The Future's Back: Nuclear Rivalry, Deterrence Theory, and Crisis Stability after the Cold War

By Frank P. Harvey | Go to book overview

Historical Limitations of IR Theory. The argument that scholars have failed to appreciate the importance of change and its impact on the universal applicability of social theories represents a third strand of the postmodern critique. In this case, the problem concerns the "conceit of scholars," the belief that their theories transcend history and that "what they know is as old as the world" ( Cox 1986, 212-14). For postmodernists, the time-specific nature of social theory, particularly IR theory, has rendered cumulation in the field impossible; everything we know as theory can be understood only with reference to a particular historical period. 21

However, a fundamental contradiction exists in the argument that the process of change is sufficient to render IR theory invalid and cumulation impossible. After all, the same process of change that presumably has rendered realism obsolete can, at some future point, create conditions that reestablish the paradigm's validity as a close approximation of reality and, by implication, reestablish its significance as a theoretical framework. The point here is that theories may not be universally relevant across time, but the universal applicability of a validated theory does remain constant. 22 Ironically, postmodernists are guilty of the same crime for which they condemn realists: their interpretation of change is far too restrictive. 23

Furthermore, although the international system may have undergone significant change recently, it is not clear how these transformations are damaging to theory. Postmodernists must explain the impact change has on particular theories and go beyond arguments that change, in and of itself, is enough to invalidate an entire theory- building program. The process, after all, is not boundless: some things change more than others, and the impact of relatively stable forces is rarely considered. The existence and proliferation of nuclear weapons, for instance, is a systemic condition that is likely to remain fundamentally unchanged for some time. Research on the behaviour of nuclear powers in the past, as well as ongoing investigation of the behaviour of nuclear states in the future, will continue to be important topics.


CONCLUSION

Scholars agree that progress in the social sciences cannot be measured by the same standards as those applied to the natural sciences. While one can easily list important advances in gene splicing, artificial intelligence, space flight, heart surgery, robotics, fibre optics, and so on, one would be hard pressed to cite similar examples in, say, sociology or international relations. On the other hand, social scientists have a much harder time acknowledging progress when it has occurred. As

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