In many ways, the Democratic National Convention in Philadelphia was really just a warm-up act for the main event — the American Political Science Association (APSA) annual meeting earlier this month. No, not really, but that was a fun sentence to write.
Noted neoconservative and former political science professor William Kristol also attended, but was apparently underwhelmed at the plethora of panels. A sample tweet:
Now, given that I saw Kristol spending his downtime before a panel checking his phone rather than, you know, listening to other political scientists, it’s possible that he had some motivated reasoning going on. Nonetheless, I’m beginning to wonder if, in international relations, he has something of a point. What was striking about my APSA experience this year was the number of friends, colleagues and acquaintances asking some variation of the same question: “Where are the big ideas in international relations?”
See, back in the 1980s and 1990s, international relations was roiled by “paradigm wars,” pitched theoretical battles between realists, institutionalists and constructivists over the best model to explain world politics. Beyond those grand paradigms, the end of the Cold War unleashed an additional wave of speculative theorizing about what the future would hold, ranging from Francis Fukuyama’s “End of History” thesis to Samuel Huntington’s “Clash of Civilizations” counterargument, to pitched debates over the meaning of the democratic peace or American hegemony. In contrast, international relations has experienced two similar inflection points in this century (9/11 and the 2008 financial crisis) along with the rise of China, but there has been no similar outpouring of theory to explain the meaning of these events.
Now it could be that international relations theory is simply part of a larger trend in which ideas don’t seem to matter as much as they used to — but I don’t buy that claim at all. One of the conclusions I’ve reached in my Ideas Industry project is that the demand for big ideas has, if anything, surged. Furthermore, this trend in international relations theory has been going on for quite some time. Some scholars are overjoyed at the prospect. Some are very sad about this development, nostalgic for the old days. But both sides would agree that there simply has not been much new theorizing in the 21st century.
This is a shame, for several reasons. First, it’s not like the old paradigms have done all that great a job explaining world politics in this century. Realism has remarkably little to say about terrorism or financial panics. Institutionalists are hard-pressed to discuss the lack of cooperation in regulating cyberspace. Constructivists are not of much use in discussing the global governance of pandemics. The world is pretty interesting right now, but we seem to lack the theoretical machinery to get a good grasp on it. And the notion that we don’t need good theory is absurd. All individuals use mental models to try to understand the state of the world. What matters is whether those models are implicit or explicit, and whether they are any good.
Now is normally the moment in these mini-essays when I offer some tentative solution or pathway for the future. In this case, I’m tapped out. Unless and until the international relations discipline rewards quality theory-building as much as quality hypothesis-testing, scholars have ceded this intellectual ground to others. Considering the current marketplace of foreign policy ideas, I’m not even remotely sure that this is a good thing.