Theory-Practice Nexus in Contemporary International Affairs

Although many scholars and more than a few policymakers believe that realism remains the most dominant framework for understanding international relations, it alone can’t offer a universal answer to explain every aspect of the contemporary international affairs. From the realist perspective, the contemporary great power- the US- has shown its interest in staying as a hegemonic power by imposing its preference wherever possible even at the risk of galling its long-standing allies. As Walt noted, this was evident with a series of its actions including a “one-sided arms control agreements on Russia”; influencing the problematic peace effort in Bosnia; expanding NATO’s alliance into Russia’s backyard; and its growing concern about China’s ascension. He also highlight that although the US called repeatedly for greater reliance on multilateralism it “has treated agencies such as the United Nations and the World Trade Organization with disdain whenever their actions did not conform to its interests.”(1)

In contrast, liberalists, counted on USA’s effort in reinforcing liberal democracy all over the world and its vanguard role in providing security and stability in most parts of the world. Liberalists mainly counted on the role of international institutions in eschewing state’s national interest. This was evident that despite its hegemonic power, US was failed to use its leverage in mobilizing NATO to Iraq war.

On other hand, for Rodger A. Payne the evolving understanding of cooperative security, as critical theorists desired, has interesting and valuable emancipatory potential. He noted, “many prominent policy advocates participating in the discourse imagine a global order that promotes peace, security, empathy and opportunity through genuinely collaborative and consensual practices by states, NGOs and international institutions.” (2) This can be linked with the ongoing Agendas’ of different NGOs and the UN’s SDGs, that takes into account our era’s security threats which goes beyond military security, to include problems of poverty, environmental calamity, global inequality and hunger. In similar vein, Constructivists envision a global change, reconstitution of anarchy, inspired by agents’ discourses and ideas. For instance, the formation of European Union and the gradual shift to the European identity is a case in point for constructivists’ explanation of how identities and interests can be changed over time, which the realists can’t find an answer to.

In general, beyond their attempt to offer explanations, international relations theories per se have significantly affected contemporary international affairs in general and practitioners of foreign policy in particular. It is a false assumption that theories are academically based and has little to do with real politics. For instance, the Clinton administration’s “engagement policy” was highly influenced by the liberal “democracy peace theory” that argues democracies will not fight. In contrast, Bush’s administration seems more of defensive realist by the fact that it was selective of the type of arms it sells to Taiwan and its fear of chemical weapon in Arab world like Iraq and Libya. In addition, international organizations or transnational corporations, which are “norm entrepreneurs” according to constructivists, through their lobbying and persuasion has played significant role in shaping state’s policy in issues like the use of land mine in war, norms of warfare, etc.

(1) Walt, S. M. (1998). International Relations: One World, Many Theories. Foreign Policy, 110, 29–46.

(2) Payne, R. A. (2012). Cooperative Security: Grand Strategy Meets Critical Theory? Millennium, 40(3), 605–624.

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Henok Teka

Henok Teka

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Interested in FDI, foreign policy, and human rights issues. #Africa. #EmergingEconomies.