Reflections on the “Third Debate”

Twenty-five years have passed since Yosef Lapid published his seminal article on the “Third Debate” in International Studies Quarterly. That was when the Cold War was ending, and—how time flies—we were part of the IR conversation then and even as early as the 1970s. Lapid’s article prompted us to describe our reaction to the Third Debate as being “between celebration and despair,” that is, extremely pleased about advances in theoretical pluralism but wary about the field’s becoming “hopelessly bogged down in epistemological debates” or what Richard Dawkins (1998) called “metatwaddle.” All these years later, and although our own “postinternational/polities” theoretical perspective has continued to evolve, we are still of the same mind about the Third Debate.

Recall the core issue Lapid raised: Positivist theory and “scientific” method had failed to accomplish their stated objective of cumulating knowledge or even generating substantial understanding of international relations. The campaign for complete “objectivity” had failed, and striving for both theory and understanding in IR had increasingly become what we soon termed “the elusive quest.” Why had it not been obvious from the start that theorists have political, professional, and intellectual interests and preferences that inevitably shape the subjects they study, the methods they employ, the meanings they attach to concepts, and the conclusions they reach? To us, it is more amazing that that message still hasn’t gotten through to everyone—quite the contrary.

The “Third Debate” did not alter the views of the field’s positivists who continue to dominate many leading departments and journals especially in the United States, although thankfully far less so in Europe. However, it did dramatically sensitize scholars, especially younger scholars, to the role of such factors as norms, identities, ideas, and principles. Part of this shift was greater appreciation of idealism and, depending upon which version of post-positivism, declining reliance on materialism. As a consequence, IR scholars other than those still wedded to narrow positivism no longer believe that “facts” speak for themselves and insist that we give greater emphasis to meaning and interpretation of events filtered through subjective lenses.

These shifts – in research and teaching – have been immensely valuable in focusing our concern upon normative and cultural issues that had been largely ignored by rigid empiricists, partly because such matters were so difficult to measure. Whether via the different strains of constructivism, English School, normative theory, critical theory, feminist theory, postmodernism, or post-colonial theory, subjective factors are receiving the attention they merit in explaining behavior and changes in patterns of interaction and conflict/cooperation in global affairs.

Greater emphasis on interpretation and normative issues has made “agency” more salient and highlighted the limits of “structural” perspectives like neorealism. Moreover, stressing agency has undermined the assumed immutability of IR in neorealist theory, restored an interest in how and why things change in the world around us, and brought about renewed interest in the role of history and historical analysis. It has allowed for a past and a future even as it has made for a less parsimonious present and, incidentally, has answered Huntington’s contention that “change is a problem for social scientists.”

Alas, what the Third Debate failed to establish is the degree to which theorists who strive for balance and as much objectivity as possible can communicate and argue about contradictory interpretations of phenomena in a meaningful way. In this regard, the Third Debate unfortunately rather distracted the field from the central drive for “better” theory—that is, in our view, “practical” theory that tries to explain important events, trends, and outcomes that shape our lives and threaten our wellbeing and survival.

Diversity in theoretical perspectives is a virtue and we must acknowledge that all theory is at root a construction, but it is possible to carry intellectual fragmentation, navel-gazing introspection, holier-than-thou “critical” correction, philosophical “unpacking” of concepts, postmodern-speak, and nit-picking about mental abstractions too far. At some point what we risk is an ivory-tower effete debate about very little of consequence.

In sum, the Third Debate happily encouraged diversity and its insights pointed up the palpable failure—no less today than back then--of rigid positivism and the measurement fetish. But instead of consensus and the pragmatic analysis of global affairs, one unintended and rather pitiful result of the Third Debate has been a proliferation of incommensurable post-positivist islands. Quite apart from the gate-keeper empiricists, we have subsequently moved from belated tolerance of diversity to an attitude of “anything goes.” Robert Cox (1981) famously observed that “theory is always for someone and for some purpose.” And one unfortunate result of the Third Debate was to foster some perspectives that reflect thinly-veiled ideological posturing rather than a genuine search for understanding. Worse, we believe, some are even less substantial than that.

We suggest that the Third Debate should now simply be regarded as part of the history of our IR field, and we henceforth need to move on to a Fourth and even Fifth Debate. The Fourth Debate would ask us to accept concepts as “mere” constructs, straightforwardly define the terms we use, and get on with the task of trying to decide how best to use theory to address perceived “real-world” concerns. Certainly the primary aim would not be to speak to policy-makers in their many public and private institutional settings, because we know from experience that most of them will surely remain too caught up in their traditional assumptions and day-to-day deadlines to listen. However, if we IR scholars were to offer them genuinely useful information and interpretations—couched in language free of pretentious jargon—perhaps we might occasionally find ourselves (here it comes) “relevant.” Certainly our students and the general public would find our work much more interesting to read.   

So the Fourth Debate should be about how best to use theory in a “practical” fashion to shine more light on important matters in global affairs. Part of the task must be to continue to refine some of the traditional IR perspectives and especially to bring more than one of them to bear on particular problems—different theories illuminate different aspects of “reality.” In due course, this should lead quite naturally to a Fifth (renewed) Debate about the future role of “grand theory.” Both strict empiricists and those theorists of a more subjective inclination have increasing come to assume that our only hope lies in “middle-range” theories. Overwhelmed by the sheer complexity of the world we are trying so desperately to understand, we have sadly lost our grandiose ambitions.
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