Political Theory and International Relations

Chris Brown. Handbook of Political Theory. Editor: Gerald F Gaus & Chandran Kukathas. 2004. Sage Publication.

For much of the last century, ‘international relations’ and ‘political theory’ inhabited separate, clearly demarcated, intellectual spaces. In the academic discourse of international relations, ‘theory’ referred to linked sets of cause-and-effect propositions that purported to explain patterns of behaviour discernible in the international system, on the model of the natural sciences and, closer to home, economics. Non-explanatory theory—that is, theory that addressed normative issues or interpreted the underlying nature of the international order—was undervalued. ‘Realism,’ the dominant international relations theory, rested on a refusal to ask questions that looked beyond the workings of the system, characterizing theory that attempted this task as ‘utopian’ and ‘idealist’—terms of abuse in the realist lexicon (it should be noted that realism and idealism here are terms of art, bearing no relationship to their eponymous philosophical traditions). Meanwhile, the dominant approaches to political theory, within at least the Anglo-American world, implicitly endorsed this refusal. Analytical political theorists asked normative questions within the context of bounded communities; they examined the nature of the state, but rarely focused on interstate relations. In this they followed in the footsteps of earlier liberal, Anglo-American, ‘social contract’ theorists, although it should be noted that pre-twentieth-century continental theorists (and English-speaking followers such as the British idealists) had been more willing to theorize the ‘international’ (Boucher, 1998; Brown, Nardin and Rengger, 2002). The gap here between the continental and the Anglo-American traditions is given added significance by the fact that the academic discipline of international relations has been, and remains, dominated by the ‘Anglo-Saxons,’ or, more accurately nowadays, by academics employing the English language.

In any event, the mutual neglect of international relations and political theory has changed over the last two decades; although mainstream international relations theory remains explanatory and positivist in approach, and much political theory still ignores the international, there now exists a substantial community of ‘international political theorists.’ Some have entered this community as a result of dissatisfaction with conventional international relations theory’s neglect of the normative and issues of interpretation, while others are analytical theorists who have become equally dissatisfied by accounts of justice and rights that ignored or sidestepped the international dimension to these topics. International political theorists have also emerged from non-analytical traditions; adherents to discourse ethics, constructivism, radical feminism, poststructuralism, postmodernism and many other varieties of late modern thought have found it necessary, in an age of globalization, to encompass the international. From being one of the most staid of academic disciplines, conservatively locked into a position that specifically and explicitly undervalued speculative thought, international relations has become one of the most open-minded fields in the modern academy. Indeed, it could well be argued, it has become rather too open-minded: the rigidity of the old discipline has been replaced by an ‘anything goes’ attitude that, while undoubtedly entertaining, is perhaps a little too indiscriminate in its affection for the new. Most of the rest of this chapter will be devoted to ‘international political theory,’ focusing on both analytical theory and, in much less detail, constructivist and late modern thought; but first some attention will be given to unreconstructed international relations theory, and in particular to realism.

Realism and Political Theory

The genealogy of realist international relations theory is interesting, and somewhat counterintuitive. Realists take the state to be the key international actor, assume that states pursue interests defined in terms of power and, thus, hypothesize a world which can be characterized as a ‘struggle for power and peace,’ the subtitle of Hans J. Morgenthau’s influential Politics among Nations (1948). Presented with this thumbnail sketch, a political theorist might reasonably assume this doctrine to be connected with nineteenth-century German power politics of the school of Heinrich von Treitschke or, perhaps, at a higher level of sophistication, with the twentieth-century, right-wing, political philosopher and legal theorist Carl Schmitt, whose ‘friend-enemy’ distinction seem highly relevant here (Schmitt, 1996; Treitschke, 2002). As will become apparent, nothing could be further from the truth.

Augustinian Realism

Classic American realism emerged in the 1930s and 1940s. Its three most influential figures were the radical theologian Reinhold Niebuhr, the diplomat George Kennan, and the émigré international lawyer, political theorist and, from 1943 onwards, University of Chicago professor Morgenthau; their work is well described in a number of modern studies (Smith, 1986; Rosenthal, 1991; Murray, 1996). In 1919 an attempt had been made to bring international relations under the rule of law and the League of Nations was established, largely at the instigation of US President Woodrow Wilson, although the US Senate refused to ratify the Treaty of Versailles which contained the Covenant of the League. By the early 1930s it was clear that the hopes resting on the League were to be disappointed and realist thought developed on the back of this disappointment, explaining what had gone wrong and proposing an alternative account of international relations. Niebuhr was one of the first to undertake this task; his message is conveyed in shorthand by the title of his most influential work, Moral Man and Immoral Society (1932); his point was that the liberals who created the League wildly exaggerated the capacity of collectivities of humans to behave in ways that were truly moral. Niebuhr held that ‘men’ had the capacity to be good, but that this capacity was always in conflict with the sinful acquisitive and aggressive drives that are also present in human nature. These drives are given full scope in society and it is unrealistic to think that they can be harnessed to the goal of international peace and understanding in bodies such as the League of Nations. Niebuhr’s approach is essentially Augustinian, resting on Augustine’s account of the coexistence of the two cities: the community of believers which encompasses past, present and future and all that is good in humanity, and the world as it is, fallen and imperfect. The liberal internationalists of 1919 made the mistake of assuming that a world of reason and justice could be erected while these cities coexist; instead this coexistence requires a politics based on a clear-headed understanding of power.

The diplomat, Kennan, reinforced this message arguing that the moralizing tendencies of US foreign policy were damaging to the real interests of the United States—but it was the professor, Morgenthau, who turned it into a coherent doctrine both in his philosophical works and in his influential text (Morgenthau, 1947; 1948; Kennan, 1951). Morgenthau was a German-Jewish refugee who had studied jurisprudence in Berlin in the 1920s; he was well aware of Schmitt’s work, and despised both its amoralism and its author’s engagement with the Nazis. Instead, what runs through Morgenthau’s work is an awareness of the greed and violence of which human beings are capable, and his belief that to neglect questions of power is to court the kind of disaster that he and his co-religionists faced after 1933. Out of this position, Morgenthau shaped a kind of secularized Augustinianism, a sense of original sin that did not have overt theological roots; to neglect this feature of human nature was to repeat the errors of 1919, when well-meaning liberals took their wishes for reality, and in so doing undermined the balance of world power, the only basis there could be for an orderly world.

Liberal Realism and Rational Choice Theory

On the other hand, for E. H. Carr (2001 [1939]), the most influential British realist, the dilemmas of international relations are created by the human condition not by human nature. Scarcity, not sin, is at the root of realism; there are not enough of the good things to go around, and thus the liberal internationalist assumption of a natural harmony of interests is wrong. Rather, the privileged, whether states or individuals, will seek to defend the status quo, dressing up this defence in legalistic and moralistic terms, while the disadvantaged will, equally understandably, seek to overturn it. International politics is about this conflict, and the mistake of 1919 was to attempt to assign a moral status to the outcome of the First World War that it did not deserve. In the first edition of his book, Carr makes it clear that the correct way to deal with the challenge posed by figures such as Hitler and Mussolini in the 1930s was to buy them off in the general interest, if necessary with other people’s property; this position somehow failed to appear in the second edition, published in 1945 (Fox, 1985; Cox, introduction to Carr, 2001).

Carr’s politics were quasi-Marxist and his opponents were liberal internationalists, yet there is much about his account of the world that is consistent with at least one variety of liberalism. Carr presents an essentially Hobbesian account of the human condition. For Carr, states and individuals have interests which they pursue rationally, using whatever means are at their disposal, and this inevitably leads to conflict, which the international system is unable to resolve because there is no international Leviathan. Instead, and here Carr’s realism and American realism can agree, the only check on the exercise of power by one state (or coalition) is the power of another.

It is for this reason that the balance of power is the Theory of International Politics: the reference is to the most important recent realist (or neorealist) work, in which the argument from the human condition is recast in terms which are explicitly oriented towards contemporary social choice theory (Waltz, 1979). Kenneth Waltz assumes that there are two kinds of political systems: hierarchical, in which the constituent units are functionally differentiated; and anarchical, in which units are differentiated only in terms of capabilities. The former characterizes domestic politics, the latter international. States are assumed to be unitary, rational, egotistic actors; Waltz is aware that states are not actually unitary bodies and that their behaviour is not always rational, but the working assumption is that non-rational, non-egotistic behaviour will tend to be punished one way or another. The imperatives imposed by a self-help system will drive states to behave rationally and selfishly: states are obliged to treat each other as potential enemies, although, if a balance of power can be sustained, a degree of stability may emerge. The beauty of this approach is that by marginally recasting its assumptions, a version of liberal internationalism can also be defended. Neorealists argue that rational egoists cannot co-operate under anarchy, while neoliberals argue that, given a degree of institutionalization and improved information flows, co-operation is possible, albeit at suboptimal levels (Axelrod and Keohane, 1985; Keohane, 1989; Mearsheimer, 2001).

The shift from Augustinian to ‘rational choice realism’ has had important consequences. On the positive side, it has undermined the assumption that international relations theory is, in some strong sense, sui generis, unconnected with the other social sciences and based on a kind of ethnomethodology of diplomatic practice to which social theory more generally cannot contribute. On the other hand, the dominance of neorealist/neoliberal thought has significantly narrowed the range of questions that theorists of international relations deem appropriate or answerable. Whether states pursue relative gains or absolute gains (one way of distinguishing between neorealist and neoliberal assumptions) is an interesting question, but can hardly form a satisfactory basis for an examination of the foundations of the current international order (Grieco, 1988). Older realists were more willing to criticize these foundations, and at least made some attempt to engage with issues such as the ethics of force, or the justice of a world characterized by great material inequalities. Morgenthau himself was a forceful opponent of America’s war in Vietnam, and, as befits a close friend of Hannah Arendt, wrote movingly on the importance of speaking ‘truth to power’ (Morgenthau, 1970). Classical realists such as Stanley Hoffman, influenced by the French thinker Raymond Aron, and the English school’s Hedley Bull at least attempted to engage with the Third World’s 1970s demand for a new international economic order (Aron, 1967; Hoffman, 1981; Bull, 1984). By way of contrast, neither neorealism nor neoliberalism make any attempt to consider, much less defend, the justice of the existing international order; anarchy is simply a given, an assumption that cannot be questioned, and concern with the internal characteristics of states, such as their poverty, is misdirected since states are posited to be similar in their behaviour, relevantly differentiated only by their capabilities. In contrast to the practical realism of Morgenthau, the realism of the ‘anarchy problematic’ rests on a theoretical construct, but, perhaps paradoxically, its very limitations have actually opened up a space which, over the last two decades or so, a different kind of theory has attempted to fill.

International Political Theory

International political theory covers a wide range of issues, but there is one central question that recurs, namely that of establishing the right relationship between the universal and the particular in international relations. More concretely, contemporary international relations can be seen as the site of a clash between two conflicting sets of norms: the ‘sovereignty’ norms associated with the so-called Westphalia system, which endorse notions such as national self-determination and non-intervention and focus on the rights of states and/or political communities, and the ‘human rights’ norms, established post-1945, which lay down universal standards of behaviour that all sovereigns are expected to respect. This clash takes a number of different forms, obviously coming into play when issues such as humanitarian intervention and universal criminal jurisdiction are involved, but also lying behind the current discourse on global inequality and international social justice. It is also present, although less obviously, in much of the discourse on cultural diversity and international political theory.

The Rights of States, Communities, and Individuals

Richard Tuck (1999) has traced the way in which humanist, Roman and republican notions of politics contested with medieval, scholastic universalism in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. As Friedrich Kratochwil (1995) has argued, the origin of the Westphalian notion of sovereignty is best understood in terms of the successful assertion by seventeenth-century rulers of the Roman notion of dominium with respect to their territories. In other words, these rulers established that their princedoms were their property, in the absolute, Roman, sense of the term; what they did within their lands was their own business, subject only to the requirement that they do not discomfort their fellow property-holders, other sovereigns. There, in a nutshell, is the doctrine of non-intervention, fundamental to traditional international law. Originally, sovereigns were—with one or two minor exceptions—actual individuals, but with the coming of nationalism in the nineteenth century, the system adapted to accommodate the idea of popular sovereignty, with the same rights and privileges assigned to the sovereign people as has been claimed by kings and princes. More, the doctrine of popular sovereignty became associated with the right to national self-determination, which, although initially subversive of multinational empires, ultimately strengthened the norm of non-intervention, by assigning a moral status to national autonomy. Thus were set in place the Westphalian norms that were challenged by the development of a human rights regime post-1945.

What intellectual rationale, if any, can be given for the Westphalian order? Why should states as opposed to individuals be assumed to be the normative focus of the system? Theorists of ‘international society’ offer two, conflicting rationales: that Westphalian norms allow for pluralism, the coexistence of competing conceptions of the good; and, conversely and from a solidarist viewpoint, that states are, in Hedley Bull’s phrase, ‘local agents of the common good’ (1984: 14; Wheeler, 1992). The first of these ideas is best represented today by Terry Nardin’s (1983) Oakeshottian account of international society as a ‘practical association,’ the international equivalent of Oakeshott’s (1975) ‘civic association.’ States are committed to the practices of conventional international law and diplomacy because they have no common projects; they simply desire to coexist under conditions of peace and (procedural) justice. The norm of nonintervention protects the ability of states to be different, to develop their own sense of the good. This position is not, strictly speaking, anti-universalist, because it applies to all states, but it clearly stands in opposition to the substantive universalism of the international human rights regime. Partly for this reason Nardin (1989) has recently somewhat distanced himself from his earlier work, but the latter still stands as the best defence of the conventional Westphalian norms currently available.

The notion that states are local agents of the common good can be expressed in simple, utilitarian terms: a common good can be identified, but the world is simply too big and complex to allow for global government, and the interests of all are served by a plurality of governments. However, such a position does not require that states be sovereign, as opposed, for example, to being members of a global federation. A better defence of state sovereignty on these lines might be Hegelian: the rights of individuals are actually established by the state and therefore the sovereignty of the latter is not in conflict with the rights of the former. Mervyn Frost (1996) provides a modern version of this argument. However, the most influential contemporary defence of the rights of states, to be found in the work of Michael Walzer, takes a different form. For Walzer, the rights of political communities derive from the rights of their members and ‘[t]he moral standing of any particular state depends on the reality of the common life it protects and the extent to which the sacrifices required by that protection are willingly accepted and thought worthwhile’ (1992: 54). What distinguishes this position from that of the human rights regime is that it is up to the members of a political community to determine what kind of ‘common life’ they wish to live, and it cannot be assumed that their choice will be based on the rights of the individual; thus the universal element in this position does not concern what the community chooses, but rather its right to choose for itself the arrangements under which it is governed. For Walzer (1992: 90), communal autonomy should be respected, and outsiders may only intervene when it is clear that the common life of a community does not exist or has broken down, for instance into slavery, massacre or genocide. This position, which Walzer initially established in the context of a discussion of the ethics of warfare, has been defended in a series of books over the last two decades, and is consistent with the general account of justice presented in his major work of ‘domestic’ political theory, Spheres of Justice (1983; see also Walzer, 1987; 1994).

One obvious objection to Walzer’s position—and to Nardin’s and Frost’s—is that the picture these writers paint of the state does not seem to be drawn from life. Even if one accepts that communities should have the right to choose their form of government, overriding thereby the putative rights of individuals—and many would deny this, arguing that there is no intrinsic value to diversity—it is by no means clear that the ‘fit’ between existing states and political communities allows this communal right to be activated under the Westphalian system. How many actual states are based on a collectively chosen ‘common life’? More to the point, perhaps, how could we know the answer to this question in the absence of democracy and individual rights? Walzer assumes that regimes are legitimate unless their populations have delegitimated them by resorting to open revolt, but while giving the state the benefit of the doubt in this way may be sensible practice in an international order based on sovereign states, it is more difficult to see it as normatively compelling. Walzer’s position on this matter is similar to that of John Stuart Mill (2002), who argued that freedom could not be given to a people, only taken by them, but the techniques of control available to modern tyrants are rather more effective than in Mill’s day and the suppression of popular discontent by the security forces easier. Walzer’s position makes sense on the assumption that once the people have reached a settled adverse verdict on a regime, the security forces will step aside, which seems unduly optimistic.

In any event, in response to the atrocities committed by the Nazi regime in Germany—and as an ideological stand against the rising power of the USSR—an account of universal principles based on the rights of individuals rather than on the rights of collectivities was instituted by the UN Charter of 1945, and, more specifically, by the Universal Declaration of Human Rights adopted by the UN General Assembly in 1948. There is, as might be expected, a very large literature on the international human rights regime; here, the focus will be on economic rights and the theory of justice, and on cultural critiques of the rights regime (Dunne and Wheeler, 1999). Before moving on, however, it is worth noting one important feature of the human rights regime; although it purports to impose universal standards upon states, it has been, until very recently, itself statist in origin and modes of operation. It comprises declarations made by states, covenants signed and ratified by them, and institutions subordinated to them. Only in one case, that of the European Convention on Human Rights, can it be said that effective mechanisms exist for ensuring that states live up to their treaty obligations.

In the last decade or so practices have emerged that have challenged this situation. In the first place, groups of states have, on occasion, taken it upon themselves to intervene forcibly in the internal affairs of another state, in the interests of its inhabitants; second, more radically, developments in international law have begun to undermine the principle of sovereign immunity. As to the first of these changes—humanitarian intervention—the record of the 1990s has been mixed (Mayall, 1996; Moore, 1998). There was no effective intervention in the case of the worst atrocity of the decade—the Rwanda genocide—and the results of external interventions in Somalia, Bosnia, Kosovo, East Timor and Sierra Leone have been ambiguous. In each case the motives of the interveners have been impugned, and, rather more serious because the importance of motive is contestable, it is by no means clear that these actions have actually improved the position of those they were designed to assist. In short, although there have been developments of international law in this area, it may be premature to talk of an emerging norm of humanitarian intervention, as Nicholas Wheeler does (2000) in the best book on the subject.

Developments in international law have been more unambiguously radical. The final ruling in the Pinochet case in Britain (1998-2000) established that the doctrine of ‘sovereign immunity’ could not be allowed to cover acts banned under the international Torture Convention of 1984. War crimes tribunals established by the UN Security Council in the wake of the Rwanda genocide and the wars of the former Yugoslavia have brought in some high level convictions, and a former head of state is currently on trial, Milosevic of Yugoslavia. The International Criminal Court, established by the 1998 Rome Statute which was ratified by the necessary 60 states in April 2002 and came into existence on 1 July 2002, represents an even greater challenge to Westphalian sovereignty norms. In principle, under the Rome Statute individuals up to and including heads of state and government can be held personally responsible for crimes against humanity and against the laws of war. In practice the powers of the ICC are strictly circumscribed but even so, a number of influential states, including China, India, Russia and the US, regard this as a step too far. American ‘new sovereigntists’ have argued that the ICC and the Pinochet judgement have taken international law far beyond its proper function, which is to promote coexistence between sovereigns (Spiro, 2000; Rivkin and Casey, 2000-1). The key issue here, to be returned to at the end of this chapter, is whether there exists a sufficiently deep sense of community at the global level to support a legal system based on individuals as opposed to states. In this connection, it should be noted that the bedfellows of the new sovereigntists include all the major Asian powers, few of whom have signed, let alone ratified, the Rome Statute.

Global Inequality and International Social Justice

The international human rights regime initially stressed a political conception of rights, but economic and social rights have never been far from the agenda. The most influential account here has been that of Henry Shue (1983), who argues the focus should be on basic rights seen as ‘everyone’s minimum reasonable demand upon the rest of humanity.’ Basic rights can be broken down into two components: security rights, that is, the right not to be subjected to murder, torture, mayhem, rape or assault; and subsistence rights, that is, the right to minimal economic security, ‘unpolluted air, unpolluted water, adequate food, adequate clothing, adequate shelter and minimum preventive public health care’ (1983: 19, 23). An obvious question is whether these are ‘rights’ in the full sense of the term, as opposed to desiderata. Are there correlative duties to these rights? Can the ‘rest of humanity’ be seen as the kind of entity that could deliver on such duties? These are difficult questions to answer in a satisfactory way, and the notion of basic rights is probably best seen as a rhetorical device to draw attention to the great inequalities that characterize the contemporary international order; such inequalities are the subject of theories of global social justice.

The reinvigoration of theories of justice begun by John Rawls’s A Theory of Justice is examined elsewhere in this Handbook; here, the technicalities of Rawls’s scheme will be taken for granted, and the focus will be on their international implications (Brown, 1997; 2002a; 2002b). Notoriously, Rawls himself believes that these implications are very limited; on his account the principle of political equality has an international analogue in terms of the sovereign equality of states and the principles of non-aggression and nonintervention, but there is no international equivalent of the ‘difference principle.’ International society is not a ‘co-operative venture for mutual advantage’; individual societies are assumed to be bounded and self-sufficient, and so there is nothing that could provide the basic materials for redistribution required by the notion of international distributive justice.

Few have agreed with this position. For a theory of social justice to have nothing to say about the extraordinary inequalities that exist between societies appears perverse. For Brian Barry this is symptomatic of wider problems with Rawls’s project. International justice poses problems that are structurally similar to those posed by, for example, intergenerational justice and environmental justice; in each case the central notion of a contract based, at least in part, on the search for mutual advantage by the contractors, cannot easily respond to the interests of those who cannot be present as contractors, which category includes foreigners. Moreover, the requirement that arrangements be, in some sense, based on reciprocity is equally if not more limiting (Barry, 1989). Barry’s alternative account of ‘justice as impartiality’ has substantial international implications; impartiality requires that the vital interests of each be put before the non-vital interests of anyone, which means that the existing distribution of wealth, and the environmental degradation characteristic of contemporary capitalism, must be regarded as unreasonable and unjust. The inescapable conclusion is that the advanced industrial world should slow down, or put into reverse, its growth and transfer resources to the poor via a system of ‘progressive’ global taxation (Barry, 1994; 1998).

Others have been more Rawlsian, but reach not dissimilar conclusions. The most important text here is the first, Charles Beitz’s pioneering study Political Theory and International Relations (1979); many of the key arguments first see the light of day here. Beitz offers two reasons why Rawls is wrong. First, even if we accept that states are separate self-contained societies, their representatives would insist on a more wide-ranging contract than Rawls envisages. But, second, since states are not self-contained there is no reason to look for a second contract between them; instead Rawls’s full account of justice should be applied worldwide, including a global ‘difference principle.’

Beitz’s first argument concerns the treatment of ‘natural’ resources. He argues contra Rawls that the representatives of states meeting in the second original position would not agree to a rule that confirmed that natural resources belong to the states whose territory encompasses them; risk-averse representatives would introduce a rule that distributed the world’s resources equally, via some kind of global wealth tax. This is, on the face of it, a rather strong and widely supported argument; as noted above, Barry also argues for a global tax system, though without employing the veil of ignorance or a second original position, while Hillel Steiner (1999) derives a similar idea for a redistributive global fund from libertarian foundations. The main problem with these proposals is that they could produce unintended and counter intuitive results; as Rawls (1999) points out in his later defence of his position, the wealth of a state is only very loosely, if at all, correlated with its material resource base.

Beitz’s second position is that, as a result of interdependence, the world must now be treated as a single society, which means that Rawls’s full account of social justice applies, with no necessity for a second contract between state representatives. The problem here is that, however interdependent the present world order may be, it can hardly be seen as a co-operative venture for mutual advantage given the gross inequalities it generates. The international economy is certainly based on the idea that everyone benefits from economic exchange, but it would be a particularly enthusiastic neoliberal who argued that this applies across the board to all interactions between rich and poor. Beitz has now acknowledged the strength of this criticism and effectively abandoned much of the Rawlsian justification for his cosmopolitanism in a later article but not the cosmopolitanism itself, which he now grounds in a Kantian account of the moral equality of persons (Beitz, 1983). To some extent, Beitz’s original position is restated by Thomas Pogge in his Realizing Rawls (1989). Pogge suggests that it is legitimate to have separate societies only if they can be seen as the product of a decision that emerges from a kind of meta-original position in which all the inhabitants of the world are represented. The latter may well decide to create separate societies but they are unlikely to endorse Westphalian-style sovereignty norms. Instead, the units created through this meta-contract will acknowledge responsibilities towards one another. Pogge, like Barry, favours a scheme of global taxation (a global resources dividend) and, like Beitz, sees it as best based on natural resources; but in order to meet environmental goals he suggests it should be based on the value of natural resources actually used, rather than on those left in the ground.

This position conveniently raises the issue of borders and international political theory. Since existing boundaries are clearly not the result of any kind of contract—nor are they ‘natural’—what, if any, justification can be given for the norm which assigns to state authorities the right to control such borders, and thus creates categories such as ‘political refugee’ and ‘economic migrant’? Pogge suggests none, and the majority of cosmopolitan liberals agree (Barry and Goodin, 1992; O’Neill, 1994). However, as most cosmopolitans also agree, there are obviously practical problems with such a position, and liberal nationalists such as Michael Walzer and David Miller argue that Rawls was essentially correct to assume that distributive justice can only be a feature of bounded communities (Miller and Walzer, 1995). A socially just society will involve redistribution of resources, and the willingness of citizens to redistribute depends crucially on the existence of a sense of community (Miller, 1995). A community is a mutual aid association, membership of which will confer benefits and duties; such benefits cannot be made global given the current state of the world, and it is reasonable that such an association should have the right to determine its own membership. It should be noted that this position is compatible with an acknowledgement of the essentially arbitrary nature of borders; it is not how a community came to be defined that is crucial for its legitimacy, but rather its conduct in the here and now, its commitment to social justice. Even so, from this perspective, a world of socially just communities might still be a radically unequal world. Can such a state of affairs truly be just?

There is an impasse here which is symptomatic of a wider set of problems for contemporary cosmopolitan liberalism (Brown, 2000a). The distinction between ‘insiders’ and ‘outsiders’ is difficult to justify rationally, but a politics without this distinction, a politics without borders, is, in the world as it is, unattainable and undesirable, unless a libertarian conception of liberalism be taken to its limits, as Hillel Steiner (1992) advocates. This dilemma is built into Westphalian politics; it may also reflect a certain utopianism in contemporary analytical normative theory, where the theoretical possibility of a proposal such as ‘open borders’ is given greater importance than its practical implausibility.

Cultural Diversity and International Political Theory

Economic and social rights are often described as ‘second generation,’ political rights being ‘first.’ ‘Third-generation’ rights are the rights of peoples, which include such general notions as a right to self-determination, but also more specific sets of rights such as those of indigenous peoples (Crawford, 1988). There is a conceptual problem here; the notion of human rights is associated with the promotion of universal standards and equality of treatment, but the rights of peoples can only be meaningful if they endorse a right to be different. Indigenous peoples, for example, demand the right to be governed in terms of their own customs and mores, which may well not sit easily with universal norms; this is a well-recognized issue in the politics of multiculturalism (Kymlicka, 1995; Parekh, 2000). However, in international relations, the most striking manifestation of this problem arises in the context of a wider challenge to the notion of human rights: the argument that the international human rights regime is based on specifically Western values, an argument most clearly articulated by a number of East Asian states, hence often referred to as the ‘Asian values’ debate (Bauer and Bell, 1999; Bell, 2000).

The core argument is that the human rights identified in the 1948 Declaration and subsequently are related to a specifically Western conception of the individual and the public sphere; Asian values, it is argued, are oriented towards the family and the collectivity, stress duties and responsibilities rather than rights, and place a greater emphasis on religion. The argument here is structurally similar to the feminist critique of the notion of rights as patriarchal, based on a specifically masculine conception of political life, although since advocates of Asian values usually deplore the modern liberal emphasis on gender equality there is no real meeting of minds here (Peters and Volper, 1995). The East Asian critique emerged in the early 1990s, and is perhaps best seen as a foreign policy response to the ‘democracy promotion’ that was characteristic of the immediate post-Cold-War era. There was then a widespread and understandable resentment that, after several hundred years of imperialism and exploitation, the West should now, once again, be telling the rest of the world what to do, and the notion of Asian values was developed as part of a strategy of resistance to this pressure. Of course, another way of expressing the last point would be to say that this argument was developed in order to protect the positions of undemocratic Asian leaders although it is worth noting in passing that the argument could only perform this task domestically if it actually struck a chord with ordinary Asians.

Democracy promotion is a less prominent feature of contemporary US policy than it was in 1993, and the debate over human rights and Asian values is less salient today than it once was, but the general issue of cultural diversity and international political theory remains on the agenda (Brown, 2000b). The central point here is that both the Westphalian values of sovereignty, and the values of the international human rights regime, originate in one particular region and political order—the classical Western European international system—and are now applied on a world stage, regulating relations between states many of which developed out of very different contexts. This need not present a problem—it is noticeable that the states whose rulers have criticized Western notions of human rights have enthusiastically adopted the even more Western notion of the sovereign state—but in the longer run, as the impact of colonialism becomes more distant, it seems likely that there will be some shift in the normative foundations of the system.

It is unlikely that this shift will take the dramatic form of a ‘clash of civilizations,’ civilizations not being the kind of discrete physical entities that could ‘clash,’ even though Al-Qaeda’s attack on the US on 11 September 2001 and the subsequent ‘war on terrorism’ have given a certain superficial plausibility to Samuel Huntington’s (1993) thesis. Just as ‘Western civilization’ covers a multitude of viewpoints, so the idea that a coherent Islamic world view can be identified is patently false; all ‘civilizations’ have been influencing each other for thousands of years, and the self-presentation of a figure such as Osama Bin Laden draws on a great many diverse sources, from Ibn Khaldoun to Madison Avenue. Still, the fact that so many people throughout the non-Western world—including many non-Muslims—have been prepared to applaud Al-Qaeda’s crimes suggests a certain resistance to Western notions of universal values, as well, of course, as resentment at the power of the United States. It seems quite plausible that in the interests of intercultural relations a renewed ethics of coexistence based on older notions of international society will come to challenge the universal standards promoted by the human rights regime.

The question then arises, coexistence with whom? Are all positions entitled to be treated equally simply because they are associated with particular religions or cultures, which could easily lead to absurdities? If not, how are we to discriminate? John Rawls in his Law of Peoples (1999) attempts this task, identifying a potential category of ‘decent’ well-ordered societies—characterized by their adherence to basic rights even though they privilege one particular comprehensive account of the good—who form with liberal societies the membership of a confederation of peoples, and who are entitled to the protection of a norm of nonintervention designed to promote coexistence. Many critics, such as Allen Buchanan (2000), adhere to a stronger account of liberalism and doubt the legitimacy of any non-liberal society, but from the perspective of international political theory Rawls’s limited openness to diversity has much to commend it (Brown, 2002a).

Constructivism and Late Modern Thought

Difference, cultural and otherwise, is also one of the major themes of late modern thought as applied to international relations, with postcolonialist and radical feminist literatures rubbing shoulders with Levinasian accounts of ethics as an encounter with ‘otherness,’ and Lacanian readings of subjectivity (George, 1994; Shapiro and Alker, 1996; Edkins, 1999; Edkins, Persram and Pin-Fat, 1999). As will be immediately apparent, there is more on offer here than can be discussed within the limits of this chapter, and readers are referred to the above general texts and collections for further references and critical discussions. There are, however, two aspects of this thought that do deserve further, albeit brief, consideration, namely the ‘constructivist’ turn in international theory of the past decade, and the increasing, but perhaps unwise, interest in epistemological and ontological issues shown by many theorists of international relations.

In the late 1980s, as noted above, dissatisfaction with the limits imposed by the neorealist-neoliberal debate led to a revival of international political theory, but it also led to critiques of orthodoxy that explicitly attacked the methodological foundations of social choice theory. Influential works on the philosophy and methodology of international relations drew a sharp distinction between ‘explanation’ and ‘understanding’ (Hollis and Smith, 1991). Most notably, writers employing a somewhat uneasy mix of Husserlian social psychology, Giddensian ‘structuration’ theory, and a Wittgensteinian interest in languages and rules, developed a ‘constructivist’ critique of orthodoxy which denied that the ‘anarchy’ that formed the basis of neorealist-neoliberal thought had a reality independent of the theories which purported to explain its characteristics; instead, we live in a ‘world of our making,’ and ‘anarchy is what states make of it’ (Kratochwil, 1989; Onuf, 1989; Wendt, 1992). During the course of the 1990s constructivism grew in importance, albeit aided perhaps by a certain lack of definition which enabled a great many varieties of nominally constructivist thought to flourish. The publication of Alexander Wendt’s Social Theory of International Politics in 1999—a text explicitly designed to play the same kind of role for constructivism as that played by Waltz’s Theory of International Politics for neorealism—marked a kind of coming of age for the new approach.

Wendt’s achievement is to combine a high level of epistemological sophistication with insights drawn from older traditions of international thought, especially the work of the so-called ‘English school’ (Dunne, 1998). He develops three different and competing accounts of ‘anarchy’—broadly, Hobbesian, Lockean and Kantian—and works through the different kinds of international system that could be expected to emerge under these different accounts and their implications for the kinds of questions addressed elsewhere in this chapter. Wendt’s statism has been criticized, and he has been accused of attempting to construct a new orthodoxy by means of a Faustian bargain, producing a critique of conventional international thought that buys acceptance from the mainstream by toning down its criticism of the latter (Kratochwil, 2000). This is harsh, although, as a recent forum on Wendt’s work demonstrates, it is certainly the case that mainstream writers have been more favourably disposed to its positions than late modernists (Review of International Studies, 2000). In fact, these criticisms, even if accurate, miss the real point: the value of Wendt’s work is precisely the promise it offers of bringing the concerns of international political theory and mainstream international relations theory back together, to the advantage of both discourses.

What is less praiseworthy is the way in which constructivist thought, and late modern thought more generally, has emphasized the importance of metatheoretical issues at the expense of a more practically minded approach to international political theory. Paralleling the emphasis on quantitative and qualitative methods at the expense of substance in the mainstream discipline of international relations, late modern thought seems at times rather more interested in displaying its philosophical sophistication than in contributing to the exploration of the real-world problems and dilemmas towards which its theories are nominally directed. There are, of course, numerous exceptions to this narcissism—such as David Campbell’s (1998) Levinasian work on Bosnia, William Connolly’s (2000) global extensions of America’s ‘culture wars,’ Cynthia Enloe’s (1989; 1993) feminist explorations of political economy and post-Cold-War politics but, overall, the self-absorption and inappropriate abstraction of international relations theory have been increased rather than diminished by the late modern turn. To adapt some terminology of Stephen White’s (1991: 25), the ‘world-disclosing’ aspect of late modern thought in international relations may, sometimes, be admirable, but a greater focus on language that can help us to co-ordinate action in the world would also be helpful.

Conclusion: Globalization and International Political Theory

Inevitably, this chapter has only had space to cover a selection of possible topics raised by the juxtaposition of political theory and international relations, but one final issue cannot be avoided (Brown, 2002b). Are the social and economic changes conveniently summarized by the shorthand term ‘globalization’ undermining the relevance of the debates outlined and discussed above? It is possible to argue that the economic significance of these changes has, at times, been overstated, but the sober work of David Held and his colleagues (1999) leaves little doubt as to the scope of recent changes, or the increasing pace of change in the ‘runaway world’ (Hirst and Thompson, 1999; Giddens, 1999). On the face of it, the clash between the universal and the particular may be in the process of being decided in favour of the former, not because universal ideas have suddenly become compelling, but because the material basis for an international political theory that stresses the autonomy and rights of collectivities is being undermined on the ground.

This kind of argument is at the heart of Held’s school of ‘cosmopolitan democracy’ (Held, 1995; Archibugi, Held and Köhler, 1998) and is the basis for Andrew Linklater’s (1998) critical-theoretical, Habermasian account of the transformation of political community. For Held and his colleagues, democracy is about self-rule, and if local jurisdictions no longer have the capacity to govern themselves then democratic global institutions must be created by the reform of existing bodies such as the UN and the creation of new representative organs. Linklater acknowledges the inevitability of systems of inclusion and exclusion, but holds that such systems will have to be renegotiated as a result of immanent features of the current transformation of the global politics, and the costs of exclusion lowered.

The heart of the matter here—and, as noted above, this relates also to issues as broad as cultural diversity and international relations, and as narrow as the jurisdiction of the new International Criminal Court—is whether the material changes summed up by the term ‘globalization’ have actually created the kind of minimal sense of global community that would be required if global governance is to be democratized. Democracy ultimately rests on the willingness of minorities to accept majority decisions, and it is optimistic to assume that such a willingness is currently being created on a global scale, especially since globalization is busily creating its own anti-bodies, stimulating nationalist reactions to the processes it has set in train. On the other hand, democracy itself can be creative of a sense of community; there is a dialectical relationship here that makes it excessively pessimistic to require that community exists before democracy can function.

The intellectual debate here may be unresolved, but the glacial pace at which global institutions are actually being democratized suggests that, for the foreseeable future, we will inhabit a world in which increasingly globalized social and economic forces will be obliged to coexist with political authorities that remain locally based, and where political loyalties will be uneasily divided between competing local, regional and global bodies. Equally uncomfortably, it often seems that no one actually controls this world, although corporate capitalism certainly exercises more influence than any hypothetical global demos;indeed, perhaps we now live in an ‘empire’ characterized precisely by diffuse networks of power that no one controls (Hardt and Negri, 2000). In short, the inherent conflict between the universal and the particular will continue, albeit shaped differently and in more complex ways; the Westphalian nature of international relations seems fated to remain ever under challenge from competing ways of organizing political life without actually succumbing, and the dilemmas posed by this stalemate seem unlikely to disappear within any timescale relevant to this Handbook.