“Silences and Exclusions”: How we Waste our Time with Little Things

by Benjamin Studebaker

If there’s one thing that international relations theorists love to do, it’s criticise each other’s theories. Unfortunately, in the course of that noble goal, the distinction between “important” and “unimportant” criticisms is often lost, and sometimes even deliberately disregarded. It is forgotten that our theories are models, that they cannot possibly be all-inclusive without their logical lessons being lost in the chaos, without losing their subject specificity. Consider this example–many theorists have made a name for themselves criticising a dominant theory in international relations, the neorealism of Kenneth Waltz.  Today I’d like to discuss Waltz’ theory and some of its criticisms, and question how helpful or effective those criticisms really are.

So, if we were to make a logical reconstruction of Waltz’s neorealist argument (as laid out in Man, the State, and War) it might look something like this:

  1. States exist in a state of international anarchy; there is no world government to keep them all in awe, so there is no restraining force on states to force them to be nice, friendly, or otherwise cooperative.
  2. As a direct consequence of international anarchy, states cannot rely on one another to remain peaceful and must therefore arm themselves to protect themselves against possible aggression–if states do not arm themselves and just one state chooses to pursue an aggressive path, all states that fail to arm themselves lose.
  3. This causes relative gains to be important to states–it is important to stay ahead of other states in order to preserve one’s standing in the balance of power and avoid conquest or subjugation.
  4. This is the prime concern for states in the international sphere–all other concerns are secondary. States have the most power, and are consequently the most important.

Now, the criticisms of Waltz and neorealism focus on a wide variety of subjects. Here are a few of them:

  • Neorealism does not pay attention to non-state actors (corporations, terrorist organisations, and so on)
  • Neorealism does not pay attention to non-security issues (economics, gender, religion, poverty)
  • Neorealism assumes that we view international anarchy a certain way, why not view it a different way (constructivism)?

Now, none of these criticisms are strictly speaking inaccurate. Neorealism just does not bother with non-states. It has nothing to say about economics or feminism or development beyond linking back what states do to the fundamental competition for relative gains. It certainly does not bother with imagining different ways to interpret international anarchy. What critical theorists often seem to falsely imagine, however, is that neorealists do not realise that these other things exist. Neorealists know, they just don’t care.

Neorealism is meant to be a theory of how international relations are conducted. It tries to explain the fundamental, foundational principle. Relative to the central fact that there is no central world government over states as there are many individual states governing nations of people, all these other observations are relatively insignificant to international relations. Some of them are very relevant to macroeconomics. Some of them are very relevant to distributive justice. Some of them are very relevant to gender studies, or to sociology, but let’s face it–no corporation or terrorist organisation is going to threaten a state’s existence. Corporations have lots of economic impact, but if states wanted to nationalise the lot of them tomorrow, they would have no trouble. Should states really put gender issues ahead of or on par with their survival and safety? Probably not. Is Iran going to get itself obliterated with nuclear weapons just because it’s a theocracy? Not likely. And even if we could just wish away how we ourselves viewed anarchy, there will never be any guarantee that everyone else will do the same. When Britain and France tried to pretend that the League of Nations changed the fundamental laws of the game after World War I, they were in for a rude awakening.

The criticisms are valid, but in the context of international relations they are not especially useful. They do not lead to a more complete, comprehensive theory of international relations that better explains the way that the world is ruled. In their own fields and contexts, these criticisms are very useful. In specific subsets of international relations, where individual states are trying to determine policy with respect to minor issues (minor here meaning “less major than world war”), many of these criticisms may certainly have a place. States should consider economic theory when choosing economic policy, they should think about feminism when making policy that has impacts on gender, where shared interests or alliances allow, they should work together to solve problems like climate change or religious or ethnic violence. What they must not do is allow these side issues to make them forget the state of anarchy and the fundamental problem posed by it, the need to watch their backs and be on the lookout for danger. Neorealism does not answer the questions of economics or philosophy or sociology. It isn’t trying to. It is trying to find the foundational, key principle in international relations, and explain as much as it can from there. When people complain about neorealism not addressing economics, it is equivalent to complaining that Keynesianism does not provide an explanation of how to run a business. Sure, microeconomics is important too, but it’s not the subject of Keynesianism–Keynesianism is about macroeconomics.

What we have are people who are not particularly interested in the question of how states should go about securing their survival and ensuring their success is sustainable studying a subject that is about those very things. Their response is to try to widen the discipline to include whatever their pet ideas are at the expense of the coherence of the body of knowledge as a subject. We’ve talked quite a bit about neorealism, but this happens all over the place across all kinds of subjects and theories. There are people out there who read Marxism and just don’t care about exploitation or the other issues that Marxism raises, and their response is to say “Marxism is ignoring feminism/economic growth/insert your pet idea here”. Marxism is not ignoring those issues, Marxist is not about those issues. Marxism is (mostly) about whether or not the economic system we live and work with is just. That is all Marxism cares about. If you do not wish to discuss the justice of the economic system, you do not wish to discuss Marxism, and that is perfectly fine–but then please go study the subject you are interested in, instead of trying to widen the existing subject to include what you like.

Too often, people in politics try to make other issues about what they care about. People who like economics want to make everything else into economics, people who like philosophy want to make everything else into philosophy, people who like gender studies want to make everything else into gender studies, and so on down the line. It is not clever, it does not correct the “silences and exclusions”, it is not edgy, it is not rebellious, it is not “cool”, it is simply a waste of time. Are all the social sciences interlinked and related on some level? Sure. Does this mean that only what you find interesting matters, that you’re free to just mingle everything together? Not in the slightest. Theories should be criticised on their own grounds. If you disagree with Marxism’s concept of what a just economic system is, argue for an alternative conception of the just economic system. Do not argue that Marxism should not be about what it’s about. If you disagree with neorealism’s concept of what the key motivating factor behind what happens in international relations is, argue for an alternative conception. Do not argue that neorealism should not be about what it’s about. To paraphrase Rumsfeld, you discuss the subject you have, not the subject you might like to have or wish to have at a later time.