Inside the Cave: The Banality of I.R. Studies

Inside the Cave: The Banality of I.R. Studies

Mini Teaser: In general, the landscape of international relations thinking in the United States is a view of a great American desert with a few refreshing and enlivening oases. Here's how to improve it.

by Author(s): James Kurth

However, even the international security version of realism has had
difficulty in interpreting the post-Cold War world and America's role
within it. In 1990, Mearsheimer published a major article entitled
"Back to the Future: Instability in Europe after the Cold War", which
argued that the new multipolar system would produce greater
instability than the old bipolar one (he entitled another version of
this article "Why We Will Miss the Cold War"). A little later, he
became especially concerned about the threat that Russia posed to
Ukraine and argued that Ukraine should remain a nuclear power. This
fidelity to the notions of the stability of a bipolar world and to
the stability of nuclear multipolarity doubtless was consistent with
the theories of Kenneth Waltz. But it was remote from the realities
of the new international system.

The international security version of realism remains useful in
interpreting the cases of military confrontations between states. At
the present time, these are largely those old familiar conflicts in
the Middle East (involving Israel, Iraq, or Iran) and in South Asia
(involving India and Pakistan). In the future they may come to
include conflicts between China and the United States. But such
military confrontations are not now among the central realities of
contemporary international relations and U.S. foreign policy. And on
the role of the United States as the sole superpower, as the hegemon
of the global economy, and as the first universal nation, academic
realists have had nothing to say.

The Liberal Tradition: Wealth & Harmony

The liberal tradition has no founding father comparable to
Thucydides. But liberals themselves nominate as their early authors
such figures as Hugo Grotius (the general good of international law),
Immanuel Kant (the peaceful nature of republics), and Adam Smith (the
beneficial consequences of free trade).

It is no accident that Grotius was Dutch and that Adam Smith was
British. (Kant was technically a Prussian, but the least-Prussian
Prussian in history.) The liberal tradition was completely natural
and logical for maritime powers operating within an international
trading system. This was the case with the Netherlands and
Britain--and the United States.

More subtly, the liberal tradition, especially in its
harmony-of-interests form, has been useful for two particular kinds
of hegemonic powers. One is the leading maritime and commercial power
in the world, a role played successively by the Netherlands, Britain,
and the United States. Such powers are naturally in a position to
shape and enforce an international law of the sea that serves their
maritime interests, and an international law of trade that serves
their commercial interests.

The liberal tradition has also been useful for a second kind of
hegemonic power. This is the dominant power within a particular
region. Such powers rarely existed alone, and never existed for long,
on the European continent. In the world beyond Europe and across the
seas, however, Britain was the dominant power in much of Africa, the
Middle East, and South Asia. Even more indisputably, the United
States has been the dominant power in the Americas. Such dominant
powers naturally and logically develop the notion that their
views--obviously broader and higher than those of the lesser powers
in their region--and the international organizations that implement
these views (and are dominated by the dominant power) have the
quality of being in the common good, the general interest, indeed the
harmony-of-interests of all the powers of the region.

How good has the liberal tradition been in interpreting the great
international occurrences of the twentieth century? Given its basic
concepts, it was hardly capable of predicting the outbreak and
prolonged stalemate of the First World War (indeed, liberals are
notorious for having predicted perpetual peace on the very eve of
that war). Once the war occurred, however, liberals like Woodrow
Wilson developed their own distinctive explanations for why it
happened (i.e., too much realism on the part of European leaders) and
how such wars could be prevented in the future (i.e., by such means
as international organization, international law, and collective
security). Of course, these means then proved to be utter failures in
preventing the Second World War.

The liberal tradition might have been expected to do better in the
realm of the international economy. However, believing in the smooth
operation of free markets, it failed to predict the Great Depression.
Once that occurred, however, liberals like Secretary of State Cordell
Hull developed their own distinctive explanations for why it happened
(tariff barriers and trade blocs) and how such depressions could be
prevented in the future (a more free market in the international
economy). But such prescriptions were fruitless until, as a result of
the Second World War, the United States was in a position to become
the economic hegemon of the international economy. That was hardly a
liberal idea until Charles Kindleberger developed it.

In short, as a theory of international relations, liberalism was
pretty much a total failure during the first halfof the twentieth
century. Of course, there could always be found many Americans who
said that if only Wilson's or Hull's plans had been realized, then we
could have prevented the Great Depression and the Second World War.
But to most Europeans and to realist (and European-minded) Americans,
it was no accident that these plans had not been realized; they were
indeed unrealistic. To the realists, the liberals seemed at best
simple and silly and at worst stupid and dangerous. And, given the
realities and the tragedies of the international situation at
mid-century, what the realists thought about the liberals was right.

The second half of the twentieth century was the really American part
of the century. How did liberal concepts and precepts fit the major
military and economic occurrences of this period? Is it possible
that, as the century became more American, the American and liberal
perspective became more valid (even more realistic)?

The liberal tradition had a hard time dealing with the Cold War.
Liberals could say that if the Soviet Union would only dismantle its
command economy, its autarchic system, and its totalitarian regime,
then there would be no Cold War--but this obviously was not very
useful policy advice during the Cold War itself.

The liberals had a much better record in dealing with the
American-led side of the bipolar conflict, especially in regard to
Western Europe. Here, the liberal concepts and precepts of free
markets and liberal democracies were established, and they operated
and succeeded superbly. But they only did so because Western Europe
was American-led, because the United States was the hegemonic
economic and military power there. Once again, the liberals found it
almost impossible to articulate a concept of hegemony and the
necessity for it.

Instead, liberal accounts of international relations in the 1950s and
1960s focused upon international organizations, first upon the United
Nations and then, when that had demonstrably failed, upon regional
economic organizations, especially the European Economic Community.
At the same time, most liberals carefully managed to ignore regional
military organizations, such as NATO. To have done otherwise would
have forced them to accept the reality and the necessity of the
United States as a military hegemon.

Structural Liberalism: The Academic Revision of the Liberal Tradition

The focus upon international economic organizations was very
pronounced among academic liberals. For a time in the 1960s,
"regional integration" seemed to be their preferred solution for just
about any international problem.

The founding father of regional integration studies was Ernst Haas,
the other leading international relations scholar at the University
of California at Berkeley. Haas' major books were The Uniting of
Europe (1958) and Beyond the Nation-State (1964), whose titles nicely
expressed his fondest hopes. In later years, he continued to write,
but about this or that obscure UN agency--that is, he wrote more and
more about less and less.

With the international economic disruptions of the 1970s--not only
the breakdown of the Bretton Woods system, but the oil price
revolution and worldwide inflation--liberal theorists of
international relations finally had some important events about which
they had something useful--or at least interesting--to say, and about
which the realists were silent or ignorant. This was the time of the
birth of the academic field of international political economy.
Writers on the politics of the international economy began to
dominate the old liberal academic journal, International
Organization, which hitherto had devoted itself to studies of the
United Nations, the European Community, and a variety of meaningless
regional organizations in the Third World.

The liberals recognized that international economic organizations by
themselves were not enough to prevent worldwide economic turmoil.
(Indeed, one such organization, OPEC, had mightily helped to produce
that very turmoil.) They were told by Kindleberger that some sort of
economic hegemon was necessary to maintain stability in the
international economy, and many of them now acknowledged (at least
temporarily) that this was the case, giving birth to a new
sub-sub-field of international relations called "hegemonic stability
studies." However, the United States, which had been that hegemon,
was now in economic decline relative to the rising economic powers of
the European Community, Japan, and OPEC. The academic liberals had
discovered American hegemony at the very moment that it seemed to be
on the verge of disappearing. What was to be done?

Essay Types: Essay