The Duck of Minerva

The Duck Quacks at Twilight

Critical IR Theory

October 5, 2005

Last week (September 26th), I commented on Dan’s post on “Realism and Constructivism” by writing this:

“Critical” constructivists are in many ways realist-constructivists. They argue that material power and self interest typically shape outcomes, but they (normatively) want ideational factors to have a predominant role. It is a transformation from brute force to the “forceless force of the better argument.”

Of course, critical theorists need not embrace all realist descriptions of world politics. It is possible, for instance, to imagine all sorts of worrisome coercion that need not emerge from states and need not lead to a balance of power.

Short, perhaps sweet — and much too simple.

Patrick responded in the same comments thread:

I have to disagree with Rodger here — having a normative preference for “the unforced force of the better argument” makes you a liberal, not a realist, and acknowledging that material power etc. typically shapes outcomes makes you a frustrated liberal — which is probably a pretty good description of many if not most IR “constructivists” today….

Oh, and I think that Lauren’s right about the term “critical constructivist.” As far as I know it is the “polite” way of saying “post-structuralist” in certain IR circles.

Since I don’t really think of myself as a frustrated liberal, nor as a post-structuralist, but I do think of myself as a critical IR theorist, it seems appropriate to respond to Patrick.

Before going further, I should note that I am very much interested in the ongoing work about realism and constructivism that Patrick and Dan are pursuing. But that’s not really the purpose of this post.

Rather, I want to more fully explain what I mean by “critical IR theory” (“critical constructivism” is arguably a subset) and why I don’t think it means “post-structuralist.”

Last year, Nayef Samhat and I published a book influenced greatly by the critical theory of Jürgen Habermas. We are interested in the development of legitimate international political community and argued that numerous international organizations and regimes are starting to utilize certain “discourse norms” in their procedural decision-making. By greatly increasing participation (to NGOs, TNCs, smaller states, etc.) and by opening processes and documents to external scrutiny (transparency), regimes and institutions become “incipient discursive designs.”

Empirically, we examine a wide range of development, environment, human rights, and security regimes and institutions. Full chapters are devoted to more detailed case studies of the GEF and WTO. The ongoing transformation we theorize and describe reflects a response to the mounting legitimacy crisis for these institutions. The normative changes we identify potentially serve to legitimize their function and create the possibility of global political community.

Obviously, a blog post isn’t the best place either to recap the book or to summarize (or even position) the work of Habermas. I won’t say much more about the book. Regarding the latter, note that Habermas clearly embraces much of what we all think of as modernity and his multi-decade project is in many ways about the salvation of Enlightenment rationality. However, Habermas is interested in the generation of communicative rationality and is quite critical of instrumental rationality. This is not conventionally liberal and is, broadly speaking, within the critical theoretical tradition. Moreover, the Germany social theorist is directly engaged by, and engages, postmodernists (or if you prefer, post-structuralists) like Foucault.

Their debate concerns major questions. For Habermas, the ideal dialogue might lead to uncoerced social consensus. This is a truth-seeking exercise featuring the “forceless force of the better argument.” As I’ve written elsewhere, norms created in this fashion might genuinely reflect “legitimate social purpose.” Those crafted strategically probably won’t.

Post-structuralists believe that power will always mar any dialogue and that there is no truth out there waiting to be discovered — neither objectively, nor intersubjectively, apparently.

This is a simplification, still, but at least I’ve explained my position — and at least hinted at why I think “critical constructivism” potentially blends features of realism (the central explanatory role of material power, the notion that the most powerful actors are most likely to achieve their interests, etc.) and constructivism (albeit normatively, in service of “legitimate social purpose”).


I haven’t yet decided whether to ask Dan to put a photo of Habermas over there on the right with the “Patron Saints.” Thoughts?

Second, if you cannot make time for the book, Nayef and I published an article related to our book in Global Society, July 2003. Here is a relevant snippet from the beginning:

A legitimate political community features consensual norms and principles that have been openly debated by interested members of global society. Relying on a critical theoretical method, we argue that by conceptualising certain regimes as public spheres it is possible to apply and interpret practices of Habermasian discourse ethics to this institutional form.[1] The consequence is that by creating opportunities for new modes of global democratic practice, these regimes are in the process of generating an alternative type of political community to that anchored in the territorial state. Both the potential for and transformative effects of dialogue within this sphere offer participants the opportunity to articulate emancipatory principles. This becomes increasingly likely as regime legitimacy means accounting for the needs and interests of vast segments of the global polity whose interests might otherwise be excluded.

[1] A critical international theory is explicitly committed to the agency of human action, emancipation from constraints on human freedom generated by practices of economic and political exclusion, and the questioning of imposed boundaries of political community.

Again, that doesn’t seem like liberalism to me, though I acknowledge that the incremental and incipient processes Nayef and I identify sound like they might be part of a progressive reform project.

In the article’s conclusion, however, we compare and position the democratic and deliberative implications of our work with the alternative ideas about global democracy put forward by James Bohman, Molly Cochran, Richard Falk and David Held.

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Rodger A. Payne is a Professor of Political Science at the University of Louisville. He serves on the University’s Sustainability Council and was a co-founder of the Peace, Conflict, and Social Justice program. He is the author of dozens of journal articles and book chapters and coauthor, with Nayef Samhat, of Democratizing Global Politics: Discourse Norms, International Regimes, and Political Community (SUNY, 2004). He is currently working on two major projects, one exploring the role of narratives in international politics and the other examining the implications of America First foreign policy.