Friday, March 17, 2006

What Should We Expect IR theory to do?

What Should We Expect?: Theorizing Towards a Normative IR Theory


I might be what E.H. Carr would have called a “utopian”. Not because I think Wilsonian democracy should be spread through all the land, but because I do believe there should be normative content to international politics and international relations theory. For Carr, the utopians suffered from “one-sided intellectualism,” and ignored the role of power in international affairs (Carr 2001: 29). Since, the study of international politics has dealt with power in a number ways through realist, neorealist and neoliberal critiques. Moreover, most IR theory has dealt with the role of states in international politics, all the while wondering “what to do” about such and such state rather than “what should we know” about this state (Hoffman 1977: 240). This set-up the discipline as seemingly positivistic – describing what the world is like – and not normative, or suggesting what the world should look like. In this essay I argue that IR theory is lacking in theories and models that are normative, and that by theorizing more on the “ought” questions the discipline would be helped greatly. Until IR does this, we cannot expect the academy to influence in a positive way both practitioners and citizens.

Positivism, Science and International Relations Theory

Much of IR theory – and political science in general -- sought more scientific approaches to understanding politics and hoped to break with commonsensical and subjectivist understandings of political phenomena (Ashley 1986: 257). Carr started this tradition in IR with his Twenty Year’s Crisis and the first renderings of what is known today as realist theory. Utopianism was based on subjectivism and ethical standards that were bound to change, whereas realism grew out of Marx’s structural, determinist, and scientific influence (Carr 2001: 65). Hans Morgenthau reaffirmed Carr’s assessment of realism by arguing that politics was governed by undisputable “objective laws,” that were “supported by evidence and illuminated by reason” (Morgenthau 1993: 4). These objective laws forced realists to argue that states or systems always operated in this way or that. Carr thought that all states sought to maximize their power. Morgenthau’s contribution – interest defined as power – analyzed how all state decisions involve the possible affects to state power. Kenneth Waltz also proffered up a seeming objective law: that states acted in accord with their security interests in an anarchic world order (Waltz 1979).

Realists and neorealists are not the only ones who base their theorizing on scientific positivism and sought to explain what states would do in a given situation. Neoliberal institutionalists like Robert Keohane believe that states not only seek to protect their power and own interests, but do so through cooperation “after hegemony.” Because all states are rational-egoists and seek to promote their self-interest, cooperation works because states can simultaneously help one another and maintain their own interests (Keohane 1984: 50). Andrew Moravscik’s “liberal theory” explained how domestic and societal pressures influenced the policies of states within an international community, noting that state preferences matter (Moravscik 1997: 516-518). And while Moravscik’s liberal theory broke away from the tidal wave of IR theory that simply examined states apart from domestic politics, he nevertheless makes clear to distinguish himself from the often ridiculed “idealists” and “moralists” (Moravscik 1997: 514).

IR theory’s attempts to be positivistic and scientific might be tolerable if these same scholars did not engage in the same activities they ridiculed about the utopians. Carr was deemed the “Red professor,” by a columnist at the London Times for proposing an alliance between Russia, the United States and Great Britain following the war. (Cox 2001: lxxii). His own predisposition to critical theory and Marx influenced his notions of power and highlighted his belief that economics and politics were inextricably intertwined (Carr 2001: 109). Morgenthau, while hoping to study the objective laws of politics, avowed his normative complaints about the “mistaken attitudes” in American foreign policy (Morgenthau 1993: 7). And a host of IR theorists (Keohane and Waltz included) joined forces to form Security Scholars for a Sensible Foreign Policy, a nonpartisan foreign affairs group that spoke out against the Iraq war.[1] Although the text of their letter indicated concerns over security and costs – typical of the dominating camps of IR thought – their normative concern about what the Bush administration ought to do superseded their desire to be scientific and objective in this situation. Social scientists have every right to be political and normative as anyone else in society, but why do they refuse to pursue this objective in academic writings, settling for what is and rather than what ought to be?

Movements like postmodernism, historical sociology and social constructivism have fought somewhat to break away from the dominance of the positivists. Poststructuralists like Richard Ashley questioned the preeminence of the state in international relations and tried to show the problematic nature of issues like sovereignty within the modernist framework (Ashley 1986: 269). Historical institutionalists like Anthony Giddens beg IR theorists to understand the origins (or history) of the nation-state with respect to capitalism and industrialism and its connection to the West (Giddens 1987: 34). Lastly, the social constructivist movement identified most prominently with Alexander Wendt questioned the causation and materialism and asserted what he called the “constitutive relationships” in international politics (Wendt 2003: 25). While these movements have been good at questioning the assumptions of the dominant schools of thought, in many ways they have done little in replacing these theories with normative ones. As Wendt said about Social Theory of International Politics: “It is not a normative view of how the world ought to be, but a scientific view of how the world is” (Wendt 2003: 24).

Reason For Hope?

There might be some reason for hope that normative IR theory is making perhaps a comeback, albeit in a very different way than before. Those known as critical constructivists have suggested that scholarly work always has normative implications. Any good scholar that knows the intricacies of international politics, so argue critical constructivists, also have the knowledge to change or alter the system for the better (Katzenstein, Keohane and Krasner 1998: 677). Margaret Keck and Kathryn Sikkink have paid particular attention to transnational advocacy networks and how they affect international politics in terms of human rights, civil society and environmental issues. They admit that scholarship on such topics as human rights has been under-theorized and rarely discussed because IR has ignored issues of normative importance (Keck and Sikkink 1998: 5). Harkening back to Stanley Hoffman’s concerns about what “we should we know” rather than what are “we to do,” Keck and Sikking stress the importance of understanding the international community and the norms that govern it. By doing so, one can more easily accomplish whatever goals an advocacy network chooses to adopt.


Despite the influence of the critical constructivists and scholars like Keck and Sikking, IR theory still woefully lacks a grand normative theory. This is particularly troubling to students and practitioners who might look to the academy for a fresh perspective on politics. And citizens, who generally orient their lives around a number of normative issues, could be helped greatly by theories with normative content. Instead, what they get is a description of what states do and why states will always do this. As I have demonstrated, it is not that IR lacks scholars with a normative backbone. It is quite the contrary. On the other hand, very few scholarly works deal explicitly with ought questions, which I maintain are the most important to know about. While realism, neorealism, and neoliberalism all have their place in IR there is no reason to exclude debate among the disparaged “idealists,” “moralists,” or “utopians”. Scholars must take seriously these claims and not discount them as “political window dressing” that deserves no place in IR theory. That is what IR theory should do for us.

[1] You can find this group at