Realist and Critical Theory in the context of International Relations

International Relations (referred to as IR from here on) is a field which has some valuable theoretical insights in positioning the wider significance of my research proposal about the impacts that global populist social movements such as Anonymous, Black Lives Matter and Occupy have on society. I’ve described my primary field as “political sociology” but the reality of the research I’m conducting is that it is multidisciplinary in its relation to various branches of the social sciences. Macroeconomics, political science, anthropology, criminology and sociology generally are some of those which the research will overlap with International Relations, requiring a certain fluidity of practises and research methods to yield meaningful analysis of complex findings. In this post I’m going to be drawing primarily on a text I’ve just finished reading by Australian National University social theorist Jim George called Discourses on Global Politics: a Critical reintroduction to International Relations. Written in the early 1990s, it felt quite strange to read of the aftermath of the fall of the Soviet empire, widespread military conflict in the Balkans and the First Gulf War as current events. This leads directly into a discussion of just what a disorienting time the 1990s was, after decades of domination by a singular ideological framework associated with the Cold War.

The “Realist” school of thought in IR

Realism was the dominant Anglo-American position within the field of International Relations since the end of World War II in 1945. This ideological framework reduces a complex and turbulent world to a patterned and rigidly ordered system, derived from a particular representation of post-Renaissance European historical experience, articulated in orthodox Anglo-American philosophical terms. Realist ideology dictates that the international system is inherently anarchic out of which there is no actor other than the nation state capable of creating “order”. It presupposes that all nation states are fundamentally rational and will singularly act in self-interest, or at best based on self-interest flimsily disguised as moral grounds for appearances sake. In addition to this, they will strive to attain as many resources as possible in order to achieve relative gain and pursue policies of military build-up to achieve security.

International Relations is described as occurring against a backdrop of a world defined by structural chaos, that the only thing that is real is a zero sum game between Nation States, which must forever pursue “order” and “balance”, lest the chaotic nature of the world let this carefully designed system come crumbling down. Much of this is drawn from Machiavellian theories of “Power Politics”. The key proponent that springs to my mind is Henry Kissinger whose works on World Order in particular uncritically espouse this narrative. During the Cold War, this conception of a singular, homogeneous and narrowly focused image of human society, defined International Relations; establishing the boundaries of relevant and legitimate theory and research and underpinning the “art of the possible” in policy terms.

Narrowly Framing Everything in Dichotomised and Dualised Terms

Realism sharply imposes a dualised and dichotomised frame of reference at all analytical levels: subject/object, fact/value, is/ought, self/other, domestic/international, Realist/Idealist. Also a tendency for reductionism, universalism, essentialism, and a dangerously restrictive understanding of knowledge and reality (anything outside of which is dismissed as “theory” or “idealism”). This effectively detaches the observer/analyst from the vicissitudes of the world “out there” and abrogates social and individual responsibility to one (perceived) irreducible foundational source or another (structural anarchy, human nature, historical recurrence and repetition). It is the search for a simple, self-affirming narrative of global life.

Following the collapse of the Soviet Empire in the early 1990s, Realism was forced to undergo a period of sombre self-reflection. Particularly relevant to my own research is the widespread smug triumphalism of those who advocate the radical Neoliberal model of capitalism characterised by utilitarian social relations, portraying this as the “natural” order of the world, while the so-called “socialist” counterpart other hand was always destined to wither away. Francis Fukuyama‘s rhetoric in his seminal tome The End of History and the Last Man is particularly worth noting for its influence on Bush the First and Neoliberals generally. I describe this as Neoliberalism in earlier drafts of my research proposal, but it appears that IR Realists also share many of the same delusions about their belief system as advocates of Neoliberal socioeconomic policies: magical free markets, the radical individualism that says “society” doesn’t exist and deference to Saints like head of the Federal Reserve Alan Greenspan who somehow managed to miss creating the subprime mortgage mess which in 2008 led to the greatest financial crisis since the Great Depression.

In the years following the Cold War events exposed the inadequacies of Traditional thinking and behaviour within the IR community, particularly among its victors. The theory as practice of violence, dichotomy and global containment that defined the post-WWII world and gave coherence, meaning, certainty, even identity to a generation in the West, was exposed as an impediment to dealing with complex, changing, global environment in the 1990s.

As a case study to show how this ideological framework referred to as “Realism” practically worked during this time, George describes how the First Gulf War illustrates the narrowness of solutions on offer from the policy sectors of major Western powers and the mainstream intellectual sector within the IR community. They represented the war in exemplary terms: as a response to a threatening reality “out there”, the old narrative of containing an expansionist dictator (the next Hitler if we’re not careful). The only solution to which was violent strategic action. However the aftermath of all this ingenious strategy after the First Gulf War led to the Second and now likely the emerging Third under the guise of fighting ISIS (who grew out of Al Qaeda, who grew out of the Mujahedeen – all originally US-sponsored rebels – see link for fuller analysis of that transition from Jacobin magazine). It should go without say that this need for “the other” to sustain national identity, pitting “us” against “them” is central to all Realist propaganda.

The point is not to say, as Obama did about Bush the II’s invasion of Iraq, that this is merely a strategic blunder and if we’d just backed the right rebels or bombed the right cities, then our plans would have worked out and our systems and values would have been successfully imposed on a people. The criticism that must be made is that problems such as this cannot be “solved” by recourse to crude simplistic power politics dogma, nor even fear inspiring displays of technorationalist savagery. In the same way, complex global challenges from warlordism in the Horn of Africa, exploding ethnic hatreds in the Balkans, of culture, gender, transmigration and global economic and environmental crisis defy the simplistic reductionism, universalism and essentialism which provided Realists with such illusory certainty during the Cold War. As superficially satisfying as these instant-gratification narratives of world politics are, they are ultimately false, as any form of critical analysis easily shows.

It is important to note that now in 2015, this post-1990 unanchored period of identity-uncertainty of not knowing who “our enemies” supposedly are in the West, is over. To a great extent the previous decade was defined by Realists reemerging to exploit the 9/11 anti-terrorism frame to wage multiple wars in the Middle East in order to secure the region’s oil supplies and prop up the Petro-Dollar. The current historical moment is defined by an emerging Second Cold War with Russia, China and their Eurasian client states on the one side and the US, NATO and its allies on the other, with the Ukraine as the current de facto battleground for the moment, but also potential hotzones flaring up across Eastern Europe and the Pacific. Unfortunately it seems that this ideological framework has resurrected itself with gusto.

Postmodern and Feminist Alternatives to “Realist” IR

The answer to self-affirming grand theory is not self-­affirming grand theory. Self-gratifying ready-made alternative Realisms are to be resisted, if we are to confront the dangers, closures, paradoxes, complicities and uncertainties of modern social life rather than unreflective certitude of some within its elite sectors. George seeks to reintroduce IR by relocating its dominant ways of understanding, its analytical protocols, and it normative-political commitments in terms of a more inclusive historical and philosophical agenda. This enables long major silences to be broken, closures be exposed and opened for questioning, and for space to be facilitated for thinking and acting beyond the boundaries of “possibility” and “meaningfulness”. Thus the dominant Anglo-American representation of a very narrow and particular knowledge/power matrix as “realism” and everything outside of it “idealism” can be scrutinized.

“The hegemonic ideology that treats hierarchies as natural serves powerfully to legitimate and reproduce domination through the internalization of oppression, the silencing of protest, the depoliticization of exploitative rule and global inequalities. Thus feminist critiques of “naturalized” subjection offer rich resources for re-envisioning, resisting and transforming social relations.” (page 28)

The Feminist movement which erupted in the 1960s proved that social movements can have highly significant impacts on society through changing individual behaviour to recognize the fundamental injustice of treating half of humanity as less than equal at every level. Also consider the visceral framing of debates that encourage critical assessment of the status quo social arrangements such as “is there a natural/universal way to organize society” and “is inequality and structural violence natural or inevitable?” In this sense, Feminist thought can be a powerful illustration that nothing about the way society is organized is permanent, or essential. With every passing moment, we decide how society shall be organized in our treatment of our fellow human beings. Where we can identify injustice and violence, we can collectively identify it and organize at a community level to end it. This rejection of unquestioned “founding” principles is no mere nihilistic sophistry, but a radically humanistic call for real personal responsibility to one another in the present.

Apart from Feminist thought, Postmodernist perspectives have the most to offer in that space beyond IR. Consider Foucault’s injunction against “universal intellectuals” who traditionally distanced themselves from the larger struggle for freedom, openness, and enhanced human dignity while ostensibly and loudly pro-pounding their commitment to these principles. Those who traditionally claimed to speak for the “people”, the “state”, the “national interest”, the “state system”, the “free world”, the “marginalized and oppressed”, have done so in universalised, essentialised and ultimately exploitative terms. The other option is to disavow one’s Modernist God-like status and seek not to speak for others but to utilize one’s capacities to help others speak for themselves.

These critiques of Realist thought acknowledge the personal responsibility we each carry for a global political existence that is for so many millions unremittingly bleak and terrifying. It recognizes we are intrinsic to the problem as well as crucial to any solution. At this critical juncture of historic opportunity and danger, the IR narratives that served only some of us so well must be reconnected to the unspoken, unwritten, unreflected narratives of the dispossessed and the silenced.

Can we escape Dichotomized Thinking?

As I review my above writing, I notice that I’ve devoted more than twice as much content to criticism of Realist ideology as I have to describing its alternatives drawn from Postmodernist and Feminist influences. This illustrates just how difficult it is to break free from this mode of thinking. It is a core component of our ideological and social conditioning generally in Western education. Even in trying to escape it, Realism forces you to adopt its framing devices and its assumptions in order to debunk it on its own terms. Much of what passes for political debate is literally just “for or against” in this narrow reductive way. The Bush II presidency epitomised this. “If you’re not with us you’re against us. Are you for freedom and democracy or are you with the terrorists?” In many ways you look at the world and see Orwell’s 1984 being methodically put into practise, an emergent and heavily disguised global neofascism which proves evasive to scrutiny through mass deployment of propaganda, ideological counter-warfare, consumerist distraction and fantasy. Breaking free of these chains is no easy task, and even if we do, can we replace them with alternative frameworks, given the decades-long identity-attachment to their social conditioning so many in society are defined by? These are questions that social theorists must be devoted to, especially in disseminating and making accessible these counter-narratives to the general population.



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