Defining and Operationalizing Context Through a Structural Political Geography for International Relations
Colin Flint and Raymond J. Dezzani
A structural understanding of the contextualized behavior of states is introduced and operationalized. Context is a central theme of the discipline of geography and identifies context specific, rather than universal, social behavior. Social behavior is both defined by and creates contexts in a constant recursive interaction. Context is defined through a geographic perspective on world-systems analysis, and we focus on the behavior of states. States are central actors because, through territorial sovereignty, they are able to define key social relations and economic flows. The idea of context is developed in a way that extends the key International Relations (IR) concepts of milieu and opportunity and willingness.
The recursive interaction between agency and context is conceptualized in a relational way as maneuver, the process by which the aggregate behavior of elites define state-level choices and behaviors that are made by considering the contextual position relative to all other states in the capitalist world-economy. In turn, the decision by any one state changes the behavior of other states so that context and state-level decisions interact and are constantly in flux. The elements of context include the position of a state in the hierarchy of the capitalist world-economy as well as regional and local interstate relations, some of which may display path dependency.
The operationalization of maneuver requires an understanding of states as signaling and learning entities and a set of modeling techniques that identify: (1) the degree of change within the system as a whole—or the degree of stability in the number and identity of states within particular positions in the hierarchy of the capitalist world-economy; (2) the maneuver of particular states—or which states change position (or not) within the hierarchy; and (3) the explanatory power of variables measuring political and economic interstate relations in explaining the maneuver behavior of particular states.
This is an advance summary of a forthcoming article in the Oxford Research Encyclopedia of Politics. Please check back later for the full article.
Scholarship on the relationship between domestic institutions and foreign policy is driven by the simple assumption that a state’s domestic political arrangement can explain important aspects of its foreign policy behavior. Democratic domestic institutions, in particular, are thought to be significant for explaining an important set of outcomes ranging from greater trade to the lack of war between mature democracies—the so-called Democratic Peace.
The study of the impact of democratic domestic institutions on foreign policy has developed along two broad lines. The first and most established approach is rooted in the basic distinction between democracies and non-democracies. In this view, democratic institutions—nearly universal franchise, regular and contested elections, et cetera—constrain leaders in a way that produces distinct democratic foreign policy patterns. Research shows, for example, that democracies cooperate with each other more often (and are also are more likely to uphold their commitments); face greater audience costs and thus make more effective threats; tend not to fight wars with each other (but do fight non-democracies quite frequently); and more often win the wars in which they are involved.
This approach has yielded a tremendous amount of research and insight into democratic foreign policy, but also suffers from several important critiques. One is that democracy tends to be correlated with a host of other variables, making it difficult to specify what exactly it is about democracy that explains certain foreign policy outcomes. A second and related critique is that this approach tends to treat democracy uniformly when in fact there is often great variation in democratic domestic institutions across cases.
In response to these challenges, a second approach has emerged in recent years that focuses on the differences among democracies and seeks to explain how this variation in turn creates variation in foreign policy behavior. Democracies differ in terms of their underlying institutional arrangements in a variety of ways, including whether they have presidential or parliamentary systems, proportional representation or single-member districts, strong or weak states, autonomous or constrained executives, and open or closed institutions to modulate the flow of information between leaders and citizens, among others. Even within a single democratic country, there can be a different set of institutional constraints depending on the given foreign policy instrument a leader seek to employ. Studying these variations and their impact on policy processes and outcomes provides great promise for further understanding the relationship between domestic democratic institutions and foreign policy.
Ömer Faruk Örsün, Reşat Bayer, and Michael Bernhard
Is democratization good for peace? The question of whether democratization results in violence has led to a spirited and productive debate in empirical conflict studies over the past two decades. The debate, sparked by Mansfield and Snyder’s foundational work, raised a challenge to the notion of a universal democratic peace and elicited numerous critical responses within the literature. One set of such responses has emphasized issues of replicability, mismatches between the research design and directionality of the proposed causal mechanism, the role of outliers, and model specification. In addition, two issues have not been discussed sufficiently in the existing literature. First, conceptually, is the issue of concept stretching, specifically the form Sartori labeled the “cat-dog” problem. While past criticisms were mainly about model specification, we debate whether Mansfield and Snyder’s findings can be seen as a product of concept misformation. Second, quantitatively, are conceptual and empirical issues that Mansfield and Snyder use to capture state strength in their most recent attempts to provide ongoing evidence for their theory. The most optimistic estimates show that even when democratization has a statistically significant association with war onset at lower levels of institutional strength, the effect is substantively insignificant.
Foreign direct investment (FDI) is a major component of globalization. Because of the important role it plays in economic growth and development, many scholars have directed their interest and knowledge to theoretical and/or empirical studies of the causes of FDI. There has been a rapidly growing body of literature that theorizes, hypothesizes, and empirically tests the determinants of FDI. There is no single theory of FDI; rather, various theories look at FDI from different angles and complement each other. Likewise, the empirical studies of FDI are incremental and experimental. The main theoretical approaches to FDI are presented, the empirical evidence gathered in the literature is introduced, and future research is discussed.
Alex Braithwaite and Sangmi Jeong
Diffusion with respect to international politics is commonly defined as the tendency for events or behaviors occurring in one spatial unit to influence the likelihood of similar events or behaviors occurring in another spatial unit. General definitions and mechanisms of diffusion that can be thought of as somewhat ubiquitous to the broader literature of diffusion in international politics tend to focus on processes of spillover or learning/emulation. These processes are common to the adoption and diffusion of policy innovations, the spread of democracy and democratic revolutions, and the contagion of civil and international conflicts. While the nomenclatures of these literatures often differ quite significantly, considerable overlap exists in terms of the primary conceptualizations of diffusion mechanisms. Most literatures appear to identify some combination of the following mechanisms: coercion and external pressure; constructivist norm cycles; social networks and linkages; geographic proximity and demonstration effects; learning and emulation. While the study of these phenomena and mechanisms has advanced significantly in recent years, some notable areas of future growth remain. First, differentiating between learning/emulation and spillover processes still presents considerable difficulty. Second, the role of “firewalls” in limiting diffusion processes is not well understood in either general or specific cases. Third, while understanding of social and geographic spaces is now rather nuanced, it remains unclear how best to theorize and model timing in diffusion processes.
Diplomacy’s role in foreign policy is hampered by multiple understandings of what diplomacy is and does. A broad definition of diplomacy holds that it encompasses more than the promotion of peaceful international relations. Instead, it applies to the sum of those relations—peaceful, hostile, and everything in between. Thus, foreign relations—so long as they involve the interests, direction, and actions of a sovereign power—may be regarded as being synonymous with diplomatic relations, whereby foreign policy relates to the theory and practice of setting diplomatic priorities; planning for contingencies; advancing strategic, operational, and tactical diplomatic aims; and adjusting those aims to domestic and foreign constraints. This conception of diplomacy is functional: it emphasizes the roles of diplomats and recognizes that many other people perform these roles besides official envoys; and it illustrates that diplomatic settings—and the means, methods, and tools of diplomacy—undergo continuous change. The basic mediating purpose of diplomacy, however, has endured, as has much of its institutional apparatus—embassies, ambassadors, treaties, and so on. This is likely to remain the case so long as there are multiple polities in the world, all having to relate to one another.
Charles G. Ripley
Critical discourse analysis continues to remain a valuable method for understanding foreign policy. Situated in the broader interpretive methodological approach to the social sciences, it challenges the ontological and epistemological assumptions of more positivist methodologies by observing that the world is not pregiven, but socially constructed. In essence, we live in an intersubjective world where discourse serves as a powerful tool to set agendas, produce meaning, legitimize interests, and enforce power structures. Scholars devoted to discourse analysis enrich our understanding of foreign policy by highlighting the powerful role that discourse ultimately plays.
One useful way of understanding its value is through representational practices. Relying upon the study of discourse from a wide range of sources (politicians, policymakers, scholars, journalists, and film), this research program emphasizes discursive representations. Far from being neutral representations, the United States constructs a U.S.-centric view of the world based on its own images, identities, and interests, while marginalizing the voices and experiences of others. U.S. foreign policies are described as positive. Those of other countries, particularly U.S. so-called enemies, are negative.
Our knowledge of the world comes from these representational practices, which in turn has serious implications for foreign policy. Ultimately, discursive activities are used not only to frame and define foreign policy initiatives, but also sell such policies to the broader public. U.S. military interventions help illustrate this point. Interventions in Panama and Iraq become “Just Cause” and “Iraqi Freedom,” whereas interventions by, say, Russia are “acts of aggression.” Discourse often develops into binary oppositions that inform policy and create and sustain a dominant world position. Compared to the Global South, the United States is “developed” and “civilized,” while other nations are “underdeveloped” and “uncivilized.”
Discourse analysis is not limited to military intervention. Scholars have applied the approach to a broad array of foreign policy initiatives, ranging from foreign aid and diplomacy to international economics. Nor is the approach limited to the United States; it has evolved into a far-reaching research program that offers insight into the foreign policy of any state.
Discourse analysis stands in stark contrast to the more rationalist approaches, such as neorealism and neoliberal institutionalism. These approaches, related to scientific positivism, emphasize self-interest, rational actors, material factors, objectivity, and causal hypotheses. Academics related to this scholarly community have expressed dissatisfaction with discourse analysis. Most important, critics point out that there is an objective reality, and therefore, research has little relevancy for the real world. But scholars who focus on discourse concede that there is a reality; however, reality has no value until we attach meaning to it. The deadly attacks of September 11, 2001, happened, but they remain neutral until discursive activities (enemy, terrorism, Islamic fundamentalism, and so on) frame them and inform foreign policy. Consequently, such representations have real-world relevancies, justifying war and surveillance, among other courses of action. Critical discourse analysis, as a result, has significant value for understanding foreign policy in the past, present, and future.
Existing theories of international law are largely state-centric. While international cooperation can benefit all, states are often tempted to violate their promises in order to manage economic and political crises. States must accordingly balance enforcement against flexibility: legal institutions must provide enough enforcement that states comply most of the time yet also provide enough flexibility that states can violate during crises. Such a balance is possible when laws are crafted and enforced by unitary actors that will tolerate occasional violations by others in order to preserve their own right to occasionally violate.
However, the changing doctrine of sovereign immunity has dramatically transformed the actual practice of international law. Non-state actors and domestic courts play an increasingly important role in challenging state legal violations, generating a divergence between the theory and practice of contemporary international law. This divergence is apparent in many issue areas, including terrorism, human rights, sovereign debt, and foreign investment. This divergence suggests that political scientists and legal scholars must reconsider the limits of state-centric theories and examine the role of non-state actors and domestic courts.
Juliet Kaarbo and Cristian Cantir
Scholarship on domestic role contestation arose out of critiques of two frequent assumptions about the impact of national role conceptions (NRCs) on a state’s foreign policy: the assumption of elite consensus and the assumption of elite–public agreement on one or several NRCs. These critiques have been occasionally articulated since the entry of role theory into international relations literature, but they were systematized during a new wave of research on roles that started in the 2010s.
The domestic role contestation approach identifies the key domestic actors that hold NRCs and hypothesizes that roles connect to foreign policy behavior via the domestic political process. The degree of consensus along two dimensions—commonly defined as “horizontal” and “vertical” for the intra-elite and the elite–public nexus, respectively—can explain what roles are enacted or blocked. Empirical findings, though tentative, have corroborated the relevance of these arguments. Elites with significant institutional power—particularly in the executive–can often overcome impediments to enact preferred roles, although this ability often hinges on the lack of divisions in ruling institutions. Although less robust due to the absence of significant empirical research, role theory scholarship has also revealed that the public can, at times, constrain elites from enacting unpopular roles.
The literature on domestic role contestation has a number of limitations that can inform future research directions. First, there is still no comprehensive list of domestic actors that hold (and argue about) NRCs. Such a list can outline the diversity of social environments in which countries find themselves, generate insights into how they navigate their presence in each one, and lead to more detailed accounts of how the contestation process unfolds. Second, the literature is yet to provide a framework for incorporating the involvement of relevant external actors (commonly known as “alters”) in the domestic contestation process. The impediments here are partly practical—an eye to detailed domestic processes and external involvement can create an unwieldy narrative—but the effort to conceptualize this dimension is important in light of role theory’s major focus on the interaction between ego and alter. Third, role contestation scholarship needs stronger and clearer connections to traditional and critical international relations theories, as well as the study of contentious politics. Finally, methodological rigor and diversity should be a priority for the future development of this strand of role theory.
Do We Have Too Much Theory in International Relations or Do We Need Less? Waltz Was Wrong, Tetlock Was Right
Michael D. Ward
The field of international relations has developed the notion that world politics is made up of dyads, a thing that no one has actually ever seen. This notion is referred to as a theory by many scholars. Both the notion that world politics is dyadic as well as the idea that this is a theory need to be jettisoned from our scholarship. They have deleterious effects on what we can learn about the world.