Friday, March 17, 2006

Some Thoughts on Poststructuralism in IR Theory

Poststructuralism in IR: an Assessment and Critique


Much of international relations theory is centered on debates of realism and liberalism and its many variants. These theories explained in a parsimonious way what appeared to be the recurring patterns of international politics; for example, power, security or cooperation. But some IR theorists thought these scholars were trapped in modernist and structuralist logic that “treat[ed] the given order as the natural order” (Ashley 1986: 259). Scholars that lodged these critiques were known by a number of titles: poststructuralists, postmodernists, or postpositivists. Although the poststructural movement did not replace the realist or liberal logic with a theory of its own, poststructuralists did hope to question many of the assumptions of both schools. In this paper, I will flesh out several of the poststructural concerns offered by Richard Ashley, James Der Derian and Daniel Campbell. Secondly, while the poststructural movement has some interesting insights into the discipline of IR, I argue that the movement does little more than just that. In particular Campbell’s conception of “us” and the “other” as a way to reaffirm domestic politics is particularly flawed — both methodologically and empirically. Lastly, I suggest that Andrew Moravcsik’s “liberal theory” better explains how domestic politics influences international relations.

A Summary of Poststructuralism

Poststructural logic arose as a response to the structural, or modernist, vein in various academic disciplines. The structural approach argued that various structures were paramount in the organization of society. By analyzing these structures one could develop a rather scientific approach to studying things – like politics, economics, sociology or psychology for instance – that generally appeared outside the scope of the scientific method. Coupled with modernism, a product of the Enlightenment and a belief in reasoned man over God, structuralists hoped to produce “objective, theoretical rendering[s], [that broke] radically with its predecessors’ allegedly commonsensical, subjectivist, atomistic, and empiricist understandings” (Ashley 1986: 257). This structuralism, so poststructuralists argue, has influenced in a detrimental way the critical debates in IR theory such as realism, neorealism, and liberalism. Poststructuralists hope to break out of this structural malady, and question its “statist, utilitarian, positivist and structuralist commitments” (Ashley 1986: 258).

Poststructural thought, like structuralism, has its roots in various academic disciplines. Sociologists Jacques Derrida and Michel Foucault are two men that informed the poststructural debate during its inception. Derrida developed the notion of logocentrism. By logocentrism, Derrida meant a “practical orientation and a procedure that at once presupposes, invokes, and effects a normalizing practical expectation” (Ashley 1989: 261). Put simply, these logocentric views were previously accepted arrangements and rarely were these arrangements questioned or viewed as problematic. Moreover, logocentrism focuses of “logos” that create some sort of insider/outsider, or us vs. them, paradigm. Ashley utilizes Derrida’s logocentric formula on a number of dimensions. First, Ashley is concerned with the language of IR discourse and how some “logos” are privileged over others. In critiquing Kenneth Waltz’s Man, the State and War, Ashley suggests that Waltz privileges “rational man” or “irrational war” thus reaffirming the modern, structural obsession with an insider/outsider paradigm (Ashley 1989: 286). Secondly, Ashley is concerned with how concepts like the state, sovereignty, and war are rarely questioned as problematic in international politics (Ashley 1989: 302). If the state is the central unit of analysis in IR and yet it is rarely thoroughly examined, how accurate are the assumptions that realism and liberalism rest on?

Foucault’s discussion of “panopticism” also contributed to the growing literature in poststructural thought. Panopticism derives its origins from Jeremy Bentham’s discussion of the panopticon, “an annular structure with a tower in the center which contains — or may not contain — a guard to observe and through this observation indirectly, nonviolently control… [people’s] behavior” (Der Derian 1990: 304). Foucault was fascinated by this concept that he thought reaffirmed the differentiation of man as abnormal or normal, the civil or the uncivil. Der Derian asserted that panopticism occurred in international politics. While there was no “central watchtower,” there were great powers that normalized relations of law and conduct and railed against conduct or societies that disrupted these relations (Der Derian 1990: 304).[1]

This notion of “otherness” is central to Der Derian’s argument about the technological advances of international politics: simulation, surveillance and speed. He suggests that new technological advances reinforce ideas about “us” and “them,” and displace the “reality” that realists and liberals purport to know about (Der Derian 1990: 298). For example, computer military simulations create an alternative “reality” and “new space” where events of international politics happen (Der Derian 1990:301). The growth of surveillance techniques, Der Derian argues, shows the paranoia inherent in international politics of the “other” or of those “we” do not know (Der Derian 1990: 306). These technological advances also make time, rather than space, a factor international politics. Speed in international politics demonstrates that “space is no longer in geography — it’s in electronics” (Der Derian 1990:307). The electronic capabilities bring states closer to one another, and minimize the distance between territories.

Der Derian’s and Ashley’s discussion of “otherness” is critical to poststructural logic. But their conceptualization of “other” was utilized in large part by states as an international strategy. Campbell, on the other hand, thinks the us vs. them paradigm also works as a domestic strategy. States engage in international politics as a way to cultivate state identity and legitimize its role. As Campbell argues: “The constant articulation of danger through foreign policy is thus not a threat to a state’s identity of existence: it is its condition of possibility” (Campbell 1992: 13). Campbell pieces together a provocative narrative about the United States and their articulation of state identity. From cultural Puritanism, through battles with Native Americans, struggles with communism, and numerous foreign wars, the United States has continuously delineated the “insiders” and “outsiders” of the system and created a “well-established discursive economy of identity/difference” (Campbell 1992: 145). Although written before the September 11th tragedy, Campbell argued that terrorism might be the new battle between “us” and “them” (Campbell 1992: 2).

The Limits of Poststructuralism

The most common criticism raised about the poststructuralist movement is: So what? The poststructural movement, while questioning many of the realist and liberal assumptions, does very little in the way of proposing a theory of their own. I think this critique is important but not the most salient. To reveal the cracks in IR theory is not necessarily a case of “armchair” quarterbacking on the part of the poststructuralists. These “cracks” in the logic reveal problems or lapses with the mainstream IR theories that IR scholars should take seriously. Der Derian does raise interesting insights about the “new” spaces in politics, and Ashley is right that notions of statehood and sovereignty might be problematic. Ultimately, however, poststructuralists do little in the way of providing solutions to the problems they raise. This does not mean creating some parsimonious theory like realism. What it does mean, however, is suggesting ways to break away from the problems they raise, or articulating in a more normative fashion how international politics ought to operate.

Campbell is an extreme version of what plagues the poststructural movement. In an almost polemical fashion, Campbell mocks every American attempt at national security as an instance of creating an insider/outsider paradigm. In doing so he provides virtually no theory for what should make up national security, and what exactly practitioners of international politics ought to do. Methodologically, Campbell assumes that citizens are seemingly “duped” into believing the scare tactics of foreign policy. In a top-down way, Campbell asserts that governments create dangerous threats, and the citizens believe them on almost all accounts. This “social construction” of danger is accomplished on a number of dimensions: loyalty oaths, the Pledge of Allegiance, or committees dedicated to “Americanism” (Campbell 1992: 144). This assertion of socially constructed danger obscures the fact that people are scared for very real reasons. Put simply: this is a dangerous world.[2]

The empirical evidence is also suspect. Although he correctly predicted terrorism as the new “threat,” he felt as though terrorism was once again something created by the state to reaffirm its identity. “…Terrorism is often cited as a major threat to national security,” Campbell wrote, “even though its occurrence within the United States in minimal” (Campbell 1992: 2). Given domestic and global events, the United States’ concern with terrorism seemed certainly legitimate, and not just a social construction. With respect to communism, Campbell similarly oversimplifies. While Campbell is right that the “Red Scare” and McCarthyism were scars on the American political tradition, citizens had every right to be concerned with communism. The Khrushchev Report (1956), which detailed the atrocities of the Stalin era, and Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn's (1973) Gulag Archipelago, an exploration of Soviet labor camps, are just two examples that gave some a reason to be worried. Moreover, as David Horowitz has suggested, if communists were interested in overthrowing the state via nondemocratic means, the government should take action against them.[3]

Moravcsik, Domestic Politics, and IR theory

Although I disagree with most of Campbell’s assessment of international politics, I do agree that domestic politics is important in discussions of foreign policy. Take Moravscik’s “liberal” theory of international politics. Moravscik argues that realism and institutionalism has suffered theoretically because liberal theory “defines the conditions under which their assumptions hold” (Moravscik 1997: 516). These “conditions” are the impact of societal actors, representation of domestic interests by states, and how these states then operate in an international system (Moravscik 1997: 516-520). Unlike Campbell, Moravscik’s liberal theory is “bottom-up,” because “the demands of individuals and societal groups are treated as analytically prior to politics” (Moravscik 1997: 517). The state thus becomes a representative body of these societal actors, and these actors use the state to achieve their goals.

This is an improvement on Campbell, who thinks that the state determines the course of events prior to foreign policy. By denying the agency of the actors, Campbell can conveniently argue that the state does whatever it wants with the implicit consent of the populace. Moravscik’s model, on the other hand, gives actors a voice. The state’s response to terrorism, thus, was informed in part by the public’s desire for security. A major criticism of the Bush administration following September 11th was their desire for people to buy goods as a way to “help out,” a poor growing economy. It was the citizens, not the state, that wanted to contribute to combat a threat they knew was real.[4]


In this paper I have tried to treat poststructural thought fairly, taking their arguments seriously, and trying to situate their concerns within the current debates in IR. Ashley recommends that we be more aware of “logocentric’ thought, and Der Derian argues that IR scholars should have some answer for the new “spaces” in international politics. Campbell suggests that IR should be aware of the identity/difference paradigm and the role of domestic politics in foreign policy. While the poststructural movement has some interesting things to add to the discipline, ultimately they provide no evidence on how to correct these seemingly glaring problems. Scholars like Campbell, moreover, are threatened by their own methodological and empirical problems. Drawing on the work of Moravscik, I argue that the liberal theory better describes the role of domestic society in IR. In time, poststructuralists might have more impact on the discipline. But until they address some of the questions raised in this essay – and those raised across the discipline -- poststructuralists for better or worse will continue to be a marginal segment in IR theory.

[1] Der Derian argued that the “anti-Christ Turk, the colonial native, the Soviet threat, and the international terrorist” were just a couple of examples.

[2] Although not scholarly in origin, President George W. Bush has been heavily criticized for “scaring” people about the dangers and threats of the world.

[3] See Horowitz’s Radical Son (1997)

[4] Certainly much has been made about Bush remarks like the “Axis of Evil,” and “You’re with us or against us,” which would seem to jibe with Campbell’s argument of identity/difference. But these remarks followed the public’s outcry against terrorism. Once terrorism does not resonate in the domestic realm, actors will then put pressures on the state to change its policies.