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Why there is such thing as the poverty of IR Theory.
on January 1, 2004
Reading Wendt's latest book reminded me a joke of Woody Allen : "The food in this restaurant is bad, and the portions are small". The aim of Wendt is twofold: firstly claim that IR theory needs for analytic purposes reified states that act like human beings, second, achieve through this 'attempt' an entry ticket to the ivy league cocktail party of mainstream IR theory.
The theoretical effort of Wendt consists of serving bigger portions of the same bad food. Lets quote Wendt's understanding of what he understands as science, the activity that lends his theory the necessary credibility : "I am a strong believer in science - a pluralistic science to be sure, in which there is a significant role for 'understanding' but science just the same. I am a 'positivist'. In the same sense this puts me in the middle of the Third Debate, not because I want to find an eclectic epistemology, which I do not, but because I do not think an idealist ontology implies a post-postivist epistemology". This example of academic chitchat (Wendt writes being high on "its feels so great to represent just a bit of everything") illustrates the position that allows Wendt to secure a place within a theoretical discussion that already floats in midair above the dissociated reality it claims to explain. His one-sided (he talks from the rationalist-mainstream side of the fence) but fancy 'Via Media' between "rationalist mainstream" and "post-positivism" compares to putting the toothpaste back into the tube, a safe but essentially meaningless venture that should allow him finally a 'name' within mainstream IR. The result is a theory that will always be true, but essentially empircally meaningless (like the statement 'tomorrow it will rain or not rain' is always true). Wendt's science of IR builds heavily on reification (something professors warn against in undergraduate sociology courses), a prelude to the transformation of his "realist" social kinds (the state) into antropomorphic beings that have identity, act rationally etc... See the often repeated statement page 318 : "States are purposive actors to which we can legitimately apply the anthropomorphic concepts of social theory like identity, interest, and intentionality". This notion of "legitimately" (what prevents us from using other antropomorphic concepts such as sexual identity, perversion, kinship, etc...), is never explained, neither defined - despite devoting a whole chapter 5 to it - because it can only be understood ideologically, in answering "What does the author really want to achieve with his theory" ? The answer will delineate the acceptable from the frivolous in defining his notion of 'legitimately'. The chapter where Wendt argues for regarding the state as a human actor contains a paragraph as why antropomorphizing the state is still problematic. This paragraph is a necessary security valve, substituting hypocrisy for intellectual honesty.
The last sentence of his book answers in similar Wendt style what IR Theory is for "This is not a question that can be answered by social scientists alone, but by helping us to become reflexive Idealism at least gives us a choice". The Wendtian answers to very important questions within IR Theory compare to those given by the Oracle of Delphi in ancient Greece: never precise and open to any interpretation, always serving the interest of those submitting a question. Wendt is a high-priest of an Oracle build on an egoistic interpretation of science, a science that serves above all the narrow personal interests of himself and his peers. It is a perverted interpretation of science, one promoting a vision that knowing more and more about less and less is good for all of us. His language and argument might be complicated and sophisticated - smoke and mirrors with snifs of Kant, Weber, Marx, Hegel, Grotius, Hobbes, Rousseau, Durkheim etc.. whose interpretations serve to strut countless interpretational contortions and IOU's -, but this does not exclude him from being an academic charlatan within mainstream IR who's work will be inflicted on generations of students to come.
Paul Fayerabends claim "anything goes" is the most appropriate label for Professor Wendts analytical constructivism. Sigh ! This emperor has no clothes either.