and German Unification”—came out earlier this year in Security Studies.


In the piece, we derive inspiration from analytic eclecticism in an effort to develop a more nuanced and useful understanding of how theory interacts with the real world. In pursuit of that agenda, we make a simple but potentially controversial claim: rather than represent objective descriptions/explanations of the world, theories of international relations represent different modes of thinking about the world. These different modes are intersubjective structures and discourses that enable shared efforts to understand and explain the world. Thus, theories are actually shared logics embedded in society that enable policymakers to make sense of the world. As such, IR scholars are embedded within and develop their theories from broader currents of social meaning-making.


To make the argument work, we distil the core operative logics underlying realism, liberal institutionalism, and constructivism. Rather than derive explanatory building blocks from theories and apply them to empirical sources, we analyze policy-makers’ modes of thought to investigate whether they contain patterns of IR theory. We realize that doing so is part of the controversial nature of the article, as scholars operating within these traditions may reject the simplifications we undertake, or in the case of constructivism that it has enough coherence to have a unifying logic. We spend some time justifying these decisions in the article, so I leave it to readers to look there for our defense.


After establishing the logics, we apply them to our case study—British policymaking toward German unification. We find that, contrary to claims that these theories only explain the international system, they actually represent modes of thought that shape how actors see the world. Moreover, all three logics play a critical role in the British policymaking process, interweaving to produce a complex constructed social reality. The logic of realism clearly played an important role in shaping the perceptions of top British leadership, particularly Thatcher, of German unification as a problem. This foundational assessment played a crucial role in shaping how the British understood the events of 1989 and 1990. But it did not play an important role in how the British responded to the process of German unification. By turning to NATO, the CSCE, and the EU to integrate an expanded and quasi-hegemonic Germany within the existing network of institutions, the logic of neoliberal institutionalism played a critical role in how British policymakers constructed their policy response. Why did the logic of neoliberal institutionalism prevail over the logic of realism in directing British policy? Here the power of the logic of constructivism is evident, particularly the role of identity and rhetorical entrapment. These logics constrained British policymakers to cooperative policy options.


A range of implications arise from our argument, and we spend considerable time in the conclusion talking about them so I only present a couple highlights here. One of the implications that comes out of our argument is that no theory of international relations is consistently applicable across space and time. Rather, the applicability of theory to events depends on the particular mix of theoretical logics in a particular time and space. These logics, like other socially constructed systems of meaning and relation (e.g. identity) may come to be sedimented (in strategic culture for example) and thus relatively stable over the short to medium term. But scholars would be well served to problematize what theoretical logics constitute the dominant discourses and narrative in the times and places they are interested in studying.


Another implication addresses the divide between material and ideational approaches to IR. Material versus ideational analysis emerges as what Brecher calls a “flawed dichotomy.” Regardless of the approach under consideration, it is not possible to comprehend how policymakers understood German transformation without both. The most convincing account is one that recognizes the contributions of multiple paradigms to understanding complex international events with intertwining logics. For such reasons, frameworks ranging from the streamlined realism to the more intricate constructivism should be regarded as complementary rather than competitive in resolving the mysteries of IR.


A final implication regards the separation between theory and reality, and the gap between academics and policymakers. If we are right about the basis of theory, that means that theoretical development corresponds with changes in the world and how state leaders and societies come to terms with those changes. But the influence is not unidirectional. Theories also shape the world, providing systems of meaning that are taken up and integrated into shared logics. Thus, at a fundamental level there is no gap between academics and policymakers even if on a day-to-day basis such a gap seems yawning.


Theory is thought, both in the minds of scholars as well as actors in the ‘real’ world. Incorporating that simple observation into research on international relations holds the potential of greater illumination—from theory development to analytical veracity to bridging the gap between IR scholars and practitioners.

Why John J. Mearsheimer is Wrong on Ukraine

When I arrived as an incoming graduate student at Ohio State University, I was labeled a realist since I studied extensively under John J. Mearsheimer at the University of Chicago. And despite the fact that I find such labeling exercises rather silly (plus, my advisor at both Chicago and OSU was actually Alex Wendt), there was, and still is, some truth to it. Power does matter in international politics and contrary to many others in our field I think that Mearsheimer’s theory of great power politics does make a lot of sense, and it explains large swaths of international politics throughout history.

However, despite the fact that his recent analysis in Foreign Affairs of the causes of the Ukrainian crisis makes a number of good points, most importantly, that Putin’s actions do not necessarily signal an attempt to build a greater Russian empire and that realpolitik matters, it is at the same time wrong. Continue reading

Was Kaesong a Hole in the Korean Iron Curtain, or a Subsidy to the Kim Monarchy?


So it increasingly looks like the inter-Korean Kaesong industrial zone is closed for good. (The Wikipedia write-up is a pretty good quick history of it.)

The zone was set-up during the Sunshine Policy period (1998-2007). It was to do 3 things: 1) Lead to some liberal-capitalist spill-over in the North, 2) Expose regular North Koreans (the workers in the area) to regular South Koreans (the managers and staff), and 3) Generally provide some inter-Korean cooperation that might hopefully reduce larger tensions. A resort area in North Korea (Mt. Kumgang) was also opened along these lines in the Sunshine period. Broadly the idea was along the lines of liberal explanations for the Soviet Union’s changes in the 1980s: the Helsinki Accords and CSCE opened the USSR to the outside world, and the inflowing liberalism slowly changed attitudes that eventually helped wind-down the Cold War. Unfortunately, none of this seems to working in the NK case.

Continue reading

How Reality-Based Is the Community?

Community-cast John Quiggin at Crooked Timber discusses the American right’s quick shift to admitting a decline in U.S. income mobility. He then asserts that this is part of a process by which “objective truth, rather than political acceptability, should be the criterion against which factual claims are tested.” (There’s also a long discussion of The Overton Window, although I suppose he meant this one.

Quiggin goes further:

If this view is right, then the most important single development was probably Nate Silver’s successful prediction of the 2012 election. Silver was up against both the pseudo-science of the Republican “unskewers” and the faith of centrist pundits (historically exemplified by Broder) that their deep connection with the American psyche was worth more than any number of least-squares regressions. Given the centrality of horse-race journalism to the pundit class, their defeat by relatively straightforward statistical analysis of opinion polls was a huge blow.

My response to this is somewhat more tempered than Quiggin’s–although probably warmer than the average CT reader’s. First, I’m skeptical of the notion that Science and Progressive Politics will go through life merrily holding hands. There’s no particular reason to think that liberal values are anything but orthogonal to the findings of most research, lab-scientific or observational-scientific. There are some nicely convenient findings for liberal values–the democratic peace hypothesis, for one–but would anyone be willing to give up democracy if we found incontrovertible evidence that democracies (not just Mansfield-and-Snyder-style democratizing countries) are more bellicose? Or, alternatively, would we give up democracy if the field coalesced around a consensus that democracies are less bellicose because they are more successful at using social pressure or other nonviolent forms of coercion to eradicate dissenting views? Social scientific findings rarely provide evidence that prompts us to revise our value systems.

Continue reading

Liberalism all the way down? …. six hours on a plane with Judith Butler’s Frames of War

On a plane ride a couple of days ago, I picked up Judith Butler’s Frames of War, perhaps a couple of years after I should have. Though there is a lot of the book that I disagreed with, reading it was a transformative experience. It is perhaps particularly relevant to the subject and content of Megan MacKenzie’s latest post, given Butler’s suggestion that “specific lives cannot be apprehended as injured or lost if they are not first apprehended as living” such that “if certain lives do not qualify as lives or are, from the start, not conceivable as lives within certain epistemological frames, then those lives are never lived or lost in the full sense” (p.1).

Butler spends the book carefully considering the relationship between precarity, violence, and war – considerations that made me think a lot, about the book, about gender/violence more generally, and about the role of reading in our lives as scholars. My thoughts about the book are below the fold, and a separate post about reading is forthcoming.

Frames of War is to me a frustrating combination of absolute and piercing brilliance and letdown …

Continue reading

Being realistic about (academic) realism

At the BISA/ISA panel on pluralism Jennifer Sterling-Folker stressed that realism is not the “dominant paradigm” of North American international-relations scholarship. Instead, she argued, neoliberal institutionalism rules the roost. How do we know this? Among other reasons, neoliberal institutionalists don’t spend a lot of time on ‘big theory’ — on thinking about the scientific ontology of world politics. They take their worldview for granted, and seek mainly to elaborate and test middle-range (explanatory) theory. It only looks like realism is dominant because realists control one very prominent journal — International Security — as well as the less prominent Security Studies.

I consider this line of reasoning about half right. Sterling-Folker is right to stress the comparatively weak position of realism in the field. Although control of one of the most influential journals — and one of the few read outside academia — doesn’t exactly render an approach marginal, realism simply doesn’t enjoy the academic dominance many Europeans think it does. Indeed, when I review and read European articles, I often see criticisms of some sort of strange realist-rationalist chimera, in which “realism” and “rationalism” are taken to be synonymous. I suppose one could trace this analytical mess to Richard Ashley’s famous criticism of neo-realism (read, Waltz’s structural realism) for abandoning the putatively richer tradition of classical realism.

Regardless, it does not really exist. A great many realists are soft-rationalists — insofar as they explain state behavior via fairly primitive cost-benefit calculations — but the real force behind rationalism are the embedded liberal assumptions in a great deal of IR theory, whether “bargaining theories of war” and their progeny or “open economy” politics approaches to International Political Economy (IPE). If one’s favorite target is “rationalism,” one needs to get this straight.

But Sterling-Folker gets the other part wrong: neoliberal institutionalism isn’t where the action is.* Open IPE has much more in common with Moravcsik’s version of liberalism than Keohane’s. Rational institutionalism, itself part of open-economy IPE — has a close family resemblance to neoliberal institutionalism, but it isn’t the same thing.

If there’s a lesson in all this, it is that we need better maps of the field. The ones we work with are ridiculously outdated.

*David Lake’s relational-contracting approach to hierarchy formation is, as Paul MacDonald (I think) once pointed out, is the closest thing we have to a contemporary incarnation of neoliberal institututionalism.

© 2017 Duck of Minerva

Theme by Anders NorenUp ↑