Is there a middle ground in the study of ideas in international relations?

8 September 2020, 1300 EDT

I’m working on a new project about the use of religion in power politics (part of which I’ll be presenting “at” APSA this week). I’m finding good evidence, but the framing is tricky. Religion as a power political tool happens, and matters, but it rarely works out the way the wielders intended. Is this an example of ideas mattering in international relations, or an example of their limits? The fact that I feel forced into such a binary reflects a broader issue in the sub-field.

As we all learn in Intro to IR, the study of ideas revolves around constructivism. With the emergence of neorealism and neoliberalism in the 1980s, IR became overly rationalist and materialist. Constructivism developed as a reaction to this, producing numerous studies on the way intersubjective beliefs guided and shaped state behavior. After the paradigm wars faded, “constructivist-y” studies continued, with important work focusing on the role of rhetoric and practices in international relations.

These works tend to proselytize about how great and important ideas are in IR. They focus on compelling examples of their impact on state behavior. They find overlooked cases of ideas’ significance–the the socialization of states into the EU–or reinterpret classic “realist” cases to show that ideas really drove them (like work on the nuclear taboo and deterrence). They focus on cases where ideas really matter.

Those outside of (broadly defined) constructivism who engage with ideas tend to debunk their importance. This can be seen in the attempted take-downs of constructivism by realists we all had to read in grad school. Other examples are works on ethnic conflict or terrorism that try to demonstrate rationalist explanations for apparently ideological or identity-based violence. That is, they highlight cases where ideas do not matter.

There have been some attempts to overcome this polarization. But they tend to involve “analytic eclecticism.” That is, some argue that we don’t need to choose between ideas or material factors in our analyses. Both can matter, either at different points in time/space or by interacting.

So we either think ideas are important and significant, or think they aren’t (or think it depends). What’s missing is a middle ground on the effectiveness of ideas. What about cases of activists attempting to use ideas to sway state behavior, but failing? What about cases of states attempting to appeal to ideology to influence their neighbors, but the endeavor blows up in their face? How would we characterize such cases and (more importantly) would studies of them get published?

This lack of middle ground leads to serious problems, as I’ve seen in my own area, the study of religion and international relations. This research program started with attempts to show that religion does matter. But we were never sure where to go from there. Should we keep reiterating that religion does, indeed, matter? Or should we focus on nuances in the way it affects states and societies? And at what point does this nuance translate into critiquing religion’s importance?

I’ve encountered this with my own work. My first book argued that Islamic contention affected Muslim states’ counterterrorism policies through interaction with their political institutions. Some pushed back, and said this actually showed the limits of religion’s importance. And as a frequent reviewer of article and book manuscripts on religion and IR, I’ve encountered many that present needed nuance but frame it as a devastating critique of religion’s importance. Religion scholars thus get defensive, instead of engaging with these useful studies.

That is, the lack of a middle ground between religion mattering and not-mattering has made it hard to move this research program forward. I’d suspect there are similar issues in other areas; for example, there are many areas of conventional security or IPE where leaders or activists try to introduce new ideas but struggle in their implementation. This doesn’t fit well into either prevailing rationalist approaches or constructivist alternatives, and so may be ignored.

There are a few approaches that do show promise, although they can’t provide this middle ground on their own:

  • Some neoclassical realist studies have discussed the ideas informing America’s approach to the world and how this goes wrong. But this is not a systematic element of neoclassical realism (to the extent that anything in that approach is systematic).
  • There is classical realism, in which thinkers like Niebuhr directly took on the importance (and limits) of grand ideals. But as Nexon and I noted in a volume on religion and classical realism, it is hard to use this sprawling tradition as a basis for contemporary studies.
  • Critical theory does study the negative and unintended elements of ideals and ideology, but it is (by design) not suited to positivist studies.
  • Goldstein and Keohane’s volume on ideas in foreign policy is useful, although it didn’t seem to inspire its own research program.
  • New work by Goddard, Macdonald and Nexon suggests a broader approach to the use of ideas as instruments of power, but it’s not clear yet how they would approach such “in-between” cases as I raise here

Existing approaches seem insufficient. Some are not yet developed enough. Others are paradigms that may not have room for this middle ground. It’s not clear, for example, that neoclassical realists would want such studies in their camp.

What we need is a new research program, with a broader conception of what we mean when we say “ideas matter:”

  • A leader reframes foreign policy based on liberal ideals: what worked, what fell apart?
  • A state draws on religious rhetoric to undermine their enemies: did this tool slip out of their control?
  • International activists press states to adopt policies in line with their values: did the state comply, only to twist the ideals to their own ends?

We should present these as ideas mattering, even if they don’t produce new alliances, norms, etc.

These studies would contribute to scholarship, but they’d make our research more policy relevant. Constructivists claim they don’t present a theory of foreign policy; i.e. it’s not super helpful to tell policymakers that they follow norms. But a series of studies on how states try and act on ideals, what works, and what goes horribly, would be incredibly valuable.

Are there good examples of such studies I’m overlooking? Are existing schools of thought able to handle this? I’d love to hear what you think.