I thought this article had a good introduction that talks about theory. See pg. 644 for the start of the theory talk – International relations theory and rising powers: The theoretical landscape
… an hour and a half, and a few cookie breaks, later…
The more i read the less convinced i am that any theory has predictive power. Retrospectively we can label something that fits a theoretical framework, but i’m having trouble with the notion that theory does much of anything for us predicatively.
The above article lays out a few scenarios and tries to explain them using a Power Transition (realist) model and one using an Institutionalist (liberalist) model. The first is the question of the South China Sea, China’s claims on the off-shore territory and likely outcomes stemming from those claims and China’s actions concerning the area since the 1990s.
According to the author China took a staunchly realist stance immediately after the Cold War ended and made strong claims to the South China Sea thus setting up a situation where regionally states were set is direct opposition to China. International backlash precipitated a softening Chinese approach since the mid to late 1990s to a more liberal and internationally cooperative Chinese approach to their South China Sea claims.
These two phases of Chinese activity in the region are pretty easy to identify using the theoretical constructs the author chose, which is fine – i have no trouble buying into his description. It’s when he makes the following two statements that my faith in the applicability of theory as a crystal ball falls apart.
“[Power Transition theory] suggests that a more powerful China would abandon the pretense of cooperation unless international institutions can be shaped to serve national interests. Since China has not wavered in its assertion of sovereignty over most of the contested areas even as it embraces multilateralism, it might well forsake cooperation once the costs of doing so are no longer seen as prohibitive.”
“Institutionalist theory suggest that the accumulating benefits Beijing derives from sustained cooperation in the South China Sea may gradually erode the temptation to abandon multilateral cooperation.”
Maybe it’s just my shortcomings as an IR theorist, but aside from playing the devils advocate what have we really done when we say it could go this way or that. Theory seems to do an adequate job in describing the past (only adequate because time and again we see patch-work theories added in to make room for real world occurances, i.e. the “semi-periphery”) and a piss-poor job predicting the future.
Does that mean IR theory is really just IR history?
If we’re making predictions i like the constructivist take on the Zombie Apocalypse!