Saturday, November 12, 2005

IR Theory and Terrorism

The field of International Relations takes a hit from Kevin Drum at Washington Monthly. He quotes Abu Aardvark's contention that IR scholars have given surprisingly little attention to terrorism since 9/11. I confess that I don't devote large chunks of time to terrorism in my introductory IR course, but much of what I cover relates to the conditions under which transnational terrorism thrives. Discussions of failed states, transnational criminal organizations, ethnic conflict and intrastate war, and (during a recent discussion of international ethics) the problem of "blowback" all terrorism or the conditions conducive to its use. Still, I think that Abu Aardvark's focus on six particularly theoretical journals may suggest an idealized notion of how theory develops. That, however, is a long and boring topic that I will avoid for now.

Take a look at Kevin Drum's post, the Abu Aardvark post that inspired it, and then (if you're really interested in this topic) you can read my comment, which I'll cut and paste below to save you from having to scroll through the hundreds of comments that Kevin Drum gets.

I'm jumping into this conversation very late, but with both cheers and jeers for IR (since I teach the subject). First, IR has indeed been very state-centered since it got its start as a separate, identifiable discipline in the aftermath of World War I. (Incidentally, ever since Jeremy Bentham's comments about international law, the term international has been used to mean interstate. Likewise, the phrase "national security" has almost invariably meant "state security.") During the Cold War, state-centered analyses dominated--arguably for good reason since the big threat was a war like most of the other wars since 1648, only with nuclear weapons thrown into the mix. But, for many of us in the discipline, our failure prior to 1990 to see much beyond states (and the system they operate within) is a source of embarrassment.

The Vietnam War (and a host of other intrastate conflicts) helped some in the discipline to understand that there were important things happening in the shadows beyond the spotlight shining on U.S.-Soviet relations. But only with the end of the Cold War were IR theorists compelled to begin looking seriously at non-state actors. Curiously, some of the traditionalists argued that the post-Cold War focus on non-state actors was more about trying to preserve some relevance (and some jobs) than about a sincere effort to rethink the discipline.

Today, within the sub-field of security studies (to take a particularly relevant case), there are scholars writing about disease and security (and not just since the discoveries of SARS and avian influenza), transnational criminal organizations and security ("drugs and thugs"), environmental problems and security, and, of course, religious fanaticism and security. (Shameless self-promotion, but all of this is surveyed in a book being published next month entitled Seeking Security in an Insecure World.) Scholars generally recognize today that a lot of the most important stuff happening in the world today--both for good and for ill--has very little to do with the foreign and defense ministries of the world's great powers. And that recognition existed well before 9/11.

Those who didn't recognize the rising importance of non-state actors were, in many cases, committed ideologically to traditional ways of viewing international politics. Consider Richard Perle's words in the immediate aftermath of the 9/11 attacks: "This could not have been done without help of one or more governments. . . . Someone taught these suicide bombers how to fly large airplanes. I don't think that can be done without the assistance of large governments. You don't walk in off the street and learn how to fly a Boeing 767." (WaPo, 9/12/01)

Having said all of this, it is fair to ask whether IR can retain any coherence as a discipline if it moves from the study of politics among nations (to use the title of Hans Morgenthau's seminal work) to politics among nations, terrorist organizations, drug traffickers, pirates (they're making a comeback in the Indian Ocean), NGOs, international organizations, multinational corporations, influential persons from the pope to Bono, and who knows what else. Some of what those of us in IR are criticized for not knowing probably belongs in comparative politics or sociology or public health or any of a dozen other disciplines. But most of us wish we knew that stuff anyway. And the best students of IR do seem to know a lot about everything.