The Sorry State of International Relations Theory

International relations (IR) have somehow detached itself far from any sort of philosophic rigor. It acts as if every idea it produces is new. Rather, the debates going on within it are incredibly old. This brief article is to bring attention in IR theory back to first principles and the philosophic tradition.

First, there is the idea that there are different “lenses” one can put on. In philosophy, if you can disprove a singular premise of an argument or provide one counter example or thought experiment that a system cannot answer, your argument is wrong. You do not get to cling to that idea and say, “Well, it works in these few instances even though it completely fails here. I will just use a different “lens” for these instances.” That is such as saying, “Well, empiricism failed me here, so I will just use rationalism here just this once but continue using empiricism for everything else.” That is illogical. Rather, you need to synthesize both theories (e.g. transcendental idealism) into a robust theory that has clear conditions for implementation of different ideas that are consistent holistically. Realists cannot ignore that states are not the fundamental unit just as much as neoliberals cannot ignore that IR is not simply a collective action problem. All theories assume “rational actors” and are confused when their manikins act “irrationally”. Do people perhaps have different fundamental premises defining rationality? We have known since Hume that rationality is simply logic applied to a goal. Do you actually think we all have the same goal? Do you really think the origins of all states are the same?

Next, IR theorists do not get to avoid first principles from which their ideas come from. Realism stems from amoralism. To restate: You cannot believe in an objective good and be a realist. Ecclesiastes, the sophists, Nietzsche, and the postmodernists all knew that without an objective good there is no meaning to life, and thus everything is simply power relations. Because everything is based on power, everything is self-serving—love, education, altruism, alliances, etc. You cannot trust anyone because there is no common goal you can align yourself to other than power; and power is a zero-sum game. Applying this thinking to IR: Any successful ally must become an enemy at some point blocking your hegemony.

Compare this to liberalism. If you believe in a common good, then states can be aligned to it to fulfill the goal of existential meaning. You do not need to be self-serving. “But how do you know their true intentions? They could be deceiving you.” So could my neighbor, my spouse, my children, my friends. If you only believe in power, you can trust no one. How uncomfortable a realist must feel in a crowded room. Believing in good allows you to have faith that others are aligned with you. Additionally, you can know they are good by their acts. It is even more apparent on the international stage when a state is good and is obvious when a state’s represented population begins to stop being good and can no longer be trusted.

Furthermore, realists act like they discovered “anarchy”. “There is no one compelling states to do actions and no one giving out justice.” In philosophy, we call this freewill. There is a long literature on why we should do good even if we have freewill. You do not get to ignore those arguments. Why should not states do good? That is a question a realist cannot even ask. We are in “anarchy” with fellow man. How do you survive?

Next, realism does not have a monopoly on game theory. The many dilemmas do not need realist premises. You can have a security dilemma of arms buildup between two states that do not trust each other in a framework (not lens) that believes in good. Similarly, two good states encourage each other to be stronger without fear.

The liberals are guilty of not donning game theory as they properly should. You cannot have a strategy devoid of concepts of power. There needs to be a strategy of good. The Bible is arguably an early example of a strategy of good. It dealt with God’s ability to use coercion, pain infliction, war, etc. to maintain a good populace over the long term.

And while liberalism is the analysis of goals, neoliberalism denies the existence of different goals. It holds that the world stage is merely a collective action problem, as if everyone had common goals. Thus, we have evil countries on the security council vetoing good actions. This line of thinking goes back to the moral compass argument—best was argued by Kant—that is dismissed by the existence of history.

You could say any theory that believes in a fundamental good is a “liberal” theory, but neoconservative IR thought falls into a liberal category—which causes confusion. I think calling neoliberalism only institutionalism and saying they are all under the umbrella of ethical theories (which they should be if they properly lay out their first principles) is a much better nomenclature.

Another problem with most ethical IR theories is that they do not define what the good is. Realists have (somewhat) done their job by choosing amoralism and going from there. All the while, Mill would have an entirely different strategy than say Aquinas or Kant based off their first principles, but they all would be arguing for “good”.

Why are these theories seen as lenses? Perhaps it is because they are all conditionally right in some regards. What are these conditions? Who knows, there is no discussion of first principles in IR. We debate conclusions and 2nd premises rather than foundations. That is the sorry state of IR theory.

James Reineke is an undergraduate student at the Georgia Institute of Technology pursing a degree in International Affairs and Modern Languages (Chinese). He is currently a research assistant for Pr. Muchlinski tasked with sorting data on far-right fascists.

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SAKHRI Mohamed

I hold a bachelor's degree in political science and international relations as well as a Master's degree in international security studies, alongside a passion for web development. During my studies, I gained a strong understanding of key political concepts, theories in international relations, security and strategic studies, as well as the tools and research methods used in these fields.

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