The Duck of Minerva

The Duck Quacks at Twilight

Cultural weapons and international relations


January 3, 2012

At The Monkey Cage, Erik Voeten notes the ascendancy of constructivism within International Relations (although “non-paradigmatic research” is an even more popular category).

I suppose that’s it for realism, then. So much for the null hypothesis that every article in IR published in the past 20 years has treated as a punching bag. From now on, I hope that we can all agree that theory articles don’t have to start by attacking the bogeyman of structural realism and can instead begin with a more interesting discussion of the problem at hand.

Next from Steve Walt: Cultural Revolution and War

Nevertheless, I can’t help but think that the categories the TRIP survey has chosen to ask IR scholars to slot themselves into are too neat. After all, the traditional problematic of realism–power–is hardly absent from contemporary IR, even if the terms of contestation have changed recently. That means that scholars–and policymakers–should begin looking at old problems in a new light. And that means that there’s room for realist temperaments in a constructivist world.

Take Samuel Barkin’s Realist Constructivism. It strikes me that Barkin more intuitively understands Chinese President Hu Jintao’s recent missive condemning the Westernization of Chinese ideas than a 1990s-vintage constructivist. After all, Hu is speaking a constructivist dialect, but it’s not the cheerful liberal one that we grew most familiar with in the 1990s. Instead, Hu is lending his name to a point of view that is a little different, one that views ideas as a site of contestation in which states qua states (or at least regimes qua regimes) can play a major role.

Consider the policies that Hu, according to Bloomberg News, is introducing:

  • New Communist Party-led promotion of TV and cinema programming
  • Limits on “vulgar” reality shows
  • Supervision of online criticism

Some of these policies have already been put into place. Last September, the Chinese TV show Super Girl, which attracted hundreds of millions of viewers, was canceled because it fell afoul of China’s State Administration of Radio, Film, and Television, possibly for being too vulgar, and possibly for being too democratic. Earlier, China banned depictions of time travel, on the grounds that it promoted disrespect toward China’s history. Cynics point out also that alternative representations of that history are now out of bounds, too.

Obviously, I’m only making an armchair assessment. Nevertheless, these moves are at least consistent with the behavior of a state that takes ideas seriously and is trying to shape debate and foreclose opposition using the sort of censorship that wasn’t supposed to exist anymore. That states can take part in the construction of new ideas and the performance of social roles is not a novel insight, either for Hu or for constructivists. But a shift in emphasis is often sufficient to bring new anomalies (and, one hopes, new theory) to light. Hopefully, our newly constructivized discipline will foreground such considerations even more than it has in the past.

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