Theory stuff

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?

Will IR theory ever get an Einstein (pg. 4) or a Hawking who can clarify for us a universal theory that has real-world applicability over time in varied circumstances?

If we’re making predictions i like the constructivist take on the Zombie Apocalypse!


3 comments on “Theory stuff

  1. roblaurs says:

    I’m also dubious about the predictive power attributed to theory in IR.

    As you say, a lot of the theorists we’ve discussed to date have analyzed events/cycles/phenomena retrospectively to identify patterns or historical trends which are then selectively interpreted and explained to fit their own particular theoretical framework. There is nothing inherently wrong with this (in fact, it’s great to have a wide array of perspectives to draw on) but I don’t think too many theorists can really claim to have a mortgage on prescience.

    Norman Angell, writing in a time of relative peace, famously described war as ‘futile’ in his 1909 work ‘The Great Illusion’. Subsequent events would spectacularly undermine this claim but there was some validity in his argument that economic interdependence reduces the likelihood of war. The only problem for Angell was timing – the unprofitability of war (due to commercial interconnectedness) seems highly relevant in today’s hyper-globalised world.

    You’re right that IR theorists seem to love gazing into the crystal ball. John Mearsheimer, the leading proponent of offensive realism, is adamant that China’s rise will be confrontational and he’s happy to discount any inconvenient truths (eg. China’s active integration into the world economy, no recent history of aggression etc) in making his point. In China’s case, I’m not sure you can assume it will behave like any ‘great power’ has done in the past (Mearsheimer thinks that China will mimic the US in terms of its pursuit of regional hegemony). China may be so unique that it develops it’s own mode of acting within the international system without necessarily resorting to American-style power projection.

    There will be always be ‘black swan’ events that defy normal expectation and prediction but the peaceful end to the Cold War and the Global Financial Crisis seem to be two recent(-ish) events that could have been anticipated by IR theorists but weren’t (although some economists like Nouriel Roubini did foresee the GFC).

    IR theories shouldn’t have to offer up scientific predictions to be effective and I wonder whether IR theory is too constrained by the ‘natural science’ approach of positivism at times.

    Maybe, if we strip it back, IR theory is best viewed as lending insight and as a set of analytical tools which help us understand the workings of international politics as they unfold. After all, predicting the future is a mug’s game.

  2. henning says:

    It makes you think how some scholars view the study of international affairs. According to Stephen Walt, it is best understood as a continuing competition between the major theoretical traditions. I interpret this as an ivory tower pillow fight about who’s right and who’s not, with empirical data being streamlined to fit anybody’s purpose, see Goldstein. It appears in the end it comes down to what we want to believe. If the understanding of international relation is purely subjective and contextual, I also couldn’t put my faith into the power of predictability of any IR theory.

    But maybe that’s the ‘burden’ of IRT, that it is expected to provide some guidance on what might or might not happen. This is just guesswork, but I believe most other theories in the social sciences seek to explain past and present, and put far less emphasis on anticipating the future.

    The discussion on IRT gains another interesting dimension when we look at it from outside the context of Western academia. Acharya suggests that “what passes for theory in Asia is mostly theory-testing, scholars looking at Western thinking, and applying to the local context, rather than injecting indigenous ideas and insights from local practices to the main body of IR theory.”

    Acharya further wonders whether this dominance of Western IRT is purely intellectual, or whether it transcends scholarship into the normative framework of the international system, in which case the purpose of IRT would be to perpetuate Western dominance in the international system – another way of predicting the future, I guess…

    So when scholars in the West try to explain present, past and future of the ‘Third World’, for example, how do those subjects under study respond? I could see a point in theory if it helps us determine different understandings of current affairs, for which we probably would need some set of agreed-upon approaches to begin with – “we see things not as they are, but as we are” (Anais Nin).

    As we seem to be fairly pessimistic in regards to the predictive power of theory, how about our initial brainstorm on what a good theory should entail? Should the (or a) purpose of IR theory be to promote better futures?

    Acharya (2007) – International Relations Theory and Western Dominance (
    Moonen (2009) – Should the (or a) purpose of IR theory be to promote better futures? (
    Walt (1998) – International relations: One world, many theories

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