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An introduction to IR theory
A few days ago in our discussion forum, our reader WigWag offered a theory to explain Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. I disagreed with him.
I was thinking about this exchange over the weekend and wondering if it might be useful to back up a few steps and think about theories of international relations, more broadly. What causes states to behave as they do? Are there general rules we can use to predict their behavior?
I should say from the outset that I’ve never had much use for IR theory. I learned enough to pass my exams—I have a doctorate in International Relations, so that was a fair bit—but mostly, I found the discipline a waste of time. There’s no such thing as a true theory of international relations, by which I mean a powerful analytic tool that allows us reliably to explain inter-state behavior in the past and predict inter-state behavior in the future. We’ll never have a science of international relations that rises to the standard of proof, explanatory precision, and predictive certainty associated with the physical sciences. Noam Chomsky denounced the discipline as fraudulent, saying that in international relations “historical conditions are too varied and complex for anything that might plausibly be called ‘a theory’ to apply uniformly.’” He’s right. For once.
That said, if IR theory isn’t powerful enough to accomplish these tasks, it nonetheless helps us to think a bit more carefully and rigorously about why states behave as they do. It helps us, among other things, to form a reasonable idea about which facts are significant, in international affairs, and which are not. It helps us to define what we might mean by a “lesson of history” and how such lessons may be applied.
It compels us to formalize our assumptions and express our suppressed premises. It allows us to test significant beliefs—for example, the belief that individual agency matters in international affairs, or the belief that societies and states of certain kinds are prone to adopting distinct patterns of action in the international realm.
It demands we think a bit more logically and coherently so better to sort disparate phenomena into categories, and to try, at least, to choose appropriate units and levels of analysis. Ideally, it aids us in identifying the lenses through which we look at the world and to ask whether these lenses are distorted. It helps us to distinguish between significant connections and patterns of behavior and those that are merely correlative. It requires us define what it means to provide a good account of any dimension of international politics.
Ultimately, none of these theories quite works. But somewhat like the Principles of War, if practitioners of statecraft propose to ignore the axioms on which IR theory rests, they’d be well advised to understand them, first.
As Hedley Bull wrote in the 1970s,
the reason we must be concerned with the theory as well as the history of the subject is that all discussions of international politics ... proceed upon theoretical assumptions which we should acknowledge and investigate rather than ignore or leave unchallenged. The enterprise of theoretical investigation is at its minimum one directed towards criticism: towards identifying, formulating, refining, and questioning the general assumptions on which the everyday discussion of international politics proceeds. At its maximum, the enterprise is concerned with theoretical construction: with establishing that certain assumptions are true while others are false, certain arguments valid while others are invalid, and so proceeding to erect a firm structure of knowledge.
Spending a week thinking about IR theory is worth doing once in your life. (Spending more than a week probably isn’t.) It won’t solve all your problems, but there’s good cause to do it for a few days. Then you can dismiss the whole field as bunk, which it mostly is, but you’ll be a bit more reflective for the exercise.
Therefore, this week, I’ll be presenting the major figures, theories, intellectual traditions, and debates in academic IR theory.
I’ll also introduce my own small contribution to the literature—my doctoral thesis. I’ve never had occasion to write about it before. It’s not very grand, but it will show you how I approached a small problem in IR theory, and what I managed to establish to my own satisfaction, and that of my examiners, too.
Relations among states have long been objects of scholarly inquiry, in disciplines ranging from law and philosophy to economics, politics, and diplomatic history. But the academic study of International Relations as a distinct field is new. It was born in the aftermath of the First World War, its birth marked by the establishment of a Chair of International Relations at the University of Wales. The topic had acquired urgency in the wake of the war. The question that eclipsed all others was the obvious one: How and why had the war begun?1
What were the critical weaknesses of the old order, the aspects most responsible for the calamitous outcome? What lessons could be learned and applied to ensure nothing of the sort ever happened again?
Traditional IR theories may be categorized by their focus: What is the primary source of global conflict? Is it individual people, states, or the state system? What exactly should IR theorists study? Once theorists decide where to focus, the next question is how, exactly, to study it. What’s our methodology? What’s the empirical data? Is it possible to test an IR hypothesis by means of an experiment?
Theorists of international relations seek to identify the essence of international politics in chaotic events; see patterns in seemingly disparate episodes; and suggest ways to master the international realm. We’ll look at some of the ways theorists have tried to do that.
Then, having looked at these ideas—and dismissed most of them as bunk—we’ll then ask if any of them help us better to answer our original questions:
Why did Russia invade Ukraine?
What kind of evidence should we consider when trying to answer this question?
Tomorrow: Realism versus Liberalism.