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July 25, 2005


Rex Brynen

I am an IR constructivist, who has over the years taken some ribbing from policy-oriented friends for 'all that Habermas shit'--AA

Actually, in my experience the realism vs constructivism debate never had much resonance among foreign policy-makers. On the contrary, most have long presumed that both power and attitudes/world views matter. Indeed, anyone who has spent time inside the foreign policy or intelligence communities can attest to the massive amount of reporting and analysis devoted to public and elite attitudes, ideology, identity-construction, and similar mainstays of a constructivist approach. It has also been a very long time since foreign ministries have had an exclusively state-centric view of global politics--MNCs, NGOs, the elite global press, non-state political groups, etc. have been the subject of substantial foreign policy attention for decades. (The defence establishment, on the other hand, has tended to a more realist, geostrategic interpretations of events--although this is changing, post-9/11.)

All of which raises another issue: the odd disjuncture between many of the debates in IR theory, and the issues that concern IR practitioners. Perhaps here where the Habermas jibe better fits: the problem with a Habermasian read of IR is not that it offers no insight (it does), but it sometimes results in an analysis that is so stylistically opaque that no busy foreign service officer has the time or inclination to plow through it ;)

chicago dyke

nice post. and lots of us care! really! more than on the haifa stuff, that's for sure.

but i agree with rex. in the academe, the niggling specificities matter, but to those out in the world, what matters is 'results.' what you've outlined is little more than the realization that we've got not a few folks enacting policy for the sake of changing minds, however much they fail or succeed. which leads me to make the observation: if policy makers know of what they are about, do the people who are at the end result of said policy know?

in the case of the american people, the answer is a resounding 'no.'


A few off-the-cuff thoughts:

I am reminded of Hedley Bull's comment at the end of The Anarchical Society that the academic study of IR is an intellectual operation concerned with knowledge, and not a practical one concerned with results. That's what makes the study of IR different from the practice of IR, so it doesn't ever surprise me at all when policymakers have little use for our most elaborated theories.

I don't think that "constructivism" won in the policy realm as much as the notion that ideas matter, which had been put on the back burner for much of the hyper-materialist 70s and 80s, made a recovery as policymakers started grappling with issues that didn't fit into the either the realpolitik tradition or its liberal/institutional (which was usually very economistic in practice) alternative. Drawing any kind of causal link between, say, Wendt's IO articles and the Katzenstein volume on the one hand, and the concrete practice of USFP on the other, would be a tricky enterprise at best.

The war on terror/struggle against violent extremists (see the story in today's NYTimes for details) doesn't seem to me to represent a victory of constructivism either. Now, one might be best equipped to explain such a policy by deploying constructivist analytics, but that's a different matter.

But I agree with you that a certain kind of constructivism has in fact triumphed within disciplinary IR. The really rock-ribbed materialists are few and far between, and the complete determinsts have largely softened their stance. But maybe that's just because no one was really ever committed to the extreme anti-constrictivist position, and sharp articulations by constructivists just forced them to acknowledge that publicly?

Waleed Hazbun

Why would "neo-cons" consider a debate with constructivists? Isn't that like expecting evangelical Christians to debate Muslim intellectuals seeking to craft a progressive, liberal Islam? The basis of most neo-con thought is a claim about universals (such as "freedom") which they view American power is best able to spread (...if it not viewed as the only means). They seek to portray ideas which reject their ideas (their version of them) not as rival ideas, but as products of totalitarianism, barbarism, "fear societies," etc... as unthinkable to normal, free people. (Realists might acknowledge norms but view them as determined by distributions of power, a worldview which might be more open to the idea of rival norms than neo-cons are). Neo-Cons allow NO space for alternatives, for pluralism. Is all this talk about a norm against terrorism, a war of ideas...really about the construction of meaning? Are their states (the unit of identity most constructivists works with) which really follow or promote an different norm? Or maybe the “norm” being promoted is really a certain reading of reality which supports post 9/11 US policy and the “war on terror”? Much of this sort of talk fails to first expand the scope of voice in global society, before is seeks to get other populations to speak in the desired ways; it fails to accept that there are other legitimate readings before it promotes a certain one...It is really a "mismatch between goals and methods"? Constructivism might be a method to study/explain neo-con-ism, but doing so, I assume, would be on terms that neo-cons reject.


while one can't totally equate the white house with neo-cons...we can't forget this very telling quote (that I'm sure you have all read):

The aide said that guys like me were ''in what we call the reality-based community,'' which he defined as people who ''believe that solutions emerge from your judicious study of discernible reality.'' I nodded and murmured something about enlightenment principles and empiricism. He cut me off. ''That's not the way the world really works anymore,'' he continued. ''We're an empire now, and when we act, we create our own reality. And while you're studying that reality -- judiciously, as you will -- we'll act again, creating other new realities, which you can study too, and that's how things will sort out. We're history's actors . . . and you, all of you, will be left to just study what we do.''

-Ron Suskin, "Without a Doubt," The New York Times Magazine, October 17, 2004

and while we're at, a reminder of Rice's (assertive nationalist) realist roots:

He laughed when asked about his admission on Wednesday, during a news conference, that he had not read the article in the periodical Foreign Affairs written in 2000 by Condoleezza Rice, his new secretary of state, laying out his foreign policy.

"I don't know what you think the world is like, but a lot of people don't just sit around reading Foreign Affairs," he said, chuckling. "I know this is shocking to you."

-New York Times Jan. 28, 2005


Even if we acknowledge that ideas or ideology is important, as we must, that doesn't give us a tool we can pick up and use with predictable results. The two-party electoral standoff is a war of ideas in which the realities--e.g. legislative agenda--differ and yet not only is it hard to predict elections, we're getting elections won by nearly statistically insignificant differences in the public preference. It makes sense that ideological victories should be unpredictable, because it's unpredictable if and when we our selves are persuaded by an opponent. There's facts and logic but at least as important there's rhetoric. Not to mention limitless list of unrelated complaints a skillfull politician is able to tie in ("it's the Jews!"). Not to mention who's talking (someone of the same class/culture/skin color). I imagine Kuhn's paradigm shift is model of how a lot of ideological victories happen, with ideologies competing perhaps not only for how much they explain and how simply, but (like religion?) how happy and hopeful they make you.

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