In my last post, I briefly described the headline panel on the state of the art in the International Relations of the Middle East which I chaired at the Middle East Studies Association Annual meeting on Saturday. As promised, here is a lightly edited version of my prepared remarks for that panel -- only part of which I actually delivered, due to time constraints and deference to the other outstanding panelists, but which I reproduce here for those interested. And see here for this old classic contretemps over IR theory's failure to deal with al-Qaeda and the follow-up response to various aggrieved parties - showing either that the problems remain or that I never learn!
International Relations of the Middle East: State of the Field
Ten years ago in Chicago, I appeared on a special session at MESA evaluating the state of the art in the field of the International Relations of the Middle East, along with Greg Gause, Steve Walt, Mike Barnett and several others. This year seemed a good time to repeat the exercise – given how much both IR and the world have changed. How has the field of IR ME dealt with the massive upheavals? How has it informed the response? I assembled the panel with an eye towards covering major subfields and approaches, including a determined effort to get the best of Europe and people who bridge the academic-policy divide. I regret that Fred Halliday and Etel Solingen were unable to attend, among others. But despite their absence, we have assembled a sensational panel of highly accomplished scholars of the IR Middle East.
... [bios of participants here deleted]
The Middle East has been undeniably central to the great issues of world politics of the last 8 years: from the failure of the Camp David peace summit to the outbreak of the second Palestinian Intifada and Israeli reoccupation of the West Bank, to 9/11 and the war on terror, to the invasion and occupation of Afghanistan and Iraq, to the jockeying over the Iranian nuclear program, to anti-Americanism and the war of ideas, to the rise of sovereign wealth funds and the dramatic fluctuations in oil prices. Has the Middle East also been central to the academic discipline of International Relations? Has the IR of the Middle East had anything to say to the wider public and foreign policy debates on these subjects?
There are two distinct areas of concern: engagement with policy debates and engagement with the academic discipline of International Relations. Because the other panelists will have much to say about the policy dimension, I want to focus here instead on the academic field of IR. How have Middle East specialists fared? Does it matter? What can be done?
First, the performance question. I begin with the assumption that publication in top peer-reviewed academic journals is an important measure of performance in the field. Books are certainly important in IR, and -- as I discuss at greater length below -- other kinds of journals (policy oriented or Middle East focused) are important outlets for high-quality academic work on the subject. Nevertheless, publication in top IR journals matters because of their centrality to the organization of the field and to hiring, tenure, and promotion decisions. Put bluntly, how can specialists in the International Relations of the Middle East get tenure at top universities if they can't/don't/won't publish in the top journals as perceived by the discipline? The answer is they can't, don’t, and won't. And then who will mentor the next generation of academic specialists in the field?
With the help of Rachel Whitlark, a graduate student at GWU, I did a systematic search of the IR journal literature over the last seven years: all articles published about the Middle East in the ten leading peer-reviewed academic IR journals (International Organization, International Security, International Studies Quarterly, International Studies Perspectives, International Studies Review, Security Studies, European Journal of International Relations, Review of International Studies, World Politics, and Journal of Conflict Resolution). The findings are stark: the IR of the ME – especially by MESA members - is alarmingly slight -- and shows little sign of increasing.
What is the “appropriate” level? I suggest using the contents of the leading policy journal Foreign Affairs as a proxy for what matters to the foreign policy community: about 20% of all articles published there since 2001 have dealt with the Middle East. By comparison, overall, 220 out of 2088 articles in the 10 academic IR journals dealt in some way with the Middle East – about 10.5%. Of those, a very significant number were large-n studies in which Middle East cases appeared in the dataset but were not primarily about the Middle East. In the leading journal International Organization, for instance, 42 out of 49 "Middle East" articles fell into this category. What is more, a substantial number of the Middle East themed articles in such journals were actually comparative in focus, not IR. Focusing only on articles in academic IR journals which primarily focus on the International Relations of the Middle East – using any methodology, and defined very broadly – left 154, less than 7.5%.
Of those 154, the vast majority employed quantitative or formal methodologies which required no regional expertise, or were written by generalists relying exclusively on secondary sources. I would wager that the number of these articles written by MESA members - a proxy for "regional expertise" which this audience at least may accept - is in the low double digits. Adding in the generalist journals makes it worse: in APSR, AJPS and JOP there were 5 out of 1255 articles coded – generously – as IR ME. If I wanted to be apocalyptic, I would include these and drop the tally to less than 5%. (Note: while we did not code for this, Oded Haklai reports that he conducted a similar exercise for other regional area studies and found that the Middle East underperformed those, as well.) I had hoped to see a time lag/ pipeline effect, and that more research would begin appearing after graduate students finished their dissertations and older faculty retooled. But there is no noticable trend towards more articles on IRME topics – if anything, they have fallen off.
Does this matter? I think it does -- and not just for the problems noted above about the effects on the field and prospective students. The academic discipline is the incubator not only of talent but also of new ideas, presumably more insulated from the pressures of the headlines and the demands of partisanship. It establishes the theoretical frameworks and methodologies and norms which will dominate the academic discipline and set the future of the profession. There are also important intellectual costs of the exclusion of area specialists from the mainstream of the field. For just one example, take the study of al-Qaeda: the overwhelming majority of the articles published in the IR journals about this issue treat it as a problem of “terrorism” – some quite creatively and interestingly, using formal or quantitative or comparative methods, but failing to consider the wider sociological, intellectual or political context from which AQ emerged, lacking the language skills to grapple with the texts or the contexts.
But here I offer a caveat. Most MESA members would probably agree that it is a problem that people are writing about the Middle East without deep understanding of culture, history, language, politics. But that position is not universally shared. It needs to be defended by demonstrating exactly what is missed by those lacking such background or skills. What trends, causal mechanisms, actors, or evidence are area specialists adding that others do not or can not? I do not agree with those who believe that local knowledge should take the place of theory or with those who prioritize general theory over local knoweldge. Both are needed. But it is the particular burden of the area specialists in the configuration of today's academic disciplines to demonstrate their indispensibility -- not simply to assume it.
Why is it so hard for Middle East specialists to navigate the IR field? We’re all familiar with the ongoing, decades old arguments over parsimony vs empirical richness, policy relevance vs theory, and so on. And we’re all familiary with the vicious cycle: training in leading departments, does not incentivize learning languages and extended field work, and well-meaning advisers likely warn students to focus on topics and methods which will get them published. This ages old argument will not be resolved today. But I would note that the subfield of Comparative Politics has done much better than the subfield of International Relations in recent years -- suggesting that the answer can not lie exclusively in the problems of training, in the nature of the region, or in the difficulty of doing research in the region.
One problem distinct to the field of IR is probably the nature of the leading journals. Where those working on comparative politics can find a comfortable home in disciplinary journals such as Comparative Politics or Comparative Political Studies with work on core topics such as democratization and authoritarianism, civil society and social movements, and so forth, IR scholars working on the Middle East seem to be consistently farther from the expectations of the leading journals. I do not think that editors are biased against the Middle East – indeed, anecdotally, many of them would love to see relevant articles but are not getting "acceptable" submissions. But what is deemed “acceptable” is largely dictated by disciplinary norms. In many of the leading journals there is a strong bias towards formal and quantitative methodologies which do not play to the strengths of most MESA members, and which would require asking different questions than we might prefer to ask. The more qualitatively oriented journals fall into two main categories: highly theoretical journals oriented towards disciplinary, non-regional concerns (EJIR, RIS) or else security oriented journals (SS, IS). The former publish very few Middle East articles, while the latter publish quite a lot of Middle East articles which naturally cluster around the security concerns of the day - Israeli-Palestinian conflict, the Iraq war, al-Qaeda (but defined as terrorism, not as an Islamist phenomenon) – and are often written from an ‘external’ perspective.
One response is to cast a pox on their house – why try to publish in journals which are not receptive and which can be frustrating, especially when policy journals -- with fast turnaround times, eager editors, and real-world impact -- beckon? I’ve already outlined the reasons why this is not a productive response. But it’s nevertheless a common one – especially for those of us with tenure who can get away with it! Many of us now publish our “IR of the ME” work in policy journals or as think tank papers or in the many fine Middle East focused journals, and avoid the leading journals – something to which I myself plead guilty, and in which I see considerable value. But even if such writing helps our engagement with the policy debate, it also contributes to the problem of under-representation within the discipline. Senior scholars in the subfield need to make more effort not only to help our students publish in these journals - we also need to publish in these journals ourselves to carve out the intellectual and disciplinary space for such articles.
Part of problem is that IR itself is in a bit of a funk right now - the grand paradigm wars have passed, the top journals are dominated by methods-driven studies. Perhaps this should be seen as an opportunity for us to try to change this. I would point to some success stories: the growth of the insurgencies and civil wars literature, which has opened door to qualititaive and locally informed research in important ways; the comparative politics of the ME, which has done much better at integrating itself into core concerns of the subfield. What can our subfield learn from this? Broadly speaking, we should do a better job of generating theoretical controversy: develop our own set of interlocking, progressive debates with real world relevance and above all interesting puzzles which can be unlocked through innovative sources of data, theoretical approaches, counter-intuitive hypotheses and unexpected comparisons. As Greg Gause more pithily put it, argue with each other -- not political polemics, but analytical arguments which can sustain a series of related articles attacking a question from multiple perspectives.
Here are some practical suggestions of where such fights of broad disciplinary concern might be found:
- Globalization: The Middle East is too often dismissed as "outside globalization." That's wrong. As I've argued in a recent chapter in a volume edited by Jon Kirschner, aside from trade the Middle East is at the heart of globalization: information and communications technology, the movement of peoples, finance. Al-Qaeda and the Muslim Brotherhood are each leading examples of transnational networks taking advantage of the changes driven by globalization – their adaptations and evolution could usefully be evaluated in the context of global civil society, transnational advocay networks, and globalization writ large. Middle Eastern societies are unfortunately a key source of the international movement of peoples, from migrant labor to Iraqi refugees. The region is also rotten with the kinds of black markets and illicit movements tracked by, say, Peter Andreas in the Balkans. By attacking such questions through the lens of globalization, scholars of the IR of the Middle East could move that literature in genuinely new directions.
- Comparative regionalism: Recent work by Etel Solingen and Peter Katzenstein demonstrates the potential of serious comparisons of the political and economic experience of different regions. But most of those studies begin from Europe and Asia and then work outwards - what would be changed by seriously beginning from the Middle East's experience as a thoroughly penetrated sub-region (using Binder's old term) with broad social/political-cultural integration but state-level competition and anemic international organizations?
- Wars of Ideas: Al-Qaeda and other Islamists are also quintessentially constructivist actors: motivated by moral ideas and engaging in persuasive argument in the international realm, waging ‘wars of ideas’ against the dominant international society. Arab states have pushed back with their own ideological campaigns, while the U.S. has waged its well-advertised "war of ideas" with variable success. Constructivists should be all over this, but have not generally been. A lot of my work lies here, but there's plenty of untapped opportunities to argue here about how ideas operate and how they matter.
- Imperium and polarity: The Middle East lies at the heart of the American dominated international system, and should be a crucial area to explore the dynamics of ‘imperium’ or unipolarity or hegemony from the bottom up. The contrast between deep popular opposition to American foreign policy and America's seemingly stable alliances with virtually every state in the region cries out for analytical attention. The American order described by, say, John Ikenberry looks very different from the vantage point of the Middle East, with its quarter million troops and deep involvement in sustaining political order in most countries in the region. Work by Dan Nexon or Alex Cooley might be a good starting point to rethink the relationship between the region and the international order.
- Regional power shifts: some of the best recent work on the IR of the Middle East has been focused on alliances - Greg Gause's work on the Gulf, Curt Ryan's new book on Jordan, Ben Miller's book on regional security, and a variety of works focused on "regime security" concerns. How do these theories stand up to the massive changes in the regional balance of power of the last few years - the invasion and occupation of Iraq, the rise of Iran, the vast amounts of money pouring into the Gulf.
- Global power shifts: If global power and economic weight continues to shift East, to China and India, how will this affect the Middle East? Will the Gulf continue to be an American lake indefinitely? Will the Middle East be a leading or a trailing indicator of global power shifts? Where would we look to see this happening?
There's much more to be suggested here, of course - these are just some suggestions of where specialists in the IR of the Middle East might be able to tap into and reshape major arguments within the discipline at large. My hope is that this can trigger a heightened focus on the problems of the subfield so that ten years from now we do not return for what Greg Gause calls another round of our ritual self-flagellation.