Inside the Cave: The Banality of I.R. Studies

By Kurth, James | The National Interest, Fall 1998 | Go to article overview

Inside the Cave: The Banality of I.R. Studies


Kurth, James, The National Interest


The twentieth century has certainly been among the most - if not the most - grand and dramatic centuries in the history of international relations. In the military sphere, there was the First World War, the Second World War, and the Cold War (really a third world war). In the economic sphere, there was the Great Depression of the 1930s, the long boom of the 1950s-60s, and the oil shocks and world inflation of the 1970s. History doesn't get any more grand and dramatic than this. And at the end of the story comes the triumphal conclusion: the United States as the sole superpower, as the hegemon of the global economy, and as the first universal nation - bestriding the world more grandly than any empire since that of Rome.

In the same century, the universities of the United States have become the greatest and richest academic institutions in the history of intellectual life. Part of this is the result of the numerous services that the universities performed for the U.S. government during the Cold War. Part of it is the result of great national wealth. And part of it is due to the numerous scholars that have flocked to the universal nation - the nation made up of peoples from everywhere and representing every culture - from all over the world.

Surely then, we might reasonably think, the theories that American academics have produced about America's international role, and about international relations generally, would be commensurably rich and grand. But of course, we know that this is not the case. Most readers of The National Interest will have only a vague idea of what is being written by leading academics about international affairs, and this with good reason. In the sole superpower, the higher learning about international relations does not loom large on the intellectual landscape. Its practitioners are not only rightly ignored by practical foreign policy officials; they are usually held in disdain by their fellow academics as well.

This essay will offer a map of the landscape of international relations thinking in the United States. In general, it is a view of a great American desert. It will point to a few refreshing and enlivening oases, however, and it will suggest how these oases might grow to reclaim the desert and make it bloom.

The Two Great Traditions

There have been two great traditions in the interpretation of international relations. One tradition emphasizes such ideas as the autonomous actions of sovereign states, the anarchy of international relations, the importance of national power, and the pursuit of national interests. For the past half century this perspective has been known as realism. The other tradition emphasizes such ideas as the necessity for states to engage in international cooperation, the harmony of interests, the importance of international economic exchanges, and the erosion of the nation-state. For the past quarter century, this perspective has been known as liberalism. Each perspective has its strengths (otherwise it could not have continued to exist decade after decade). Each has its weaknesses (and, taken seriously, these could have dire consequences for America's role in international affairs).

There is also a third perspective that we should consider. It is not yet really a great tradition in the interpretation of international relations, but rather a major tradition in the study of comparative politics. In the future, however, it may prove to be the most useful, even if the most demanding, perspective from which Americans can view their role in the world. It emphasizes the distinctive cultural characteristics of different societies, as they are expressed by different kinds of states in the international arena. Many of these cultural characteristics derive from the great religions. A few of these societies are nation-states (e.g., Britain, France, Germany, and Japan). Others are multicultural states (e.g., the United States, Canada, and Russia). …

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