From Realism to Surrealism

19 December 2019
From Realism to Surrealism - Featured image

This article from the Summer 2019 edition of the IPA Review is by David Martin Jones.

Before this millennium began, the study of international relations (IR) represented a minor field in the politics discipline in Australia. Nevertheless, Australia produced significant scholars and scholar diplomats who helped define the new field after 1919 and more particularly after 1945. Hedley Bull and Robert O’Neal achieved international reputations. They and Peter Boyce, J.D.B. Miller, Tom Millar, Owen Harries, Harry Gelber and Coral Bell evolved a distinctively realist approach to Australian foreign policy, the region and the world. Even those who found inspiration in Whitlam’s foreign policy ‘watershed’ after 1972 and Keating’s subsequent ‘engagement’ with Asia in the 1980s still worked within a framework that understood the paramount significance of the national interest, however construed, in an uncertain world.

Returning to the Australian campus in the second decade of the new millennium, these scholars would be struck by the shift from realism to surrealism and the dominance of international relations theory in a discipline that once emphasised diplomatic history, war, and treaties. They would also be surprised at the way in which IR and its younger and radically pacifist cousin, peace studies, now dominate in terms of personnel and student numbers: 75 per cent of the University of Queensland (UQ) School of Political Science and International Studies 2016 undergraduate intake enrolled in IR. The figures are similar across Australia and the UK. What accounts for its recent appeal?

IR is now concerned not with how state and non-state actors operate in the world as it is, but with how it ought to be. Embedding utopianism, idealism, justice and post-colonial guilt tripping evidently appeals to the student of the snowflake generation rather more than a historically nuanced appreciation of modern statecraft, or the use of state force and fraud in international politics to achieve interests and ends.

A brief examination of undergraduate course offerings at some of Australia’s highest ranked institutions tells the tale of where the study of IR locates its priorities. At Melbourne, the undergraduate subject of International Politics introduces students to topics including terrorism, nuclear proliferation, human rights, humanitarian intervention, and “trade liberalisation and its critics; global inequality; climate change; and the refugee crisis”. The purpose it seems of choosing these otherwise random subjects, also according to the 2019 Handbook, is “to demonstrate the relevance of competing theories of international politics, including realism, liberalism and critical theories (such as Marxism and feminism)”.

There is something rotten in the study of IR on the Australian campus.

Meanwhile at the University of Adelaide, environmental citizenship features strongly, appealing to students “concerned with issues of environmental sustainability, social justice and citizenship in the 21st century”. When not contemplating the environment, students might engage with “global governance and justice” and “global citizenship”. Sydney University introduces its fresh persons to “the big issues”. These include, for no evident reason, terrorism, war in Syria, climate change, nuclear proliferation, and the global refugee and global financial crises.

Meanwhile ANU—the nation’s highest ranked university—also focuses on theory and the different ways “theorists have attempted to … understand different aspects of international relations”. The “possibilities for global cooperation around major issues such as transnational conflict, international political economy, global environmental management, and human and social rights” also occupy the undergraduate curriculum.

Even a cursory examination of UQ’s leading Australian School of Politics and International Studies postgraduate seminar series (2017-18) would only perhaps add an additional layer of obscurity upon what passes for ‘cutting edge’, and Australian and European state-funded research in the contemporary study of IR. Thus, UQ Visiting Fellow Meera Sabaratnam asks, “Is International Relations theory white?” Meanwhile, Anthea Roberts (ANU) enquires, “Is international law international?”

The questions, of course, are purely rhetorical. As Dr Sabaratnam explains, “white subject positions permeate the core of influential contemporary International Relations theories”. Indeed, whiteness as “a set of historically specific hierarchies of entitlement … produce (sic) particular kinds of subject positions in the world”.

In a similar vein, Roberts finds “Western actors, materials, and approaches in general, and Anglo-American ones in particular” determine the “international”. These patterns, however, are “set for disruption” as the world moves “past an era of Western dominance”.

Meanwhile, Andrew Phillips (UQ) discovers the neglected “Asian Roots of the Modern World”. In the process, Phillips resists the distorting Eurocentric view that claims modernity might have had something to do with the industrial revolution in England, the European Enlightenment and the democratic revolutions in the United States and France.

In a similarly optically challenging endeavour, Professor Roland Bleiker (UQ) “looks Inside the Korean DMZ” in order to rethink “Security Through Visual Autoethnography”. Somewhat self-indulgently, Bleiker uses his holiday snaps to engage in something called “the politics of visuality”. Via the visuality paradigm, Bleiker identifies two otherwise neglected obstacles to the resolution of the Korean conflict: first, “a form of militarised masculinity that transcends ideological and political boundaries”, and second, “the inability to understand the conflict in neutral ways and the ensuing implications for how North Korea is seen and approached politically”. The leading luminaries holding various chairs across the nation’s research focused—and large grant-getting—schools helps in part explains why this ideology has achieved such influence. The ANU’s Coral Bell School of Asia Pacific Affairs’ new director is, for example, Professor Toni Erskine. She is an IR theorist specialising in “the ethics of war”, co-editor of the latest (2016) edition of International Relations Theory Today, and coeditor of the recent, but highly academically ranked International Theory: A Journal of International Politics, Law, and Philosophy. Yet for a director of a prestigious school, she is author of surprisingly few books. Curiously for a school devoted to Australia’s role in the Asia Pacific, there is nothing to indicate she has ever worked or studied in Asia.

World theorists dominate university appointment committees.

This, lacuna, however, does not matter for theorists and ethicists of the international possessing the correct cosmopolitan and critical ideological tools. In this context, Sydney University benefits from the expertise of another IR theorist, Professor Colin Wight; editor-in-chief of another recent, academically rated, but little-read journal The European Journal of International Relations. Wight’s publications indicate a preoccupation with Rethinking Terrorism, Dogmatic AntiDogmatism and the evidently “fragmented culture of international relations theory”. He no doubt finds interaction meaningful with the University of Sydney’s Michael Hintze Chair of International Security Studies, James Der Derian, who applies the nihilistic relativism of French deconstruction of a Foucauldian and Derridean provenance to IR and offers an anti-diplomatic reading of the ‘genealogy’ of Western diplomacy. His pathbreaking International/Intertextual Relations: Postmodern Readings of World Politics, of which he was co-editor, set the deconstructive tone for the 1990s. Meanwhile, UQ’s new Pro-Vice-Chancellor, Tim Dunne, rose rapidly from his appointment at the university’s UN-approved Asia Pacific Centre for the Responsibility to Protect, to the Dean of Humanities and Social Sciences, and thence to the commanding heights of the University bureaucracy. Dunne’s UQ biography says he is “internationally recognised for his work on human rights protection and foreign policy making in a changing world order”.

The world theorists dominate the university appointment committees managing the leading IR departments across Australia, and these committees select only candidates whose work reflects their idealist and progressive world view. Interestingly, their commitment to global norms of social justice does not prevent what amounts to an academic cult controlling and corrupting academic processes of appointment and research grants in order to advance and impose a uniform orthodoxy. Fixing appointments, manipulating the distribution of large state grants, establishing new ‘critical theory’ journals that are then ranked highly, but arbitrarily, for promotion and appointment purposes, stacking editorial boards with those who adhere to the correct agenda, and overseeing university or academically ranked book series such as the Cambridge Studies in International Relations and Polity are just a few of the techniques they deploy to identify and promote themselves and their epigones as the planet’s leading IR scholars.

There is then something rotten in the study of IR on the Australian campus. At its core is an understanding that the wealthiest liberal democratic states on the planet at the end of the Cold War were somehow responsible for all the world’s problems. Consequently the campus left empowered by its access to universal norms of global justice had the duty both to expose the colonial guilt of the West and establish the campus as the forcing house for a new transnationalism devoted to human rights, emancipation, the environment, and the suffering of the globally oppressed. How did this remarkable process of ideological capture inimical to traditional values of scholarship and an assault on the Western practice of liberal democratic government occur?

Academic entrepreneurs saw the study of IR as wide open for radical and progressive critique.

The Australian campus functions as part of a transnational network devoted to an emancipatory agenda of idealist and radical democratic devising. This global ethicism initially captured the study of IR in the UK before transferring a number of its apparatchiks to the command and control of the Australian university sector, which proved eminently susceptible to its charms. The leading thinkers in this approach to global justice that came to dominate political thinking at the end of the Cold War were the Frankfurt school founder of critical discourse theory Jürgen Habermas and the author of the abstract, but surprisingly influential, A Theory of Justice (1971), John Rawls. They had, by the 1990s, already anticipated that their conceptions of ethical transformation, and justice as fairness, transcended the increasingly redundant nation-state. In this endeavour, they updated for contemporary liberal consumption what the idealist Enlightenment thinker Immanuel Kant’s philosophical sketch of a universal perpetual peace had anticipated in 1794.

The borderless world bequeathed by the end of the Cold War offered the opportunity for a new class of radical and progressive thinkers to apply normative, utopian, reflective and critical ‘theories’ to the conduct of what was now termed ‘world politics’. By the early 1990s, developments in political theory that reflected a growing commitment to the return of grand theory founded upon abstract principles of justice that took rights seriously had swept North American and Anglospheric campuses. It deployed an ahistorical and abstract individualism in the service of a legalist or jurisprudential paradigm of political philosophy. It assumed the ideal constitution framed according to norms of justice as fairness would at least in principle be the same everywhere.

This hope, of course, informed Francis Fukuyama’s influential post-Cold War treatise The End of History and the Last Man (1992). Fukuyama assumed ideology ended with the collapse of the Soviet Union and liberal democracy represented the only sustainable political and economic model for a developing or developed state.

Although the limited, liberal, market state created the richest societies on earth, as globalisation evolved radical democrats, social progressives and normative philosophers questioned the burgeoning inequalities it created. Remarkably, despite the success of the market state, the need to modernise democracy to meet the demands of globalisation, as Tony Blair termed it, required a progressively more just, regionally and globally inclusive third way.

In its most philosophically coherent post-Cold War formulation, John Rawls maintained, in The Law of Peoples (1999), that any hope we have of reaching this benign historical terminus—or what Rawls considers a “realistic utopia”—rests “on there being reasonable liberal and constitutional (and decent) regimes sufficiently established and effective to yield a viable Society of Peoples”. By such a society, Rawls understood, “those peoples who follow the ideals and principles of the Law of Peoples in their mutual relations”.

As Rawls explained it, recalibrating the international order means “we must formulate the powers of sovereignty in light of a reasonable Law of Peoples and deny to states the traditional rights to … unrestricted autonomy”.

This perspective accorded with a dramatic shift in how international law was understood. Rawls wrote:

Since World War II international law has become stricter. It tends to limit a state’s right to wage war to instances of self defence … and it also tends to restrict a state’s right to internal sovereignty.

From the evolving progressive perspective, the apparently successful democratic states of North America and western Europe suffered from a debilitating moral and political deficit, namely their preoccupation with power and national interest, inimicable to global inclusivity.

While Rawls looked to international legal regimes to oversee a just society of peoples, Habermas and his followers envisaged those informed by an awareness gained in uncoerced deliberation through protest groups or in the rapidly expanding numbers of international non-governmental organisations would promote global norms and unmask the rapacious egoism at the core of contemporary Western political and economic practice.

Those who took this ethical perspective seriously were not states, but new social movements and bunds devoted to alternative or ‘alter’-globalisation such as Greenpeace, Amnesty, Extinction Rebellion and Human Rights Watch. They resisted the Western state and its systems of control to instead promote values locally and globally that are inclusive of the other, environmentally conscious, and aware of the emerging extrapolated networks that offered the basis of a global domestic policy, and a ‘reconfigured’ political power drawing upon the resources of a ‘globalised lifeworld’.

Deconstruction of the prevailing social scientific understanding of knowledge also swept away an outmoded, rational view of IR.

Radical democracy transcends the nation-state and—like Rawls’ normative philosophy— considered international legal regimes and multilateral and supranational institutions as the building blocks of an emerging world society. A new generation of academic entrepreneurs saw the study of IR as it stood at the end of the Cold War wide open for radical and progressive critique and the promotion of a developing ideology for the ethical emancipation of world politics.

However, before emancipation and global justice could occur, the Cold War edifice of IR required deconstruction or the application of a nihilistic scepticism to its prevailing assumptions. Deconstruction of the prevailing social scientific understanding of knowledge also swept away an outmoded, rational view of IR premised on systems, functions, rational choice and behaviourist social science. The new IR theorists—following the nihilistic assault Lacan, Derrida and Foucault launched upon liberal humanist epistemology in the 1980s—extended and applied it to expose the regularities and normalising behaviour the West imposed internationally.

Radical doubt about conventional liberal democratic claims concerning international order cleared the ground for dogmatic assertion, revelation and radical critique. In other words, all those ingredients necessary for the new ideological style of thought premised on values rather than material factors such as interests. Deconstruction of the international order at the end of the Cold War established the basis for ethical revelation on a global scale and the progressive theories necessary to address, redress and emancipate the post historical global order. Ethical idealism now acquired, at least in theory, high-value status in understanding and transforming IR.

Habermas predicted in 1989 that “the hollowing out of the sovereignty of the nation-state will continue, and requires us to develop capacities for political action on a supranational basis”. Indeed, the global tensions generated by “power pragmatic” nation-states such as the US … would only be overcome if “large continent-wide actors like the EU …and ASEAN develop into empowered actors capable of reaching transnational agreements …taking over responsibility for an ever-more closely tied transnational network of organisations, conferences and practices”. Only with these type of global players able to form a counterbalance to the liberal democratic state, “would the UN find a base for the implementation of high-minded programs and policies”. In this context, the new theorists of world politics regarded ‘the individual state’ a ‘helpless’ impediment to addressing these global problems.

This normative and idealist evolution in political philosophy and international relations theory seemed in the 1990s of merely parochial, academic concern. In 1995, the English political philosopher John Gray dismissed it as the conventional wisdom of “the liberal establishment in North American and British Universities”, “talking with each other, and to no one else about topics of interest to no one else, least of all in the political democracies they are supposed to be addressing”.

How wrong his assessment proved. By the new millennium this theoretical understanding, formed on the Western campus, came to exercise enduring influence over Western progressive politics and public and international policy.

Anthony Giddens, perhaps, represented the academic model for linking progressive theory to public policy and establishing its otherwise marginal concerns at the core of public and foreign policy. Giddens—in the course of a stellar career through the academic firmament, from the relative obscurity of Hull University, to Cambridge, the London School of Economics, and the House of Lords—became the role model for the new progressive academic bureaucrat persona wielding public influence.

The post-Cold War progressive transnational consensus thus emerged in the course of the 1990s and came to dominate government and political thinking in Europe, Australia and the US for a quarter of a century. It assumed history ended and the world turned according to a teleological timetable towards a socially just, human rights-based borderless world where globalised economic dynamism would unleash “creativity and innovation”. That last phrase appeared in the European manifesto, Europe: The Third Way/Die Neue Mitte, that British PM Tony Blair and German Chancellor Gerhard Schröder issued in 1999.

This global, progressive vision went “beyond left and right”. It also went beyond the nation-state. It viewed “cosmopolitan pluralism” and “democratising democracy” as a means of “responding structurally to globalisation”. Global democracy could only be “sustained by ensuring the accountability of all interrelated and connected power systems”.

In the new progressivism the people, like themselves, “enjoy multiple citizenships … They would be citizens of their immediate political communities and of the wider regional and global networks which impacted upon their lives”. This process has been in train since the 1990s, but only now—in the wake of the populist explosion across the West—has it come to belated attention how utopian the study of politics in general and international politics in particular has become.

David Martin Jones is a Professor in the War Studies Department, King’s College, London, and Honorary Reader at the School of Political Science and International Studies, University of Queensland. He holds a PhD from the London School of Economics.

This article has been adapted with kind permission of the editor and publisher from Jones’ essay, ‘From Realism to Surrealism: The Study of International Relations and the Closing of the Australian Mind’, in ‘CAMPUS MELTDOWN: The Deepening Crisis in Australian Universities‘ (Connor Court Publishing, August 2019), by William O. Coleman (editor).

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