Six Thoughts on the Study of IR

Some musings on the question: why study international relations?

Hello, friends,

As I gear up to teach, for the first time, International Relations Theories, I kept thinking about a basic question: why is it important for students to take my course? Like, I kept thinking about the nuts and bolts of the course, and how to structure it. But, I really wanted to get some core insights down on a page.

This is the third edition of Six Thoughts
~ International Relations

#1 - It’s Definition; or, What Is It?
What is international relations (IR)? International relations refers to the academic study of world politics. IR is the study of the nature of and interactions among, primarily nation-states, but also other political actors such as the numerous types of non-governmental organizations (NGOs), such as multinational corporations (MNCs), like ExxonMobil, Huawei, or Apple, and private philanthropies, e.g. the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. Any and all actors who participate in international politics are studied, but the primary unit of analysis is the nation-state.

#2 - What is a nation-state?
This is always a fun question to ask students because it can be both easy and difficult at the same time which is illuminating. The basic definition of nation-states contain three elements, all three are necessary, but the debate only begins there. For our purposes, let’s just stick with the three elements. First, a state contains a bordered, mostly contiguous territory that has, the second element, a permanent population. This populated territory has a national government, the third element.

#3 - States are not the only way of organizing political communities.
It’s easy to take for granted the current um state of things. (Pun intended.) In this case, most people on Earth live in nation-states, but that is a contemporary development. Before the Peace of Westphalia of 1648 which is when IR scholars mark the turning point where more people began living within nation-states, people lived inside empires, in city-states, in bands/tribes. Before the 16th century, there were not any clearly recognizable nation-states, for example. This brings me to the next related thought.

#3 - What is the core subject matter of IR?
The core subject matter is the evolution of the state system and the changing contemporary world of states. This part of IR is exciting for me, because it’s where you really begin to engage in history, sociology, and philosophy. The current United Nations-based system of Member States is not old. It’s very new: the UN system officially began at the signing of the UN Charter in San Francisco in June 1945, which came into force just months later, in October 1945. And because the UN is not a product of nature, nor or states, evolution is always happening. What system(s) will the inhabitants of the planet in 100 years live in? 200 years? 1000? And so on.

(OK, yeah, sure evolution also happens in nature, but the point I was attempting to draw out is that the UN doesn’t exist the way that a mountain does; mountains exist whether we like them to or not. The UN or any other socially created institution exists only within social and historical eras that are wholly subject to choices made by people.)

#4 - What is the core problem/foci of IR?
In 2021, this is a harder question to answer, but historically, due to when IR as a field developed, can be answered with this: war and peace. In fact, most textbooks mark the beginning of IR as a separate academic subject to the outbreak of World War I. Two books are important to note here: The Great Illusion by Norman Angell, originally titled Europe’s Optical Illusion, first published in 1909. The version that I owned that is pictured in my photo was published in 1913; and the other important book is The Twenty Years Crisis: 1919-1939 (1939) by E. H. Carr.

The world was dragged into two world wars over a very short period of time. In just a half century, the two world wars killed, directly and indirectly, over 100 million people. (The low-end estimation of those directly killed or who died during both wars is around 71 million.) How to prevent war? How to sustain peace, prosperity, freedom, and security (without war)? This is what IR is all about. Sure, new areas of focus outside traditional “security” concerns are now proliferating. But, at the end of the day, IR scholars are concerned about, to various degrees, security, freedom, order, justice and welfare. And war and peace shape the likelihoods of acquring any, let alone all, of the competing and overlapping social values.

#5 - We are amid the fourth great debate of IR.
The first three debates in the academic study of IR, regarded the cosmology, or ontology, of international relations. What is the guiding force? Realists say sovereignty under anarchy, thus: independent nation-states that are egoists in the pursuit of self-interest and power-seeking, or power-maximizing behavior who have no government above them to really tell them what they can or cannot do. Or, is cooperation with the building of institutions possible, so possible that, one day, a truly global society or global community is possible. Liberal philosophers since Immanuel Kant have written about this proposed future of “perpetual peace.” The second debate regarded methodology. The first IR “scholars” were trained in law, philosophy, journalism, history. The next generation were the first to really attempt to turn IR into a scientific endeavor. Those on the side of turning the field into a more scientific endeavor are called behaviorists, and the debate is budded traditionalism vs behaviouralism. In the end, of course, there was no final victory. “Different ends of a continuum of scholarship rather than completely different games…Each type of effort can inform and enrich the other and can as well act as a check on the excesses endemic in each approach” (Finnegan 1972, 64).

The third debate focused on really diving into the global political economy, or, as it is caleld in the U.S. academy: the International Political Econony (IPE). One cannot separate the economy from politics ever but IPE is explicit in it’s focus on economics, and competing theories topics and approaches have been developed within IPE. This debate is usually seen as liberalism and realism together on one side vs neo-Marxism on the other. Marxist critiques, crudely put, look at historical forces, and posit that the most important unit of analysis when looking at global political economy are classes: the working class vs the capitalist class.

The fourth debate pits the previously stated past traditions (…realism, liberalism, Marxism…) and approaches (epistemological positivism) with post-positivist alternatives. Positivism, whether the “soft” or “hard” version, believe that there is an external world to study and that this external world produces social facts that can be understood and known. And positivists hold that international relations can lead to prediction and at least something similar to “law” or probabilistic outcomes. IR can be studied scientifically, is the claim. Post-positivism in IR is an umbrella term that at its basic core explicitly eschews and rejects the domination of the scientific method side of the field. It is a set of critiques of the field from within. Post-positivists focus on expression, reflection, interpretation, language; and they also are usually the first ones who care to bring in different voices and different issues to the forefront. It’s a very self-aware part of IR that attempts to show how intertwined the subject (the analyst of IR) and the object (the focus of analysis - the world) are. There are no such things as neutral facts, is the claim. There is no such thing as a neutral position, is another. In other words, post-positivists are the annoying person at the party who is both a party crasher and correct for crashing the party. Though, I am a positivist myself, as a ontological and methodlogical pluralist, I welcome post-positivists!

#6 - Why study IR?
The entire population of the world now lives in independent states. Those states constitute and are constituted by a global state system. If you care about anything, then you care about the global states system. So many questions arise, but on a system level, a normative question tends to emerge that produces fruitful discussion: should we strive to preserve the system of sovereign states? Why or why not? What is fascinating when studying and discussing this question are the rival answers that both have pros and cons, consequences, both intended and unintended. People’s values, expectations, and views on human nature really come out in this debate. It’s fun.

That is all for this edition of Six Thoughts. But I do want to leave you with something that I just read that I wholeheartedly agree with, and that is one reason why the above words, and all of the “above words” so far across the various editions of this newsletter exist in the first place.

Understanding like the sight of something beautiful or fascinating, calls out to be shared. The most solitary of solitary leaners seeks to communicate, even if only in writing and only for the sake of human beings she will never meet. It is as if love overflows from understanding, or as if understanding were intrinsically generous. Delight in learning flows naturally into delight in teaching.” - Zena Hitz, Lost In Thought: The Hidden Pleasures of an Intellectual Life (2020, 112).

Patrick M. Foran

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