Radical IR: approaches or implications?

4 December 2018, 1122 EST

Dillon Tatum had an interesting post here last week, calling for a “radical” international relations. As Tatum notes, “radicalism intervenes in the political domain with the goal of fundamental transformation” and IR could function similarly.

What would that look like? I think many would imagine a radical IR as radical in its approaches and methods. That is, scholars would critically examine biases and assumptions, uncover power structures and erase them. In this envisioning of critical IR, conventional methods—quantitative analyses, positivist qualitative studies—are part of the problem. They limit the questions we ask and the type of answers we accept as valid.

But is this really the case? Must IR reshape itself to push back on the common wisdom and make the world a better place? I’m not sure. Looking at music, Frank Zappa was certainly radical, in both approach and implication. But Brian Wilson, while adhering to standard pop sensibilities, used the “rules” to produce music with far-reaching, shockingly radical implications. Maybe it could be the same with IR.

In fact, many mainstream studies have rather radical implications. Here’s just a few examples:

  • Dreher, Marchesi and Vreeland examined the politics behind IMF forecasts. Using quantitative methods, they found that the IMF tends to provide more favorable analyses for states that vote in line with the United States in the UN General Assembly. The implications are rather radical; the IMF—one of the cornerstones of the liberal economic order—is not a dispassionate rational actor. It is just as political, its decisions are just as driven by power, as the rest of international relations.
  • Nicholson, Jinnah and Gillespie analyzed the policy issues arising from solar radiation management as an alternative to carbon emissions in the fight against climate change. They point to problems that may arise from ungoverned adoption of these technologies, and suggest some policy solutions. While this work seems rather technical, its implications are radical; solar radiation management is an attractive option for states struggling to limit carbon emissions. If these technologies don’t provide easy fixes to rising temperatures, this means states should face even more pressure to limit emissions before its too late.
  • In my book, I deal with the question of how religious politics affect international relations, looking specifically at Islamic politics and counterterrorism. Using a conventional mixed-methods research design—quantitative analysis paired with a diverse selection of cases—I found that the nature of institutional ties between Islam and the state affected the extent to which majority-Muslim states cooperated with America on counterterrorism. Depending on how one interprets this finding, it could have radical implications for American foreign policy; it suggests there is a limit to US influence over weaker states, with domestic political considerations overriding US power.

These are just three non-representative examples, as the studies are by me or people I know. But many of the mainstream IR studies we read could have equally radical implications if applied to foreign policy.

The problem is figuring out how to apply them. Excellent initiatives exist, like Bridging the Gap—whose summer institute I attended and recommend highly. Scholars can use these to learn how to pitch op-eds and engage with the media, using their research to inform public debates. They can also learn how to reach out to policymakers and government agencies. But scholars who use their research to challenge widely-accepted foreign policies may struggle to gain a seat at the table. Or they may moderate the radical implications of their research to avoid alienating the audiences they hope to work with. This suggests the next step for the push in “policy-relevant” research; how to not only engage, but influence, the policy community using our work.