Pay More Attention to Rousseau

One of the defining features of the discipline of International Relations, I think, is the inevitability of the lack of consensus. And initially, I found that somewhat disheartening. To be clear, I still do… but I’ve found ways to repress it.

It’s pretty clear to me that the reason for this lies in the fundamental disagreement about epistemology that has become a large focus in the so-called “fourth debate.” Generally, in areas of science, consistent epistemology is not a problem. Repeated observations of the same phenomena lead to empirical data that then forms the basis of inductive theories. Here, ‘theory’ is defined as something along the lines of “a system of propositions that serve to explain independent underlying principles.” In IR, ‘theorists’ do the same thing, but their version is much more in fitting with the definition “an idea used to account for a situation, or justify a course of action.” Technically, this difference is nothing more than semantics, but any good post-structuralist would tell you that it is an important one to make. Human behaviour can be reduced and quantified, and we can analyze the actions of states in retrospect ‘till the cows come home. But each approach of IR states that their conceptions of actor ontology and epistemological systems are superior, and none have ever produced any “nail in the coffin” evidence to prove themselves correct.

Personally, I think that Constructivism offers the most compelling account of International Relations on the whole. I think that rational actor models are demonstrably narrow-minded and insufficient, and the premise that (state) actors act only in utility-maximizing, self-serving capacities is unreasonably pessimistic. And maybe that’s entirely due to my perspective, in fact it’s very probable. But through all of the international crises that we see in South Asia, the Middle East, Central Africa… what I still see is that there are humanitarian groups on the ground whenever possible, new aid missions are underway every day, and International Organizations are built exclusively for the purpose of helping those who need it. International Relations is not a zero-sum game because life is not a zero-sum game.

We’re all familiar with Hobbes… Waltz and Morgenthau can quote him all day long (and they do) in support of their realist approaches. But I could just as easily, with just as much authority, quote Rousseau in saying that our only instinct equal to our own self-preservation is our aversion to seeing another man in pain. Furthermore, Constructivism (unlike all other rationalist approaches) includes room for normative judgements via what is called the “logic of appropriateness” as opposed to the traditional “logic of consequences.” Humanity is prescriptive. Humanity is normative. I don’t see why our IR shouldn’t reflect that. It isn’t called International Relations for nothing.

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