Neo-Neo-Realism: A Note on Contemporary International Relations Theory and Foreign Policy Today

By Glickman, Harvey | Forum on Public Policy: A Journal of the Oxford Round Table, Summer 2010 | Go to article overview

Neo-Neo-Realism: A Note on Contemporary International Relations Theory and Foreign Policy Today


Glickman, Harvey, Forum on Public Policy: A Journal of the Oxford Round Table


Introduction: Beyond Realism?

In the past 30 years scholars of international relations have moved beyond the classic dichotomy of realism and idealism (liberalism), in an attempt to enlarge the theory of international relations. Assiduous analysts have extended these classic approaches into, e.g., structural realism (structuralism), hegemony stability theory, institutionalism, institutional liberalism, institutional society, constructivism, Marxism ... and a jumble of post-modern isms (Reus-Smit & Snidal, eds., 2008; Carlsnaes, Risse & Simmons, eds., 2003, passim).

Reviving the theoretical exclusivity of state-to-state relations seems inadequate in the post-Cold War, inter-state terrorism environment of the 21st Century. An alternative has emerged that emphasizes trans-state institutions, i.e., reflections of a growing international "community" which cut across the state/state axis of analysis. It focuses on concepts like class, cultural communities, shared ideologies, and an emerging world "society" (Jackson and Sorenson, 2003). More thoroughly revisionist is the view that the structures of human association are determined primarily by shared ideas rather than by material forces, ... "what individuals and groups most want is not security or power or wealth, but recognition of, and respect for, their rights" (Wendt, "Social Constructivism," Theory Talks, #3, n.d.].

The "clash of civilizations" critique of international politics destined to emerge as a new liberal new world order seemed validated by the Islamist-jihadist attacks emanating from an international but non-state entity (Huntington, 1996). Attempts to "re-master" the older models of descriptive theory have ranged from the applicability of a renewed American hegemony to multi-polarity. An analytical multi-dimensionality clearly transcends the received state interests or "statist" dominated paradigm (Nye,"Teaching America,"Theory Talks, n.d; Nye, Soft Power, 2004, 30-32.). Finally, there is the utility question: the relevance of international theory and theorizing to what used to be the whole point of the exercise--the making of policy in foreign affairs.

This dialogue with Realism--questioning the behavioral centrality of state power in a supposed anarchic world--has combined through two great post-war attempts in the 20t Century at organizing international relations on the basis of a set of agreed principles of governance. In the political science of international relations, Liberalism challenged Realism in the 1920s. "Institutionalism" modified liberalism in the 1970s (Stein in Reus-Smit & Snidal, 2008, 201-221). A more fundamental challenge to the primacy of states, indeed to conventional political thinking, however, has been "Constructivism." The major thrust of the debate today is the question of whether there is an international society which sets limits to the behavior of states and sets the agendas of non-state international institutions (Walker, 1992; Hurd in Reus-Smit & Snidal, 2008, 298-316).

The international society school (called the English School by international relations theorists) claims that world politics is not anarchy, that the world works today in accordance with norms and rules, reflecting international agreements and international institutions, paradigmatically similar to the imperially competitive but authoritatively Christian Europe of the 17th to the 19th Century. In this view, the important as well as mundane trans-national and interstate relations built in the second half of the 20th Century have created the equivalent of a world civilization, with not only contracts and understandings but a global ethic (Buzan, 2004; Dunne in Reus-Smit & Snidal, 267-285; Adler in Carlsnaes, Risser and Simmons, 95-118). The major evidence is that today the world operates according to understandings that have reversed or severely modified previous norms. Backed by power and international authority, there is a global consensus in realms such as anti-slavery, anti-racism, and anti-colonialism.

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