The International Relations Enlightenment and the Ends of International Relations Theory

17 September 2013, 0915 EDT

Disciplinary history is too important to be left only to intellectual historians. It should concern anyone interested in international politics. “The tradition of all dead generations” may not weigh on the brains of today’s International Relations (IR) scholars with quite the fever of Marx’s nightmare, but it does continue to exert powerful and often unrecognized effects on contemporary thinking. The idea of an “end of IR theory” that animates the Special Issue of the EJIR provides an intriguing opportunity to open up this issue: to ask where the field is going by looking again at where it came from.

This story can be told in many ways. One of the most revealing is to take seriously Stanley Hoffmann’s famous claim that IR developed as a quintessentially “American” social science (PDF). Hoffmann was right, though for reasons and with implications quite different from those he advanced. In his eyes, these origins lay mainly in a concern with American hegemony and policy-oriented theory in the context of the Cold War. No one could doubt that these questions were important, yet in many ways IR’s origins and commitments are better located in a wider but generally unrecognized analytic and political sensibility that, in his brilliant study of Desolation and Enlightenment, Ira Katznelson has called the “political studies enlightenment” (note the small ‘e’).

Katznelson holds that diverse figures in post-war American social science including Dahl, Hofstaeder, Lasswell, Lindblom, Polanyi, and Arendt were united in the view that the desolation of the previous half century and its apparent refutation of Enlightenment promises of progress, peace, and the reign of reason. In response, they undertook systematic analyses of the limits of a century and a half of increasing rationalism within the liberal Enlightenment tradition. Yet they did so not to reject modernity or liberalism, but to save it. They held that understanding the calamities of the period required seeing them not as simple irrationality erupting inexplicably into the otherwise placid, progressive, world of reason, but as specifically modern, arising in important aspects from the Enlightenment itself, and representing key weaknesses within it, including its inability to engage the question of “radical evil” in modernity; the increasing dominance of technology, and technical rationality; the rise of “mass society” and mass politics, and the accompanying crisis of classical liberalism and its vision of democracy; and the rise of extreme nationalism and anti-liberal politics as an at least partial consequence of liberal modernity, not as its simple antithesis. The goal was to grasp these dynamics philosophically, historically, and sociologically, in order to understand how they might be countered in pursuit of suitably chastened but nonetheless recognizable Enlightenment values and principles.

At its core was the need to engage in the urgent task of assessing the flaws of existing forms of liberal modernism and… providing foundations for a new and more realistic liberalism.

Katznelson’s account does not include any scholars in the nascent field of IR. Yet his analysis captures remarkably many of the concerns of some of the most prominent thinkers in post-war IR, including Morgenthau, Neibuhr, and Herz, who might well be viewed as part of an analagous ‘IR enlightenment’. Post-war realism was not concerned simply with defeating a facile “idealism”, or teaching realpolitik to a naively liberal America. Nor was it interested constructing a modern social science. On the contrary, IR in this period began as a reaction against rationalist social science. As research by Nicolas Guilhot and others has shown, IR was an irredentist movement driven by political as well as methodological reasons. At its core was the need to engage in the urgent task of assessing the flaws of existing forms of liberal modernism and, I believe, with providing foundations for a new and more realistic liberalism.

If this is true, then the canonical divide between realism and liberalism that continues to dominate IR theory is fundamentally erroneous. Realism sought to reformulate and revive a form of liberalism by looking hard at the legacy of desolation and trying to address it. Far from being its implacable adversary, Realism in post-war IR emerged as one of the most powerful attempts to reformulate and save liberalism. The historical forgetting of these concerns has created the strangely divided theoretical landscape that we see today. It has allowed a denuded liberalism to continue blithely on, as if none of the desolation had ever happened, or as if it had little or nothing to do with liberalism itself. At the same time, it allows large parts of contemporary realism to operate without a serious engagement with its historical relationship to liberalism. Putting the IR enlightenment back into disciplinary history puts this issue back on the contemporary agenda.

Equally importantly, it also lets us rethink the relationship between Realism and critical and constructivist theories to which it is often opposed. It is often claimed that post-war American IR developed as a positivist social science, and that this marks a fundamental divide between American and ‘European’ IR, which remained more historically and sociologically oriented. True as this may be of contemporary theory, it cannot be convincingly traced to the thinkers of the IR enlightenment, who were fundamentally opposed to rationalist social science for political as well as methodological reasons. As IR has moved ever closer toward rationalist political science, it has become increasingly blind to this heritage. Losing its previous scepticism toward social ‘science’, IR became in many ways a standard-bearer for precisely the kinds of political knowledge that the IR enlightenment had been at pains to reject and which they sought to construct the field in opposition towards. In fact, if one wished to be particularly provocative, it is possible to say that from this perspective what is often taken as the defining moment in the invention of IR theory – Waltz’s Theory of International Politics – actually marked the culmination of a move away from the field’s beginnings and represents the ‘end’ of IR theory as conceived by the IR enlightenment. From that point onward, the irredentist analytic and political concerns of its earlier beginnings were almost fully eclipsed as IR was subsumed within the conventions of American social science that the proponents of post-war liberal realism had opposed and sought to avoid.

From its very inception IR was a substantive normative and political project.

This history shows, finally, that from its very inception IR was a substantive normative and political project. The IR enlightenment did not have all the answers. But a more serious engagement with it may provide both a clearer understanding of where we have come from, and open paths to a more productive future for the field as an analytic and a political enterprise.

Editor’s Note: This is the 23rd installment in our “End of IR Theory” companion symposium for the special issue of the European Journal of International Relations. SAGE has temporarily ungated all of the articles in that issue. This post refers to Williams’ article (PDF). A response, authored by Daniel J. Levine, will appear at 10am Eastern.

Other entries in the symposium–when available–may be reached via the “EJIR Special Issue Symposium” tag.