More on the End of Isms in International Relations Theory (+ The Way Forward for IR/IL)

by Peter Spiro

The answers to my questions last week were no further away than the latest copy of the AJIL and an important article by Emilie Hafner-Burton, David Victor, and Yonatan Lupu on Political Science Research and International Law: The State of the Field.  This is a must-read for anyone interested in IR/IL, past and future.

As for the “war on paradigms”, it has apparently been won, decisively.  The major schools of IR theory are not (as was once commonly the case) set out as optics.  In fact, the words “realism,” “liberal”, and “constructivism” are almost entirely absent from the piece.  This can only have been a conscious choice.  I wonder whether the use of “political science” in the title rather than “IR theory” is of some intentional significance. Perhaps the subfield is redefining itself altogether?

That said, not surprisingly, the isms cast a shadow here.  The apparent axis is along four “faces” of power: 1) the ability to coerce, 2) the ability to influence decisionmaking, 3) “the ability to shape what people want and believe, such as through the spread of norms and the creation of interests and identities, and 4) “discursive” power, through the creation of knowledge and social customs.  Sound familiar?  There is something of a refrain in which “scholarship that works with the third and fourth faces of power” points in a different direction than that working with the first two, for which read: constructivism v. realism.

The piece duly notes notes that those third and fourth faces account for the role of nonstate actors in international politics, as constructivism does.  But nods in that direction seem mostly parenthetical. The skepticism surfaces in the course of highlighting areas for interdisciplinary collaboration, including with respect to private actors:

For the last two decades, both fields have devoted substantial attention to NGOs as important private actors, and especially to public interest groups that have mobilized transnationally to press for arms control (for example, the ban on land mines), protection of human rights (for example, the rights of women), and all manner of environmental goals. We are concerned that this focus—which arises in part because many scholars working in these areas are also normatively committed to the ideals of the most active NGOs—has been prone to overstate the importance of NGOs.

Maybe, maybe not.  No doubt most IL/IR scholars are sympathetic to mainstream NGO roles (and some scholarship on NGOs uncritically accepts their universalism), but I’m not sure that translates into an exaggeration of NGO power.  The counterbalance is the interest both IL but perhaps especially IR scholars have in not upsetting received wisdom on the centrality of state power.   Non-state actors don’t fit very well into 2×2′s.  The skepticism seems oddly untethered to anything empirical: if NGOs aren’t powerful, then IR should be able to prove it.

Perhaps the problem is that, “[i]n practice, sifting the effect of international law from other influences on behavior is so complex that essentially all of the political science insights about the causal mechanisms at work are tailored to the particular issue areas where the analysts in question are experts.”  In other words there may not be much that is generalizable, or at least not much that has been generalized, about particular case studies.  Except, that is, where there is a larger n set and an institutional setting that allows for some number crunching.  The piece seems to favor trade law, arms control, international tribunals, and environmental and human rights agreements.  That is where political science and law enjoy a fruitful present and future.

By contrast, there isn’t much discussion on the potential for collaboration in such areas as international criminal law; international financial regulation; international migration; international health regulation; everything cyber; anything in which “pressure groups” are genuinely transnational, as opposed to “domestic” and thus easily cabined in two-level games.  I’m sure IR has a lot to say about these (some of which has already been said).  But I’m not sure what the takeaway is for IL scholars, other than to understand the importance of non-doctrinal analysis.  This piece by Ken Abbott and Duncan Snidal on codes of conduct and “new governance” regimes supplies an example: not IR in any distinctive way (as far as I can tell), but a very useful systematization.  One might even feel nostalgic for the isms, especially as an outsider to IR (and thus less invested in the tournament) – they set out interesting templates for thinking critically through IL puzzles.

And what about normativity?  Political science refrains from normative assessment where law has long been comfortable with it.  Is there some sort of middle ground?

http://opiniojuris.org/2012/04/17/more-on-the-end-of-isms-in-international-relations-theory-the-way-forward-for-iril/

One Response

  1. Peter, really interesting post.  I’m no big fan of the old IR, but the new stuff seems to me very ripe for new IR researchers to read whatever they like into whatever structures they see … true, yes, that was also true of the old IR, but in the new stuff, if you like this kind of governance, then you’ll see it where you like, and if you like this other kind, then you’ll see that too.  I find the breakdown of old paradigm walls kind of a relief, but it also feels so ad hoc, I don’t know where it isn’t result driven.  What’s particularly weird to me is how at odds it is with the relentless reductivism of much other political science (We Will Be Good Social Scientists We Will We Will) that seems pretty much to consist of construct data set, come up with prediction about nothing that turns out to be very interesting … 

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