Genesis of International Relations Theory – Politicized Intellectualism

The Invention of International Relations Theory – Edited by Nicolas Guilhot

For a majority of students and scholars of IR, training and general disciplinary understanding usually starts with a comprehensive grounding in and overview of Realism – the central theoretic framework that postulates states as the fundamental unit within an international system of states that are all striving to enhance their power vis-a-vis each other; all states are understood to be unified actors that possess similar, almost uniform, interests and are self-aggrandizing by nature. Anarchy thus prevails in a dispiriting global climate. War and violence are de rigeur. Ideas and norms are not worthy of attention and even worse, unimportant unless they contribute to maximizing power. Agreements and cooperation are seldom considered of use and when present are viewed instrumentally, as again, tools to enhance state power and interest and nothing more. For a long time, unless questioned, students basically assume that Realism’s core precepts are reflective of the world and the product of robust theorization. But this is not entirely accurate. Realism’s ascendancy and that of its parent discipline was an engineered outcome, the intended goal of a group of highly accomplished scholars and practitioners, who gathered at a conference organized under the auspices of the Rockefeller Foundation in 1954 to create a new intellectual theory and community for a post-war world rapidly descending into a manichean battle between two vaunted superpowers. And this project finds its elaboration in Nicolas Guilhot’s edited volume The Invention of International Relations Theory, filled with eight chapters that convey the history of IR and its principal paradigm, Realism.

The central premise being forwarded by the volume is that the creation of International Relations as a discipline and that of its founding tenets, which have had remarkable endurance, were not the products of intellectual legacies and the state of the world as it was in the early cold war years. Instead, the discipline owes its genesis to the efforts of a remarkable group of statesman and scholars who sought to create and demarcate a separate space for the nascent discipline, away from the behavioral revolution that was enveloping other Social Science disciplines, notable political science. Subjecting the study of international relations and inter-state relations to behavioural methods and concepts would be tantamount to disaster since they argued the nature of the international system was not conducive to rational analysis and generalization and it needed a core set of concepts and theories derived from values and judgements that could assist statesman and foreign policy hands. Conference participants were basically looking to develop a discipline whose maxims and principles were not far off from the field of international policy practice. The exigencies of leaving a field of work that was foreign to practice was dangerous, a praxeology (study of policy practice) was as important as epistemology and ontology and those at the conference realised the importance to bridge the chasm between knowledge and practice. Practitioners of international affairs did not have the luxury of deploying rational means ends analysis to the study of international problems and were in need of a pithily conceptualized paradigm that lent itself quite amenably to praxis; and this loomed heavily on the minds of those gathered at the gathering.  As Guilhot argues, the creation of IR was not purely an intellectual but a ‘political and institutional’ endeavour.

Interestingly as an IR student, I found the frustrations of those at the conference to determine a ‘theory’ that defied not only the compulsions that accompany an academic field but also one that reflected or was in close proximity to the reality of the international system quite real, no pun intended! And the irony that the discipline that they forged is now the sole preserve of the rational choice school, characterized by the utter and unfettered domination of empirical methods to make sense of international issues is hard not to notice or reflect upon. But it makes more sense given the rather fragile theoretic foundations of the discipline that would, sooner or later, give way to more sophisticated empirical work that would come to define the field. Another interesting component to note related to the ‘political’ nature of IR’s founding is its disdain for democratic politics and the need to delimit the international sphere and the study of it from the purview and depredations of domestic politics, which was seen as antithetical to the effective management of international issues. Thus, what was needed was a strong state, a capable executive branch and a well-versed organic elite that shared certain core values and tenets on how to view international affairs, diplomacy, and manage inter-state relations. Indeed, one of the priorities at this meeting was the need to create an intellectual network amongst like-minded elites who not only shared core values but also contributed to the nurturing of students that would similarly imbibe and espouse shared principles. In sum, the edited volume is a valuable resource, especially for IR students, to learn the story and history of the discipline and the efforts that undergirded its formation following the devastating war. It also helps to put in perspective that knowledge and its generation are tasks that are not neutral and should not be divorced from the contexts in which they emanate.


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