The field of international relations (IR) like any other social science lays down its basis on theoretical structures. Throughout its journey, it has experienced great debates among several scholars, and sometimes they found a way, and sometimes they lost. In the idealism versus realism debate, the international norms at that time of the Cold War swiftly paved the way for ‘realism’ as the winner.
Traditional international relations theory derives its assumptions from philosophy, law, and history, Hedley Bull noted against the uprising of the behavioral revolution in social sciences.
In the advocacy of behaviouralism, IR scholars stressed that the process of theorizing should be based on the empiricist theory of knowledge and positivist philosophy of science. Bull defended the traditional approach by pointing out that if we confine ourselves to harsh standards of verifications and shreds of evidence, there would be little or no significance in the field of international relations. These two debates drew differences and lines on which scholars still theorize to develop a better understanding of the world.
The neo-neo debate has less importance among the scholars of international relations and some even refused to call it an inter-paradigm debate. A new methodological debate among positivists and post-positivists emerged where the latter posed a challenge to the former. It seems like positivism (also called rationalism in IR) faced yet another scrutiny after traditionalism, but this time at a bigger level. In short, post-positivism has rejected the basic assumptions about the state, individual, and society. The debate continues not in this discipline but in other social and literary fields.
End of IR Theory?
With the dawn of Internationalization in the post-WWII era, IR boomed with new ideas and perspectives few of them are nuclear proliferation, new deterrence theories, neo-school of thought, and post-structuralism. However, Teaching, Research and International Policy (TRIP) surveyed different IR scholars worldwide. It noted that “according to the people who teach those classes”, said that “Together realism and liberalism comprises more than 40% of introductory IR course content at US universities and colleges.”
The decline of the overall quality of research mechanisms in IR has been predicted by numerous scholars and they termed it the ‘end of IR theory’.
This is not because of the dominance of American academia—as the TRIP survey notes, most authors in top-ranked journals, 76% are from the US—but as John Mearsheimer notes, “Theory is the lodestone of IR” but unfortunately, “the amount of serious attention IR scholars in the United States pay to theory is declining”, he adds.
The post-Cold War era has transformed the intellectual paradigms of International Relations, Ole Weaver notes, “IR is and has been ‘an American social science’”. Raymon Arand calls the discipline of IR ‘the specialized activity of soldiers and diplomats.’ In his article, “An American Social Science: International Relations”, Stanley Hoffman writes, “The development of International Relations as a discipline in the United States results from the convergence of three factors: intellectual predispositions, political circumstances, and institutional opportunities.”
Decline in Theoretical led-IR:
There are multiple reasons for the decline of theory-led research in the field of IR. Every branch of social science undergoes drastic changes and huge transformations, IR historically has been there but as a discipline of academic study, it began in the early 20th century. Theoretical Approaches towards history, foreign policy, international politics, trade, economy, and defense have been revolutionized in the post-WWII era. Here I will try to explain two reasons that are putting an existential question to theory-led IR.
The first one that threatens the international relations theory is ‘methodological’. The theory is the basic ingredient to understanding the complexities of the world, specifically the international system. Research methods hold value in both qualitative and quantitative methods, but recently quantitative analysis in the field of IR is dominating in published articles. This domination poses a serious challenge to theoretical methods. “The field is moving away from developing or carefully employing theories and instead emphasizing what we call simplistic hypothesis testing,” Mearsheimer noted.
This doesn’t imply that quantitative methods for hypothesis testing are unimportant, but there is a race in hypothesis testing which brings no well-articulated conclusions to have an understanding of such a complex world. Even “theories are essentials,” says Mearsheimer to “identify the causal mechanisms that explain recurring behavior”. It is not about picking one and leaving the other. However, the privilege of ‘hypothesis testing’ over ‘theory’ would lead us nowhere.
Deemphasizing theory and entitling simple hypothesis testing is not the best way to gain new knowledge of the international relations domain.
The second problem that puts international relations under scrutiny, is the lack of consensus on basics and pluralism. For example, the word ‘theory’ has no proper agreed-upon definition. It is not possible either. In the words of social theorist Robert Merton, “The word theory threatens to become meaningless,” and more precisely, “use of the word often obscures rather than creates understanding.” The world has faced a common problem throughout history: the absence of ‘unity.’ There are multiple theories in IR that provide a possible understanding of the world, keeping in view their underlying assumptions.
However, theoretical paradigms have transformed with time into ‘sects,’ as David Lake puts it. He explained that we are dealing with academic sects where students have to adopt a particular sect and stick to it for life. Furthermore, this forces the researcher to sit in a box and continue to follow the codes and rituals of a particular approach like ‘theology.’
The presence of multiple ideas in the academic world of IR begs the simple question of whether to drive a theory from the real world or to the real world based on the theory. To make sense of the world, theoreticians have formulated different types of theories, resulting in ‘perilous relativism.’ Another dilemma IR has recently faced, with the rise of democratization and liberal-led world order, (in the words of Tim Dunne, Lene Hansen, and Colin Wight), is that academicians try to make choices of what is available in the market. It acts like a real-world marketplace, where firms control the shape and form of presentation and acceptance.
Tim Dunne, Lene Hansen, and Colin Wight present a solution to the existence of pluralism in IR. “We do not seek to align ourselves with ‘theoretical peace,’ neither do we want ‘war of all against all.’ They present an adequate midway to observe the ongoing debates and turning points of the discipline because “great debates are seen more clearly when the moment has passed, not in the midst of debate itself.”