Review of Wendt, Social Theory of International Politics, 2000

Posted: December 13, 2009 in 2000, reviews
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originally published at (2000)

Martin Shaw
Waltzing Alexander: constructing the new American ideology

Alexander Wendt, Social Theory of International Politics (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1999)

Academic disciplines seem to require totemic figures: writers who act as focal points, whose ideas you love, or hate, but can’t ignore, and who will be inflicted on students for decades. It is not as unusual as one might think that authors actually present themselves to us as candidates for this role, although clearly colleagues must conspire to construct the kind of reputation that makes such claims credible, and the ideas in question must chime in important respects with the spirit of the times.
One thinks of Talcott Parsons (1952) in sociology: his ‘grand theory’ aimed to redefine the territory of sociology, synthesizing the classics for the new period of American hegemony after the Second World War. Alexander Wendt is clearly another such. The title of his new book is self-consciously designed to echo Kenneth Waltz’s (1979) Theory of International Politics, the work that most filled this role for International Relations during the last two decades. Wendt makes an apposite but, despite great theoretical elaboration, substantively minimal correction to Waltz’s approach, indicated by that simple interpolation of ‘social’ in the title.
The word was perhaps inevitable because in the two intervening decades, social action has thrust itself tumultuously into the supposedly closed international world, while social has begun to displace political theory as the intellectual framework. When Waltz’s book was published, renewed Cold War rivalry made it superficially plausible to think of state power as objectively structured, by an ‘international’ system that could be insulated analytically from ‘domestic’ politics (notwithstanding the extensive links of ‘civil’ and ‘international’ wars throughout the period after 1945). Ten years later, turbulence ‘below’ and ‘above’ the state level had already rocked this sterile conception of world order. When James Rosenau (1990) argued that we were moving into an ‘postinternational’ era, he expressed what many scholars were coming to recognize. Others were to go further, to argue that international was being displaced by global politics (for example, Richard Falk, 1995).
If international politics was to be rescued as a separate field of study, it needed to be re-founded in a broader social conception. At the level at which he principally intends his book to work, Wendt carries out such a reworking. Essentially his argument is that ideas and culture, not material power structures, constitute relations between states. He takes this self-consciously from social theory: ‘Idealist social theory embodies a very minimal claim: that the deep structure of society is constituted by ideas rather than material forces. Although most mainstream IR scholarship is materialist, most modern social theory is idealist in this sense.’ (p. 25)
This is, of course, a vast simplification of the course of late modern social theory. The most fruitful thinkers are hardly those who, like Parsons and now Wendt, have latched on to the ‘idealist’ horn of the old dilemma, but those who, following Marx and/or Weber a century or more ago, have attempted to transcend its ever staler polarities.The post-Marxist, neo-Weberian school of historical social theory, that has most closely engaged with international relations, is little in evidence here.
Wendt, of course, has the easy marker of Waltz against which to differentiate his new subjectivism. His position is summarized in the statement that ‘states are the immanent form of subjectivity in world politics’ (p. 9). Wendt’s difference is clearly the subjectivity, not the states. In this sentence, he makes the elementary error of conflating ‘world’ with ‘international’ politics, as shown by his proceeding to justify his position thus: ‘States still are at the center of the international system, and as such it makes no more sense to criticize a theory of international politics as ”state-centric” than it does to criticize a theory of forests for being ”tree-centric.”’ (p.9) ‘In sum’, he argues, ‘for critical IR theorists to eschew state-centric theorizing is to concede much of international politics to Neorealism.’ (p. 11)
However much we might agree that ‘critical’ IR has tended to under-theorize the state (I argue this point in my Theory of the Global State), this simple re-closure of the issue of ‘state-centrism’ is an inadequate beginning. But Wendt is quite open about his traditional assumptions: ‘At home states are bound by a thick structure of rules that holds their power accountable to society. Abroad they are bound by a different set of rules, the logic or as I shall argue, logics, of anarchy.’ (p. 13) In short, the key structural differentiation of national and international is taken for granted, as foundational. Subjectivity enters only into how the separated ‘international’ sphere is constituted.
Wendt disarmingly admits sharing ‘many of the same premises as Waltz’, so that ‘some of the same criticisms commonly directed at his work have equal force here.’ (p. 6) Quite clearly he is pitching for mainstream turf. He insists that he must ‘defend the assumption that states are unitary actors to which we legitimately can attribute anthropomorphic qualities like identities, interests, and intentionality. This assumption, much maligned in recent IR scholarship, is a precondition for using the tools of social theory to analyze the behaviour of corporate agents in the international system since social theory was designed to explain the behaviour of individuals, not states.’ (p. 43) Not much sign, here, of Michael Mann’s (1993) authoritative critique of the simple ‘unitary’ assumption.
By prioritizing state subjectivities (‘anarchy is what states make it’, as Wendt, 1992, famously argued) our author tends to write out others. ‘Consider’, he asks us, ‘the debate about the causes of the recent Bosnian Civil War.’ (p. 163) To which debate is he referring? Clearly it is not the debate among the victims. Most of them are highly conscious of the roles of the Serbian and Croatian states in causing their misery. Nor is it the debate in the International War Crimes Tribunal, in which the war has been decisively ruled an international conflict. The Bosnian war has rarely been described as ‘civil’ anywhere in Europe. One can only assume that either Wendt is reflecting the less-well informed sectors of US opinion, and/or that he is articulating an old (structural) prejudice that a war that is not straightforwardly interstate must be a ‘civil’ war. (As Mary Kaldor, 1999, argues, like most contemporary wars the Bosnian war is neither interstate nor civil, but a ‘new war’ which includes elements of both.)
What this case reveals is that because they lack an adequate sense of structure, would-be constitutive theorists often miss the relations that genuinely constitute politics. Without theories of the structures of power, we cannot locate action, any more than without understanding actors we can grasp structures. There has been considerable debate on the formal solution of the agency-structure dilemma in international theory. But what this discussion suggests is that, as John MacLean (1999: 179) argues, reflection on historical dilemmas needs to be fed into meta-theoretical discussion: these relations cannot be resolved at the level of meta-theory.
The paradox of agency arises precisely because state power is a structural formation.’Subjectivities’, both of states as collective actors and of individuals and other collectivities acting within the state as a ‘place’, help to constitute objective structures that face all actors. States are indeed at the centre of world politics, but this is not because they are its immanent form of subjectivity. Rather states are central because they come to be constituted as objective structures within, through and against which all actors must, to greater or lesser extents, define their positions. Moreover, when Wendt sees interstate politics as a field quite distinct from world politics, economy and society in the fuller sense he takes certain kinds of state subjectivities (wherein the antinomies of international politics are subscribed) at face value, instead of understanding them in their larger social context.
As I suggested above, key thinkers in the social sciences reflect more than the debates in their professions. At their best, they expose the contradictions of their time in thought; at very least, their ideas express the climate of the times. The new claimant to IR’s crown is no exception. It is difficult to avoid the conclusion that Wendt’s ‘social’ theory is a limited articulation of equally limited shifts in American politics. ‘In foreign policy discourse’, he points out, ”’mora1” schemas are often juxtaposed to ”interests”, as in the debate about President Clinton’s speech to the American people justifying intervention that tried to define US interests in terms of the belief that Americans are the kind of people who do the right thing.’ (p. 125) This unexciting argument, already explored more fully by John Ruggie (1998), is the practical nub of Wendt’s theoretical revolution. If state interests are socially ‘constructed’, then American interests cannot be confined by traditional realist conceptions of the national interest. They can indeed be re-defined in the terms of Clintonian liberalism, tentatively embracing the rhetoric, if only selectively the substance, of global order and responsibilities.
Without this modest advance, mainstream American international theory could be left behind still further with Waltz – although as we have seen, others have already made more substantial shifts – just as without the new liberalism of Clinton-Gore, George W. Bush may yet return America to neo-Reaganism. However much we must be grateful for these small mercies, here is a staggering impoverishment of the theoretical and political imagination. Wendt offers us a new theoretical national anthem, an idealist tune along with which to dance in global times. But as the American international mainstream switches horses from power-capability materialism to ‘cultural’ idealism, it bypasses many of the really significant gains of a century of social thought. As America expects the world’s gratitude for the new enlightenment in Washington, it falls ever further behind the real demands for social and political change.
A meaningful new beginning in international studies, in theory as in practice, will articulate the challenges of global politics in the real world, from Bosnia to Rwanda, one almost as distant from Wendt as it was from Waltz. Above all, this is a world in which ‘the thick structure of rules that holds [states'] power accountable to society’ within is breaching the national/international boundary. The very idea, not just the form, of the ‘different set of rules, the logic or … logics, of anarchy’, is under fundamental challenge. The Washington elite, aided and abetted by its friends in Beijing, thinks it can ride out this challenge, for example neutering the International Criminal Court, keeping a redefined ‘national’ sovereignty more or less intact. Its theoreticians like Ruggie and Wendt seem to think that it is enough to give the national interest a benign redefinition.They are all in for a bumpy ride in the upheavals of the global democratic revolution.
The task of radical globalists in international relations, while welcoming Wendt’s theoretical elaboration of the movement beyond power politics, is to point up both its theoretical and practical limitations. We share intellectual and political space to the extent of recognising that the world has changed. We differ sharply on the definition of what is happening and on what is to be done.
Falk, Richard (1995)On Humane Governance: Towards a New Global Politics. Cambridge: Polity
Kaldor, Mary (1999) New and Old Wars. Cambridge: Polity
MacLean, John (1999) ‘Towards a Political Economy of Agency in Contemporary International Relations’, in Martin Shaw, ed., Politics and Globalisation. London: Routledge.
Mann, Michael (1993) Sources of Social Power. Volume II. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Parsons, Talcott (1952) The Social System. Glencoe: Free Press.
Rosenau, James (1990) Turbulence in World Politics. Princeton: Princeton University Press.
Ruggie, John G. (1998) Building the World Polity. London: Routledge.
Waltz, Kenneth (1979) Theory of International Politics. Reading, Mass.: Addison-Wesley.
Wendt, Alexander (1992) ‘Anarchy is what states make of it’, International Organization, 46, 391-425
4 April 2000

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