International Relations

Progress in International Relations theory?

Pauline ROUILLON, (2016), The London School of Economics and Political Science, Msc in International Relations. 

“Theories of IR are like planes flying at different altitudes and in different directions” said Stanley Hoffmann. If this is true, what chance is there of making progress in international theory?


There is no unifying grand theory of international relations and there is little hope of ever constructing one” (Schweller 2004). The discipline of IR has been criticized for encompassing a number of incommensurable theories thereby prohibiting any direct comparison to determine which theory is more valid. But heterogeneity is a strength because no single approach could capture the complexity and the changing nature of world politics. Any assessment of progress in international relations theory implies defining a relevant approach for judging progress. Indeed, “progress is a contested term that takes different meanings in different ontologies” (Lake 2013). This essay defines progress as the accumulation of knowledge and discovery of new facts. Primarily, both inter-paradigm and intra-paradigm debates are a source of progress because competition sheds light on theories’ strengths and weaknesses (I). Secondarily, the lack of consensus regarding ontological, epistemological and methodological questions is a guarantee of progress (II). Thirdly, plurality in IR guarantees a fruitful meta-theoretical reflexion, which is a source of progress (III).

The discipline of IR progresses in both inter- and intra-paradigmatic fashion (Brenner 2006). A common narrative among IR scholars is that: “the paradigm wars perverted the discipline and turned inquiry into contests of a quasi-religious belief in the power of one or another “ism”” (Lake 2011). This essay argues on the contrary that the so-called Great debates have shed light on the strengths and weaknesses of IR paradigms and thus, contributed to progress. The critique of liberal internationalism, launched by Carr on the eve of WW2, led to the first Great Debate between idealists and realists. In his analysis of the inter-war crisis, Carr relied on realism as an “epistemic weapon” (Dunne 2000) to undermine utopianism, which he felt had exerted an unfortunate influence on the post-WW1 international order. Realism represented a “necessary corrective to the exuberance of utopianism” rather than a definitive theory meant to supersede it. Based on a realist assumption that theory should derive from an empirical approach to the world as it is, Carr criticised utopian aversion to facts and voluntarist way of making political theory a norm to which political practice ought to conform. Arguing that morality is purely instrumental, Carr advanced that the Benthamian “harmony of interests” that was supposed to underpin the post-WW1 liberal order, masked veiled manifestations of narrow national power interests. It was an ideology constructed by “haves” hegemonic states to maintain the status quo at the expense of “have-nots” revisionist states (Carr 1939). But far from remaining uncritical, Carr rejected realist pessimistic view on human condition. Carr’s realism expressed a critical consciousness, combining an anti-positivist epistemology, sensitivity to historical change with a belief in rational-emancipatory progress. The reflexive critique Carr developed on his ideal types of utopianism and realism allowed him to come up with an alternative conceptual framework for political though, which is based on elements of both utopia and reality.

Adjustment within paradigms also contributed to progress in the field as a whole. Intra-paradigm debates allow theory to be extended to new topics, additional hypotheses to be deduced and propositions to be confronted with evidence according to agreed-upon standards (Kuhn 1970). Progress has been made in the realist tradition from the early works of Morgenthau (1948), which was accused of being unscientific, to Waltz’s structural realism (1979), which offered a necessary corrective to a paradigm that reduced the study of international politics to agents that made it. Theory of International Politics marked the return of realism at the centre stage of both political and academic debates about IR (Wivel 2013). Moreover, Waltz’s neorealism opened new avenues for research, as shown by Mearsheimer’s offensive realism (2001) and Schweller’s neo-classical realism (1998), which added to realism’s explanatory power.

The proliferation of theories, based on different ontologies, epistemologies and methodologies, should be applauded rather than lamented as an obstacle to progress. This plurality ensures that IR scholars are “self-conscious about the different ways of practicing their craft and more aware of omissions and exclusions which may reflect personal or cultural biases”(Linklater 2013). Furthermore, this eclecticism improves our critical understanding of IR theory.

Firstly, IR scholars are engaged in a debate about what should be the object of IR enquiry. Theorizing implies a mechanism of selection, that lead scholars to narrow their scope of enquiry and discriminate objects, which they judge less important or regard as trivial. Waltz argues that theory must abstract from myriad forces at work in IP while recognizing that in reality “everything is connected with everything else”. In his discussion on the causes of wars, he argues that three levels of analysis have been examined in the literature: human nature, the structure of political systems and the nature of the international system (Waltz 1959). Moreover, feminists have argued for bringing women within the parameters of the discussion; the English school focuses on international society while constructivists underline the importance of social construction of identities and norms. The fact that IR scholars study a plurality of objects is not an obstacle to progress; it is its condition of existence. It allows IR theory to account for novel facts in world politics.

Secondly, IR scholars are engaged in methodological debates. Until the scientific turn of the 1960s, historical data had been used to support rather than demonstrate conjectures about general patterns of IR. In the 1960s, proponents of a scientific approach to IR attempted to build a methodology, drawn from the natural sciences, that would test specific hypotheses, develop general laws and predict human behaviour. Arguing for a historical approach, scholars like Bull claimed that international relations were not susceptible to scientific enquiry (1966). This debate led to a major division between positivists and post-positivists. But it is necessary to proceed with great caution when using these dichotomies, which imperfectly reflect methodological controversies in the field. For instance, Wendt subscribes to scientific realism, a branch of the philosophy of science that infers the existence of unobservable entities as the cause of certain observable effects, on the ground that it offers constructivism a via media between positivist epistemology and post-positivist ontology.

Thirdly, the debate about the purpose of theory is a source of meta-theoretical progress. Zalewski has defined three ideal-types that capture most ways of thinking about the nature of IR theory and its presumed relationship to the real world (Zalweski 1996). A first group of IR scholars have approached theory as a tool to explain a plethora of events, issues and relationships in international politics (Waltz, Mearsheimer, Doyle). Theory responds to a need to study the world as it is rather than as it ought to be, based on the belief that events are ontologically prior to theories about them. A second group of IR scholars use theory as critique of the world as it is and as a base for change (Cox, Linklater). Stressing that there is “no view from nowhere” (Nagel 1986), critical theorists condemn the notion of value-neutral theorizing, arguing that all knowledge is wedded to interests. A third group of IR scholars consider theory as everyday practice. Post-modernist scholars like Enloe argue that theorising cannot be confined to policy makers or to academics. “The personal is political”. Therefore, taking seriously the voices of the people at the margins allows understanding how the artifices of international politics are constructed (Enloe 1989).

 “The competition among scholars drives progress but it should be tempered with the recognition that different research traditions can and should coexist” (Walt 1999). The proliferation of a variety of ontological and epistemological approaches to IR ensures that issues of war and peace, which formed the classical core of the discipline, are conceptualized and analysed in new fruitful ways. As underlined by Lake, “there is no monopoly on knowledge. There is no guarantee that any one kind of knowledge generated and understood within any one epistemology or ontology is always and everywhere more useful than another” (Lake 2013). Two limits should however be raised regarding the relevance of the idea of progress in IR theory. Firstly, the idea of progress in IR theory is undermined by the fact that it hardly brought progress in international politics. In her article “All these theories yet the bodies keep piling up: theory, theorists, theorising”, Zalewski questions: “What are all these theories for in international politics if they do not help us to act upon the problems we are currently witnessing internationally?” Secondly, the idea of progress in IR theory is undermined by its euro-centrism.


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LAKE DA., (2011) Why ‘isms’ are evil: Theory, epistemology, and academic sects as impediments to understanding and progress. International Studies Quarterly 55(2): 465–480.

LINKLATER A (1992) The question of the next stage in International Relations theory: A critical theoretical point of view. Millennium 21(1): 77–98.

WALTZ KN., (1979) Theory of International Politics. Reading, MA: Addison-Wesley.

WENDT A., (1999) Social Theory of International Politics. New York: Cambridge University Press.

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ZALEWSKI M., (1996) “‘All these theories yet the bodies keep piling up’: theories, theorists, theorising”, International Theory. Ed. Steve Smith, Ken Booth, and Marysia Zalewski. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

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